I wrote this interview for Maximum Fun, but here is a slightly longer, more in depth version.
Emily Horne is a Victoria, B.C. based photographer and Joey Comeau is a Toronto, ON based writer. Together they create the critically acclaimed webcomic “A Softer World”. In 2007, the comic won the first Web Cartoonist's Choice Award for photographic webcomic and Loose Teeth Press published “It's Too Late to Say I'm Sorry”, a collection of Comeau’s short stories. “A Softer World” celebrated its 5th anniversary earlier this year. I talked to Emily and Joey via email about the process of creating a strip and the strange power of cover letters, among other things.
AM: Where did the idea for "A Softer World" come from?
Emily: Joey started making photocopied comics in 2001 using his own captions and
photos cut out from magazines about the British royalty. When the possibilities of that had run out, he decided photos might work, and I, being inclined to photography, had a good stash of them ready to go. We would take an old manual Smith-Corona typewriter and a stack of photos to the all-night Kinkos in Halifax and make comics for the local 'zine fairs. We made two print editions and then decided in 2003 to put them online so more of our friends could see them. These comics make up the first couple of dozen that are currently on the website.
AM: What's the process for creating a comic? How do you and Joey work on the
EH: The process for creating the comic now is very different than it used to be. I live in BC and Joey lives in Toronto, so the process isn't as immediately collaborative as it used to be. Usually, I will put together the visual elements of several comics, cut and paste as necessary and send them to Joey every few weeks. That way he has a backlog of comics to caption. Usually he runs the text by me before they go up, either by email or if we're both online at the time, via MSN.
AM: Emily, what are your influences as a photographer?
EH: My mother taught me to use an SLR [single-lens reflex] on her old Pentax, so she's the reason I started taking photos in any serious way. For my Softer World photos, I'm particularly inspired by the implied drama or conflict in a situation. I have to find some kind of subject, although that doesn't necessarily have to be a human being. Stories can be created quite easily from evocative inanimate objects.
However, because Joey comes up with the text on his own, what he finds in what I've constructed is often quite different than what I would have come up with. That is, I feel, one of the great joys of creating collaborative art.
AM: Why do you think ASW's format is effective?
Joey: The format's good on a few practical levels. I think having the photos illustrate the text directly would have been a nightmare for us. We could have people acting out the scenes, but we'd be limited in the kinds of stories we could tell. Zombies? Exploding stars? All impossible.
So we chose a format where Emily and I try and find the same tone for the words and images, or different tones that work well and compliment one another.
For the text, having it be so short means that I have to work to fit everything into that one sentence or two. It makes the impact stronger. It's a lot of information at once sometimes, and that's great. I like writing for constrained space. I have to work harder to make everything work, but I think it comes off with more of a punch.
AM: Joey, explain the concept of Overqualified for the uninitiated. Why is the cover letter the perfect medium for this strange combination of despair and hope?
JC: I've written so many regular cover letters while applying for jobs.
They're frustrating and useless, and they are just lies, beginning to end. You are saying what they want to hear. These letters don't have anything to do with you as a person, or with your hopes for the future, your dreams. Nobody reads these anyway. You could write the craziest things and nobody would ever read them.
So I did. I started writing batshit crazy cover letters and sending them out. At first they were just jokes and frustrations, but hopes and dreams started sneaking into them.
In December I signed a book deal with a publisher here in Toronto to release a novel based on Overqualified. It's going to come out in 2009, and it is told entirely through the cover letters. It's probably the craziest thing I've written, and I am super excited about it.
Spring 2009! It's so far away.
AM: Are there any common thematic threads joining your writing, between "A Softer World", "Overqualified", and your fiction?
JC: I got an email a little while ago from someone who attended a book club
where they were reading my short story book. He said they liked it, but they were all pretty sure that I was a paranoid weirdo. A lot of the stories are about obsessions, and people who do things without really knowing why, just knowing that they have to do them. But I think that most of my writing is optimistic in a weird way, too. Anyway, I feel optimistic about it. There's a lot of sex in my writing, too. I don't know about themes. There are a lot of zombies and dead moms and lesbians. That's sort of a running joke between Emily and I, but it never stops being true.
There are a lot of zombies and lesbians and dead moms. One day I'll write a story about a zombie lesbian mom.
AM: Both of you are very open with your fans, maintaining public LiveJournals and encouraging fans to contact you. I recall reading that you took reader suggestions for Truth & Beauty Bombs. What is the significance of fan response and interaction to "A Softer World"?
EH: While we both started our LiveJournals at around the same time as we put the comic online, neither of them were originally intended for fan response, as we didn't really expect to get fans outside of people who were already our friends! But as the comic grew our LJs started to take
on another more public life. I usually don't even talk about the comic that much in the journal, I just post about things I find interesting.
It's great and kind of strange at the same time to see how many people appreciate the comic enough that they will read and respond to whatever ramblings I post!
It also allows us to find out a bit more about the people who read the comic, because otherwise they'd just be anonymous hits on the site.
We don't take public submissions for the comic, but before our site redesign of a few months back we did have a fan art section. That still needs to be incorporated into the new site. There are people all over the place who have taken our format as inspiration and done their own thing with it, and that's always really gratifying to see.
What is the usual reaction to the strips? Sometimes when I read ASW, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
EH: Sometimes I feel like it's unfortunate that ASW is called a comic, because it means people go into the experience of reading it with the notion that it’s always going to be funny, and end up disappointed. Even those that are overtly hilarious usually manage to make you feel a bit guilty about your laughter.
It's a complicated world out there, few things are black-and-white, funny-or-not-funny, and ASW reflects that. Reactions to the comic run the gamut from delight and recognition to (occasionally) vehement hatred, and while the angry reactions are hard to take, we do stand by what we've created.