Tobin and Coover Talk Ingredients for a ‘Gingerbread Girl’
Reprinted with permission from Under the Radar magazine’s Web site (undertheradarmag.com)
Gingerbread Girl is an upcoming original graphic novel created by the husband and wife team of Paul Tobin (writer) and Colleen Coover (artist).
It’s an interesting project on several levels. First, the premise—Annah, a quirky 26-year-old woman living in Portland, searches for her twin sister, Ginger. The catch? Annah claims Ginger was grown from an extraction of Annah’s own brain and may or may not actually exist. Second, the storytelling is really fresh, from the expressive art to the clear, distinct, and varied narration. Finally, the book is being marketed in an interesting way: Top Shelf, the publisher, is posting pages of it online, for free, before the “tree pulp” version arrives in May.
So really, there’s no excuse not to check it out at Top Shelf 2.0 (along with some other fine content).
Colleen and Paul generously agreed to take some time and answer a few questions about the book, their creative process, experiencing feedback in chunks whenever Top Shelf 2.0 posts a few pages, and more.
An original graphic novel must be a pretty long process. How long did it take to respectively write and draw? What was the timing from initial idea to finished product?
Paul: This one took me just under a month of solid writing, throwing ideas as fast as possible onto the page and then going back to look at them, embracing some, making a few of them more coherent, sending other ideas off to a well-deserved grave. A graphic novel isn’t one idea, it’s hundreds of ideas formed into a central structure, so it’s important that they all support each other into a cohesive whole.
Colleen: I’m not even sure how many months I spent drawing, because it was at a time when both Paul and I were just starting to get a lot of work from Marvel Comics, and the personal project kept having to be temporarily put on the back burner while the bills got paid.
City details (parks, bookstore, cityscape, etc.) give the story a wonderful local color that really fleshes out and immerses…sort of a character in its own right, maybe. How much of this book do you feel is a product of Portland, versus say being a tale that could have taken place anywhere?
Paul: I really wanted Annah and the rest of the characters to live in a “real” place. The city was vital, because Annah physically moves through the city during the course of the story, and narrators are grabbed from all facets of the surroundings. Because of this, the city itself is a prime character, and it needed quirks and pimples of its own. Portland was a good template to build from.
Colleen: Portland is such a city of dreamers and eccentrics; it’s a perfect setting for Annah’s weird story. And the Portland of Gingerbread Girl is our own idealized, fantasy version, too. There are landmarks in the book that exist in the real world, but most are places that could exist here.
Is there a story behind the name “Annahnette”?
Paul: Very slightly. I wanted a name that had a bit of uncertainty to it, in order to reflect the uncertainty of the character herself. So… I started with Anna, decided that wasn’t quirky enough, added the “H” to make it Annah, and then pictured her parents arguing, each wanted to stamp their own touch on their daughter’s name, and coming up with this ungainly beast of a name. In a way, I didn’t name her…. I let some bad parents do it for me.
The book, to me, seems just packed with lovely little moments that sometimes directly inform the main narrative, sometimes don’t, but just really add to the book’s enjoyment. During the creative process, do these little scenes pop in as you’re formulating the story, and you build some of the story beats around them, or do they come at a different time in the process?
Paul: There are so many narrators in this tale, such a varied wealth of voices, that I wanted to make sure each of them had their own reflection coming through. If you listen to a person, he or she will almost always roll anyconversation around to their own interests, no matter what the topic. Some people, you can discuss the Hindenburg tragedy, and in three steps he’s talking about how his guitar strings broke. I kept that uppermost in my mind as each narrator took center stage; they’re talking about Annah, but they have to tend to their own agenda, as well.
What’s the collaborative process like for you guys?
Paul: I see scripts fairly completely in my head, so I like to be left alone during the writing stage. Sometimes I don’t even let Colleen talk to me while I’m writing. That said, I know what Colleen likes to draw, so I went into the story gearing it towards what she enjoys drawing, combined with some aspects that would challenge her. It’s important to challenge her, because that way her art grows in unexpected ways, and plus it’s funny to hear her cursing.
Colleen: It’s pretty straightforward: Paul writes a very complete script, and I dive into the art after reading it through at least a couple of times. One of the advantages of working with a spouse is that the writer is on hand to make adjustments to the story as the visual world takes shape in the art.
The ending is sort of open to interpretation, which is perfect when you consider the varying reliability of each narrator. Do you have your own idea of the truth (please do not share, of course), or is it debatable even within the creative team?
Paul: It’s up in the air to me. I think both sides present good evidence, or lack thereof. I like the anticipation and expectation of the mystery. When I’m reading a book, and a detective says something like, “It was Captain Bulworth who killed him!” then the book is done for me, no matter how many pages are left. I just want the tension.
Colleen: I’ve no idea. It’s like the Korean student’s father says in A Serious Man—“Embrace the mystery.” I have embraced the mystery.
I was really excited to read the pages as they appeared on the website (still ongoing). How is it as a creator to see fans digesting a page or two at a time? How does that differ from your usual feedback? Is there anything about Gingerbread Girl that you think makes it well suited for the web preview treatment, or is it just a good idea in general?
Colleen: I think the slow drip is going to help acclimatize readers who are used to our more traditional, lighthearted narratives in Marvel Comics or Banana Sunday to this more experimental storytelling. I like watching the Twitter comments evolve from “Ha ha! Cute!” early on to “Well, I didn’t see THAT coming!” just a few installments later. I think that a project like this, with no real precedent or category to slot it into, needs grassroots support from word of mouth, and this is the most efficient way to get that started.
Paul: I’m liking it. It’s like dating. A new date every Monday and Friday. A new tidbit of knowledge. It’s exciting to wait for that next day, wondering what might be revealed, what startling aspects of personality might suddenly be uncovered.
Any other original works in the pipeline for the near future?
Paul: We’re working together on an original graphic novel titled, Imbecile: A Love Story, and I have a duo of creator-owned pieces at two can’t-yet-be-named companies. In addition, I’m working on a couple novels…one for middle readers, and one adult contemporary novel. They’re both near completion, so I’ll soon have the fun of the agent search.
Colleen: Imbecile is going to be another exciting project for us, where we can be free to explore the story without having to worry about the needs of a company or an editorial team. That’s important when the bulk of your work is for other people!
Anything else you care to point readers toward?
Colleen: Aside from a comics project that is still secret, and a job illustrating a book on gardening, I’m maintaining a mostly regular sketch blog at ColleenCoover.Net. I’m on Twitter as @ColleenCoover.
Paul: I’m also currently writing three ongoing projects for Marvel Comics (MA: Spider-Man, MA: Super Heroes, and Spider-Girl) and I can be reached through my website at PaulTobin.net, or on Twitter at @PaulTobin. I always love hearing from creative people… writers, artists, musicians, burlesque dancers, mad scientists, etc.