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A View From The Cheap Seats

I first began self-publishing comics in the mid-90s. I had only recently gotten back into comics after a dry spell of a few years, and as my awareness of indy comics increased, so too did my knowledge of the mechanics behind self-publishing. There were several comics that did much to help push me further along this road, and the creators, either through personal correspondence with them or simply by virtue of the example they set, proved equally inspirational. One of these creators was Wandering Star’s Teri Sue Wood.

Wandering Star is a textbook example of the self-publishing experience in its best-case scenario. It began as a mini-comic, developed a strong following which led to some critical recognition, graduated to full-size and established a strong rapport with the retailer community, got picked up by a publisher, Sirius, when faced with declining sales, finished its run and was repackaged as trade paperbacks. And all the while it was regarded as one of the finest indy comics of the 1990s, with an epic coming-of-age story about hope and courage in the face of near-insurmountable odds.

I had the enormous privilege to communicate with Teri about her long career, including her forthcoming venture into web-based comics with Darklight: Bloodlines, her long-awaited series spanning thousands of years of sorcery and legend, from ancient Egypt to modern times. When this interview began, she had just returned from the Conifur Convention [] in Seattle, a show for fans of anthropomorphic or “furry” comics.

RICH WATSON: How different is a “furry” show from a comic convention?

TERI SUE WOOD: Actually, this con was pretty similar to a regular comic book con… though a bit more relaxed and informal that most comic book cons. The people tend to be very sweet, almost childlike. There was lots of environmental talk, and stuff about totem animals. And they bring animals! The convention’s charity was the local Ferret Rescue, so we had a ferret petting zoo! That was quite fun. It was just a nice, low-key little convention. And they had ice cream!!!! Heh.

RW: Childlike? Interesting choice of words…

TSW: To give an example, one of the events at the Conifur this year was “Cereal and Cartoons in the Morning.” And that’s exactly what it was. You came and watched cartoons and ate cereal. Though I missed this one, as we weren’t staying at the hotel and it was just too early for us.

RW: What exactly is a totem animal? Is that like a Native American spirit guide?

TSW: I think it’s connected to the Native American belief in spirit animal guides. A lot of these people talk about their spirit animal guide. Some also seem to feel that their soul is an animal soul. Or that they were an animal in their last life.

RW: What do you find most appealing about the furry scene? My impression has always been that furry fans are stereotyped, not unlike comics fans. Would you care to set the record straight?

TSW: Oh noooo! I have to explain the furry fandom??? Okay, I’ll try. Furry fans, in general, enjoy cartoon animals. Though as I say that, I will admit that I did recently hear about several very scandalous “documentaries” on the furry fandom… But honestly, as someone who’s done many comic book conventions (San Diego Con for nearly a decade), as well as a few furry cons, there’s more to shock your mother at your standard comic book con than you’ll ever find at any furry con. Also, a portion of the fandom are actually professional costume makers — the kind that make mascots for sports teams — and they tend to make and wear their creations to the con. They tend to walk around in groups, and watching them do mock dramas on the spur of the moment can be quite amusing.

As for all that “furvert” stuff… for what it’s worth, I’m about as old fashioned as you can get, and I’ve yet to have anyone be less than polite and proper around me. Though, as with any convention, there is usually an adult art section, but it’s kept discretely out of site of any minors. In fact, I walked around, and I’m not sure where the adult section was — not that I was looking, mind you. I just couldn’t tell you where it was this year. Heh. The furry fans… they just remind me of a bunch of people who take a weekend off to be kids again. They sat on the floor to pet Cinnara, our rotty dog, played with puppets, watched cartoons in the video room, petted ferrets — and I hear [they] donated quite a bit of money toward that charity — and just… were kids for a while. It’s not for everyone, but I enjoyed the weekend a lot.

RW: Okay, so let’s move on to your comics. You’ve gone digital with your work now, as Darklight will finally be released as a subscription web comic, but you’ve been out of the spotlight for awhile. How are you approaching the task of re-building your audience?

TSW: Slowly and carefully, is the short answer. The long answer… is far more complicated. The best way to begin answering it is to say that I have been out of the comics field for about five years now. After over a decade of living and breathing comics by the time Wandering Star finished its run in 1998, the next few years were just one catastrophe after another. That time period was about as far away from creating comics as you could get. My life centered upon keeping a roof over my head and not sinking financially. And ultimately, I went from someone who considered herself a “comic book creator” to someone who could no longer even imagine doing another comic ever again. And that’s a lot of ground to make peace with. I did begin trying to relaunch my career in 2001, once my life began to stabilize a bit, but nothing worked. Primarily because my confidence in what I could do was tattered. I’d write this, draw that, hate everything I created, and would tear it up and begin again. And my belief in myself slipped lower with every failure. I was probably being unreasonably critical of my work. But whether or not I was, it didn’t seem to be something I was going to overcome any time soon. And if I was going to ever do comics again, I had to find some back door in, past all my uncertainty about my abilities.

Then, some months back, I began to wonder if part of my problem wasn’t simply trying to come back into the playing field, and expecting myself to play at the same level of skill I’d had when things fell apart in 1998 — jumping right into Darklight: Bloodlines, the book that was supposed to be my “masterpiece” — instead of trying something smaller. I was, essentially trying to be not only as good as I was when I left… but better. And that can’t be done. I finally realized that the only way I was going to have a chance at regaining what I’d lost in those five years, was to begin again at the very beginning and work my way up. And so I went to Edd Vick at MU Press, and began talks regarding my taking over Rhudiprrt: The Prince of Fur for a few issues. The Prince of Fur was my first published comic book, and the storyline had stalled a few years after I’d moved on to do Wandering Star. It seemed a perfect way to relaunch my career. I could finish out the existing storyline, without the shadows of doubt that had been haunting me with Darklight: Bloodlines. The Prince of Fur was ground I was very familiar with, and far less intimidating because of that familiarity, and therefore it became my back door in.

I’ve written the first two issues now, and I am about 1/3 of the way through the drawing the first issue, and it’s done wonders for my confidence. It’s reminded me that I can do this stuff. And because of that, I’ve also begun working on the Darklight: Bloodlines storyline with gusto. And so, it’s a beginning. And as for re-building my old audience… well, I worked my way up from here before. I can do it again.

RW: How have you dealt with the challenges of webcomics from an artistic standpoint? Which things do you do now that you didn’t before?

TSW: Yeah! Something more fun to talk about. Doing webcomics turned out to be far more of a challenge than I’d originally expected it to be when I jumped into this. Being naive, I thought it would be a simple matter of switching comic pages into JPEG and putting them up on webpages to be read on the web. What I discovered is that it is far from that simple. First off, JPEGs and webpages take a while to load. In the format I was going to use, and which a lot of web artists are currently using, there is a webpage for each comic book page. So you read, load your next webpage, then read again. Unfortunately, this waiting for the pages to load destroys any chance the reader’s going to [have to] get lost in the story. It breaks up the flow, and the illusion of being there. And ultimately, the reader just can’t get emotionally attached to the storyline or the characters. And for any story to work, you must have that.

The answer for me was to try to find some kind of file format that could be downloaded, then viewed instantly on your computer with no wait between pages. PDF looked the most promising originally, and works well enough [that] I plan to keep it for my CDs, but for the webcomic, the files are far too large. Happily, though, I may have found a wonderful way around this just recently. But it’s a software format I’m still testing so I hesitate to say what. But with luck, it’ll be the answer I’ve been looking for.

The second problem in doing webcomics instead of paper was the question of whether to do the comic page in the traditional layout that we use for comic books — 11 x 15 for example. Or to change that completely so that the comic page fits the computer screen instead. Originally, I resisted changing to the computer screen format for no good reason beyond that I liked the traditional look. Then I discovered what Indigo Kelleigh was doing with Circle Weave [] on his site. He had gone with the new format, and fit his comic pages to the screen, and it looked fantastic! I think it’s one of the best examples of web comics out there. Also, with this format, there was no need to scroll down, which was an aspect of digital comics I found a bit irritating. And anyway, his site sold me completely on the new format, and Darklight: Bloodlines will be done to fit the computer screen.

RW: On your website you say you’re against people file-sharing your work. Where do you see the issue of file-sharing going in the future – and not just comics, but music, movies, etc.?

TSW: I think file-sharing is just part of our world these days, and there isn’t any real way to stop it. At least presently. Though, as things currently stand, I think that a lot of it is in response to unreasonable prices attached to entertainment and software. People are angry and they’ve found a way to flip off the system, and they’re doing it. One of the reasons I decided to go with the digital format myself was the rising price of comic books. I’ve been a publisher, and I know that in its current form, there really isn’t any way to lower the price. Paper costs too much, the distribution system eats up a huge part of the cover price, etc. etc… and as a result, I believe comics are pricing themselves out of existence. Digital comics, I think, can find a way to exist at a cost most people won’t think twice about. I’ve put out Wandering Star now, the entire 21 issue series, plus two bonus books, digitally retouched and in PDF format, on a CD for $10. That’s less than 50 cents a piece. You could never do that with a paper book. You’d lose your shirt! And I knew when I created that CD, and I know that this applies also to Darklight: Bloodlines, that once they have that CD, it can be copied, and it can be shared on the web. I don’t like it much, but it’s going to happen.

Regardless, unlike a lot of software and music companies, I don’t consider this “losing money” in the bigger picture. You see, I am of the opinion that in general, people who get those shared files would not have bought the product in the first place. And those who would buy it, still do. You might lose a few of them, but if your price is reasonable, it’s still easier to get a CD for $10, than spend 21 hours downloading it from the net. And there is one other thing to consider: I have increased my audience and my visibility with each shared file. I have expanded my fan base, and increased the possibility of future sales on subscriptions or other merchandise. And in my opinion… if I’m smart, I can work this aspect of digital comics and file sharing in my favor.

RW: So let’s talk about Darklight itself. This is the story you’ve wanted to tell for quite a long time. The Prelude miniseries set a lot of elements up. How much of it will carry over into the next phase of the story?

TSW: Actually, a good hunk of them will remain. I have fleshed out some story aspects, and changed the tilt on others, but the basic idea is still there. At least as it now stands. As an example, I have a huge stack of books on myths and religion to go through near my bed presently, because I want to make sure that my current train of thought behind Clairese’s ancestry holds together under closer scrutiny. And I hope so, because I’m quite excited by this possible expansion on her original ancestry. And if it holds… my, oh my, will there be some fun panels to draw in Darklight: Bloodlines.

RW: One common element that seems to have carried over from Wandering Star is a sense of spirituality, of pondering one’s place in the universe, and whether or not God fits into it all. Are you a spiritual person by nature?

TSW: The short answer is yes. Though if you get into the details… it gets quite complex, as I don’t lean completely in any religious direction these days. At my heart, I currently believe that the myths and the religions of the world come from man’s attempt to make sense of the mysterious, using the things around him that he understood to explain “God”: hunting, farming, the merchant system, the mountains or the sea. And the end result was a great variety of interpretations that I think have, at the heart of them all, the same force. Though ultimately, for me, the question is: what is the force behind it all? And what exactly is the impact of belief systems upon a person, both good and bad? Where does one’s belief system limit and hold them back? And where does it tempt them to move forward, to make a stand, or to change and evolve. I’ve been thinking about all this for decades. And the question only gets more complicated with time. I doubt I’ll ever be fully satisfied with an answer.

RW: One thing about Darklight that bothered me the first time I read it was referencing Wandering Star within it as a creation of the character Dhana, obviously a stand-in for you. Was there a larger rationale behind this?

TSW: There was one, originally. It started out as simply this thought that it might be fun to take the two girls that I wanted living next door [to] the magical mansion, and base them loosely on me and my roommate at the time. My thought was that I’d be taking my trick of slipping people from other comic books into the backgrounds, and doing it one better. But then I got it into my head that I should perhaps do a semi-[auto]biographical spot in the story where Dhana was concerned. The reasoning being that I wanted to find a way to express my deep gratitude to those that had helped me during my time publishing Wandering Star. And I figured, that to do it properly, some of the unfortunate aspects of my past would have to be touched upon, or they wouldn’t understand how much they had honestly helped me. But I think I shared too much. The whole “Dhana’s past” thing became too much of what Darklight was in the Prelude issues. It was too much, and it wasn’t what I’d wanted. And it was knocking the storyline way off course. And so I’ve left Dhana and Julie out of the new series, as I really don’t have the desire to retrace that ground in Darklight: Bloodlines. There will still be two girls next door… but their focus is only about moving the story in the direction I want it to go. As the outsiders who fall, by accident or design, into that strange, magical world they don’t understand. And I like it that way.

RW: Clairese reminds me a bit of the adult Casandra from Wandering Star in that they both have deep scars from the great loss and tragedy they’ve endured. Clairese appears ready to give in to her despair, but she strikes me as being more in love with the idea of death than the act itself.

TSW: So, you caught that similarity, did you? Yes, Clairese is very much a continuation of the basic personality and problems that represented Casandra. Though Clairese’s impulses are a bit different. And yes, I’d say that your analysis of the suicide situation is quite correct. This is Clairese’s way of lashing out at the system, and in a strange kind of way, regaining her control over her own fate.

RW: I really like the tension between Ambrose and Devon. They’re polar opposites, yet they’re bound by their devotion for Clairese. Devon seems to have the inside track, though. Will we see more interaction between these two?

TSW: Most definitely. This is probably my favorite part of the Darklight: Bloodlines concept. Devon and Ambrose are so much fun to play with. And their interaction is one of the older concepts in the series. I was thinking up dialog between the two back in the late 80s. And even with the changes I plan to tweak the series with now, their characters remain relatively the same.

RW: Okay. Wandering Star. Do you feel you completely accomplished what you set out to do with it? It kept getting bigger and bigger the longer it went on, and you thought it would be only twelve issues initially.

TSW: That’s a tricky question, because when I began Wandering Star I really only intended it to be a showcase for my artwork and to make myself more visible as a comic book creator. And that, I can say I did accomplish. But as it went on, probably about the time I began working on book five, I realized that my simple little story was expanding rapidly in my mind. I wasn’t worried at first, because I figured, what’s the worse that’s going to happen? So I have to add a extra book or two to the limited series… but every time I began an issue, I saw more and more places that the story could go. And images and story clips began popping into my head day and night, so much so that I began having to carry a notepad because the ideas just didn’t stop. But no, I did not, in the end, do everything I wanted to do with Wandering Star.

Now, I don’t want to say that Sirius Entertainment put any pressure on me to end the series, because that wouldn’t be quite true. They did make me understand that they’d signed Wandering Star primarily to get Darklight, and they really wanted Wandering Star to end so that Darklight could begin. But they never said, “Finish the series now, Teri.” That said, it is also true that if I’d stayed with Pen & Ink Comics [and self-published], Wandering Star would not have ended with book 21. I would have just kept writing it. And chances are pretty good that it might have grown to 50 or 100 issues before it finished.

RW: You talked earlier about belief systems and whether they change a person’s worldview or not – for me, the highlight of the book was the conversation between Casandra and Narz in issue 10. Her beliefs about the way things work are severely challenged there. It’s an incredibly powerful and resonant scene, and reading it, it feels like everything was leading to this confrontation. Fair to say?

TSW: Yes, I’d agree with that. And this is the main thing I regret with what I did with Wandering Star. How much was left unsaid. To meet that 21-issue deadline, Casandra had to leave Earth quickly, or the series would go into several more issues. If I’d done it right, I would have had her stay there a bit longer, perhaps maybe three more issues. And there would have been many more conversations like this between her and Narz. Casandra would have been asked to question all of her beliefs before she left… and her eventual decision to make a stand and say “This is what I believe!” would have been… something I would have been very proud of. The Narz and Casandra part of the story that was left out of those 21 issues is what I regret most.

RW: Tell me about when Wandering Star was still a mini-comic. What were your plans for it back then?

TSW: Well, they were pretty humble. I wasn’t interested in doing anything beyond creating something to show around and help me get a job as a comic book artist somewhere. I wasn’t even concerned about how good the story was, because I wasn’t interested in writing for comic books, I just wanted to draw them. I began work on it in 1988, about a year after it was confirmed that my first gig in the comic field had been canceled by the Comic Book Crash of 1987. The one that hit right after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles convinced scores of collectors that any and all Issue Ones would eventually be worth millions. Heh. And anyway, I did two issues of it around my day job, and it did fairly well for a small press book. And it was the springboard that lead me to doing The Cartoonist for Amazing Heroes Magazine, and art on The Prince of Fur for MU Press in 1990.

RW: Image first formed around the time you went full-size. What did you think of them in the beginning? Not so much about the books themselves, but about the fact that these A-list creators were willing to go out on their own and publish their own books.

TSW: Arrgh. I was, back then, a complete newbie, and deeply in love with the idea of working for a publisher. Marvel Comics, to be specific. I used to read Jim Shooter’s Marvel Age every time it came out, and daydreamed of being a Marvel Artist. So, of course I hated them in the beginning, like any loyal Marvel fan girl would have. I’ve grown up a lot since then.

RW: I know you’re a Cerebus fan – also around this time, Dave Sim was advocating the need for indy creators to be totally independent and take on every aspect of the self-publishing business themselves (a position he’s since relaxed on somewhat). How big an influence did his philosophy have on you?
TSW: Not as much as it should have. Considering the mess I’ve had to deal with in my last publisher contract, I wish I’d held to my original stance that he was correct in all things regarding publishing. It would have saved me a lot of grief. But his words back then are having a lot of affect on how I will move forward now. Even with the changes in the industry that make it harder than ever for an independent comic creator to successfully self-publish. Darklight: Bloodlines will have only one publisher — me. For better or worse. That said, I do believe that it is acceptable to contract out to do work for a publisher on a temporary basis — for instance, the work I’m doing for MU Press. I’ve agreed to do three new issues of The Prince of Fur for them, and we may discuss three more after they’ve been published. But I should also say that I am only willing to do that because I have a history with Edd Vick. He’s a good man, and I know I can trust him.

I think a lot of young creators get caught up in the idea of being able to say “I’m being published by somebody” because it will impress those unfamiliar with the workings of the comic industry. Self-publishing just doesn’t sound as impressive when you’re asked by a friend what you do for a living, because what if they assume you’re publishing yourself because nobody else wanted to? I think the other thing that makes young creators hesitate is they think publishing is complicated. It’s not. Publishing is incredibly easy. The hardest part is coming up with the $1500 or so to publish the first issue. And perhaps about $1000 more to help cover the next book if the first book doesn’t do well. Everything else you have to do can be done in a handful of hours every month. Like Dave Sim once said, you could hire a secretary to do all the work a publisher did, in probably less than 10 hours a month. The most important thing I would tell a young creator today is to consider what being published really does mean. It means you are working for someone, and have a boss to account to. Your publisher is your boss. And how many bosses have you had in your life that you trusted to know what they were doing? Or were easy to get along with? Or fair? The question I’d suggest any new creator think hard about before signing with any publisher is, “Do I like being an employee?” Because you don’t have to be. Dave Sim was right.

One thing I would like to say to a new creator is that no matter how carefully you go over your contract, it is so very easy to slip things by you that you’ll never see until it’s too late. I’ve heard horror stories from other creators. And if anyone ever has a question regarding a possible contract, I would be VERY happy to talk to them about it.

RW: Has the industry gotten smarter about creator rights, from what you’ve seen? Certainly there’s more of an awareness about it than before – major companies like DC and CrossGen and even Marvel have made inroads – but what will it take for a creator working on corporate comics to decide it just might be worth the risk to publish his own comic?

TSW: I think the industry is getting a bit smarter — at least where the bigger money is concerned. Because it seems that these days, if they aren’t careful, someone just might take them to court. That said, it is still a toss up when you’re dealing with the smaller companies. At the smaller companies, there’s usually not enough money earned by a creator to afford a lawyer if they need one. Add to that the fact that most contracts are written so that you have to fight your legal battle in the publisher’s home town, and you’ve got a situation where fighting against a contract breach is darn near impossible financially for most artists and writers. So creator rights still have a long way to go.

Though… you asked what could convince someone already working for one of the big guys to go ahead and self-publish. Well, firstly, I wouldn’t expect them to throw away a good paying job to self-publish, but I would suggest they consider doing it as a side job. I’d ask them to think about how unstable work in our industry is, even at the top. How easy it is to be working on a monthly book one moment, and get your “book cancellation” notice the next. One of the most unsettling things I ever found at the San Diego Comic Con was how many “pros” were working just as hard as the amateurs to get a job. But self-publishing isn’t a cure-all. It’s darn hard, particularly in our current market. Which is why I’m going to experiment with digital comics with Darklight: Bloodlines. I think it’s the future of self-publishing. And, I think, though it may take a heck of a lot of work to do it, I’ll have a more stable, predictable future as a self-publisher than I’d ever have working for anybody else.

RW: Switching gears completely… how’s the gardening going? You’ve often talked about how much you enjoy it.

TSW: Ah, the gardening. Actually, I haven’t had much chance for that since I moved to Washington. Primarily because I need to figure out how to do cold weather gardening, as opposed to warm weather gardening. The rules are different here. In Cali, I could grow most of the season, and depend on long stretches of warm weather. I don’t have that here. Which is unfortunate, because the two things I got really, really good at growing need that warm weather — tomatoes and sweet corn. I miss my tomatoes and my sweet corn.

RW: Why do you think you had such a tough time with gardening in the past?

TSW: Because I had to overcome a terrible brown thumb. And a lot of naivete in gardening. I killed a LOT of plants in my “Teri Learns Gardening” period.

RW: Is there anything you haven’t grown yet that you want to at some point?

TSW: My goal is to learn to grow outstanding tomatoes in Forks, Washington. I’ve heard that you can grow mildly decent tomatoes here, if you go that extra mile or three. I’ve been told if you stick the plant in a old car tire for warmth, create small green houses around them, dance under the full moon and pray to the local Native American gods — this can help. So… maybe I’ll be able to wing it. I also want to grow zucchini. Which everyone tells me does grow wonderfully here, and I do like zucchini.

RW: And finally, the question all of America is asking: what are Oliver the Proofreading Cat’s chances in ’04 for the presidency?

TSW: Well… I suppose I should finally tell America that Oliver is now running for President in Cat Heaven. And I hope keeping his passing a secret doesn’t qualify me for some kind of Watergate scandal. I just didn’t know how to break it to all of his fans. I have talked to the recent addition to Pen & Ink’s staff, Little Cat, about running… but she says she hates politics. So I guess America will just have to tough it out with whatever wank… I mean, gentlemen, the parties decide to provide us with.