She Has No Head! – An Interview With Princeless Creator Jeremy Whitley
Any regular readers know that I’m a huge fan of the all-ages book Princeless by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin from Action Lab, having talked about it here and on the 3 Chicks podcast, as well as reviewing for the first issue for CBR. An indie comic book mini-series for kids is not exactly a given big seller in comics these days, so I was impressed and excited to see all the enthusiasm and positive feedback Princeless received from critics and fans. Now that the series is coming to an end and the trade is forthcoming, Princeless creator Jeremy Whitley took some time out to talk with me for She Has No Head!…
Kelly: Jeremy, thanks so much for joining me to talk about Princeless…you know I’ve been pretty excited about your book, so I appreciate you coming onto She Has No Head!…
Jeremy: No problem. I’m glad to be here. I’ve actually been a big fan of the blog ever since you started it.
Kelly: Thanks! So before we get specifically into Princeless can you tell me a little bit about Fire Tower Studios…what that is and how it came to be?
Jeremy: Sure, Firetower Studios is my independent press where myself and several of my local artist friends (including my wife) make and self publish comics. It started because I had a comic I had written and I wanted to get an artist on it. I posted an ad on Craiglist (this is a true story) and my now friend Charlie responded. He was interested in doing that book and was part of an artists group which met up at a local coffee shop on Mondays so asked that we meet before that meet up. I stuck around for the group, met Jason Strutz who would become my artist on Order of Dagonet and the rest is more or less history.
Kelly: That’s got to be one of the most successful Craigslist stories ever. My best case with Craigslist is successfully giving away a free filing cabinet …
Jeremy: Yeah, especially since I don’t have a second example of Craigslist giving me anything useful.
Kelly: As I’m thinking about it, I actually met my writing group through Craigslist…and that’s been very successful for me…so perhaps Craigslist is somehow ideally suited for this kind of connecting…so long as it doesn’t cause anything horrific to happen to you…
Jeremy: Yeah, no one wants to end up on that side of a Lifetime Original Movie
Kelly: So, what made you guys start up an actual independent press though? I find that interesting.
Jeremy: Well, Charlie and my original book actually fell through, but Jason and I had one of those genuine moments of collaborative breakthrough where I was looking through his portfolio, found this picture of Queen Titania and Bottom that I loved, and said “Hey I had an idea for a story involving her” I wrote up a script and showed up with it that next week and I remember Jason actually said “You know, I’d like to take a crack at illustrating this”. Eventually the three of us decided it was something we wanted to work on seriously and rather than trying to sell any and everyone on what is a pretty bizarre idea behind “The Order of Dagonet” we decided to start producing that and other stuff collectively.
Kelly: That’s pretty wonderful. So how long have you guys been working together then?
Jeremy: Probably about two and a half years since we seriously started. And now we also do web comics, which have brought in some more artists, my lovely wife Alicia and our friend and drawing partner Rich Lombardi.
Kelly: So how does M. Goodwin fit into this…and how did Action Lab get involved?
Jeremy: Well, that’s a funny story. Princeless actually had one false start under the Firetower label with a different artist. When the first issue didn’t take off he decided he would rather concentrate on his pretty successful graphic art career. So I spent the next year toting around a pile of issue ones. That year we went to Heroes con and I gave an issue to our hilarious booth neighbor, a guy named Dave Dwonch. A month or so later he sent me an email saying that he thought Princeless was a great book and how it made him wish he could be a part of a book like that. So I said…guess what! You can! Anyway, at that point Action Lab was still in its infancy and he took it to the rest of the board, who loved it and offered to find me a great artist to partner with. My editor, Shawn Gabbourin had actually done a short for one of his books with Goodwin and hooked us up
Kelly: So Dwonch is part of the Action Lab board? Because he also letters the book, right?
Jeremy: Yep. Dave is actually an amazing guy. He’s creative director at Action Lab and is therefore responsible for finding and signing the books but he also has a day job, has his own web comic which he writes and illustrates, has another series that he’s working on with Bill Blankenship, and still manages to do work on nearly every book Action Lab puts out.
Kelly: That’s incredible.
Jeremy: He edits and letters Princeless. Colors Globworld and Fracture. Wrote Back in the Day. The man is tireless Hi Dave!
Kelly: Well that hard work is paying off, Princeless is a great book and is turning into a pretty good little hit.
Jeremy: Thanks! The response to this book has really amazed me.
Kelly: You have a quality product Jeremy – a smart funny story, and a great artist in Goodwin. But it’s true that you’re not in the stereotypical comic book buyer demographic – hardly anyone does books for kids any more (a shame) and it’s very female focused, which is also a bit rare…so tell me why THIS book…knowing it would have an uphill battle content/demographic wise…
Jeremy: I appreciate that. And with Goodwin I knew I was getting some quality art in this first volume but the doubt always sort of lingered as to whether Princeless could pull in and maintain a following. I knew it was something I believed in and having read blogs like your own and Sue’s at DC Women Kicking Ass, and Johanna Draper Carlson’s at Comics Worth Reading, and Erika Peterman’s at Girls Gone Geek, and Chantaal Elliot’s at Girls Read Comics Too. I knew it was something that there was a call for and that there could be an audience for. And more than that even, I love comics and I want there to be comics that I can share with my daughter without worrying about what she’s learning from them and what she’s seeing in them.
Kelly: Well said.
Jeremy: I’ll never be the one to say there is no place for adult comics, but when you sacrifice the ability to even have kids that are interested in something that is so primed to be part of a kids life, that’s a shame.
Kelly: Absolutely. So was Princeless inspired by anything specific?
Jeremy: Well, when my wife and I started talking about having kids I was just really getting started on this whole comic book thing. I really wanted to be able to share my love of comics with my kids and, specifically, I had always dreamed of having a daughter. What my wife and my younger female relatives seemed to be into was the princess culture and, to be honest, I’m a little bit weirded out by the fact that the characters we give our girls as heroes are helpless, hopeless, and their lives are defined by someone rescuing them. I wanted to make a princess who was capable of rescuing herself
Kelly: Well, you certainly managed that. Adrienne is a great role model I think for any young girl – whether they’re into Princess culture or not. So much of the response I heard about this book – other than the fact that it was just so good – was that parents – especially dads – were so excited to be able to give this to their daughters. So you really accomplished your goal on that front.
Jeremy: Yes! I love getting rave reviews, don’t get me wrong, but my favorite reviews are when people say that they read it and then instantly HAD to give it to their daughter or niece or read it with them. That’s what it’s all about for me. That and I love to help shatter this stereotype of what a girl would like in a comic. It’s not an Archie comic (not that there’s anything wrong with Archie) and it’s not a comic about fashion. Princeless is an action comic for girls.
Kelly: Yes, and I hope the success you guys are seeing on it, will encourage other publishers that there’s definitely a market for this kind of book. So…I want to talk a little more specifically about what we’ve seen in Princeless…and this is a bit of a spoiler warning for those who have not yet read issue 4 which is due in stores and on Graphicly in February…correct?
Jeremy: Yes! Even as the trade is being solicited…hint hint…
Kelly: Yes – the trade – solicited now! But in this first mini-series (4 issues) Adrienne doesn’t actually rescue any of her sisters – which is drawing you a bit of criticism. It’s not a criticism I share, but I can see the issue…if Princeless had not taken off as it had, and we hadn’t gotten a follow up series – it might have felt unfinished or frustrating for readers. It feels a bit like an origin issue and it’s all set up to a degree. What are your thoughts on that?
Jeremy: It’s true. None of her sisters are saved in the first arc, but I wanted to make this arc really about Adrienne being saved. Sure, she manages to get away from the tower in the first issue, but immediately finds herself in an ever worse position. By the end of issue 2 she’s plunging to her death. Adrienne is a strong character and a strong woman, but she has lived her whole life as a princess to this point and the odds are stacked against her. I think it says something about her that she thinks she could just walk into the castle, take her sister, and leave. She’s got a lot to learn before she’s really ready to take on her dad and not lose her pants in the process.
Kelly: I really like that idea. That before saving anyone else, she had to save herself. I didn’t think of it that way, but that’s very nice and makes complete sense. All that said, if Princeless hadn’t been a success, and you hadn’t been able to do the second mini-series…would you have ended things differently, or regretted the way you set this one up?
Jeremy: Not at all. I would rather not finish telling a story then not give it it’s proper due. Especially when it comes to a character I care about so much.
Kelly: Well Adrienne is wonderful and Bedelia is fantastic, a great addition to the story…I cannot wait for their continued adventures. They make a great pair and I love that they’re both very different and yet also the same
Jeremy: Thanks. Bedelia helps Adrienne a bit with the saving as well. Despite what you may read in other comics, it’s quite difficult to carry out a proper quest without a proper suit of armor. I do hope everybody likes Bedelia. If you don’t find her rambling at least a bit charming I think you’re missing an important part of your heart.
Kelly: Bedelia is fantastic, and the character design for her is wonderful. Goodwin really captured her so well on the page. She’s so exuberant.
Jeremy: Yeah and that is all Goodwin. Looking back on my scripts I think I talk more about what she is wearing than what she actually looks like. I think I just said choppy red hair and freckles and Goodwin came out with something really fantastic
Kelly: It’s not surprising, Goodwin is incredibly talented. Have we seen M. Goodwin anywhere before? Is this Goodwin’s first comics work?
Jeremy: Actually Goodwin has worked around the industry quite a bit. M’s deviant art site RocketShoes is full of great stuff and M actually has an original series coming out shortly called Rocket, which looks pretty fantastic
Kelly: Well, I’ll be looking that up as soon as we finish here! So, Sue and I were really enjoying the meta-commentary in issue #3. When you spend as much time as we do talking about superheroine costumes, the problems can become a bit exhausting, so it was a real treat for us to read such a hilarious take on them…do you worry that doing meta commentary like that loses your core kid audience though? I hope it’s a little like The Simpsons or Toy Story…plenty for the kids and something for the adults…but that’s a tricky balance.
Jeremy: You know, I don’t think it will. I don’t know that they’ll get the references immediately, but I think kids have an innate ability to see through BS that a lot of us lose along the way. If you asked a hundred kids to draw a picture of a serious warrior woman in armor you may end up with one Red Sonja out of the bunch and even that would surprise me. I think kids will get that it’s funny and move onto the rest of the issue but I think that the adults will be the ones that remember that part of the issue more than Adrienne lassoing a guy and tossing him down a well
Kelly: Yes, I actually do think entertaining both kids and adults is the best possible option, and when done well, as you have here, it creates the superior work.
Jeremy: Thank you! Being a dad now myself I’m really starting to appreciate things like that. Some of the stuff targeted at kids, especially little kids is just plain mind numbing. Sesame Street on the other hand is bringing brilliant comedy like every day.
Kelly: Yes, I’m sure as a new parent you have a whole new appreciation for this! There has been some reader reaction, both positive and negative, to Adrienne being a woman of color, can you talk a little bit about that?
Jeremy: Of course. Part of the issue is that I just don’t think there are enough characters, especially women, of color in comics today. While I’m white, my wife is black and my daughter will be a woman of color. Right now I could count on one hand the number of comics on the stands that feature a woman of color in a prominent role, yet I know from first hand experience that they read comics too. That kind of lack of representation really sucks. And when it comes to fantasy stories it hits double and I’m just not sure why. I know we feel sort of locked into this Tolkienesque/Arthurian model for how fantasy should work, but in a magical world in a made up place people can be any color we want them to be. I took a little flack about this from some folks who think that as a white man I have no business writing from the perspective of a black woman. While I understand that argument and where it comes from there are just two things I feel like I have to point out. 1) Adrienne is neither African nor African-American, she’s from a magical land far away from here and 2) I’m a big believer in writing what I know and while I am not a black woman, strong black women are a very big part of my life and one that deserves to be recognized and represented here.
Kelly: I think those are fair points. I would add a third, which is that if we have to wait for black women specifically to write black women, it’s going to take even longer to get more representation for characters out there as comics are still very much written primarily by white males.
Jeremy: Agreed and hopefully no one views it as a choice between supporting Princeless and supporting the black women out there who ARE making great comics. Because if they do, I would encourage them to support those black women instead.
Kelly: In my experience good writers are good writers, independent of color, gender, orientation, etc. While there is of course a great touchstone of experience in being from the same demographic as the character you’re writing, it’s by no means the only way to write about something – having experienced it personally. Imagine what a small world we would be treated to if people could only write what they know intimately for themselves?
Jeremy: Yeah, I was just at a sci-fi and gaming convention where I got to hear Joe Haldeman (great sci-fi writer) speak and I think he said it perfectly, “There are already way too many boring stories about writers out there.”
Kelly: Yes, definitely. Well, I for one am very glad you’ve stepped outside of yourself, and it sounds like you have some great women to draw inspiration from for Adrienne…it certainly shows for me in how you have written her thus far.
Jeremy: I do. I’m very lucky that way. I’ve got a great wife, three moms, three sisters (in-law), and dozens of amazing female friends. If all I had for material were the great women in my life I could write forever.
Kelly: It sounds like an embarrassment of riches. So, I want to wrap this up, before we go too long…but I’d like you to tell me quickly about the next Princeless mini-series – what we can expect (and when!) and also if you can explain to readers about the Skullkickers “cross over”?
Jeremy: Sure, let me start with the crossover as that is coming up next. The crossover with Skullkickers was a brainchild of Goodwin and Mr. Zub to show love for our fellow fantasy comics. The story is written by Zub and illustrated by Goodwin and will appear in the Princeless trade and (if you’ve already spent your allowance on Princeless four times and can’t bring yourself to buy the trade) it will also be in an upcoming issue of Skullkickers from Image. It’s all about the trials of being short in a rough and tough fantasy world. The next volume of Princeless will definitely be hitting the shelves this year and will tell the story of Adrienne and Bedelia’s quest to rescue her sister Angelica, the most beautiful princess in all of the land. It will also see the introduction of our crop of baddies, brought by the King to take care of the knight who killed his daughter (which he still doesn’t realize IS his daughter). Adrienne, in short, will have her hands full.
Kelly: Sounds awesome. So…Bedelia will be a mainstay for the second series?
Jeremy: Absolutely. Bedelia is here to stay and we’ll be learning a lot more about her in some of the upcoming stories. Right now, Action Lab is also discussing whether we would be interested in doing a series of short stories for a one shot to fill the gap in between book 1 and 2. These would definitely feature some additional talent on art if we go ahead. So, ya know, if people are really interested it could happen.
Kelly: Exciting stuff. Are you working on anything else besides Princeless and your web comics that you’d like to promote?
Jeremy: Well, I’ve talked a little about “The Order of Dagonet”, which is available on the Firetower Studios site along with the web comics. We’ve also recently made the issues available digitally through Graphicly and for those interested, the first issue is available for free there. The book is about the return of the mythological creatures of faerie to modern day Britain and about the knights who are summoned to fight them – The Order of Dagonet – an order of knights created for the knighted celebrities of Britain. Basically, our fate is in the hands of Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, Ian McKellan and the like.
Kelly: Haha. That last line is definitely your pitch! Don’t bury it!
Jeremy: You think I should just go with “Elton John and Ozzy fight dragons!”
Kelly: I think you go with “The fate of the universe is in the hands of Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, Ian McKellan and the like, as they are THE ORDER OF DRAGONET…and the world is DOOMED…” Or some such!
Jeremy: I’ve found that if I give people the first half of that pitch at conventions they finish it for me
Jeremy: So other than that, Firetower and Action Lab will both have a lot of new stuff available this summer, so be sure to keep up with the news and come see us at the cons.
Kelly: Sounds great Jeremy I wish you the best of luck. And I want to thank you so much for coming by and talking with me. I hope you’ll come back sometime…and please keep up the great work with Princeless, I just love it.
Jeremy: Thanks! It’s my pleasure and I’ll gladly come by when the next batch of Princeless is ready. Thanks so much for your support.
Kelly: Absolutely. It’s easy to give support when you love the product! Take care Jeremy!
Jeremy: You too Kelly!