The More Better Answers

Here are the rest of the “more in-depth” answers to some of the questions from the Washington Post Live Q&A on February 28, 2011

Q. Opopo

Describe your process a little. Do you keep rewriting right up to the bitter end?

I’m not sure I really have a process.  I get ideas all day long as things happen that seem silly.  I try to jot down my thoughts.  If I have time, I might sketch out a strip on scrap paper – just to see how the lines work together.

I usually have a few storylines in mind when I head home to write and draw.  I try not to draw the same characters every night and I also try not to use the same background I’ve just used in the previous strips.  If Lizzie is at home too much, I try to get her out.  If she’s out too much , I get her home.

I draw the strip first, knowing the general concept of the lines.  Usually, once I start drawing the first panel, the lines occur to me – so then I know what the characters need to look like, what their expressions will be and who will be focused on in any particular frame.

I add the lines last.  Half the time, the lines are perfect (in my opinion) the way I write them the first time.  The other half of the time, I know what I want the characters to convey but it takes a thousand variations on dialogue to get them there.

When I first began getting feedback from Amy, she would change a word from time to time.  I might write “get it” and she would suggest that “understand” is better.   I don’t remember the last time she suggested a word change.  I now have her voice in my head and pretty much know what her suggestions might be, word-wise.

Once a week or so, I can’t finish a strip at night (which is when I generally work on strips).  I’ll draw the strip and play with the lines but go to bed knowing that the right lines aren’t there yet.  I’ll lay in bed and obsess about the lines and then fall asleep.  Usually, while I’m fixing my hair or feeding the animals in the morning, the good lines will occur to me.

Q. Friends

Have you ever created any hard feelings from friends who saw, or thought they saw, something negative about them in your strips?

I don’t think I’ve created hard feelings from friends.  If I have, they didn’t let on.  There were earlier characters who are no longer in the strip and probably won’t appear in the future.  That’s because the character just didn’t evolve.  Characters have a life of their own.  Some characters talk to me and tell me exactly what they want.  Other characters I control more than they control me.

A few times I’ve drawn somebody and they wanted changes for their character.  That’s difficult because I draw the characters the way I see them – not the way the other person does.

For the most part, though, folks have been really flattered to appear in the strip.  And then there are a few who are vying for a place in the strip.  The good news is that I’m surrounded by friends and family who would make great characters.  The bad news is that there are only so many characters that can fit in the day-to-day of one strip. 

Q. Who Will Relate to ReplyAll?  Who is your imagined audience when you write Reply All? Is it other single women? Or do you think anyone can relate to the strip?

During the chat, I responded that my mother was my audience.  Early on, I realized that my mother provided a very accurate measure of what worked and what didn’t.  I think the combination of my own personal slang and my own edgy, dark thinking had to be balanced with the perceptions of someone outside of my little DC world.  My mother provided that balance. 

I found that most of my friends and family were not good judges of what worked.  I believe that’s primarily because they were too close to the real material that inspired the strips.  One of my friends or family would say that a particular strip wasn’t right or wasn’t the way things would have played out – and then the strip would do really well with the website audience or the Facebook audience.  Over the years, I shifted from ‘trying out’ strips on family and friends to trying out strips on strangers and then showing the successful strips to the inner circle.

For the past few years, I’ve known that the strip plays well across generations (as evidenced from the followers of the strip), across genders, and across sexual preferences.  That’s been nice.  Now that the strip is in newspapers, it’s really great to hear that younger kids are reading it.  That’s very sweet.

Q. Art

How much care do you take in plotting out narrative arcs for the strip? Is there an identifiable moment in your head when you say: “Well, I’ve exhausted THAT thread?”

There are many story lines that I want to either develop or follow in the strip, but the characters are really at a point in their lives where they’re just experiencing the consequences of the roads they’ve taken or not taken.  Lizzie is dealing with the life of a single career woman for whom marriage is not a specific goal. Laura is dealing with life (and kids) post-divorce.  Allison is creeping toward an empty nest and it’s unclear whether she’ll adapt easily or with difficulty to a quiet house.   The stories are less about tackling major goals than living through the ever-changing dynamic of a life that involves other peoples’ dreams.

In terms of exhausting threads, so far it’s been pretty easy.  When I get sick of a thread, I don’t work on it anymore.  I can usually only last for about two to three strips on one thread until I get sick of it.  I might return to it down the road, but I’d have trouble following a longer thread.  I’m far too distracted by whatever is funny right now than to spend days following through on a specific planned storyline.  

Q. Artwork

I’ve seen some commentary about your artwork not being “professional enough” and “hard to look at”…. respectfully, I must disagree!!!! I LOVE the way you draw the characters and their surroundings. They are adorable!

So, the issue regarding my strip seems to be the great divide between those who enjoy looking at it and those who find it painful to look at.  I think I’ve realized that I can only pay attention to those who love the strip (or like the strip).  The folks who hate it will never like it – and some of them have been very rude in conveying their hatred of the strip.  So I’m pretty much ignoring those who don’t like looking at it and hoping they’ll shift their energies to looking elsewhere.

For those who do enjoy looking at the strip, I must say it’s really fun.  I like decorating Lizzie’s house and office and can’t wait to decorate Laura and Mark’s abodes.

Q. Morality

I’m intrigued by the description of Reply All tackling the struggle between id, ego and superego.  If there is a moral to ReplyAll, what would it be?  Does Lizzie have a personal code of ethics or is she just a hedonist?

My response to this during the live chat regarded the moral of Reply All (to get over it). 

Regarding Lizzie’s personal code of ethics….hhhhhmmmm….I think that Lizzie is a good person who wants for things generally to be good.  She has strong relationships with family and friends – and enjoys a level of honesty with them that enables her to engage in “smart ass” dialogue without suggesting disrespect or intolerance.  But the dialogue always has to be based on a foundation of love and respect – otherwise it would just be mean.

Hedonism?  Hhhhmmm….let me look up hedonism.

“Pursuit of or devotion to pleasure, especially to the pleasures of the senses.” 

Noooooo….that’s not Lizzie or any of the characters.  When I think of hedonism, I think of Charlie Sheen.  Perhaps there’s a healthier hedonist, but I’m not sure who that would be.

Lizzie is a hardworking individual who is basically just exhausted by the demands of a career and the conflicts faced by women who choose work over love.  She thinks about things that would feel good – like getting her hair brushed for an hour – but she doesn’t actually do them. I think that Lizzie mostly fantasizes about living like a princess even though she’s not particularly indulgent (except for coffee and naps).

Q. Battle of the Sexes

Will Reply All get into the battle of the sexes? Do you think there are things women just don’t get about men and vice versa?

Reply All isn’t really about the battle of the sexes as much as it’s about the coexistence of the sexes in a world where there’s not much mystery anymore. 

Q. ComicsDC

So who approached who – did the WPWG syndicate find you, perhaps due to a Washington City Paper interview, or did you contact them?

So here’s the story:

In late 2008, I began to explore syndication and publication.  Enough people were asking me about it that I thought I should take a look.  I tried to put together a submission but really just couldn’t decide what it should look like and what it should include.  I was very nervous about blowing a chance.  It never occurred to me that a syndicate would look at me more than once or over time.  I figured it was just a one time shot where you either get tossed out or taken in.

I decided to look for some advice and picked Stephan Pastis to ask.  I didn’t have the confidence to talk to any other cartoonists since I didn’t consider myself an artist.  But as a lawyer I had enough confidence to email Stephan (he was a lawyer before turning to cartooning full-time).

I never showed Stephan my strip.  I was scared that he would say it stunk.  I also wanted to be clear that I was looking for advice and not feedback.

That’s my lawyer mind at work, I think.

Stephan was very nice and very responsive.  He basically told me to just send in something because the syndicate would either see something they liked or wouldn’t.  I think he was trying to say that it didn’t have to be perfect.

Of course I thought it had to be perfect, so I didn’t send anything in.  I was very scared of rejection because the writing was so personal to me.  I had submitted a lot of writing to agents and publications over the years and was fairly adept at rejection – but the strips had become my children.  I didn’t think I could bear to hear someone say that they stunk.

In 2009, and very much to my surprise, an acquaintance asked if I wanted to talk to Amy Lago – I hadn’t realized that they were colleagues.  Within a day of saying “YES!!!!,” I had an email from Amy asking me when I could come in.

I don’t recall this, but Amy says I had to reschedule out appointment due to work.  That is probably correct.  At the time, I was working in a 24/7 operation and emergencies ruled. Nobody cared if I had an appointment with one of the most amazing comics editors in the whole world.

Before meeting with Amy, I read anything I could about her and I listened (about a hundred times) to an interview she had given on Coast to Coast, a seriously cool comics podcast.  I worked on a portfolio that I could bring to her and assumed we would be looking at it. 

When I met with Amy, she was VERY nice.  I was a wreck because I was so nervous and she was just calm and smiley and nice.

I was scared to be funny and scared to be serious.  I felt like Amy knew the answer to the only question that mattered: is this material funny?

Amy and I just talked.  We didn’t look at any strips.  She asked about me and my interest in comic strips.  I told her the truth which was that followers kept asking me if I would be published.

Amy told me that she would look at my work and get back to me.  She warned me that it would be several weeks because of her schedule.  She may or may not have realized that I would have waited ten years for her opinion.

Amy did get back to me several weeks later.  She never said that she liked the strips.  She never said that they were good.  She just said that she’d like to see me develop certain characters and stick to certain themes.

I said okay, of course.  I remember that I kept asking her for deadlines and she kept saying “whenever you get it in.”  I remember hoping that my lawyer personality wouldn’t totally turn her off.

I submitted about 40 strips to her soon after.  Needless to say, I spent every waking moment (except when I was at work) doing those strips.  I couldn’t tell anyone because there was too much at stake and because I didn’t want to hear anyone’s predictions of what might happen.  I think I perfected the practice of superstition during that time. 

Amy liked the strips I submitted.  At that point, it was a no brainer for me.  Regardless of the outcome, I was getting feedback from one of the best editors around.  I threw myself into the newly developed strip and watched the characters evolve.

The style of the strips changed a great deal – primarily as a result of me asking Amy stupid questions like “should I put in a desk?” and Amy saying “Sure!”  I just kept adding details to the strips and Amy liked the details.

We had some discussion along the way about my drawing style but Amy generally liked it.  Critics will be shocked to hear that my lines were far sketchier before.  I’m not a big fan of the perfect line.  I like suggestions of lines.  But Amy explained that suggestions of lines wouldn’t translate well for publication and I learned to draw fatter, darker lines – and I learned to close shapes.

Ah….the critics….they’re fun. J

Q. taboo

Are there any topics that are verboten for Reply All? Or is everything up for grabs?

I haven’t run across any verboten topics yet, I don’t think.  However, I don’t want to write strips that teenagers and children can’t read.  I understand that the topics might not always be attractive to teens and kids, but I don’t want to introduce specific topics that they shouldn’t be dealing with before they have to.  Nobody will wonder if they’re pregnant (in any serious way) or have to ponder whether they remembered a condom.  I don’t want my nieces reading that or asking about it.

I remember submitting strips about Craig’s List to Amy and hoping that she wouldn’t be too upset with the direction I was going in.   I was waiting for an email from her saying that they were far too x-rated. Of course it turned out that she loved them.

Q. Comic Strip Temporal Dynamics

Are your characters going to age or grow or does she remain forty-something forever? If not, how do you handle the change in cultural touchstones?

The characters will age and try to deal with aging.

Both Laura and Allison have kids finishing high school and heading off to college.  Lizzie’s mom has grandchildren now.  Lizzie is losing her window of opportunity for having children.  Yes, aging and changes in cultural touchstones are part of the plan.

Q. Questions from an interview

When Lizzie interviews for a job and is asked the stock – “what strengths would you bring to the organization and what are your weaknesses?” – how would she answer?

Lizzie would probably say something annoying like “I have trouble leaving the office.  I like to stay until everything is done.”… her weakness.  Strength?  Probably the ability to stop at a donut shop on the way to the office and bring one for everybody?

Q. Questioning Taboo

There are some artists who left syndication for other publishing arenas due to conflict over content. When you say that pretty much any topic is up for grabs wouldn’t that depend to a certain extent on your editor and what papers you’re in?

I think I mostly addressed this a few questions ago, but I’ll add a bit.

Amy and I haven’t had any conflicts yet.  We both want what’s best for the strip and what’s true to the strip.  We both love the strip.  I can’t really see either of us wanting to do something that wasn’t in line with the spirit of the strip or our abilities to support the strip.  That might be naïve, but I think that one of the things we like about each other is our respect for the integrity of the product.

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