Saturday, October 16, 2010

FYC Replay: Me & Edith Head with Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber

Here's another installment in the archiving of my Pulse columns, For Your Consideration. In this one, I had the opportunity to interview, by email, Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber. They were very gracious in taking the time to answer my questions, and when I had the opportunity to meet them in person at the Small Press Expo in 2009, they were just as gracious. The interview is a couple of years old, so the "upcoming projects" question includes work long since completed - except for Mr. Lieber's mention of Greg Rucka's scripts for the third Whiteout miniseries, "Thaw." That has yet to see publication, but I did see the original pages for that first issue - penciled, inked, and lettered - at SPX 2009. I'm not sure when it will find its way onto Oni Press's publication schedule, but when it does, you will not be disappointed. For now, though, enjoy this look at one of the best mini-comics you'll find out there.

Warren Ellis put it best when he stated, “I’ve always been faintly disgusted by Steve Lieber's level of talent. Now it appears I have to have his wife killed too.” Me and Edith Head is a brilliant lesson in economy. With only fifteen pages, Ryan and Lieber manage to create a complete and fulfilling narrative that will resonate long after you put it down.

The 411:
Me and Edith Head
Written by Sara Ryan
Drawn by Steve Lieber
15pp. b/w
Cold Water Press

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Wiser people than I have stated what many know to be true already, but it still bears repeating. Me and Edith Head is one of those gems all fans of the medium should seek out. Originally published in the September/October 2001 issue of Cicada magazine, it stars Katrina Lansdale, a character from Sara Ryan’s first novel Empress of the World. When that issue of Cicada went out of print, Ryan and Lieber decided to publish Edith Head as a 15-page chapbook in 2002 through their own publishing company Cold Water Press, and it was nominated for an Eisner award in the “Best Short Story” category that year.

Katrina is a character easily recognizable to many readers. A high school student dealing with the pressures inherent during that period of our lives, she must also contend with being one of those girls hovering just outside the cliques so ingrained within high school society. Compounding these difficulties, Katrina’s parents are quickly heading toward divorce, something that appears to have been a long time coming. She needs an outlet and auditions for the school play, a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hoping for the part of Titania, Katrina is instead delegated the task of costume designer.

Katrina is disappointed with the position and sees little hope of enjoying her time with the play. But something surprising happens. Katrina discovers a talent for the fashion needs of the company, and with the help of some books on Edith Head – an Oscar-winning costume designer – she discovers an inner confidence of which she was unaware. Growing up is difficult, but sometimes when one’s mind is diverted, it can happen without thinking.

This is an incredible little book. With only fifteen pages, Ryan and Lieber present a fully-fleshed out narrative in which the audience is witness to Katrina’s growth from a troubled teen to a confident young woman. This slim book packs more story into it than any collection from the “Big Two,” with very few exceptions. Ryan and Lieber hit all the high notes of the story, utilizing the comic page to its fullest, while eschewing the padded storytelling practice of decompression so common in many of today’s comics. This husband and wife team also exhibits an understanding of comics as a melding of words and pictures, allowing the images to tell the story in a way most creators never conceive.

One page in particular, in which the audience watches Katrina’s bedroom go from a typical teenage sty to a clean, well-ordered space as snippets of her parents’ dialogue illuminate their decaying relationship, is a prime example of how well thought out and well executed a comic this is. Throughout the story, Ryan’s dialogue is spot-on, and she expands much of the narrative with the unspoken statements lying beneath the characters’ words. And Lieber’s art is as superb as fans have come to expect. He is one of the best artists working in comics today with panels that are fully realized without being cluttered, allowing him to tell any type of story with a craft unmatched by many in the industry. Though not flashy, Lieber’s style is full of substance, and any book drawn by him is always a pleasure to read.

If you’re lucky enough to be attending a convention where Steve Lieber and Sara Ryan are in attendance, seek him out and buy this book. If not, go to Sara's website where you can order it through paypal. You’ll thank me.

An Interview with Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber:

Chris Beckett: What reaction have you gotten from fans at conventions regarding Edith Head and other mini comics you have available?

Steve: The responses have varied from wildly enthusiastic appreciation to indifference to an odd, condescending sort of -- I don't know-- pity, maybe? I'm glad to say that the good reactions have been the most common. The minis I've illustrated are all terrific stories. Edith was nominated for an Eisner; Sean Stewart's Family Reunion was reprinted in The Year's Best Graphic Novels, Comics & Manga. And Sara's first Flytrap story was wonderful. I'm hugely excited that she and Ron Chan are keeping the series going.

The few negative reactions I think just spring from people who haven't grasped that an artist might enjoy telling more than one kind of story. I'm just guessing here, but I get the feeling that the thinking is something like: "You drew Batman and Civil War: Frontline and Whiteout, and here you are with these little xeroxed booklet thingies about characters I've never heard of? What happened?” What happened is that I love drawing both big action stories about larger than life heroes, and smaller, more intimate stories about real people. Mini-comics are a great venue for the latter.

Beckett: With the experience you have in the comics medium, how much input into the story did you have?

Steve: Not much really. Sara's a natural visual storyteller. There might have been a few panels where I'd offer a suggestion to make things flow more easily, but she grasped the underlying mechanisms of comics from the start, and instantly knew how to make her points visually, manipulate time, play word against image -- all the things that a comic writer needs to know intuitively to make the medium work.

Beckett: Why did you choose to present Me and Edith Head as a comic?

Sara: There were a couple of things going on when I decided to write Edith. First, I just wanted to experiment with comics writing. Steve says that comics people are vampires, in that they turn everyone around them into comics people, too. That definitely happened to me. As I read and enjoyed more and more comics and graphic novels, I got increasingly intrigued about the possibility of writing comics myself. And at the same time, I'd just published my first novel, Empress of the World, and introduced some characters that I had -- and have -- a lot of affection for, including Katrina Lansdale. When we meet Katrina in Empress, she's very much a costume and fashion expert, but I knew she hadn't always been that way, and I wanted to tell the story of how she developed that interest and expertise. I also knew that by its nature the story would be very visual, so it just made sense to do it as a comic.

Beckett: Me and Edith Head is as fully realized a story as one could find. How challenging was it to fit it within the fifteen pages of the mini comic?

Sara: Thank you! I tend to write in a very compressed way, whether I'm writing prose or comics. More often than not, I find that I need to add or extend scenes in order for the story in my head to take coherent shape on the page.

Beckett: What was the collaborative process like for you two on Me and Edith Head, and how did it differ from other comics you have done, Steve?

Steve: We just talked about the story and she set to writing. It differed mainly in that I had the writer on-site to clarify matters where I had questions. The script said, "Katrina enters the thrift shop.” I asked how she was entering: tentatively, normally, forcefully? Sara went out of my studio, closed the door behind her and barged back in with squared shoulders and a face that was all business. So I drew that. And it's a story about a teen girl's relationship with clothing and how she dresses, so it was certainly handy for me to have her lean over my board now and then and say things like, "Ooh. She'd never wear that with a belt."

Sara: I would just add that when Steve and I collaborate, it's a little like Calvinball. We keep changing the rules, and sometimes someone has to sing the I'm Very Sorry song. But overall it's fun.

Beckett: What other current or forthcoming projects do each of you have that you might like to speak about?

Steve: I've been doing a ton of commercial and advertising art recently, so a lot of my recent work isn't available in comic’s stores. If you're in Japan, you can see an indoor parade I helped design for the Hello Kitty theme park Sanrio-Puroland. The Thunderbolts Annual I drew for Marvel comes out this month. My current comic projects are Underground - a graphic novel written by Jeff Parker, and a story for the Belgian publisher Dupuis. And of course Greg [Rucka]'s going to be writing the third and final Whiteout book, Thaw. I can't wait to get my hands on that.

Sara: My second novel, The Rules for Hearts, is just out, and I have not one, not two, but three more minicomics collaborations coming soon: "Click," with Dylan Meconis, "Einbahnstrasse Waltz" with Cat Ellis, and the third episode of Flytrap, "Over the Wall," with Ron Chan.

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