The Comic Pimp: Issue #57

Fri, April 28th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
James Sime, Columnist

EVERYBODY LOVES DANICA

Let me introduce you to Danica Novgorodoff.

She makes comics that are infused with charming characters, gorgeous design, expressive elements of surreality, and hit-you-right-in-the-gut storytelling. Comics with real heart and a whole lot of soul. Comics that make you fall in love with the artform all over again.

With a resume that is truly a glory to behold, she's been quietly working behind the scenes as a designer at First Second books for many months making sure their line of great books look sexy. But now it's time for Ms. Novgorodoff to get the spotlight, not for her work on other's books, but because her comics are damn good... so good, in fact, that her book A Late Freeze was this year's winner of the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics.

So while the critics are comparing her comics to industry giants with names like Chris Ware, James Kolchalka, Laurenn McCubbin, Seth, Peter Kuper, and even author William Burroughs, let's take some time and get to know this new comic creator who has been getting so much praise recently, shall we?

Comic industry let me introduce you to Danica Novogorodoff. You're going to love her.

Comic Pimp: Take us back and tell me about some of your earliest memories of drawing and telling stories.

Danica Novgorodoff: When I was very small I'd draw pictures on a chalkboard permanently installed in the middle of our kitchen. I drew people but always forgot the arms. I'd draw just as well or poorly as any kid, but I'd do it for hours. I recently found some drawings I'd made when I was five of diabolical bunnies and egg-making factories.

Also I'd dictate stories to my mother who would type them on the computer in her office. Sometimes I'd illustrate them.

Comic Pimp: You're a designer, painter, writer, photographer, art critic, set designer, puppet maker, gallery associate, CD artist for bands, and now mini-comic award winner -- obviously a bright young lady with lots and lots of creative outlets! What's the appeal of comics for you?

Danica Novgorodoff: I've always been interested in narrative art, even in my paintings. Comics let you bring together two art forms, the visual and the literary. Two is better than one, right? I feel like it's sort of a wide-open art form, there's so much you can do with the medium that maybe hasn't been explored yet and isn't mainstream.

Comic Pimp: So when did you first realize you wanted to tell your own stories in comics form?

Danica Novgorodoff: The first comic I made was a 140 page book called Neck of the Moon, which I started when I was living and traveling in South America for 8 months after graduating from college. I had no idea what I was doing, or that it would grow to that length, and so it turned out to be a sort of non-linear, almost dreamlike narrative about fictional characters (American kids, gypsies, cowboys, tourists) that took place alternately in border-state America and Volcano Land (I actually lived in a place called Tierra del Volcan in Ecuador). I wanted to make this comic because I was traveling and it was the best portable medium through which I could explore what I was seeing, the places I was living, the barrage of stories in my head. Gary Groth read it and commented that it was either brilliantly orchestrated or totally chaotic, he wasn't sure which.

Comic Pimp: (laugh)!

Danica Novgorodoff and 2005 Isotope Award Winner Daniel Merlin Goodbrey
Danica Novgorodoff: Since then I've tried to put more foresight into my projects and be slightly less impossibly ambitious (but only slightly).

Comic Pimp: Tell me about the creative process, where did the inspiration for such a bittersweet bear/robot love story come from?

Danica Novgorodoff: I began the project as artwork for a band called Less the band, who suggested the characters of a robot, a bear, and a human-sized stuffed animal frog (they actually had such a creature as their band mascot). After the first few pages I just kept coming up with more and more ideas for the continuation of the story. Of course, the project ended up longer and more involved than I had intended.

Comic Pimp: You wrote an excellent do-it-yourself piece on the making of "A Late Freeze" for Comics Foundry which offers a peek at the nuts-and-bolts of going from conception to completion. I'm sure it's just my perception of it, but damn do you make creating critically-acclaimed award-winning mini-comics look easy! So go ahead and shatter my unenlightened illusions -- was "A Late Freeze" already fully formed in your mind when you sat down to start making it, or was it a struggle getting your ideas onto paper?

Danica Novgorodoff: It was hardly fully formed. I didn't struggle to come up with ideas for the story - I had plenty - but making those ideas come together in a cohesive whole was the hard part. Sometimes I have trouble with that whole "making sense" thing. It took me nine months to draw the entire thing - and I started to realize that maybe it would have been a good idea to think about where the story would go before getting so deep into it.

Comic Pimp: I heard a little story about a well known comic creator who got a sneak peek at "A Late Freeze" and told you that he thought you didn't have what it takes. C'mon now... seriously?

Danica Novgorodoff: Well, he said that I had potential, but that this particular project wasn't worth publishing. He told me that my time would be better spent making hundreds of practice drawings, copying other artists' work, maybe taking a class on how to make comics.

Comic Pimp: Well, obviously I think he's fucking nuts. But even so, hearing that had to give you pause. What made you say "fuck it" and finish making your book anyway?

Danica Novgorodoff: How could I just throw it all away after eight months of work? I thought, well, if this is going to be yet another project that I make and then put in a box under my bed, fine. But I wasn't going to not finish it. I like finishing what I start.

Comic Pimp: And at least you'd have it for yourself, right? That's exactly how I got my comic store started, even if the rest of the world weren't smart or sexy enough to get it, at least I could look back and know I'd have given it my best shot and made the thing happen. I know some creators claim to get really motivated by negative feedback, but looking at your resume you don't really strike me as someone who needs any of that to get going on your projects.

Danica Novgorodoff: Negative feedback sucks.

Comic Pimp: (laugh)!

Danica Novgorodoff: But once I get over being deflated by it, I do try to learn from it.

Comic Pimp: Okay, sure. But what kind of things really motivate you to create?

Danica Novgorodoff: I get motivated by seeing really good work. I think, someday I want to make something that good. I'm motivated by people who work hard and are excited about their work. I always think that if I'm lacking in talent, I can make up for it with hard work, and if you make enough stuff some of it should turn out well. I'm motivated by people with crazy, ridiculous ideas who actually carry through and do them.

Comic Pimp: Oh yeah, you are definitely speaking my language! So let's talk about a group of people with crazy, ridiculous ideas and really awesome good work who are making things happen in the world of comics -- how did you hook up the job as the designer for the terrific First Second Books?

Danica Novgorodoff: Over a year ago, I met with the editor (now my boss), Mark Siegel, about possibly doing the drawings for a script by playwright Adam Rapp. Mark ended up not taking me for the job, but several months later I sent him a copy of a small book I'd just finished and asked if he needed an intern, assistant, or lackey of some sort, because I was really impressed by what he was doing. He wrote back asking if I knew web design and Quark. I didn't really, but figured that I could learn it in the time before starting if he gave me a job, so I kind of, um, exaggerated my expertise.

Comic Pimp: Awesome (laugh)!

Danica Novgorodoff: Mark said, "Great, can you start Monday?" He was about to have his first child and was stretched thin at First Second, so my timing was great. Except that I had to spend the weekend giving myself a frantic crash course in the computer programs I'd claimed to know.

Comic Pimp: Well once again that hard work paid off. I've seen many, many people in the industry praise your design work. And really, that looks like a great company to be with. How about we show them a little love, what are you most looking forward to coming out from First Second?

Danica Novgorodoff: I'm excited for Gene Yang's "American Born Chinese," which comes out next fall. It's such a great story (you may have seen it in mini-comic form) with fascinating characters.

Comic Pimp: Yeah, absolutely. I'm a big fan of his.

Danica Novgorodoff: And I did the cover design.

Comic Pimp: (laugh) Now that makes me like it even better!

Danica Novgorodoff: "Deogratias" by Stassen should be in stores any day now; it's beautifully drawn and the story about the Rwandan genocide is heartbreaking. "The Lost Colony" by Grady Klein is colorful and fun with a sinister underbelly; and I'm really looking forward to future books by Paul Pope, and Gipi, whose watercolor and line work I love.

Comic Pimp: I think just about everyone is looking forward to that! So let's talk about the reason you and I first met, the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. What made you submit your book?

Danica Novgorodoff: I had just finished printing my book, and Gina, who does marketing for First Second, suggested I submit it. The deadline was only a few days away, so I FedEx'ed it in without expecting anything. I had to swiftly find a plane ticket to San Francisco when I found out I was a finalist!

Comic Pimp: Next year we'll be flying you in for the Alternative Press Expo ourselves, so make sure you get the vacation time. Just thinking back on the weekend and the award ceremony here for a sec... I gotta say that moment just before I put you up on the stage to give you the Isotope Award in front of something like 200 people... oh were you nervous (laugh)! You gotta tell me, aside from the nerve-wracking aspect of being in the spotlight like that, how did you feel when the crowd was going wild in your honor?

Danica Novgorodoff: I just couldn't believe I'd gone from a comic book artist whose books had only ever been seen by my mom and a few good friends, to one who was being… applauded?!

Comic Pimp: It was very well deserved and I for one had a fucking blast hanging out with you that night! It was really fun to just be there watching as so many people came up excited to talk to you and see your book. I think if we had more copies we would have sold one to just about everyone in attendance!

Danica Novgorodoff: I had to kick myself for not bringing more copies. As you can tell, I'm not much of a salesperson!

Comic Pimp: So afterwards, how did it go at APE? You were at the Global Hobo table and I saw you talking to tons of people. No surprise really, after all, you were the darling of the show! So what did you think of San Francisco and the Alternative Press Expo?

Danica Novgorodoff: I didn't get to see much of San Francisco since I had to go back to New York right away, but it was honestly the best convention I've been to. There was more talent (of the kind I'm interested in) than at any other convention.

Comic Pimp: Definitely my favorite! I always get supercharged with enthusiasm from seeing all those awesome comics and cool people who make them. And next time we'll have to give you and the First Second people an Isotope tour of SF! So what's going on since then? You've been racking up excellent review after excellent review lately. How does it feel to have so many people checking out your work?

Danica Novgorodoff: It's very cool to dive head-first into this (mostly online) world of comics-dialogue. Like one of the reviews said, a few weeks ago no one had ever heard of me. So it's really exciting to read about people reading my book.

Comic Pimp: I know the people are definitely going to want to know the answer to this next question, particularly those people who have already gotten a chance to read "A Late Freeze." What's next for the critically-acclaimed award-winning comic creator Danica Novgorodoff?

Danica Novgorodoff: I've been working on a story (yes, I'm trying to write this one before drawing it, so as to have some idea what the hell I'm doing before I start) about a girl who's a firefighter in Kentucky and a guy who's a Mexican immigrant working on a horse farm. It's tornado season in Kentucky, the day after the Derby, and these two characters get kind of… blown together. I know I said that I was going to try to be less unreasonably ambitious, but this one, I don't even want to think about how long it'll take me. Let's not talk about it.

Comic Pimp: (laugh) Alright, but it does sound pretty good! So you have any advice you'd like to pass along to folks who are either thinking about making their own minis, or breaking into the biz?

Danica Novgorodoff: I think people should make what they'd like to see on the shelf of a comic book store. Think about what you'd like to read but doesn't yet exist. And think outside of just comics - incorporate what you find interesting, exciting, and beautiful in fiction or non-fiction writing, in art, in life.

Comic Pimp: Nice. Anything you'd like to add before I let you go?

Danica Novgorodoff: You have the best baby-pink alligator skin shoes I've ever seen.

Comic Pimp: (laugh)!

We certainly haven't heard nor seen the last of this extremely talented new creator, and for those of you who want to get your hands on a copy of her award-winning mini for yourself, they are now available for mail order at Danica's website, at finer comic stores nationwide, and here in the San Francisco Bay area at the little piece of comic book heaven I get to work, scheme, and play at Isotope - the comic book lounge.

NEXT WEEK @ THE COMIC PIMP

I gotta tell you, I'm excited about this one!

For those of you who enjoyed the first of many columns looking at the fresh faces in avant-garde comic retailing you're in for a real treat next week. Because while I've got a huge line-up coming up in future columns of some jaw-droppingly cool comic book stores there are perhaps none that impress and astound me more utterly than the shop I'm going to be profiling next Friday... the true Evel Knievel of comics retail!

And a little something for those who like the PDF downloads, too.

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