Renee Lott last spoke with CBR News when her graphic novel, the supernatural drama "Festering Romance" was released by Oni Press. At the time, Lott was a recent graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design and this was her first professionally published work. What was most striking about the book was that at a young age and in her first book, Lott had already managed to master the very challenging tone of balancing a fantastic story that was rooted in realism, deftly handling its dramatic and comedic elements.
For more than a year, Lott has been working on her new book, "The Rise and Fall of Studly Pete," which she has recently begun serializing online at www.studlypete.fridgewithfeet.com where it debuted last weekend with plans for weekly updates.
At this past summer's Small Press Expo, Lott had the first chapter of the story available as a minicomic and she spoke with us about the project.
CBR News: Renee, just to start, what is "The Rise and Fall of Studly Pete?"
Renee Lott: "The Rise & Fall of Studly Pete" is an adventure story about Peter Shade, a guy with a curse of "super-studliness." He's irresistible to women, but to the point of putting him and his friends at risk. As the story progresses, he and his group of friends end up going on a fantasy-style quest where they discover the source of the curse, why he has it and where it came from.
We spoke a couple years ago, when your first book "Festering Romance" was released through Oni Press. Having a book published shortly after getting out of school was and continues to be a big deal. What made you publish your follow-up book online rather than taking it to a publisher?
When I was in school, they trained you basically [to think] that you're supposed to work for a publisher. When I was a senior, that was the goal I focused on without seriously considering if that was the way to go that worked for me. I didn't really think about web-comics or self-publishing.
After going through the process of working for a company and doing an entire book for them straight-off, I feel like self-publishing on the web makes a lot more sense for me. It took me two years to finish "Festering Romance," and that was with me being completely devoted to it. I'm not the fastest at producing pages, and, like most people, I need to work a regular day job in order to make money. Right now, I'm working a full-time job in addition to working on my comics, so having full-length books come out in a timely manner would be difficult. It also doesn't help that a lot of publishers seem more focused on doing full-length books without serializing them in some shorter form first. If I go online, I can have content out on a much more regular basis and stay in contact with the viewing public more directly. No one has to wait months or years to see content from me and I can receive feedback from the viewing public much faster.
You're still thinking in terms of a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, done in book size comic pages.
Yeah, with "Studly Pete" I'm definitely focused on keeping the story cohesive within an overall arc with a beginning, middle and end. It's not like "Garfield" or something where strips can come out without any relation to an overall story arc and there's no end in sight. Before I started scripting any pages, I planned out the plot for the entire story. I already have the ending all planned out.
If I do a story, I want it to have an ending and I want the story to work towards that ending. It really frustrates me when I read things that just seem to go on forever and when it finally does end, the plot just flounders out and fizzles into nothing. I feel like a lot of stories suffer from a severe lack of planning. In the end I think it can be a very dissatisfying experience for a reader when they become invested in a story over a long term and it doesn't end up going anywhere.
I am doing the story in comic-size pages, but whether "Studly Pete" gets printed in book form or not depends on if readers are interested in a book. Even if the comic just stays online, I would be happy with that. Just to have the opportunity to complete a story that I'm passionate about while being able to stay in contact with my readership would make me happy.
You mentioned working. Do you make your living as an artist?
No, I have a regular job to pay the bills. After I come home from my day job, it's back to work on my comics. I haven't done that much freelance art. When I was working on "Festering Romance" I worked solely on that until I was done. Now that I've started on "Studly Pete," I've been singularly focused on that in terms of my artistic career.
Do you spend a lot of time working on the script and working out the story in that stage?
Definitely. I feel like the script is the most important part of the process. It lays the groundwork for what goes on each page and how the story is told.
The original idea for "Studly Pete" was based on two standalone strips that I worked on a few years ago. Basically, the strips were about the origin and demise of a super-studly guy who loves attention from women. The original story definitely wasn't operating on any sort of deeper level.
For some reason, I latched on to those first "Studly Pete" strips and wanted to expand the story. But, since there wasn't much to the original material to begin with, the story's been completely redone. It's been a process of continually revising the plot until I felt it started to make sense and developed into something I felt was compelling. Eventually I had that breakthrough where I felt like things were finally working. Once the plot was worked out, I started on the script for Part One. I have a full script for that part ready and I do slight revisions while I'm drawing [the pages]. Each part has slightly different themes, so by the time I get to Part Two, if I change my mind about things, I can still change things. It keeps it interesting for me.
At this stage of the project, have you changed much from your script?
Now that I'm working on that art, I don't usually need to make many major changes to the script. Most major changes are taken care of while in the scripting stage. The biggest changes I make now are in the dialogue. Sometimes I might change a panel layout, but that doesn't really change the basic events.
You're a one woman show. Why do you work with a full script?
If I didn't write a full script, I'd probably forget to add in a lot of important stuff. There's a lot of events that lead through a logical progression, but leave one out and there's a big plot point that goes unexplained. I might understand why certain story events happen in my mind, but don't explain it on the page and it won't get across to the reader. By going from plot to page synopses to doing a full script, I'm able to stay on task.
I would imagine that it also gives you chance to do multiple drafts of the story and work it out before you start drawing it.
That's what I've done. I think right now I'm on a fourth or a fifth draft. I'll probably go over them one more time before I start drawing them, just to do a quick rewrite of certain things.
After "Festering Romance" and crafting a book from start to finish, what did you learn from that experience that's helped you with the new comic?
The entire experience with "Festering Romance" gave me the confidence to know that I can do a story this long, that if I just work hard I can do it.
Before I did "Festering Romance," I didn't have enough experience to have confidence in my abilities or know what my limitations were in respect to making comics. At that point, the longest story I'd done was twenty pages. I had no pre-set gameplan for working on a longer story. Working on the book definitely helped me figure out a process. I was able to experiment and figure out what did and didn't work for me. I figured out how to do things faster. I figured out what materials worked best for me.
You can't really teach or explain the experience of producing a full-length book.
No, it was really something I had to see for myself. Nothing could really replicate that experience. In school, mostly what I learned was how to make comic pages but not how to get it printed or work with a publisher. I had never had to work within the "live area" or "trim" or "bleed" and all that. I had never really worked within that type of editorial process before. I had no idea how a publishing company works. It was an experience drastically different than anything I could have ever predicted, but it was an experience I feel was necessary to my growth as a comic book artist.
As far as working online and how it looks, have you had to make any adjustments to how you've worked in the past?
To help promote "Festering Romance," I put up preview pages of the book on my website. I had to resize and format the pages for the web, but by doing so, I realized that certain things with the pages weren't working with the web format and I really had to tweak them to make them look how I wanted. It made me realize more clearly that you can't always just take something for print, put it on the web and have it look good. All that fine, sharp, tiny detail that goes into print just doesn't show up at a low dpi.
I remember that you made a comment about "Festering Romance," that it didn't scan especially well.
It wasn't that the pages didn't scan very well, it was that the finishing touches done at a high dpi didn't translate well when shrunk down for the web. It was more about how it didn't look that great on the web. A lot of the problems had to do with the screen tones. For "Festering Romance" to work online, I would have to strip all the tones and redo a lot of details because the book was made for print and the inked pages were intended to be toned later. If I took out the tones, there would be a lot of empty spaces that would need to be fixed.
With "Studly Pete," I'm trying not to use tones at all. Right now I'm resolved not to use any. I'm trying to keep it stark and simple and easy to read even at a shrunk size.
Do you want to talk a little about how you're putting together pages for "Studly Pete?"
Usually when I'm working on the script, I'll have some idea in my head about how the scene should look or even how the page should be laid out. Once the script is done, I do very rough thumbnails. I do anywhere from one to ten thumbnails for one page in order to get the page working in a readable and interesting way. I usually like to do at least three thumbnails, but sometimes the first one just ends up working the best.
After I choose which thumbnail I like best, I lay out the panels on the page. Over each panel, I work on multiple layers of tracing paper to make sure the characters, backgrounds, and word bubbles are working together the way I want. Once the tracing paper drawings are arranged properly, I lightbox those drawings into the panel borders. Then I scan the pencils, print out the page in blue-line, and ink it traditionally. On each page I use a combination of brush, nib, and technical pen. I prefer to edit my inks as little as possible in the computer. Most of the word balloon lettering is done digitally with a font I made, but the sound effects and other dramatic text are drawn by hand and inked with everything else.
One big difference working without tones is that I have to spend more time balancing my blacks and whites. It takes more time than when I know I can add a gray later. In the end, it might balance out time-wise though, because toning -- I digitally tone -- is an entirely separate process that takes a good amount of time on its own. But, like I said, putting print quality tones on the web has its own problems, so rather than try to tweak that until it works on the web, I'd rather just work without it. Personally, I prefer a stark black/white, so I'm enjoying the challenge working on the "Studly Pete" pages. I look forward to improving with my black and whites as I do more and more pages.
"Studly Pete," like "Festering Romance," is a story where you're using fantastic elements in an ordinary setting and find a way to say something about these characters and their situations that you couldn't otherwise. Where does your interest in this kind of thing come from?
I feel that when fantasy or science fiction is done well, they use that element of the fantastic to emphasize aspects of real life. I enjoy fantasy and science fiction used as a mirror for real life and how it can help us understand our own lives. One artist I admire greatly for doing this well is Moto Hagio. In her works like "A, A" and "They Were 11," the characters may live in these far out worlds in the distant future, but in the end, they're still discovering themselves in a very human way.
In "Festering Romance," the ghosts are a metaphor for the deep, subconscious issues the characters are dealing with. Having those thoughts materialized as ghosts helps get the characters out of their own heads and dealing with a more external conflict. It emphasizes the situation that's going on in the characters' heads and puts it right in the reader's face. When I decided to use the ghost element in "Festering Romance," that intention was very deliberate. It may be fantasy, but it's not just fantasy for the hell of it.
It also makes these things visual, rather than just an internal conflict.
Exactly. Suddenly the problem has a face. You can see it. You can touch it. It's not just an abstract form.
Also in "Festering Romance," for example, while the ghosts are their personal issues, they're more than just a metaphor for their issues.
Another good thing about having the ghosts was that each ghost had its own character. They have their own personalities. They have their own opinions about the situation and are able to freely contradict their corresponding human characters. Suddenly, these subconscious problems have a voice and a will.
So what, in your mind, makes "The Rise and Fall of Studly Pete" such a big story, and is it intimidating working on something this big?
I am very intimidated by the longer format. I usually like things to be shorter, I prefer things to be compact and simple. I'm still trying to keep things as compact and simple as possible with "Studly Pete," but with the amount of material I have to cover to reach that final scene, it's just necessary for it to be a longer story. I feel like it's what the story requires so I'm taking the leap and doing it.
What I'm worried about the most with the longer format is keeping it interesting for myself. That's why I've only written the full script for the first part of the story. By the time I get to the second part and then the third part, I'm sure I'll have a lot of different ideas, so I'll be more free to write them in a way that appeals to me at the time. I like structure, but at the same time I need enough flexibility so I'm not trapped in the confines of a completely rigid plot.
I would imagine that in serializing the book online like you're doing, it's important to keep the story interesting as much for you as for the reader.
I think if I lose interest, it will come through in the pages. Right now, I've managed to stay excited about "Studly Pete" and I'm excited to see how it all plays out. There's still a lot of fun things to draw, and even though I have a script written, I'm not afraid to change things if I feel like it would be more interesting or fun in a different way.
After this long, you must be excited to show people.
Definitely! I'm very interested to see if this thing that's been playing out in my head is of interest to other people. That's something I really like about the internet. It's simple to expose your work to a large audience and you can get instant feedback. You can quickly find out how many people are looking, what they're looking at, what they're interested in and adjust your content and delivery to accommodate that.
Final question, what's your pitch for the comic? Why should people check it out?
I can say with some confidence that it won't be what people are expecting. It will surprise readers, in a good way. The characters are all very distinct and form an ensemble cast, so each one will have their time in the sun. There's a lot of fun, crazy adventures, character hijinks, and unexpected fantasy elements. I especially think fans of table-top RPGs and fantasy fiction will enjoy where the story's heading. And the story actually has a planned ending, so readers can take some solace in that!