In 2002, Ted Naifeh introduced readers to Courtney Crumrin, a spirited young outcast finding her way both in a new school and in the perilous world of witchcraft. That first miniseries, "Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things," found the titular heroine removed from her hometown as she and her parents moved in with an ailing uncle -- one who also happens to be one of the world's foremost warlocks. Soon, Courtney is caught up in a world of goblins, creatures, spellcraft, and an elaborate mystical aristocracy. Caught up in such affairs, before long Courtney discovers the good guys don't always win, that responsibilities conflict, and that creepy uncle Aloysius is perhaps not as bad as he seems.
Three more miniseries and several one-shots followed as Courtney developed into a complex heroine, popular with readers if not with her peers. To celebrate Courtney's 10th anniversary in print in 2012, Oni Press will reprint all of the "Courtney Crumrin" titles to date in all-new hardcover volumes, in color for the first time, beginning with "Courtney Crumrin, Volume 1: The Night Things Special Edition" on April 11. That same day, Naifeh will also launch an ongoing "Courtney Crumrin" series with all-new adventures. Comic Book Resources spoke with the cartoonist about his most enduring creation, the color editions, the new series, and his other Oni book "Polly and the Pirates," which releases a new volume this month.
Naifeh said the color editions represent a celebration of 10 years of Courtney Crumrin, but "actually, it wasn't my idea." "[Oni Editor-in-Chief] James Lucas Jones felt that Courtney needed a deluxe edition," Naifeh told CBR News. "I've gotten so used to the series being a pulpy paperback that I'd forgotten my dreams of seeing it in color as a handsome hardcover."
In addition to being in color, the "Courtney Crumrin" special editions will also feature a new design treatment intended to broaden the books' audience. "From the beginning, I thought that a graphic novel need not look like a comic book with a spine. I thought it should just look like a book, and be shelved with other novels in bookstores," Naifeh said. "When books like 'Blankets' or 'Hark! A Vagrant' grow super popular and are temporarily removed from the comic-book ghetto at bookstores, their sales only increase. And they tend to be designed to look like art books, not comic books.
"I feel like the design style of the standard comic, both inside and out, has certain quirks that can be off-putting to non-comics readers," he continued. "I always endeavored to make my artwork easier to access visually. Unfortunately, I don't have much of a design background. I'm pretty good with page design, but my covers tend to just look like comics covers. So finally, I admitted it to myself, and begged Oni house designer Keith Knight to take a crack at re-designing the books from scratch, logo and all. Suddenly, my cheesy little comic looks like an elegant all-ages book. It will still have my art on the covers, just more harmonized with the logo and overall design."
Naifeh writes and draws the "Courtney Crumrin" books himself, but for the special editions Warren Wucinich will be handling the colors; Naifeh's other big project, the second volume of "Polly and the Pirates," also sees Robbi Rodriguez taking over artistic duties from Naifeh. While Naifeh has collaborated with other writers and artists, CBR asked him if there was a different feeling when bringing another artist into something on which he had previously handled himself. "In all honesty, it's really really hard," he said. "As an artist, I spend most of my time perfecting my fantasies inside my head, where I have total control. To then hand them off to a stranger, who inevitably takes them I a completely different direction from mine, is very disorienting. My first reaction is always 'Hey, that's not how I imagined it!' I have to suppress my control issues before I can look at the work and see how good it often is. Robbie brings an elasticity and movement to a story that my work doesn't even approach. And Warren's experiments with atmospheric color are so much more daring and dynamic than I would have dared try. He brings a language of color to the work that enriches the story wonderfully.
"Besides all that, I just don't have time to do everything," Naifeh added. "If I did it all, I'd only have ten or twelve more graphic novels in me. This way, I can spread myself a little further."
As the special editions begin rolling out, Naifeh will launch a new "Courtney Crumrin" ongoing series at Oni, an idea, he said, whose time has come. "Originally, 'Courtney' was done as a series of miniseries because I needed time to do other things. But looking back, I find that the books I'm most proud of, and the books that folks continue to buy regularly, are 'Courtney' and 'Polly,'" Naifeh explained. "It may have mostly to do with Oni's constant promotion, but I feel that, oddly, there's something about those books that continues to resonate with readers. People don't seem to keep buying 'Death Junior,' or the 'Gunwitch,' or even 'Gloomcookie,' as much as 'Courtney.' So I figured that I should take the plunge and devote myself too it, really become a full-time independent creator. Less work for hire. I should dare to rely on my own creations. And Oni has been generous enough to make it financially viable. I think the books have performed well enough for long enough that it seems like a good investment."
Most issues of the "Courtney Crumrin" miniseries to date have been fairly standalone, while still building to a bigger climax at the end of each series, and Naifeh said that accessibility will continue into the ongoing series. "This ain't a boxcar journey, where you have to run to catch up and understand what's going on," the creator said. "I feel a comic should make frequent stops to allow new readers aboard."
Naifeh said the first arc of the new series sees Courtney meet a girl who is "the equal opposite of her, a girl who becomes as adept at magic as she is." "Of course, they become fast friends, but Courtney begins to suspect that this girl isn't as altruistic and responsible about the use of magic as herself. And if you have read any of the series, you'll see the irony of that last statement," Naifeh said. "Basically, to borrow from 'Scott Pilgrim,' it's going to be Courtney vs. Nega-Courtney."
Though Courtney's adventures deal with mystical and supernatural entities, many of the problems she faces are fairly down to earth -- alienation, friends growing apart, parents who don't "get it," a feeling that things are being kept from her, the unfairness of life, and so forth. Naifeh said that this may be a reflection of the way he generates stories. "My writing formula tends to go as follows: choose a simple wish fulfillment, and then explore how that wish fulfillment complicates life rather than making everything easy. I find this formula has endless variations, and tends to resonate endlessly as well," he told CBR. "Wish fulfillment fantasy is sort of a plea with the universe to stop being indifferent and notice you, to give your life meaning. But I find that all these stories, whether they know it or not, are more about everyday problems than fantastical ones. The Spider-Man story doesn't work without Peter Parker dealing with the difficulties of having a girlfriend, going to college, and holding down a job. If it's all giant lizards in lab coats, it becomes meaningless. Even murder mysteries are dual wish-fulfillment fantasies. We dream that the super-powered detective can impose justice on a morally indifferent universe, but we also dream we can murder our way out of our problems. The best murder mysteries reveal how both fantasies lead to the complication of life, rather than the simplification of it.
"With Courtney, I wanted to explore the brutal alienation of the tweens," Naifeh continued. "When I was that age, I thought I was the only one having the worst time ever. But it turns out everyone's junior-high school years are brutal. But that's also when my capacity to fantasize kicked into overdrive. I dreamed of flying, turning invisible, reading minds, being able to change shape at will, living in a post-apocalyptic world full of orcs, elves and dragons, you name it. I now notice that none of these fantasies would have saved me from my problems. They would just have given me new and different problems that would be more interesting."
Before the "Courtney Crumrin" special editions and ongoing series debut, January sees the release of the long-awaited second volume of Naifeh's "Polly and the Pirates," another all-ages series with a strong girl hero in the lead. CBR asked Naifeh what Courtney and Polly each represent to him creatively and what excites him about telling stories in each of their worlds. "Now you're asking me to interpret my own work. I don't mind, but like most creators, my interpretations are no more authoritative than anyone else's. But I'll give it a whirl," he said by way of disclaimer.
"I think 'Courtney' is about the pain of being a kid, and 'Polly' is more about the excitement and terror of facing adulthood," Naifeh said. "Everything Courtney does is probably done in response to pain. She lashes out, reaches out, tries to impose justice or fairness, or revenge, all because she's hurting inside. That sounds like a pretty awful premise for a story, but all I can say is that writing it is deeply cathartic. I like to think that reading it is as well. It doesn't matter that she rarely makes the world into what she wants it to be. Just taking action makes a huge difference.
"I think 'Polly's' about how easy it is to dream of adventure, but how hard it is to drag yourself out of bed and have one," the cartoonist continued. "One of the two principle inspirations was 'The Hobbit.' I always related to Bilbo much more than Frodo, living in his world of comforts, but one day finding them a little empty and getting curious, despite his fears, to see what life on the edge would be like. It's definitely a coming of age story. Of course, Polly has to be dragged out of bed (like me most mornings). But she finds that it's not easy to be the good and proper person you think you are when you sit judging from the comfort of your armchair. But there's something exciting about being tossed into the deep end, but finding that, despite your fears, you're a capable swimmer."
Much like fans of the series, Naifeh is excited to see copies of "Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things Special Edition." "I can't wait to have 'em in my hot little hands," he said. "They're at the printer now. Whoo-hoo!"
The special edition and ongoing "Courtney Crumrin" #1 bow April 11, 2011.