Thursday, April 11, 2019

Meet a Local Comics Writer: A Chat with Emily Whitten

by Mike Rhode

Emily Whitten is a long-time comics journalist who's just made the jump to writing comics herself. Her new book, The Underfoot, co-written with Ben Fisher and drawn by Michelle Nguyen came out yesterday in comic book stores and will be for sale more widely in two weeks. Emily answered our usual questions, with a few additional ones specific to her new book.

What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

 I am co-creator and co-writer of The Underfoot, a new original graphic novel series about intelligent hamsters surviving in a post-apocalyptic world full of danger and mysteries, but also friendships and fun. The series is published by Lion Forge Comics, and Book 1, The Underfoot: The Mighty Deep, is out April 10 in comics shops, and comes out from Amazon and all other sellers on April 23. The Underfoot: The Mighty Deep focuses on the Hamster Aquatic Mercenaries (H.A.M.) and their quest to aid their badger allies in saving their homes. (More on that below!)

I've also written several parody/commentary webcomics for the likes of and – "Deadpool Presents the Oscars" was particularly fun to write. (Fun facts: I wrote an entire column advocating for Ryan Reynolds to play Deadpool over on Reelz way back in 2010, and had Deadpool taking out Green Lantern with a headshot in a webcomic in 2011. You're welcome, Deadpool 1 & 2 movies.)

In addition, I'm a genre entertainment journalist, and regularly cover comics and genre-related news and convention panels, as well as interviewing other creators and moderating convention panels, which I really enjoy. My journalistic work is featured on, Movers & Shakers Unlimited, The Fantastic Forum radio show, The CCC Podcast, The Great Geek Refuge, and the Made of Fail podcast.

How do you do it? As you're a writer, do you do a full script? Longhand, computer, or some combination?

Primarily on the computer and phone. I adore track changes in Word,particularly for collaborating; and the phone is great both for drafting script bits during my commutes, and for the many, many
messages that my Underfoot co-creators and I send back and forth. For both The Underfoot and my webcomics, the format is a full script. For The Underfoot, we tend to get very specific in some descriptions, as that comic is grounded in real-world science, nature, and location references, and those details matter. But even with detailed scripts, I do love seeing what new twists artists bring to the process, and the artists I've worked with consistently surprise and delight me with their creativity and talent. They make anything I can imagine look even better.

How did the three of you begin working together?

The short version is that I had a Twitter account where I was tweeting as my hamster Izzy, and at that time I reviewed a miniseries comic of  Ben Fisher's called Splitsville, which I really enjoyed. Ben found my hamster account and started writing back to Izzy as another hamster. Eventually we had some actual human being conversations as well (haha) and realized we should really write a book about all the ideas we were having about hamsters, adventures, and weird science. At the time when we needed to find an artist, Ben suggested Michelle Nguyen, who he'd worked with on the Grumpy Cat and Pokey comics. Her art works really well with our book, and thus, the creative team solidified.

Shout-outs also to Thom Zahler, who's an established comics creator in his own right and also is our letterer for the book. Michelle's partner Adrian Ricker assisted with the color flatting process, and illustrator Eric Orchard created our world and burrow maps. It's a great team, and made better as well by the editors and team at Lion Forge.

When you were writing it with Ben Fisher, how did the process work?

Ben and I bounce a lot of ideas off of each other. We then do rough story and character arcs, tighter detailed outlines, and full scripts. There are several stages of editing after that to get the scripts just right. There's a lot of text, call, and email traffic involved.

And then what did you give Michelle Nguyen to work from? A full script?

Michelle gets a full script, and we try also provide resource and photo references for anything very specific we are asking of her. Of course, some of the things we ask for have no known references, so I know that's part of Michelle's adventure in illustrating The Underfoot.

How did you decide to move from writing about comics to making them?

I like to write, period, and I like writing about creators and creative properties I enjoy or admire. I like that so much that I'm still trying to make time for it amidst the launch of The Underfoot.
But I've also written creatively for much of my life, in poetry, short fiction, and webcomics, so that creative process isn't new to me. Regarding a long-form larger comics work, I hadn't quite hit on an
idea that drove me to complete it at a particular point before The Underfoot. It can also be daunting to create such a vast world and set of works as we are crafting with The Underfoot, especially on your own. But working with Ben makes it super fun, and that's honestly what caused the jump – having a creative partner who feeds on my excitement about the ideas and gives me that excitement right back. Adding Michelle to the mix just made it even better. I am very fortunate to have found these collaborative teammates to work with.

I see you set the book in DC. Why did you use DC? Are you the only DC-area person on the team?

I'm the only D.C. local, and a lot of the local details come from what interests me about this city. D.C. is perfect for the origin story we are telling about the hamsters, and my experience living in this government town for sixteen years provides me with some strange local references to draw on. There were discussions early on about where to set the book – but after we had a few ideas that would only  work in this area, it just evolved into the setting it has now. That's not to say we may not explore other locations in the future, of course.

This is book 1 - how many books are planned?

We are working with Lion Forge on a trilogy, and Book 2 is already in the works. We have enough story ideas for several more books after that, though, so we hope people support and enjoy the first books of The Underfoot series enough that we can keep on making them!

Ok, back to your biography, when (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

I'm a child of the '80s, born right here in Washington, D.C.

Why are you in the Washington area now?

I went to law school at The George Washington University, and have been working as an attorney in the area ever since.

What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

I have no formal training in cartooning, but a heck of a lot of training and practice in writing. I've been writing (and reading, voraciously) ever since I can remember. I believe that all education, training, and life experience, even if it's in other areas, can add to a creator's work. Experiences like being Co-Editor-in-Chief of the high school literary magazine, in which my poetry and short fiction as also published; completing a degree in journalism but also taking a creative writing class simply because I had the opportunity to (thank you, broad and flexible curriculum of Indiana University Bloomington); and being trained as a legal writer and taking a few of the odder and more fun class offerings in my third year (Law and Literature was well worth it) gave me a flexibility with and understanding of different styles of writing that I really value. Over the years my blogging, parody Deadpool writing, journalistic work, legal writing, and other types of creative work have all been training.

When it came to writing scripts, I started doing it, as I start doing much of the work I most value, for the fun of it. It's a joy to me that others then wanted to publish what I wrote or collaborated on. I continue to learn and get my training on the job – which is another common thread in my life's work. I'm very much a person who values education but loves learning by trying, experimenting, and doing.

Who are your influences?

In the comics realm, early influences include Superman, the X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Batman. In law school I got seriously deep into Deadpool, and overall these days I'm a big Marvel fan, but will never give up my Superman love, and also have a big squishy soft spot for Harley Quinn. V for Vendetta is an excellent book, Maus is heartbreaking, Spy vs. Spy makes me inexplicably happy, and Calvin & Hobbes makes me happy in ways I wholly understand. Hark! A Vagrant makes me smile and learn, Heart & Brain is so very me, Sarah's Scribbles I'm guessing we can all identify with now and again, Catana Comics is adorable, and I've just recently discovered the endearing Strange Planet. Wait – I think I have digressed into simply, "What comics do you like to read?" Sorry!

Actually, I can never tell what's going to influence me, so let's just keep rolling on things I like to read. In prose literature, I treasure classics. Favorites include A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, As I Lay Dying, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet and Macbeth, Heart of Darkness, Catch-22, To Kill a Mockingbird, Candide, Things Fall Apart, The Little Prince, Cold Sassy Tree, The Color Purple, and the Austins and the Brontes. I'm a big sci-fi and fantasy fan – Terry Pratchett is notoriously one of my diehard favorites, and also Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Philip K. Dick, Diana Wynn Jones, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, Richard Adams, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen R. Lawhead, Mary Stewart, Peter S. Beagle, Jim Butcher, Elizabeth Moon, C.S. Lewis, Douglas Adams, and Kurt Vonnegut. I'm a big Sherlockian nerd and a reader of Arthurian and Welsh legends; and the People series of books by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear are fascinating re-imaginings of Native American life. Favorite poets include T.S. Eliot, Maya Angelou, Henrik Ibsen, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, e e cummings, John Donne, Lewis Carroll, and William Carlos Williams; and in political science we should all read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and marvel at his predictive abilities.

I know as soon as this interview is published I will remember a million more creative works I have loved. I send my gratitude out to all of them for making me who I am today. I hope to meet many new creative works as I continue my life. They will undoubtedly all influence me somehow.

If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

I wouldn't change anything big – but I might go back in time every now and again and remind myself that sometimes even I, a person who always likes to have several projects going at once, can spread my time and energy too thin! …But honestly, I am who I am and past me probably wouldn't listen to future me, anyway.

What work are you best-known for?

Hopefully, The Underfoot soon! I'm currently most known for my genre journalism work.

What work are you most proud of?

I'm definitely most proud of The Underfoot. With Ben Fisher, Michelle Nguyen, and others, we have created a complex world, seven years in the making, of which the 160-page The Mighty Deep is only the beginning. We are constantly developing our larger story, adding new things for readers to discover, and finding out more about our characters. It's a ton of fun and The Mighty Deep came together beautifully with Michelle's expressive art.

What would you like to do or work on in the future?

I have a Superman story in my head that I think would be challenging but amazing to write. I've had a lot of practice unofficially writing Deadpool purely for my own fun and would get a big kick out of trying it for Marvel sometime. I've got another couple of original comic book story ideas waiting in the wings for when time allows. And I've got a couple or so prose novel ideas and short story ideas I'd love to find the time to finish. We'll see what happens next!

What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

I find that creating with my hands gives me a good break from creating with my words, so crafting is nice, and I also like building those Metal Earth models. Also, research. I love learning weird new facts through research.

What do you think will be the future of your field?

Assuming that means comics, people keep trying to predict it and I'm not sure we've quite got it yet. It isn't fully digital, because some of us just like holding books. It isn't just books, because hey, digital is handy. It isn't just motion comics, or webcomic apps… I like to think the future holds a lot of what the past has – experimentation, storytelling in different ways, and stretching the medium when needed to express what you need to.

What local cons do you attend? The Small Press Expo, Awesome Con or others? Any comments about attending them?

I've attended Awesome Con since the beginning, as press, con staff, panelist, and con moderator. It's a great con that grows every year. I like their balance of comics, celebrities, and pop culture, and their emphasis on science content. I've only gotten to go to SPX once, but enjoyed wandering its offerings. And Baltimore Comic Con is the nearest con that remains primarily focused on comics themselves. It's a favorite of mine.

What's your favorite thing about DC?

I just visited the Tidal Basin during peak cherry blossom time, and despite the crowds, it really is beautiful. I love the free museums, the European style of the city, the history, and the great opportunities for enjoying the arts and various types of cuisine and culture.

Least favorite?

The traffic? Probably the traffic.

What monument or museum do you like to take visitors to?

Air and Space, Natural History, and American History are my favorite classic Smithsonian museums – but the American Indian and African American museums are two somewhat more recent additions that I think are also really great. I love Teddy Roosevelt Island and the FDR Memorial; but also just the Mall in general, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the WWII Memorial…I mean, there are so many to see. It's hard not to include them all.

How about a favorite local restaurant?

Shout-outs to Ragtime, Ireland's Four Courts, and Bayou Bakery, in all of which I have written parts of The Underfoot and other things. Wilson Hardware is another favorite. I could probably keep going… There are also a ton of places in D.C., Shirlington, Alexandria, etc. that are great, and always new places to try.

Do you have a website or blog?

I've had several sites and blogs over the years. It's a work in progress, but currently I'm building, and intend to archive or link all of my work on various other sites
there. You can find a fair amount of my journalism at ComicMix here: Lion Forge has a page for The Underfoot:

Here also are other selected pre-launch Underfoot interviews:

SYFY Wire Live Stage (video):

Westfield Comics Blog (interview):

Great Geek Refuge (podcast):

The Comics Culture Cosplay Podcast:

Pop Culture Squad (interview):

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