Interview: Emily Horne and Joey Comeau on ‘A Softer World’
I’ve been reading A Softer World off and on for the last three years, but I have a good reason for my my irregular visits to Joey Comeau and Emily Horne’s photo-based webcomic.
The fact is, it’s hard to predict what emotion I’m going to feel when I take the plunge into a new iteration of ASW and its text-over-photograph, three-panel world. With other comics, I can usually anticipate the laugh or, in some cases, the snark-fueled sense of satisfaction the latest strip is likely to provide. Heck, with most strips I can at least anticipate learning the next plot point in an ongoing storyline.
ASW, however, is always a gamble.
One strip can prompt hysterical laughter, while the next can only make you shiver and and wonder what the unholy hell was going on in its creators’ minds when that strip was conceived. ASW can explore complex social issues one moment and the depth of depravity in the next.
The point is, I like having at least an inkling of what I’m jumping into before my feet leave the ground — so that’s why A Softer World has always been one of the more irregularly visited comics on my reading list. But I’m not too dense to realize that therein lies its appeal.
In fact, it was one of the more recent, controversial episodes of ASW, sent to me by a friend who is far more willing to suffer the emotional highs and lows of this tremendously creative series, that prompted me to roll the dice and become a regular reader once again — and to contact its creators about this interview.
COMICMIX: With most comics, script usually comes first and art later, but you go at it in reverse with A Softer World. Can you tell me a bit about the creative process for ASW? How does a strip typically come together for you?
EMILY HORNE: When we were both in Halifax, we used to be able to be much more collaborative about it. ASW started with us taking a typewriter and a stack of photos to the all-night copy shop and making a mess of comics all at once. Now that we live on opposite sides of the continent, it’s a bit more difficult. I usually make up three or four comics at a time and upload them for Joey to look at. He comes up with text for them as inspiration (and our 3x a week posting schedule) demands. If we are both online before it goes up, we’ll edit together.
JOEY COMEAU: Also, it’s worth noting that we try to keep the relationship between the images and text interesting and not always a literal illustration. Often times, the picture just feels like it goes with the text, even though they both seem to involve different things. Or, it’s also fun to have a conflict between the two. Very serious people making very serious faces, and ridiculous text.
CMix: You’ve been doing ASW for quite a few years now, so I’m sure you’ve started to get in tune with the way your counterpart’s mind works. Do you try to surprise each other with photos or text, or do you find yourself taking photos with a mind towards what you think Joey will write, Emily?
EH: I sometimes will take photos with the intention of making them into comics, but sometimes the appropriate photo will just appear out of a roll I’ve taken randomly. At this point, because we’ve been at it so long, I think I have the comic and the types of stories Joey likes to tell in the back of my mind every time I bring the camera to my eye.
CMix: I can’t even count how many people sent me a link to your recent Grand Theft Auto 4 strip. Joey, can you explain a little about your thoughts on this strip? Emily, since I can’t imagine you expected this text for these photos (or maybe you did), what were your thoughts when you saw how Joey interpreted the photos?
EH: This was one of the few comics where the words came first, actually! Originally Joey had written it for a photo I’d made into a comic earlier, but I thought it didn’t fit with the text, so I went through my photos to find on with the right sense of vague menace without being too literal.
JC: That strip got a lot of responses, but it was probably most interesting watching the discussions that happened between other people. Because they argued about it, and they talked it through. Some of the emails we got were just gut reactions, and there’s not a lot you can take from that. With a comic like this one, you always run the risk of someone just reading it through too quickly, and having it push one of their buttons, and then they’re angry. When they talk it through, they often admit that they know the character speaking isn’t the writer, it’s a character, but they’re already angry, you know?
So somebody says, "Oh this comic isn’t terrible because that kid is ‘looking for blacks.’ It’s terrible because it implies that violent racism is worse than violence against hookers. A Softer World is sexist. Not the narrator of this particular strip, but A Softer World as a whole. [Joey] and Emily." Never mind that we’ve done other comics dealing with gender in interesting ways and comics featuring strong female characters. They’ve found a way to interpret this comic as sexist, and all you have to do is ignore all the rest of the work and yeah, oh my god, doesn’t it just make you sick?
This happened with my novel, Lockpick Pornography, too. A lot of people read that first chapter online, and thought, "Man, Joey Comeau hates straight people." They sent me angry letters, but I’m not that main character. And when you look at the book, his ideas and his really dead-set way of thinking about things don’t work out so well for him. He starts off very angry and certain of who is to blame, and by the end of the book, he’s confused and sort of stumbling to find footing when all his certainties have been taken away. In a comic like ours, there’s another problem too, and that’s the form.
Not a lot of people read comics because they want to have to deal with this crap. Sometimes ASW is really harsh and not trying to be funny, but just trying to hit some other intense emotion. A lot of people read us for just that reason, and I think it’s an important part of what the comic means to us, but some people come to us through our funnier strips, and they’re sort of taken off guard when they come across something like this. Someone goes online to read some jokes at the end of the day, and there’s this comic about someone’s kid "looking for blacks" in a violent video game. You can understand why they don’t try and figure out where the comic is coming from, they just go, "Fuck these dudes."
CMix: Emily, can you tell me a bit about how you choose which photos are destined for ASW and which ones end up in "i blame the sea?" Also, I’d love to hear about your thoughts and technical process when deciding what images to photograph for ASW. Do you set up the shots? Do you do much editing to the images before they end up on ASW?
EH: One of the things I always think about when choosing photos for ASW is a suggestion of a story. That can be an expression on a face, or a tension between two people, or an evocative arrangement of objects. With "i blame the sea" I’m freed from that. I’ve found that this usually results in me picking photos for "ibts" that don’t include people.
I very rarely set up the shots I use for either of the comic or the photo diary. I very much prefer to catch people unawares. In an ideal world, I’d like to invisibly photograph, as the very presence of a camera often alters people’s behaviour. Editing depends on the photo and the layout. I feel like the look of ASW has been determined fairly definitively by the slightly grainy softness delivered by my usual camera, my elderly Pentax Spotmatic. I do sometimes use digital shots, but they often require more work to fit the aesthetic.
CMix: While print comics tend to be cooperative, the webcomic scene tends to be largely solo projects. You two have made the team approach really work well, though. What are the keys to working with a partner on creative projects like this, in your opinions?
EH: I’ve often been surprised that people seem to not understand that we split up the work on this comic. Because, as you say, isn’t that what we expect of the big-name print comic world? I guess the auteur-model is often more attractive for people, but I’ve always been a huge fan of collaboration. I’d just dig myself into a creative hole if I didn’t have a framework to work within and other people to play around with ideas. I feel like, given our experience at least, the web is a perfect medium for collaboration!
JC: Yeah, collaboration is good, too, because we keep one another from getting into a rut. This mostly takes the form of reigning the other person in, or pointing out habits or trends in our counterpart’s work! Like, too many pictures of dudes with ugly facial hair, Emily! Or, man, ANOTHER dead mom comic, Joey?
CMix: Do you have any favorite ASW strips?
EH: It’s always really difficult to choose favourites! Some of mine are: 11 (no, higher), 68 (SWF), 79 (bittersweet victory), 128 (primo levi), 253 (hell is SO a party) 273 (RUN) and 288 (fridge stalker). I love the interesting and unexpected combinations of text and photograph.
JC: Lately I’ve been writing horror short stories, so the ones I have been thinking about are the more horrific ones. Not the joking zombie strips, like the bird chirping "braaaains" but the ones like, 236 (What part do I get?) and the idea comics, like 194 (GODLESS WESTERN PRESIDENT).
CMix: What about strips that have stuck out for other reasons, whether for being controversial, causing you headaches for other reasons (i.e., models in the photos disliking the text, possibly) or positive reasons (something you received a really heartwarming response to, possibly)?
EH: I am eternally grateful to all of the people who (knowingly or sometimes unknowingly!) appear in the comics. When Joey writes text, he is using the people who appear as blank slates for his characters. Because of the topics we cover, sometimes it can look like some pretty horrifying sentiments coming from these people. Because I depend on my lovely friends to put up with having their photos taken, if someone has a problem with something I’m happy to change it.
CMix: What’s next for ASW and both of you? What else are you working on these days? On that note, what were you working on before you stopped to answer these questions?
EH: I am actually taking a break from my day job to answer questions! I work at a Maritime Museum, teaching people about hardtack and battleships, etc. Comics-wise, Joey and I are tossing around ideas for a long-form ASW story, destined possibly for print. We’d also love to put out another print collection of the comics that have appeared on the site, plus extras, of course.
JC: Yeah, there’s definitely going to be another print collection. What else? I have a novel coming out in spring 2009 from ECW press here in Toronto. It’s based on the Overqualified letters, and built around them. I think it is an excellent book, and I am sure to win the Nobel Prize.
A Softer World is updated three times a week at www.asofterworld.com. You can also visit the ASW store to purchase the first volume of collected ASW strips, as well as shirts, books and other ASW "stuff."
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!