A most illustrative Q&A with Emma T. Capps

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Being a lifelong reader of comic books, it was inevitable I would discover and subsequently enjoy a wide variety of webcomics. Variety is actually one of the key words in play here. There are so many to choose from, along with so much talent on display from the creators.

Like with screenplays, webcomics are great examples of storytelling – just in a different medium. It takes a lot of work to create and maintain a quality webcomic.

I first met Emma Capps a couple of years ago at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco; she was 15 years old and already an accomplished cartoonist. She’s experienced a lot since then, both professionally and personally, and despite some tough setbacks, still maintains an incredibly positive and upbeat attitude.

“Emma T. Capps started her first webcomic at age 14, and has exhibited her work all over the country and done special installments for publications like Dark Horse Presents. She also teaches cartooning workshops at 826 Valencia in San Francisco, and has more than doubled the percentage of female students in her classes! In her spare time, she likes chatting in Spanish, learning new crafts, and being politically active through volunteer work. Most of all, she really hates talking about herself in the third person.”

What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

Hmm, this is honestly a bit of a tough one to answer because I am constantly reading. I just finished George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which to my mind deserves all the accolades it’s recently gotten. (Michiko Kakutani, recently departed bastion of the New York Times book review, never steers me astray). Bardo is a bit of a tricky book to classify, as it skillfully combines various genres in a way that makes it difficult to define. I cried much more than I expected for a book where the premise is that all the characters are dead.

I think what I recently had the most fun reading was Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char, a novel that to me has flown quite undeservedly under the radar. It’s a really fresh voice in fantasy that begs multiple readings just because it is so skillfully plotted and imagined. There are scenes of violence and horror – many – but I’ve still been recommending it all around and it’s become one of my favorite books. It begs a sequel, or a companion novel set within the same universe, but as of yet Hawkins hasn’t expressed his immediate plans to write one (Library is his, remarkably, his debut).

In terms of things I’ve watched, I don’t watch a large amount of TV – mostly period dramas, like Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife and pretty much everything on Masterpiece Classic – but a movie that has one of the most excellent scripts, to me, is Tarsem’s The Fall. This might be a little bit of a cop-out because there were definitely unscripted scenes between the young actress and Lee Pace, but the entire conceit of the movie is amazing – and the costumes by Eiko Ishioka are understandably incredible. It’s a historical movie, sure, but at its core it’s a movie about the power of stories and how they bind us all together.

How’d you get into creating your own comics?

This is also unfortunately a slightly strange answer. It’s not so cut-and-dry! I always knew I loved writing and drawing, and I had several short stories I published in Stone Soup Magazine along with illustrations I did. But I never really synthesized the two, mostly because I considered my writing to be better developed than my art skills were at that point. But I took a short art course, and I realized I actually could capture my ideas visually just as I had imagined them.

In Fall 2010, I drew a short autobiographical comic called Jam Days and submitted it to a competition – and, somehow, managed to work that into my final “recital” project for 8th grade. But I finished Jam far before the overall project’s deadline! So, I re-discovered Chapel, a character I had created a while ago and had turned into a line of greeting cards I made for my parents. I’ve always had a fascination with newspaper dailies, which are sadly dying out, and I thought it would be a great challenge to try and re-create that sort of schedule.

So I set out to draw one Chapel comic every single day for 30 days. I put them online in installments – that’s what became “Season One” of The Chapel Chronicles – and by the time I’d finished posting them, I realized they had really struck a chord. People were commenting! People I didn’t even know in real life! So why not continue? I lightened my load a little bit, though, to one comic per week instead of per day. I kept to that schedule throughout all four years of high school (including summer break!)

What are some of your favorite comics and webcomics?

My favorite comics hew much more to the print side than the webcomic side, although some of them were definitely webcomics that later become print collections! My favorite print volumes are Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, Kerascoet’s Beautiful Darkness, DeForge’s Ant Colony, Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy (previously serialized online, but I strongly recommend the printed version). In terms of series, I really enjoy Oda’s One Piece – I use it as an example of differing panel structures in the comics classes I teach. In a parallel universe where I actually have my life together, I’d also keep up regularly with Witchy, Paranatural, Saint for Rent, and Hark! A Vagrant. I’m 99.99999% sure there are more that I’m forgetting to list.

In our pre-interview, you’d mentioned plotting out the story for your latest project. How did you come up with the idea for it, and how did you develop it?

In contrast to Chapel, this story, The League of Fonts, is much older in terms of its sheer gestation period. I actually had the idea for it before I even started doing Chapel! If I remember correctly, I was having lunch with my grandma and had the idea – but I had no paper, so I went to a stationary store next door and bought a small notebook to jot down my thoughts! I still have the notebook, somewhere.

The structure of the story was far different back then, but the central conceit of the characters and fonts was the same. It has evolved through various iterations and plot changes, though, especially as I learned things that could make certain aspects more realistic and others less so for the purpose of satire. I think my greatest breakthrough was a few years ago, when I realized it was a highly visual story and would be better served as a graphic novel instead of a prose story. So I converted it to a script, and continued work in that format. I have the entire story scripted now, on Scrivener, which for me is the ideal process: that way, when I’m actually drawing, I can put all my attention on the visual aspect knowing that I’ve already got the overall flow of the storyline planned out. If I hadn’t done that writing beforehand, it would be a mess, since it’s a highly detailed plot and relies on continuity to really work.

Going through the archives of The Chapel Chronicles, some of the earlier strips are of the one-and-done format, followed by a gradual transition into longer storylines. Was this intentional or more of a natural progression (i.e. the more you wrote, the more ideas you got)?

As I mentioned previously, I didn’t really have a set “game plan” for how I would start Chapel – and, honestly, I never intended it to become something longer. My first 30-comics-in-30-days was a personal challenge, but I found I enjoyed it much more than I had anticipated. There’s still narrative and continuity in those early comics; some of the board game strips, for example, might not make quite as much sense without context, nor would the storyline of Chapel acquiring her pet hedgehog, Rupert. Once I decided I was going to make more Chapel, I immediately knew there would be longer storylines. My favorite newspaper comics do just that: there are longer storylines, but each can still be enjoyable as a stand-alone strip.

You’re definitely a very creative person. Is being a professional artist/cartoonist the ultimate goal, or just one of many?

I honestly don’t know! YES, being a professional cartoonist is a life dream of mine – but is it the only, ultimate goal? Most likely not.

When it comes to stand-alone visual art, I doubt it. This goes against all accepted artist etiquette, but I almost never sketch. If I do, it’s to plan out aspects of a narrative world I’m creating. I don’t mind that, though! I have little-to-no interest in being solely a visual artist, as I honestly don’t think that’s my strong suit.

When I was younger I wanted to be a novelist, and I still might revisit that – comics, to me, are just a way of telling stories that have a strong visual component and couldn’t be fully expressed with just prose. I read books all the time (to the point where I’ve had to ban myself from reading the New York Times book review, since it’s the equivalent of window-shopping for me) and I feel, often, the narrative/written side of graphic novels is treated as less important than the strength of the artwork. Really, the opposite is true. The most successful contemporary comics don’t, in a strict sense, have technical artistic proficiency. The reason they’re so popular is because the story or writing has something that is engaging. XKCD, for example, pulls no punches: it’s all stick figures, but it’s so wildly popular because it resonates with people through the strength of the writing.

When I was a lot younger, I wanted to be a paleontologist, but now I’m not sure I’d be a very good one. Math and science aren’t really my strong suits – they could be, if I was passionate about them enough to study them on my own – so that likely wouldn’t work out. In my spare time, beyond reading, I like to design and sew/knit my own clothes. But as of yet, I have no intention of ever doing that professionally. That way, nobody can see my lazy seam-work on the interior of the garment! I mostly taught myself, so I don’t do anything the way it’s “supposed” to be done. If it fits, then I’m happy, and I don’t have to go clothes shopping ever again!

You’ve taught cartooning workshops at a non-profit writing center. How did that come about, and what sort of things do you talk about?

Coinciding with my initial work on The Chapel Chronicles, I decided I would bundle up the first “season” into a small book and sell it at my school’s craft/project fair! I also went to a convention (my first one ever!) in New York and exhibited there as well, which was terrifying, exhausting, and exhilarating all at once. I had planned from the beginning to donate all my profits to 826 Valencia, a nonprofit in San Francisco, as one of the teachers who first sparked my interest in creating comics used to teach there. They were a bit surprised at a 14-year-old donating money, I think, and invited me to come teach a comic class myself! I was unimaginably nervous, but I wanted to knock it out of the park, so I prepared worksheets on the process, a detailed time breakdown for the class, and specific PowerPoint presentations on what I’d be trying to teach. I really wanted to show them that I wasn’t doing this just as a lark (or, in any way, a “volunteer experience” to look good on school applications). I was serious!

My first workshop was a disaster: only one student showed up. 826 contacted me to apologize, and asked if I’d like to teach another class. I didn’t, but I said yes regardless. I started to teach regularly, and began theming my workshops so students could have some framework around which to create their ideas. Mostly, I focused on teaching kids various steps of planning a comic, and then some conventional tools that make cartooning easier – but my focus was never about imposing some specific way of doing something, as I’d experienced that in art classes at my school and bristled at it. I would explain to them why we would be doing a certain step, and why I felt it was helpful. I’d then go around to each student individually, and if they had a reason they’d like to do something against the grain, I would encourage them to go for it! I really wanted to let their individual voices shine. I even had a few “repeat offenders” who attended multiple classes and tried to squeak in before registration filled up, as it did often!

I love teaching, and I haven’t gotten to do so in a while due to extenuating circumstances, which leads me to…

You also mentioned having to take a break from writing and drawing due to some health issues. Can you elaborate on that, and how are you feeling these days?

I would be more than happy to discuss it! To be honest, I’m never quite sure how to bring up the details – I’ve essentially disappeared for the greater part of two years, both to focus on my treatment and to figure out a way to broach the subject. I’m always cognizant that the Chapel audience skews younger, and I never want to write something that might scare them. I haven’t updated in quite a while because while I’m on the road to recovery, it’s never 100% guaranteed, and I feel that proclaiming “I’m cured!” would be jinxing it.

Essentially, I went to college in New York City in Fall 2015. Less than a week in, I caught a cold from my roommate and I didn’t get better. I missed several days of class, spent most days sleeping, and barely had enough energy to get something to eat. I went to go spend the afternoon with a family friend, and I was so tired she booked me an emergency appointment with her son’s pediatrician. He sent me in for tests at the hospital, and I woke up in the ICU around three weeks later.

At the time, I had a diagnosis of generic pulmonary failure – but it wasn’t correct. In order to breathe, they’d given me a tracheostomy. I’d also been tube-fed, so I had lost so much weight that at first I couldn’t walk at all. Initially, I wasn’t very upset, most likely due to the massive medications I was on that kept me fairly sedated at all times. But I learned I had to go back home to San Francisco and that made me devastated. At home, I started seeing a pulmonologist, got steroid prescriptions, and was allowed to let my trach hole close up. I worked really hard! I still never really had a cut-and-dry diagnosis, but I was on strong daily medications and they seemed to be working. So in fall 2016, I went back to school in New York again.

This time, I lasted longer. I stayed for about a month or so. But things started to fracture: I got three colds; I wasn’t thinking clearly; I couldn’t do school assignments that, rationally, I knew were easy. Eventually I decided I needed to come home. I felt it was my fault, like I wasn’t trying hard enough.

One day, I got a severe headache and vomiting. We went to the emergency room, and they quickly took me in an ambulance to UCSF Hospital. I had severe inflammation in my brain, to the point the doctors were shocked I was even walking. I got discharged around…Christmas, I think? But a few weeks later, the entire left side of my body began to feel numb and tingly, so we went to the hospital as a precaution. They diagnosed me with some sort of brain condition, and put me on a treatment of regular IV drips. But that, too, was incorrect.

One doctor thought: “You know, this isn’t adding up.” So she surveyed my entire case and realized the inflammation in my lungs was the same thing now clouding my brain. On a hunch, she did a simple blood test and discovered I have an extraordinarily rare genetic disorder: hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), which more often than not goes undiagnosed because it’s so uncommon and has a high mortality rate. For this, there is only one treatment: chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. So that’s what I had, and I’m on the road to recovery now! I wouldn’t say I feel 100% back to normal, but at least my brain is working well enough now that I can read novels again and process the information.

Anyway, it’s not a very nice story to tell, which is why I haven’t really told it in any Chapel-specific circles. But if anything can come out of my discussing it, I’d hope that it would raise awareness so more doctors might think to test for HLH and other rare hematologic disorders. Many doctors have never seen a case of it in their entire careers!

What’s next for Emma T. Capps?

A functional immune system.

How can people find out more about your work?

They can read the entirety of The Chapel Chronicles online at www.chapelchronicles.com! It’s all there, except for some work I’ve done for Dark Horse Presents, as I don’t own the copyright to those. And the latest for League of Fonts is up on www.leagueoffonts.com – although that’s on indefinite hiatus due to the aforementioned health issues, which I feel horrifically guilty about. Beyond that, I have a Facebook page for The Chapel Chronicles, and I’m on Twitter –  @EmmaTCapps. On Facebook I’ve been largely inactive, as I know some younger kids do follow me there, and I’ve yet to think of a PG-rated way of describing brain surgery. I update my Twitter account slightly more frequently. Previously, I posted solely about my artwork, but lately it’s been about my health, books, and taking nice baths (verdict: acceptable for all ages. Don’t ever feel like you’re too old for a bubble bath. Trust me).

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

That’s a tough one, because there are two things I am excellent at baking: pie and chocolate cake, in that order. I haven’t specified the pie flavor because I have a good crust recipe and I can usually make them come out equally well. I will say I’m not a big fan of pumpkin pie, so I’d have to say my favorites are probably in the berry territory (berritory?) – I just made a blackberry one, in a desperate culinary plea to woo my new neighbors’ affections, so right now that’s where I’m leaning. My mom prefers peach, though, so I make those more frequently. Yikes, now I’m hungry…!

*Author’s suggestion – Emma’s books would make for some great and pleasantly original gifts, holidays or otherwise, for any young readers on your list. Just click here.

Setting out in a new direction

hikers
Aha! Just the path we’ve been seeking!

As part of the overhaul of the comedy spec outline, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to make this draft significantly different from previous ones.

I’d managed to work my way through one of the subplots, and was now focusing on another one. But something felt very…off about it. It felt too preditable, in a tropey, tired cliche kind of way.

So of course, it had to be changed. But to what? That required a little more thought.

I tinkered around with a few ideas. Since this IS a comedy, what would be funny? That inspired some new trains of thought, with ongoing emphasis on “different”, “unique” and “original”. Finally, totally out of left field, one popped and stuck.

Boy, did it.

The more I thought about it and considered the possibilities, along with determining if it fit into the subplot and the overall storyline, the more it seemed to work. I honestly couldn’t recall seeing this idea in a script before.

Okay. This new idea creates a new objective for the storyline, so now it’s all about the “how things develop/how we get there”, PLUS figuring out how to present it in a way that’s original, unique, and funny.

Some more tinkering occurred, and it was all slowly coming together. There’s still some more work to do on this part and the rest of the script, and that’s totally cool.

The finished product will be significantly different from what it was before, and that’s really what this overhaul is all about.

Sometimes it can be tough for me to discard ideas and elements from previous drafts, but have found that totally wiping the slate clean and starting anew, or at least really pushing myself to come up with new ideas, is paying off much, much more than anticipated.

-Can’t let today go without acknowledging the ongoing and unwavering support I’ve received from the woman I’ve been extremely fortunate to be married to for the past 23 years as of this Sunday.

Writers – never, ever underestimate the importance of a partner who’s there for you through good times and bad. They are one of, if not your most valuable resource, and make sure they know how much you appreciate them.

Happy anniversary to my wonderful K. Love ya, baby.

Words properly arranged

typist
Behind that disarming smile lurks the constantly-devising mind of a creative genius

Jumping back to focus on the pulp adventure spec, along with a return of that certain ZING! one gets when quite psyched about a story. Yep, still going strong.

Gotta say, this whole “break down each scene to its individual elements” thing is really working out nicely. It’s tremendously easier to have a line-by-line description of what happens rather than trying to figure it all out on the fly.

The most recent wrinkle has been manipulating the events that lead up to and just after the midpoint of the story. I originally had the antagonist explaining their sinister plan, but seeing as how it sounded a lot better in the outline than it does on the page, there’s been some extensive editing, rewriting, cutting and pasting going on over the past couple of days.

And this was just for a couple of pages’ worth of material.

Among the pleasant surprises:

-discovering that a line or action in one scene could easily be relocated, thereby making the new scene that much stronger. All the elements were in place; it was just a matter of finding the right order in which to put them.

-being reminded of the concept of “less is more”. Some scenes as originally written turned out to be simply overly complicated – just too much going on. By eliminating everything EXCEPT what’s necessary in that scene naturally tightens things up, but also really moves things along and gets the point across that much faster.

-figuring out a way to present details of the plot without being so blatantly obvious about it. Implying seems to be much more effective.

It took a while, but the changes that have been made have proven to be most satisfying. No doubt there will be more of this sort of thing in future drafts, but for now it works.

Start with similar, venture into different

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With one you can play it safe, while the other offers up more of a challenge

In the handful of times I’ve helped out as co-writer or script polisher on somebody else’s project, there have been variations on the following conversation:

ME: And then THIS happens!

THEM: Oh, we can’t do that. ACTUAL MOVIE did the same thing.

ME: Not exactly. ACTUAL MOVIE did THIS, and what I’m suggesting is maybe at the very foundation the same concept, but if we did it THIS WAY so THIS HAPPENS, it would be entirely different.

THEM: But won’t people think we’re just ripping off ACTUAL MOVIE?

ME: First of all, ACTUAL MOVIE has been out for a while, and you’re at least a year away from having this thing done, so I highly doubt the first thing anyone’s going to think is we’re ripping off ACTUAL MOVIE. Second, this is exactly why I think THIS is how it should happen. True, both use the basic concept, but we’re putting our own spin on it so it doesn’t resemble ACTUAL MOVIE at all. They’re similar, if you could even call it that, but still different.

THEM: (thinks it over). Well, okay. We’ll give it a try.

And…scene.

I’ve read about this in articles and seen it firsthand while reading scripts, both times usually associated with newer writers. Somebody really likes how something happens in a film or a script, so then they go and have the EXACT SAME THING happen in theirs. I get that you liked that original, but why, oh why would you want to use it practically verbatim in yours?

Doing the screenwriting equivalent of a “copy, cut, and paste” will do you no good because it’ll be painfully obvious that’s what you did. You’re trying to tell an original story, and THIS is what you do?

If anything, people will definitely think you ripped off that original thing and berate you for your total lack of originality. Was that your goal? Probably not.

Time to get analytical. What was it about that particular something that really got to you? Why do you feel the need to have the same thing happen in your script? That’s the angle from which to approach it.

But this is also where the challenge begins. Once you identify that core detail, it’s up to you, the writer, to figure out a new way to use it in such a way that not only does it serve the purpose you need, but also pays homage to what inspired it in the first place.

You know where things are going, or at least where you want them to go, but now you need to tweak how they get there. Work those muscles of creativeness! Try something new! Don’t hesitate to jump off the beaten path into new territory! If anything, you might come up with an entirely new idea that accomplishes exactly what you needed, but just a totally different way.

Sure, there’s a very slight chance it could potentially remind somebody of ACTUAL MOVIE, but they’ll definitely remember that it came from yours.

Now it gets really interesting

desert
First few steps are always the toughest. Good thing I came prepared.

Let’s pause now for your humble blogger-in-residence to proudly proclaim that Act One of the first draft of the pulpy adventure spec is complete.

Whoopee.

But you know what that also means.

Yep. Time to buckle down even more, strap myself in, and jump feet-first into the intimidating arena commonly known as Act Two.

I’ll also admit it’s a little thrilling, too. There was a particular charge in working out the action sequences and story set-ups in Act One, so I’ve a strong suspicion the continuing build-ups for the former and the gradual development of the latter will be equally, if not more so, fun to write.

(and believe me when I say this is the kind of story that automatically requires a sense of fun)

Maybe it’s from continuously trying to improve as I go, but working on Act Two doesn’t seem as intimidating as it used to. Not to say that it comes easily; just slightly less insurmountable. I spent a lot of time on the outline, so confidence in that is pretty solid.

I read a lot about how a spec script might have a phenomenal Act One, but then things fall apart in Act Two for a myriad of possible reasons: the characters don’t do much/nothing really happens, or the overall story’s too thin, so a lot of Act Two is empty filler, and so on.

The only writing process I know is my own, and I always strive to make sure the story feels…complete? Full? It comes down to “I know what has to happen to tell this story,”, and while the first act is all about setting it all up, the second act is about fleshing everything out.

We get a closer look at the characters and how they’re progressing through the events of the story. We can see how they’re changing from when they were first introduced. Plot threads of all sizes get further developed. The central question is continuously asked (oh-so-subtly, of course).

It also involves steadily-mounting complications for your protagonist. They’ve got a goal, and it’s our job to throw all kinds of obstacles in their way that just keep making it harder for them to reach it. Again, a lot of it happens during our second act.

Act Two really is where the meat of the story takes place, so stuff needs to happen that not only holds our interest, but makes us want/need to know what happens next, and even that better be that much more intriguing.

 

As you’d expect, our work is cut out for us.

So off I go. Dispatches from this formidable excursion as they develop.

See you on the other side.