Ted Naifeh is a pretty alternative guy, and that’s the way he likes it—which works out perfectly because his non-mainstream sense makes for some fantastic gothy comic book adventures like GLOOMCOOKIE and the enduring COURTNEY CRUMRIN. He still wouldn’t mind drawing BATMAN one day, though. Read his thoughts on these, as well as digital art, all ages comics, and his upcoming princess-story-satire PRINCESS UGG, in our interview conducted just before his monster-making panel at Comic-Con.
Famous Monsters. I know you’ve been with Oni Press for a long time, but when I was in high school and college, I got into all of your Slave Labor Graphics series. I wasn’t even into comics as a whole, but I was reading GLOOMCOOKIE and HOW LOATHSOME and titles like that rather obsessively. Would you say that your stories are aimed to reach outside the scope of the typical comic book fan?
Ted Naifeh. Very much so, yes. The thing about this industry is that it’s based around a medium that is incredibly flexible, but people don’t do nearly as much with it as they could. I saw these massive gaps in the market. What happens is that you end up shunted over to this “alternative” world, but then people who would never buy comics, because they think of comics as something for superheroes and kids and overgrown man-children like myself, discover this alternative form that has a special caché because of its unexpected content. It has an underground quality. Everybody loves an underdog. Independent comic books are naturally an underdog.
FM. Seeing as your history is so steeped in independence, would you ever consider doing anything mainstream? Or are you just an alternative person?
TN. I don’t mean to be an alternative person. It’s just how things work out. I would love to do Batman comics on a fairly regular basis—although, ultimately, I would only really love to do Batman comics if I got to do my own “alternative” version of Batman. That’s the problem. As much as comics are my blood, being a weirdo and an outsider is kind of in my blood, too. I don’t mean to be; it’s just how things end up. I meant for POLLY AND THE PIRATES to be a very Disney-esque, shiny, sunny opposite of COURTNEY CRUMRIN, but then I look at the final product and it’s kind of gloomy and foggy, with lots of shadows. It has a darkness to it that I didn’t even intend. It’s just how I roll, I guess.
FM. Out of all the other independent black and white comics that were coming out in the 90s, what were you reading?
TN. At the time I was reading SANDMAN. I was reading THE CROW. I didn’t like just any BATMAN, but I liked the weird alternative stuff that involved Batman. Like I said, comic books are in my blood, and Batman kind of comes with the territory.
FM. Are you reading BATMAN right now?
TN. I’m a little behind on the Snyder BATMAN. It’s great. I really want to work with Snyder on something. Well, me and everybody else.
FM. That would kind of blow my mind. [laughs]
TN. What I would love to do would be a weird alternative Batman thing, but right now DC is focused on one universe, and that’s the universe that Scott is playing in. So there’s no room for alternative stuff. And my instincts are such that I just don’t know how to be mainstream. I don’t know how to do what other people are doing. I wish I were better at it.
FM. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s awesome. Don’t ever wish you were better at being mainstream!
TN. I’d get richer faster. [laughs] But whatever.
FM. While we’re talking collaboration—you did some illustrations for Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ALABASTER?
TN. Oh yes! I lost my computer file with the illustrations, but the original publisher still had that first ALABASTER book, printed on cheap paper and looking really underground, and now apparently Dark Horse is reprinting it! They’ve got all the illustrations.
FM. That is such great news.
TN. It’s really exciting. Now, of course, they’ve got Greg Ruth doing illustrations for the series, and if I had to choose between hiring me and hiring Greg, I’d probably hire Greg. [laughs] He’s REALLY good! Insanely beautiful. I feel like he’s one of those people who does everything I do, except better.
FM. [laughs] Well, I understand how you feel, but I don’t think that’s the case. About computer files and digital art… I was talking to [CROW creator] James O’Barr yesterday, and he’s very adamantly a pen-and-paper kind of guy. And you’ve worked on some computer animation that first introduced you to digital art. How do you respond to people who say that oh, digital isn’t—I mean, everyone knows it’s “real” art, but how did you adapt from one medium to the other?
TN. They both have their points. My attitude right now is that digital art is kind of overexposed. I’m leaning more towards really simple watercolor work, because even when I’m doing it crudely, there’s something special about the physicality of it. It’s not completely under control the way digital art is. It’s alive, in a way. It’s organic. I’m getting into that again. With digital art, you can do certain things really well, but I think people are leaning on it too much, these days.