Interview with Rocket Girl Creators Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder
If you aren’t reading Rocket Girl by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder, you are missing out. In all seriousness, this comic is very well done. It is a shining example of words and pictures coming together to make something greater than its parts. I can’t say enough about it. You can read my review of Rocket Girl #3 if you aren’t convinced. Montclare and Reeder took time out of their busy schedule to answer a few questions about Rocket Girl for WatchPlayRead.
WPR: Rocket Girl has a fabulous female protagonist. What was the thought process behind creating DaYoung? Was Rocket Girl ever going to be Rocket Boy at any point?
Amy: She was a girl all along. Not only does that happen to interest me more since I’m female, but I also feel a sort of responsibility to put complex female leads in comics when I’m able. We all want to see more. I like that DaYoung is a tough gal, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge that anything should be strange about that. Or at least, that’s what I’m trying to put out there, because it’s a concept that certainly speaks to me.
Brandon: Amy and I huddled together, trying to figure out a new comic to launch. That being the case, it’s safe to say it was always going to have a female lead. I believe it’s the role of the writer to play to the artist’s strength. That comics requires the images take priority over the words. There are a lot of reasons for this. One big reason is that it takes a lot more time to draw (and with Amy: also ink, color, and letter) than it does to write. Amy’s investment of time is so much larger—it amounts to a full time job—so she needs to be doing something that makes her happy. That being said: there are a lot of Rocket Cops in the NYTPD. About half of them are boys, so never say never!
WPR: The idea that teens are more trustworthy than adults. What inspired that element of the New York Teen Police Department? These teens do police the adults, so do you believe teens are more trustworthy and that we all age out of being so? Why is that?
Brandon: It’s based on a simple notion, which has complicated ramifications. Life experience teaching us “truth” is heavily subjective and nuanced. Black and white thinking isn’t intellectually healthy in adults; we learn that that real world issues are usually shades of grey. But if you continue that path, everything becomes relative and there’s no reliable foundation. We all know that teenagers don’t like to follow rules… but they understand them better than adults. They hold core beliefs that haven’t yet been shaken by life experience.
Amy: Someone in the alternate history of Rocket Girl had the bright idea that a New York Teen Police Department would remedy the corruption in NYC (which was a huge reality the 1980s). And for years it worked. But the action in the first few issues of the comic will start to challenge whether it truly was a good idea.
WPR: Does having a teen protagonist limit possibilities because they have less life experience? or does it open up doors to you as a creator?
Brandon: Limitations usually open more creative doors than they close. You always start with a blank canvas, but the end product is formed by both what you do and what you choose not to do. That DaYoung lacks experience is a huge part of her character—from her voice to the source of her conflict. If she had it all figured out, there wouldn’t be any story left to tell!
Amy: I agree with Brandon—limitations are what give me new ideas. Her youth also really adds to the nostalgia factor of the book. It’s not exactly a kid’s book, so she’s there to make us remember when we were young. Nostalgia is a powerful thing…it means when people read the book, they’re filling the cracks of the story with their own experiences.
WPR: The naming mechanism for the individuals in the 2013 world is unique. It seems to have first and last names derived from very different cultures. Was it important to indicate a hopeful future that had moved into a post-discrimination era?
Brandon: Having all young people in the future be from mixed parentage was very intentional. It’s also intentionally simplistic. It’s a topic that can warrant serious discussion—but we don’t go there. Part of the genre, if we’re honest, is that the politics of future utopias are usually clunky afterthoughts. I like keeping the awkwardness in there. And as a counterpoint, a lot of the 1980s characters are from an identifiable cultural background, so I hope Rocket Girl doesn’t appear dismissive of race because one aspect provocatively hints a post-racial world—that would be opposite of my intent. There is also a more basic reason: there is a disproportionate amount of biracial protagonists as compared to biracial comics fans. So DaYoung Johannson hopefully adds to the diversity of comics characters, which is something the medium still needs.
Amy: It of course poses an interesting challenge for me, because not only do I need to know how to draw different races, but I’m also trying to make some of the characters clearly biracial. Luckily this and drawing a wide spectrum of characters in general is a big interest of mine. But let’s hope I’m pulling it off.
WPR: How much collaboration do you have to shape this comic together? Are there times when Brandon asks for certain panels or when Amy points out something to add to the plot or characters?
Brandon: We are very close collaborators. Part of that is geography, since we are neighbors. That being said: the roles are for the most part pretty clearly separated. I write a full script. Amy lays out the storytelling before starting finished art. There are, however, certainly plenty of times when there’s input both ways. This would include me making specific art notes, as well as Amy requesting specific script or dialogue changes. We’re both good at what we do, plus we’re personal friends, so there is no ego bruised if a suggestion makes the book better.
Amy: I really appreciate working with Brandon. We’re simpatico in wanting a great book. Rocket Girl is co-created, and as such we both tend to agree on what feels right with the comic. On a deeper level, I think we both might have input that goes unsaid. I know Brandon writes stuff he knows I want to draw. So that’s an unspoken influence I have over the script. Likewise, Brandon’s story can sometimes have a lot of subtlety and multiple meanings. I want to make sure I design a panel that maybe isn’t so flashy that it loses that beautiful, layered moment.
WPR: Coming from a manga background, what techniques or ideas have you brought to your work on more western comics?
Amy: To me, what makes manga so great is that it feels like a first-person experience. So that’s usually what I’m trying to capture. I just want to make readers feel like they’re there, breathe in the surroundings, and empathize easily with the characters. There’s a sense of moment and urgency you can create if you can manage to suck people in far enough. Art style-wise, I’ve intentionally made Rocket Girl feel even more “manga” than my usual stuff, because I feel like it fits the story really well. Even Rocket Girl’s costume, to me, has this Mega-man feel. I especially apply an anime/manga sensibility to the action scenes…I want people to feel like it’s actually moving—animated.
Brandon: I was already a fan of comics in general before I worked as an editor at TokyoPop. That included manga, reading the US translations of Nausicaa and Akira and Appleseed alongside Batman and Spider-Man. So for me, influences come from all over. There’s definitely a lot of manga and anime in Rocket Girl’s high concept.
WPR: Do you see gaps in the US comic market in storylines or characters that are underrepresented? And, with more and more creator-owned comics and web comics are those missing gaps shrinking?
Amy: I think stuff like creator-owned and web comics are more accessible for creators. And creators being a diverse lot, naturally you get a more diverse product. From firsthand experience—and I’m talking about selling my books at conventions or at store signings, not just as a consumer—there is definitely a market for diverse content. Not just for different kinds of lead characters, but different kinds of stories too.
Brandon: I think Marvel and DC probably suffer from a double-whammy. The first is the more obvious: they maintain a creative culture that has been stagnant in terms of diversity. As Amy mentioned, it’s not just in creators and characters, it’s also a heavy dose of one genre (superhero, of course). If you don’t want to say that they’ve actively discouraged participation, you at least need to concede that they haven’t been successful at actively encouraging creative diversity. The second is harder to pin down, but nonetheless, the Marvel and DC business model is to boost their existing properties. They are in the business of preaching to the converted. That model really doesn’t make room for diversification of product. Marvel and DC—especially when you include media beyond comics—have been wildly successful doing what they do. But that reality makes it make sense that creator-owned stuff might find more success in the places where Marvel and DC turn blind eyes.
WPR: The art in this comic is stunning from characters to both retro and future environments. What are you favorite parts to create for this book whether in the script and direction or art?
Amy: I hate to say all of it…but all of it. Rocket Girl herself gives me lots of opportunities to draw cool action poses. I love drawing all the characters, and that includes retro and future New York, both of which are truly characters in the story. I’ll say I’m having a blast coloring it, and those future scenes are pretty fun with the neon colors. If there’s one thing I miss the most about the 80’s, it’s neon colors.
Brandon: Amy Reeder has a lot of fans, but she deserves even more recognition. I think she’s a Top Ten artist working in comics. Which is to say, there’s a small handful that are as good as Amy, each in his or her own way—but there’s no one demonstrably better. She’s also an outrageously excellent colorist. So as a writer I’m going to take advantage of that; I want the scripts to give her room for a lot of interesting visuals. The script’s “art direction” usually doesn’t break down the action—I just try to give her something with potential. Everyone talks about the handcuff scene in the first issue. I came up with the concept, but did so knowing that it only works if Amy can figure out the execution—and she nailed it.
WPR: Rocket Girl’s costume is very sleek, yet functional. The white uniform really stands out on the page and the color carries symbolism with it as well (the “good guy”). Were there other designs before you settled on this one?
Amy: I had about a page of designs before I settled on the current one. But I had always planned on it being white, and somewhat bulky against her slight body. The only reason I can think of is that it felt more “manga” that way to me, but I’m not even sure why that is. It also gave it something of a Star Wars feel. Or maybe I was just tired of super-colorful costumes! I was also pretty inspired by Frank Quitely’s designs in the 2000AD story “Shimura,” which featured futuristic samurai-looking cops who had white uniforms.
Brandon: Rocket Girl’s colors are basically the same as a classic police car. But as we mentioned before, DaYoung is someone who sees the world in Black & White—so it was clever that Amy could incorporate that into her physical appearance.
WPR: I love Rocket Girl and think it’s one of the most solidly executed titles I’ve read. What is next for her in this series? Do you plan to work on other titles together after Halloween Eve and Rocket Girl? Because that would be awesome.
Brandon: Right now we’re wrapping up Rocket Girl #5, which finishes the first story arc. Those first five issues will be made into a collected edition, and we’ll be back with #6 in the summer. Halloween Eve will be back when that time of year rolls around.
Amy: We hope to keep doing Rocket Girl for as long as people are reading it. Drawing the book is a full time job! So there’s not much room for other projects, with or without Brandon. But it’s safe to say we’ll keep working together in the future. I’ve learned how important creative/collaborative chemistry is. Regarding Halloween Eve, we always intended to make that an annual event. It got bumped in 2013, unfortunately, with Rocket Girl’s October launch. But we’re hoping to do something cool—and different—with Eve and Halloween Land this year.
WPR: You have been very successful using Kickstarter for your creator-owned projects. Because of the high quality of your work you now have a legion of folks willing to back your work. Will you continue to use Kickstarter for future projects?
Brandon: The Kickstarter experiences have been great for us. We’ve twice translated a campaign into a comic book—and I’d gladly do the same again. But right now we’re in the middle of Rocket Girl and there’s no new book on the immediate horizon. We have, however, recently been kicking around some ideas to launch a campaign that focuses on merchandising—or even broad publicity—for Rocket Girl and Halloween Eve. It would be radically different. Also it’d be on a smaller, more easily manageable scale. Stay tuned!
Amy: Kickstarter is still the Wild West, and it’s a funny position to be a pioneer. Kickstarters are a blast. They are also a billion tons of work. But everything we’ve done with Kickstarter has enjoyed hugely positive results. But there are definitely pushbacks. Some fans reject it, and that’s totally cool and up to you. We have fans that do embrace it, and I think have been happy with what we’ve delivered. The pushbacks are a little more noticeable when they come from retailers and publishers. I think those two camps are hesitant, seeing Kickstarter as competition. Again, that makes sense. But I think Rocket Girl definitely showed that a Kickstarter can launch a title that is subsequently popular (and therefor profitable) in comic shops. I don’t think our Kickstarter negatively affected sales of #1 in local comic shops. Quite the opposite seems true; there was buzz and demand and support for the mass release of the first issue. And inarguably the readers are going to shops for all the other issues, #2 and up! I think Kickstarter is in the position that digital versions were in a few years ago. Publishing and retail see it as something that can disturb sales in general. But like digital, Kickstarter is gaining acceptance from within the industry.
I want to give a huge thank you to Amy and Brandon for such a wonderful interview. This project has it all: great story, beautiful art, and two of the most thoughtful creators in comics. I hope Rocket Girl has a long and successful run. DaYoung deserves it. And, I want to read it.