Interview with Meredith Gran of Octopus Pie

OP 4 CoverOne of the reasons I love webcomics is that they give readers the opportunity to see an artist grow and change. Webcomics are, with a few exceptions, published quickly after they are created, giving the reader a chance to engage with a work while the artist is still living through the experiences that influenced the art. Of course, not all webcomics carry the same sense of immediacy and intimacy, but the ones that do often earn the most investment. Meredith Gran’s Octopus Pie is one such comic; since 2007, Gran has been writing stories that are both relatable and magical. Each new storyline has carried a weightier emotional impact than its predecessor, and it’s been a privilege to watch this comic change and just keep getting better over the years.

After several years of self-publishing, Gran is partnering with Image Comics to release Octopus Pie: Volume 4, a book that she describes in the introduction as the end point of a recovery from heartbreak. Volume 4 has a special energy; it follows roommates Eve and Hannah through mourning periods in which they explore how potently the end of relationships can influence one’s life. Halfway through the book the comic slowly and then suddenly shifts from black and white to color; Gran, enabled by Patreon, hired colorist Sloane Leong to begin coloring the comic. Following “The Witch Lives,” the story arc that closes the volume, Gran began working with Valerie Halla, whose colors have continued to enhance the poignancy of Octopus Pie.

I spoke with Gran about publishing with Image, magical realism, and changes she’s seen in the webcomic world over the last almost-decade.

Eve reflects on her eased anxiety. Image courtesy Meredith Gran and Image Comics.In “What’s Different Now (It’s a Coconut)” Eve and Will talk about how Eve feels less anxious and how things she used to worry about don’t worry her anymore. Over time, the pace of the comic has also changed. Do you feel like you’re growing and changing along with your characters?

They’ve pretty much grown with me. To keep them distinct I’ve tried to keep them growing at different paces; it sort of reflects the world I’ve seen. I’ve grown a little bit faster or a little bit slower than my peers, and in the ones I’ve stayed in touch with over time I’ve noticed these changes, and compared them to myself. There’s a lot of reality surrounding that.

The magical realism in your comics is really fun, and has been consistent in your comic, as well as comics that are contemporary. What’s your motivation to include that?

I think early on it was an aesthetic choice; I saw a lot of my contemporaries doing it and I really liked what it did. John Allison has been using it for years to show the ludicrousness of a situation, and I’ve always really enjoyed that. That’s what I wanted early on, to not get too grounded and take the world too seriously. It was a good jumping point for that.

Over the years it’s evolved into something I use from a more emotional place. It’s useful for me to show emotions that I don’t think are best described in words and gestures alone. It’s really convenient that I’m able to do that in comics and that people won’t question it too much, because I feel like I can communicate a lot of things without saying them directly. I can give people that feeling without them reading it literally on the page.The Witch Lives

You’ve been playing with infinite scroll too, and in some of your recent comics it’s used with magical realism. I was thinking about Eve on the ferris wheel; as she gets closer to you, the emotional beats get more intense. The first time I saw you do that was in Volume 4, in “The Witch Lives,” when Hannah is running and there’s all the white space between panels. What motivated you to start doing that?

I’ve really enjoyed using space to convey time. I think cartoonists do that a lot, because they’re instructing the reader on how to look at the comic, and to illustrate passage of time there’s a few different tricks you can use. A pretty obvious one is putting space between the panels. With a book you can do it horizontally, and with the internet you can do it vertically. In the instance of the Hannah story, the idea of showing them spaced out farther and farther apart I hoped would convey that more and more time was passing, and these minutiae were becoming more common. You don’t need to see them every time they happen; you get that from seeing more space between them.

As far as the Ferris wheel, I rattled my brain on that one. I had a few ideas for how to do it. I guess with the web it still feels like horizontal scroll is a restriction we have; you could scroll horizontally, but then you probably don’t want to scroll vertically. I’ve seen a few exceptions where people have done this really brilliantly, where you can actually go through this infinite space, but I was trying to restrict myself to a vertical scroll for that one. Getting the Ferris wheel to go around in a circle is not super easy to convey vertically, and I think it was sort of a happy accident of that limitation that I thought about layering the panels to make the space come toward us instead of going away from the panel that it was directly next to.

I was thinking in terms of the limitations that I had for the web. People make fun of infinite canvas a little bit, because it’s this idea that you can do anything. Early on there was this idea that people were just doing it for the sake of doing it, without an idea. It’s been helpful for me to think about it in terms of another restriction, another limitation. If I have certain goals to achieve, I can either use the traditional comic page or I can do them using as much vertical space as necessary.

You’re working with a colorist now, Valerie Halla, and I thought it was interesting that you see that in the book; it starts black and white and halfway through it jumps into color. How did you find Valerie? What was the process of searching for a colorist?

The first colorist I worked with was Sloane Leong and we did one story together and then Sloane had to travel, so I put out a call on Twitter and a bunch of people emailed me with their portfolios; incredibly professional samples of their work, cover letters and all that. Valerie was just like, hi, I saw you were looking for a colorist! I looked at her webcomic, Portside Stories, and there were a few pages that stood out to me in particular as very atmospheric and also a little bit fantastical. I thought that seemed perfect; I had a really good feeling about her. I asked her to do a test page and she did a sample for me and it was just terrific; I knew there was something there. I’m super happy; it seems like it was incredibly easy to find her. I don’t know how people normally go through this process, but I feel quite lucky.

Leong ColorsHow has having a colorist changed your process?

It gives me something to think about and, at the same time, alleviates a lot of what I have to think about. It’s nice, because I get to think, when I’m laying out the comic, what can be more impactful with color. That will inform the notes I give Valerie and what she’s going to be able to do with it. She’ll bring things to it that I didn’t even think of, which is a nice benefit of working in a team environment. When I’m working by myself I only have my own faculties, and there’s only so many plates I can spin. When I’m working with her I can be thinking more about how the storytelling will be affected by the colors, and that adds a lot of either small details or more broad, sweeping emotional assets to the comic. It’s added work and it’s also a huge relief to be able to collaborate like that.

Patreon is what enabled you to have a colorist. How has Patreon changed your work? What role does it play?

The main thing with Patreon is I promised to people that I would do ten pages a month. It’s been good for me to keep up that quota, because life can definitely get in the way and having that deadline in my head is extremely helpful. As far as other promises I made, I really didn’t make many. Early on, I tried to maintain sketches and a little extra content for people. Once in a while I do provide those things, but mainly the promise I make to people if they donate is I’m going to make ten full-color pages a month, and it’s going to look as awesome as I can make it look, and my colorist is putting in her all.

People seem to be OK with that relationship. It’s very touching when I get that money to live every month! It’s enhanced my work, and it’s also given me a lot of relief in terms of the amount of drawing I’d have to do in order to make that sort of income. It’s really just been wonderful; I can’t say enough about how nicely that’s changed the entire process.

Something I find kind of funny about Patreon is when it first started getting really big, I remember all these creators being like, I’ll give you sketches, and I’ll give you all this extra stuff! But I already get your comic for free?

For some people that’s not enough, but it’s not something that you have to opt into. If people want to read the comic for free, if they’re broke, or if they simply just don’t want to pay for it, they have that option. I’m happy that there are enough people who seem to see the comic as enough reward for the dollars they give every month. The comic is free, and as long as enough of a percentage of the audience feels that they should pay for it, that’s going to carry the comic for the rest of the audience.

I’m super curious about what the numbers are of artists who get Patreon support, but also provide extra content. I know John Allison has a subscriber program where you give him money, and he just does what he’s still doing.

I think, for some artists, that might not be enough. It really depends on the audience you’re dealing with. For John and I, we’ve been doing it for so long that our audience may be a little bit older, they might be more financially secure, and their appreciation of the work may have changed over time. I think if an audience is a little younger there’s a chance that they’re so bombarded by content and they’re so broke that they really can’t spread that money out the way that an older readership can. I would imagine that a young artist just starting out might be jumping through more hoops to prove to their audience that their work is worth paying for. There’s no real way to quantify whose work deserves to be supported by patrons, it’s really just up to that individual audience and the artist to figure that relationship out.

You’ve been making webcomics for quite a long time! You’ve self-published, but now you’re releasing this book through Image. What enabled that relationship?

I work with a literary agent, and she’s been pitching my book to publishers for about seven years now. The first volume of Octopus Pie she sold to Random House in 2009, and that lasted one printing. It really wasn’t up to Random House’s expectations, and they didn’t continue the series after that. I was self-publishing for years, partially because that didn’t work out and partially because I realized I could make more money doing it that way. That allowed my agent to continue shopping it around, not particularly hopeful that anything would come of it.

When she spoke to Image, I think the idea was to try somebody who we thought was good at marketing comics. Random House, the particular imprint I worked with, was not really sure what to do with it, even though they have this terrific infrastructure for distribution. Image, a much smaller company, has a better idea of how to market this. I’m not sure the exact factors; there’s so many things. There’s timing, there’s the way the audience is reacting to it now, there’s the enthusiasm of my agent at any given time, and there’s the enthusiasm of the publisher; it’s hard to say what really interested them. I am super glad to give it this chance, because the series is coming to a point where it’s going to wrap up. There will be this ten year legacy of it hopefully, and it’s all going to be collected under one publisher, finally.

Is the end point you have in mind now something you had in mind from the beginning?

I always had an idea that I was going to end it; I didn’t want to take this comic into my thirties. I wouldn’t say necessarily as a 22-year-old I ever imagined that I would be thirty, so it’s hard to say that I had that ending in mind then. I definitely knew that I didn’t want the circumstances to change; I didn’t want them to all go their separate ways, and to still be writing about their lives in their thirties. In that way, I knew that it was going to be a finite series. I also knew that until I finished this series I’m not going to diversify my projects; it just takes up way too much of my time. That was a factor. Now that I am in my thirties and married and thinking about different parts of my life, I feel like it’s a perfect time to say goodbye to that world that I’ve been writing for so long.

Right now is an interesting time, because you’re in the same boat as a few other creators, like Danielle Corsetto, who ended her comic a year ago. I love what people have been doing, but I’m super excited to see where people are going to go, and what they’re going to do!

Yeah. Sometimes you see a comic and you’re like, this is all right, but the next thing this person does is gonna be bananas! I just can’t wait for that. I’m hoping that I’m still finding that peak and that I can do something else, but it would be really interesting to have a fresh start and take my current worldview and start something with that.

As someone who’s been in webcomics for a long time, what are big changes you’ve seen in the webcomic scene?

There’s been so much. I teach a webcomics course, and I try to inject a little bit of history into it. It’s changed so rapidly. When I got into it around 2000 it was sort of a reaction to newspaper syndicated comics. A lot of comics were about niche interests that are now mainstream interests, like video games or working in the tech world. Webcomics in general kind of read as syndicated comic strips that, because they were too amateur, the subject manner was too adult, or for whatever reason—probably because syndicates would only publish a small handful of new comics per year—they were putting their work online instead.

Most of the people who had websites then were tech savvy people. There weren’t many webcomics sites set up by people whose inclinations were more artistic and focused on the work that they were doing. I think as the internet has gotten more accessible you’ve seen a more diverse grouping of artists coming up. Part of it is we’ve got social media, so there are new methods of distribution for these things. Part of it would have to be thanks to more women being interested in comics, and the definition of comics changing many times over. There’s way more people now making comics from different points of view than ever before, particularly on the web. I would say that would be the good part.

The part to me that’s disconcerting, because I entered from such an early place and a tech savvy place, is that cartoonists aren’t as protective of their own domain as they used to be. Social media has kind of discouraged artists from having your own home base. Having their own website is not necessarily something people are good at doing at this point, especially if that social media presence is there and the instant gratification of that presence is there. I think that cartoonists are both in a better place and a slightly more vulnerable place, now.

I come from a place where I want to have my own little backyard for my comic, control who can say what on my website, and control the exact way it looks and behaves. I think a lot of people give that control up for the built-in network of Tumblr.

LA PortalI wanted to ask you about Jane and pulling the car out of the dimensional portal. That was super unexpected and interesting; I think it’s the most fantastic the comic has ever gotten. Where did that come from?

I kind of just let my mind wander when I was thinking about that one. A lot of the time I’ll get an idea and I’ll be like, I like this too much, I can’t not do this. When I do these magical realism things I really try to ground them in the emotional tone of the story. I wanted Jane, after having this big fight, to show Marigold the world that she lives in and the people she knows, and how she has this position of authority and other people trust her to do these things. That task could be anything, and I just started thinking, what if they go through this portal to LA? I was listening to “No More Parties in LA,” and I was thinking about how much youth is tied to LA right now and the most awesome thing would be if you could go between the two and truly be bicoastal without having to pay for it or to do any work.

Once I had the idea I just built on it, like the portal would have to look super different and be a little trippy. My brother Joe, who mostly does animation, did the models for that. I’d never tried anything with 3D before, and it was like a big sandwich that I just kept putting more ingredients on. That one was kind of polarizing; people complained to me about it when they didn’t see the point of it. To that I’m just like, I don’t care if you see the point of it, I thought it was fun.

What are you reading right now that you’re really into?

I’m going to make it through my first Thomas Pynchon novel, like for reals this time. [I’m reading] V. It’s taking me forever because I’m a really slow reader. I love it, I feel the richness of the world being created in it, and it really feels luxuriating to read something like that. It’s a matter of personal goals and stamina that I can get through a book of such density, but I’m also realizing I enjoy immersing myself in something like that.

Were you reading Pynchon when you wrote the dimensional portal storyline?

I think I was, actually! The book I’m reading doesn’t necessarily have anything that could never happen, but there are certain moments that are so ludicrous that it somehow puts you more in the world than takes you away from it. There’s a character who takes a day job killing crocodiles in the sewer in New York City, and you’re just like, this tells me everything I need to know about this character and how inhospitable this character is.

Octopus Pie: Volume 4 will be available through Image on May 25th. To make sure you get a copy, talk to your local comic shop!

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka is a queer librarian and intense cat parent. They spends their days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts @alenkafiga.