I felt very lucky to meet Kristen Gudsnuk at New York Comic Con this year. I was strolling Artist Alley and excited to see her books Making Friends and Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board. These young adult graphic novels are published by Scholastic, and I had heard about how great they were. While I was chatting with her about signing these books for me, a man came up and interrupted. He apologized, but he said he just had to tell Kristen about how much her book Henchgirl had meant to him. He loved it, it was hilarious, and it had influenced the evolution of his own comics style.
Well, that was quite an endorsement, and I determined I needed to read Henchgirl as well. Reader: I loved it.
A few weeks later, Kristen Gudsnuk kindly agreed to answer my questions about all these books, and her work in general!
Kristen, thank you for doing this interview! I read Henchgirl first and then Making Friends and Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board, which is, I know, the order you wrote them in, but it kind of feels like going back in time! I can easily envision a reader who loves your Making Friends books in their teens might discover and love Henchgirl in their twenties. Do you see an ideal reading order through your work?
I try to make my work accessible to everyone, and I try not to dumb things down with my all-ages comics like Making Friends. I don’t really write those books differently than Henchgirl, other than avoiding gore or cursing. I don’t really think young readers should read Henchgirl, but for older readers it does make sense to read that one first, because you can see me figuring out how comics work on the pages. You can see obvious things, like me figuring out how to do lettering or perspective, but also different storytelling techniques.
I’m always really interested when a creator with such successful solo work also has collaborative work! Do you find your process is different when you’re doing art for a comic written by someone else or illustrating for the VIP series, from how you work when you are doing solo work?
There’s more support on collaborative projects, which is awesome. With Rafer Roberts, who wrote Modern Fantasy, we’d have a lot of fun spitballing ideas back and forth, going through character designs and background gags and everything. With solo work, I’m creating in more of a vacuum. Although Henchgirl started as a webcomic so I had a bunch of internet strangers giving me feedback and discussing each page every week, I still didn’t have anyone who really knew what I was talking about when I was trying to brainstorm the plot. So that’s the really nice thing about collaboration—someone who’s equally as invested in this story as you are.
But the big benefit to solo work is the ability to be completely self-indulgent, and express whatever you’re feeling in an unfettered way. No rules! I can just dive into whatever I’m currently obsessing over, work out whatever personal or moral issues I’m grappling with…anything goes. That’s basically the most fun thing about comics.
Your writing and art are both really expressive and immediately engaging! Who do you feel are your biggest author and artist influences?
Rumiko Takahashi (Inu-Yasha, Ranma ½) is probably my number one influence. I love her sense of humor and I love how she writes characters and draws funny reactions. I was also obsessed with Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Animorphs and Harry Potter were really influential to me at a young age. I love the aesthetic and sense of humor of the Scott Pilgrim series. Movies like Brazil and books like Les Miserables (I like my stories sad!). I’m really into 19th century literature. I love the photographer Cindy Sherman.
Whoooo, there is some troubling parenting in your books. I feel it’s a thread: our sense of self worth and our ability to be in functional friendships is a product of how our parents make us feel growing up. What are your thoughts about how you show family and friend interactions in your work?
I think the relationship between parents and their children—adult or otherwise—has so much to do with forming people’s identities. I find that interesting, and I’m fascinated with the various neuroses we get from (and give to) our parents, and the character traits we inherit from, and develop in opposition to, the people who raise us. Like how in Henchgirl (spoilers!), Mary works for a supervillain as a way to rebel against her superhero parents…and also how their pressure on her to manifest superpowers as a child affected her self-worth.
For some reason I find bad parents more interesting than good parents. I tend toward the negative in my writing in general—often I have to remember to add some happy scenes in the revision stage so it’s not all doom and gloom. Also, hopefully all the jokes in my comics counteract that. A project I’m working on right now has some good parents, too (gasp!). But either way, I try to make the parental figures make sense; I try to make them real people rather than cartoon villains. But in Making Friends, Dany has such a charmed life, what with the boundless magic at her disposal, that I felt like she needed some difficulties at home and at school to even out her good fortune. I should mention that my parents are fantastic and I have a great relationship with them…hahaha.
Is it scientifically possible to read Henchgirl without developing a crush on at minimum three (3) characters? This one I ask purely for information.
I’m curious to know which characters you have a crush on!
I’ll never tell.
I love them all, though. My favorites to write were probably Coco and Fred, they had a fun dynamic with Mary!
And finally: Please tell us about your awesome dog.
My dog, Penny, is indeed awesome. She is my muse. She reminds me to get up and stretch by intermittently barking at me and bringing toys to my desk and dropping them at my feet. She also served as a model for Penelope the dog genie in Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board. I got a lot of reference pictures and she got a lot of treats; it was win-win for both of us.
I have some new projects in the works and I’m really excited to talk about them, but I have to wait for them to be announced! Wah!