Registered: Oct 2002
COMEAU & HORNE: BUILDERS OF A SOFTER WORLD
by Chris Arrant
How many words does it take to tell a story? Wait, let’s rephrase that.. how many words does it take to tell a good story? Something you'll remember after you read it; something you'll want to pass along to friends; something you'll secretly wish you'd thought of in the first place. It takes a special talent to be able to encapsulate a complete, focused idea into a confined space. To work accurately, it seems to take a subconscious connection with the psychological shorthand that most of us live with: situations we're familiar with, circumstances we've had before, people that will live on in our memories.
A Softer World is the creation of Joey Comeau and Emily Horne. In each of these weekly photo-comics, they deftly convey thoughts, feelings and emotions in three succinct panels. With their seemingly effortless photography manipulation combined with just a few words, they manage to tell more story that you'd ever think possible. In a review by Michael Whitney atComixpedia, A Softer World is described as "subtle, understated and witty", and says that "in a better world, A Softer World would be in the newspaper." Created in February 2003, A Softer World has become one of the most popular web comics in recent history.
We caught up with the creators.
NEWSARAMA: How does a typical edition of A Softer World come together?
Emily Horne: Well, since I now live on the West Coast and Joey lives on the East, I prepare several comics and send them to him in advance. I choose the photographs based on the criterion that they contain one or more than one potential character. A character can be a human being, an animal or occasiaonally an inanimate object. I then alter the photograph (if necessary), put the comic together and send it off to Joey.
Joey Comeau: I get a lot of them in advance from her, and each week I pick one and sit down with my typewriter to try and find an interesting story in the picture (or behind the picture). I write the comic on a manual Smith-Corona that I picked up for five dollars at a church yard sale. I have since found two others that will function as backups if this one ever goes.
NRAMA: A Softer World has been described as a “post-modern haiku”. Given the space you have to work with, how do you work to ensure that you can get your idea across in such a limited space?
EH: With Emily's photographs I find that I'm often working with a character or a figure, and so the text is even more restricted because it cannot cover up the figure in more than one of the panels. Concise language is the only way that we can work in a three panel format. I try my hardest not to dumb down the idea we're going for, and sometimes I end up leaving large parts of the joke implicit.
NRAMA: Long-time readers of A Softer World have noticed of all the editions out so far, there have been two re-occuring characters; a menacing baby and a cat. Is this intentional, or just a ‘happy accident’?
JC: We like baby doom, and the idea of cats seeing more than we do of the world around us. We'll re-use characters if we like them enough, or if we have a picture that would be perfect for another appearance (like the second baby doom picture). Zombies have been in a few strips now, too. God I love zombies.
EH: I take photographs of people I know, of my friends, and as such certain figures also recur in A Softer World without necessarily being the same character.
NRAMA: A Softer World primarily exists as a web comic, but you also publish it in ‘hard-copy’ issues available from the website. Can you tell us about the different audiences for the web comic and the printed edition?
JC: Well, the first A Softer World comics were hardcopy. We made them on paper before we ever put one on the internet, and at that time our audience was almost exclusively zine kids. We'd go to zine fairs and sell them at a table. This last week we went to New York to do basically the same thing! It was exciting! New York City is amazing.
EH: When we were selling at the zine fairs our audience was mostly local, and the website has changed that considerably. When we sell prints on the site, most of our orders are American. We have readers from all over, which would have been more difficult with exclusively hardcopy zines, for sure.
NRAMA: Do you plan to collect the strips into actual book format, or are you sticking with the website and the individual issues?
JC: We were contacted recently by an agent who is interested in finding a publisher for a book collection of the comics. So, we are hoping that works out! It will be more than a collection, because we'll be making lots of new comics exclusvely for the book!
EH: A book collection would allow us to print in colour, and the end product would be better because of that. I design for the web, and so our own black and white collections of the comic suffer slightly because they lose some of the visual impact that colour provides.
NRAMA: Some people have said that several A Softer World seem written for them. What kinds of responses have you received from readers?
JC: The thing about regularly incorporating tragedy into the comic is that for some people a comic will be funny and sad, and for another person it'll touch them a little closer to home. Comics about dead mothers and broken hearts are good examples of this.
NRAMA: A Softer World recently branched out with A Softer World / News, which is politically inspired. Can you tell us what led you to this, and what kind of feedback you’ve received about it so far?
JC:I had a dream in which we decided that we were going to totally sell out, and the way we did it was by doing political humour. In my dream, political humour was some sort of cash cow. When I woke up it still seemed like a good idea for other reasons, but there have been some problems with it.
EH: There's the questionable legality of using images from the news, as well. We don't know the law very well. The images we have to work with are also hard to find in a higher resolution, so they look sort of crappy. A friend of ours, Mike Lecky, also asked us what it was that made these different enough from the normal Softer Worlds to warrant a section of their own. Add this to the difficulty of doing time sensitive comics when living on opposite sides of the country and operating on different schedules, and it seems like an idea that won't work for us.
JC: But it was fun.
NRAMA: One of the prices of the popularity of A Softer World was overloading your web hosting company. After a call for help, an outpouring of support came from the readers of the comic, including author Warren Ellis, and it was saved. Can you tell us about that whole experience?
JC: Warren Ellis sent like a page-long endorsement of the comic to his mailing list Bad Signal, and the shit just sort of hit the fan. My first indication that something was different was that people were signing up to our A Softer World mailing list at a rate of five every few minutes instead of one a day or so. My second big indication was the phone call from our internet host at the time. We were paying for a gig of traffic per month, and we'd gone over that five fold in a few hours. So we needed to raise some money.
EH: At the time, neither Joey nor I was able to pay off the hosting company, so he put out a call for donations from our readers. About twelve hours after the paypal donation button had been put on the site, Joey gave me a call (at five am!) to let me know that we'd made the money we needed and then some.
JC: Just after I sent out the email asking for help, someone must have sent a copy to Warren Ellis, because he then forwarded that to his mailing list and people started donating like mad. It was a pretty good example of the good natured sort of people who read comics, I think. In this past year we've seen other examples of comic reader generosity, companies like Fantagraphics being saved overnight, and Penny Arcade raising tens of thousands of dollars in video game equipment for sick children from their readers.
NRAMA: What was your original intentions for the comic; did you plan for it to be this popular, or to be a continuing series?
JC: We liked what we were doing, and when we put it up on the web, we did so knowing that it wouldn't be a comic for everyone. Some people would be put off by the fact that it was photographs instead of drawings, and some would be put off by the fact that the comic is as often sad as it is funny.
NRAMA: What other projects are the creators behind A Softer World working on?
EH:Well, I'm currently working on a new literary magazine called Pine. We put out our first issue in the late spring, and I've been travelling across the country since then promoting and distributing it. It's going to be published three times a year, and so that's consuming a lot of my time and energy right now.
JC: I am working on writing a comic with Kyle Cummings in which zombies have begun to overrun the planet, but people are trying to go about their business as usual. The zombies are more like pests, like raccoons. I am working on a few comic scripts aside from that, and I am looking for a publisher for my first novel.
A Softer World is published online every Friday at ASofterWorld.com. Issues 1-3 of the zine version are available from the website for $7 US or $8 Canadian.
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