Creator Ted Naifeh On The Conclusion Of Oni Press’ Landmark ‘Courtney Crumrin’ Saga [Interview]
For over ten years, Ted Naifeh’s Courtney Crumrin series has been one of the most compelling and consistently entertaining horror comics on the stands. In a story of a young girl who moves to a strange town and meets her sinister (and magical) uncle, Naifeh pit his title character against all manner of spooks, haunts and witchcraft, all of which crashed to an ending in last week’s Courtney Crumrin #10, the final issue of a monthly serial that built on four full-color hardcovers of adventure. The end result is a prestigious library of work for Oni Press, something that rivals the mighty Scott Pilgrim in scope and the best of any publisher in quality.
To mark the auspicious conclusion of the series, we spoke to Naifeh to find out why he told the stories he did, why he wanted to end them here, and his plans for the future. ComicsAlliance: Over the course of the series, we’ve seen Courtney have a lot of classic growing-up moments, like her first heartbreak, and the first time she rebels against her father figure. Was that designed with an ending in mind, that we’d get all those metaphors for growing up?
Ted Naifeh: Not really, actually. Or at least, not consciously. I find that, for me personally, the more you consciously set out to say something “deep and meaningful,” especially about growing up, the worse the results. I studied story structure, read a lot about mythology and coming-of-age stories and what-not, but in the end, I threw all that stuff into the back of my mind and set out to just tell a rattling good yarn. With the second book, Coven of Mystics, I started with an idea about a monster terrorizing the town, and a whole book unfolded from there. I’d had some vague ideas about using bits and pieces from To Kill a Mockingbird, but nothing solid or concrete. There was no elaborate plan attached. It was just “The rabid dog from Mockingbird was a great scene. What if it was a gigantic hobgoblin?” And the rest took its course.
CA: Was it planned from the start that you’d leave Courtney in such a different place from when she started, or was there ever an idea in place that she could go on forever in different kinds of supernatural stories?
TN: I hadn’t planned on an ending. But I didn’t quite understand what an open-ended series really meant, or whether I wanted to do one. Turns out it’s not actually something I’m interested in doing. Lifetime commitment aside, I think stories should have endings. And I don’t mean just cappers that mark the place where you stop talking. I think the ending defines the story. If your ending is weak, you didn’t have that much to say about the character. You don’t really have a story, just a portrait. I wanted Courtney to have a real story, one that defined her. Otherwise it would just be, “look at the grumpy kid. Isn’t she funny in her misery?” Boring.
CA: The last story does a lot to invert the sort of traditional take on “wicked witches” by pitting Courtney and Aloysius against the ruling coven. Why did you want to have the ending be something that preserved the idea of Courtney having a secret, as opposed to giving her the ability to find acceptance in the larger world?
TN: Jeez, I don’t know. It’s just where the story led me. As a reader, I love to analyze stories in-depth and work out what they mean, what they symbolize. But more and more, I find myself questioning that process in my own work. I may have meant a lot of things, but damned if I know what they are. Good stories come from a place that’s as mysterious to the writer as the reader. Any time a writer talks about what they mean, they’re probably just speculating. And it tends to reduce the meaning by bringing it to the surface. Who wants that? Academics and George Lucas. Need I say more?
That being said, it’s a fascinating observation you make. Not only does the society created by outsiders reject her, but she must destroy it in order to maintain her identity. Maybe it means something about acceptance, that it’s only as meaningful as self-acceptance. When you look for societal acceptance first, no matter what the society, you run the risk of annihilating your own identity.
Huh. There’s a lot to unpack there. Thank goodness that isn’t my job. I just write ‘em.
CA: So why end the story here? What is it about this point in Courtney’s life that makes it a good stopping point for readers?
TN: The story opens when she moves to Hillsborough, and ends when she moves away. But she takes something with her that she didn’t have before, right? That’s the point of her story, what she takes away from her time in Hillsborough that fundamentally changes her. It’s not just magic. Also, she has a profound affect on Aloysius, giving him a shot at redemption after a life of necessary evils. Both are transformed irreversibly by the end. That is, to me, what makes a good story.
CA: Courtney Crumrin debuted eleven years ago, so I’d assume you’re in as much of a different place now as a creator as Courtney is as a character. How did doing this book for so long affect the way you work?
TN: I definitely draw differently. I was evolving from the moment I started. Volume two is different from volume one, and volume six is drastically different from volume four. That started with issue one, which was quite different from the original sketches. I’d planned to draw the book a certain way, but it had other ideas, which is why the style is so odd. I’d planned to do a minimal, cartoony look where you never notice that the characters had only four fingers. Nobody commented on this with my previous book, Gloomcookie. But Courtney’s world wanted to be lush and detailed. So little visual abbreviations like the four fingers or Courtney’s noseless face seem at odds with her much more detailed, physical world.
But it also marks my transformation from amateur writer to professional. I can’t say I could write anything now, but I am confident now in what I can write. I went from not knowing what I was doing and being pretty good to knowing what I was doing and not being great to just letting the ideas flow and being very happy with the results. I hope at some point to become a “great” writer, but time will tell.
CA: Both Courtney and Polly and the Pirates have a focus on young girls in these big, surreal adventures. What was it about that kind of story that drew you to it? Was there always a goal of giving girls a heroine they could identify with by design?
TN: I suppose, partly. I saw a lot of female comics fans with no heroines to follow.
But mostly, I just related to these stories. I don’t think Courtney would have worked as a boy. I think he’d have been less sympathetic. But I wanted to create a portrait of this angry, alienated tween, but one who could maintain sympathy, even while making terrible decisions and hurting the people around her. I think Courtney does this in a way that a male character like Harry Potter would not. He had to retain his heroism all the way through. Even a chink or two in that armor cost him some sympathy (although not from me.) I don’t know why this is. I’m not even sure I’m comfortable with the double-standard. But my instincts tell me that the story works better the way it is.
It’s interesting, because while feminist principle tells us that women can have the same kinds of adventures as men, it also points out that there are too many female characters who are essentially just “men with breasts.” How can you attempt one without falling into the trap of the other? But then again, if you can’t reconcile two incompatible philosophies, you have no business writing stories.
As I mentioned before, bear in mind that these mostly weren’t conscious decisions. Courtney and Polly both ended up they way they did because they felt right.
CA: How likely is it that there’ll be another Courtney Crumrin story? As much as this last issue is an ending, there’s certainly enough there to lead into more stories. Is that temptation there, or do you feel like you’ve let it go?
TN: There may be more someday. The door isn’t entirely closed. I want to see how I do with some other ideas first. I have a lot of ideas that I’m really passionate about, that don’t fit Courtney’s world. My next book is called Princess Ugg, about a barbarian princess living among standard, Disney-style princesses. I’m quite excited about that. And I have other ideas as well, waiting in the wings.
And I was incredibly happy to see Courtney off the way I did, with a high-profile series and the gorgeous new collected editions. It was James Lucas Jones’ idea to celebrate her 10th anniversary with a year of regular issues. And I feel like in this last year, I finally got to see the series turned into what I’d wanted it to be. I had a great editor, Jill Beaton, working on it full time, helping me shape stories and dialog. I had a fantastic colorist, Warren Wucinich, and Keith Wood, a talented art director and designer, making the hardcover editions look like a million bucks. I can’t believe my luck, really. It’s been a wonderful experience, and I’m so happy to have been able to share it with such an amazing group of fans.
Of course, it could be that Courtney will turn out to have been my greatest creation, and I’ll have to admit I made a mistake in abandoning her world, and will come visit again. We’ll see.
Pages from the latest Courtney Crumin series:
The Courtney Crumin library is available in finer comic book shops and bookstores, both in paperback and deluxe hardcover, with remaining volumes in production now. The latest ten-issue series is available digitally from ComiXology.