Cookbooks, Craft, and Cannibalism: Natalie Riess Dishes on Space Battle Lunchtime [Interview]
Whether it's to a Lisa Frank-ian medieval fantasy dimension or a dish-or-die intergalactic cooking competition, artist and writer Natalie Riess knows a thing or two about sending unwitting Earthlings to dangerous and dazzling new locales. Riess herself is the first person (Earthling or otherwise) to have a project greenlit through 2015's Oni Press open submissions program, where she landed Space Battle Lunchtime, an eight-issue miniseries about an Earthen pastry chef brought to compete for her life in not one, but two cooking competitions. Riess is also known for Snarlbear, her four-year-old comic about a monster slayer in the violent yet vibrant Rainbow Dimension.
ComicsAlliance sat down with Riess at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo where, minutes before the interview, she had just won the day's Iron Cartoonist competition. It turns out creating comics about cooking-themed competitions prepares you to compete in them too.
ComicsAlliance: You've been working on Snarlbear for four years now. What kind of learning experience has that been?
Natalie Riess: Well, the thing about comics is that you have to draw so much that drawing comics I think is the best way to get good at comics. So if I hadn't done those two, three hundred pages of Snarlbear, I would not be anywhere near as good as I am now with Space Battle [Lunchtime]. And, you know, even over Space Battle — if you look at the first page I drew versus the last one I drew — I've gotten way better. Thank goodness!
CA: Is it cool looking at your work and being able to visually see the growth?
NR: Well, it's kind of embarrassing sometimes, because with print comics, as opposed to webcomics, you finish it and then it comes out in print three, four, or five months later. And you're like "oh, that's how I was drawing that. Okay. Cool." [laughs]
CA: In an interview you did with Comics&Cola, you mentioned that Space Battle Lunchtime was initially envisioned as a graphic novel and then it eventually changed into the eight-issue miniseries that it is now. Can you talk about how that caused you to alter your approach and what you learned from that transition?
NR: I think it changed how I was pacing it. When I sent them the outline, I had it broken up into chapters, but, with an issue comic, it has to be 22 pages every time. Which I think actually helped me with writing a little bit.
And now they've made it into a volume so it's basically a graphic novel now.
CA: Is it cool having it in a physical form and having it all there?
NR: Yeah, yeah. It's nice and the printing's a little bit nicer. I think in issue #4, with the printer in the floppy comics, I didn't like the colors as much. But in the trade, it looks really nice. So it's little things like that.
CA: Webcomics give creators a lot of freedom to unravel their stories and build their worlds at a more considered pace. It's clear that you brought that sensibility to Space Battle Lunchtime, where there are a lot of big-picture spreads and focus on details and character beats. Why is that important for you?
NR: I guess I just really like to draw my characters, if that answers the question at all. What do you mean?
CA: Is that something, when you're planning out your story, where you really like having these wide shots and show a great view of the universe —
NR: —oh, like visuals?
NR: Yeah. Actually, when I write, I write in a notebook so I can do little drawings if I have a particular visual in mind. Or especially with like, there's a lot of visual jokes where I'll think about them and they'll be really funny in my head when I'm thinking about them in terms of paneling, but if I write them down, they don't really make sense anymore. So it's better to just scrawl the little goofy face I was going to make in the comic.
CA: Related to that: one of my favorite bits to Space Battle Lunchtime is some of those big shots where you see a lot of background alien species or other details that may not be "plot relevant," but they're a really cool way for readers to get invested in the world building. When you design background characters in Space Battle Lunchtime, do you find yourself giving them backstories or do they stay pretty much at a visual conceptualization stage?
NR: Some of them. I have favorite background characters where I like to think "oh, these two are friends!" or "oh, they have a rivalry" or something. Most of them aren't actually named. But there are background characters that I consistently draw from thing-to-thing or they have sort of a little thing going on, but not super developed.
CA: I personally got invested in the diner scene where there's a robot with one eye and a cat with three eyes —
NR: — Yeah! The cat is based on me and the robot is based on one of my friends! There's a bunch of them that I have based off of friends.
CA: Oh, yeah? That's great. I immediately saw them and was like, "what's their deal?" Cool.
There's a lot of visually appetizing cuisine in Space Battle Lunchtime. Are there any particular dishes that stand out to you as particularly memorable or that you would like to try?
NR: In the comic?
NR: Hm. I really liked — you know in issue #4 when Neb and Peony make the crème brûlée but it's in a fruit? I really liked drawing that. And I think it would taste really good.
I generally try to make everything look generally appealing. So I make it a bright color and make it shiny or have some steam coming off of it.
CA: If I remember correctly, there's a pie that's blue —
NR: The one that Peony makes in issue two?
CA: Yes! I remember seeing that and thinking: can I have that now?
NR: [Laughs] That's a good one.
CA: Space Battle Lunchtime's first arc focused a lot on building the characters, the universe, Peony's role in the competition, and the second arc takes a pretty sharp turn into competitive culinary cannibalism.
NR: Yup, yup.
CA: What can readers expect from arc two?
NR: There's a lot of action-adventure silliness that was a lot of fun to draw. There still is cooking! But it's a little gross. So that's going to be fun.
CA: I remember when we first went to the diner in the story and you see on the television —
NR: — Cannibal Coliseum?
CA: Yeah! And then you see the new character. The cat?
NR: Lil' Magicorn?
CA: Yeah, Lil' Magicorn! And you see her slicing up a competitor and it's strikingly macabre. And you see that and you're like: it's going to get real.
NR: Yeah, I was a little worried about that. In issue six, there's a little bit of violence and I was worried that it might be a little either too much or shocking for people who were like, "hey, I like this cute fun story that's not awful." So I tried to tone it down a little bit.
I hope it'll be okay.
CA: I was wondering about that, how you were trying to keep a balance — keeping within the tone — because it is compelling, Cannibal Coliseum. Those are really strong stakes. No pun intended.
So it was something that you had to figure out how to address within the tone of the story.
NR: Yeah. Because you want to balance scary with — I want people to have a good time. With Snarlbear, there are heads getting ripped off, it's bad. There's a lot of violence. If I did it again, I'd probably tone it down a bit. Whatever. First comic. It's edgy. [Laughs]
But with Space Battle, I definitely thought about that a lot. And I hope it's okay.
CA: Going forward, could you see yourself returning to the Space Battle Lunchtime universe?
NR: I do have a sequel planned. I don't know if or when I'm going to draw it or what format it's going to take, but, you know, I wouldn't mind. I like the characters, I like the style.
CA: I was going to suggest: maybe with a Space Battle Lunchtime cookbook?
NR: Here's the thing. I like to cook, but I don't actually know a whole lot about baked goods and pastry chef stuff. I can follow a recipe and I can make that work. But I usually don't get too creative with baking unless it's something like adding a different filling or topping. Because the actual chemistry of it is so exact. It's basically magic. Or it's like alchemy.
CA: Well, Oni has many creative, different things they have going —
NR: — I guess I could get someone to help me with it and I could just do the illustrations. I don't know. We'll see.