‘GloomCookie’ Author Serena Valentino on Wicked Disney and the Elegance of Villains [Interview]
GloomCookie, created by writer Serena Valentino and artist Ted Naifeh (Polly and the Pirates, Princess Ugg), was one of the first comic book series I read. The black-and-white comic published by Slave Labor Graphics featured a cast of friends in San Francisco’s goth scene; at the center of the series’ drama is Lex, a petite Louise Brooks look-alike, whose trials and tribulations in love range from the comically absurd (the antics of her suitor Vermillion, the “bad goth poet”) to the supernaturally tragic (the pain of her eternal love Damion). GloomCookie’s story of love and loss (and girl talk over coffee) continued through 29 issues, with art by John Gebbia, Breehn Burns, Harley Sparx, and Vincent Batignole.
GloomCookie’s villain is the evil queen of the goth club scene, Isabella, whose cruelty to Lex both hides and reveals her own innate insecurity and pain. So it was no surprise that when Disney Press introduced a series of middle grade novels about their animated feature films’ villains, they tapped Valentino to write the novel about the Wicked Queen from Snow White; Fairest of All.
I was lucky enough to become Valentino’s editor when I worked at SLG from 2001 until 2012. During this time, Valentino created Nightmares & Fairy Tales with artist Foo Swee Chin (later working with Crab Scrambly and Camilla d’Errico), a series of horror stories centered on a cursed doll named Annabelle. Nightmares & Fairy Tales’ '1140 Rue Royale' story arc told the fictionalized story of New Orleans’ most infamous villain: Delphine LaLaurie.
Fairest of All, published in 2009, humanizes Snow White’s vain, murderous stepmother. It was followed in 2014 by The Beast Within, about the cursed prince from Beauty And The Beast, and 2016 will see the publication of Poor Unfortunate Soul, about the sea witch Ursula from The Little Mermaid.
In the meantime, Valentino keeps her readers supplied with horror stories with her Fearsome Library subscription service, sending subscribers monthly vignettes, excerpts, and installments of serialized short stories. She describes Fearsome Library as “Bringing readers into exquisitely frightening worlds filled with terror, beauty and extraordinary female protagonists.”
Who better to talk to about the ways and wiles of villainous characters for our October-long Villain Month?
ComicsAlliance: Tell us about the novels you're writing for Disney. What are your goals in telling the origin story of Disney's best-known monsters and villains?
Serena Valentino: Some time back I was given the opportunity to write the backstory for the Wicked Queen from Disney’s Snow White, called Fairest of All. It’s heartbreaking story of abuse, neglect, and overwhelming grief. I think what I loved most about the story was the loving relationship between the Wicked Queen and Snow White when the queen first comes to marry Snow’s father. It was interesting to explore another side of this woman who was deeply flawed, and wounded by her abusive father, and to see how no matter her intentions to the contrary she continued that cycle of abuse with her daughter Snow White, whom she had once loved deeply.
With the second novel, The Beast Within, I decided to broaden the scope of the universe of these characters. I had created a trio of identical witches for Fairest of All called the Odd Sisters. They were cousins to Snow White’s father and were partially responsible for the queen’s downfall. I decided to bring them into the Beast’s story and introduce their little sister Circe, whom the Beast spurns, causing the sister witches to curse him and enchant his castle.
The tone of the Beast’s story was very different from the Wicked Queen’s, and I wanted something to connect the books in a compelling way. I probably had more fun writing The Beast Within; while the Wicked Queen’s story is full of grief and heartbreak, the Beast’s was filled with an interesting array of colorful and quirky characters, and I had the opportunity to further explore the Odd Sisters in a way I hadn’t actually planned when I created them for Fairest of All.
The Beast was an interesting choice when writing about villains. Most of the Disney fans don’t see the Beast as a villain; they see him as the cuddly adorable Beast from the film surrounded by dancing flatware and teapots --- a misunderstood outcast. Though that’s an interesting take, that’s not how I saw him (and my story doesn’t include dancing household items of any kind).
When I tackle these stories I want to know how these villains have found themselves in these situations. I want to know why the Wicked Queen decided to murder her own daughter. In the context of these films the villains are rather underdeveloped, leaving a lot of room for me to explore them and their motivations. I ask myself a series of questions about these characters. Like with Ursula from The Little Mermaid, for example. I asked myself how she came to live in the Unprotected Waters beyond Triton’s realm, collecting souls. She had clearly been a part of his kingdom but was outcast, and it made me wonder what their relationship was like before she was sent away, and what exactly had Triton had done to cause Ursula to want to destroy him.
So I suppose my goal is to explore all these unanswered questions and to create a compelling story with characters the readers can relate to. I feel like I’m giving these villains a voice, and a chance to tell their stories from their point of view, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking.
CA: What characteristics do you think make a compelling villain?
SV: I would say the very same characteristics that make any character compelling, and it is of course different from character to character. There is no definitive answer.
CA: Why do you think people are attracted to villains as characters?
SV: Probably for the same reasons I am. The unanswered questions. We want to know why. Sometimes there is a very relatable reason for these character’s actions, and sometimes they are simply evil or deranged. And on a purely aesthetic note, often they happen to be the best dressed, and quite frankly possess the most interesting personalities of the lot.
CA: In your creator-owned comics series GloomCookie, readers get to know more about the main villain, Isabella, in a way that humanizes her. Was that something you intended from the beginning or did you discover more about Isabella as you thought about how monsters are created?
SV: I think I got to know Isabella organically, as I wrote her story. The better I got to know her, the more of her story she shared with me. (That probably sounds insane, but that’s my process.) I think I did the same thing with her as I do with my Disney villains. I asked myself why. I tend to do this with most of my work.
A lot of my stories are inspired by historical events, things I’ve read. I remember reading a story about a convent in New Orleans, and while replacing the wall that surrounded the property the workers found the skeletal remains of many babies. My mind just whirled at the various reasons this happened. I think people have this erroneous concept about writers (especially about those who write horror), that we are immune to the real horrors in life. I think we are actually profoundly affected by them, and our way of dealing with these emotions is by writing about them. Exorcising the images plaguing our minds. So in my process of asking myself why these baby skeletons were found under the surrounding the wall of this convent, I came up with Dominique’s backstory in Nightmares & Fairy Tales, which eventually became part of Delphine La Laurie’s story in Nightmares & Fairy Tales: 1140 Rue Royale.
How monsters are created has been an ongoing theme in my storytelling since GloomCookie, and I think Isabella was my first. I think I tend to fall in love with my characters, even if they are deeply flawed or horrible and that makes me want to explore them, like Dominique; she was an exceedingly horrible person, she was a monster --- but I wanted to know what caused her to become that monster, and that story was even more horrific than anything Dominique went on to do.
CA: What are your favorite aspects of some of the villains you've written?
SV: That’s so hard to answer. I love their humanity, their flaws, their strengths, their mania, their fortitude, intelligence, elegance, and their sometimes strange way of speaking. I love their skewed moral compass, and their righteousness. It’s all psychologically very interesting to me.
Serena Valentino is offering a special gift to anyone who subscribes to her Fearsome Library service in the month of October! Subscribe via her Patreon page.
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