‘Adventure Time: Seeing Red’ Writer Kate Leth On Marceline And Jake’s Quest For The Axe [Interview]
Kate Leth is a kind of comics renaissance woman: web cartoonist; retail leader; self-publisher; artist-for-hire contributing to Locke & Key, The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, and numerous projects for BOOM! Studios; and, most recently, a ComicsAlliance guest contributor. But this spring, Leth's taking on a new role. With Adventure Time: Seeing Red, the third original graphic novel based on the popular Cartoon Network series, Leth's taken on her first job writing comics -- and she's using the opportunity to take Marceline the Vampire Queen and Jake the Dog on a weekend trip to the Nightosphere.
To find out more about Leth and her new OGN with artist Zachary Sterling, we spoke to Leth about approaching comics as a critic, retailer and creator at the same time, her love of Adventure Time, and why she identifies with Marceline as "an angsty teen at heart."
ComicsAlliance: I think it's important to get this out of the way first: You're a ComicsAlliance contributor.
Kate Leth: Yep.
CA: But you also work at a comic book store called Strange Adventures in Halifax, so you're someone working in criticism, retail and as a professional creator at the same time.
KL: As well as organizing a massive group of women who work in comic shops. I'm kind of at it from every angle. Comics is all that I do.
CA: There are a lot of people who came up in comics from working in shops, but not a lot of people have done all these different aspects at the same time. Is that difficult to approach, or is it just an aspect of just doing comics all the time?
KL: It can be difficult, I think. This year, I'm working less at the comic book store. I've cut down my hours a little bit, just simply by necessity of how many projects I'm working on, which is hard. I've never worked freelance. I've always had that day job, and I'm very financially concerned.
CA: It's terrifying.
KL: It is terrifying! So you're trying to organize more recurring projects and ongoing paychecks that you can rely on, which is something I'm trying to set up before I take the leap. But it does, it takes up a lot of my time. I don't socialize as much as I used to. I work on weekends and nights, all the time. A lot of people in comics are in the same boat that way. But I love it, it works for me right now.
CA: Does that affect the way you go after work at all, though? Is there ever a conflict when you're pitching a story?
KL: There have been a couple projects where I've had to get people to cover my shifts at work, because I just don't have enough time when I have to get them done. Especially with writing, I find for me, it takes longer to get into it. There's so much editing and going back over things. I'd like to say that I know what I'm doing right now, but I'm kind of figuring it out as I go. I keep getting more projects and it keeps taking up more of my time, which is awesome, but balancing it all is hectic.
CA: So what brought you to Adventure Time?
KL: I really liked it. I started working with Adventure Time when the Marceline and the Scream Queens miniseries happened, and I posted on Tumblr that I was really interested in doing it. My words were actually "I would kill a baby to work on this comic." [laughs] And Shannon [Watters], the editor, sent me an email that said, "Don't resort to that! Let's do a cover and a backup!" Then I did a couple more things for Fionna and Cake, a couple things for Bravest Warriors, and then Shannon just asked if I wanted to write a book. I was very excited and surprised. It's really exciting and I love it. I've watched every episode, so it's really fun to work in a universe that I'm super comfortable with.
CA: So just so we're clear, you did not end up killing that baby.
KL: No. I got the job, but otherwise...
CA: Was there a lot of pressure from editorial? Like "Okay, put the baby down!"
KL: There was a very nervous set of parents in my neighborhood.
CA: They hired you to write the graphic novel. It's drawn by Zachary Sterling. Was there ever a discussion of you drawing it? I think most people probably know you as a cartoonist rather than a writer.
KL: No, right from the get-go, they wanted Zachary to draw it. He'd done the first two, and he's amazing. His stuff keeps getting better and better. They wanted to stick with him, and [previous Adventure Time graphic novel writer] Danielle [Corsetto]'s schedule got really busy. They knew I was really comfortable writing for those characters and liked them a lot, so they took a chance on me to write it. It was my first job ever writing for someone else to draw, ever. That was a really strange experience, but I ended up really liking it and want to do more.
CA: Was it weird for you to give up that level of control? Do you work from scripts when you're doing your own comics?
KL: When I do my own comics, a lot of it is ad-libbed. I have a script in my head, but as I get it down on paper, as I'm drawing, it changes, and I'll often go back and edit it. I haven't done a lot of long form stuff. Most of my comics are one or two pages, so even writing something that was 140 pages was a massive change.
I don't know. Zachary's really awesome, we talked a bunch and he would come back to me and get clarification on things, but I was pretty intense about my descriptions. Oftentimes he surprised me with how things turned out, and they're wonderful. I was just giddy looking at the whole thing.
CA: Was there any sort of back-and-forth process during the writing, or did you write it all at once?
KL: I wrote it all at once, because the scripts get written and then, obviously, they have to be vetted by Cartoon Network to make sure there's not any continuity issues or conflict, or "we can't show this in the comic." After I edited it and sent it back, it went off to Zack, so it was a pretty separate process, which was a little strange for me, just waiting. You get this whole big thing finished, and then you wait a couple months before you actually see it, but when I finally did, it was so exciting and strange and wonderful.
I understand the limitations of my drawing ability, and Zack has so much more in certain ways. I thought about it this way in my head, and if I'd drawn it, that's what it would look like, but then he draws it and it turns out so much better. It was really neat. It was like "this is better than I could've ever made it, if I was drawing it," and that's a good feeling.
CA: I ask because a lot of times, when you're working with an unfamiliar artist, even one that you like, you'll start with really tight panel descriptions and then loosen up as it comes in and you get more comfortable. By the end of it, even by virtue of just doing 140 pages at once, were you just like "Panel 5: Jake."
KL: Definitely. It gets to a point where there are a couple parts that are very dialogue heavy, and you figure at that point that they get it. It becomes "Panel 2: Marceline says this, Panel 3: Jake says this," because you have to. You get to a point where you've written 140 pages and you just have to get through this part, but I went back through and was pretty descriptive. A lot of parts, I'd just kind of say what I'd want a monster to look like, but have fun with it. You're going to have to draw it 17 times, so draw it in a way that's fun for you. I also put in a lot of apologies for crowd shots.
CA: I'm very fond of the guy who has four eyes and wears two monocles.
KL: I love him! That was really fun. I wanted each part of it, because they're traveling through these different areas of the Nightosphere and I wanted each area to have a cohesive look, so all the monsters are described as having a set of body parts too many. If they have two arms, they have four arms, if they have two eyes, they have four eyes. That's the only thing I wanted, so have fun drawing it.
I really wanted him to have fun drawing it, because that makes something so much better, and he seems to, and he said he's having a lot of fun. That makes a better comic.
CA: About the story itself, this is a Marceline and Jake story, which is not a team-up you see too often.
KL: Yeah, I'm really excited about that! It was funny, when I originally pitched, they asked which characters I'd like to do, and my pitch was BMO and Lumpy Space Princess, which is exactly who is in Pixel Princesses, but that hadn't been announced yet. So they're like "Okay, no," and I told them I really wanted to write Marceline. I like the idea of her and Jake, because that's a very platonic friendship. They're working together and they're teaming up, and I like to think that Marceline's a little more tough in this story, and they don't have as comfortable a relationship as they do with Finn, so I think that makes for more interesting interactions. I hope it turned out that way.
CA: It's Marceline and Jake, but then you put Marceline in this situation where she's not only not the scariest person, she's also out of her element in how she's interacting with Jake.
KL: Marceline, for me, is this ultimate embodiment of teen angst. Even though she's a thousand years old, she's still dealing with that same stuff, and I think people really love that character. I really love that character, because I'm an angsty teen at heart. You get people like that in a group of friends that are really tough, she's the rock star, but when you're dealing with your family, it's an entirely different situation and you're not in control. You're out of your element. She has an uncomfortable relationship there, and I wanted to explore that, and to have a friend there that isn't someone she's super open and candid with. I thought it would be an interesting contrast.
CA: One of the interesting pieces of the book comes from seeing the history of Marceline's axe. You've been to conventions, you've seen it, everyone loves that axe!
KL: I was so excited to write that, you have no idea!
CA: Was that based on anything that I've missed on the show, or was it all you?
KL: It was all me. I thought that if I was going to do a book, if they were going to give me 140 pages, I want to do something different. I want to introduce a new element, I want to change the way you look at something. I don't want to come in and tell a story and not affect anything. I wanted to have that change, and writing that whole part, I felt very satisfied with it. Plus I got to put in an homage to the armor Gary Oldman wears in Bram Stoker's Dracula. That was really exciting.
There's only a couple of really specific references to things in it, but that one... if Hunson Abadeer was going to wear armor, that would be it.
CA: Did you have it in the script that every time we see him in the armor, he's in the same pose?
KL: No, that was Zack. I think that really works. There were so so many things when I was reading it, it had been so long since I'd written and edited it, I had so much distance. Sitting down and reading it, I could almost detach myself enough to read it like it wasn't mine, which is good, so I wouldn't pick on my own writing so much. There were so many visual things that Zack did with it that blew me away, and I was just cackling. He did such a good job with it.
CA: You talked about it having to be approved by Cartoon Network, and I know it goes through the people at Adventure Time too. Was there anything you had to change from giving the origin of the axe, or was it just "That's awesome"?
KL: They were really like, "That's great." There wasn't much that I had to change from when I wrote it. I was surprised, and it made me feel like I was a good writer, which is a nice feeling. There were a couple minor things that I had to adjust for continuity's sake, a couple of minor characters that they didn't want me to include, but nothing major. Nothing more than a panel change or a reference.
It was cool, they really let me run with it and have fun. That was awesome. That was a really fun feeling.
CA: That's got to be nice when there's this show with an intricate backstory that's revealed piece by piece, and you ask to do one of those pieces and they're like, "Cool, we like it."
KL: There were originally a whole bunch of things that I wanted to explore and talk about that haven't been on the show or in the comics, but I wanted to stick to one thing, with Marceline, her dad and the guitar. It's one thing, but I think it's a fun thing. I hope people are going to be into it. I think they will, but you never know.
CA: Getting back to the visuals, I was actually surprised that it was black and white.
KL: The first two OGNs are as well. It was weird, I kept forgetting as I was writing it, and would describe things. One of the outfits that Marceline wears at one point, I wanted to be burgundy and grey, and realized no, it's all grey. Then you go back and say, "This one's dark grey!" and, "This one's lighter grey!" That was strange. I think of Adventure Time as being such a colorful world, but them being in the Nightosphere most of the time, it's mostly shades of red, so it works as shades of grey.
CA: It's funny, because the title is "Seeing Red."
KL: Yeah, it was black and white right from the start. Some of those elements really do like color as an addition, but I tried to work around for different stuff and make it a gag. I like working within limitations. It was probably harder for Zack.
CA: The setting really does help, since they're in this strange, dark place. Jake especially sticks out, because he's all white against these dark grey backgrounds. He looks like he's really in a place where he doesn't belong.
KL: I really wanted to emphasize that. He's not in his element, he's not with Finn. He's just kind of along for the ride. He has his moments, but I think he would not be comfortable without his buddy.
I love this idea of so much going on in Ooo at any given time, and all these different characters are living their own stories and having their own adventures, and there's so much that you don't see. When Marceline and Jake come back from this weekend, nobody's even going to ask. They're just going to hang out.
CA: How long did it take you to write it?
KL: Probably about three weeks to a month? I'm a sporadic writer. I have a day job, I have other obligations, so some days I'll only get to do five or ten pages, and then other days I'll sit down and write thirty or forty, and have to go back and edit it. I went away for a weekend at one point to a place without wifi and wrote half of it.
CA: That's a nightmare.
KL: Yeah, but I had to do it. I'm so easily distracted. It worked out, I think.
CA: When you're going into it like that, and living with it, does it change how you look at the characters? Did you come away thinking of Marceline differently than you went in?
KL: Probably a little bit. My method throughout the book was that about every 20 pages, I'd make myself sit down and watch a Marceline episode of Adventure Time, to make sure that I was staying in her voice. I'd start writing her a little differently, or start coloring it with my own reactions to those experiences, and I tried to stay within that. She's so different in the show. There's a lot of levels there, a lot of things to play with. She's very interesting, and she's a thousand years old. She can be a lot of different things.
Adventure Time: Seeing Red goes on sale March 5 from BOOM! Studios kaboom! imprint.