The First Rule Is Everyone Has Fun: Colleen Coover Talks ‘Small Favors’ [Love & Sex Week]
Since its original run from 2002 to 2004, Colleen Coover's Small Favors has been one of the most highly regarded erotic comics of all time. It tells the fantastic story of Annie, a woman who uses up her lifetime supply of self-pleasure and is sentenced to be monitored by a manifestation of her conscience, Nibbil. Unfortunately for her prudish side, Annie and Nibbil quickly fall in love and spend eight issues having extremely imaginative sex with each other and a few new friends --- all within the context of a happy and charmingly romantic love story.
Now, thirteen years since its final issue, a hardcover collection from Limerence Press is set to hit shelves in April, complete with a new story that Coover drew based on a script from the original run. In honor of ComicsAlliance's Love and Sex Week, we spoke to Coover about the history of Small Favors, how the experience shaped her career, and the rules that governed the universe of her "girly porno comic" love story.
ComicsAlliance: As someone who became a fan of yours through reading Small Favors, I’ve always thought of it as the book where you became a breakout star. Was that your experience creating it, though? Did you expect it to be received the way it was?
Colleen Coover: I think I was pretty confident that it would be well received, because while porn is always a hot commodity, it’s not always taken seriously by its creators, you know? It’s like, "Hey, it’s got boning in it — good enough." But I was trying to make good comics first and foremost. So I suspected people would respond well to that intention.
To be honest, I think that’s one of the reasons I didn’t get much on the way of weird harassment as a female creator of porn comics --- also because this was pre-internet. I made it clear that this was a serious project for me, and so the salacious jokes you might expect to hear were really minimal.
CA: On the subject of fan reaction, I actually wrote a fan letter to you, which might have actually been the first one I ever wrote to any comic.
CC: Nice. I only remember a couple of the letters I got now. It was all snail mail to a PO box. I did have a modicum of self-preservation instinct then.
CA: Mine was mainly about how you wrote about how you were once working in a comic book store and people kept coming in to ask for bongs, which was a weird experience that I was also having in 2004.
CC: To be fair, the owner of the shop I worked in (now deceased, sadly) had run a head shop previously. A lot of the adult comics that existed before Small Favors were mostly distributed in head shops. It was one of the things I was reacting to, or maybe against. They were less about sexual entertainment than they were about counter-culture, drug culture, iconoclasm. They were the direct descendants of the Underground Comix era. It didn’t interest me much. I just wanted a sexy comic people could enjoy.
CA: I think that intention comes through in the structure, though. You’ve got those one-page gag strips that are essentially just elaborate sex jokes, but the ongoing narrative of Small Favors is all about building that romance between Annie and Nibbil, which comes off as very genuine in a way that a lot of erotic comics don’t. And then on top of that, you’ve got the fantasy aspect, the size-changing, even the world-building.
CC: Yeah because you can’t just have sex without any context whatsoever. That’s what you get on PornHub or whatever: just a scene with the old in-out. That’s fine, but why would you make a comic of it? Why not just get a series of illustrations? Or Photos?
One of the reasons I started Small Favors is that I wanted to learn how to tell stories in comics. It was like my grad school dissertation in a lot of ways. The material was in part chosen because I figured it wouldn’t get boring in a hurry. But it had to be coherent. It had to have some arc. And I’m just naturally going to put romance in a thing because I love it. I don’t see the point, usually, of a story without some kind of romantic angle.
CA: Was that the starting point? Figuring out the romance? Because while I think that gets a lot of attention in discussions of Small Favors — and rightly so — I’ve always been curious about the other part of the high concept. The idea of a woman being in love with a manifestation of her own conscience is something that has so much going on with it, and then you add in the shapeshifting powers to it, too. And yet, that’s never what comes to mind, it’s always, “This is the cutest, most romantic porn comic ever.”
CC: I think the fantasy bit was pretty heavily influenced by manga, which I was reading more than US comics at the time. Bondage Fairies, obviously, but Ranma 1/2 and Tenchi Muyo and other stories with weird fantastical setups.
I think — I don’t remember — this was the point when spitballing with [husband and collaborator] Paul [Tobin] came into play more. So the tiny thing and the conscience thing was most probably one of his suggestions. But then it all needed to get expanded and follow its own track, so then Nibbil had to be able to get big, because there’s only so many positions you can do with a woman who’s shorter than a Barbie doll. A lot of the stories in Small Favors were generated by figuring out new positions.
And with any storyteller, the characters take over. Nibbil establishes herself as a sexy sprite, naive and earnest. Annie, whose libido is the whole impetus of the situation, is a little more mature, more level-headed. Once you get to know a creation, they pretty much dictate where things can go, if you’re paying attention.
CA: What about Janus and Sage? Did you always intend for Janus to come back after her introduction in the first issue, or was that just something that came along naturally as the story developed and you realized that Nibbil could use a foil?
CC: Yeah, again, there needed to be a little variety. Sage was introduced so there could sometimes be a third, and of course she immediately asserted her own personality: shy, curious, inexperienced but ready. Janus is the source of greatest conflict in the story (which is immediately neutralized by sexy times) but almost more importantly, she fills the role of the naughty librarian type. She’s all stern but oh! when she lets her hair down…
CA: You mentioned Bondage Fairies earlier, and I remember talking to you before about it, and how there are scenes in that comic where it just doesn’t look like anyone’s having fun. Were there other comics that Small Favors was specifically a reaction to, or was it more of just a trend in what you’d see from publishers like Eros at the time?
CC: Yeah, Bondage Fairies was one of those manga where the main storyline is fun adventures, but every once in a while there would be actual torture and violence! I didn’t object to the material so much as the inconsistency. I wanted to produce a sexy comic where the reader wasn’t going to be blind-sided by stuff that made them feel bad.
I don’t want to slag on other specific comics, but as I was mentioning before, a lot of the other adult comics at the time were embracing the “adult” part of comics by going all-in on “stuff you couldn’t publish in a book for kids.” So yes, sex; but also yes, violence; yes, vulgarity. It was all just very weirdly shameful to me.
The number one rule in Small Favors is that everyone is having fun. That was for me as much as it was for my readers.
CA: Are there other rules? Were there stories or ideas or pieces of the world-building that you considered, but that didn’t fit?
CC: One other rule for sure: there were no men in the world of Small Favors. This was not to exclude men as readers, but to remove the sort of assumption that a lot of “lesbian” porn adopts: that this is all happening between girls while they wait for some dude to come along and join in. I never wanted to place the label of lesbian or bi on the girls, because again: this was for everyone, but I wanted lesbian readers to feel that their sexuality was being represented.
All porn is based on voyeurism, so trying to eliminate that aspect from the experience would have been silly, but I never wanted the reader feel that I was making the assumption about who they were.
CA: That’s something else that’s always brought up when people talk about it, and I think it’s because you don’t notice it when it’s just Annie and Nibbil and their neighbor, but once they start getting out and you see crowd scenes, it’s just this Amazing World of Girls.
CC: It is amazing! I hope I never made men feel excluded. I don’t think I did. One time Spain Rodriguez asked me, “Where’s all the cock?” but I think he was an outlier.
CA: So looking back on it now, what was the experience of creating Small Favors like? You called it a graduate thesis earlier, and it’s evident that you learned a lot about making comics just over the course of those eight issues.
CC: That’s exactly right. I learned a lot about cartooning, which I think you can tell from the progression of the earlier art to the final issue, and how to incorporate acting into my characters. But more importantly, I learned how to be disciplined in my work schedule; how to make a deadline; how to talk to a publisher about what I wanted versus what they wanted. It taught me to regard myself as a professional. I got a lot of help in that from my peers, who saw that I was serious about my craft and took me serious as an artist in return.
It also helped my decide that I didn’t want to do porn comics forever. In part because of that no bummers rule. I wanted to be able to expand my craft and tell stories with more depth and a wider audience. I think the first thing I did after the end of Small Favors was a story called The Boogeyman for an all-woman anthology Diana Schutz put together called Sexy Chix (which was supposed to be an ironic title but I think was mostly misunderstood). The story was the complete opposite of Small Favors. Its was the saddest thing I could think of: a woman coping badly with the death of her husband in a car crash she survived. It was dark.
But it worked! It was the serous little story that helped me to say to myself yes, I am a comics artist, not a porno comics artist. It was also a super downer to work on after all that happy bubbly sex romping.
CA: What was it like to revisit Small Favors for the hardcover?
CC: It was a little strange. I still love these girls so it was like getting back in touch with old friends. But for one thing all that art is super old to me now! I drew up a short story for the hardcover that had been written I don’t know how many years ago, so it was interesting to see what Annie and Nibbil look like drawn by now me. But mostly I find myself thinking, this was really good! I did a good job! So that’s a success.
CA: You’ve talked in the past about how difficult it is to publish erotic comics in the existing direct market, but the years since Small Favors ended have seen an interesting shift, where we have things like Oglaf, Chester 5000, or Smut Peddler that can exist as successes outside of the traditional market. With that in mind, and with a decade doing a ton of diverse projects between the last issue and the hardcover, would you ever go back to Small Favors for new stories?
CC: I think it was valuable to my growth as a cartoonist as my first major thing. But while I love that fact that it’s going to be out there again, I don’t want my future to be a rerun of my past. Right now I’m having the most fun of my career making Bandette. When and if that plays itself out, I’m going to want to work on something else that’s new and fresh.
That sounds kind of like I’m down on the past, but I don’t mean it that way. I’m just more interested in what unknown thing the future has in store!
Small Favors goes on sale in April from Limerence Press.