Greg Pak and Jonathan Coulton on the Kickstarter for ‘The Princess Who Saved Herself’ [Interview]
Back in 2013, comic book writer Greg Pak, musician Jonathan Coulton and artist Takeshi Miyazawa launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a comic book adaptation of Coulton's songs called Code Monkey Save World. If you're familiar with Coulton, it probably won't surprise you to learn that the campaign blew through its $39,000 goal in less than twelve hours, and went on to blow through a bunch of stretch goals --- one of which included Pak and Miyazawa producing a children's book based on Coulton's "The Princess Who Saved Herself."
If you were a backer (and I was), then you got that children's book today in a digital format, but the team isn't quite done with it yet. They've launched a new Kickstarter with a goal of producing a physical copy of the book, and to find out why, I spoke to Pak and Coulton about the response to their initial campaign, the origin of the project, and what they hope to get out of it.
ComicsAlliance: The Princess Who Saved Herself book has its roots in the kickstarter for Code Monkey Save World back in 2013, right?
Greg Pak: Yep.
Jonathan Coulton: I expected that to be a longer answer.
GP: Our amazing backers funded the production of the book as a stretch goal. We promised to deliver it digitally, which we did [this] morning! So getting the chance to do a stand-alone children's book was just perfect.
JC: Much better. But that's the nice thing about a Kickstarter --- you get funding so that you can make stuff, and then you're free to not really worry about the complications of marketing and selling it. It can just be fun stuff that you like.
CA: Let's talk about that original Kickstarter. You ended up getting $340,000, which ten times your original goal, but given how popular you both are I can't imagine that was entirely unexpected.
JC: Ha! No, it was totally unexpected. We were absolutely blown away.
GP: Yeah. The night before, we were talking and basically crossing our fingers that we'd hit our initial $39,000 goal. We had no idea and ended up so grateful.
JC: I remember some early charts we made that had stretch goals at points we passed in the first few hours. It was nuts. It made the project better though --- we were able to make the book longer, add additional bonus sections, and of course create this Princess book.
CA: Right, which brings me to what I think is the obvious question: Hasn't this book already been Kickstarted? Is the new one just to give readers a second chance at getting a crack at it?
GP: Well, the original stretch goal gave us the ability to make the book in digital form. The new Kickstarter is really to create physical copies of the book. Beautiful hardcovers you can hold in your hand and read to small children again and again.
JC: Another example of how independent creators like us are lucky to be living in the future --- we honestly don't know what the demand is for a printed edition, but with crowd funding we don't have to wonder.
GP: Yep, we can put it out there and folks will tell us what, whether, and how much of it they want.
CA: So what do the charts look like this time? Are you expecting a bigger response?
GP: Once again, we have no idea. I'm just going to be thrilled to hit the goal and be able to print the books.
JC: Quite honestly, no idea. I hope people want it. I would love to have a copy for myself anyway. Maybe we should have set the goal at $25?
GP: We are consciously trying to create a simpler Kickstarter to manage on our end, though. Fewer rewards, fewer physical objects. We did mugs and T-shirts and posters and challenge coins for CMSW, which was a blast and we loved all of that and have zero regrets. But for this Kickstarter, we really just want to print the book and the rewards are mainly the book itself, the song it's based on, and stickers. Because you always need stickers.
JC: I have plenty of stickers actually.
GP: You need more stickers.
CA: I was wondering about stretch goals because of that. So many songs were incorporated into Code Monkey Save World, including, eventually, The Princess Who Saved Herself, that it made me wonder what you could possibly do for stretch goals this time. I mean, I know Jonathan is very prolific as a songwriter but there has to be an upper limit on songs that would make good comics.
JC: No, you're right, there is definitely an upper limit!
GP: Heh. We do have some stretch goals in mind. But we'll wait and see what happens before we say too much.
JC: Yes, I was writing a kids' song for a family music compilation CD called Many Hands that was a benefit for earthquake relief in Haiti. My oldest child is a daughter and I've always been thrilled with her approach to life. She's like a steamroller. Tough kid, but also really intro princesses and frilly dresses and cakes and not wearing socks. So I wanted to write a fairy tale where the princess was just fine thank you, and actually she was the one who was going to help everyone else out.
CA: That does raise the question of where she was getting all these cakes, though.
JC: Yeah, my bad. She's so cute though.
JC: The socks thing is true. She went through a phase where she was just like, "No thanks, I don't wear socks." Winter, snow, doesn't matter. Principles.
GP: What I love about this fully formed character that jumps out at you from the song is that she's this amazing kid who tackles every problem head on, sometimes totally kicking ass in a fun way, but ultimately, she deals with everything and everyone with compassion. She's a real hero.
JC: Yeah, you pointed out, Greg, that she wins by inviting all her would-be adversaries into her world, which is a good trick. The soft power moves of a compassionate princess (should have been the subtitle of the book).
CA: Has your daughter seen the storybook version? I imagine she's the litmus test for it.
JC: Not yet because it doesn't exist as a printed book yet! Actually, I showed her some of the drawings along the way, she thought they were awesome. But we haven't sat down and read through the whole thing yet.
CA: That's a great marketing campaign. "Please back the Kickstarter, or else I can never read this book to my daughter… you monsters."
GP: Writing that down.
CA: In my head, she was the one looking over designs from Takeshi Miyazawa, giving final approval, but I'm willing to accept that this might be a better version of reality.
JC: Ha! That's why I didn't let her too far into the process. She's not the boss of me.
CA: Greg, in the lead up to the announcement, one of the things you emphasized was that you were working on a project involving two women in lead roles, which turned out to be the princess and the witch. This isn't the first time you've done that, right?
GP: I don't think so. I just made a short film "Happy Fun Room" that has almost all female leads. My Storm book for Marvel features a ton of female characters. Storm and Creep in the first issue, Storm and Callisto in the second, and my X-Treme X-Men book was a team book with Dazzler as the star. But The Princess Who Saved Herself does indeed pass the Bechdel test, in case anyone was wondering. It's definitely one of those things I think about. It's particularly relevant with children's books. There's still a big under-representation of female leads and POC leads in kids' lit.
CA: That was something I wanted to mention, too. We've seen a lot of people sort of taking that head on in the world of comics in recent years, with Princeless being a pretty notable example.
GP: Yeah, Jeremy Whitley's a great guy and he's consistently gotten out there with diverse books.
CA: With that in mind, did both of you take a look at other children's books to see how they were built? In a lot of ways, the storybook as it exists now has this interesting feel where it's definitely more of a "storybook" than a "comic" --- there's comic style lettering, and it's coming from comics creators, for an audience that was originally backing a comic. Was there any desire there to bridge the two formats into one, or is it just how it happened?
JC: As a parent, I've looked at children's books for more hours than I care to calculate. I actually love how this one moves in and out of that comic feel.
GP: I've been secretly writing children's books for a couple of years now, actually. The Princess Who Saved Herself is the first one to see the light of day, but I've loved reading and rereading classic kids' picture books over the years, and I love the similarities with comics. In The Night Kitchen is basically comics. Captions and word balloons and everything. But with The Princess Who Saved Herself, I wanted to to go more picture book than comic book. It's based on Jonathan's song and borrows the rhythm of the actual lyrics, so it wanted a verse-like narration. And I didn't want to overload on dialogue from the characters' mouths. Just didn't feel like for this almost fable-like story.
JC: Yeah, and I guess both formats use a lot of the same tricks as it is. Picking a moment for each image, capturing a facial expression that sums it up. Story text and some dialog bubbles when necessary. And when you have all those different narrative threads happening, it gives you lots to look at and think about.
GP: So we're mixing in some comic book elements when appropriate. But it's probably closer in spirit to a picture book. I also went through an early draft of the script and removed or consolidated about half of the images. So each page has one or sometimes two strong images but we're not feeling compelled to sequentially detail every aspect of every action hinted at in the story.
CA: I think what you mean is that you're robbing readers of the sixteen-page guitar tuning sequence, Greg.
GP: That's our first stretch goal.
JC: That sequence was amazing. So sad we had to cut it.
CA: Did it go through multiple drafts that were more traditionally comic-like at the start?
GP: Yep. I always thought of it as a picture book, but when I looked at the first draft, I saw I'd written a comic book with three panel pages. So I simplified and I think it's much better.
CA: What do you hope to get out of the project, aside from just meeting the monetary goal?
GP: I just want to give the book the chance to get into the hands of people who want it. One of my big thoughts about independent art in general is that the audience is probably out there. It's really a question of reaching them. We're lucky to be living at a time when tools like Kickstarter help us find the folks who might want the stuff we make.
JC: I also feel good about the message, and want it to range as far and wide as it wants to go. I was just saying earlier today, if you have any doubt that the culture wants girls and boys to be a certain way, all you have to do is watch your kids grow up. It's almost creepy the way they pick up on ideas that you might even have actively tried to avoid planting in their heads. "That's a boy's color." Stuff like that. So if this thing pushes back against that a little, that maybe makes up for some of the times I've contributed to the problem.
Check out The Princess Who Saved Herself on Kickstarter.