She-Dwarf’s Leaving Home in Kyle Latino’s ‘Savage Beard of She Dwarf’ [Webcomic Q&A]
At the vanguard of the comics industry, there are no pre-order books, gatekeepers, and there is for sure no Diamond. Instead, there are webcomics. With their greater reader accessibility and opportunities for creator freedom, webcomics have proven themselves a creative phoenix, surging away from the alienation and familiarity that often dominates the mainstream industry. Thanks to crowdfunding avenues like Kickstarter and Patreon, it's now easier than ever for creators to sustain their passion and soar on their own creative wings.
To kick off a new series of interviews with webcomic creators, ComicsAlliance talked with artist Kyle Latino about his webcomic The Savage Beard of She Dwarf, a story where even the burliest foes can be defeated in a beard wrestling match.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for She Dwarf? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Kyle Latino: I was doodling a female dwarf and, next to it, I wrote, “The Savage Beard of She Dwarf,” so much of the tone and character came to me all at once from that little doodle. She had this long two-pointed beard and three pony tails that made her face look like a hairy explosion. There is a line from the the Peter Jackson Fellowship of the Ring when Aragorn slyly hints that dwarven women have beards. It was a joke that wasn’t in the book, and it expresses a narrow view of beauty and gender, but it captured my imagination.
The name “She Dwarf” is a nod to the terrible and perfect name of She Hulk. As for the setting, I draw much of my inspiration from the Tolkien, RPGs, Legend of Zelda, etc. People often guess that I’ve read more Pratchett than I have. It’s very interesting to me how, when some readers feel they recognize a reference, they assume they’ve gotten the jist, and can shut down before they really get to what I’m doing differently. This is the peril of using pop culture references, I have learned.
CA: What’s it about?
KL: If you mean by this “What happens”; What happens is a young dwarf, possibly the last of her race, leaves home for the first time to seek the lost dwarven kingdom of Dammerung. She pulls someone’s beard off their face and gets swindled into killing a dragon on the first day of her adventure. She also likes to take elaborate scented baths.
If you mean “What is the story about”; it’s about leaving home to pursue a dream, and how dangerous and awful that can be when you don’t know anything about yourself or anyone else.
CA: As you mention with your references and inspiration for She Dwarf, there’s a clear medieval fantasy foundation to the story, but it’s not limited to genre conventions. There’s a sphinxian gatekeeper and a wide host of anthropomorphic creatures, including my favorite: the Shorcs (shark-orcs). Does the world of She Dwarf have style guidelines, or is its style that there is no limit?
KL: She Dwarf does have a style guide. Things are not as random as they appear. When I started creating the comic, I also wrote an outline document that covers eons of history, from before the universe was created to the moment in the story in the comic.
The Shorcs are not only an amusing portmanteau, they are the product of an epic love story that will never be told… a love story between sharks and orcs. Like, okay, imagine Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but with talking sharks and like ripped, hunky orcs that get kidnapped by the sharks, and at first they are like, not into it, but then they all dance and everyone gets into it.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
KL: The intended audience is me in my late teens. All the pain and triumph of attempting to achieve the dreams of my early adulthood are wrapped up in She Dwarf: struggling with my art, ambition, toxic masculinity, and identity. She Dwarf is largely a warning I can’t send to myself when I needed it. I hope young cartoonists and dreamers read this comic and find understanding, wisdom, and cute butts.
I would give it whatever content warning you would give Raiders of the Lost Ark. I don’t revel in violence and sex, but you need to be prepared to see the occasional face melt. If you are on Twitter or Tumblr, you’ve certainly already consented to seeing more shocking imagery than I am likely to enjoy drawing.
CA: There’s a moment in the comic where She Dwarf has to kill someone. Though it’s an act of self-defense, she still expresses deep remorse for having to take another life. Would you say that compassion is a key element to She Dwarf’s character?
KL: As a reader, it is very difficult for me to root for a character who shows no compassion. Even in a fantasy comic, with monsters and shark men, I would not root for a gleeful or senseless murderer. Compassion is a key element to me, I hope, and I want to make comics that reflect that.
CA: In addition to the magnificently-bearded She Dwarf herself, there are a great many female supporting and background characters who aren’t subject to the normative gender coding so often present in other media. This isn’t the Emojimovie. Could you speak to why that’s an important aspect to She Dwarf’s world-building and character design?
KL: It’s important world-building in the sense that I hope it helps to build a better world for us somehow. White straight cis males with entitlement issues (such as myself) have been the default in mainstream western fantasy fiction basically since the invention of printing press. I think it is interesting and exciting to switch the default “that” to “not that.”
But, man, I get nervous talking about why I make the characters I make. It makes it seem like I’m trying to claim credit for something. In the world of webcomics, what I’m doing with gender and culture isn’t new or exciting. It’s remarkably well trod ground, and the folks who have made webcomics amazing and inclusive aren’t white straight cis males with entitlement issues.
CA: Has your creative approach for the webcomic itself changed since its inception?
KL: In so many ways. For chapters 1-3, I wrote out rough outlines, and went straight into rough pencils, not really planning the next chapter until I came to it. But then I ran into this flashback chapter, which was going to cut away from the main character for about six months, and that wouldn’t do.
I’ve been drawing comics for about nine years, but this is my first real weekly webcomic. Learning what works on a page-a-week pace versus 20 page floppies has been an interesting challenge. So now, I’m all plotted out in scene-by-scene detail for about two years. I wish I knew then what I knew now, but I feel the beginning is still an enjoyable story and a strong introduction to the characters and world.
I also like to incorporate reader feedback where it is appropriate. I may have a new character in mind to fill a role where the readers would like to see me revisit a character they already know and love. She Dwarf is a road story, so some of those revisits might take some time to get to, sometimes. Muscle Hawk, the mysterious barbarian war chief, is a character that I’ve built up earlier than originally planned because the readers like him so much.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
KL: I love webcomics because it’s me, my readers, and that’s it. The people who read She Dwarf are there for what I want to show them, not because this fits into their collection of every appearance of their favorite '70s superhero. With web, I feel there is more room to enjoy the story on its own terms. It’s not about the ins-and-outs of the direct market.
I’ve experimented with Tapastic, but I found it to be exhausting. Many of my comments on that site were people telling me how they wanted me to format the pages or set my release schedule. Sure you might get a lot of readers, but in my experience, those readers are so weighed down by the the site’s interface and sheer tonnage of comics they are following on it, that it wasn’t the environment that I wanted to be a part of. The best way to read She Dwarf is to follow me on Twitter and go to SheDwarf.com.
Special recognition is due to my friend, Chris Salzman, who helps me with website stuff all the time.
CA: What’s your process like?
KL: I like to work with physical media whenever possible, and I have designed the workflow to be as quick as possible. I pencil, ink and letter the comic by hand at 8”x10” to save time; if I work at the traditional 11x17, I’ll fill up all that extra space with details, which really slows things down. I’ll mark the black fills with Xs on the page, and fill them in digitally when scan it in to color it. All colors are taken from a limited 132 color pallet so I’m not fiddling with the coloring options. Coloring, by far, takes the longest of any step in the process, but color for a webcomic is nearly mandatory.
The most important step is the pencil layout, because that’s where I see if my idea actually works on the page. If it doesn’t work on the page as an interesting stand-alone unit, it doesn’t fit the plan I have for the comic.
I try to hit two major points on every page that move the story forward or reveal something important about the characters in play. I try to skip as much expository world-building dialog as I can. The goal of She Dwarf is to be as quickly paced and memorable as possible. Readers will tell you that they like worldbuilding, character arcs, and subplots, but the fact is people can only like what they remember. However, if you really look for it, the depth of the world is found in the backgrounds of establishing shots. It’s there, I just present it visually.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
KL: She Dwarf isn’t so edgy or strange that it couldn’t work at a publisher. My concerns are not about creative control or editorial tinkering; in fact, I could really use a good editor. My concerns with starting at a publisher is more about speed. The direct market takes too long. It’s a lot of “hurry up and wait” for creators and readers. If I want to draw a comic for people to read, webcomics is as good as it gets. I’m not buying a boat with my Patreon subscription income, but it’s more than I’ve made on some projects I’ve done at print or digital comic publishers.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
If you have a webcomic you'd like to suggest for an upcoming Webcomic Q&A, send a tip to jonerikchristianson[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line "Webcomic Q&A."