Nom De Plume, Nom De Guerre: Megan Lavey-Heaton and Isabelle Melancon Reveal ‘Namesake’ [Webcomic Q&A]
Escapist fantasies are seductive in their power to take us away. Whatever mundane, excruciating chore you find yourself mired in, forget it. Imagine yourself in a fairy tale, where the fantastic and enchanting and eye-catching come to life. Or fashion yourself with some unshakable destiny, charted on a world-saving path that is only yours.
In Megan Lavey-Heaton and Isabelle Melançon's Namesake, Emma Crewe gets both of those — she's plopped into a world of inter-stitched classic fairy tales (Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz) to find herself expected to serve as a "Dorothy." Her fantastical escape might not be quite what she expected. ComicsAlliance spoke with Melançon and Lavey-Heaton about genre subversion, color choices, and the problem with "grimdark."
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Namesake? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Isabelle Melançon: The genesis was born from both frustration and a love for fairy tales. I was always really obsessed with fairy tales, but I get frustrated by how many modern adaptations take the easiest path to write them. Like, a story repeating as is, but with an "edgy" tone. Or magic being removed. Or just a big layer of sarcasm.
I was in Toronto in a frustrating work situation, reading some horrible fairy tale retelling novels and just overall going, "Well, if I was doing it, I'd do it this way," and doodling a bunch of ideas that would have fun with the nature of fairy tales, and the tone and motifs of those tales. Megan, who was a very close online friend in a fandom at the time, pretty much said, "Ok, then do it".
After a few tests, including a really ridiculous one I posted on Livejournal, we started working on Namesake as a team (I believe my exact words were, "Fine, if I'm doing this, I'm dragging you with me!"), and now, we can't work without each other anymore.
Megan Lavey-Heaton: Essentially what Isa said. We did a lot of story planning in a stairwell at our hotel when we attended Anime North in 2008. It was the first time we’d seen each other in person. During the trip, we walked through Toronto and picked out the building where we imagined Emma lived during that time and where the story began. We changed the beginning a lot since then.
CA: What’s it about?
IM: Namesake is a fairy tale adventure webcomic where Namesakes are people who have the power to travel to other worlds, but there's rules. "Alices" always go to Wonderland, "Wendies" to Neverland, and so on and so forth. The story starts when this woman called Emma goes to Oz, unearthing this hundreds of years in the making magical conspiracy plot that involves witches, Dorothies, numerous worlds, and ghosts.
The rest of the cast includes Emma's little sister, who has "writer" powers, allowing her to affect the outcome of events, magic-wielding twins from Oz, a half-Cheshire Alice, a devilishly charming Jack, a sword-wielding Lost Girl, a hungry card soldier, and a confused Canadian, plus lots of plushy Cheshire cats.
So far, the archive is five books long, and has a lot of magic, drama, romance, and silly jokes I like to put in.
MLH: I also love to twist historic facts to work for us in our story. Elements such as the intermissions are based in historic fact that I’ve reworked to fit the Namesake narrative. The funny thing is that there wasn’t a huge leap between reality and fantasy.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
IM: Teen to adults is the targeted audience, although we have a few passionate kids reading Namesake! There's battles, and fairy tale "horror," but most of it is not directly shown.
CA: You mention that Namesake was partially motivated by your frustrations with fairy tale retellings. What elements to both fairy tales and their retellings did you want to embrace or purposefully avoid?
IM: Right now we are both a bit exhausted of the "grimdark" form of retelling. You know, the "Alice goes to Wonderland and it's a dystopia" kind of story. Those stories are still fun and important (one of the first fan texts of Wonderland actually did that), but I think a lot of folks just go "grimdark" because... because it feels like where stories should go right now.
I really love [Guillermo] Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, because it's what I feel a dark fairy tale should be. Fairy tales are full of challenges and seductive danger, if you want to go dark, it's easy to go dark while keeping to the feel of a fairy tale. No need to move the story from a genre to another. I guess I try to avoid tropes that "modernize" the tales while losing the essence, the emotion of a fairy tale. Fairy tales are emotional stories, and they fit a myriad of characters, as long as you keep their nature of seductive danger and intelligent quest intact. Fairy tales are about choosing to be obedient or disobedient. It's already about defiance. No need to move the setting to something that feels like 1984, the Game of Thrones edition. No need to stay in the European history land either. Go nuts. Rigidity is the enemy of fairy tales. Magic is words.
CA: How did you come to choose which fairy tales to feature in Namesake?
IM: Because of the nature of the story, a lot of the fairy tales we pick involve a form of quest or travel. We also try to aim for a lot of well known ones, since they are folk's favorites for a reason --- they are the fun ones! There's also fairy tales involved in the story that are used as motifs rather than characters, and the ones that are chosen for motifs are often about duality or transformations.
The character of Ozma, for instance, who is central to the plot, has a past story that is about duality and transformation. That's why we found Oz to be such a nice place to start. Not only is the story of Dorothy a travel tale, but Oz itself is about transformations.
Unfortunately, we haven't found ways to include some of our favorites (such as Beauty and the Beast), but we have the Goblin Market, and some Shakespeare too, and that makes us pretty happy. How we just them is a mix of research and gut feeling, I keep a list of thematically appropriate ones, and add to it regularly.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
IM: The way we work is pretty much the same, we have mostly learned to be more efficient, and more understanding of each other's limits and strengths.
MLH: I feel like for me, there’s a lot less pressure to conform to a certain way of doing things. When we began the comic, I thought I was failing Isa when I didn’t have formal scripts all the time. That method doesn’t really work for us.
IM: I dislike scripts that divide everything per panel. I feel it hinders page design. Megan writes beautiful prose, I prefer to read the story that way.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
IM: Mainly, we both liked the web, we both liked interacting with people there, we both loved the freedom the medium gave us. And we assumed a long epic by newbies would not have been an editors first choice when we launched Namesake. So we preferred trying the web. We both had jobs, so we weren't worried about income, and we were both inspired by works like Girl Genius and Gunnerkrigg Court.
CA: What’s your process like?
MLH: We do work off scripts from time to time, but at least 60% of our creative process is hashed out through daily chats, monthly story meetings, and poring over the sketches and final pages to tweak the dialogue. It’s a method that works well for us.
As Isa said, we’ve learned to play to our strengths. When there is a part of the story that’s heavily action-based, I just tell Isa to go for it, then fill in the gaps. More relationship-intense parts of the story I tend to handle from a rough script that I send to Isa, that’s mostly dialogue. While I share some ideas on paneling, that is her strength, and she does gorgeous paneling work. We each have our pet projects: mine are the historic-based intermission segments and Isa’s was the complicated backstory that drives a lot of the comic (seen in chapter 24). Each of us has our pet characters we’ve developed the back stories for. Isa wrote the back story for Alice and Warrick, and I’ve written Jack’s and part of Wendy’s. Others, we work on together.
After we’ve hashed out the story, either from chats or the rough script, Isa does a series of blue-line sketches that I approve. Then Isa inks the pages and sends them to our amazing colorist Gisele to flat. Once Isa has the pages back, she shades them and passes them on to me. I letter the pages in InDesign and do a second draft of the dialogue based off the sketches and the original script/story chat. Isa approves the final dialogue, then I export the pages for the website. Because I do the lettering in InDesign, the book file is being prepared at the same time. It makes print production a whole lot faster.
CA: The limited use of color against a primarily black-and-white story really helps to make various elements pop — and I also notice that color’s not always repeatedly used on the same elements. Could you talk about your strategy when using color in Namesake?
IM: There is some repetition, often blue is associated to Namesakes and Writers, green to healers, red to Rippers, etc. But overall, the idea is to kinda direct an emotional focus for the readers. In some scenes, the color is for magic, so it's informational. "Okay, that character just used Namesake magic", that's what the reader is told. Other times it's an object, so the reader thinks, oh that's important. Other times it's environmental, so the reader feels, yeah something is going to go down here. When I pick the color elements, I often go with my gut, so it's that same emotional response i'm trying to get out of readers.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
IM: Yes --- but I think it would have been an interesting story with a publisher too, although probably not as lengthy. Now that I have accumulated experience as an editor, both working for Hiveworks and on Valor, I understand why editors impose the limits they do. They are trying to create a product that corresponds to their collection, to their readership, to the message they want to put out there. As self-publishers, we do that to our own work, we have our own standards to meet. Whether or not the requirements that bigger publishers have are close to ours or not, that's more it.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
IM: Some of my favorites include Agents of the Realm, Daughter of the Lilies, Gunnerkrigg Court, Prague Race, Never Satisfied, Snarlbear, Fantomestein, Alice and the Nightmare, and Harpy Gee.
MLH: My favorites that aren’t already on Isa’s list include Wilde Life, Sakana, Check Please, Zen Pencils, The Lonely Vincent Bellingham, Blindsprings, and The Dreamer.
You can keep up with Namesake on its website and check out its live third volume Kickstarter campaign, now in its final three days. You can follow Isabelle Melançon on her Twitter, and Megan Lavey-Heaton on hers.
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.”