Margaret Trauth Unravels the Code for ‘Decrypting Rita’ [Back Pages]
Decrypting Rita is a singular vision for what comics can be. The invention of Margaret Trauth, this story of a lesbian robot whose perception of reality slips across multiple dimensions is highlighted by a bizarre, incredible, all-digital artistic style that throws you straight into the story without any excuses, hand-holding, or frills. This is pure glossy adrenaline, with a story that unravels and unfolds in unstoppable, unpredictable, yet memorable fashion. It's utterly fantastic work, and Trauth is currently running a Kickstarter to help fund the third and final volume.
As the Kickstarter wings towards the funding target, Trauth spoke to Back Pages about her inspirations and aspirations for the story, and offers some in-depth advice for anybody who might be considering crowdfunding themselves. Get ready for a lesson in how to do it, everyone.
ComicsAlliance: What’s the basic premise of Decrypting Rita?
Margaret Trauth: It’s about a robot lady dragged out of reality by her ex-boyfriend. She’s got to pull herself together across four parallel worlds before a hive-mind takes over the planet. Assuming it hasn’t already.
CA: When did you first start writing and drawing Decrypting Rita, and what prompted you to first start writing?
MT: I started this comic around April 2011. I’d finished the Tarot deck I’d been working on, and was ready to get back to work on the comic I’d been doing with one of my boyfriends. But as I was finishing the deck our relationship hit some problems, and the three of us were in the middle of a breakup when I decided it was Time To Get Back To Comics.
None of the ideas I had kicking around felt right for solo projects. I started making some vague doodles about something with multiple narratives on the page. Originally it was going to have 3-4 threads on every page, in the “normal” comic book size. And it was going to have realities explicitly branching to play out different choices of Important Decisions characters might make. This probably owed a lot to Rebecca Dart’s lovely little book Rabbit Head; I know I decided to get a new copy of that to inform my thinking on this project back then.
I still didn’t know what the story would be until one day I was in the shower, letting my mind wander after another argument. This image popped into my mind: a robot woman climbing the side of a building, on an uncertain mission, loosely drawn in solid whites and blues. I finished my shower, ran to Illustrator, and drew what would become the second page of Rita. I impulsively decided to make it the same size as the screen of the iPad I’d just gotten. Which was still a pretty magical thing at the time.
I threw that onto my Livejournal (which was still a thing back then) and got a decent response. Started drawing more pages without really knowing where I was going, just answering the questions I and my followers had. Who is this woman? Why is she infiltrating this skyscraper? Who’s the voice guiding her through it? Sometimes I’d trust my first answer, sometimes I’d decide that was too cliché and dig for another one --- which is something I learnt to do while collaborating with that ex on our previous comic.
CA: The narrative is so striking here. How do you plot the skeleton of the story, and lay it out?
MT: For a lot of the first third or so, I was really just playing it by ear. I knew it was going to be a reality-warping story, so I finished the first few pages of Mysterious Skyscraper Infiltration with Rita getting hit by some kind of hack-missile and taken out; then I introduced the second reality and decided to have that version of her sleeping with an analogue of the person she’d been trying to kill. I didn’t have any reason why besides economy of characters; I feel it’s often better to try and expand an existing character’s role than it is to bring in a new face for people to keep track of.
As I dived headlong into the unknown with this story, I kept one rule: I needed to have some action every eight or ten pages. Because I was drawing this for fun, and drawing page after page of characters sitting around talking is boring. I mean yeah, you can get into drawing the subtleties of their expressions, but you can also do that while they’re chasing a crazy machine down the road at a few hundred miles an hour, you know?
And lo, one character I’d brought in just to spur some action by trying to assassinate Rita’s handler/dubious workplace romance opened his big fat mouth... and turned out to be Rita’s insane ex, who was both a pain in the ass and too damn charming to really stay angry at, instead of being someone hired by the mysterious people her mysterious organization was clearly fighting, and suddenly the question of, “how do I start breaking up Rita’s reality” was answered when he wanted to show her the Cool New Trick he had, and then I was really off and running. (This is totally not related to the fact that I ended up on pretty good terms with my exes. At all. Completely not drawing from my life in any way.)
It was around that point in the middle of chapter three that I figured out most of how I was going to get to where I had a vague idea the story needed to end.
A lot of the craft of telling multiple stories at once like this is figuring out how to fill time without looking like it. I’d have a cool thing I wanted to do, like, say, drawing one picture of Rita that spanned multiple realities, and I’d figure out how to get there from where I was in each world. If what I planned turned out to be a couple pages longer in one world than the other ones that had to sync up, I’d have to either edit it down, or figure out ways to stretch the other ones without making it too obvious. I’d do things like get out of the shower and draw a huge diagram of how I wanted to have the multiple timelines twist around each other for the next chapter.
Really, a lot of this was visuals first, plot afterwards. Which is dangerous sometimes. It’s easy to have gorgeous art and let things like “narrative coherence” go by the wayside when you work this way. I’m still not entirely sure I didn’t err on the side of “art first, story second” a few times too many. I’d come up with a list of Cool Visual Tricks that I wanted to do with the multiple timelines thing, and I’d come up with a list of plot points I needed to work towards once the story was starting to make some sense, and I just kind of… tried to provide strong reasons for the characters to want to run headlong in the directions I wanted them to. And then I worked around their occasional refusal to do it.
There was never anything like a formal script for the story, just sketchbook pages full of notes next to little thumbnails of panels or pages. The real work happened on the screen, with me often drawing way off the right edge of the canvas to rough out several pages at a time, or just opening a new file with a vague idea of what needed to happen on the page and writing terrible first-draft dialogue balloons, laying out panels and doodling messy roughs in them, and hacking at them until they worked.
CA: What's the core of the story, for you? What do you think is thematically the heart of the comic?
MT: I think the main narrative tension is the simple question of what the hell is going on with Rita’s reality? Is the reason provided in the story for it to be fragmented the truth, or is it all just a lengthy mindscrew she’s stuck in as she’s being hacked? This is a tension I refuse to resolve until the absolute end of the story, and I do it in an oblique manner that raises as many questions as it answers.
This is probably the theme, as well, given that every time I had a narrative question to resolve I’d usually ask myself, “How can I relate the current situation to this central question?”.
Also robots are cool, and I want to be backed up like Blue-Rita when I grow up.
CA: How do you actually draw the series? Do you work on paper and transfer to digital, or work straight from Illustrator?
MT: It’s about 99% straight in Illustrator. Sometimes I’d use a photo of roughs I’d done in a sketchbook as a first cut at parts of a page. But this comic’s heart is digital. Before Rita, I was drawing roughs on paper and hassling with scanning them; not too long before starting Rita I’d discovered that Illustrator’s pencil tool has its own settings, and that its defaults were why I’d considered it useless for the past eight or so years. (Double-click on it, turn off ‘keep selected’, turn on ‘fill new paths’; now you can do linear sketches directly in AI, and draw solid shapes at high speed. Seriously, this completely transforms AI from a slow, fiddly tool into one you can work in with the wild abandon of a pencil and a piece of paper!)
I don’t have to approach a page with the usual script > thumbnails > pencils > scan > ink/paint/whatever process. I can just dive in and do whatever, then step back and completely recompose the page if I need to. It’s ultra-fluid, and I’m not going back --- the first chapter of my previous comic was drawn on paper, and now that I’m picking it up again, I’m just going direct from my old thumbnails to finished pages; my other new project is 100% digital.
CA: Do you feel like your work in animation plays a part in your approach to the layout and 'flow' of Decrypting Rita? Is there that sense of connection for you between the two mediums?
MT: Oh, definitely. Learning to animate gives you a very different attitude to drawing comics than coming up from a comics background. It makes you looser and more willing to exaggerate; it teaches you that there are details that really matter to the moment, and that much more than that starts to just be detail for the sake of detail.
A lot of my action drawings are designed with the same attitude I’d take to drawing a “smear” when I was learning to animate. Those are those crazy drawings you see if you freeze-frame a cartoon during a fast motion, where a character may have twenty eyeballs and seven noses above a crazy grin that twists across half the screen. You don’t really see those when they flash by in 1/24 of a second; you just get an impression of “hey they sure moved fast just now”. They are one of the secret pleasures of being an animator. I am, frankly, too damn lazy to do full animation by hand, but I still love a good smear drawing, so I put a bunch of those in Rita wherever I could. They’re sort of a way to take a lot of time and compress it down into one image. Which fit the comic a lot, given that I was explicitly playing with How Time Works In Comics.
I will also just note in passing here that a lot of why Jack Kirby drew the way he did was because of his time in animation; if you look at the stuff he did before and after he worked as an inbetweener for the Fleischer studios, there is a major change in his work --- from fairly stiff but detailed drawings typical of early comics, to these subtly rubbery shapes that stretch and flow. And his stuff is the bedrock upon which the entire superhero industry is built. There’s definitely a connection between the mediums.
CA: Why take this to Kickstarter?
MT: Ain’t nobody else interested in publishing a full-color comic about a lesbian robot with Phillip K. Dick problems. Even before I make it a weird oversized thing and add in the spot gloss throughout the whole book --- that stuff doubles the cost.
DC and Marvel are only interested in you if you want to draw their characters to their deadlines, at their prices. Dark Horse and Image are only interested in you if you’ve got a big enough fan base to make it worth the risk. And the world of Real Book Publishers dabbling in graphic novels is no better; they won’t even give you the time of day without an agent. Even Raina Telgemeier had to draw a lot of Babysitter’s Club GNs before Scholastic took a chance on Smile.
If this blows past its goal by several hundred percent and publishers come knocking, I’ll gladly talk. I’m not married to self-publishing. It was pretty nice to have my Tarot deck in stores across the US and EU without me lifting a finger. I’ve seen how my friend Dana [Simpson]’s life has changed since her strip Phoebe And Her Unicorn started showing up in newspapers and bookstores. I’ve learnt how to run a Kickstarter and promote it without too much stress but I’d gladly let someone else get a ton more books get into stores all over in exchange for a smaller chunk of the profit off each book. And if nobody bites? Well, there’s Patreon to pay most of my bills while I spend a few years drawing the next graphic novel, and Kickstarter again to fund printing it.
CA: This isn't your first Kickstarter. Do you approach crowdfunding differently now, having had success with it before? What advice would you give anybody else looking to use Kickstarter?
MT: I am so much more laid-back about it now! I’ve done it twice, and while the number I’m asking for this time feels scary because it’s one digit longer, it’s really only about as much more than book two’s campaign asked for as that was compared to one.
- Build your following before you start the campaign. Sure, Tim Schaefer could go on Kickstarter without any more idea than “hey I wanna make a point and click adventure game” and make a brazillion dollars. He also spent about a decade co-inventing that genre, and delivered a half-dozen classics, and a lot of interesting flops, before he did that. Do you have that kind of following?
- Make as much of your thing as you can before you start your campaign. I spent about a year and a half drawing each third of Rita before I hit Kickstarter; people could flip through the entire book before plunking down their money. I’d built a following while cranking out new pages on a semi-regular schedule. I also built that following by sinking the odd bit of money into advertising the comic.
- Never believe Kicktraq’s projections until you’re at least a week through the campaign. If then. It’s crazily optimistic. I looked on the first day just because I wanted to see how crazy its guess would be; it peaked around 900%, which mostly just served to calm my “will this make 100%” jitters.
- Add-ons: Don’t. Unless you have someone to wrangle them for you. Throwing in postcards/stickers/t-shirts/statues/novelty records/branded condoms/shotglasses/nightlights/whatever is going to cost more than you think, both in money and in time. My goal at this point is to get delivering the stuff I kickstart over with as soon as possible, and get back to drawing more comics. If you have someone who you trust to make these secondary things to the point where you would bet your life on them doing it well before deadline and under budget, and if you are less of a slacker than I am, then maybe do it.
- Stretch goals: Don’t go crazy. Think about what the most super awesome version of your thing could be (spot gloss/metallic ink on the interior pages! Hardback! Embossed covers with metallic foil! Layered translucent dust jackets!) and work with your printer to price that out. Don’t promise that you’ll add 20 more pages if you get lots of money when you know damn well that’ll take three months at the rate you draw, especially if you have nothing more to say in the world of your story. Go look at any video game kickfail if you want a cautionary tale; most video game campaigns tend to promise a super-limited version of their game and have about a dozen stretch goals on the way to making the game they really want to make… and more after that just because hey, money, we like money, and these things always run over anyway.
- Also you probably should take everything I’m saying here with a grain of salt if you make anything but comics. Go find people who have kickstarted multiple games/albums/dance performances/potato salad festivals, listen to them, and ignore me wherever I contradict them.
- Ignore the people who will come to you offering their promotional services once you launch. If you don’t have a thing anyone wants you’re just throwing money away. If you have a thing people want then you don’t really need them. This is a new thing I’m getting a lot of cold come-ons for this campaign, and I’m not sure if it’s because Kickstarter’s been around long enough to have an ecosystem grow up around it, or because I’m big enough to be noticed, or both. I am also not 100% on this, as this is the first time I’ve gotten cold offers for this that feel halfway not-scammy, and am probably not going to take them --- I may research this before my next Kickstarter, and will be much more inclined to go with someone who can demonstrate specific experience promoting comics rather than gizmos.
- Stay humble and small. What’s the smallest amount of books you can print feasibly? Build your campaign around that. If you end up printing a lot more then yay! If not then, well, you still printed some books, and learnt from some mistakes, and your next one can be bigger!
- Price your campaign out for a print run of about double the number of backers. This way you end up with a nice pile of books to take to conventions and sell. If you did it right then these books are pretty much all paid for by your Kickstarter; you may not have ever paid your rent from the campaign, but you’ll have gone to a bunch of cons and (hopefully) covered those costs and gained some new fans, as well. Some of whom will come back for the next Kickstarter or support your Patreon or whatever.
- Do your homework. Look at a bunch of campaigns for the same kind of thing you make. Big successes, moderate successes, and utter failures. What differentiates them? Which one does your project look like right now? What can you change to make it look more like the successes?
- Stats. You can find a lot of stats that will tell you what the best day of the week to launch is, and what month is the best. My first campaign launched on a Friday, which everyone says is the worst day, and still made its (very humble) goal over the weekend. I launched this one on a Friday, in what folks say is the absolute worst month, and I’m still 60% of the way to my not-so-humble goal by the middle of the next week, without any publicity to speak of yet. And like I said earlier: Kicktraq is for laughs and pipe dreams until at least a week in.
- Own your mistakes. You will make them. I left a page out when I put together book two of Rita and didn’t realize this until I had a book in my hands a few hundred more on a loading dock in China. I was lucky enough to be able to eat the cost and do a second print run. I kept my backers up to date on this, and I’ve altered my processes to reduce the chance of doing this again for the omnibus. (Oh yeah, and don’t forget: do multiple proofreading passes on your test prints, including a pass where you just kick back and read the story without looking for tiny technical errors.)
- Back a few projects in your domain that run at the same time as yours. If you get all your things before anyone gets what you’re making then you will know that you had better get your ass back in gear. If you’ve delivered your second book before you get that book you backed during your first book, then you get to feel virtuous.
- Try to not make your entire life be "my Kickstarter, let me tell you about it," for the duration of the campaign. Tear yourself away from it. Install the Kickstarter app on your phone/tablet/etc so you get alerts every time someone backs it instead of neurotically refreshing it. Pick up a book and go offline for an hour or two in the evening. Running a Kickstarter is work and it is very easy to let it take over your life, don’t let it.
Maybe I should do like Spike [Trotman] did and just stick all this advice into a little comic and sell it. That woman has done like 4x as many campaigns as I have. If anything I say contradicts what she says in there... you should probably listen to her instead.
CA: Is it difficult to transfer a webcomic to print? How did you decide how it'd be set out? The format of the print, and so on?
MT: Not if you plan for it.
A chapter or so into Rita, I sat down and asked myself, “How will I print this?” I’d already given myself the constraint of “one page fits on the screen of an iPad," but now I needed to know how to fit this wide image onto paper. I ended up deciding to print one screen as a double-page spread on paper. Which meant that I had to go into my templates and add a big dead zone in the middle of my safe area, so I could be sure to never put anything crucial to the story where it would be lost in the middle of the book. I was lucky; I only ended up having to recompose one page. If I’d put it off until I was about to go to print then I’d have had a much bigger hassle.
If you are doing the “infinite canvas” thing, then that’s great! It’s a ton of fun; doing Rita as an infinite horizontal scroll was a blast. But if you’re willing to apply a few restrictions to it early on, then you can save a ton of work when you go to print.
If you are fine with making your future self spend a week reformatting the comic to fit finite pages, then just keep on drawing whatever the flow of your story demands. If you find you don’t hate your past self when you finally do that, then keep on working that way. Me, I know I’d loathe my past self with the firey passion of a thousand suns for making me do that much grindy work, so I put those constraints in place early on.
CA: If you achieve your goal, what’s your estimated delivery on the final comic?
MT: I’m aiming for November 2016. I won’t feel really terrible about my delivery schedule slipping unless I pass about February 2017. But I’ve got a con coming up in October that I’d really love to have something to sell at so, who knows!?
Decrypting Rita's Kickstarter for Volume Three and the Omnibus will run until 11 August 2016, seeking a target of $12,000. To find out more, head to the Kickstarter page!