Quests of Kaleidoscopic Carnage in Natalie Riess’s ‘Snarlbear’ [Webcomic Q&A]
Anyone who's ever worked a minimum wage customer service job knows the value of an escapist fantasy. Luckily for one teen grocery store employee, her escapist dreams become reality when she trips into the vibrant and vicious Rainbow Dimension. In her adventures, the teen, dubbed "Snarlbear" after her first felled victim, fights valiantly as a monster hunter — one who fears becoming a monster herself.
ComicsAlliance spoke with Natalie Riess about Snarlbear, challenging herself artistically, and painting crystals.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Snarlbear? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Natalie Riess: I think I started out with the intention of Snarl being a relatively short (two years?) project for me to get a story finished and just get better at art/comics in general. I’d just dumped a huge, convoluted and indecipherably bad fantasy epic plan I’d been trying to start for years and wanted something fun involving my favorite things to draw, which at the time were: girls punching things, monsters and unicorns.
I also wanted to get better with coloring digitally, so I built in the Rainbow Dimension setting just so I could justify using whatever colors I wanted. You can see that evolving as the story goes on, I think once I start getting more painterly with the pages and I get a better handle on color theory in general my palettes start to become more controlled and make more sense.
Inspirations: I’ve been a lifelong guzzler of any fantasy content I could get my hands on, and love nature, biology, mythology, illustration and weird melodrama.
CA: What’s it about?
NR: Snarlbear is a fantasy adventure about a teen who becomes a monster-hunter-for-hire in an unforgiving rainbow fantasy world. She quickly becomes very good at fighting monsters and doing adventure quest-type stuff, but it soon becomes clear that maybe the real monster was inside her all along/the friends we made along the way/society/etc. etc. etc. She’s accompanied by her quick talking, self-appointed manager with a mysterious past and a cursed unicorn prince on the run from his twin sister’s magical crystal coup.
CA: Who is the intended audience and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
NR: I’ve heard that some kids like Snarlbear and I cringe a little, because it’s violent and gets somewhat dark later on in the story. There’s a lot of body horror; I think at least half of the comic so far has some kind of body horror warning on it. Drawing gross dark fantasy imagery is a lot of fun, and I hope none of my readers are too grossed out by it.
I didn’t pick out an intended audience when I started, and was just more or less making it for myself. As of now I think it’s settled in the teen+ range.
CA: The Rainbow Dimension is a pretty jarring place. It’s fantastical, visually electric, and violent. But when Snarl drops into it, she takes to it like a duck to slaughter. Has the gravity of Snarl’s dimension-hopping sunk in? Or does her discontentment with her former life make acclimating to the Rainbow Dimension easier?
NR: Ohhh, duck to slaughter is a really good pun!
In writing terms, I didn’t want to write a reluctant protagonist for this story. She comes to terms with being in the RD over the course of the story, but stays busy and excited about being in this weird rainbow fantasy underworld and doesn’t have a lot of time to reflect on it.
CA: Do you plan on exploring Snarl’s backstory further or do you like keeping her as a bit of a blank slate?
NR: I never found an organic/necessary place to talk about it in-story, so it’s been left out! I might go into it in the future if it’s important.
CA: What inspires your monster design in Snarlbear?
NR: Learning about the natural world! Evolution is the best character designer. Nature documentaries are really good for this --- I’m a big fan of Planet Earth, and pretty much anything about bugs — bugs are so bizarre and interesting! Same with deep ocean life.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
NR: I got more serious/professional about Snarlbear after signing on with Hiveworks in early 2015 --- I kept doing some weird experimental stuff but tried to keep it tied to a purpose (for ex., watercolor pages for dreams/flashbacks, floating eyes for plot reasons, etc etc). I started planning my color palettes more to make the scenes more cohesive and effective, and just plain got better at drawing/writing my characters and environments. That’s also the point where the unicorn drama plot starts picking up, so the story has a little more going on than in the first few chapters where I’m still setting up that Snarl is going to fight monsters and that might or might not be bad but at least she’s having a good time.
My fantasy tastes have also changed- there’s some jokes/plot points I remember being very excited about that I probably would do differently today. I also just plain got better at art: I’m great at drawing crystals now, 150-ish pages of crystal painting later.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
NR: I read a lot of webcomics in my mid-late teens because they were very easy to access online- at the time it just seemed like the best way to start out making and sharing comics, especially for a beginner. I still like them because I have a lot of friends in the community and love the freedom to do weird stuff and the immediacy of posting work online.
CA: What’s your process like?
NR: I work chapter-to-chapter, from a very rough outline I made at the beginning of what needs to happen in each chapter. This is very flexible in case I figure out something better than what I had planned. Writing starts with really scribbly thumbnail sketches in a notebook that I translate into typed script to solidify dialogue and pacing. Then, I thumbnail the whole chapter.
After that, I pencil the pages in blue pencil on cardstock, ink with a brushpen and scan them in. I clean up and letter the pages and then paint them in Photoshop according to a color script I did in the thumbnailing stage. Again I leave myself a lot of flexibility here but it’s helpful to have a guide of where I wanted to go with the mood of a certain scene.
Then I add a layer of sparkles and post it online!
CA: Do you prefer to actively challenge yourself in your comics work? You mention designing the Rainbow Dimension as an effort to improve in your digital coloring and I also noticed that Snarlbear features a lot of what many consider to be artist kryptonite: horses. (Or, more specifically, unicorns.)
NR: Yes! I could probably push myself a lot harder, though — there are no cars in Snarlbear.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
NR: Snarlbear is a weird story and I was not very good when I started --- I think making it a webcomic has allowed me a lot of freedom both storywise and artistically and a lot of space to grow as an artist/storyteller.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
NR: Hmm, Aliza Layne’s Demon Street is about some kids having adventures with a giant lizard made of smaller lizards and a weird cat, and has some similar themes, great monsters and rich colors! I’ve also been doing work on a cute dnd comic with my friend Sara Goetter lately and all of her work (journal comics, cute wizard adventures and really excellent short stories) is hilarious and heartfelt.
Hiveworks in general has a lot of great options if you like comics about fantasy women and monsters; Namesake specifically is very good in that department and has like, eight cool women with swords and complex mythology. I’m also very behind on it, but Larkspur started a few months ago and stars a buff woman with too many eyeballs, which is a very good look.
I wish I had better webcomic recs but I’m behind on almost everything!
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.”