Cartoonist Jen Vaughn's "Avery Fatbottom, Renaissance Fair Detective" is one of the craziest and coolest comics we've encountered lately – a digital-only series featuring the distinctly un-digital adventures of the eponymous Avery and her friend Gwen, as they handle the daily chaos and calamity of working at a Renaissance Fair, a uniquely anachronistic world of jugglers, jousters, jesters, and historical oddities. We recently spoke to Vaughn about her creative process, her inspirations for this series, and her own experiences in the weird world of Renaissance re-enactments. (And she even drew us a special exclusive MTVGeek-centric image of her characters!)
MTV Geek: This is one of the greatest titles I've ever seen for a comic. Which came first, the concept or the name?
Jen Vaughn: Thank you! I hope that the comic can live up to the majesty of the title. The story definitely came first but I knew a name like that could maybe influence a character, as it sounds a bit archaic.
Geek: And why a comic set at a Renaissance Fair?
Vaughn: A Renaissance Fair is a magical place that shouldn't work in the real world, and often doesn't. You have people of various commitment levels attempting to transport you back in time, and hawk their wares on you! They are very easy to cause trouble in as well, which is why the people involved are often close-knit like a family. Back in my Texas days, I was in a Renaissance dinner theater associated with the University in Austin. At first I was understudy to the Queen and a bawdy singing wench, then I was the villain (complete with a sword and dagger fight, choreography for that is intense!) and then went back to wenching because the ad-libbing was much more enjoyable. Plus, you could steal bread-pudding easily – you'd keep a spoon tucked in your cleavage and another wench or footman would divert the table's attention (I hope I didn't give up the ghost there). We'd go to the TRF (Texas Renaissance Festival) for bouts of time to get into character as well.
Then while I was in Vermont, I started working with puppeteer, mask-maker and Renaissance character Gabriel Q – he's got the kind of heart that any king or organizer of the fair would hope to have. My boyfriend and I would perform with him at food festivals, holiday parades and even Mardi Gras in New Orleans. (Did YOU know that a lot of the Mardi Gras performers are also in the trenches at many a Ren Fair?)
Geek: So, then- do any of your personal Renfest memories figure into this story?
Vaughn: Some of my personal experiences may be too racy or embarrassing, even for a digital comic! Once during a sword and dagger fight, my partner Justin missed a beat and my foil twanged him right in the forehead.
In issue one, one of the characters, Benn the newbie, joins in on the tawdry Roll Your Leg Over song only to garner "how dare you looks" from a granny, who by the way probably knew what she was getting into. That definitely happened to me. We learned to sing the dirtier songs towards the end of the day or at meals after everyone had more drinks.
I was NEVER a dunk-a-wench. But you can bet your bippy I had solid aim for the dunk-a-footman booth.
Geek: And are the characters based on real people, or invented from whole cloth?
Vaughn: The characters have bits of all my friends and that ONE enemy. Ha! I'd never tell someone if it was based on them because all they would do is try to prove how wrong I am.
Geek: Did you imagine that this idea would resonate with people, and find an audience for itself?
Vaughn: As far as an audience goes, I think a digital comic would probably never finds its way to an ACTUAL Ren fair and I'm very much okay with that. While working on another serious comic, I started this just to please myself and my friends; anyone beyond that is just gravy. Anyone who likes it shares a certain sense of humor and suspension of disbelief that is compatible to mine.
Geek: How did you get hooked up with your digital publisher, Monkeybrain? Did you submit the story to them, or did they approach you?
Vaughn: Allison Baker and Chris Roberson of MonkeyBrain have been friends of mine since 2010 or so – they are genuine in a way that is absolutely endearing, and have the kind of leadership quality that makes easy armies. Now that they live in Portland (I'm in Seattle) we visit on the regular, which is great.
The editors of alt-weekly paper The Portland Mercury (Erik Henriksen and Alison Hallett) asked me to perform live at their Comics Underground event, and I had an early version of Issue 1 I performed with "Trek in the Park's" Ben Coleman and cartoonist Lucy Bellwood (which is kinda why issue 1 has a STRICT six panel grid format). Chris and Allison came out for fun and were BLOWN AWAY by what they saw. (Or so I like to think.)
Geek: Who would you cite as influences on your work?
Vaughn: Creators who influence me...
The big one is of course, fiction novels. I grew up reading Piers Anthony, Octavia Butler, and some saucier stuff like Laurel K. Hamilton. Those MAD magazine paperbacks, which struck me as hilarious and sad (possibly because the covers had been ripped off or the binding was crumbling). We moved every summer so I was very good at reading books, going through the entire kids/YA section of the library before school, since I hadn't made any friends yet. It got to the point where my mom would stop at any garage sale because I'd run out of reading material.
The how-to books on eating while on a budget are crazy too. My grandma's library was full of old stuff like that, or how to change your look in 30 days. The advice was horrifying but charming in its seriousness. Oh my stars, boiled shrimp and buttered toast were actual recipes, as if you couldn't figure it out. Amy Sederis must have read some of the same books because her "Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People" encapsulates all of that but with full-color pictures.
Old radio shows like Bob and Ray ("Up your block and around your corner" was the funniest thing in the world) and "The Shadow," and Tom Bodett's books on tape ('As Far As You Can Go Without a Passport') for some reason were fascinating. Like adults could choose a variety of ways to life their lives but sometimes buying a wok was the biggest adventure of the year for them. That sorta humor was echoed (at least to me) in Jim Rugg's "Street Angel" who usually spent her time fighting ninjas or time-traveling pirates, save a short story where she was just hungry and looking for doughnuts. As far as comics go... "Archie," definitely, growing up. I learned to draw hands and feet from those damn digests. Now it is my friends: Chris Sims, Colleen Frakes, Nomi Kane, and Jesse Lonergan. As another friend, Jon Chad would say, "I like to smell the sweat in their work."
Geek: How did you break into making comics?
Vaughn: I took a wrong turn when going into medicine and public health…Same story as most people!
Comics are way more democratic a medium than say oil painting or intaglio etching (both of which I used to do), where the finished product can only be admired by a few people, the ones who own it – comics, mass produced or even in short runs, are all the same and everyone can enjoy them equally!
A few years of working after my undergrad degree at the University of Texas (in Austin) I found out you could get a MASTERS in Comics, so I visited SVA, SCAD and CCS, and The Center for Cartoon Studies was the place for me. Hell, Vermont had SEASONS and the school had small classes, all the book binding equipment and an intelligent faculty and staff. Some of my favorite memories are from attending CCS and working at the Schulz Library for a few years after. At some point, Jacq Cohen and Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics asked if I would be interested in moving to Seattle to work at Fantagraphics, and I couldn't turn that down. So it's comics all the time in my house. Unless I'm reading a novel.
Geek: What's your work process like? Do you sketch out the whole issue in advance, make it up as you go…?
Vaughn: I usually script a story out based on some imagery, then accidentally lose the notebook it's in. I'll rewrite the comic in thumbnail form based on what I remember and it's usually (probably?) better than the original lost to time on a bus. Thumbnailing is the fun part mentally, because you can plan out the flow of a page vs. page spread. Inking is the fun part physically, and because that's when you can pump the JAMS. (I swear, if you have a band and want to get more listeners/fans/etc. appealing to cartoonists is the way to go, we are constantly buying/downloading/suggesting music to each other. I've been listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast every night for the last week until it gets too scary for me.)
Geek: Did this story change much in the telling, or did it emerge fully-formed?
Vaughn: The story became less serious over time – Nancy Lambert (my freelance and uh-mazing editor) can attest to that. It's partially due to the fact that I was going through submissions from 2006-present day at Fantagraphics, and if I read one more comic where the story starts with waking up and looking at a clock (BECAUSE WE ALL STILL USE THEM, RIGHT?) or waves washing up a shore... Basically, some 'indie' comic tropes stuck out upon rereading my script/thumbnails so I decided to do some serious trimming.
Geek: What other projects do you have in the pipeline that we can look forward to?
Vaughn: The other comics I'm working on include a VERY PHYSICAL comics anthology called "Cartozia Tales." Eight cartoonists came together and made this amazing map, bestiary and lore, we have the world's largest Google drive document. For each issue of "Cartozia," the map is split into a grid. We roll the dice/pull numbers to see who ends up where and you can either pick up a previous story thread and characters or make up something new. They are short 3-4 page comics and kid-friendly, jam-packed with some puzzles, cyphers, all sorts of cool s**t. Issue #1 is coming out at Autoptic in August (I JUST got my copy), #2 is at the final production stages of our editor Isaac Cates, and #3 is currently being thumbnailed! You can subscribe for 10 issues online!
The long-term project I'm battling with internally is "Unassisted Suicide," written by Steve Duin. It's the story, adapted memoir I suppose, of a woman Duin has interviewed at least 100 times. She's a 2nd generation meth addict who ends up doing things, anything, to make money for meth. It's not a story with hope or a happy ending, but Duin is such a thoughtful journalist and a dream to work with. He's patient as all hell too! It's been challenging to work on but that's part of the fun.
Some smaller one-shots I'm wrapping up are two "Adventure Time" stories, one with Erik Henriksen (who was ALSO blown away by my live performance of "Avery Fatbottom") and Kevin Church, who seems to nurture a lot of quality cartoonists like Ming Doyle, TJ Kirsch and Benjamin Birdie. The "Princeless" story I drew from creator Jeremy Whitley's script comes out THIS WEEK! It was exciting because I got to create a character with him who might have her own spin-off some day. But the art is now over a year old and I'm hesitant to look at it!
Geek: Are there plans for more Avery stories? Will this be an ongoing series?
Vaughn: Avery has six more issues in various stages (thanks to help from my editor Nancy Lambert!). There may be a second story arc too, but I'm happy to parcel out the puzzle issue by issue until then. Future issues will definitely showcase some more hijinks like people who bribe wenches to kiss their friends, and YES, you'll see Loxley the elephant again! We'll discuss the virtues of over-the-boob corsets vs. under. And you might even get a few lessons on how to make yourself ready for the fair.... Keep your eyes peeled for Issue #2, just before this year's SPX!