Have you ever role-played a character or scene and thought about making it into a novel, movie – or even a comic? Emily Kay Singer and Olivia Myers do just that with Parmeshen (link goes to the beginning of the comic). Currently published as an ongoing webcomic, Parmeshen bears the familiar marks of any compelling, character-driven story rooted in collaborative RP: world maps, lore, and characters written with distinct voices.
I asked Emily and Olivia about Parmeshen, their processes, and their experiences as women making comics and actively participating in geek culture.
Tara M. Clapper: What are your roles in comic book creation?
Emily Singer: Parmeshen is a little non-traditional, in that we role-played through the entire story before we decided to do a comic. So I guess I’m basically the world-creator (I originally intended to do a novel series set in Atla), proofreader, and co-writer.
Olivia Myers: I’d have to say I’m the co-writer, artist, occasional researcher and PR gal. My job is to take our stories, turn them into pictures, show them to the world and not screw it up.
TMC: How did you find your way into comic book creation vs. other forms of illustration or writing? Did you read comics and graphic novels when you were young?
ES: I’m actually an active fiction writer, too; I have a short story published and I’m hoping to get a few more out this year. I never really read comics when I was young, but I remember reading Maus in middle school and absolutely loving Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in high school, and I’ve recently really gotten into Marvel and Image comics. I jumped on actually making comics when Olivia asked if I’d be interested in turning our, basically, novel-length RP into a webcomic and I fell in love with the idea. So here we are!
OM: I came to this a lot later than most. I had a brother who was really big on ‘this is for boys’ and I let him have his Captain Underpants and his Power Rangers comics while I was reading Brian Froud, Peter Pan, and mythology. I was actually rather smug about it. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when a friend in my freshman year of college introduced me to Girls With Slingshots and Wapsi Square, that I realized there were all sorts of innovative stories being told with art! I was hooked. Drawing has always been an outlet for ideas to me, but it didn’t have any direction until the story we played with in our RP’s turned into mental images so persuasively that I got up the courage to ask ‘um, hey, can I draw this?’ And as Em says, here we are!
TMC: When did you first realize that most comic book creators weren’t women? Did it bother you? If so, how did you overcome it?
ES: Oh, geeze. I think I knew, deep down, when I was little and was exposed to the “comics are for boys” idea over and over again. The only thing I knew about comics until late-middle school was that they were superheroes beating up the bad guys and saving the damsels in distress and that never really appealed to me. I guess I overcame being bothered by it by seeking out female-lead comics and comics that featured strong female characters–SAGA, Black Widow, and Ms. Marvel are among my current favorites.
OM: Oh I think I can blame my brother for that at about the age of 8. ‘You can’t touch these, these are for BOYS!’ I was given the distinct impression that if I wanted women warriors, I was going to have to look outside my own time and my own world, because they sure weren’t here. My mother and grandmother also contributed with snide comments about ‘the way these women are drawn, nobody’s built like this, you just know the writers must be men. Sniff!’ when they glanced at my brother’s comics. Maybe that’s why he was so protective!
The fact that so few women are creating well-publicized comics irritates me philosophically, but in my daily existence I meet so many amazing women working on artistic endeavors that I have a sneaking suspicion it won’t be true much longer. This helps me let it go.
TMC: Have you encountered a lot of sexism regarding women creating comics as well as female characters? If so, where do you find them–at conventions, online, etc.?
ES: I haven’t encountered any sexism directed at me yet (mostly because Parmeshen is still small and I’m not as involved in actually creating the comic as I could be), but I see it everywhere directed at other women, especially online. We’re lucky here in Colorado to have a relatively open and accepting geek culture–nothing like the horror stories I’ve heard about other cons.
OM: I had a guy at AnomalyCon reach out and stroke my hair in the context of complementing my costume, then call me a bitch when I took a step backwards. How did I handle it? By cussing him out as only someone who likes to play with words and read Shakespeare can. But that’s a pretty dramatic example for me. The sexism is usually in the form of dismissal when I try to talk about my hobby at work. While my male coworkers can talk about their fantasy football team or their hiking trip and get nods and smiles, I usually get nervous grins and blank stares when I talk about Parmeshen. Occasionally I get baldly asked ‘so, do you make any money at this thing?’ as if they’re asking ‘well why else would you do it?’
Unfortunately, sexism is all too real in our world. I’ve dealt with it at work and in society, and I watch other women deal with it. But that’s why we have to tell stories that fight it.
TMC: What’s the most effective way to combat sexism in a male-dominated field?
ES: Keep doing your thing. Don’t let the boys (or other women) tell you that you don’t belong. If this is your passion, don’t let anyone stand in your way. When you’ve got more subtle sexism blasting your way, find a way to keep yourself civil and polite, while still metaphorically kicking ass by proving you can do whatever you’re doing. It’s not easy, but it’ll be worth it.
OM: Tell stories. Stand strong. Be competent in your field. Teach your daughters and sisters that they are beautiful. There’s a line the people in Parmeshen use a lot, and I think it’s appropriate here: ‘For I am blessed, and I shall never bow my head.’ Remember that you’re blessed, that you have something inside you that the world needs to see, and you shall never bow your head.
TMC: How have things changed since you started making comics?
ES: Haha, I’ve gotten busy! No, but really, I think Olivia’s skills have really improved and I’ve kind of moved on from writing Atla stories for now. Though I really do want to get back to it!
OM: Well Em got it right, I sure got better at art by dint of CONSTANT practice. And I’ve gotten better at socializing. Mostly, I’ve learned that I’m not doing this alone; I have Emily and our sometimes co-writer Tori Kinnaman to share my passion (and frustration!) with, and by trial and error I’ve found there’s a whole community of people who I can talk to about art, html coding, and all the other areas of comic creation. Not being alone means a lot. I’ve also gotten a lot more confident about having an artistic project. When we started I’d mumble ‘well I have this hobby, it’s….um….’ now I enthusiastically tell people about my artistic project and my love of storytelling through art.
TMC: What is your advice for anyone wanting to get a start in comic book creation?
ES: Do it! Don’t let your fear and anxiety hold you back. The comic market is growing and there’s always room for new, fresh takes and stories. It will probably take a while and be frustrating and feel like you’re not getting anything done for months or years, but it’s a long game and, if this is your passion, it’ll be worth it.
OM: Go for it and don’t stop. Not when it sucks, not when you’re embarrassed, not when you’re ignored. DON’T STOP. Period. The time you spend screwing up, re-hashing, struggling, figuring out how to fix your mistakes, and wishing you were better IS THE TIME SPENT GETTING GOOD. Nobody gets it right out of the gate. So keep going until you’re good, then keep on going until you’re GREAT.
TMC: Do you make comics as a full-time job or part-time? What are realistic expectations of people in the field?
ES: Comics are currently our hobby, but some expectations from a general creative publishing standpoint:
- It takes a lot longer to be successful than most people anticipate
- No matter how big the industry seems to be, it’s smaller than you think, so be polite
- Read widely and study your craft as much as you can. There is always room for improvement.
OM: HAH! If this were a job it wouldn’t be fun anymore. This is my hobby, my love and my escape from the world. I can forget everything to spin stories and draw.
As for realistic expectations, I’d say this: you’re not going to get rich, but if this is your passion, there are ways to do it. Just keep looking.
TMC: What has been your biggest challenge as a comic book creator?
ES: Creating Parmeshen has been a real lesson in teamwork and adaptation, I think. re-telling the story we created in the role-play as a comic has lead to some interesting challenges, especially since we both already know the story so well.
OM: My biggest challenge? Figuring out comics! The first stuff I drew was AWFUL. Truly unreadable. It took me about a year of trial and error to learn how to lay out a comic page, how to pose, and how to get a point across without filling panel after panel with a TEXT WALL. My second great challenge was figuring out how to work with someone else. I’d never really collaborated on something I wanted to do, and I think I grew both as a creator and as a person by being required to learn to communicate better as we worked out the kinks of Parmeshen. I’m so glad I did!
TMC: It seems like comic book creators need to be really comfortable with knowing themselves when it comes time to produce their own work. Do you agree, and if so, were there any points in your career that made you realize this?
ES: I think this is pretty true for any creative endeavor, honestly. In order to put something you’ve made out into the world, you have to know the story you’re telling, what it means to you, whether there are common threads with other stories you’ve told, and how you’ll deal with criticisms and feedback. I think the long process of rejection in even the beginnings of my fiction writing career were a pretty clear indication of that.
OM: Oh my yes. I’ve had issues with personal identity a lot in my life, never really feeling like I belonged anywhere until college. I hit a point where I was pretty down, not doing well at work, and asked myself ‘why the hell are you wasting time telling a story that’s basically about how left out and out of place you’ve felt? You know you’re just wasting your time when you could be doing something productive.’ And after a moment, I gave myself an answer that shocked me. ‘Because maybe somebody out there is lonely and left out too. Maybe they need a story.’ After that, I stopped beating myself up over ‘wasting my free time’ and started enjoying ‘having a creative project.’ And the rest of my life did improve quite a lot! But it was that moment when I looked my fear and shame in the eye and beat it that I got really comfortable with myself as an artist.
TMC: Women are a quickly growing demographic when it comes to comic book readership and comic book movie viewership. Why now–and how do we keep the momentum going?
ES: Why now? Because geeky women are crawling out of the woodwork–we have more female nerd role models to look to, who enjoy comics and video games and cosplay, and it’s becoming more accepted for ladies to love things as passionately as guys do. There are still a LOT of problems to address, but the internet makes it so much easier to connect with other women who love what you love, and that community is so important. Women have always loved comics, but now we feel like we have more of a voice when it comes to discussing them and showing our love. As for keeping the momentum going–we need to be able to put our money where our mouths are, support female comic creators and stories with strong female characters, and push the market to recognize us more as a long-term demographic instead of a group to appease with short-run mini-series and half-hearted cameos. And, as women who are on the creative side, we need to keep on creating.
OM: Because now our society has pulled its head out of its ass and realized that we are all human beings. Because now we’re inching closer to a day when we really will be judged on our integrity and our merits, not the color of our skins or the shapes of our bodies. It’s a world that’s still out of reach, but it’s getting closer day by day. And we as women creators have to keep reaching for it with our stories, with our pens and brushes and styluses and inks. We have to tell stories that give all our readers strength. We have to be the storytellers that light the fire in their heads. That is how we change the world.