Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Odori Park is a charming gag strip about a multicultural family: Arisa, from Hokkaido, Japan, Colin, from “Suburbia, U.S.A.,” and their toddler, Sprout. Creator Chris Watkins draws his material not only from the everyday hassles of parenthood and running a small business (a bookstore) but also from the cultural differences between Arisa and Colin. The strip has been online for just over a year, so we thought this would be a good time to talk to Chris about his creative influences and the routine of making a webcomic that updates three times a week.
Brigid: I can’t help asking about a comic like this—how much do you draw on your own life for Odori Park?
Chris: I’d be lying if I claimed there isn’t a close correlation between my life and my characters’. Obviously, my own intercultural marriage experiences are a huge inspiration for the whole comic. Still, I try to remind folks that there’s a line (otherwise, I’d get in trouble); at most, OP is only semi-auto-biographical. Most of the characters and situations are amalgams of reality. My wife, for example, has a lot in common with Arisa Easton—they’re both from Hokkaido, Japan, and they’re both skilled at accounting—but my wife isn’t of Ainu descent, and she’s far less likely—to pick a trait—to show her anger as directly as Arisa has on occasion. The bookstore the Eastons own is another good example. I’ve freelanced before, so I’ve pulled some of that experience into the strip, but it’s mixed into a heavy dose of recollections of a friend who owned a game and gift store. That’s the real inspiration there. The most notable exception is when our four year old says something funny. Those tend to go straight into the strip.
Brigid: What did you have in mind when you started the webcomic, and how has it evolved? Has it gone in any unexpected directions or is it following your plan?
Chris: Creatively, I’ve had a wealth of gag and story touchpoints I’ve wanted to pull together in a comic for years—lots of them anecdotes from my experiences with Japanese culture that I’ve wanted to relate—so one of my goals was to set up a world that would let me wind my way through those over time. So far, it’s working well. Bridging story and character points has been an interesting source of evolution in that goal. Sometimes I’ve had to pull teeth to make a leap, but more often than not, I’ve had explosions of ideas while driving between points A and B. Last summer’s extended flashback storyline was one of those evolutionary moments.
I’ve also enjoyed watching my art progress since launching the strip, and I think I’ve had that goal of personal progress in the back of my mind since the beginning. I feel like I’ve stumbled across all sorts of personal discoveries as a result of working on OP every day, with constant deadlines looming. The pressure and repetition have made an excellent “Spartan coach.”
My other major goal in this whole endeavor—whether it sounds mercenary or not—is to turn drawing something I enjoy into a reliable source of income. I tried the professional webcomic schtick once before, for several years, with a sci-fi/fantasy anthology site. I suffered from terminal lack of focus, and spent much more time monkeying with the site and posting other creators’ work than creating my own. (I was also rotten at selling ad slots; that was before Project Wonderful, mind you.) This time around I’ve tried to be laser focused on creating and promoting a single comic—my comic—to give myself the best chance for success. I’ve really been enjoying the results, and reconnecting with the webcomics world as a creator.
I should mention, too, that my wife really had a lot to do with the genesis of OP. After taking an indefinite hiatus from my prior webcomic site, I was looking for new avenues to attack, and she strongly suggested that I should try something funny rather than dramatic, based on our life, instead of a fantasy world. (She was reading an auto-bio comic about an international couple at the time, actually, which I think was part of her inspiration.) I figured I had nothing to lose, so why not try changing gears. My wife’s a smart cookie.
Brigid: Tell me a bit about your work process—how do you make the comic, and how far in advance do you work?
Chris: I started out with a three month buffer (a side-effect of having initially created OP for newspaper syndicate submission), which I quickly whittled down to two, and below. It’s dwindled over time, despite a couple concerted attempts to restock, such that at this point, I’m striving just to stay a week to two weeks ahead. For a while there, I was working on no buffer, and that is no way to live.
I try to be writing all the time. I keep a notebook in my pocket for jotting down ideas on the go, and like to use little pockets of found time throughout the week to refine the writing, sketch thumbnails, and such. Generally, I “pencil” a strip using ball-point pen on whatever paper is handy. It’s all about energy (and efficiency) at this stage for me. I “scan” (I’m dropping air quotes like bombs here) using a digital camera, again, because perfect quality isn’t necessary–getting the lines quickly into the computer is. I do the bulk of my work, then, on my tablet PC (a Toshiba Tecra M7), including the inking, lettering, and finishing steps. The whole process, I feel, saves me a lot of time I might otherwise waste on compositing scanned art, fixing errors, and the like. When I’m really in my zone, I reach a zippy flow in my inking and can just enjoy how the lines move on the “page.” (There I go again.) I do wish I were a bit more proficient with traditional brush and pen, though.
Brigid: What is the hardest part about producing a regularly updated webcomic?
Chris: Balancing time. My answer to your process question probably sounds a bit utilitarian, being so concerned with efficiency as it is, until I mention that I have a loving wife, a four year old son, an eight month old baby boy, a more than full time day job, and all the usual daily chaos that everybody juggles. With all that going on, and my family being so important to me, I have to try squeezing in the comic to tiny windows. For a good while, I was successfully getting up every morning around 4:30 to comick before the day began. That’s hard with a baby, though, so these days I juggle between early morning and late night hours to get the work done. I’m dangerously tired on a regular basis.
Brigid: How does Odori Park fit into your economic picture—is it a job or a hobby?
Chris: A jobby? A hob? I intend for it to one day be my day job—it would mean I could make more comics, of higher quality, and with better work-life balance—but having been through this all once before, I recognize that this is an endurance run, not a sprint. I dedicated my first year to building traffic. I thought I was past my target until I switched to using Google Analytics for traffic analysis, and realized that I sort of liked being blissfully ignorant. I want to put together a book this year, if I can, but that’ll depend a lot on whether I can get my readership numbers up to where I need them to support that sort of thing. I intend to keep plugging at it.
I have a Japanese daruma statue on a bookshelf in my home studio. It was a gift from my in-laws. These things have two big blank white eyes on them. You’re supposed to draw in one pupil when you launch yourself toward your dream, and the second one when you achieve it. I’m looking forward to drawing in that second eye.