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In January, illustrator/cartoonist/artist Stephanie Buscema launched The Little Tales of Otto & Olive, a new all-ages webcomic as part of the Saturday Morning Webtoons site. Infused with her love of cats as well as a healthy appreciation of carnival sideshows (and carny kids), the quirky adventures of a young girl and a sophisticated talking feline caught my attention immediately. Buscema was kind enough to recently entertain a series of questions about this new project, as well as an upcoming collaboration with author Carolyn Crimi on Pugs in a Bug (Dial Books [set for release on March 15]) and a cover assignment for KaBOOM! Studios Adventure Time comics. I loved getting to gain some insight on Buscema’s approach to her craft–particularly the lessons learned from working with industry great Marie Severin.
Tim O’Shea: How did you come to be involved with Saturday Morning Webtoons?
Stephanie Buscema: I was approached by J. Torres about contributing to Saturday Morning Webtoons back in September. I loved idea, the work of everyone involved and jumped at the chance to play around with a new all ages comic.
O’Shea: How long has Otto & Olive been rolling around in your head?
Buscema: The story ideas were there, the actual characters Otto and Olive were something I came up with after I was asked aboard SMW.
Basically, I had a ton of story ideas in my head over the past couple of years while working on picture books. I wrote them all down on pieces of paper, in notebooks and sketchbooks as they came to me with hope that I’d be able to draw and paint them at some point. Many of these involved subject matter and scenarios that a picture book publisher these days probably wouldn’t approve of: Sideshows and carny kids, Ouija boards and ghost cats coming back from the dead, a creepy ice cream man that delivers disgusting treats to monster kids during the witching hour…all things I would absolutely kill to illustrate but knew would never get the green light with a picture book publisher. I decided to use those story ideas and apply them to O & O, to try and create a happy place between a traditional picture book and a comic.
O’Shea: Why Otto, the speaking gentleman cat, as opposed to a speaking gentleman dog or some other kind of animal? Is the character partially inspired by your tuxedo cat, Figs?
Buscema: He’s definitely inspired by Figs! While I love all animals, I’m definitely a cat person. Recently, I had illustrated a couple of picture books featuring dogs as the main characters (“Name That Dog!” and “Pugs in a Bug”) and didn’t want to burn out on drawing more pups! While I was sketching character ideas, this monocle wearing George Arliss-like cat was born. I decided he’d be perfect companion for Olive.
O’Shea: How early in the development of the project did you realize you wanted to do the “bearded lady”/ice cream comedy bit?
Buscema: Pretty early on! I knew the first story had to be carny/sideshow related. If you know me, you know I’m a huge geek for sideshow history, sideshow performers of the past, Coney Island and the like. Most kids these days aren’t really aware of or exposed to things like this anymore because they just aren’t around. It’s a wonderful, colorful part of history that’s slowly being forgotten, even if it is considered fringe by some. My goal is to use O&O as a kind of a curio cabinet or gateway to exposing kids of all ages to spooky or strange things they might not know of…but in the cutest, friendliest visual way possible (If that makes any sense)!
O’Shea: Do you see Otto & Olive as a finite project, or do you have an interest in doing a number of stories with these characters?
Buscema: I have so many stories in mind for these two, it could go on and on. For now I’m planning on doing a few short stories and possibly one longer thread, as time allows.
O’Shea: What is it about sideshow history and sideshow performers of the past that captures your interest?
Buscema: There’s a certain sort of wonder and intrigue about the sideshow. Especially at Coney Island, where there were multiple sideshows going on at one time in the early 1900’s. Everyone that was anyone in the sideshow (or “freak show”) had performed there at one time. That sort of thing has disappeared from the world almost completely, the grittiness of it all is gone. Sure there’s a sideshow revival that’s become kid of hip, much like the whole burlesque revival going on. While it’s fantastic to see enthusiasts keep it alive, it will never be what it was. What is was is what I’m drawn to.
Growing up, my Grandmother would talk about going to Coney as a child and what it was like, as her and her family lived within walking distance. She spoke about the rides at the time (which also wouldn’t fly today!) and the sideshow. I needed to know more and began to seek out everything I could find back then that had information, history and photography relating to sideshows. I felt a sort of connection to it, especially being the weird kid. It wasn’t really easy to find that stuff 15+ years ago. Sure, there was Tod Browning’s Freaks, but I wanted more! There used to be this place in the lower east side of Manhattan called the Freakatoriuim. It was a teeny tiny museum filled with antique sideshow banners, photos and artifacts. It was one of the only places around where I could get up close to this stuff, I loved it so much. Once I saw the photographs of the tattooed ladies (Betty Broadbent, Lady Viola), that was it for me. I wanted to become one, too!
I’m just getting my feet wet with the Olive & Otto Sweetheart of the Sideshow bit. These are the kind of books I want to make and I plan on doing a handful sideshow/circus related stories and artwork in the future!
O’Shea: You work in a variety of platforms–comics, picture books, book covers and magazine illustrations. Do you enjoy the variety of assignments, or would you like to narrow your focus and do more of one the mediums (as opposed to all four) at some point?
Buscema: So far I’ve really enjoyed working on a variety of assignments. It’s helped me grow and has given me so many opportunities I might not have gotten if I only worked in say, exclusively picture books or exclusively in comics. In my opinion, I think it’s good to have a hand in everything if you want to make a living as an illustrator.
O’Shea: Every once and awhile you collaborate with your husband, Rob Harrigan, on a project. How do you two decide “OK, this is one we could collaborate on”? And what is the most enjoyable aspect of getting to collaborate with him?
Buscema: Both of us work in different fields and in different mediums (him being a designer), so whenever an opportunity arises that can allow us to work together, we jump on it. Working with Rob is something very special to me, we know each other so well and he knows my work, why I went in a certain direction and how I envision the final product before I even say a word. With Otto and Olive, we sat down and I told him my vision for the site, etc. He then went to town creating a multi platform site to showcase the work. He lays in all the text for the title cards and designs everything with a letter on it. While we don’t always agree on everything, collaborating with him brings us together, gives us a chance to step away from our everyday work and have fun.
O’Shea: Everyday you are gaining more and more fans to your work, but on the flipside, I am curious–are there any artists that are producing work that is catching your attention/interest?
Buscema: There is a lot of great work being made at the present moment! Personally, I find myself constantly gravitating toward much older work…almost always. Obsessively at times! There’s so much to discover from illustrators and artists from the past, so much to learn and soak up. I live for digging through old art books and periodicals at used book stores, that’s what really catches my interest in the way of finding new work and artists to drool over.
O’Shea: How did your upcoming collaboration with Carolyn Crimi on Pugs in a Bug come about?
Buscema: I was contacted by Dial Books about coming aboard the project, they liked the work and felt it was a good fit for the book. About a year prior I had illustrated another dog themed book for them, they seemed happy with it and asked me back aboard. I’d been fan of Carolyn’s picture book work and was thrilled to be involved with the project.
O’Shea: What was it like collaborating with Crimi, did she give you specific suggestions for what she was looking for with certain scenes, or did she give you some flexibility on that front?
Buscema: On my end, the whole book is done through the editor and art director only. I’ve actually never met or spoke with any of the writers I’ve worked with during the process stages, which has been a little strange for me! I’m so used to collaborating on comic projects and I really prefer working that way, I love the back and fourth of it all. As far as the scenes and character designs go, I pretty much had free reign, no specifics really, so lots of flexibility. The tweaks and changes are made after the sketch stage, after the author/editors/art directors have seen the rough layouts and ideas. Making picture books is an extremely long process, sometimes it takes a year (or more) to complete just one book, then another year for it to hit the shelves.
O’Shea: You recently did a cover for KaBOOM!’s Adventure Time comics, any chance you might be interested in doing interior pages on that book at some point, or is there no time for that in your schedule?
Buscema: I would absolutely love to! I really enjoyed working with Finn and Jake on the cover, I’m a fan of the show and would be over the moon thrilled to work with those characters again.
O’Shea: In your website bio, you wrote “I pride myself on carrying on techniques passed down from mentors and family members.” I’m not looking to ask questions about family members, per se, but I am curious to learn who some of your (non-family member) mentors are–and more importantly what are some of the techniques you are proud to carry on?
Buscema: I was extremely fortunate to have Marie Severin as a mentor in my teens. She gave me my first color set, showed me my first EC comic and for that, I am eternally grateful! I was shown by my Grandfather how to use a brush and she showed me how to apply color and how to make color work by using traditional methods. I’m proud to use these methods passed on to me in my everyday work and feel it’s important to carry on traditional image making (and equally as important to pass it on to others interested in working this way). I’m by no means putting down digital image making, there’s some absolutely stunning and incredible work being made. The computer is rapidly becoming an art tool essential for survival in the field today. However…I have a real love and connection working with my hands. Mixing colors on a palette and applying with a brush just feels right to me, you have complete control. There’s definitely a certain magic that happens.