Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Rose With A Unique Color

Sometimes extraordinary things can be found in the quietest places. The little things you never thought existed until you stumbled upon them one day. I don’t even remember how I discovered Serenity Rose, a comic book updated online at heartshapedskull.com starring the titular S. Rose, the local witch for the gloomy fictional town and tourism hotspot Crestfallen. Ms. Rose is as humble a character as you or I, suffering from all-too typical social anxieties and inner confusion. But she’s also a witch, which means she can do all sorts of crazy stuff like create ectoplasmic ponies and make her bed float - but mostly she just likes to fly around town.

Drawn and written by Aaron Alexovich (who did character designs on Nickelodeon’s Invader Zim and Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoons as well as other work such as Kimmie66 for DC Comics), Serenity Rose is an interesting case for publishing illustrated works in our Internet Age as the series’ first few issues were released through comics publisher Slave Labor Graphics (with Aaron himself hosting a full issue or two on his website), then collected together as a single volume in May of 2005, then continued for its second volume as an online webcomic. Yet this switch of format has done nothing but gather more fans for Serenity around Crestfallen, as evidenced by a second trade compilation on the way.


Props goes to Alexovich for entertaining such a unique art style with Serenity that its fans have an easy time spotting the comic’s heavily inked pages amidst the Photoshop-aligned competition. Unlike many artists, the author isn’t afraid to flood entire panels with abyssal amounts of black ink, which simply highlights the isolated colors even further next to the whites and grays. Fire-pink hair, Ghostbuster green slimes and vividly scarlet blood draws the eyes to the page with an excitement tempered by Aaron’s twisty lines and often whimsically curly details. Non-readers can visualize the comic better by thinking back to Sin City’s stark black-and-white cinematography being punctuated by target colors, although in Serenity this visual style is more in line with A Nightmare Before Christmas than hard-boiled pulp noir.

The story is just as colorful as its style, even if it tends to be an exploration of Serenity’s daily life. Born with various supernatural powers, Serenity has become a local celebrity for Crestfallen, a secluded town settled by witches many years ago which has since become a cheesy tourist destination as its original founders have abandoned it. Imagine if Tim Burton designed Salem, Massachusetts and there actually were goblins and trolls running around the place. The early issues of the series deal with the introduction of Sera and her friends, as well as fleshing out the world she lives in and how reactionary the populations are to the idea of reality-altering witches living amongst them. Later on, outside forces compel Sera to move on with her life and not be so socially-averse, only to drive her headlong into violent situations reminiscent of the trauma she sustained as a little girl due to her weird nature. As the creator properly puts it in the introduction to the first volume: “People are always talking about ‘Everyday people in extraordinary circumstances,’…I’m more interested in ‘Extraordinary people in everyday circumstances’.”



Naturally, when I contacted Mr. Alexovich I was interested in his perspective on working in different mediums and under different conditions, as he has experience in both animation and print, not to mention work-for-hire and self-projects. When I asked if working on personal projects was more demanding than outside gigs in terms of time-frames, he responded that “there's always a certain amount of stress involved with deadlines, whether the dates have been set by an editor or by your own webcomic update schedule. Either way you have people waiting to see your work and hoping not to be disappointed.” I was curious about the leeway he may give himself in Serenity Rose as opposed to working on a title for a comic book publisher, to which he wrote that “the only difference with a self-imposed deadline is that, y'know, obviously you aren't going to be completely arbitrary with yourself. Sometimes work-for-hire stuff can devolve into a mass of shifting deadlines, general confusion, and a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ that can make it hard to judge exactly how much thought and effort you can put into things. ‘Do I have time to render out every tube and rivet on Dr. Explodey's Moon-Killing Death-Cannon, or should it just be a shiny silver blob?’ It's easier to answer that question when you're budgeting your own time.”

Pressing for more information about his process, I asked if he felt more rewarded by working on a larger scale as he did with Invader Zim, or if that pride is locked down with Serenity. “The huge scale and tight schedules of most animated projects lead to sort of an assembly-line system where most artists have to stick to one tiny corner of the process” he admitted, “I mean, it's fun to design characters for TV, but I'd much rather design all the characters, write the story, script out all the dialogue, lay out the entire project, draw every panel, make all the color choices and call the whole thing mine.” He added that “the more personal something feels, the more satisfying [it is]” in favor of projects where he can design all the details of the work, from top to bottom.



Not wanting to waste the interview without peeling something out of his head about the creative process for Serenity Rose specifically, I wondered to him how he formulates characters such as the half-Japanese, half-British “perkigoff” musician and witch Vicious Whisper, or her opposite number Marvin “Rivet Hed” Garden, who tours the country with an ectoplasmically-aided heavy metal stage performance akin to a turbo-charged Rob Zombie concert. As the early issues for Serenity Rose featured tidbits about her fictional world in the form of faux-news interviews and history reports, I assumed that most of what Aaron puts on the page had been gestating imaginatively for a while. I was right, as he wrote that “things percolate. You take in ideas and little bits of information, character traits and stories from all around you, let them percolate in your head for years and years, then see what comes out when you're brainstorming.” He then mentioned that “every once in a while I'll get some brilliant idea for a character that comes to me, fully-formed, like a bolt of lightning from the heavens,” but that such characters are often not as developed as the long-simmering ones.

And Serenity Rose is a comic about its characters, as exemplified by the unwanted celebrity status our shy protagonist attains being a superpowered witch in an already infamous tourist destination. Asking about this theme of fame and its price, he explained that “I think it comes from the fact that Serenity and I both have horrible trouble with social anxiety, but at the same time we very much want the world to take notice of what we're doing and think it's something worthwhile. I'm looking for my work to attract a certain amount of attention... but, like Sera, I'm also slightly terrified by the whole notion of ‘attention’.” As recent developments in the story has Sera going up against more hostility than you or I would be comfortable with just facing let alone be targeted of, it’s clear Alexovich wants to run with this idea as a fresh alternative to the typical “person with magical abilities must try to be a hero with a normal life” trope. “As a writer, you're always looking for interesting ideas that can build some nice tension when you bump them against one another, and that sort of inner conflict seemed like something usable.”



Wrapping up the questionnaire, I had to inquire about any musical tastes that had influenced the writing of Serenity Rose recently. This was an obvious choice of question not only due to in-story musicians but also as Alexovich was fond of namedropping bands in the back pages for the original print issues. “For what it's worth,” he wrote, “while I was making [Sera’s recent adventures] I listened mostly to The Birthday Massacre, Arcade Fire (bad times for birthdays and arcades!), The Decemberists, The Faint, Scarling, Stephen Merritt, The Horrorpops, Ima Robot, KMFDM, Suede, Bloc Party, The Cure, Siouxsie, Morrissey, and a whole lot of Smashing Pumpkins.”

Finally, I returned once more the technical aspect of the comic’s design, primarily its publication online. As many average Joes have put their artistic skills to work in the webcomic field, and as many of them have failed for any number of reasons, Aaron gives sound advice that to succeed with an online venture, just “stick with it, and be consistent."

“Staying power counts for a lot in webcomics” he writes. “Most artists - even incredibly talented artists - get frustrated or bored and just give on their comic after a month or so. Building an audience takes time. And it also takes consistency. You should figure out what kind of update schedule makes sense for you and stick with it. If grandma calls you in a panic because CHUDs are smashing up through her floor to drag her into their reeking subterranean hell on the very day you promised to update your comic... well, I hear a dip in raw sewage does wonders for arthritis.”

All Images © 1998-2009 Aaron Alexovich

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