It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that Charise Mericle Harper thinks in words and pictures, to the extent that when we interviewed the prolific author and artist about her contribution to the new Fairy Tale Comics anthology, she prefaced her answers with this caveat: “Since I didn’t provide images to accompany these questions, I’ve included some visual cues so you can imagine your own pictures.”
So as you read the discussion below, be prepared to imagine what Harper might have drawn if she could have, the images she was drawing in her head while talking about her strip. A former illustrator and comic strip-maker, Harper has written and illustrated her own picture books (Cupcake, Pink Me Up, Best Birthday Ever), written picture books that other people have illustrated (If Waffles Were Like Boys with Scott Magoon, Wedgieman with Bob Shea), created the Fashion Kitty series of graphic novels, written the Just Grace series of prose books and made several comic strips for Nickelodeon Magazine, which was edited by Chris Duffy, who, not coincidentally, also edited Fairy Tale Comics.
Harper’s contribution is “The Small-Tooth Dog,” the story of a merchant indebted to a large, fierce dog with small teeth that saves his life. To repay the dog, the merchant gives it his daughter, and things probably wouldn’t be so bad if she could learn to be nice to the dog.
We spoke to Harper about her adaptation, her work and what’s so great about cats anyway.
GC4K: I’ve read stories you’ve written starring cupcakes and bunny rabbits and even ones with normal old human beings in them, but I first encountered your work—and I imagine you’re still best-known in comics circles—for your Fashion Kitty books. I was therefore amused to find that your contribution starred an anthropomorphic kitty cat.
What is it about cats that you like drawing, or that you find makes them good protagonists for comics?
Charise Mericle Harper: Good question. Sometimes it takes a question like that for me to notice that I do have favorites. First off, what’s not to love about cats? They’re visually appealing, they have soft fur, and they purr. Ever have a purring kitty on your lap? It’s comfy, warm and cozy. But what I like most about cats is that they’re creatively complicated. They keep you on your toes. You have to work for their love, and when they decide to give it to you, it’s on their terms.
Being in a relationship with one is like dating the rebel bad boy in high school, but safer because they don’t partake in illegal substances and they can’t drive. Thank goodness for that. (Real cats are driving—imagine it.) I like cats because they are unpredictable. They are all things; loving, comforting, loyal, evil, sneaky, distant, vindictive, and sometimes all in the span of a day. They’re a lot like people—only they come in cute furry wrapping.
GC4K: How did you and this particular story get together? Did you get to pick from an available list? Did Chris Duffy assign it? (And were you at all bummed out that you didn’t get to do Puss-in-Boots, maybe the most kitty-centric of the stories in the collection?)
Harper: Here’s how it happened. Chris Duffy called me up and said, “Charise, your story is about a dog and he has small teeth.” There was no choice. Now to be fair to Chris, if I’d said, “No way man, I don’t draw dogs with ridiculously small teeth!” he might have given me a different story, but that’s not what happened. (Chris gives smart, witty reply to above outburst—imagine it.)
It was an assignment, but that’s okay, because I love assignments. It’s the difference between someone saying, “This is your box. Make it into something,” and saying, “Do whatever you want.” I like the box. I like the boundaries—they push me to think creatively.
I was not at all bummed out that I wasn’t assigned the Puss-in-Boots story. In fact I’m glad I didn’t get it, because as it stands, I got to use a cat in my story. I like to mix things up, so who knows, if I had done Puss-in-Boots, I might have changed the cat into a different animal (An aardvark named Puss is wearing stylish little boots—imagine it.) Plus I love the comic that Vanessa Davis did.
Gc4K: Were you familiar with this particular story before you started working on your version of it for the anthology? (It certainly bears a rather striking resemblance to “Beauty and The Beast”). Did you do much or any research into how other artists have illustrated it over the years, if only to make sure you don’t duplicate what someone else might have done, or were you pretty confident there weren’t any illustrated versions anything like yours?
Harper: This answer is going to make me look bad. The lie is that I did extensive research in dusty back rooms of famous libraries. The truth is, that I just read the story and started sketching. I didn’t even Google the story’s name. It didn’t even occur to me. I probably should have been more thorough. Ugh—now I’m going to look like I’m lazy (Author is on couch in pajamas watching cartoons—imagine it.)
The story definitely reminded me of “Beauty and the Beast.” I liked the whole lesson part of it. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing—life advice wrapped up in a silly story. I rarely get to do this kind of short comic assignment, so I was pretty excited about it, and at this point I’m pretty confident in my style—sort of fifth grade ability with a nice color palette. I’d have a hard time copying anyone else—I’m not a very good drafstman.
GC4K: Making the merchant and his daughter cats certainly adds a layer to the story, beyond allowing for funny elements like a gang of little squirrel bandits or cats in clothes (I liked the “Very Handsome” label at the end, letting us human readers who can’t tell if a boy cat is handsome or not know that he is indeed). Now the dog isn’t presented so much as a big, scary, unnatural monster, but simply a different and opposing species to that of the heroine—and comics and cartoon connoisseurs will recognize the cat and dog as natural antagonists.
Harper: That’s what was fun about using the cat and the dog. The reader comes into the story already knowing something about the characters and their relationship. That’s probably why so many children’s books use animals as their protagonists. It makes the story less wordy, and the reader feels immediately engaged—they’re adding value based on their own prior knowledge. Plus it’s fun to see familiar characters acting in unfamiliar ways. A cat acting like a human is funny. (Humans as cats—imagine it.)
GC4K: I also liked the matter of fact ending of the story, in which the dog simply pops his own head off and there’s a handsome bipedal cat inside, leaving it vague as to whether he was cursed to be a dog until a nice young lady was nice to him of her own free will, or if he was dressed up in a very convincing dog costume or what. Was that born of the storytelling economy, or did the origin of the cat/person-in-the-form-of-a-dog not seem as important as the story itself?
Harper: The original story had a pretty fast ending, and right away I liked that about it. It was ridiculous. Wouldn’t you be wary, or concerned if someone changed shape right before your eyes? (Your friend changes into a hamster—imagine it.) It would be fun to do a sequel to a well known fairy tale.
In this particular story there was no mention of a curse, or why the handsome fellow at the end of the story was a dog with particularly small teeth. However they did make a point of mentioning that once the dog changed into a human, “he had the finest and smallest teeth you ever saw.” I guess that was our clue that something was amiss—scary dog with illogically small teeth.
GC4K: Was it difficult to condense it into such a relatively short space, and still find time and space for your own jokes and gags and flourishes? Many of the stories included in the volume seem like they could support their own comics, rather than simply being short chapters of one big comic.
Harper: Difficult doesn’t mean bad. Paring down the story was challenging, but it was fun. What to include and what to leave out of an existing story is easier than writing a whole new story from scratch.
In this story the most challenging part was how many times the dog and the cat went back and forth to the castle. It was repetitive, so I had to make it visually different each time. If this was my story, I would have gotten rid of a few of those trips, but I ended up with a nice joke about the cat and her luggage.
I’m sure I could have created a longer comic. Once you have established characters and a story line, there’s always more you can add to a story. But for this project, it was nice to have a page limit. It forced me to condense the story to its most basic elements, so that there was room for the fun stuff. This really was the perfect assignment for me. The story was already there—I just had to make it silly.
GC4K: Can you walk us through your process a bit? How did you decide on the particular form and layout? Quite a few of your pages eschew the traditional “grid” of comics in favor of pages where multiple images share one big “panel” forming little implied panels within them (the second-to-last page, most especially).
Harper: I don’t have any formal art training. That’s probably obvious to anyone with training who has seen my work (True artist covering his eyes as I try to show him book—imagine it.) I spend a lot of time not really knowing what I’m doing. I usually just end up drawing what feels right to me and trying not to think about it too much.
For this project, the layouts of the final story ended up being very close to my original sketches. If I had to put it into words, I’d say that my comics follow my thought patterns. The story is linear, but the telling part is somewhat organic. I’m not purposely breaking the rules—I just don’t know what the rules are.
GC4K: As someone who regularly creates picture books and graphic novels and prose books and has worked on a comic strip and served as an illustrator, do you have a particular favorite medium within the whole “Telling stories, usually involving a lot of pictures” sphere you’ve worked in? Where does a comic like this adaptation fit in? Is it at all difficult for you to switch gears from one type of storytelling to another?
Harper: I started out my career as an editorial illustrator; from there I moved into comics and finally children’s books. Words mixed with pictures has always been my favorite way to tell a story. So, for me, it’s comics that comes the closest. I like the mix of words and pictures both there on the page together, and if I could draw faster, I’d do more comics. I used to do some comic reporting, when I lived in Chicago. This assignment was a little bit like that, but without the legwork.
I really like working on all types of books. It’s interesting, it keeps me energized, and it’s helpful too, because not every story I come up with is suited to one particular medium. I feel lucky that I get to mix it up.
GC4K: Over the years, have you found that your work in one particular form of storytelling medium informs your work in another? For example, do you think the way you might have made this comic might have been much different if you haven’t also worked on storybooks and prose books as well?
Harper: I don’t think this comic would have been visually different if I was not writing chapter books and novels. But I’m hoping that after all that practice writing, I chose good words and put them in the right order. If there’s any influencing going on, it’s coming from comics.
If the comic format was a character, he’d be high on a hill shooting be-like-me rays into all my projects. Many of my picture books use word balloons. Grace, the main character in the chapter book series Just Grace, draws comics, and that’s just two examples. I guess when you find something you love, you want it all around you (Author has purring kitten on lap and trusty dog sleeping next to her—imagine it. While answering these questions, this was 100% true).