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Cassie Anderson on ‘Extraordinary’

Cassie Anderson’s Extraordinary: The Story of an Ordinary Princess, which came out last week from Dark Horse, turns the traditional fairy tale story upside down with a princess who is not beautiful or talented, at least not in any obvious way. Not only is she not gifted, Princess Basil is so ordinary that when she puts on an enchanted dress, it turns drab and dowdy. Her mother, despairing of ever finding a suitable match for her unremarkable daughter, imprisons her in a tower in hopes that a knight will rescue and marry her. Instead, Basil escapes, makes a new friend, and goes off in search of the fairy who cursed (or maybe blessed) her with the gift of ordinariness.

Anderson talked to us about the creative process behind Extraordinary, which was inspired by, but not adapted from, M. M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess, and she also shared some of the sketches she did while developing the characters and the look of the book.

I understand this story is based on a children’s novel. How did you hear about it, and what attracted you to the story?

I first heard about M. M. Kaye’s novel my second year in college. My class had an assignment where we had to create four multimedia comic pages based on a fairytale, and I was initially pretty excited about the idea. However, every fairytale I came across didn’t feel inspiring or interesting to me. Then I stumbled upon a brief description of The Ordinary Princess and thought, “Hello, what’s this? A fun, cute take on the traditional stories we’re used to? I can work with this.” I finished the four-page comic for class based on the book description, but something about the story kept pulling me back in.

Were there any illustrations, or did you come up with the look of the characters entirely on your own?

I didn’t actually read M. M. Kaye’s book until after I finished my webcomic; I didn’t want her story to overly influence mine. So the only illustration I remember seeing was the original cover to her book, which I loved. It was a sweet picture of a princess looking into the distance with her hands behind her back. The first version of my story (the four pages from college) almost emulated that cover illustration, with its soft watercolors and familiar feel. However, as I continued to develop the story, it took on a different style. The second version I made was an attempt at making a pitch for an animated series, and this largely informed the style of my webcomic. I wanted to keep that animated feel, almost like the comic panels were screenshots. 

One of the things I noticed was the way you changed the palette from scene to scene. How did you approach the coloring of this story?

Coloring was a blast! I really tried to experiment with the colors, and to almost treat the colors as another character in the book. They play a big role in the telling of the story. For instance, I use toned down hues to emphasize Basil’s “ordinariness,” especially compared to her family’s bright, saturated colors. Dramatically changing the color scheme scene-to-scene also helped to set the mood and distinguish one scene or chapter from the next.

Why did you decide to do the story as a webcomic first? How did you change it when you went to a graphic novel?

I originally decided to make it into a webcomic because I was freshly graduated, unsure of my ability to finish a comic, and had no idea what it took to get something published. It seemed like an easy foray into the comic world, because I would only be creating a page or two a week with the added accountability of online followers. I always had the intent of printing it out as a book, though. My first few copies of the first chapter were saddle-stitched stacks of printer paper from OfficeMax. I learned a lot about printing and publishing as time went on, so not much had to be changed when Dark Horse picked it up. Well, other than the lettering. Hand-lettering a book over 5 years leads to a lot of inconsistencies, it turns out. I redid all the letters, and changed a bit of the dialogue in the process. 

Did you grow up reading comics? If so, which ones? What about animated cartoons—what were your favorites? How have they influenced your comics work?

Most of the comics I read growing up were collections of the Sunday comics (mostly Garfield, I’ll be honest) and a few manga series. I loved Tokyo Mew Mew and Sailor Moon. The idea of ordinary girls having special gifts and powers has always intrigued me, and a lot of stories I have made revolve around exploring that concept. As for animated cartoons, as a kid I was mostly sequestered to PBS shows (which are awesome) because we didn’t have cable. I loved The Magic School Bus, Arthur, and Cyberspace. Later on in life, I watched Avatar the Last Airbender and it has been my favorite show since. The imagination of the world and the development of the characters is at a whole different level than most shows I’ve seen. I can see how I have adapted bits and pieces of animation into my style. It’s probably most apparent with my work on Extraordinary, with the exaggerated faces, the bright colors, and the cartoony environments. 

Twists on the fairy-tale princess story seem to be perennially popular. What do you think readers like about them?

I think there is something forever fascinating about exploring these familiar stories in different contexts. One of my favorite book series is The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. She takes the characters we grew up with (Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and more) and twists them until they’re almost unrecognizable, but while still keeping you grounded in the original fairytales. These new takes on old stories manage to keep you guessing what will happen next. That’s the trick: Having the story be just recognizable enough but with enough variation that it becomes its own thing. 

What did you like about drawing this story? Was there a particular character you really had fun with?

I loved playing with the expressions of the characters and the environments throughout the story. The character I had the most fun drawing, though, was Melvina the fairy, hands down. I love her grumpy face and sassy personality. She’s unlike most fairies you run into in books! 

I know you are also doing an original graphic novel, Lifeformed. It’s a very different story with a very different look, and unlike Extraordinary, it’s not based on another work. How do you approach an original story differently from one that is based on something else? Which type of work do you like better?

It’s been really fun getting to do both. With Lifeformed, I was starting with a completely blank slate. It’s been a really great creative challenge to design characters and a post-alien invasion world. Also, I had never drawn aliens or space ships before this book, and it stretched me a lot as an artist. I got to experiment in different ways than I did with Extraordinary. Writing in general is harder for me than drawing, so when writing Extraordinary it was hard to trust my own intuition with the story, especially knowing it was inspired by another story. I wanted to pay homage to M. M. Kaye’s book, but also create my own unique story. Finding that balance was tricky, but worth it. Overall however, I think I prefer working from an original story. It’s cool knowing you helped put a totally fresh thing out into the world. 

What’s next on the horizon?

I’m currently working on a slice of life story about running and heartbreak! It’s been a completely different type of story to write, and I’ve faced a lot of challenges I wasn’t expecting. But I’m excited to see where it goes!  

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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