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[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Hugo Nominated Author-Artist Ursula Vernon

I’m stepping away from our usual the next few weeks to interview a few special guests. In this case, Hugo nominee Ursula Vernon, Author & illustrator of Dragonbreath, Nurk, and Digger. Digger is nominated for best Graphic Story this year and Ursula is Artist Guest of Honor at the 40th Anniversary of ConQuest in Kansas City.  The daughter of an artist, she spent her youth attempting to rebel and become a scientist, but eventually succumbed to the siren song of paint, although not before getting a degree in anthropology. Her work has been nominated for an Eisner award, “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition” and a number of Webcomics Choice Awards. Although she grew up in Oregon and Arizona and attended college in Minnesota, she’s now settled in Pittsboro, North Carolina where she works full-time as an artist and self-described creator of oddities. She can be found online at http://ursulavernon.com and http://www.redwombatstudio.com/.


SFFWRTCHT: First things first: congrats on the Hugo nomination for Best Graphic Novel for “Digger.” Where’d your interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy come from?

Ursula Vernon: It must have been a pre-natal interest, since I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t interested in it! I do recall watching Star Trek at a very young age, because my father was a fan, and I got hooked immediately.

SFFWRTCHT: And what about your interest in art?

UV: Well, that took a little longer. My mother’s a fine artist, and so I grew up with it, which meant that it had all the glamor of dental work. As far as I could tell, art meant that you made no money and had weird friends and stayed up very late in the weeks before a show trying to get things finished. This was not a life I was interested in. At some point in college, though, my mother finally badgered me into taking a drawing class. One class, to get her to stop hounding me about it, seemed like a small price to pay. And…well…she’s very nice and hardly ever gloats about it at all.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some writers and artists who influenced you growing up?

UV: Growing up, I must have read every Robin McKinley and James Herriot book available in the library. From there, I graduated to Star Trek novels, and particularly loved Janet Kagan and Diane Duane.

SFFWRTCHT: And when did you get started creating your own work?

UV: I took a couple of art classes in college, as I said before, but the problem was that I’d already gotten most of the way to my anthropology degree by the time I started, and the notion of trying to cram a studio art double major in made my hair curl. So it was basically a couple of pick-up drawing and painting classes.

For writing, I took the obligatory Freshman English, hated it deeply–the prof had a great dislike of “genre” work–and took no more writing classes at all. I had been writing off and on for much of my childhood and just kept on going with that in a vague fashion, but the art didn’t really start happening until I was about eighteen.

SFFWRTCHT: Digger has been popular as a webcomic. Where’d the idea come from and how did it develop?

UV: Well, I was doodling characters one day, thinking “I need a design that I can draw over and over again and it’ll look the same, so it has to be fairly simple…” and I couldn’t think of anything to base it on. I had the TV on, and at that moment, a wombat took a chunk out of Steve Irwin’s leg. I said “That’ll do!” and started drawing Digger. Also, the word “wombat” is inherently fun to say.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you write all the storyboards as well as do the art or do you collaborate?

UV: It’s all me, baby! The closest I’ve come to collaborating on Digger was a stretch about five years on, where I started to get intensely paranoid that I was going to be hit by a bus before I finished the story. One day I cornered my boyfriend in the shower and told him the entire rest of the storyline, so that if something happened, he could find an artist to finish it. To his eternal credit, he sat on that knowledge (including one pretty significant plot twist) for over two years. It killed him, I know, but it took a great load off my mind.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study writing as well as art? What type of writing is most helpful to study in preparation for doing comics and graphic novels? I write novels and I understand the form is a bit different?

UV: Well, the form is definitely different! Novels have the great advantage of speed–if I write “It was a huge library,” it takes about three seconds to type that line, and about three hours to draw it. (Whoever said a picture was worth a thousand words didn’t have to draw a 700+ page comic.) In comics, you have to whittle your words down to dialog and not much else. There’s a lot of authors who write great prose but mediocre dialog–for whatever reason, those seem to be two entirely different skills–and you just can’t do comics like that.

SFFWRTCHT: What are some of the key differences in form?

UV: Design, definitely. My method of writing Digger was to write down all the dialog I wanted to achieve in the next few pages, with maybe some vague stage directions–“Looks annoyed,” “tall vertical panel of riding troll,” or whatever. Then I’d have to figure out how to lay the page out so that I could fit what I needed into it. In novels–well, everybody reads from left-to-right in English, so there’s not a lot of worry needed about the visual flow.

SFFWRTCHT: What audience are you going for? Kids? Teens? Adults? All of the above?

UV: With Digger, it’s turned into a largely adult comic. I know teens read it, even some kids, and we don’t have any sex or swearing, so it probably won’t kill ’em, but there’s a lot of what we’d call “adult themes.” Now, when I was a kid, I read seriously advanced stuff, so I suspect there are some too-smart-for-their-own-good kids just like the younger me reading Digger, and more power to ’em!

SFFWRTCHT: You also have the Dragonbreath books series which combine text and graphic novels and tell of the adventures of Danny Dragon who attends a school for reptiles and amphibians with his best friend Wendell the Iguana. Do I detect a slight fondness for animals here?

UV: I do love animals, yes. Growing up, I was one of those kids with a million stuffed animals and no use at all for dolls. They’re also, it must be said, much easier to draw than humans–draw a human wrong and people notice, draw an iguana with its eyes slightly too far apart, and nobody cares, except maybe one or two iguana enthusiasts.

SFFWRTCHT: I have not read the Dragonbreath books yet but the description on your website sounds like they have a bit of an educational, kid-friendly focus? What’s your audience for those?

UV: The target audience is 8-12, particularly reluctant reader boys, but that’s just what it says on the sales material. One of my biggest fans is a six-year-old girl. Advanced readers of younger ages can definitely pick them up. I think it’s the fact that they’re a graphic novel/chapter book hybrid and thus have a lot of pictures that makes them for “reluctant readers” since they’re just plain less intimidating.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your favorite medium for artistic expression? Do you favor pencil drawings, painting, other forms? A combination?

UV: Oof, tough call! I like a lot of different media. Digital, mixed media watercolor/acrylic…I even dabble in leather mask-making occasionally. Digital is probably the one that I’m best at and have the most experience with, and it’s the one where I can achieve the greatest realism, but I like a lot of different media.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best way for up and coming artists to find their niche and build their audience?

UV: Blogging has worked well for me. Give people a reason to keep coming back to the site, keep yourself in people’s brains, that sort of thing. I don’t know if it’s the best way, but it’s one way!  Web presence has been the vast majority! I’ve had two dedicated gallery shows and a couple of random pieces in other galleries over the years. I sell 99.9% of everything on-line. It’s only in the last few years that Dragonbreath has taken off, and people are getting to know me from finding the book on a shelf, rather than via the web.

SFFWRTCHT: And now you’re artist guest of honor at Conquest. How did that happen? Have you been a GOH before?

UV: I’ve been a GoH before, and I guess it happened because the nice people at Conquest liked my work!

SFFWRTCHT: As GOH, do you have any goals as to how you might reach out or a message about speculative fiction art?

UV: Uh. That’s a tough one! As a GoH, mostly I show up to panels and alternate between shattering people’s illusions about the fame and glory available to an artist and writer, and encouraging them because if I can do it, seriously, anybody ought to be able to do it! I’m not sure that’s a goal, though. It more just happens.

SFFWRTCHT: How can we as fans best support artists and encourage you?

UV: Buy their stuff! It’s how most of us make a living, and there’s really no substitute. *grin*


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, the children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and editor of the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  An affiliate SFWA member, he also hosts Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter and is a frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and Hugo nominee SFSignal. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via www.bryanthomasschmidt.net.