Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #49 by Drew Barth
Live from Miami Part 3—Kat Verhoeven
From webcomic to brand new book on your shelf, Kat Verhoeven’s Meat and Bone is one of the most recent webcomics to make the leap to published book. From its dialogue to its color palette to its subject matter, there has never been anything on the page as distinct, memorable, and heartbreaking as Meat and Bone.
At this past Miami Book Fair, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kat Verhoeven and dig deep into what makes Meat and Bone such a phenononal work.
Drew Barth: First off, congratulations on Meat and Bone getting from that webcomic to this published work.
Kat Verhoeven: Thank you.
DB: Now you’re part of that pantheon of creators who have made the leap from being strictly webcomic into that physical medium like Meredith Gran and Andrew Hussie. Was there ever a plan for you to have it be a physical book or was it just wanting to get the story out there regardless of physical medium?
KV: There was always a plan. From the very first page, I was trying to consider print formats and how it would reproduce best. I’ve been working on this for so many years that as I was working on it I realized what I thought was good information for how to format things was only actually half-good information, so it still needed a lot of work when I was adapting it to actually be printed, but probably a lot less than if I hadn’t always wanted it to be a book in the first place. I just felt webcomics was a more accessible way of getting the story out when I really didn’t have any sort of reputation or following at that time to get a publisher, at least that’s what I felt.
DB: Yeah, you see that a lot with other webcomic artists where that is the start of building the audience.
KV: Yeah, and I think there’s some downsides to that now where you pretty much have to create a big thing for free and market yourself for possibly years before you can make the leap to published work, which most of the time still does pay better, I think. There’s still some people who are wildly well-paid off Patreon or through their webcomics, but it’s not everybody. Printed books are still, in many ways, the best way to live off of comics.
DB: We’re still in that weird place too where it’s hard to know what good webcomics are out there.
KV: Like the only things that exist are these terribly maintained lists, like the webcomic list is basically just a wild west Craigslist of everything and there’s not a lot of ways to filter it. And then sites like Smackjeeves, which just had some sort of thing happen with it where it’s changing its format or it’s getting rid of domain names, or Webtoons or any of those, they’re unreliable. And they are, especially Webtoons, very algorithm based, so it’s harder to break in there and if you’re starting without a reputation, or without some sort of following, it’s harder to break in and it’s still not easy to make their best-of lists, so it’s still hard to get discovered. I do sometimes think back to the Megatokyo days where, when you looked up webcomics, you were going to get one of five results, basically.
DB: And if you wanted to find more you could go onto their “comics I’m reading” lists.
DB: And now you don’t really see a lot of those anymore.
KV: No, and that’s kind of too bad. The friends link thing is a beautiful throwback to the early internet.
DB: I still remember I got most of my recommendations from John Allison’s Scary Go Roundyears and years ago and not knowing what Achewood was and checking that out, and following down the rabbit hole from there.
KV: Yeah, but in its way, that became a lot of the same cartoonists of that level wound up sharing their own links on those sites, so to find anything that was coming a couple years after those cartoonists, it wouldn’t necessarily be shared in the same way. So there’s always going to be a problem, I think, of the systems that are working to discover new talent. You need to find out how to infiltrate them, work around them, or just be clever. It’s always going to change.
DB: And speaking of change too, I also wanted to touch on how Meat and Bone character changes have worked throughout the entire series. This is a very long format piece of comic prose and what was your approach to Anna, Gwen, and Jane and how you were able to develop them throughout all those years. [4.15.74]
KV: When I started working on Meat and Bone I always had this bullet list plan and originally I was trying to do it in the true webcomic fashion where I’m like “I know the points I want to touch on, but it’s going to be serialized and it’ll just go on forever and I’ll write it as I go.” But very early on I was like “oh, I have working like this.” I wound up tightening up that script and creating more controlled narrative beats for the characters and more traditional development arcs. Then I tried to write it all at once and get it done all at once to make it like a story. With the characters, they’re all kind of trying to, without being too moralistic, have a journey that comes to some sort of conclusion, whether that’s a conclusion that’s positive or negative or neutral doesn’t matter as much so long as it shows these important aspects along the way.
DB: And that’s something I really enjoyed too in the comic is that you really play a lot with negative character development where people aren’t necessarily becoming better versions, but they are changing in some way. And I think that’s something that, especially for a lot of LGBT focused comics, everything has to be good or else it’s weird to portray.
KV: I get where that’s coming from because a lot of the older LGBT characters—don’t even talk about LGBT stories because they didn’t exist—the characters were miserable or got killed off or died of AIDS. It’s the trope of the LGBT tragedy. And so now we’re kind of in this moment of trying to take that back and to give queer characters positive stories and to let them be happy and let them have good endings. But I love darkness and I love struggle and I love suffering. I definitely consider myself more in the “drama” than the “comedy” camp and even more into tragedies. I would rather leave a movie feeling harrowed than light-hearted. It was actually very scary in some ways writing queer characters who are complex and not necessarily showing that respectability that “everything is good, everything is okay” side because I thought I was going to get a lot of negative feedback. But so far it hasn’t happened, so fingers crossed that people appreciate it for its complexity.
DB: Yeah, I think that integrating those more negative aspects makes them more well-rounded because not everyone can be perfection all the time.
KV: I think so. And queer people should get to be complicated and messy. Marshall in particular is a queer trans woman who has an eating disorder and is kind of a jerk most of the time. And I don’t see any other characters like that , but if somebody came to me and told me “I have a real issue with this” I’d understand where they were coming from because she is really, really difficult. But I kind of love her for that. And I’m glad I wrote her that way without being scared.
DB: Yeah, and that’s something I wanted to touch on too. How do find that balance between the positive and negative aspects of a character where people can still enjoy this person despite some of the negativity before it becomes too negative and people think it’s too much?
KV: With me, I try to just be honest with what I need the characters to deliver and let that go as deep as it needs to in that character. I’ve been kind of surprised that people seem to care less about how dark and bad a character is, like lots of people tell me they love Marshall even though she’s kind of awful. But I think not a lot of people like Anne too much and I think it’s really because Marshall is unapologetically who she is, where as Anne is absolutely a mess and doesn’t know who she is and is kind of wishy-washy and insecure. And I think people admire the force of Marshall even if it’s bad compared to the complicated mess that is Anne where she doesn’t really act honest to herself most of the time. So I think it’s less about who’s good and bad and more who’s genuine and who’s not as a character.
DB: You said you get that audience feedback as well.
KV: I get a bit.
DB: So how does audience feedback play into—once you put a page out there and you’re a few pages ahead and have already worked on more of the story—how the audience would respond in a specific way? Were you able to integrate that into the upcoming pages you were working on?
KV: I didn’t really have that experience. I didn’t actually get a big readership as a webcomic and by the time I got a bit more traction, I had already written the whole story. So I never actually really took audience feedback and incorporated it. I think the one exception to that is kind of the relationship between Ryan and Daniel, where people seemed to really like the relief of a slightly more straight-forward romance story, so I actually beefed that up for the book, so they have a little bit extra stuff. But mostly it was just me writing with some feedback from my friends and other peers, but not so much from the readers.
DB: It’s also really nice how you have that support network of having your peers there to help with what may not be working so well, which I feel is really important for illustrators and comics being made now.
KV: And I’m spoiled living in Toronto. It’s a really strong queer scene, it’s a really great strong cartoonists scene, I can talk to a lot of people directly about what I’m doing and get feedback from them. I’m really just lucky to live where I live.
DB: Something too I noticed in your comic when reading through is that your dialog is so good, I can’t come up with a better word off the top of my head.
KV: I always wonder “does this sound natural? I’m not sure.”
DB: It does sound really natural and I was wondering how do you approach dialog in this way to make it come out in a way that’s like how people genuinely talk and have it be unique to each character?
KV: I always pray to myself that I hope this is working, because I never feel sure. I put a lot of effort into writing how people talk and maybe it comes off so well because I’m so worried about it being stiff or fake or whatever or too twee, which is something I don’t like in books. But as a reader and just as someone talking with my friends or out in the world, I love banter so, so much. So reading banter that’s well written just makes me so happy. When I’m speaking, I try to use a lot of fun words and quips, and I love turns of phrase, and I don’t care if it makes me basic, but I love Shakespeare.
DB: Another craft things too, I also noticed your color palette throughout the comic is also incredibly strong. Like the use of red in a lot of moment, especially with Marshall’s hair, is this all encompassing thing.
KV: My publisher did not like the cover because Marshall’s hair is blue on the cover, it’s this purple fade to blue and I think with the atmospheric lighting and the way the rest of the cover is lit, you can tell she’s a red head even though red is not there at all. And my publisher was like “you should make her hair red” and I was like “…no. I won’t do it.” And throughout the book, of course, her hair is always red and it’s shades of anything from tangerine to blood to a burgundy wine color and it’s whatever it needs to be. I feel that way about color, it’s that you don’t need to have a natural palette to convey what color is and it’s really where I let loose and let myself have fun. In the drawing and the draftsmanship I try to be gesture-like and lively, but still have a strong, structural underpinning. But with the color, I’m just like “yeah, let loose, do whatever, green skies.”
DB: You wanted to make sure that this work was reality grounded, even if you had some of those more magical aspects integrated in, especially with the depictions of Barbarella, so what was the decision to make sure it was much more grounded and not potentially leaving a fantastical element?
KV: It partially comes from my background being more in fantasy and lore, and then I did this story that’s very serious and urban and serious fiction, and so having a fantastical palette in those scenes, the Barbarella scenes, these dream-to-reality sequences, gave me a bit of an outlet for this deep love of fantasy and genre that I have. I kind of needed that to get through such a serious story. And [Barbarella] is a really good person fro Anne to contrast herself because she’s just impossible, a person like that couldn’t exist and Anne would absolutely choose someone like that as her idol because she’s never reach it. Even if you read Jane Fonda’s biography, her trying to fit into that role was really, really difficult and damaging to her, so even for Jane Fonda, it’s impossible.
DB: The last thing I wanted to ask was do you feel like this is the end of Meat and Bone as a story or do you feel like there could be something else you might want to work with some of the characters like Anne and Marshall and everyone?
KV: I think I could work with the characters more, I don’t think I’d want to soon, if not ever. It is a self-contained story and I don’t really want to go there again. I don’t know if I’ll still feel that way in ten years. I do think there’s lots they could still do and explore about each other and learn. I think Marshall is probably due for a redemption arc, but that’s not the story I’ll work on next.
DB: And that’s all the time we have here today. Thank you so much, Kat.
KV: Thank you for talking.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.