Al Schroeder talks with Zebra Girl’s Joe England

What's black and white and geeky all over?

Perhaps the most charming freak in comics since Benjamin J. Grimm has been a certain involuntarily transformed, zebra-striped demonness who does tech support on the side, and who can set fire to people that infuriate her with her mind. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Zebra Girl has grown from cult favorite over the years, making a changeover from Keenspace to Keenspot this year, and delighting more and more readers with each black-and-white-and-read-all-over update. We interviewed Zebra Girl's creator, Joe England, and got a quick glimpse into his hand-coded, Zebra-striped universe.

What in the world gave you the idea of doing a comic about a zebra-striped, involuntary demonness?

You make it sound as though that's somehow bizarre by webcomic standards. I guess it sprung from the two great loves of my life — cartooning and cruelty. I have a real mean streak, see. Angst tastes like popcorn. One night I thought to myself, "Man, you'd really hate being turned into a demon. That'd wreck your life, boy-howdy." So I drew some hapless girl transformed into a demon. But she just turned out so well, I couldn't let her slide by into my endless stacks of paper. Later, I found out about webcomics, and I knew what I could do with her. Now I can be cruel to legions of followers at a time. Dreams… they come true.

Who are your storytelling influences, both in comics and in other media?
Storytelling, storytelling… Oh, I wouldn't know where to begin. If I have to name names, then I'll throw a few out. For starters, Neil Gaiman should influence everybody. I got plenty from Pete Abrams. And I have countless action movies to thank for some bulk of my active mind. Man, I can't believe I missed Hellboy.

Why did you choose the relatively thankless and financially suicidal medium of webcomics to show your stuff?
Financially suicidal? Well, I do earn some small income off the strip now, which is wonderful beyond words. But I was never in this for the money (important though that is becoming). If I was, I might've gone over to Graphic Smash.

No, what really satisfies me is the thanks I do get. See, I've always wanted to draw cartoons. But I didn't know how I wanted to do it, professionally, until I stumbled onto webcomics. It seemed so simple and straightforward, you made your own rules… I said, "If they can do it, why can't I?" And boom, I made myself a cozy little webpage and was on my way. Why, Zebra Girl is the most rewarding endeavor I've undertaken! I may not have an astonishing fan base, but thousands of people all over the world have seen and followed my stuff, and that's thousands more than I had before I started this.

Hell, the fan mail, the forums, the interviews… why say you thankless??

What's your background?
In 1980, I got born. Later, I saw "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", and that pretty much defined my life from there on in. Later still, I left my home in New York state's country-ish area and went to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, GA, where I honed my cartoonist powers to a deadly edge. That's right. I actually have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in comic making. Going for my Masters, too.

Who are your artistic influences?
Oh, wow. Good question. It's funny, I've always aimed for an angular, iconic look, and yet, I have an obsessive affinity for detail… offhand, I'd say I'm tumbling through space somewhere between Scott Kurtz and R. Crumb. Not that I'm as good as either.

Your strip is finely balanced between the dramatic and the comedic…with sinister sorcerers and saving of whole dimensions, to setting fire to Jack with her mind every time he annoys her, and a sarcastic streetwise rabbit. Do you consider Zebra Girl more a drama or more a comedy?
Starting out, it was definitely a comedy. I think that, at first, I was strongly inspired by Josh Lesnick's surreal wackiness. I always intended for Sandra to be a sympathetic character, sure, but I also wanted the strip to be more or less lighthearted. My experience now though is that comics mature with age, just like Lesnick's Wendy did. As time wears on for the cartoonist, you feel the need to explore the depths of your characters, and make your world more "real" by adding a greater range of emotion to it.

Not that that answers your question. I wouldn't call it drama, necessarily… Oh, let's just call it a dramedy now. Or a coma. Yeah, Zebra Girl's in a coma. Ha.

You recently went from Keenspace to Keenspot. Do you feel more "in demand" these days? Has it changed anything – your work habits, for instance? Do you feel more pressure about updating on time, for instance?
I take my work pretty seriously, so being on Keenspot is a great honor. It does make me feel as though Zebra Girl's come into its own somewhat. And the quality of the strip should reflect that. Webcomicking can be a pretty loose, fun-filled business, so I don't necessarily feel too much more pressure now than I used to. But the standard's been raised, and I do keep that in the back of my mind.

One thing that impresses me about Zebra Girl is that despite both the action and comedy, you have occasional interludes where you really get to know the main character, or Jack, or other characters in depth. A reader gets the feeling you really care about the characters. Are any of the characters based on real people?
Hmm. Kind of a blender situation, actually. Crystal and Jack (and, obviously, myself) are probably most directly gleaned from aspects of my own personality. I'd guess that Sandra's a little of my sister, and some of my mother. We got strong women in the family. As for Sam, I don't know where the Hell he comes from. But I think he's the "Snoopy." You know, the one the cartoonist wishes he was.

Do you have plans for Zebra Girl? Graphic novels? Where would you like the strip to go? Would you like to branch out into other media?
I'd love to do a graphic novel, and one day I'll trick myself into doing it. Soon as I do some stuff. You know. As for where I want the strip to go… well, I'm pretty happy with it right now. I'd just want it to go on forever. Maybe attract more fans, make more money, become better in every possible way… forever. As for other media, heck, I think some people would like to see Zebra Girl in several dimensions. I wouldn't avoid such an opportunity.

Finally—the idea of a tech support person able to set fire to stupid or annoying callers with her mind is perhaps the scariest part of your comic. Have you worked such a position? Or had experiences with tech support people who scared you?
Nope. I just figured, hey, I gotta have something computer-y in there. Keep in mind, back in the day, just about every great webcomic had some kind of running satire on the information age. Besides, they say to write what you know, and I knows a thing or two. Code all my HTML by hand, I do.

Al Schroeder is a staff contributor for Comixpedia. More Details.