FiF Postscripts by John Barber

For the last installment of Form is Function: Postscripts, John Barber is back with the conclusion of his conversation with Justine Shaw, creator of the acclaimed—and wonderful—Nowhere Girl.

Are there any creators you find particularly inspiring, from comics (web or print) or anywhere else?

I think I need to ask for a bit of clarification here, as to whether we’re talking about creators themselves, or their work.

Hell, I’m just making conversation. How about that weather, eh?

Sunny, but dang wear a coat! I tells ya!

I assume their work, in which case, a non-exclusive list….

Comics: Alison Bechdel, Kris Dresen, Chris Claremont X-Men comics from the 70s/80s, Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, League, Watchmen), Patrick Farley (Spiders), Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Global Frequency)… Ariel Schrag… the list goes on and on and on and dang but I’m forgetting a lot of names…..

Films and television: Steven Spielberg, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, Mamoru Oshii, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, Ronald D. Moore, M. Night Shyamalan, Ridley Scott, Joss Whedon, Bryan Singer.

What else do you do? Either as a day job or other creative enterprises (or both).

Currently, I write php, html, and css for an international company headquartered in downtown San Francisco, California. The company puts on technology trade shows and I work in the online services division.

I have no other creative enterprises at this time, and am trying to slowly re-organize my life so I’m in a better position to do comics again.

Have webcomics have widened the potential audience for comic books? And/or does the web allow for a greater ability to narrowcast comic strips at specific audiences?

Hmm…potentially the audience could be wider, I suppose. But, I still believe that people who sit down in front of their computer, bring up Google or Yahoo! and search for “comics” are largely the same people who would trot down to the local comics store on Wednesday night and pick up their weekly fix.

There’s of course the “Comic-Book Guy” stereotype surrounding comic book stores, and that kind of stigma may keep some people away who might just read stuff online. You may have someone who’s now in a wheelchair and it’s just too much hassle to get down to the store every week, so it’s simpler to read it online. Whether this potential audience is big enough to support a web comics community financially is another thing.

On the subject of targeting your work towards specific demographics, hmm…I could see the web potentially being a boon for that. There seems to be (to me) a lot more diversity in what you’ll find online, than in a comics store. Not that there isn’t a lot of diversity in a comics store too (everything from Donald Duck to Spider-Man to Strangers in Paradise–that’s a wild divergence there alone), but online and just giving it away, without concern to money (ulp!) one doesn’t have to care about pissing people off, if you’re not making money anyway. So if you wanna create a comic about a dog that has a sexual relationship with a cat, (just sayin’), you can slap it online and by god, people who are into “dogs and cats, living together” will find it! Whereas that might have a hard time getting into a comic book store…for good or ill.

On a personal note: I’ve never been able to write what I think someone else will want — I can only write what interests me at the time; anything else just falls apart for me in the planning stage. So, in my own case, the possible benefit of targeting specific audiences doesn’t really affect me. I just need to go where I go and if anyone wants to come along that’s fine, and if they’re not interested in where I go, that’s just as fine too.

I don’t necessarily mean that something has to be calculatedly created to serve a demographic.

I think that–aside from at a small handful of stores that are actually part of their community (Comic Relief, Isotope, Golden Apple, Jim Hanley’s, Forbidden Planet, Page 45…)–the people who go into comics stores are either superhero fans or fans of comics as a medium (like a “film buff” versus somebody who just goes to see movies).

So anything that isn’t a superhero comic is only seen by fans of comics as a medium who also happen to see and like that particular comic.

With, say, Nowhere Girl (or at least NG#1, #2 seems to be heading in a direction I can’t figure out (in a good way)) you’ve got a comic that–without being targeted at anyone–seems like it would appeal to, for instance, alienated teenagers. The web seems like it lets you bypass having to appeal to alienated-teenagers-who-also-like-superheroes or alienated-teenagers-who-are-also-fans-of-comics-as-a-medium. This is among other people, of course. Does that make sense?

Yes, I understand I think–and I guess there are so many people online by this point that, if you put something out there, no matter how obscure the subject matter, there is going to be someone typing keywords that match it into Yahoo or Google at that moment, and they’ll find it.

Do you think there’s a split-real or perceived-between print comics creators and web ones?

I am not clued in to the whisperings of the comics community, web or print, so this will be completely based on hearsay and my own ill-advised speculation. I presume you mean some kind of animosity between the two groups? Web and print?

Creatively, any kind of split may be that print people are almost all paid for their work, and almost all of them have to put up with a great deal of overhead that must cause them no end of headaches. Web people are almost completely the opposite: very few (unless I’m really out of it) are paid, which is part of the nature of the web–people expect everything over the web to be free, for good or ill–but they do not have the burden of printing, distributing, putting out thousands to print themselves, or desperately try to keep a slot on a book at one of the majors.

I think if there’s any kind of personal rift, that’s better left to those involved. I know few in the comics community, and get on well with all those I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and get to know.

So nobody was threatening to break your arms at the Eisners?

No one who’s made themselves known to me….?

Seriously, everyone I’ve met has been incredibly nice and I can’t think why they’d be peeved at me personally. But, we are strange monkeys.

When you’re working on Nowhere Girl, getting ready to put a 40-page update up all at once, do you have the whole chapter planned out when you start?

Yes, I have to have the whole thing planned out to begin with: I need to see the ending of the story before I write the beginning or I don’t know what to foreshadow or where to go. I hope to loosen up and do something where I just “start it” and see where it goes some day. For now though, the breaking point of a chapter is as important to me as planning out a page in advance and knowing what note you’re going to ask the reader to turn the page on is.

Nowhere Girl #1 stood on its own; you could have ended the series there and had a nice short story.

Don’t think I haven’t thought over the last year, man I should have just done that and been done with it!

But Nowhere Girl #2 is clearly part of a larger story.

Yep. It’s a poor way to leave a series, after two issues with the second one obviously not a complete story with a beginning/middle/end, but that’s unfortunately the hand life’s dealt me right now.

Number one is a micro-version of the whole story arc — taking the initial steps out of the emotional gutter.

However the emotional gutter is a much deeper place than I described through Jamie in part 1. I was surprised Nowhere Girl #1 was thought of by some readers as “depressing” — I thought it was ultimately uplifting, at least to me. I haven’t really done depression yet, or the things that happen to people. Jamie, as hard as she had it, was very lucky, and I want to explore the unlucky side and get into people who become their own hatred.

Is #2 the first part of a 2-parter or is it longer than that?

#2 was my version of a “tv pilot”–bring the reader up-to-date on the main character, leave some characters out for now because they need to come back later, establish the new characters and some of the settings. It was a nice simple little story that I still think would have worked better if I followed it up two months later instead of at this point going on two years. I mean, who cares after all that time?

I also wanted to start dropping seeds for things that I would pick up later, making it look like there are “good guys” and “bad guys” in the story, putting Jamie in an antiseptic cube farm where she’s just another drone. I wanted to put a new, subtle spin on her self-loathing, which isn’t something that’s gone away in the years since part 1. Her reaction to reading her own younger self’s words in her diary was supposed to show that a bit.

Will #3 pick up 5 years later again?

#3 is a story that I originally planned to be #2 and was writing as I was lettering #1 back in late 2001. The story wasn’t working for me though, and after wrestling with it for a while I decided to put it off and come back to it after doing my original #3, which I put online as #2. …..who’s on first again? No, who’s on second!

#3 has a framing sequence which is set concurrently with the beginning of #2. The rest of the issue is told in flashbacks to Jamie’s high school life. There was a lot more there that I didn’t get to show in part 1 because that was all from Jamie’s point of view, and I wanted to show things also from the point of view of her best friend from high school. So, I have this whole story that tells her side of the tale and gives a newer, probably darker and less comfortable or sympathetic view of Jamie. Violence is something that almost everyone inflicts, intentionally or not. I don’t want her to be just a passive victim, I want to show what internalized violence brings out in people.

See, I’m talking like you’re definitely doing #3 because I want you to be.

Thanks — me too — just talking about it here gets me all fired up to do it. But dang, I got a lot of work to do before I can go there. I got one more whole comic to do, the one (hopefully) for Artbomb. Then I need to re-read NG 1 and 2 and revisit the UI for the website and find all my notes and storyboards for part 3.

The art in chapter 2 seemed to have more space to it. Like, it seemed like there was more room to breathe. Was this conscious, or just a natural evolution? How do you think your work evolved between the 2 chapters?

Thanks first of all — I do think I made a break-through with my drawing in part 2. I need to keep simplifying, improving, realizing I am illustrating a story set in a world, I’m not trying to create another world as if it’s a real, actual place and I have to put each leaf on the ground exactly as they would fall… really, I’m not!

I think, drawing-wise, I started to hit my stride during the second half of #1, which is also my favorite thing that I’ve written so far. When I started on part 2, I wanted it, as a “tv pilot” to have some nice big panels which declaustrophobized (I’m claiming credit for that word right now Merriam Webster!) Jamie’s world. I wanted to kind of give her a nice theatrical entrance, re-introducing her, years later.

I think when I did #1 I was very unsure of my drawing, not having drawn in years. If anything, by the time part 2 was a going concern for me I was much more comfortable drawing again. But the wheel turns: now? I could barely draw a face much less a hand or a car, I’m seriously out of practice.

It seemed like there was a huge response to Nowhere Girl #1 (which was well-deserved).

Thanks — I sure got a lot of email, as much as 70 messages a day at the height. That may not be a lot to pros, but to me, coming out of nothing, it packed a wallop.

I think that’s a lot for anybody. Did this take you by surprise?

Definitely. I made NG for myself and to show to a few friends. I never thought anyone else but me would like it, and truthfully most of my friends either haven’t read it or were, “ehh” about it, but perfect strangers liked it!

Did it make it harder to do a follow-up? Like a band that has a big hit trying to do their next record. (though for the record, as good as #1 was, #2 is way better written and drawn).

Hmm… I knew where I wanted to go next, but like I said earlier I had to postpone that story because it just wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t sure what people would want next, but I can only write for myself. If other people like it, it’s freely available for them to come along and read it. If it’s not their thing, that’s ok too. I’m not really trying to please anyone but me. But, I’m really hard to please.

Thanks for talking, Justine.

And thanks to all of you for reading!

This is John Barber’s last column for Comixpedia. You can find his comic work at

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Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.