Shadowplay: an interview with Intershadows’ Kathleen Jacques

Since February 2001, fans of complicated and intertwining relationships have been reading the adventures of an ensemble cast originally in a strip called Coolville and recently reincarnated as a strip called Intershadows. Defying easy categorization and cliche, its characters often take off into their own metaphorical inner landscape. On top of that, the author herself is having a relationship with another webcomic creator, Justin Pierce of Killroy and Tina. Kathleen Jacques recently gave us this interview about Intershadows and getting into the heads of her characters."

Tell us a little of yourself, and what caused you to create Coolville and later Intershadows.
By day, I’m a quiet, geeky, subtly weird 20-year old Canadian university student. I also work in an art gallery. I just graduated with a degree in Art History (my ticket to fame and fortune, I’m sure), and I’m returning to school this fall to take graphic design. The characters and the story that eventually became Intershadows have been with me so long that I feel the project represents an evolution as much as a creation.

Like a lot of webcomickers, I’ve been drawing and writing basically ever since I could hold a pencil (though it took a while to become at all legible). I gravitated towards making comics very early on… combining text and images was an accessible, dynamic way to tell a story.

My earliest stuff consisted of unfunny attempts to rip off the comedy of the great newspaper strips I grew up with, like Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes; however, I gradually drifted from structured gag humor into more freeform drama. My current cast of characters came into being around the mid-1990s, one at a time, and I slowly started to fit them together, and build a story around them. The characters have always been the core. I spent several years experimenting with this set of characters and developing their relationships. In February 2001, I started putting a version of that story online under the title Coolville (sort of a working title I’d halfassedly used for years). Two and a half years later, I felt I’d gone as far as I could with Coolville and reincarnated the comic as Intershadows.

Intershadows is darker, deeper and more surreal than Coolville, and it’s going to be the final version of the story.

Your art has improved TREMENDOUSLY since the initial Coolville strips. (I especially like the fantasy sequences you’ve done since you switched to Intershadows.) Who are your artistic influences?
Thank you! Honestly, this is a question I always have trouble with. I’ll admit that I’m far less familiar with print comics than the average webcomicker (partly because I grew up in a town without a comic store), and I have only a passing knowledge of the greats of traditional American comics, manga, and alternative comics.

I’ve always sort of felt that something must be missing, since I can’t cite a list of big comic art influences. Chalk it up to impatience if you will, but I was never the kid who sat down and tried to draw perfect copies of beautiful, accomplished artwork – I was the messy kid with smudges all over her face who scribbled all over the place, trying to make it look expressive. I’ve just developed my own bastard style, absorbing elements here and there and trying to improve with practice as much as possible.

I do think I learned a lot of valuable basics from taking studio courses in college. From what I’ve seen, cartoonists in general seem to be fairly divided on whether an academic art foundation is valuable. I feel that while my technical skill is still lacking, what I took was helpful for me (heck, I’m going back for more schooling, albeit on the design side of things), and if nothing else, it’s the world’s best kick in the ass for a young artist who thinks they’re infallibly hot shit.

As I mentioned, I have a background in art history – which sounds snooty, but it really wasn’t. For the most part, it wasn’t about appreciating the "genius" of paintings by dead white guys… it was about understanding the role visual material has played throughout the past. I studied everything from design, to film, to advertising.

I can pull out one specific visual influence from that background, too – there was a point a few years ago where I was deeply into the art of Frida Kahlo. The visceral, anatomical imagery like beating hearts, fetuses, broken bones, presented in such an iconic style that’s almost cartoonish in a way – that definitely has a direct link with the visuals in Intershadows.

Who are your storytelling influences? Literary, comic, movie, even television? I only say that last because at times you seem to take soap opera cliches – like Denny finding his "evil twin" – and tweaking them. Or having a would-be "serial killer" who never killed anyone… until recently.
Ah, I think you’ve hit that right on the head. This isn’t something I’m especially proud of, but I spent a good portion of my early teen years deeply immersed in the cheesiest, trashiest possible media. I watched the soaps, I read cheap "True Stories of Murder and Mayhem" style books and I became quite the connoisseur of low-grade horror movies.

The realization slowly dawned on me that the soaps in particular were quite an insult to the viewer’s intelligence, and as I got older I mostly left these things behind and started to seek out entertainment with a little more substance. But yes, I am, and always have been interested in taking elements from cheese media and toying with them. I’m interested in what happens when you take a soap opera cliché like the evil twin, the lovers, or the serial killer, and strip away that glossy TV superficiality that makes it ring false – I think what you’re left with is an age-old storytelling archetype coupled with P.T. Barnum-esque showmanship in the serialization.

Ideally, what I like to think I’m doing is taking pieces of that and re-contextualizing them, while trying to make the whole thing both interesting and emotionally honest. Intershadows is set in a reality-based, non-supernatural world, but that world is seen through a lens where people’s thoughts and emotions also become visual, and I do like to take things way over the top. Also, I’ve done a tiny bit of theatre in the past, and in the comic I’ve played with the idea of the theatrical spectacle a number of times. All the world’s a stage.

Besides that, I grew up in a house where bookshelves literally lined every wall, and I was read to every night. I hope I retained at least something about storytelling.

You get pretty deep into the head of your characters, and their relationships with each other. Sometimes it frightens me how well you get into the head of the rapist Damien, for instance. Or Tammi’s fascination for Damien because of his being a psycho. Or when the psychology student gave in to his darker impulses while Damien was watching, and did Tammi. Your ensemble includes a would-be hobo, a pothead slacker, an insecure sensitive lover, a cheerful person who refuses to let a senseless act like her rape define her. (One of your best lines.) You have a very varied cast. Which character do you empathize with most?
Well, I can tell you that it’s not Jean-Paul Damien. I do love to get in his head, and go to that dark place when I write for him. I understand him, but there is very little that I empathize about with him. I think writing a character like that is cathartic – you take something you’re afraid of and repulsed by, take it out of you and put it on paper.

I do empathize with Corey, the psychology student whose intellectual curiosity got him in over his head. Both his and Tammi’s attraction to Damien (and Damien’s obsessive, unattained desire to BE a serial killer too, I suppose) have their basis in my interest in how the serial killer has become a HUGE archetype in movies and media in general, at least here in North America. The public loves a monster – though it’s really more of a simultaneous attraction/revulsion thing. And for me, it’s also kind of a question of "Hey, why am *I* so interested in this, anyway?"

And then there’s Damien’s little sister Jenny – awkward, lonely, and trying so hard to make things right despite being an inch away from completely losing her mind. There’s a lot of me in her, actually. Oh, and Denny’s brother Raine, sitting pale and alone at the computer, sulking silently, cursing humanity by way of internal monologue – well, I could just lie and say that’s not me on my bad days.

But it’s probably either Denny (the "insecure sensitive lover") or Teresa (the "cheerful person") that I empathize with the most. Denny has my geekiness and hypersensitive neurotic tendencies. And Teresa…well, I would find it hard not to empathize with her. She’s cheerful on the outside, but there’s a lot of pain festering not too far below the surface.

Are any of your characters based on real people?
For the most part, no. However, there is a lot of my real life best friend in Kristan – her aggression, but also her energy and her strength. And Dylan, he’s kind of a composite of many potheads and slackers.

Which of your characters is your personal favorite – and why?
Probably Denny. I generally gravitate towards the sensitive, bespectacled geeks in any crowd. I also like that despite his various insecurities, he’s actually not afraid to be himself both in private and public. He’s comfortable being a really effeminate guy, and that’s cool. Also, something I’ve always found interesting about his character is that while his devotion to Teresa is really sweet, and really a cornerstone of the series, there’s a level at which it actually becomes a little disturbing.

Describe how you create a page or a storyline. Do you storyboard then script then draw, or…? Do you color by computer or by hand?
I should storyboard, then script, then draw. I don’t. I have months of story in my head in advance, and for each page, I start out with a basic idea of what will happen. Then I pencil the art in, and at this point extra elements beyond what I originally envisioned usually creep in.

Sometimes a page will even take a different direction when it’s half-drawn. Then I ink the drawing, erase the pencils, and scan the whole thing into Photoshop. I color with a tablet. I used to do hand color with paint pencils back when I did Coolville, though. The dialogue is the last step. There are a few comics here and there where I actually wrote the dialogue out in advance. But in the majority of cases, the actual wording gets finalized there on the spot, after I’ve been thinking about it and running it through my mind the whole time I’ve been drawing and coloring.

Why did you put this out as a webcomic, as opposed to any other medium? What do you like, and what do you dislike, about doing it as a webcomic?
I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that webcomics are a very accessible medium. It’s both their blessing and their curse that anyone can do one. But it’s not just the relative ease of publishing online that attracted me to webcomics. Being able to get instant feedback from an audience is fantastic, and very valuable.

Even though I myself have hermit-like tendencies (which I am trying to fight), I think the fact that there’s a webcomic community is great. Of course, it isn’t all smiles and sunshine in practice, but there really is something incredible about cartoonists all around the world being able to communicate instantly, and great things do happen as a result of that.

The good outweighs the bad. And it blows my mind that I’m being interviewed. What do I dislike about doing it as a webcomic? Well, I have my breakdowns and my frusturations, but really nothing that wouldn’t manifest itself in some way if I worked in any other medium.

You are one of the few webcartoonists who is romantically involved with another webcartoonist, Justin of Killroy and Tina. Does that help the relationship, or is it a little unsettling to have a boyfriend who has the same sort of part-time activity that you do? How did you two meet, if I can ask?
Justin and I met when both of our comics were on Keenspace in 2001, and we hit it off right away. He’s brillant – how could anyone read a page of Killroy and Tina and not love him? We met in person for the first time in the spring of 2002, and since then we’ve been visiting each other every chance we get.

I think the comics have helped the relationship, and vice versa. We’ll call each other up to talk comics, ask for suggestions, or bat ideas around. I’m sure we’ve both learned things from each other. I think it actually helps that our comics are like apples and oranges. We’re trying to do completely different things, so there’s no easy "X is better than Y" comparison.

Any unsettling feelings I might have about us being on the same turf are far outweighed by the benefits of being with someone who totally understands this crazy pastime I spend half my life on.

What are your plans for Intershadows? Anything you can hint at what’s to come?
Onward and upward. At this point I’m just really enjoying doing the comic, and while there are things on the horizon that I’m really looking forward to, I can’t drop too many hints. I do have an ending planned, but it’s going to be a crazy, twisty road to get there.