At 2012's Wonder Northwest, podcaster Mikey Neilson (Chronicles of the Nerds, Comic CONversations) hosted a panel spotlighting Periscope Studio, arguably the largest collection of freelance artists in the world. Joining Neilsen were studio members Cat Farris (Flaccid Badger) and Natalie Nourigat (Between Gears, Over The Surface).
Mikey Neilson: What is Periscope Studio?
Natalie Nourigat: It’s a building in downtown Portland where a bunch of independent artists can draw in the presence of other human beings and share influences and tools and things.
Cat Farris: It’s basically a way to keep sane, because a lot of the hazards of working in comics are getting trapped in your own house all day long, week in, week out. You tend to go a little bit crazy.
People realized, “Portland is a huge comics town. I bet I could share work space with someone else and fulfill my need for social interaction with other like-minded human beings while still accomplishing the work that needs to get done.” And hence Periscope Studio was created.
MN: You guys have all types of folks under your roof; you’re not just comic book artists. I know a lot of you guys work with advertising firms... how did this brainchild start?
CF: I think it was Steve Lieber, Jeff Parker, Ron Randall, Matthew Clark... [they] got together at a coffee shop and they talked it over. Mercury Studio [Periscope’s original name] moved into the building we’re in now, and started collecting members.
At first it was five or six guys, and then they added Terri Nelson, who became the main source of estrogen in the room... and now there are twenty-four of us!
MN: What are your secret origins? How did you get involved with Periscope?
CF: I actually went to school for animation, and the year I graduated was the year that all the 2-D studios shut down. When I moved back to Portland I realized that it was a huge comics-centric town. One of our friends was interning at Periscope Studio and said, “Hey guys, you should come by and hang out some time.” And I came in and never left.
When I was going to school for animation, people taught me that the most valuable part of being in the arts is the community, and there’s no animation community here, but there’s a huge comics community. Everybody loves each other and we’re like an extended family... it’s pretty sweet. I loved the sense of community I felt in the comics industry, and it encouraged me to stay.
NN: I was working half a block from Periscope and completely unaware of it.... I was trying to reach out and find a community in real life, and I saw this ad for a reading at Powell’s. It had the word “comics” in the title so I said, “I’m going.” It was Douglas Wolk reading from his new book [Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean], and Steve Leiber and Jeff Parker were talking as well. They mentioned Periscope Studio, so I looked it up, and went over there on my lunch break the next day. I got an internship the next summer and then when I moved back to town after college was able to join the studio.
MN: You became a member of Periscope while you were finishing [Between Gears]. Being a member of that environment, did that affect how you created the comic?
NN: The longer it went on, the more seriously I took it, and joining Periscope helped a lot, just trying to do my best work and show it to people, you know: “Is there a way to make this better?”
It’s really important to know people in real life and talk with them if you want to work in this industry.
MN: Does it really function as a family? What’s the culture of Periscope Studio?
NN: A box of monkeys.
CF: It is a lot like a big family. Some of us have been together for so long that it does feel like you’re coming home to people who are familiar with you and supportive of you... people you feel comfortable talking to about not just your work, but your personal life. If someone is going through a rough spot, the studio bands together to take care of that person and be a support network.
Steve [Lieber] doesn’t have kids of his own, so when all the younger members started coming in, he decided, “You know what? I’m going to take care of the next generation. This is my chance to influence the way comics are going to be.” So he kind of took us under his wing and said, “Let me tell you how it is, let me show you how to get jobs, how to act professionally.”
NN: Steve is one of the people I regularly run things by, because I really trust his opinion.
MN: I’ve seen you guys at a lot of conventions. You have a huge section of all your creators, and you’re working together. I don’t see that with any other creators at such a large scale.
NN: It’s an economy of scale thing. I think we end up paying less than Artists’ Alley tables if we buy into an exhibitor’s space like that. It functions the same way, but we know we’re not going to be stuck next to someone who’s really annoying. We can pass people off because we know each other’s strengths. It’s just fun to table that way.
MN: Cat, talk a little about the project you’re working on now.
CF: I actually finished it in April, and it’s just being released. It’s called If Money Could Shout: The Brutal Truth for Teens. It was written by [Natalie’s] father, who has more money smarts than any man ought to have, and he decided he wanted to share money advice with teens and children in a format that they would actually enjoy looking at.
It’s a comics anthology, and he got eight different artists, each of us doing a different story about finances. Mine was about a girl who graduates and gets a job, and immediately ends up signing up for six or seven credit cards, getting herself in horrible amounts of debt because she doesn’t understand the concept of credit.
MN: With all these collectives... do you see this as the movement of the future? I know Tranquility Base has been really strong here in Portland as well.
NN: There was Pizza Island, and there were others, but those are the ones that come to mind.
MN: Most artists don’t consider themselves part of a collective. Are they missing out on the party?
CF: I think they are. I wouldn’t trade working at Periscope for anything. It’s good for me to come in, one: to have this place to turn to with people to keep me company, which means I’m focused and not wandering around the house all day... Being at Periscope, for me, is motivation to work in itself: not only are you away from the house so you feel like you’re going to a job, but you’re also surrounded by people who are kicking so much ass, if you’re not doing something you feel really guilty. It kind of raises the bar for everyone.
NN: Also, having to pay a monthly price to be there is really good motivation to get some work done and earn some dollars while you’re there.
I think that it’s tough to start studios... if you’re going to start an organization like a studio, you want to prepare for the future, like set up a mission statement that is really true. But how do you know what everybody wants before you’ve started? I think there are a lot of challenges to getting off the ground, but it’s totally worth it once it’s started.
MN: Does Periscope Studio have a mission statement?
CF: I don’t think we do, actually. I think our mission statement was “Don’t be antisocial and cry in your basement.”
MN: “Shut up and draw comics.”
CF: I’m sure Jeff Parker would be appreciative of that one!
MN: I know you guys aren’t currently looking for members, but what do people look for when looking for creators to add to a collective?
CF: Someone who showers? [laughs] It’s hard to say, because we haven’t taken on a lot of new members recently. Chris Samnee and Natalie are the last two people that came in... It tends to end up being people we know already, that we’re really familiar with, we know that we like them, we know that they get along with everyone in the room for the most part.
People that have drive and would add something to the studio on the whole. I know Steve likes to market us as, “Not only are we individual artists, but we can come together en masse and do giant jobs in a short amount of time.” So I guess we like to make sure it’s someone who’s got a lot of talent who can jump in projects with us, too.
MN: What are some of the projects you have worked on as a group?
CF: One of our studiomates, Aaron McConnell, had a job doing a graphic novel about the Constitution, and he took it on a really short deadline, so we turned loose the giant Periscope machine of pencillers, inkers, people were laying out pages, flatting, watercoloring... maybe like ten, twelve of us came together and put this book together in a month.
MN: Have you guys taken commercial projects on top of your comic art? A lot of people don’t realize that for most comic artists that’s just one of their jobs.
NN: It’s as you say: we have to find things to supplement our comic work. To pay rent, I’ve done a lot of commissions for individual people, I’ve jumped on two storyboarding jobs that other people in the studio get, I illustrated a children’s book that my dad wrote... It’s kind of a constant hustle to make it work; you’re always looking out for other things that could be bringing in money.
CF: I think most of us, we have our comic work and then we also have out commercial storyboarding work, or someone needs some graphic design, or character designs, children’s books, something like that. But definitely internal company storyboarding. It’s not glamorous, it’s drawing people poking at devices, but it pays the bills and it keeps you drawing, even if it isn’t exciting drawing.
MN: With Periscope, what has been the greatest personal achievement you guys have seen?
NN: In recent history, Ben Dewey’s Tragedy Series. I think that he was really open to ideas from other people when he was putting together that concept. Even though it’s him and his awesome sense of humor and his awesome art skills, I think that he was really trying to learn from other people what succeeds on the internet, and pick up some traits that would make it really successful, and it’s insane! He’s got like 15,000 followers, he’s got people asking to be his agent...
CF: Definitely Ben, and also Jonathan Case. When I first started at Periscope in 2005... I met him while he was working on Dear Creature, right at the beginning. Just seeing him come in every once in a while and take his time with the book, the giant pages that he worked off of, and wondering was going to come out of it. And then over the last year watching him explode onto the scene with Dear Creature and Green River Killer, and he’s going to all sorts of colleges and giving talks about monsters and storytelling...
Everyone wants him to do illustrations - if you’ve seen the new Portland Monthly that’s the Best Of, he has a whole series of illustrations in there, and they’re amazing. It’s like all of a sudden Jonathan went from “Who the hell is Jonathan Case” to “THE Jonathan Case.”
MN: What are some upcoming projects you guys are working on?
NN: There are two project that are done that I’m not working on right now but will be coming out soon. One is from Oni Press -- I’m really excited about this -- it was written by Jamie S. Rich and it’s going to be really fun. That should be coming out maybe later this year. Then there’s another one with Lerner Books that I can’t say anything about, but will as soon I can.
Right now I’m working on something called Over The Surface, which is a personal project for Oni Press, and really really excited about that. I’m trying to my best work on it, and I’m keeping a project log, so for anybody who’s interested in process it’s overthesurface.blogspot.com.
CF: I have a project with Rovio that I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about, but those are the fine folks who brought you Angry Birds, so I will talk about that when I can. I’m just starting on that this summer.
I’m also working on a webcomic which is going to be based on the story of one of my minicomics, Frog Song, that I did for 24-hour Comic Day with Emi [Lenox] last year. I decided that I liked the story and I wanted to follow it, so I guess I’m going to turn it into a webcomic. Hopefully that will be getting started next month.
MN: What do you guys have as far as advice goes? You both came up pretty quick as far as successful artists go; what is some advice that you’d give to other artists who are trying to make comics or possibly find their way into a studio?
NN: There’s a lot of good advice on the internet that you can find out there. One thing I don’t see being said as often as it should be is that it’s really important to have contacts in real life. Friends on the internet are awesome, but when you’re hanging out with somebody in person, things just come up that you didn’t know about. Your friends will have heard about resources that are really useful for you, they’ll point you in the direction of things that speed things up and make it easier to improve and connect with people.
So get involved with whatever community is available to you. Take a chance: go out to a gallery show, go to things that interest you and try and meet people.
CF: Be a nice person. Be approachable... The comics industry is full of nice people; let’s keep it that way.
I think it’s definitely important to show up to conventions and to actually meet people in person. The more times you do that, the more times people will remember your face and remember your name, and they’ll remember your work.
That’s something -- if you’re struggling, you need to have work. If you just sit around and say, “Man, I wish I could work in comics.” Comics is easy to do yourself. You don’t need anyone to say, “OK, you can do comics now.” If you want to start a webcomic, start the webcomic. If you want to do minicomics, make them; no one’s going to stop you. You don’t have to wait for permission. And the more you do, the more people will be interested in your work, because you’ll have something you can show them.
NN: Exactly. It’s like “dress for the job you want,” only with art, draw the jobs that you want. That will be your portfolio, and people will say, “Oh, you can draw stuff like that? Let me pay you to do more stuff like that.”
CF: Or your friends will know you like doing a book about girls who are wanting to fly airplanes in the -- what, 18th, 19th century? -- and they’ll be like, “Oh man, you need someone who can do that? I know this lovely lady, let me give you her contact info.”
NN: I think it’s not worth following trends that you think will be accepted. It’s easier to find success by doing stories that you’re passionate about. That will come through and be exciting to read, and you’re more likely to come up with something original if you’re thinking about it that way.
[Question from the audience]: I just wanted to get an idea of what sort of advice you would give to other female creators coming up in the comics world, and what your experiences have been.
CF: Well, my personal experiences with being female in the creative arts in general is that I went to school in 2-D animation, and I was one of two girls in a department surrounded by boys.
The ladies that really got accepted and seemed to do well were the ones that didn’t care, male/female, whatever. They weren’t the girls who were joining “Women’s Animation Club,” they were people that hung out with the regular animation club, that were just being themselves and weren’t constantly being, “Hey! I’m a lady, I’m a lady, I’m a woman!” They were just themselves and they did the things they wanted to do, and that got them the respect of their colleagues, and once in a while someone would stop and go, “Wait, Cat... that’s a girl?”
Just be yourself, do the things you want to do, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t, because those people are dumb, and few and far between from what I’ve seen.
NN: For myself, I haven’t really faced hardships as a professional from being a lady, but I think that I got into comics really late because I was. I was intimidated by comic shops, and I just didn’t have anyone in my family who was reading comics, so I didn’t have any exposure to them. I think it would have been easier if I’d been a guy.
So ladies, if you’re interested but you’re intimidated, maybe do to a ladies’ event at a comic shop. TFAW did a great one a while back...
MN: The Drink and Draw Like a Lady.
NN: Yeah, otherwise don’t be scared. Comics folks are awesome; there’s no reason to feel intimidated. You can do it; it just doesn’t matter!