Stephanie O’Donnell interview

Stephanie O’Donnell is a long-established webcomic artist currently working with Greg Carter on Perfect Agent. You might know her work from the Original Nutty Funsters, or you may remember her post Part of the Problem on our own site a while back.

Like many of our readers and featured interviewees, Stephanie is eager to demolish the normative assumptions about comics and comic creators that we grow boringly used to. Hopefully this interview will introduce Stephanie to those of you who share her experiences, goals or interests! Check the bottom of this post for how to reach her on Twitter or view her portfolio. WWAC is at least fifty percent about building community, and we’re always keen to hear from you girl and woman cartoonists and comic collaborators. We want to feature you! Get in touch!

Claire Napier: Will you introduce Perfect Agent to us in a few lines, for those reading who are new to it?

Stephanie O’Donnell: Tara is the protagonist. She was a hired gun for the government, and is now doing business “off the books”, as they say. With the help of her new boss, Lisa Hernandez, she gets new assignments and many of them are quite bloody and messy. Tara is also now starting to get to know Kasumi, her psychic half sister, a bit better as the story progresses. We’re getting a little supernatural lately.

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CN: How did you come to work on this project? Many readers would assume that Greg Carter, as the writer, would have the deciding vote on its development. Is this so? How is the input shared between you? Is there ever friction?

SoD: I’ve known Greg for a couple years casually, but around early 2009 he put out some offers for collaborative projects. I jumped at the chance because at the time I really wanted to branch out and challenge myself more artistically. I have done comic book collaborations in the past so I knew the deal, as it were. He pitched the idea to me and I was immediately all over it. I threw in a suggestion and it stuck: That Tara’s look should reflect 80s vintage retro fashionista. No one would think a woman that they pegged for a model would be well versed in various tactical weapons and spy tricks.

It is a trope that’s been done before, yes, but it’s done OUR way. Initially, I pretty much drew what he’d put in the script to the T, but over time I took some creative liberties and put my spin on technical stuff like panel layouts. Our synergy is very chill. He’s a great guy to work with. Very easy going, adapts to change. Over time, I threw some more suggestions his way and he ran with it. Again, either tech specs or just simple stuff like dialogue.

It’s very much a democracy, and it’s a good fit. We get along great, give one another feedback and ideas, and share inspiration for whatever thing is happening in that particular point in the story. I glean a lot from 80s music videos. He’s really into Burn Notice, among other things.

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CN: Is the cast purposefully weighted towards the female? What informed your decisions here? What is the benefit of a main cast full of ladies – how does it affect your relationship with the story?

SoD: I think it just kind of ended up that way. We actually did have a discussion about this and it basically boils down to “women are interesting to write,” and I agree. There’s a lot to be explored still with regard to the common tropes and the ones yet to be, and I think with what we’re trying to accomplish is a happy medium.

Personally, I’ve always wanted to see more stuff like what we’re doing now and the fact that we are in the moment and actively creating what we like and what we want is paramount. There’s always that Bechdel Test I always hear about. But we are pretty much equal opportunity in that Tara (and Kasumi) will gun for anyone, anywhere.

CN: Do you have many plans laid for Perfect Agent? Where do you see it going, and where would you DREAM of seeing it going?

SoD: Right now I think we’re playing it by ear. I’m sure Greg has some ideas tucked away. It’s kinda like improv, I guess. He throws some stuff my way, and I’ll toss some stuff back and we both see what sticks to the wall, so to speak. I’ve actually introduced a brand new adversary for Tara in this current storyline, Donna Rouge. She’s named after an Italo disco song. She’s currently trying to swoop in on Tara’s territory and claim it as her own, and I can’t wait to see how that plays out in Greg’s writing.

CN: How long have you been working in comics? Give us a short history of your work, if you please. Has it been a smooth road for you? Socially, financially if you’re comfortable with that, and motivation-wise.

SoD: I had a comic strip of my own which I’d been working on starting in 2004-2009. In between that, around 2007, I started doing more freelance, work for hire stuff. Lots of collaborations on indie/small press releases. Jesus Hates Zombies I think was the big break for me, in a way. It was my first actual collaboration and I ended up meeting a really good friend of mine from that, as she also contributed to the JHZ anthology. Lauren Monardo. Amazing artist. Phenomenal. Everyone should know who she is.

There’s a reason why the term “starving artist” was coined. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been stiffed out of allegedly paid work. Quite a few people owe me money. It’s a crap shoot. Sometimes you’re not what they’re looking for, or the style isn’t up to their liking. I even had one guy give me a warning before sending me his pitch/script, and I have no idea if it was because he thought my delicate female sensibilities wouldn’t be able to handle it. Some guys can be really patronizing or condescending without even knowing it. I’ve drawn zombies getting their head bashed in with a baseball bat. Countless bodies blown up, shot, maimed, slashed, you name it. I DO have my limits, of course, as anyone should, but… well… sometimes you can’t help but wonder if the double standard is being set.

As far as motivation goes, I do the best I can with what I have, right where I am. You never stop learning. I’m always trying to find new ways or methods of style, medium, layout, technical aspects, everything. I’m trying to get more into digital drawing. Right now what I do is mixed media; hand drawn with grayscaling and patterns done in Photoshop. Ideally I’d like to one day go completely digital, but that’s a big, big dream. I’m old school, but I’m a fast learner. Positive self-talk also helps.

CN: Comparatively, how long have you been attending cons? As an attendee, and as a creator. How do the experiences differ?

SoD: I went to my first comic con in NYC in 2006. It was New York Comic Con, and taking it all in was pretty overwhelming. I remember at the time I had made up some promo stuff and planned to hand it to people, but was reluctant because I wasn’t sure if they’d treat it like everything else that’s handed to them at these shows and just stay in the bottom of a swag bag for years or worse, in the trash.

I exhibited with a collective I was affiliated with at the time in 2008-09. I also did two panels, both were the same topic: Women In Comics. It felt pretty good seeing how the other half lives, but you learn early on that sometimes you’re a square peg no matter where you go. Especially if you’re indie/small press at a mainstream convention like NYCC or SDCC or Wizard World, you’re pretty much window dressing to a lot of people because they’re there for the big names.

Personally, I felt too subversive for the mainstream cons, and too “commercial” for something like MoCCA Fest, which is an indie haven. That in between feeling, it’s not very accomodating.

CN: You’ve had some bad experiences at cons. Would you like to share some of those?

SoD: I remember talking to the head panelist for one of the Women In Comics panels we did in 2008, and I told her in passing that I really wanted to look spiffy. I wanted to dress up. I’d just seen There Will Be Blood and was totally into Daniel Plainview’s style, so I said “I’m thinking about wearing a dress shirt and a tie”, and she says to me “oh, I wish I could dress like that again but then again I don’t have gender identity issues…” HUUUUUGE red flag.

The day of the panel she was kind of grilling me on why my comic strip (at the time) was comprised of an all male cast. As if women are only supposed to write and draw about women’s things. I explained that it was based loosely on my observations of my brother and his friends growing up, and that no one in the series is a “good guy”. They’re all jerks in some way or another. But no, she all but demanded to know why I was probably in her eyes, a “traitor.” The next panel we did months later, she was not part of, and it was a much better atmosphere.

I’ve also been unfortunately been subject to unwanted advances by random fanboys, and sexual harassment by someone who was in the collective with me. He was apologetic, but the damage was done. One of the group’s higher ups actually asked me to tell him that I’m not mad at him anymore because he was moping the entire weekend. I was made to feel like it was my fault. Victim blaming at its finest.

And the big one… the cyberstalking incident that became a real life stalking incident. I’d had a disagreement with someone over payment of a commission. He INSISTED on meeting me in person, and I just got bad vibes all around. I was firm with him and he got really nasty. So I ended up blocking him on any and all social media I could. Unfortunately I forgot about one site, which he tried adding me as a contact to, but I declined and let the site know that I don’t know him like that. Cut to a few months later, he actually shows up at a convention I’m at with a friend in Artist’s Alley. He tried his best to intimidate me but I was very stonefaced and nonresponsive. I ignored him as best as I could and after a couple of minutes he just stormed off in a huff. Immediately, I was shaken. I talked to security and staff and told them about him, what he looked like, etc. The fine folks at that convention took very good care of me the rest of that weekend and for that, I salute them.

He hasn’t contacted me since, but there’s still that fear. I remember the day after, browsing dealer tables and eyeing some pocket knives and switchblades for protection. Then I said to myself “What am I, in a girl gang in the 70s? No.” and didn’t go for it. It has unfortunately added to my PTSD.

I’m more leery with guys now. A while back, I chatted up a dude on another social media site because we were both artists. I linked him to Perfect Agent. He figured out the artist was me, a girl, and immediately asked if I had Skype. That spooked me. I don’t use it that much anyways, only for podcast interviews, but still. Bad form.

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CN: What can a con, or a site like ours, do to make you feel comfortable and welcome? What advice can you give to organisers or hosts–are there any mistakes or ignorant oversights which you see happening over and over again?

SoD: Beef up security. Maybe get some cops in too. I mean, if Combat Zone Wrestling Tournament of Death type of things are occurring like, say, in 2010 at SDCC, there needs to be things kept in check. Some of the attendees have no common courtesy. And God forbid you’re a woman and like to cosplay, because then you are immediately objectified and all sorts of gross things are said/done to you.

There also needs to be understanding on pretty much everyone’s part on the people who’ve dealt with harassment and trauma. Victim blaming is unfortunately still very much alive and well and education is key. The information is there. People need to be more willing to learn and realize that the things they say and do, in the long run, affect people. Words hurt. Words traumatize as much as actions.

CN: Does your comics work draw on your life experiences? Do you use cartooning as a way to process your bad experiences? Why, or why not?

SoD: When I was nearing the end of my comic strip in 2009 it became a more thinly veiled autobiographical piece on how I was feeling and dealing with a lot of stuff at the time. I have, in the past, also worked on a side project that was pretty much just a outlet for all my grievances, but I didn’t keep up with it.

It does help to process some things. That is, when you are ready to.

CN: Do you think that being a member of the comics community raises, lowers, or changes at all the amount or nature of the oppressive situations you encounter?

SoD: There’s a standard in the mainstream AND indie comics as well, and they’re constantly being challenged and met with much opposition. Change is scary. They don’t wanna lose control because they think that since it’s always been this way, they must be doing something right. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, allegedly.

I feel like horizons should be broadened on all sides. Take into account many things, many ideas and concepts that are rarely, if ever, explored. The fact that people were gnashing their teeth at the idea of Spider-Man being anything other than white in this decade is completely appalling. That’s just one of many examples.

For me, I’d say I would just like to not be seen as or treated like an alien. I have the ability. I have talent. I have skill. And I’m gonna be all up in your predominantly straight, white, cisgendered male space because I DESERVE to be here. I’m that damn good. (sidebar – of course, there is always room for improvement.)

CN: What is it that you love about comics?

SoD: I’m not quite sure… I never really thought about it too much. I guess maybe it’s partially a bit of a rebellious thing on my part because my father was an oil painter. He was very traditional, inspired by the Dutch and Flemish masters. He HATED modern art! I guess part of me was like “I wanna rock!”, like in the Twisted Sister videos, but with comic books and strips instead of huge hair and guitars.

I suppose the medium as a whole always intrigued me, the concept of a story and imagery intertwined as opposed to just a book with some illustrations here and there.

CN: Can you tell us what makes con attendance worth it – or necessary – despite facing, in your words, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobic comments regarding your fashion, internalized misogyny from other women, and stalking?

SoD: I will say that for me, it’s a lot like high school, in that on your first day there you’re just taking it all in. You’ll encounter a lot of awful people, but at the same time it’s rife with opportunities for making new friends, contacts, collaborators, or fans.

Just be on alert, be aware. Because unfortunately that’s what we have to do.

I wanna end this on a good note though! It is extremely hard to ignore what people do or think or say, but try your best to perservere. Reach up. As Utada Hikaru once said, keep tryin’.

Stephanie on twitterStephanie’s PortfolioPerfect Agent
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