Katie O’Neill, known on the internet as StrangelyKatie, is a cartoonist currently working on the webcomic The Girl From Hell City. In her portfolio there are amazing strong female protagonists, badass princesses, and monster girls. A resident of New Zealand, she’s been sharing her comics for a couple of years now and was able to gather an audience through social media.
All of her comics have in common well constructed female characters. Katie’s debut, Counting Stars, touched a lot of people with its honest parable about loneliness and friendship, and it quickly spread over the web. Don’t Let Go, another short one, is set in a post-apocalyptic world and is about sad robot love. Princess Princess, a fan favourite, is a forty-four page comic about Sadie, a kind princess locked in a tower, and her rescuer, the brave Amira. It depicts female relationships in a way the mainstream industry has failed so many times to achieve.
Her ongoing series, The Girl From Hell City, is delightfully smart and very promising. Wendy, a demon girl, lives in a world destroyed by an ancient war between the humans and the demons. All she knows is that her people were the bad guys, and now they are paying for it. The cast also includes Wendy’s loyal best friend, a mild-tempered rich girl, and a mute guy who communicates through sign language.
All of these comics are great reads, and that is why I was so pleased to ask Katie a few questions.
Carolina Mello: A lot of comics that talk about LGBT issues are for age 16+ readers. Princess Princess, though, is suitable for all ages (actually my nine-year-old sister loved it!). Do you think it is important to tell stories like those to the young? Is that something you think about when you are writing, or does it comes naturally with your style?
Katie O’Neill: I think it’s incredibly important! That makes me so happy to hear about your sister. Kids aren’t born with prejudices; they’re something they absorb from the figures and media around them. I can understand why a lot of LGBT comics do target that young adult age group, since that’s when a lot of people come to terms with their sexuality, but the whole process of normalisation and familiarising should start a lot sooner. There’s this notion that homosexual content automatically makes something unfit for children, which is just playing into the idea that it’s inherently dirty or wrong which is not true at all and really damaging. Whenever I get an email from a parent, grandparent or other relation telling me a child they read to really enjoyed the girls’ story, I feel extremely encouraged.
CM: How did you start making comics?
KoN: Looking through older sketchbooks, I always liked mixing stories and pictures and did it kind of informally all through my teens. I read a lot of webcomics and manga during that time, so I guess it sort of subconsciously seeped into the way I thought about storytelling and drawing. I only really pushed myself to make a proper completed comic when a competition presented itself to me a couple of years ago. I failed to place, but it set the ball rolling!
CM: What is your process? Do you make scripts or do you just draw? What kind of things do you struggle on, and what comes easily?
KoN: I usually start out with concept sketches that come to me—that kind of flash in the dark inspiration. They might be an action sequence, a dialogue between characters, or even a death. I’ll keep drawing around that theme and try and draw out the idea as organically as possible through drawing characters doing things and interacting. Usually, just putting pen to paper produces a lot of ideas. Once I reach a block, I’ll turn it into script form and see if I can problem solve and figure out how to string it together. I definitely struggle with that portion: trying to build the overall theme and narrative and making sure it all fits together without losing the initial energy. The raw ideas come much more easily.
CM: How is your experience doing a longer webcomic like The Girl From Hell City going?
KoN: It’s tough! You really need to keep reminding yourself why you started the project and what made you passionate about it. That initial burst of creative energy has to sustain you a lot longer, and it can be really difficult to maintain. It’s also immensely satisfying though, and being able to develop characters over a longer period of time is fantastic, especially when people become invested in them and have their own thoughts and ideas about them.
CM: What should we expect from The Girl From Hell City?
KoN: It’s very character driven, and a lot of the coming story rests on the development of the main character, Wendy. Most of the characters are demons, which makes it interesting to explore and subvert ideas of “good and evil.” Some major ones are whether society makes people bad or people make society bad and whether who we become as adults is set in stone by our upbringing. There’s also a lot to find out about the subway that leads down to Hell City, about the other characters and how they feel about living in a place like that, and a LOT of relationship developments.
CM: How would you describe the comics scene in New Zealand? Is it harder to start in the business if you are not near the bigger conventions?
KoN: To be honest, I’m fairly out of touch with the local comics scene simply because I’ve made my home online—it’s how I receive most of my readers and feedback. We have some amazing artists working here, and I know that there’s a niche but strong history of NZ comics. People are working hard to grow the scene, and even though comics readership is necessarily lower here, I think the internet provides a really useful resource for sharing and networking.
As for conventions, I know we definitely miss out on a lot by not being able to go and show portfolios or simply meet an editor face to face and make an impression. Some studios also prefer geographical proximity, I guess to make it easier if physical documents need to be sent. However, again, it’s the internet that levels the playing field by making it possible to share content globally, and having an online portfolio can be just as useful for getting noticed.
CM: In your comics, the characters are very diverse. They have various personalities and also various body types and very recognizable physical attributes. How do you design your characters?
KoN: I really love contrasting characters as much as possible, and I think having a diverse set of characters simply makes for more interesting story and art. I’ll usually start off with whatever characters come to my head naturally in my brainstorm sketches, then look at what I have in terms of personality and build and try and create others that fill the gaps and counteract them. I do also make a conscious effort to include a range of body types and backgrounds so that people who don’t always get to identify with characters in media hopefully get a chance to. I also like visual characterisations—the moment you see Wendy, for instance, you notice she has a broken horn and a missing tooth. There’s a reason for those, and they form a part of her character as much as her design.
CM: Why webcomics? What are the pros and cons of this media?
KoN: Webcomics are fantastic if you want to share your stories, not necessarily if you want to make money from them. I’m lucky to have a job that I enjoy that doesn’t exhaust me creatively and allows me the time to really draw. Sites like Tumblr are extremely supportive of comics, I’ve found, and I’ve been lucky enough to find an incredible audience that makes sharing comics very rewarding. Financially I’ve been able to make a fair amount through selling digital downloads of Princess Princess along with some extras, and also some merchandise—but I haven’t experimented with doing this on a regular basis. Webcomics give you a chance to really build up a readership, but turning that readership into income is a separate challenge. It’s totally possible though, it just requires some ingenuity and a lot of work.