Interview With Kel McDonald on Buffy: The High School Years and Misfits of Avalon
Out this week in comic shops is the second installment of the graphic novel series Buffy: The High School Years, which revisits the core Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters during the first season of the TV series. Glutton for Punishment was written by Kel McDonald, who was kind enough to talk with me about this book; her written-and-drawn series Misfits of Avalon, also published by Dark Horse; and a few other projects.
Want to find out what’s next for Buffy: The High School Years? Read on! (By the way, although we didn’t talk about it in depth, McDonald’s first series, the webcomic Sorcery 101, has just ended after 11 years, which is quite the accomplishment!)
The two works you’re best known for, Sorcery 101 and Misfits of Avalon, are lengthy, creator-controlled works. Why did you want to work with someone else’s characters? And why these in particular?
As Sorcery 101 started to wrap up, I started to look for new things to try. Developing Misfits of Avalon was part of that, and I think I will always prefer to work on creator-owned stories. But Buffy is a property I have loved since it first aired when I was 10. It was the first show I bought on DVD, and I have watched it all the way through many, many times. So it is near and dear to my heart. If I could only do any work-for-hire jobs for one property, I would have picked Buffy. I let Dark Horse know how huge a Buffy fan I was.
Glutton for Punishment is drawn by Yishan Li (who also drew the first story in the series). Did you change your process in any way in writing for someone else and working in a shorter form? Who determined the layouts?
Sorcery 101 has a few side stories that are roughly the same length and drawn by other people, so I went about writing Buffy the same way I wrote those. The biggest difference is I made sure to describe or link to reference specific actions more. Also, I don’t use captions for location changes very often. Remembering those was the most noticeable difference for me. There was once or twice where I quickly sketched a map or panel layout. But mostly I left the layouts to Yishan.
The premise of Glutton for Punishment involves the gang taking home ec (where of course, a demon pops up). Any fond memories of high school cooking class? How good are you at making cookies? Is the tiger demon who wants delicacies your creation, or was it inspired by folklore?
Okay, I’m answering these together because they feed into each other. There is a folktale where a tiger pretends to be human so it can get a human bride to make him tasty human food. That was the seed this story came from.
I am not a good cook and didn’t take Home Ec in high school. My cookies come from dough already made. I have basically one brownie recipe I make from scratch, but that’s it. I would be safe from this particular demon. :P
This is the second story in the Buffy: High School Years series. What kind of direction were you given in relation to the first, if any?
I asked to see Faith [Erin Hicks]’s script, so I could get a feel for what direction to go in. It was mostly formatting things, like the book starting with the “Every Generation” monologue and the Slayer Status captions. Also, there are fewer panels per page than most comics out there. That’s partly because the book is aimed at younger readers and partly because it’s smaller than standard comic size.
What was the most significant change between your original concept and the eventual printed story?
It’s not too different than my original idea. Mostly it was just refining things to make the connection between supernatural conflict and a high school problem. What changed was what to do with Willow, because she was strengthening the high school side of things.
You’ve previously written an issue of Angel. Do you have plans for further Buffy-verse stories, or would you be interested in creating some?
I wrote the third Buffy: The High School Years volume. The cover was shown off at NYCC. I’m definitely interested in writing more Buffy-related stuff after that.
Moving on to your written-and-drawn work, how did you come up with the premise of Misfits of Avalon? You described it to me as “magical girls who are jerks”. That’s unusual, when we’re used to our “heroes” being heroic.
I basically started with that tag line. We are getting lots of comics with female leads, and that’s great. But I have been left feeling kinda lukewarm on a lot of the bigger hits we’ve heard about. It’s not that I think they are bad. They are just not for me.
A lot of the characters I find entertaining are jerks. But those jerks usually don’t get to be women or girls, and if they exist, they usually aren’t the stars of the show. To bring it back to Buffy, shows were about Buffy but never about Faith. I want that type of characters and stories to be about women, and I just wasn’t finding them. I basically started with, these will be magical girls who are jerks.
Then I needed a story. I looked at other magical girl stories and saw the theme of the team gave some loose shape to the story. So I played with themes a little to see which lent itself to a solid plot and I could write about. I thought about using music, but I don’t know much about music. Anything I could come up with would be shallow and probably turn out disingenuous.
The Arthurian legend theme occurred to me ’cause I love mythology and folklore. I tried them all being female knights of the round table, but it wasn’t really working. But once I made them the “bad guys” in a King Arthur story things started clicking very quickly.
Then I read some Irish folklore, The Once and Future King, Mists of Avalon, and reread Sailor Moon to flesh out the details.
Although I love the diversity of character types of your tough girls, I’ve had trouble getting into the series because I’m (shallowly) looking for a likable character. What is your take on the need for likability?
I think likability is relative, and it really depends on the project. There are a lot of asshole male characters on TV that are much worse than the girls in Misfits of Avalon. I feel like establishing where a character is coming from is more important than likability. Otherwise we wouldn’t watch Sherlock solve all those mysteries, and we wouldn’t watch Don Draper use his existential angst to make ads. There are so many stories with unlikable protagonists out there.
But as I said above, it’s mostly dudes. I intentionally wanted to have a female cast fill that role. However, I wanted to make sure that while they are unlikable, they are at least understandable. That’s why all the captions for each chapter are a different girl’s thought process. It’s also why the book starts with Morgan interacting with her hungover dad.
MoA is on quite the extended publishing schedule, with volume one out in 2014, volume 2 this past spring, and volume 3 due roughly a year from now, next September. In the meantime, you’re serializing online. Who came up with that approach, and how has it been working? Were there any concerns about it?
I came up with that approach. There was a discussion that the book will sell better if it came out once a year. But I still needed to finish Sorcery 101. I couldn’t really produce Misfits of Avalon faster than a year and a half for each book without putting Sorcery 101 on hiatus. Since Sorcery 101 readers have been supporting me for a while, and the series was close to done, I didn’t want to go that route.
You’ve also edited and managed several volumes of the Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales anthology series. What drove that project and what were your goals for it?
I wanted a break from drawing a modern setting like in Sorcery 101. That lead me to adapt the folktale “Bisclarvet” into a comic because I like folklore and myths. Then while talking to Kate Ashwin (my co-editor on that project) and a few other cartoonists I knew, several said they had always thought of adapting a fairy tale. That lead to the first volume getting put together.
I thought having each book be about different continents would expose both me and other people to different stories then the usual tales. It is definitely a topic I’m super interested in and always like learning about. So it was an easy theme for me to latch on to.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to be compensated for making comics these days?
I think you need to build yourself up online first. I definitely wouldn’t be able to get a trilogy like Misfits of Avalon picked up as my first work with a publisher if it weren’t for all the work I had done self-publishing and posting online for years beforehand. Also, if you have a contact, ask for stuff. Worst that can happen is you get a no. But at least then the editors you are talking to know you are open to work on things.
What’s up next for you?
Now that Sorcery 101 is done, I’m about to start a new online series called The City Between. It’s futuristic urban fantasy stories that all take place in the same city. The first is up already.
I’m gonna kickstart a reverse harem comic with my friend Kara Leopard soon as well. That’s called [Super]Natural Attraction. It’s about a girl who is brought back to life, like Frankenstein’s Monster, and she meets a bunch of cute monster boys.
My thanks to Kel McDonald for taking the time for this interview!