The epigraph to Devon Wong (Artifacts), Ken Perry (Ghost Agents), and John Hunt’s (Naruto) comic Wretched Things appropriately pulls from The Wretched of the Earth, a seminal philosophical work by psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon:
“The colonized subject is a persecuted man who is forever dreaming of becoming the persecutor.”
Published by Comics Experience, the story plays with familiar elements of postcolonial literature by following the communities of animals often considered vermin or pests in human households. Far from nasty, baseless creatures, the cohabitating spiders and mice all live within stringent social guidelines, with complex structures and traditions. And, of course, rivalries and misunderstandings abound. It’s a brutal, complicated narrative, and that’s exactly what made Coverless Reviews rave, “[T]here’s a lot to like… The story[,] while dark overall, is a pleasant read.”
Comics Experience: What does your collaboration process look like?
Ken Perry: Once I get the completed script I read it through a few times, making notes and really rough sketches in the margins. I move on to some breakdowns and laying out panels and start roughing things in from my earlier notes and sketches. I try to never cut any panels. If anything, I’m usually adding panels or insets to try and draw attention to something or pace what is going on. I try to provide color notes for John with each finished page, spelling out which characters are in scenes so he doesn’t have to come back in later and change them. Even though he’s been coloring the same characters for three issues now, I still like to go through this step to be sure.
Devon Wong:Once the scripts are done, there’s quite a lot of back and forth, though at that point, I’m mostly just a set of eyes or a sounding board. When Ken starts production on an issue, he sends me roughs of the pages as he goes and I may make a comment here or there before Ken puts in the final inks. A handful of times I’ve missed things in the roughs stage and had to suggest changes to inks, but in those cases I try to think of a workaround that doesn’t involve re-drawing a panel. I can be a real nitpicker, so Ken has the patience of some sort of saint to put up with that.
As the pages are inked, they’re sent off to John, who is sending colors to me as he finishes them; at which point, while they’re inking and coloring, I’m lettering and making some final revisions to the dialogue. More often than not, I find those revisions are influenced by the art. Maybe the art communicates an idea quite clearly, so I don’t need to spell it out, so I cut some dialogue. Or maybe I feel there’s some sort of beat or cue missing so I’ll smooth it over by adding a bit of dialogue. Often, especially as the issues progress, I just realize I don’t want to cover parts of the art with my words, so I’m ruthlessly whittling away at dialogue so that more of Ken’s beautiful backgrounds can be seen more clearly.
CE: That’s one thing many novice writers tend to ignore – leaving enough room for the artist to shine. What advice do you both have about paring down the dialogue down to ensure all creators involved have a chance to show off their skills?
DW: It is true that writers (and artists), not just novices, can often overcrowd panels or pages. I’m guilty of that, too, on many occasions. There were a few pages in issue 1, for instance, that felt a bit cramped to me, where I was having to set up a lot of stuff that needed to be set up. Given the page limits on single issues, sometimes you have to sacrifice one thing or another to make a story work.
There are times when you need to say a bit more, especially if you have more verbose characters. In those cases, it’s a marriage of art and text, and sometimes the art also needs to accommodate the necessities of the story. I actually don’t entirely agree with the trend lately that says “good writing” in comics means fewer words all the time. For example, a writer like Bendis is incredibly wordy, and I think he’s one of the true greats. By contrast, I look at, say, Warren Ellis’ recent run on Moon Knight, and I frankly find the storytelling lacking. Despite all the action, I found the run kind of boring. (Sorry, fans!) I hear many critics and fellow creators and fans praise the run as being an example of a writer trusting the art team and letting them take the spotlight, but to me it reads like lazy storytelling with not much to say. Though of course, Declan Shalvey’s art and Jordie Bellaire’s colors were brilliant, and I am really enjoying Ellis’ Injection, so that isn’t to take a shot at Ellis. I just don’t agree that it’s necessarily his best work.
I would say that in any given case, the answer is to do what serves the story and recognize that it’s give and take. You need to leave room in the story for the art to shine, but the art also needs to make room for the dialogue, particularly for characterization and pacing, and so on. The balance can’t always be perfect when you’re dealing with page limits. It’s about sacrifice and compromise and recognizing when it’s the right time to sacrifice one or the other, and there are no hard and fast rules for that. I’m still trying to get a handle on it myself, and I’m continuing to grow and get better at it the more work I do.
KP: I have been trying to be more conscious of quiet space and leaving room in panels that are dialogue heavy. Definitely don’t want balloons and captions to be an afterthought.
CE: Wretched Things deals so much in the relationship between love and sacrifice, and struggling to find the balance between individuality and community. Why the decision to center the story on animals contending with these struggles when they’re more associated with humans?
DW: Glad you picked up on that. It’s definitely a central theme and one that will be explored more as the series progresses. It’s difficult to answer this question without getting into spoiler territory with regard to the later issues, but I guess you could say that there’s a degree of allegory going on in the story. We’re taking full advantage of the Maus approach to heavy, human-related ideas and exploring those ideas with animals as stand-ins for real groups of people and cultures, so that readers can leave any associated baggage at the door. That said, the so-called “vermin” don’t represent any particular human corollary either. We want people to read themselves into the place of the vermin on the one hand, but also be able to read groups of people very different from themselves into the vermin. And we also want the vermin to be in some ways not human, but for those “not human” aspects of the characters to take readers by surprise, to sort of jolt readers into remembering that these are not people with people motivations. It’s a complicated game of identification and alienation.
CE: Although the “vermin” have no specific human parallels, why the decision to mainly zoom in on the mouse, rat, and spider cultures specifically?
DW: For the lead spiders and mice, it’s because I once lived through a traumatic spider and mouse infestation, which served as the inspiration for the story. The rats came later because of lore about a rat king (or kings), which has been done to death in fantasy, but I liked the idea of putting a twist on the notion of a rat king and saying, well what if the rats overthrew their king and founded a rat republic? What would that look like? The idea had resonance with the political themes of the story, so I ran with it. You’ll learn more about the rats in issue 3, so can’t say anything more about that just now.
CE: Why the decision to physically anthropomorphize the mice to a higher degree than the other creatures?
KP: I wanted the mice to be the most relatable species. Especially in issue #1 where you are introduced to Bran and his little mouse clan and his friends Penne and Tarragon. I think readers will feel more emotionally involved if they aren’t always animals you’d call an exterminator over. When I started the series they were more “mouse-like” with their head shapes. As the pages have gone by, I’ve smoothed the features out to be more human, but still animal. I do like to draw them randomly moving like mice on all fours to remind the audience of what they really are: “filthy vermin.”
CE: Why the choice to use the word “ichor” instead of “blood” or “hemolymph” when discussing, to put it bluntly, bug juices? It’s a fascinating touch.
DW: I added little details like this to give the world a sense of reality apart from our own. It makes sense that bugs wouldn’t refer to their juices with the same word that humans would use to describe our juices. For the same reason that it makes sense that spiders would call their kids a “brood” while mice would call their kids a “litter” and so on. That said, a word like “hemolymph” is just way too formal. People generally refer to “urine” as “piss,” so to give the bugs a sense of the colloquial: “ichor.” Though if we had a bug “scientist” in there somewhere, I think the bug scientist might call ichor “hemolymph.” If there’s ever a sequel, I’ll tuck that idea away for future use! Thanks!
CE: One of the most striking elements of the artwork is the species diversity represented with the spiders, and how you are able to play with their physiology to make them express themselves in recognizably human ways without compromising their arachnid appearance. How did you decide which species to use? What interesting things about their anatomy did you learn along the way?
KP: With each character, I spent a lot of time just looking up references. Devon had listed all the spiders and species he’d captured and tortured so far in his life and wanted to demonize in his story.
DW: I deny and resent these accusations.
KP: Uh huh. From there, it was lots of sketching to see what could be enhanced or ignored to make them look unique from each other without being too painful to draw repeatedly. For character acting I needed to add eyebrows or arches, or have the characters emoting with their eyes and pedipalps, or using their spiky legs to gesture like you would a human hand. One of the often repeated rules is to always draw in a character’s “hands.”
CE: “Hands” here meaning giving us a visual with how the characters interact with the tactile world, correct?
KP: So much of a character’s acting on the page revolves around their eyes, mouth and their hands. You could sketch out some eyes, arching eye brows a sideways grin and a quick gesture of a hand and you’d instantly recognize it as a sneer. All it takes is a few lines. Remove any of those things and the acting isn’t as strong. So for all the bugs I use their spiky legs and antennae as their hands. Bran and his kind are easy as mice are more similar to humans.
CE: How did the lessons you learn in the Creators Workshop help you in the development of Wretched Things? What was the best advice you received?
KP: There’s so much going on in the Workshop, and ultimately you get back as much and more than you put in. Writers and artists have their own forums and threads for critiques. I’ve been able to post work in progress to get crits from other CE members, or from the pros on the boards like Reilly Brown and Robert Atkins. Both have been invaluable with their advice. They are both able to zero in on things like funky perspective, panel flow, tangents, pacing, and all the things beyond just the simple drawings. These are the extra things that can really push a page to the next level.
What were some of these “next-level” tips and tricks that you picked up for Wretched Things?
KP: It helped to play up the scales between the vermin and the house they live in. Bran and company are small and they have created little villages and cities to live in, but those exist within the bigger world of the old Victorian house of the humans. An example is showing the mice as tiny little creatures scampering across the tile floor when they are running through the kitchen in issue 1. The cabinets look mountainous around them as they run through what to them is a valley between the cabinets. Each panel then slowly zooms in until the viewer is at eye level with the mice, existing at their size.
That leads to another stumbling point for artists, which is forgetting to draw backgrounds. I remember once being so proud of myself drawing a 3-page fight scene. I used the 16-panel grid for fast-paced action. I thought I was being so clever with the poses and pacing. Then Reilly Brown pointed out how I didn’t draw any backgrounds between the first and last panels. As a result, I totally blew it as far as the setup for the end of the fight.
DW: Oh, yikes. There are so very many things learned in the Workshop, and so much good advice. Can I say all of it is useful? Ha. More than anything, I would say that the Workshop helps by giving extra sets of well-informed and often expert eyes on the scripts that can catch things you might miss, or that you think are clearly communicated but aren’t. It’s case-by-case for me. In addition to community members, Marc Sumerak, who has served as a writer and editor over at Marvel, gave two of the scripts a detailed go-over and helped to improve structure, panel flow, and to clarify character motivations. I also owe a big shout-out to community member Ian Powers, who served as a sounding board on and off the forums to help me get to the heart of a few problems with the scripts for issues 3 and 4.
Actually, on second thought… the best advice I’ve received has been from Paul Allor, which is that we shouldn’t try to outsell him or he’ll send goblin-ninja-assassins to terminate our entire team. If our sales figures don’t pan out, it’s all Paul’s fault.
CE: Where did Paul get these goblin-ninja-assassins? Asking for a friend (that friend is me)…
DW: Who can truly fathom Paul’s evil ways? Only Paul. I say, if you want to dip into those dark waters, go to the source. But beware. Paul may offer you that which you seek, but there will be a price. He will try to deceive you. It is in his nature. Make the bargain at your peril.
Wretched Things is now available on comiXology.