Being a lifelong reader of comic books, it was inevitable I would discover and subsequently enjoy a wide variety of webcomics. Variety is actually one of the key words in play here. There are so many to choose from, along with so much talent on display from the creators.
Like with screenplays, webcomics are great examples of storytelling – just in a different medium. It takes a lot of work to create and maintain a quality webcomic.
I first met Emma Capps a couple of years ago at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco; she was 15 years old and already an accomplished cartoonist. She’s experienced a lot since then, both professionally and personally, and despite some tough setbacks, still maintains an incredibly positive and upbeat attitude.
“Emma T. Capps started her first webcomic at age 14, and has exhibited her work all over the country and done special installments for publications like Dark Horse Presents. She also teaches cartooning workshops at 826 Valencia in San Francisco, and has more than doubled the percentage of female students in her classes! In her spare time, she likes chatting in Spanish, learning new crafts, and being politically active through volunteer work. Most of all, she really hates talking about herself in the third person.”
What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
Hmm, this is honestly a bit of a tough one to answer because I am constantly reading. I just finished George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which to my mind deserves all the accolades it’s recently gotten. (Michiko Kakutani, recently departed bastion of the New York Times book review, never steers me astray). Bardo is a bit of a tricky book to classify, as it skillfully combines various genres in a way that makes it difficult to define. I cried much more than I expected for a book where the premise is that all the characters are dead.
I think what I recently had the most fun reading was Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char, a novel that to me has flown quite undeservedly under the radar. It’s a really fresh voice in fantasy that begs multiple readings just because it is so skillfully plotted and imagined. There are scenes of violence and horror – many – but I’ve still been recommending it all around and it’s become one of my favorite books. It begs a sequel, or a companion novel set within the same universe, but as of yet Hawkins hasn’t expressed his immediate plans to write one (Library is remarkably, his debut).
In terms of things I’ve watched, I don’t watch a large amount of TV – mostly period dramas, like Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife and pretty much everything on Masterpiece Classic – but a movie that has one of the most excellent scripts, to me, is Tarsem’s The Fall. This might be a little bit of a cop-out because there were definitely unscripted scenes between the young actress and Lee Pace, but the entire conceit of the movie is amazing – and the costumes by Eiko Ishioka are understandably incredible. It’s a historical movie, sure, but at its core it’s a movie about the power of stories and how they bind us all together.
How’d you get into creating your own comics?
This is also unfortunately a slightly strange answer. It’s not so cut-and-dry! I always knew I loved writing and drawing, and I had several short stories I published in Stone Soup Magazine along with illustrations I did. But I never really synthesized the two, mostly because I considered my writing to be better developed than my art skills were at that point. But I took a short art course, and I realized I actually could capture my ideas visually just as I had imagined them.
In Fall 2010, I drew a short autobiographical comic called Jam Days and submitted it to a competition – and, somehow, managed to work that into my final “recital” project for 8th grade. But I finished Jam far before the overall project’s deadline! So, I re-discovered Chapel, a character I had created a while ago and had turned into a line of greeting cards I made for my parents. I’ve always had a fascination with newspaper dailies, which are sadly dying out, and I thought it would be a great challenge to try and re-create that sort of schedule.
So I set out to draw one Chapel comic every single day for 30 days. I put them online in installments – that’s what became “Season One” of The Chapel Chronicles – and by the time I’d finished posting them, I realized they had really struck a chord. People were commenting! People I didn’t even know in real life! So why not continue? I lightened my load a little bit, though, to one comic per week instead of per day. I kept to that schedule throughout all four years of high school (including summer break!)
What are some of your favorite comics and webcomics?
My favorite comics hew much more to the print side than the webcomic side, although some of them were definitely webcomics that later become print collections! My favorite print volumes are Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, Kerascoet’s Beautiful Darkness, DeForge’s Ant Colony, Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy (previously serialized online, but I strongly recommend the printed version). In terms of series, I really enjoy Oda’s One Piece – I use it as an example of differing panel structures in the comics classes I teach. In a parallel universe where I actually have my life together, I’d also keep up regularly with Witchy, Paranatural, Saint for Rent, and Hark! A Vagrant. I’m 99.99999% sure there are more that I’m forgetting to list.
In our pre-interview, you’d mentioned plotting out the story for your latest project. How did you come up with the idea for it, and how did you develop it?
In contrast to Chapel, this story, The League of Fonts, is much older in terms of its sheer gestation period. I actually had the idea for it before I even started doing Chapel! If I remember correctly, I was having lunch with my grandma and had the idea – but I had no paper, so I went to a stationary store next door and bought a small notebook to jot down my thoughts! I still have the notebook, somewhere.
The structure of the story was far different back then, but the central conceit of the characters and fonts was the same. It has evolved through various iterations and plot changes, though, especially as I learned things that could make certain aspects more realistic and others less so for the purpose of satire. I think my greatest breakthrough was a few years ago, when I realized it was a highly visual story and would be better served as a graphic novel instead of a prose story. So I converted it to a script, and continued work in that format. I have the entire story scripted now, on Scrivener, which for me is the ideal process: that way, when I’m actually drawing, I can put all my attention on the visual aspect knowing that I’ve already got the overall flow of the storyline planned out. If I hadn’t done that writing beforehand, it would be a mess, since it’s a highly detailed plot and relies on continuity to really work.
Going through the archives of The Chapel Chronicles, some of the earlier strips are of the one-and-done format, followed by a gradual transition into longer storylines. Was this intentional or more of a natural progression (i.e. the more you wrote, the more ideas you got)?
As I mentioned previously, I didn’t really have a set “game plan” for how I would start Chapel – and, honestly, I never intended it to become something longer. My first 30-comics-in-30-days was a personal challenge, but I found I enjoyed it much more than I had anticipated. There’s still narrative and continuity in those early comics; some of the board game strips, for example, might not make quite as much sense without context, nor would the storyline of Chapel acquiring her pet hedgehog, Rupert. Once I decided I was going to make more Chapel, I immediately knew there would be longer storylines. My favorite newspaper comics do just that: there are longer storylines, but each can still be enjoyable as a stand-alone strip.
You’re definitely a very creative person. Is being a professional artist/cartoonist the ultimate goal, or just one of many?
I honestly don’t know! YES, being a professional cartoonist is a life dream of mine – but is it the only, ultimate goal? Most likely not.
When it comes to stand-alone visual art, I doubt it. This goes against all accepted artist etiquette, but I almost never sketch. If I do, it’s to plan out aspects of a narrative world I’m creating. I don’t mind that, though! I have little-to-no interest in being solely a visual artist, as I honestly don’t think that’s my strong suit.
When I was younger I wanted to be a novelist, and I still might revisit that – comics, to me, are just a way of telling stories that have a strong visual component and couldn’t be fully expressed with just prose. I read books all the time (to the point where I’ve had to ban myself from reading the New York Times book review, since it’s the equivalent of window-shopping for me) and I feel, often, the narrative/written side of graphic novels is treated as less important than the strength of the artwork. Really, the opposite is true. The most successful contemporary comics don’t, in a strict sense, have technical artistic proficiency. The reason they’re so popular is because the story or writing has something that is engaging. XKCD, for example, pulls no punches: it’s all stick figures, but it’s so wildly popular because it resonates with people through the strength of the writing.
When I was a lot younger, I wanted to be a paleontologist, but now I’m not sure I’d be a very good one. Math and science aren’t really my strong suits – they could be, if I was passionate about them enough to study them on my own – so that likely wouldn’t work out. In my spare time, beyond reading, I like to design and sew/knit my own clothes. But as of yet, I have no intention of ever doing that professionally. That way, nobody can see my lazy seam-work on the interior of the garment! I mostly taught myself, so I don’t do anything the way it’s “supposed” to be done. If it fits, then I’m happy, and I don’t have to go clothes shopping ever again!
You’ve taught cartooning workshops at a non-profit writing center. How did that come about, and what sort of things do you talk about?
Coinciding with my initial work on The Chapel Chronicles, I decided I would bundle up the first “season” into a small book and sell it at my school’s craft/project fair! I also went to a convention (my first one ever!) in New York and exhibited there as well, which was terrifying, exhausting, and exhilarating all at once. I had planned from the beginning to donate all my profits to 826 Valencia, a nonprofit in San Francisco, as one of the teachers who first sparked my interest in creating comics used to teach there. They were a bit surprised at a 14-year-old donating money, I think, and invited me to come teach a comic class myself! I was unimaginably nervous, but I wanted to knock it out of the park, so I prepared worksheets on the process, a detailed time breakdown for the class, and specific PowerPoint presentations on what I’d be trying to teach. I really wanted to show them that I wasn’t doing this just as a lark (or, in any way, a “volunteer experience” to look good on school applications). I was serious!
My first workshop was a disaster: only one student showed up. 826 contacted me to apologize, and asked if I’d like to teach another class. I didn’t, but I said yes regardless. I started to teach regularly, and began theming my workshops so students could have some framework around which to create their ideas. Mostly, I focused on teaching kids various steps of planning a comic, and then some conventional tools that make cartooning easier – but my focus was never about imposing some specific way of doing something, as I’d experienced that in art classes at my school and bristled at it. I would explain to them why we would be doing a certain step, and why I felt it was helpful. I’d then go around to each student individually, and if they had a reason they’d like to do something against the grain, I would encourage them to go for it! I really wanted to let their individual voices shine. I even had a few “repeat offenders” who attended multiple classes and tried to squeak in before registration filled up, as it did often!
I love teaching, and I haven’t gotten to do so in a while due to extenuating circumstances, which leads me to…
You also mentioned having to take a break from writing and drawing due to some health issues. Can you elaborate on that, and how are you feeling these days?
I would be more than happy to discuss it! To be honest, I’m never quite sure how to bring up the details – I’ve essentially disappeared for the greater part of two years, both to focus on my treatment and to figure out a way to broach the subject. I’m always cognizant that the Chapel audience skews younger, and I never want to write something that might scare them. I haven’t updated in quite a while because while I’m on the road to recovery, it’s never 100% guaranteed, and I feel that proclaiming “I’m cured!” would be jinxing it.
Essentially, I went to college in New York City in Fall 2015. Less than a week in, I caught a cold from my roommate and I didn’t get better. I missed several days of class, spent most days sleeping, and barely had enough energy to get something to eat. I went to go spend the afternoon with a family friend, and I was so tired she booked me an emergency appointment with her son’s pediatrician. He sent me in for tests at the hospital, and I woke up in the ICU around three weeks later.
At the time, I had a diagnosis of generic pulmonary failure – but it wasn’t correct. In order to breathe, they’d given me a tracheostomy. I’d also been tube-fed, so I had lost so much weight that at first I couldn’t walk at all. Initially, I wasn’t very upset, most likely due to the massive medications I was on that kept me fairly sedated at all times. But I learned I had to go back home to San Francisco and that made me devastated. At home, I started seeing a pulmonologist, got steroid prescriptions, and was allowed to let my trach hole close up. I worked really hard! I still never really had a cut-and-dry diagnosis, but I was on strong daily medications and they seemed to be working. So in fall 2016, I went back to school in New York again.
This time, I lasted longer. I stayed for about a month or so. But things started to fracture: I got three colds; I wasn’t thinking clearly; I couldn’t do school assignments that, rationally, I knew were easy. Eventually I decided I needed to come home. I felt it was my fault, like I wasn’t trying hard enough.
One day, I got a severe headache and vomiting. We went to the emergency room, and they quickly took me in an ambulance to UCSF Hospital. I had severe inflammation in my brain, to the point the doctors were shocked I was even walking. I got discharged around…Christmas, I think? But a few weeks later, the entire left side of my body began to feel numb and tingly, so we went to the hospital as a precaution. They diagnosed me with some sort of brain condition, and put me on a treatment of regular IV drips. But that, too, was incorrect.
One doctor thought: “You know, this isn’t adding up.” So she surveyed my entire case and realized the inflammation in my lungs was the same thing now clouding my brain. On a hunch, she did a simple blood test and discovered I have an extraordinarily rare genetic disorder: hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), which more often than not goes undiagnosed because it’s so uncommon and has a high mortality rate. For this, there is only one treatment: chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. So that’s what I had, and I’m on the road to recovery now! I wouldn’t say I feel 100% back to normal, but at least my brain is working well enough now that I can read novels again and process the information.
Anyway, it’s not a very nice story to tell, which is why I haven’t really told it in any Chapel-specific circles. But if anything can come out of my discussing it, I’d hope that it would raise awareness so more doctors might think to test for HLH and other rare hematologic disorders. Many doctors have never seen a case of it in their entire careers!
What’s next for Emma T. Capps?
A functional immune system.
How can people find out more about your work?
They can read the entirety of The Chapel Chronicles online at www.chapelchronicles.com! It’s all there, except for some work I’ve done for Dark Horse Presents, as I don’t own the copyright to those. And the latest for League of Fonts is up on www.leagueoffonts.com – although that’s on indefinite hiatus due to the aforementioned health issues, which I feel horrifically guilty about. Beyond that, I have a Facebook page for The Chapel Chronicles, and I’m on Twitter – @EmmaTCapps. On Facebook I’ve been largely inactive, as I know some younger kids do follow me there, and I’ve yet to think of a PG-rated way of describing brain surgery. I update my Twitter account slightly more frequently. Previously, I posted solely about my artwork, but lately it’s been about my health, books, and taking nice baths (verdict: acceptable for all ages. Don’t ever feel like you’re too old for a bubble bath. Trust me).
Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
That’s a tough one, because there are two things I am excellent at baking: pie and chocolate cake, in that order. I haven’t specified the pie flavor because I have a good crust recipe and I can usually make them come out equally well. I will say I’m not a big fan of pumpkin pie, so I’d have to say my favorites are probably in the berry territory (berritory?) – I just made a blackberry one, in a desperate culinary plea to woo my new neighbors’ affections, so right now that’s where I’m leaning. My mom prefers peach, though, so I make those more frequently. Yikes, now I’m hungry…!
*Author’s suggestion – Emma’s books would make for some great and pleasantly original gifts, holidays or otherwise, for any young readers on your list. Just click here.
2 thoughts on “A most illustrative Q&A with Emma T. Capps”
What an extraordinary young woman. No, that doesn’t even come close to describing her. Her honesty in talking about her illness brought tears to my eyes to know that she has to battle such a debilitating illness and yet she maintains such a positive attitude toward life and her work. Thanks for introducing us to her and please keep in touch with her and share her future adventures with us. The two of you should stage a pie bake off for 8266 Valencia as a fundraiser.
I now adore Emma T. Capps! For her creativity, and enthusiasm and bravery and honesty among other things. She’s filled with life and hope and ideas and dreams. Who knows where these paths may lead? Emma T. Capps, all the very best for you in this world, I’m glad you’re in it!