Ellen T. Crenshaw and Colleen AF Venable have been making comics for years, separately. Kiss Number 8 (out last month from First Second) is their first collaboration, and it reads like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing together. Crenshaw’s character design tells you so much of what you need to know about who these people are, and Venable’s writing keeps the plot dancing along, revealing major twists with excellent timing. You can tell how well they worked together from the interview below, conducted over email, in which they readily pick up one another’s threads and end up talking to each other as much as to their interviewer. Some spoilers contained.
Paste: How did y’all hook up to make this book? Did you already know each other?
Ellen T. Crenshaw: We did know each other! I used to live in Boston and we’d see each other every year at a handful of comic festivals. But it wasn’t until I’d already moved to California that Colleen commissioned me to illustrate a concept she had, a one-page gag. Then maybe a year later I was approached by First Second to illustrate Kiss Number 8. I assume one led to the other!
Colleen AF Venable: I actually remember the exact day I met Ellen! May 19, 2013. We were at Maine Comics Arts Festival in Portland and wound up with tables next to each other. LOVED her art and had a blast chatting all day. We even got super fancy fake IDs together! (A nine-year-old who had a table at the show would draw you a “fake ID” which I still carry around in my wallet and has the “issued” date on it. Greatest picture ever drawn of me!)
Meanwhile, Kiss Number 8 had been searching for an artist. First Second auditioned over 15 artists, all amazing, but none felt quite right. They got the humor or they got the seriousness, but the mix of the two was the holy grail we were searching for. (Hey look! Religious reference! Or Indiana Jones third movie with the weird claymation reference!) At the time I was doing a mini-comic called Creeping Out the Creepers. It was a collection of possible responses to catcalls, with the theory—one I’ve proved many times—that the best method of scaring off creepers wasn’t to yell at or ignore them. It was to make them think they just accidentally engaged with someone off-balance. It started the day some guy said, “Mmm, you got nice eyebrows.” And I smiled huge, way too huge, for him and practically yelled, “Thanks! I work out!” He then got up and walked to a different seat. Another time a guy on the train cornered me and said, “Damn baby, you got an ass that just won’t stop!” and I looked shocked and said, “Farting? I know! I don’t know what I ate!” Needless to say he moved away from me as well. I asked Ellen to draw a comic where a guy blows a woman kisses, she sweetly plucks them from the air… then proceeds to eat them like a monster. Her comic was so funny, the character designs so strong, and the timing so perfect. When were were discussing artists for Kiss I showed it to Calista Brill, my editor at First Second, and she decided to audition Ellen instantly. She was perfect.
Crenshaw: I also still have my MeCAF ID! (I wish I could remember that kid’s name.) I can’t believe we met in 2013, it feels both too recent and too long ago. Colleen’s the kind of person you feel like you’ve always known when you’ve only just met! It’s no wonder she wrote a script that’s so perfectly hilarious and heartrending in equal measure. When I read it for the first time I was a wet ball of sobs, and I wanted SO BADLY to be the one to draw it. I was at my sister’s when I got the offer, and I shrieked and cried and danced all over her house.
Paste: Don’t you live on opposite coasts? Did that make it hard to collaborate?
Crenshaw: Not at all, at least on my end. Most of my illustration work is done remotely. Communication is the main thing, and Colleen excels at getting her point across, improving the work, and making a person feel like a dang rock star—I always looked forward to her messages in my inbox!
Venable: That’s because you ARE a rock star, Ellen! Most of my notes are all-caps squealing at how amazing Ellen is and how she takes a scene that is only half working and blows it out of the water with a single facial expression. It’s been the best collaborative process I’ve ever been a part of!
Paste: Did either of you go to Catholic school?
Crenshaw: Not me! I was raised Episcopalian, which is like Catholic-lite. But my husband went to Catholic school as a kid and was an altar boy, so he was a great resource for Adam’s scenes. My mom went to Catholic school too, and was very pleased to hear that Colleen had written skirt-rolling into the script.
Venable: Ahhh! Matt was an altar boy?! That makes it so much better! My parents both went to Catholic school. My aunts are both nuns. My father was actually planning on being a priest before he met my mom. He would even dress up as a priest every Halloween and when people opened the door to give him candy instead he’d hold up a Necco wafer and offer it to them saying “The body of Christ.” I grew up across the street from a convent in upstate New York. The only Catholic school nearby was a very small one called Most Precious Blood (not a creepy name at all). They were so small they didn’t have enough girls for female sports teams. My parents—both teachers—valued education and life experiences, so I went to public school which had more opportunities. That said, we were big in the church.
My mother was a CCD (Confraternity of Catholic Doctorine) teacher, which meant weekly night classes at the Catholic school and I got to see a lot of its inner workings. She was even my teacher for my confirmation year, which meant I learned all about the limits of “heavy petting” direct from my mother and was basically mortified. I had friends who went to the Catholic school and they all leaned toward being Cats rather than Lauras. They were so bored and desperately wanted to rebel. And yeah, LOTS of skirt rolling. We went to church every week and my older sister Kath, who wanted to be an altar server, wasn’t allowed because she was a girl, but she was the very first female at our church to pass the offertory basket. Oh, and my weird middle name [Ann Felicity]? That’s my confirmation name. So no Catholic school, but I’m not sure we could have been any more Catholic.
Paste: One of the things that I think makes this book so successful is that it presents coming out as hard, not easy. If you live in a little blue bubble, like I do, it can seem like everyone is pretty accepting, but that’s still not the majority of folks. How did you decide to take that approach?
Venable: Kath coming out of the closet when she was a senior and I was a freshman was partially the inspiration for the book and the moment we became friends as well as sisters. It was 1995 and to say that the community in our upstate New York village were unkind would be an understatement. My family, who now is incredibly accepting and wonderful, was terrified my sister was “going to Hell” and scared I would follow in her footsteps. I went from being the bad daughter to being the good daughter in an instant, as long as I dated boys. I got in so many fights in my high-school defending her and anyone else who was being singled out for their sexuality. Random strangers started to come out of the closet to me, knowing that I was a safe-space and would accept them. It was such an amazing feeling, and I wanted more teens to feel like they weren’t alone.
In 2004, when I started writing the book, originally titled My Grandmother’s Moustache, there were only a handful of books focused on LGBTQ stories and only one that featured a main trans character (Julie Ann Peters’ Luna). Also in 2004, while it was becoming more and more common to come out as gay or lesbian in the wider world, I watched some public figures in the webcomics community get bashed for realizing they were bi or pan. God forbid a prominent lesbian creator fall in love with a man! I also saw many women who had always dated men and never once gave a woman a second thought absolutely fall for my sister. Sexuality is so fluid, and I’ve always been a believer that you can fall for anyone if they are the right person no matter what their gender. I wanted to show a book where there were no easy answers on the path to figuring out who you are.
2004 was a very, very different world. And sadly in 2019, upstate New York is still a very, very different world as well. Sure New York City is blue as can be, but go two hours north and Trump signs are everywhere. I spend a lot of time traveling and the crazy hurtful things I hear people say on a regular basis in the South and in many other countries is shocking. Some people have said I shouldn’t have included some of the transphobic and homophobic voices in the story, and I think it’s important for them to be examined and in the end for the reader to realize for every transphobic person there’s hundreds of amazing people. Horrible people existed in 2004, and they still exist today. It’s all about learning to fight back with love.
Only a handful of advance copies are out in the world, but I’ve already been getting emails from teens thanking me for the book and asking for advice on how to come out to their religious families, how to deal with horrible family reactions to coming out, and how to fight back against bullies. Sadly, as a country, we still have a long way to go in this fight.
Paste: So I feel like a dingus for realizing and then forgetting and then realizing again that the book is set in 2004 (although it’s quite clear at the beginning). Why did you keep it that way? Too hard to rewrite for the modern age? Easier to create a world without social media?
Venable: Haha no worries about forgetting the 2004 thing. I didn’t want to beat people over the head like a VH1 HEY REMEMBER THE AUGHTS! special but sometimes I wonder if it was too subtle: One caption box, and then a few little hints like the occasional Bush/Cheney sign on the lawn. (Note: the Orhams totally voted for Obama.) Then little things like instant messenger, laptops that didn’t work without their cables, super cheap punk shows with way too many bands, and the Gay-Straight Alliance. I debated modernizing it for a bit as the pub date got closer, but I realized it wouldn’t be true to the story. I wanted it to be that year because I feel like that’s about the point things really started to change for the better. People found wider communities and support on the Internet. Celebrities started to actually come out of the closet. It was one year before gay marriage was legalized [in Massachusetts]. It felt very much like an important time period in American history.
Crenshaw: Fun Fact: I wasn’t there when the book was written, but I did have a hand in deciding the year in which it takes place! Way back in 2016, when I first started working on the book, I was trying to nail down the timeline for costuming and setting purposes (we begin in early spring and end before the end of the school year—parkas to tank tops). At that time we were going to set it in 2007, but after discussing Amanda’s dad’s age based on the flashbacks, and when the heck cell phones started to become common among teens, we settled on 2004. It felt very authentic to my teenage experience with technology (I graduated high school in 2003).
Paste: Did y’all have to fight for the relatively adult content of the book?
Crenshaw: I imagine we’ll receive some criticism from somewhere, but no one censored anything I drew. I don’t think there’s anything depicted that you wouldn’t see in a PG-13 movie. I did make a point to be sensitive when showing violence or the characters’ bodies—when you spend so much time with your characters you grow to love them and you want to show them respect. I hope that comes through, our sincere affection for these fictional people.
Venable: Actually not at all. I think they realize that teens go through a ton of stuff, and make a lot of horrible decisions along the way. I wanted the book to be as realistic to a teen’s experiences in 2004 as possible.
Paste: What kind trouble did y’all get into in high school?
Venable: I was drinking at 14. Dating an insane amount. Going to punk shows. Barely eating. Making out at “makeout point.” Yes, we totally had one of those! Cliff that overlooked a valley. Got caught by the cops once there too…flashlight in the window and a cop with a HUGE smile…which led to a super disappointed face because I was fully clothed hanging out with a gay friend who was telling me his woes. I was generally a good kid, and couldn’t lie for the life of me, so I often got caught red-handed. Once quite literally red-handed when I accidentally dyed my hands trying to make Jell-O shots. I was never into drugs, and while I made out with anything that moved, my Catholic guilt kept me from sex til my 20s.
Crenshaw: Not much. I was a goody-goody, through and through. But my best friend and I went to lots of music shows together, which can come with its own trouble. I dragged her on mission trips with my church youth group, which were always fraught with teenage hormones. While she got baked with her stoner buddies in her room, I waited by myself downstairs!
Paste: Do you think your portrayal of public school as a godsend compared to a small private school is accurate? Do you have strong feelings about education?
Venable: I think anytime you are in a small group of people there’s more possibility for rumors to fester. The larger the school the better the chance you’ll have to find your people. I’m sure there are many private schools that are great, but they limit the people that can attend: by economic status or religious affiliation. St. Francis the school is VERY white. My church growing up was super white. Jesus with the amazing abs was super white (that part of the story is true! One of my first crushes was on a sculpture of super buff Jesus.) We were two hours north of New York City, but it was so white and Christian. Even as a kid, I remember how strange I thought that was.
I do feel the need to say that one thing I didn’t want to do in the book was make religion or Catholic school the villain. Rather, I wanted to show that there are good people and crappy people everywhere. Sister Clara was super sweet to Amanda when she realized she was struggling, while Ms. Miller—who never actually became a nun and had a big chip on her shoulder about it—acted as bad, if not worse, than some of the kids.
No school is perfect, so I made sure to have some annoying jerk-faces at public school portrayed taunting Nate, and to have both Darren and Jess reference how horrible people had been when Darren transitioned. So perhaps it’s not about private vs. public school in my mind, but more about a limited size group versus a larger pool of potentially awesome people. Also, I was super against any dress code that didn’t let me wear hot-pink mesh.
Crenshaw: Colleen’s right about finding your people and the need to be exposed to different walks of life. Public school can be just as insular and prejudiced. I always attended public school, but my high school was an arts magnet, with students who actually had a passion for something. The environment was so different. It was the first time I was surrounded by people who wanted to learn as much as I did. It was also where students could openly be who they were. It was the first time I was around people who exploited gender boundaries, and where the “Best Couple” in the yearbook could be gay. Everyone was experimenting, and I can’t think of a better atmosphere for learning!
Paste: Could you describe a memorable kiss or kisses? Did any of your experiences make it into the book?
Crenshaw: Colleen sent me a pic of a passionate kiss between Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg during a Saturday Night Live skit, and every kiss I drew sought to achieve that level of enthusiasm. (It’s also the reference for kiss #3.) In general, I used great on-screen kisses as reference, kisses that get your blood pumping, kisses that ooze with chemistry. Kissing in real life is weird-looking and sloppy—even the good ones!—and I wanted to show what good kissing FEELS like.
Venable: Haha, sending Ellen kiss reference photos was one of my favorite things! Only my bad kissing experiences went into the book. Like the guy that wets her entire face somehow and the guy that liked to put his tongue between Amanda’s teeth and upper lip. The wet face happened when I was 14, so that’s excusable, but the weirdo I dated who thought teeth licking was funny was when I was in my late 20s. So yeeeah. I guess some bad kissers never outgrow it! I also remember the day my friend Joanna told me that it was super weird that I kept my arms stiffly by my side when I kissed my boyfriend in the hallway, which led to me being obsessed with figuring out the proper thing to do with your arms/hands while you kissed. One memorable kiss that didn’t make the book was the first time I was French-kissed and I panicked and bit their tongue. Um…pretty hard. Not my finest moment.
Paste: Ellen, I feel like you have a real thing for drawing hair. Discuss?
Crenshaw: Ha! Hair is an opportunity to depict a character’s mood and animation so I treat it like a movable appendage, like horses’ ears or a cat’s tail. My hair is virtually an independent entity with its own whims and moods—I guess that experience transfers to the page!
Paste: How much back and forth did y’all have about character design?
Venable: Ellen basically nailed the character designs for 90% of them in her very first audition sketch. I think the only note we had was to make both Cat more crushable and Adam a bit more confident. That might have been the point I realized how easily we vibed creatively because the very next sketch she sent was perfect.
Crenshaw: I remember that Cat was a bit too vampy in the first draft. And she was! I was encouraged to age her down, and I’m extremely partial to the new design. We also had a little back-and-forth about Mads because in the first draft she seemed too meek. I needed to prove that she could be vibrant and brash and emotional, so I drummed up a few sketches showing her being more expressive and everyone felt good about proceeding with her design. It still took me maybe a quarter of the book to really settle in with the characters, and I still had a cheat sheet I used to remind me which side they parted their hair, how many bracelets Cat wore, how the buttons lay on Sal’s vest.
Paste: Any major disagreements during the drawing part of the book?
Venable: I can’t remember any. That’s actually sorta unheard of! Maybe I just blocked it out? Ellen do you remember any? After seeing Ellen’s first few pages I actually took out a massive amount of text, including removing nearly all of Mads’ thought balloons. I realized it was totally unnecessary because you could just SEE how she was feeling. So it was probably the opposite of disagreements. Every page that came in made me trust Ellen more and made me want to get my writing up to the level of her art. Despite the final book still being super wordy—I blame my love of quick, witty dialogue—every pass I took out more words, and I’m so glad my editors allowed me to constantly cut as we went along. Thanks, Calista and Carol and Aimee! (Three kick-ass women who all helped edit the book.)
Crenshaw: Colleen’s making me cry. She’s right, we didn’t have any major disagreements. She and the editors have excellent taste and judgment and it was clear to me that whatever revisions they wanted only made the book better. There was one instance in which part of a scene was going to be cut. (I think Colleen suggested it to make my life easier!) But I had drawn it already, and I lobbied to keep it. There was an exchange between Sister Clara and Killer Miller, whom we don’t normally see, and even though it wasn’t integral to the plot I thought it was valuable to have that moment. We didn’t even argue—I made my case, and everyone else said okay!
What led each of you to comics?
Crenshaw: When I was a kid, my dad and I would read the daily funnies together every day after he got home from work. My Calvin and Hobbes collection, Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons, was warped and curled from countless rereads. I was obsessed with Saturday morning reruns of old Warner Bros cartoons, then shows like Tiny Toons and Animaniacs, and I was convinced I would be an animator when I grew up. But I never practiced animation—I made comic books with my friends. I did my middle school newspaper’s first serialized comic. My high school thesis was comics. In college I joined the Boston Comics Roundtable, a community of comics creators, and through them published my work for the first time. It’s like it was never a decision I made to do, but something I realized I’d always done.
Venable: I was also obsessed with the comics page, and then as I got older I lost my mind for the webcomics movement. In college I focused on playwriting, and had a few very small things produced afterwards, but after the first real paying gig I had got covered in a snowstorm and most audience members didn’t show, I started to think more about how playwriting and comics writing was so similar. From visual gags, to being able to break the fourth wall, to having a strong contrast between what is being said and what the reader is seeing. I started a webcomic in 2004, and the more I went to indie comics shows and met people, the more I loved the genre. I also often say that the secret to true happiness is finding people you can collaborate with and to make a comic it takes so many people. Not just artist and illustrator, but editors, designers, letterers, colorists. And man, it’s great to be part of the revolution of women making comics. The comics world just keeps getting better, and the amazing quality of books makes me so proud to be part of this world.