20 on the 20th — An Interview with T. Campbell

Sorry for the brief hiatus, folks! Every piece of technology I brought with me on vacation died within 3 days of each other. :(. Thankfully, T. was totally awesome about that. Go Penny and Aggie!

1. I first encountered your work via Penny and Aggie and Cool Cat Studio. One of the things I’ve noticed throughout the series you’ve been involved in has been that you have consistently awesome characters, particularly female ones. Where do you draw your inspiration for these characters?

I appreciate your enthusiasm, but if I start thinking of myself as “consistently awesome” then it’s likely I’ll soon become the opposite of that. Still, inspiration is easy, I think, so long as you train yourself to look for it. I might base a character on a friend or a real-life person. Very often, though, I’ll begin with an archetype and start working at them until they’ve got specific reasons to conform to their type, ways in which they diverge, et cetera. I suppose you could say I start with bad characters and work until they are less bad.


2. Do you begin your drafting with the character or with the plot?

With new series, I begin with the series concept. What is the story about? Fans is about science fiction, Rip and Teri about male-female relations, Penny and Aggie about teenage girlhood. Refine the concept until you’ve got an elevator pitch, which will give you a springboard for the series’ main, overall plot. Then switch to character development. Once the main characters are figured out, they’ll suggest shorter plots, which suggest new characters, and so on back and forth from there.

3. Have you ever been surprised by a new character or the evolution of a main character?

Well, constantly. The best examples are probably Alisin Worthington and Karen Duvall,  who were supposed to be throwaway characters that didn’t last beyond one story, and Shanna Cochran, whose role wasn’t supposed to expand beyond “the girl who reminds the geeks that they are geeks.”

4. How does this process work with beginning with character archetypes?

fans02The elevator pitch for Fans is “science fiction geeks have real science fiction adventures.” My early character notes followed from that pretty logically– even stereotypically, based on fan culture as it was ten years ago. “Okay, we’ve got the hacker, the cosplayer, the comics artist, the SCA girl, the idealistic leader and the token non-fan. And maybe a Goth.” Only then did we start adding the things that really made the characters interesting. Likewise, the basic idea of Penny and Aggie is “the prom queen and the class weirdo fight,” although it didn’t take us long to get bored with that “Tom and Jerry” relationship and start fooling around with it.
The advantage of this approach is that it makes the series easy to explain to people. They feel as if they know the characters already. The disadvantage is that the work sometimes gives the impression of being more poorly thought-out than it actually is. I’m gambling that we can hold their attention until we can say, “…but it’s so much more!”

5. You’ve worked with many artists over the years — how have their various drawing styles impacted your narrative style?

Jason Waltrip’s emphasis on clarity was a big help to me in the early days, because I am ambitious and sometimes that can make my stories unclear. Gisele Lagace’s sensuality allowed me to approach the topic of sex much more openly than I had in the past. Amy Mebberson’s energy let me flex my own penchant for exaggeration. I could give you dozens more examples, but the bottom line is that I’m blessed to have worked with so much talent. They’ve enhanced my strengths and compensated for my weaknesses. I’ve tried my best to do the same for them.

6. What are some of the challenges and benefits of long-distance collaboration?

It gets easier and easier to collaborate over long distances. I’ve worked with artists on four continents now.

The biggest challenge is that if you’re not careful, you can sometimes let issues that aren’t part of the immediate conversation fester. This is a problem in any collaboration, but more of one long-distance.

7. How do you combine your creative vision with that of your co-author/artist?
We take turns and I get to go first. I come up with a script, they draw it, then I see their drawings and those influence the next script.

8. I find the guest strips of P&A especially intriguing – why did you decide to do those particular stories as guest strips?
In general, when we do guest-art runs (which isn’t always entirely within our control), we look for alternative viewpoints to match the artists’ styles. So when we got Amy Mebberson, we showed a cleaner, more innocent side of our series’ villain. Randy Milholland is good at seeing ugliness and frustration, so with him we could explore the “omega wolves” of high school more believably.

9. It seems like you’re attempting to explore the entire ecosystem of a large high school. What cliques are you and Gisele planning to explore next?
We’ve already started to move in this direction. Penny and Aggie’s rivalry has subsided considerably, and the barriers that once divided their respective cliques are being swept away. That gives the members of their groups the opportunity to form new friendships. They might end up a superclique or they might end up as a community.

10. How do you handle the pacing of storylines? I noticed the the P&A forum-folk expressed a great deal of frustration with storylines like “Minjung” and “Dinner for Six“-at that time, you said that you wrote for the archives. How does that process impact your writing style?

The most obvious answer is that it makes things more complicated. My series tend to have more characters and longer-running plots than average, sometimes by a wide margin. There are always key moments that I’m trying to get to, some of them months or even years in the future.

Balancing short-term needs and long-term needs is tricky, especially since I think the webcomics audience’s attention span has shortened. I’m here for the audience, so I have to allow for that. But I’m a planner by nature.

11. You’ve mentioned that you have P&A plotted out far in advance, but that you’ve allowed particular elements (like younger sibs, etc) drop out at various points along the way. What factors impact these kinds of narrative evolution?ccs_top_logo_blue2

Divergences from the Grand Plan often happen either for spur-of-the-moment reasons, as a response to criticism, or from gut instinct. I felt guilty that I wasn’t writing any strips for Penny’s younger brother or Rikk’s younger sister, but I finally decided my subconscious was telling me that those characters shouldn’t exist. “The Popsicle War” was a big story with a lot of goals, but one of them was to redistribute the story attention so that Aggie got her share of the spotlight, per the readers’ requests.

12. Speaking of “The Popsicle War,” how closely do your fictive worlds match up with ours? “Popsicle War” seems to reflect growing trends towards Islamophobia seen since Barack Obama began running for President, and Fans! seems to sometimes grapple with issues related to organized religion and the institutional misuse of power.

Penny and Aggie matches up far more closely than Fans does. It’s set in Belleville, a fictional city, and sometimes creates fictional pop stars, but it’s essentially set in our world. (Mind you, every high school is different from every other.)  Fans’ world is a strange goulash of our world, various science-fictional ideas, and a “what if” exercise stemming from the earlier plots. “What if a science fiction club saved the world repeatedly and publicly?” What would that do to pop culture, young people’s career aspirations, and homeland security?

But all fiction, even when it’s set in the future, is a way for us to grapple with the problems of the present. Rikk, Rumy and Ally’s public triple marriage is unlike anything in our world, but not completely unlike. And the geeks are running the asylum in lots of ways that barely seemed imaginable when I was a kid. The rise of Rikk’s crew makes a good metaphor for that.

13. P&A has a huge, diverse cast — can you talk a little bit about character construction? How do you create an interesting character?

Basic creation is covered above, I think. I was an actor in high school, and I think that Marlon Brando Method of getting into characters’ heads, effectively becoming them, is the best way to make sure they’re interesting. If they’re interesting to a writer, there’s a good chance they’ll be interesting to other people. And all writers are interested in themselves.

14. How do you handle issues of sexuality with an underage cast?

I’m more interested in honesty than anything else. In Penny and Aggie‘s early development, we were writing for the newspaper market, which is very sexually conservative. But I felt more and more disingenuous, writing about teenagers who mysteriously had almost no interest in sex. I think that since “Behind Closed Doors,” our portrayal’s been reasonably good.

It’s not often that I feel dirty about it, even though I am an adult writing about teens’ sex lives. I think that’s due to the Method acting– I become the characters, and once I become, say, Michelle, it feels totally natural to get naked with Stan.

15. I didn’t know you were writing for newspapers! How and why did you transition to a webcomic?

Penny and Aggie was a webcomic first, but we designed it for a transition to newspapers and submitted to each syndicate regularly. One syndicate came very close to accepting us– there was one slot open and we came in second. Both of us, Giz particularly, had dreams of the audience that syndication could bring us. But while we tried to break in, we were forced to censor ourselves as if already in the paper, just so our material would remain saleable.

More than a year after our start, we made a conscious decision to stop making it a “webcomic/prospective newspaper comic” and treated it as a webcomic exclusively. “Behind Closed Doors” followed shortly thereafter.

16. Neat – I think for me, that’s the chapter where Cyndi really popped out a character. It seems like she, Karen, and the Injustice Gang are extremely sexual – was that their original storyline, or did you have a back-up “Popsicle War” for if you had been picked up by a newspaper syndicate?

We knew that Karen was going to do something big against Penny, something involving Meg, Samantha and Charlotte. That was about as far as we had gotten then. To my mind, the characters didn’t change too much when we changed focuses, but our ability to show them changed tremendously. Readers “get” Karen and Marshall in ways that they really couldn’t when we were holding back.
17. What was your high school experience like?

I was nerdy and stuttery, awkward and afraid, but it was still a vast improvement over my K-8 experience. Most of my classmates seemed to like me, or at least put up with me. Creativity was rewarded by both peers and faculty. Most of the teachers were great, too. Between putting on plays, the literary magazine, the Science Fiction Club and classes I enjoyed, there was a lot to love about it.

18. Is there a character in P&A with whom you most identify?

Duane, the shy bookish nerd who’s a little too obsessed with letters and accomplished in nerdy things no one else cares about. Who knows why?

19. Is there a particular character in P&A that you find exceptionally difficult to write?

The pets. So I usually don’t.

20. What webcomics do you follow, or particularly admire?

I used to read tons to stay current in my field. That list is slowly shrinking now, and there are a lot of ’em that I’m asking myself, “Why am I reading this, again?”

My favorites these days are Basic Instructions, Shortpacked, CRFH, anything by Kris Straub or Randy Milholland, Diesel Sweeties, Octopus Pie, Out There, Buck Godot, Girl Genius, Templar, Arizona, and xkcd.


  1. Karen Duvall says

    LOL! My google alert brought me here because it linked to my name, Karen Duvall. Who’d have thought I’d be a character in a comic book. Too funny.

  2. Patrick J McGraw says

    Penny and Aggie is one of the few webcomics that make me yell at the characters. That is a good thing.

  3. Michele Balsam says

    Penny and Aggie is my favourite webcomic, it makes mondays bearable. I started reading it when I was in high school but I can’t stop. It’s just so good. Every single character is so real. Ahhh love <3


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