Handknit Heroes: An Interview with Stephanie Bryant
All images courtesy of Stephanie Bryant, unless otherwise stated.
Miss T: Thanks for visiting the Mystery House, Stephanie! I love to open my living room to authors, and you’re up to something really interesting. A lot of people have already heard about Handknit Heroes, but for those who haven’t, what is it?
SB: It’s the first graphic novel (i.e.: comic book) for knitters. Basically, we have a group of teenaged superheroes and their mom. They all knit, they have superpowers, and they fight crime. Each issue features some cool knitwear, and the pattern for the garment is in included in the back of the comic. So, for a price comparable to a comic book or a knitting pattern, you get both in one.
Miss T: Why a knitting comic? What sparked the idea?
SB: I was at a knitting group night and we were talking about Wonder Woman wristbands and how much fun comic-related knitting is, and then I started thinking and the next thing I knew, I had a story idea and some characters and ideas for a kit…
Oh, and the graphic novel/comic book distinction is mainly because a graphic novel is a comic book, but a book of cartoons can *also* be a comic book (there’s a Venn diagram I could show you…). Handknit Heroes is, technically, not the first narrative-art book for knitters. That honor goes to Franklin Habit’s wonderful book It Itches, which came out in time for Christmas last year. But it is more graphic novel-esque in the size of the story we tell. Most people don’t consider it a graphic novel until the whole story arc is bound into a single, meaty paperback or hardback volume. I like to think of it as a graphic novel-sized story arc, told in 22-page installments.
Miss T: It was fun to watch the reactions of the women who were gathered at my favorite LYS for Friday knitting when your comic arrived. Some immediately thought it was cool, and about half the issues sold out in a heartbeat. Others sort of said, “Huh,”and turned back to looking at yarn, as if they couldn’t imagine why anybody would want a knitting comic. No middle ground. Are you finding that people either really get it or really don’t?
SB: That pretty much sums it up. Most people, at least in California, really “get it” and find it exciting. Those who say “huh” often need to be pointed to the cool knitting pattern in the back, and then they understand why it’s on the shelves at their shop. There really is something for everyone in it, and we have found it bridges gaps in generations and gender.
Miss T: The first issue of Handknit Heroes sets up the main characters. How did you develop them?
SB: Well, I wanted to play on some standard superhero things, and I wanted to touch on the “best girlfriend” energy. It’s something I had as a teenager, so it’s very familiar to me. I wanted a male superhero who also knits, because I believe in knitting parity. But in my social circles as a teen, although it wasn’t unusual to be friends with a boy, it was odd to be friends with a boy and have no romantic interest. If you’re interacting with boys and it’s social and you’re not related to each other, there’s going to be some kind of sexual/romantic undertone, if only because you’re teenagers and still learning how to interact with people of the opposite sex in any context.
So I decided, if I was going to have a boy in the team and two girls, that the boy and one of the girls should be related. I have always been amused by the Wonder Twins, and really any twin storyline where they never fight. I know there are twins who always get along. And they’re probably the rule rather than the exception. But I think all siblings should argue once in a while– it’s good practice for adulthood. I wanted my twins to be the kinds of siblings who don’t always get along.
Miss T: I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but of course I want to talk about the story. I love that the mom is up to something completely unmom-ish! Were you intentionally throwing a bone to those of us who are, ahem, the tiniest bit older than the other main characters and need reading glasses to see the text? Because it’s a very nice bone.
SB: Sort of. Jen (the mom) is named after my own sister, who is a single mom raising two kids (not twins, and nobody has told me if they have superpowers). Jen’s an integral part of the Handknit Heroes team. She’s not a bone for the “older crowd,” though I do hope women identify with her and like her. She’s a hero in her own right (any single mom raising 2 teenagers is a hero in my mind). Also, these mom-aged women– you know, they grew up on comic books, too!
As a reader, I personally have a hard time reading about child protagonists doing amazing things and saving the world if I don’t have someone my age in the story to give it some balance, to show it from my perspective. Jen is that perspective in Handknit Heroes— she gives those of us who are not teenagers the much needed reality check.
Miss T: Was this the first time you’d worked with an artist? What was that process like? Were there times when you had to make changes in the writing because of the visual demands of the story?
Oh, lord, yes. Thank goodness Marc Olivent is a professional, because I was a mess! This was the first time I’d worked with an artist. I had originally thought I would see if I could draw it myself, but I’m smart and quickly saw how long it would take me to develop the skills before I could even make a stab at it. I posted a job listing on a website and looked at portfolios, but Marc’s was the one I kept going back to and saying “THIS is what I want!” Right after we signed the cont
ract, I found a printing source that could do color very inexpensively, and literally within a few hours of agreeing on a price and schedule for black and white, I emailed Marc and said “so… what if we did this in color?”
SB: I wrote half of the script and had Marc start drawing, then went back and wrote the other half, which is not the right way to do things.
I wouldn’t say we made changes in the writing, though of course we did, so much as Marc correctly interpreted action scenes to flow beautifully. I tend to write a full scene with lots of action and then want to cram it into a single frame. It’s not possible. I have to think more like single flashes, still frames, and put those into the script. The first time he made a significant change to the script, though, he was so tentative and warned me about it and everything, but I’m pretty happy when he suggests ways to improve. He’s almost always right, because he really knows what he’s doing.
Probably the best part of working on this comic has been the people I’ve been able to work with. Marc and Erssie are both such professionals, they make me look good. I was so lucky to find Marc to do the artwork. Hiring Erssie Major was a similar moment of triumph.
I started out doing my own thing, to see what it would take to write a nice, easy scarf that was a bit more than a garter stitch scarf. I initially thought “it needs to be more, but we’re getting so close to the deadline, maybe I can skimp on it…” I ended up knitting this scarf which I hated. It just didn’t work, and I put my pattern guidelines up that day and posted to a designers’ group on Ravelry about it. I had a few queries, none that really wowed me, then Erssie responded. She did something that Marc had done that impressed me– she suggested some “best practices” that would help me not just right then, but in the future. She was always professional and direct while still projecting her individuality. She proposed this scarf, and we went back and forth to hammer out the design before she gave me a schedule and some sketches. I forwarded the sketch to Marc so he could include it in the story art, and then I waited. Erssie delivered her pattern and some working photographs on time and in perfect condition, and sent the knitted scarf to Marc for illustrations.
I couldn’t have asked for a better fit for our first issue, and the response we’ve had to the pattern has been just as positive as the response to the comic. People might be lukewarm about the comic, but then they see the scarf and say Wow!
Miss T: I have to say that the story seemed a bit short–just as I was really getting into it, it stopped! I was hoping for a complete yarn in the first issue; maybe that’s the writer in me. I want to see a story arc, blah blah blah. However, my resident comic book expert tells me that comics tend to be long, drawn out soap operas with the stories running from issue to issue. Was that tradition the reason for your decision?
SB: The problem with comic books is that the industry standard for comics is an arbitrary 22 pages of story. So, I have a few options. I can increase the length of the comic, but that costs time and money, in printing and postage, but more importantly in Marc’s time, which is one of the most valuable resources in our enterprise. I could tighten everything up to cram a lot into 22 pages– and leave people wondering what the heck happened to…? Or I can draw it out over several issues, which form a kind of episodic narrative. Most comic books go with the episodic narrative, and Handknit Heroes is no exception. I suppose we *could* have made the first issue into a single, less-involved, non-origins storyline, but I like suspense!
Miss T: I really liked that one of the characters wears the featured pattern in a scene, but I did wish that we could have seen it being made. Will we see knitting happening in future issues?
SB: Yes. Issue 2 starts in Jen’s yarn shop. There is a lot more knitting in Issue 2.
Miss T: Are you finding that feedback from readers is going to affect your work on the next issue?
SB: Absolutely. And why shouldn’t it? Why would I want to write stories that don’t appeal to our readers?
Here’s a good example of feedback and the creative process: An early script idea for Issue #2 started the storyline with Jen and another character interacting in Jen’s home. I later thought about starting Issue #2 in the yarn shop, and the two ideas bounced back and forth in my mind with varying weights. It didn’t take me more than a few hours at the TNNA conference for me to realize that starting it in the yarn shop would immediately anchor our readers and give them something to love right there on page 1.
People ask for some things that are already in the story as background, so they’ll probably think “oh, she took that from our feedback,” but not always. For example, Sue has always been a crocheter– it just didn’t get into the first issue’s script.
MissT: How and when did you learn to knit? At what point did knitting take over your life?
SB: My godmother taught me to crochet when I was a very small child, probably about 5 or 6 years old. And I re-learned when I was in college, around the same time an ex-boyfriend’s grandmother, who was completely blind, taught me the basics of knitting. I never really progressed with the knitting, though I had the old green Learn To book to fall back on when I finally decided to go for it.
Then, while I was still in college, my mother sent me a raw fleece from her pet sheep. I endeavored over the next 8 years or so to clean the fleece and learn to spin yarn. Eventually, I learned on a drop spindle at 8 in the morning, before I’d even had my coffee. I was ecstatic and ran around screaming “LOOK! I MADE YARN!!!”
What’s interesting about spinning, crochet, and knitting, is that when you spin from commercial roving, you often end up with just enough yarn to knit something (at least, I did, buying it in 2-8 oz. bunches or batts). And because crochet is a little more yarn-intensive, that means you have not-quite-enough yarn to finish a crocheted project. So, while my first spun yarns went into crocheted things like hats and cup sleeves, my later efforts started piling up as pretty balls of yarn. In essence, I learned to knit in self-defense. My first finished knitted object, which I still have, was a knitted kitty, finished in 2005.I gave it to my cat Alladin, who proceeded to viciously assault this lovingly hand-knit wool kitty… I video’ed the resulting carnage and posted it to my blog, making that the first videoblog I ever posted. Since I later went on to write Videoblogging for Dummies, I guess I owe all my recent successes are to wooly love.
I’ve since gone on to teach myself tatting, tablet weaving, and a little bit of tapestry weaving, which I’m still learning. Tatting is a great craft for people on the road, though– all of my tatting stuff can fit into a cigar box. When I went to Costa Rica last year, I brought only one project, a tatted doily, which I started on the way there and finished in the airport on the way home. The entire project, including pattern, shuttles, and thread, fit perfectly inside a coin purse.
Miss T: Taking a peek at your blog, I see that you live on the road. Where on the map are you at this very moment?
SB: Scotts Valley, California, in an RV park next to Seagate.
Miss T: Okay, I know I’d never get any writing done if I was riding around all day. I can see getting tons of ideas and making notes on the road, but not actually writing….how do you do it?
SB: We go sight-seeing and do our non-job stuff on weekends. During the week, both my husband and I work from home. My job is writing– it always has been. I pretty much do it the way I did in a stick-and-brick house: I wait to the last minute, then dash off something brilliant under deadline.
MIss T: So, did you have to buy an extra-jumbo motorhome in order to have room for your stash? I mean, it would be pretty darn hard not to buy yarn in every state you visit.
SB: I buy yarn everywhere, and yes, it’s a challenge to fit it all in. My Ravelry stash shows all my stash; currently none of it is in storage. I do list where I got it, so I can plot back and remember where I was when I bought it. I’m also an obsessive knitter, and when I finish a knitted gift, I don’t bother waiting for a special occasion, I just send it out right away so it doesn’t take much room. I have yet to knit two pairs of socks in the same place.
I also give away any yarn I don’t like, either through swaps or just donating to charity.
The big space-killers are the knitting books, because I can’t replace them. I am dying for some of the core classics– Barbara Walker, Elizabeth Zimmerman, and some of the design books– to come out on the Kindle! I’d love to get my magazines as Kindle e-books!
MIss T: Any room in a future issue for a character who’s a knitter of a certain age who might possibly have mysterious powers and who has the world’s cutest rat terrier as a sidekick? (It never hurts to check.)
SB: Send pictures of the rat terrier. We’ll talk.
Miss T: What’s up next for you?
SB: Issue #2! We have a fast development cycle on the new issue, plus a couple of cool projects in the pipeline that I can’t talk about yet. We’re still looking for a design for Issue #2, so if any of your readers have a great idea they’re working on that they think would be a good fit, point them to our guidelines and tell them to send us a proposal.
And speaking of guidelines and submissions, we have a Mask Design Contest we’re running this summer. It’s for a mask to be featured in the Fall issue, and it’ll be what our superhero wears in future issues of the comic. The deadline is June 15, and the criteria are that the mask should be knittable, wearable, and drawable (not necessarily in that order).
I’m also working on a couple of designs of my own, which is very exciting; at least two of them, if they work, will be offered as bonus patterns in the Handknit Heroes line. They’re not really good fits for the comic because of their difficulty lev
el and because I want Handknit Heroes to be a vehicle for other designers’ work for now. But they fit into the comic’s setting and characters really well , so we’re going to offer them as bonus patterns for knitters to enjoy.
Marc, Stephanie, and Stephanie’s husband John. Photo courtesy of Kim Werker.
I’m going to Stitches West as an attendee, which is exciting– it’s my first Stitches. We’re going to have a booth at TKGA (Portland, OR) and tentatively at Maker Faire in San Francisco, both in May. As I travel, I’m open to and planning at least one shop visit to meet and greet customers and help promote the comic in yarn shops that carry it. In October, I’m heading over to the UK where Marc and I will have a booth at the Knitting and Stitching show at Alexandra Palace in London.
All of our updates and announcements are posted to our Updates page, and are sent out by email to our opt-in email list, so when the cool stuff happens, you can check it out there to learn more.
Marc is also working on other comic book projects with other writers and on his own stories.
On a personal level, my first fiction sale goes live on Valentine’s Day at an erotic e-book publisher. It’s an erotica novella with vampires, and it’s really not for anyone under 18 or anyone who’s turned off by really graphic descriptions of sex and blood. The story, “Hunter,” came to me wanting to be written, and I did my best in writing it.
See, that’s one of the problems with creativity– as consumers, we often look down on some genres or types of writing (often ones primarily indulged in by women… but that’s a rant for another day), but the creator doesn’t always get to pick which stories come to them to be told. Sure, it’s up to me to decide if I’m up to the task, but ultimately, it’s a betrayal of creativity to dismiss an idea you have simply because it’s erotica, or fantasy, or romance, or a comic book. Once you have that idea, you have to do something with it.
That’s pretty much my answer to the common question of “where do you get your ideas,” too. I like Stephen King’s analogy. He describes his “muse” as the guy in the basement. There’s a guy living in the basement of his mind and every so often, the guy in the basement comes up, usually while King is out, and leaves something in the living room. An idea, an image, a widget, a thing– something that King finds there, sitting there and he can’t tell if it’s a gift, a trap, or a practical joke. The thing is like a complicated machine with no manual and no label telling you what it’s supposed to do. So King spends the next however-long playing with it and figuring out what it does and as he writes the manual for this thing, he writes its story. As a technical writer, this appeals to me greatly, and you’ll never find me appealing to my muse. It’s the guy in the basement, and if he doesn’t feel like working, it’s not like I can’t take some silly putty and string and try to come up with something that could stump him for a change!
Miss T: I’m quite familiar with the man in the basement! He lives at my house, too.
Best of luck to you with Handknit Heroes and all your other projects, Stephanie, and thanks for talking with me. Anybody who’s looking for a copy of the first issue can check out the list of yarn shops that carry it. (Here in the Twin Cities, I highly recommend you run over to the Double Ewe — as of this writing, I know she has a couple of copies left.) Or you can check the website for subscription information. I’m looking forward to the next issue!
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