It’s the end of a softer world: An Interview with Emily Horne and Joey Comeau
In 2003, a three-panel web comic starring a black cat appeared online.
Thus was born A Softer World, a weekly web comic by Emily Horne and Joey Comeau. With three panel musings on love, life and loss through the lens of dark humour, absurdism and melancholy, it treaded upon content that was at once humorous and disturbing, often discomfiting in its stark portrayal of the multiple realities that post modernism allows.
Twelve years later, as A Softer World comes to a close, the creators join us in a discussion about the creative processes behind it, their book “Anatomy of Melancholy: The Best of A Softer World“, and of course, the beginning and “the end of the world”.
A Softer World is ending. Are you guys going on hiatus or is there something new in the works?
e: I think hiatus implies that we’re planning to bring ASW back, and that’s not the case: this is the end for this particular project! I’m sure both of us will keep doing creative projects of various kinds, and I hope we can still collaborate in the future, but we don’t have a specific plan right now. It’s all open!
j: The future is an undiscovered country!
Where did you two meet and how did you realise this was a thing you could do together?
e: Joey and I met in 2001, through our mutual friend Tim. Tim worked with Joey at the phone company and he went to university with me. He thought we would get along, and so one night he took me to a deserted mall food court at 4am, where Joey was on his lunch break. We did get along! I was dating someone else at the time, but shortly afterwards we broke up, Joey and I got together, and a few months later the bouncing non-human baby A Softer World was born!
What comes first, the photo or the text? Or the alt-text?
e: That’s worked in a bunch of different ways over the years. Back when I first lived in Victoria, in 2003, I didn’t have a computer, let alone a scanner (almost all of the photos on the site are on film, so they needed to be scanned). So I would go to the University, steal a friend’s login, and scan my photos in their computer lab. I made four or five at a time, which Joey would then make text for. Later on, we started with the text, and I would go through my archive of photos to find something to use. Alt text is usually last, but sometimes Joey comes up with a great one (or a great punchline) and we work backwards to figure out what the setup might be.
j: And sometimes a joke, or even just a panel text will be really appealing to us, but not enough for the meat of a comic. So we’ll keep it in mind to use as the alt text on a future strip. So we’ve had situations too, where we’ve just had the alt text, and thought “How do we make a comic this would be a good alt text to?” and worked backward from just that “afterthought.”
Art styles evolve for drawn webcomics over the years; has your snark style changed? Were the earlier comics funnier, sadder, more random, or vice versa? What did you start doing differently?
e: Joey can speak to the text, but visually, we tried a bunch of things in the early months that gradually left the comic. Like having massive, cutout babies added to the panels! We also made more comics that we constructed out of multiple photos at first. I remember the first time I just used a single photo without even zooming in (it’s this one) and it felt like something clicked!
j: As for the writing, I think brevity and flow are two aspects of the comic that evolved over time. Looking back over the early comics, sometimes I come across ideas that I would write totally differently now. I would use fewer words. I think we definitely came to realize, over the years, that more words don’t always make for a funnier joke. When you don’t spell everything out, people can fill in the gaps themselves. And filling in the gaps of implied information can be part of that fun dawning-on-you effect a good joke sometimes has.
Most of the comic on your site is divided into 3 panels. Can you describe how you narrativize the picture story within those 3 panels, as in, the progression from a fact to a conclusion/revelation?
j: I don’t think this is a question that can be properly answered with some kind of theory or process. The answer is the comics themselves. Go and read them, and you can see how each one does what you’re asking.
Can you give us an idea of how the pictures in a given comic juxtapose to form a unified idea, entwined with the text? As in, in what level do the picture and the text connect?
e: that depends on the comic! And, re: your earlier question, it depends on the way the comic was made. The connection between the text and the image is sometimes really literal, and sometimes less so. Often it’s clear that the person in the photo is thinking or saying the text, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s more about creating an atmosphere or feeling from the combination.
j: when writing a comic to go with already existing images, sometimes it would be an expression that sparked the joke, and in those cases the person can feel like the narrator, or the character in that strip. But sometimes it’s the feeling of the image that inspires the text – a loneliness or an optimism that the colors or the composition elicited and the joke would come from there. sometimes it was a rebelling against those feelings. a juxtaposition.
Your wikipedia page tells us that you originally published your comics through zines, before switching to the webcomic format. Was the reason for the switch because you wanted to reach out to a wider audience or because you felt the comics were suited better to the internet world?
e: When we switched from zines to online, we basically just wanted to make sure our friends in other cities could read the new stuff we were making. We weren’t really thinking about a larger audience at that point, but it did happen! The side benefit was that we could finally showcase colour photos, which wasn’t possible with our original photocopied zines. In terms of things only the internet can do, it took us a while to start using alt texts, but that’s a great thing that’s only really possible online. I don’t remember if we started doing it based on stealing the idea from other comics – Joey, do you know?
What were your formative influences growing up or in college? What do you remember reading, watching, staying up all night over?
e: I was big BIG into the X Files when it came out, which was when I was in junior high school. It made me fascinated by the supernatural (and sure, the odd conspiracy) for a good few years. Sometime around the age of 19 I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, and abruptly found that what scared me has switched from the supernatural to the terribly plausible. In university, I went to a posh little liberal arts college, so I’m sure I was a real pain in the ass, reading Judith Butler and Foucault and thinking that I got it.
j: One of the earliest things Emily and I bonded about was actually the X-Files and how obsessive we had both been about it as teenagers. I think there’s a lot of the X-Files in our work, for sure. In our desire for a world filled with strangeness and creatures and secret plans.
What parts of the Internet do you spend most time on? (What’s on your browser history now?)
e: dude as IF I do anything but obsessively refresh our kickstarter?! In the normal run of things, I’m a big RSS user (even though it’s totally dead or whatever) so I have a big list of news/food/design/comics pages whose updates I subscribe to. I also listen to a whole fuckton of podcasts – most of the time when I’m not doing something that requires 100% concentration, I’m listening to I Was There Too or Canadaland Commons or The Allusionist or The Gist etc etc etc
j: I watch a lot of chess videos lately. Chess masters will post videos of their games while they talk about their thought process in real time. It’s fascinating, helpful, and sort of … relaxing? I also play chess quite a lot. I find it helps me take my mind off whatever is going on in my life. While I’m playing the game, that’s all that exists for just a little while. That’s such a great resource to have, when dealing with life stress. I am not the best chess player, but I love it.
Whatever happened to Baby Doom?
e: this did:
If being in love is punk rock, what kind of music are you guys listening to these days?
e: The last 5 albums I added to my iTunes are:
Welcome to Miami by Slam Dunk (https://slamdunk.bandcamp.
Teen City by the Modernettes (Vancouver poppy-punk from 1980)
George Best by The Wedding Present (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance by Belle & Sebastian
Ratchet by Shamir (omg https://www.youtube.com/watch?
j: Oooh last 5 albums in iTunes!
The Front Bottoms – Talon of the Haw
John Prine – John Prine
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.
Mountain Goats – We Shall All be Healed
Iris Dement – My Life
What would you have spent the past more-than-decade doing if you weren’t making A Softer World?
e: ASW has been such a huge influence on my life, it’s hard to imagine where I’d be without it. One of the things working on an online project gives you is mobility – if I hadn’t had that, I might still be living in Victoria, which is the last place where I had a proper, grown-up day job. I would still be taking photographs, but it’s unlikely that anyone much would ever be looking at them.
j: Without A Softer World I don’t know where I would be! Maybe programming computers, still, working at Google, living the good life? Maybe I would have gone overseas and taught English in Korea, which had been my plan for a long time. I still might. I’m obsessed with Korean movies.
Could you tell us your plans for Anatomy of Melancholy: The Best of A Softer World? With just 5 days to go, you have already raised about 6 times the target amount. Does that mean more plans?
e: We had a whole pack of stretch goals! Lots of those went to making the book better. Now it’s gonna have a dust jacket, and lots more pages of comics, and all the physical copies will be signed by Joey and I. The most recent stretch goal that we hit says that we’ll put out 5 more comics on the website over the next year! So that should help a bit with the withdrawal.
Which webcomics would you recommend to someone having A Softer World withdrawal?
j: Dinosaur Comics has always been and always will be the comic that reads the most like a running narrative of the inside of my head. Very early on we made friends with Ryan North, the creator. His comic was so much like ours, in his sense of what was funny, what his VOICE sounded like. It’s not depressing or harsh the way we could be, and so sometimes his wonderful comic felt like looking in a mirror that showed us a better, brighter version of ourselves. Some others that have won my heart are: Nedroid, Fart Party, Gun Show, Kate or Die, Cat and Girl! (Cat and Girl forever!) – XKCD is another comic where I feel a really strong connection with not just the work, but the creator and his way of seeing the world. Where I see a reflection of myself in it. I guess that draws me to art, seeing my own feelings expressed in a way that would never occur to me. And, in closing, I love Dinosaur Comics.
e: Oh geez there are so many good comics out there! We both really love Nedroid, which has the sweetest and best depiction of friendship between two weirdos ever recorded. There’s a new comic called Jerkface A-Hole that’s about angsty teens dealing with Big Feelings, and it’s great! I will always love Julia Wertz’s work, she’s dry as fuck and draws a heck of a building. No seriously, her architecture backgrounds are always amazing.
Any ideas for the matching tattoos you’ll be getting?
e: oh there’s LOTS of ideas, but most of them are absurdly terrible. We haven’t decided what our ASW tattoos will be yet, but we’ve got some time to think about it, since we will get them together and we’re not in the same city right now!
For A Softer World withdrawal, visit the archives here.