Each week, Alex Lu is highlighting the work of some of the coolest illustrators of our generation. Know anyone who should be featured (including yourself)? Email email@example.com.
This Week: Cat Farris, alongside writer Pamela Ribon, has crafted the greatest love story of our time. If you thought The Shape of Water was surreal, wait until you read My Boyfriend is a Bear, Farris’ latest work about a 20-something girl named Nora who enters a relationship with an cuddly black bear. It’s a crazy concept, but it works thanks to Farris’ incredibly expressive animation-inspired art style and her dedication towards making every page as fun and visually experimental as possible.
Alex Lu: When you first started drawing, did you know that you wanted to draw comics for a living?
Cat Farris: Well, the funny thing about me is that I always loved drawing, but my parents basically were the kind of parents that were like, “Oh, well, there’s no future in art, so you need to have a real job, sweetheart.” I was going to be a veterinarian because my mom was a biologist and my dad was an orthopedic surgeon. I was like, “Oh, it would be cool. I’ll go to veterinary school, and I’ll become a vet because I love animals, and that’ll be great.” By the time I got to high school, I was taking some art classes. My art teacher was like, “Look, I’m not going to crush your dreams of being a veterinarian or anything, but I’m just saying, if you don’t go into art, you might regret it.” I was like, “Well, that’s great, but also, I don’t want to be a starving artist.” She told me about commercial art, like comics and animation.
Until then, I didn’t really process that people get paid to do stuff like that. I think my parents tried to keep me from finding out. I had assumed that because [drawing] was so fun, there was no way you could possibly get paid for it. So at that point, I decided to go to animation school because I thought I’d go work for Disney or Pixar and make a regular salary doing that at a studio. But by the time I graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design, the 2D animation houses were shutting down. Disney and Dreamworks were converting to full 3D at that point, and I had gone to school for traditional animation. My goal was to not spend my days in front of a computer. I was like, “I don’t want animate using Maya. I want to hand-draw stuff. That’s why I went to school.” So I spent a lot of time trying to find some beginner level work in traditional animation in Portland, where my family is from and where I spent most of my time growing up, but there just wasn’t anything that I could get into.
While I was looking for work though, I was hanging out at a place called Periscope Studio [now Helioscope]. They were doing comics. One of the people at the Studio…I think it might’ve been either Steve [Lieber] or Jeff [Parker]. They basically took me aside and said “look, you’re having trouble finding animation work, but you can draw. If you can draw, you can do comics.” I was like, “But I didn’t train to do comics.” They’re like, “It doesn’t matter. We can show you how to do it. It’s not complicated.” They took me under their wing and help me learn my way around comics. I just ended up transitioning from animation, which I never really got any professional work in, into comic books.
Lu: Woah, quite an arc. Were there any comics you were a fan of before you started drawing them?
Farris: I know. Yeah. It’s a weird long story. I did have a moment when I was 12 where I was in love with Jim Lee’s X-Men. I think I stumbled onto a floppy collection of his pinups and I was just so balled over by the art style. I got obsessed with X-Men, Generation X, Wolverine— especially Wolverine— so many Wolverine comics. Then after a while, I just lost interest in American stuff and got into high school and was taking Japanese. I ended up becoming interested in manga, so another end of the comic spectrum. Then I ended going to school for animation because I felt like that would be a better-paying job that was close enough.
Lu: Your animation and manga influences definitely come through in My Boyfriend is a Bear. I’m trying to imagine what the book would look like if you drew like Jim Lee.
Farris: Oh, my God. No, I think it’s good that I left that to Jim Lee. He’s got to be himself. I got to be myself. I think that was one of the other reasons that I ended up not thinking I could go into comics. I thought that you had to draw Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, or Jack Kirby in order to make it in comics. At the time, I had never been exposed to webcomics and I think, initially, when I was thinking about it, I was like, “I don’t want to draw realistically, so I can do animation because I love to cartoon things.”
But the longer I’ve been in the industry, the more I’ve realized that, especially now, there is a place for everybody and everyone’s art style. You don’t have to have a particular influence or look a particular way unless you’re maybe trying to get work specifically from DC or Marvel.
Lu: Yeah. To move into My Boyfriend is a Bear, what stage of production was the project in when you came on board?
Farris: It had been kicking around at Oni Press for a while before I got to it and it had had a previous artist that was unable to continue on the book, so they needed somebody else. Charlie Chu, who was in editorial at the time, wrote to me and was like, “Hey, Cat, I know you’ve done some little stuff for us. We really like your stuff. We think you’d be a good fit for this book. I want you to read the script and tell me what you think.”
So I read this script. Pamela’s writing is just so funny and so sweet, it was one of those things where I got 20 pages in, and I was already envisioning exactly how I was going to draw this book and what these characters were going to start to look like, and I started to panic because, in the email, Charlie had also said, ” we’re talking to some other people too, so get back to us as soon as you can.” I got 20 pages into the script, slammed my computer shut, and then immediately opened my computer again because I had to write Charlie an email. I was like, “Charlie, Charlie, I love this. What do you want me to do to have this book?” I ended up doing some test pages. I think I did the two-page sequence where she gets that It’s It! ice cream sandwich and shares it with a bear, who just eats it while she’s looking for a knife and a plate.
I sent that off to them and everyone really liked it. I was thrilled because, usually, at that point in my career, when I did test pages, I’d get the, oh, we’re sorry but it’s not really what we’re looking for. But this time, I got an email. It was like, “This is amazing. We love it. You’re hired.” I was like, “What?!”
Lu: You’ve been around the comics industry for a number of years now. I think we first met in 2015 or so? I’m honestly surprised that Bear seems to be the first book of yours that has everyone talking.
Farris: Yeah. Well, I mean, frankly, it’s basically what I consider my first book. I did the art for two out of the three Emily the Strange graphic novels for Dark Horse before I did this, but those get lost in the shuffle. I mean, I love Emily, and lots of people love Emily, but it definitely wasn’t anything that necessarily grabbed people’s attention so much. My Boyfriend is a Bear, though— just the title alone is getting people talking. It does really feel like this is technically my first published thing, even though it’s not really. It’s definitely my first creator-owned piece.
Lu: Sure. I mean, you also have a bunch of other stuff, right? You have your webcomic, Last Diplomat. You have the Bandette stuff.
Farris: Yeah, that’s true. I did a little three-page short for Bandette. I’ve been working on Last Diplomat for several years, like three years. I think this is probably the first thing that I’ve been a part of that’s really taken off. I mean, Bandette‘s taken off, but it’s not really mine. I just contributed one little thing to it.
Lu: But it’s partially yours!
Farris: In a little way. I feel like a little piece of Heloise is mine because she’s really sweet. I really love doing her story. Actually, that little three-page thing is part of what got me the job doing Bear. Charlie saw my work on that little short and was like, “Oh, my God, this is great, something like this.”
Lu: To go back to Bear, you’re right—the title is a total eye-catcher. When I first saw it last year I realized I needed it immediately.
Farris: I think a lot of people feel that way. I’ve been surprised and delighted by all the people who just see the title or see the cover image, and they’re like, “This looks so perfect. I love it.” The amount of messages I’ve received from people who were like, “Oh, my wife calls me her bear all the time…” People who are like, “I didn’t realize that someone was making a book about me. Cool.” I think there are a lot of people out there that were waiting for a book like this. I’m really excited that we finally get to bring it to these people.
Lu: Of course, on the other hand, I was looking at other interviews that you did for the book. I saw that the first question in one of them was like, “Are you pro-furry?”
Farris: You know what? I have zero problems with furries. I did a radio interview the other day where I may or may not have admitted to being way too into Disney’s Robin Hood, but I feel like everyone from our generation was way too into him.
Lu: I’m relatively certain you are not nearly the first person to say that about Robin Hood.
Farris: Yeah, exactly. I understand. I mean, I guess in some ways, our book is a little bit more complicated because, technically, it is a real bear, but it’s also a cartoon. I don’t know. I’ve definitely gotten a lot of questions where people are like, “Well, isn’t this gross? Aren’t you worried people will think this is weird?” I’m like, “You know what? Shape of Water did just win Best Picture, so I think we’re good here.”
Lu: That’s true. We’re definitely in a new world now.
Farris: Yeah. I mean, also, it’s a work of fiction. It’s a work of adorable fiction. There is a reason that they hired me to draw this book rather than basically anybody else— I didn’t mean that in some catty way. Let’s just bring out Jim Lee again because I love him, but they didn’t hire Jim Lee to draw this book because it would’ve come off totally wrong. It is kind of a touchy subject at the end of the day. It’s a girl who has a relationship with a real bear, so I think the way that you pull this story off is to make them as cartoony as possible and remind people that this is a fictional piece.
Lu: I think a big part of the reason why this book works, in addition to that cartoony escapist style, is that the bear is in a lot of ways is very endearing and very human. He’s very relatable looking in large part because of this expressive character design that you built for him. How did you go about designing the bear in a way that allows him to express his personality as well as the human characters?
Farris: That was a tough one for me. I feel like in some ways maybe I cheated myself a little bit. His design is so simple. I think I just tried to get as much body performance out of him as possible, which comes from my animation background.
I remember all my SCAD professors telling us, “Don’t rely on the face to get across emotions. You have to make your characters act with their whole body because, sometimes, we aren’t going to be able to show their face, or we’re going to need to see them on silhouette.” It just comes across better if the whole body is conveying the emotion, so I try to do that a lot with Bear. It is difficult. He’s a bear and he can’t necessarily express himself in the same way that Nora and her friends can.
Lu: Were there any books or animated movies that you looked towards while you were working on My Boyfriend is a Bear?
Farris: Let’s see. I think Bear is just a buildup of all of the influences that I’ve had over time, but I was looking specifically at this one French series of books called Ernest and Rebecca by Antonello Dalena and Guillaume Bianco. The style in that book is just incredible. It feels like looking at a comic book that’s an animated feature.
I looked a lot to that for some of my character designs because I feel like Antonello does a really good job of keeping it fluid and cartoony—but also every character—their body shape, their hairstyle, their clothing is just like an expressive part of their personality, and I tend to have trouble with that sometimes. I was like, “Oh, let me look at someone who’s doing it right and see if I can suck some of their magic out of these pages and borrow it for some strength while I’m doing Bear.”
Then, more generally, I was looking at Chris Sanders’ stuff, my studiomate Colleen Coover’s work, Hiromu Arakawa who does Fullmetal Alchemist…just random influences from my past coming together to create whatever the heck it is my style looks like.
Lu: Some of my favorite parts of this book are the listicle pages where you showcase everything the Bear has broken or all the douchebags Nora has dated. Were those already in the script when you came in?
Farris: Yes, those were pretty much as you see them— they were already there waiting for me. I think the “Douchebags I’ve Dated” spread went through probably the most revisions, but the rest of them just went through as they were. She definitely liked those things and I also loved them because it was a break from the storytelling. I love doing a cheeky aside.
Lu: Why did the “Douchebags I’ve Dated” spread go through so many changes?
Farris: Oh, man. Well, originally, it was supposed to look like a yearbook page, but I was having a lot of trouble laying it out that way. There just wasn’t enough space to do it the way that I think Pamela had been envisioning it. Then it was going to be like a scrapbook, but that didn’t work out either. Then it was maybe going to be like a “They’re Just Like Us” spread from People Magazine, but it ended still looking a little bit like a scrapbook.
Lu: I was honestly kind of surprised at how candid that spread got—and the book in general, really. I mean— “Spat directly on my vagina!”
Farris: Yes. Oh, man, I think if I’m remembering the person that went over…I went over a drawing with my brother. Every single one of the douchebags in the spread is based on the face of a friend of mine or my brother.
I put out a call on Facebook. I was like, “Hey, guys, I don’t want to get stuck drawing the same face. I want to have a variety of faces for this page because there are so many guys.” I didn’t want to blow it. I was like, “If you wouldn’t mind volunteering your likeness to be a douchebag on the spread of douchebags I have dated…I can’t promise that whatever gets slapped over your face won’t be offensive.” I got a really good response with all my brave friends volunteering their likenesses for this. My brother said that I could draw him on one condition: I had to alter his chin to make him look as douchey as possible. I gave him a giant butt chin.
That’s the blonde guy with the huge Jay Leno butt chin. That’s my brother, bless his heart.
Lu: It’s really cool how Bear afforded you the chance to play around with visual ideas that don’t necessarily directly fit into the narrative of the book. I love the Picasso-inspired drunk scene.
Farris: Oh, yeah! That was definitely one of my favorite things to do for the whole book. There are a lot of places that Pam just gave me free rein to play with things. I think, for that sequence, she had it in the script notes that as Nora gets drunker, things start to fraction and melt a little bit. Everything gets weirder and more abstract. I was like, “Okay. Okay. Cool.” A lot of that is suggested in the script, and I think I took it and went x10 with it.
I was like, “Why not? I’ve been that wasted before. I know what this looks like.”
Lu: What inspired the watercolor style for the bear’s hibernation sequence?
Farris: That came out of a discussion that I was having with Charlie pretty early on in the process. I knew that I wanted to do the book digitally, but it’s a bummer because that means you don’t have any original pages to sell. I was telling Charlie about that and he said, “Well, you know there is that part towards the end of the book where Nora goes one way, and the bear goes the other. The bear has these tiny little panels where he’s basically just in the same position, hibernating for panel after panel after panel, why don’t you do that as watercolors?”
I’ve done a little bit of watercolor work for Oni previously. They let me play around in The Sixth Gun universe, and I did little one-page watercolor stories with Sixth characters, so they knew that I was good for the watercolor part. I was like, “Charlie, that’s an excellent idea. That’ll give me a great break in the middle of the book to try something different and add to the whole I’m playing around with this experimentation thing.” That’s how that ended up being born.
I cleared it with everyone and I did a sample so that everyone could see what it was going to look like. I was basically like, “Warning, once I paint these, there’s not going to be much I can do to fix them, so get your grievances out now. Let me know what’s working and what’s not working before I do all of these so I don’t end up painting 30 paintings and have someone go, ‘Oh, no, but why is it purple.” But that didn’t happen. I painted the test script, and everyone was like, “this is gorgeous.” I got approval and just went ahead and did all of them in a couple of weeks, I think.
Lu: Was every one of those little strips running on the bottom of the pages, are they individual pages?
Farris: Most of them are, yeah. They’re like little strips of paper. Some of them are attached to each other. I think anyone who’s able to come out and see the gallery show is going to get to see the actual raw mess behind all of that because I just was going through them so fast. Some of them are nice and even. Some of them are just stacked next to each other. There’s places where I’m testing out palates right next to it, or sketches and notes and stuff. Some of them are nice and will look good in a frame. Others of them are just…if you love process, you’re going to love to see what they look like.
Lu: What are you working on now? Are you going back to The Last Diplomat?
Farris: I’m trying. I put it on hiatus for so long that it seems like…I don’t know. I’ve been trying to get that going again and would like to at least finish chapter four as soon as I possibly can.
I’ve also been just bouncing around, trying to pitch other stuff. None of it has gone through so far. I just finished some pitch art for a potential thing with a friend of mine that I’m looking forward to hopefully going somewhere, but I really haven’t had a particularly stable job since Bear ended. I was working on a pitch as Bear was finishing and I was like, “Cool, I’m setting up the groundwork for me to have a job to jump into right after,” but that fell apart, as is the nature of comics sometimes. So, yeah, it’s just been me bouncing around from small project to small project, and pitch to pitch, seeing what sticks.
Lu: Is there anything in particular that you would want to work on in the future?
Farris: I don’t know. I really enjoy working on creator-owned stuff. I hate writing, which is probably why The Last Diplomat has been stalled out for as long as it has. I ran out of things that I preplanned for myself. It’s a chore for me to sit down and have to think. I just want to draw. Yeah, I think maybe I’d like to get into doing more stuff where writers that I like want to write me something, and then I would be happy to draw the hell out of it.
Lu: That’s the open call right there.
Farris: Yes, totally. Yeah, if these pitches don’t work out, come and get me y’all.