While 2021 started off looking pretty much like a re-run of 2020, one bright spark has been ORCS! – Christine Larsen’s entertaining new all-ages series with BOOM! Studios’ Kaboom! imprint. The series, which began in February, stars an oddball cast of, well, Orcs, as a series of misadventures lead them into a bigger journey…and more misadventure.
The Beat‘s Dean Simons had a conversation with Christine Larsen about how ORCS! came to be, her process, and just trying to get the darn thing done during a global pandemic.
Dean Simons: How’s it going with the series at the moment?
Christine Larsen: Good! I am coloring the fifth issue so I’m almost done. Almost done with them all.
Simons: How did the series come about?
Larsen: I was working for BOOM! and I was doing a lot of stuff for Whitney Leopard, who is with Random House Kids now but at the time she was with BOOM!. She asked me to pitch something. I had done a couple of zines with those characters already and planned on maybe doing a webcomic with them but I figured ‘Why not? They asked.’ The worst they could say is ‘No’ – and they said ‘Yes!’ So there you go.
I pitched it as a monthly and then they picked it up as a graphic novel series for three books. After COVID happened they were like ‘Would you want to release it monthly, starting with this first graphic novel?’ So these first six issues are the first graphic novel.
Simons: I noticed the page counts were quite substantial – larger than the average floppy – 32 pages.
Larsen: Yeah, which I was totally fine with. Personally, floppies seem much shorter now compared to when I was younger. I don’t know if that is just perception, or how I read, or if they actually are.
I’m a big Head Lopper fan and Andrew [MacLean] puts out a 42-page floppy every couple of months so it’s not a bad page count. I think it is a nice chunk of book, especially if you are dealing with a continuous story rather than an issue-by-issue story.
Simons: As a reader that is great but it must be a lot of work on your part.
Larsen: Yeah, I know [laughs] and I’m here doing it. In terms of doing a graphic novel this way, it is nice to chunk it into 30-page issues because I feel like it is going faster. At this point I only have thirty-something pages left to finish [the first book]. It feels good. It’s the home stretch.
Simons: You said you had already written a couple zines? Was ORCS! something lingering in your sketchbook?
Larsen: I self-published two full zines [featuring the characters, in 2016]. I had about 40 pages of material written already. I rewrote most of that.
The first zine – a big chunk of that – is in the first issue. I have the group going out on an adventure and when they get back the story starts. I felt that was a good way to introduce you to everybody.
Simons: Was ORCS! always envisaged as an all-ages series?
Larsen: Yeah. When I wrote it, I wanted something not necessarily for kids but that would be accessible to children. At the end of the day, I wanted it to be accessible to a middle grade audience. 12-and-up kind of deal. Goonies. I wanted it to be like Goonies. That was one of my favourite movies growing up.
Simons: With the zine, when you did it, was it always all-ages in approach? Often in zines you can do anything you want.
Larsen: I do plenty of stuff that has. Unicorn Fight Squad has cursing, they drink, and they do drugs.
[With the ORCS! zine, I] was definitely trying to keep it like ’80s kids movies, which I think is a different animal than modern kids movies. There is no swearing. There is no nudity. I don’t have to draw boobs on everything. I was trying to keep it so that it would be read by the broadest audience.
I’m a kid of the ’80s. All those movies. Legend, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, Monster Squad, Goonies…It bleeds itself into your work whether you want it to or not.
Simons: I notice that you have no cliched gender roles in ORCS!
Larsen: I did my best to evenly distribute all the character roles as well as I could. I have to always make sure that I am not making an all-woman cast. My default is “I just want to design these female characters” so I definitely went back and was like “No, we need some guys in there”. I never think about that stuff. Especially as the Orcs don’t have a very gender conforming appearance. People confuse Drod for a male Orc and she’s not. She’s a woman. I didn’t pigeonhole myself like that.
I think that is also me bouncing back against growing up with fantasy [where] all the characters are male. When you are a kid and you imagine yourself into the plot, I would always imagine a female version of those male characters so that is what I feel I am really doing with the book: making a female version of those male characters.
Simons: With the story, did you go in with any objectives?
Larsen: I feel like so much I really do is on instinct. I think I wanted to make a fantasy story that I wanted to see as a kid, at the end of the day. So much I think of what I saw felt derivative of everything else I saw, and I feel I am pulling from so many different sources – whether it is folklore or pop culture or gaming. I think bringing that all together becomes its own new thing.
I don’t have goals in my life, let alone goals in my particular book but I feel I did want to do a story about people overcoming and achieving something great but not necessarily because they set out to do it. Just because they refused to give up – if that makes sense.
Simons: It is quite the marathon doing just one graphic novel and you are contracted for three as well. Was that a professional goal that you wanted to pursue?
Larsen: I wanna knock out a bunch of books before I’m dead, yeah sure.
Larsen: I’m getting to the point where I am either going to do this now or I am never going to be able to do it. Just physically. There is a point where you are just not going to be able to do that much work in the period of time you need to be able to do it.
Simons: The colour work: You take on a different style with the interiors than on the covers. Was that deliberate?
Larsen: Those covers are actually physically painted. I like painting. The actual pages are also all hand-inked. I would paint the insides too but I don’t have that kind of time. It takes too long. A cover takes me four days.
Simons: You have multiple narrative threads with different characters throughout the series. How do you balance it all?
Larsen: Many characters to me seem like the same problem as a single character. You set bench posts for everything. You are just getting everyone from point A to point B. It is really like dragging the kids along on the road. You just need to get them to the next plot point. I just write it out and then I see how it feels and then I go back over and rewrite it again – that’s the best way I can say I balance stuff. Trying not to forget anybody but also realising that some people have to fall back for a little while during certain parts while other people will come forward at different parts. We’ll see. We’ll see how I balance people by the end.
Simons: Did you approach writing ORCS! in a similar manner to a film script by plotting out the background information for your characters before you started?
Larsen: I have lots of notes on who everyone is. One day I will put them together, it might be a cool book by itself. It is [currently] Post-Its all over my studio. Even if someone has a brief history written out in a paragraph and a half, I know [about] each member of that tribe – where they come from, who their parents were, and why they were there. It helps you understand that character when you put them into context.
Simons: How did you define the way the characters looked in ORCS!?
Larsen: I go very much on instinct at this point. They are all creatures at the end of the day. I find a good shape – like a general shape – and I build them into the shape. I redraw them a couple times to make sure [I know them] – you can’t draw it once, otherwise it is going to be a fluke. I redraw them a couple times and they just normalise themselves into their final form.
Simons: Did you grow up with a passion for the fantasy genre in general?
Larsen: I love the fantasy genre, but the thing I love about the fantasy genre is thinking about all those aspects of the books and stories that don’t get explored. I love all the henchmen, and I love all the villains, and I love all the guys that show up just for a minute and are just disposable people.
I am always more interested in the disposable people than I have been in the main character’s story. That is where my interests always lie. What is their story over there? – as opposed to the main guys.
Simons: I have noticed with your prior professional work, most of the time you have worked with a writer.
Larsen: Yeah. I only started writing for myself six or seven years ago. I didn’t come into comics until I was in my twenties anyway. I started as just an illustrator and then I started illustrating comics for people. I like working with writers because it takes so much off your shoulders. It is also nice because when I was doing my own self-published stuff, I could just do whatever and it didn’t matter. I always had this other job and I could just go off and go ham. I like working with writers. Writing is hard.
I have no preference one way or the other. I like writing for myself only because I get to do things – layout-wise – that writers don’t think about so much.
Simons: Is there a huge difference in your process?
Larsen: My process is the same. I would say that, in terms of writing, my process is maybe belabored by the fact that I draw – because I will draw my script out. I don’t sit and write it out. I will outline it and then I will go through and thumbnail the whole script top to bottom and then my second draft would be more thumbnails on top of that.
Simons: And that is the same process when you work with a writer?
Larsen: When a writer gives you a script, you are making thumbnails off the script. You do your breakdowns and you do your layouts. I just don’t get a script [when writing for myself]. I write on one side [of a page], I do thumbnails on the other side and I’m doing dialogue. That’s how I did the whole book.
Simons: So you originally started in illustration and then turned to comics?
Larsen: I wanted to draw…And make money…Comics is a terrible idea for that, I don’t know why I went into comics. [Laughs]
I just wanted to make my bones drawing and had a hard time in college. When I was [graduating] in 2004 the illustration scene back then was very like…Juxtapoz. [It] ran very counter to the stuff that I wanted to do. I was just taking every job I could and I really liked the comics work I was doing so I started to focus on that and learn more about it. Next thing you know you’re a cartoonist and you didn’t even see it coming.
Simons: How did you arrive at BOOM!?
Larsen: BOOM! found me. Remember when Tumblr was a thing? That became a thing right before my son was born, that was when I started writing my own stuff. I posted a bunch of stuff on Tumblr and that was when Whitney contacted me. I wrote a couple of Adventure Time stories, and a Regular Show thing and something for Uncle Grandpa. From there she asked me to pitch anything and I was like ‘Here’s this thing I have and I’ve had it forever.’ I was so nervous. It took me three months to work up the nerve to pitch it.
Simons: How quickly did they respond?
Larsen: I had gotten By Night [with John Allison] by the time I heard about ORCS!. I signed the contract to ORCS! while I was working on By Night.
Simons: How far did you have to work in advance before the first issue landed?
Larsen: I think I had three issues bagged before that first issue landed but COVID was weird. I had a lot of down months between getting stuff done. I have a five-year-old. I teach. It’s just one class but you would be surprised how much that eats up your time. I got those first three issues done real slow. Finally I’m back into a groove. He’s back to in-person learning. He’s at school right now. I can get more done in a day and have a normal work week again.
It takes me six to eight weeks from start to finish.
Simons: Per issue?
It doesn’t work out that clean because I pencil them, then I ink them, and then I color them.
I pencil by hand and then I scan it in, blow it up, and print it on board.
Simons: Where you are teaching, is that your alma mater?
Larsen: It is! The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. It’s a great circle of life that they are paying off the loans that I have accrued at that school. I’m almost done too.
Simons: Have your students seen ORCS! yet?
Larsen: Yes. I’ve had students – especially as I have been teaching for a while – they emailed me “It’s OUT”, I’m like “I know it’s out”, and they’re like “Aaaaah!” They’re so cute.
I have been working in the industry for a long time – like a lot of people. I feel like a lot of people are in the industry for a long time before they see their first book. It’s exciting on my end.
It’s such a supportive community here in Philadelphia.
Simons: How do you keep yourself motivated?
Larsen: [Laughs] Naps! No – I’m….I really do love drawing. I really do.
Sometimes it does feel like a slog getting through a book because you think about how much you have to do and you’re like ‘Ugh’. What I really try to do is break it down into small chunks as [much as] possible and just think about it day-to-day. I like drawing.
My biggest thing is less staying motivated and more staying on course. I’m like a squirrel where I’m like “Ooh! I wanna draw some kind of crazy cosmic horror!” or “I wanna draw some kind of weird psychedelic drug trip comic” and then “Oh, I guess I’ve been doing this forever, so I guess I should get back to that.” It’s more pinning myself down and making myself focus, that’s always been my biggest thing. I just set timers and little reminders throughout the day; and try to focus on one thing at a time.
Also freaking out over deadlines really helps. I feel like deadlines focus me in a way. Doing personal work takes longer unless I have a deadline, certainly.
Simons: Must be hard working from home at the moment because of endless distractions and trying to focus on the book.
Larsen: There are certain things I can totally do with people in the house. I could ink with people in the house. I could ink if I was sick. Inking and coloring are just the work. But when I have to write, I can’t have anyone home.
I have told my husband – there were some weekends I’ve had to rewrite something – ‘You’ve got to take [our son] and you’ve both got to leave. I don’t care where you go, if you just drive for six hours, but you’ve got to leave the house so I can think for a minute.’ [Laughs] My husband’s awesome. He’s dealt with me for years; he’s used to me.
Simons: Do you have a particular place you like to go when you are plotting and writing?
Larsen: This studio. I’ve got a whole room for it. I just sit at my desk and blast the doomiest doom music I can and just sit in the world for a minute. I quit smoking so that’s been rough, because smoking has been a part of my writing process. I would go out for a cigarette and you are just staring into the middle distance just thinking it through while you are having a cigarette. Now I make tea so…. [Laugh]
Simons: I noticed that your panels tend to have very little blank space. You do backgrounds, which is somewhat unusual these days.
Larsen: I love doing backgrounds. I’ve never hated doing backgrounds. I was one of those very annoying kids in class that did a full background behind the characters and everyone was like ‘Why did you draw all that?’ and I was like ‘Why didn’t you?’
I like context for things. I love pulling us back to see a whole bunch of shit. The background’s a character. It’s part of the story. I feel like backgrounds do, even if its just a little bit, they do as much to tell the story as any amount of words you put on the page.
I wanted to make sure that everything looks full, and lived in, and not something out of an IKEA catalogue. That’s my biggest goal with the background: that its not an IKEA catalogue background.
Simons: Wrapping this up, for someone reading the book. When they finish the series what do you hope will be the first thing for them to think?
Larsen: [One of] Two things. I hope if you liked it you’d think “Whaaaat” because there is a big reveal at the end. I want the reveal to be like you read it and you like [slams book on the ground]. Like that. [Laughs] Or utterly hate it.
I think you either want to be on board 100% or be like ‘This is bullshit, why would this even be printed?’. I don’t what ‘Meh’. I want either that is the weirdest thing you ever read and you never want to read it again, or it’s the weirdest thing you ever read and you want more of that. And also throw down the book. [Laughs]
ORCS! #3 is out now from all fine comic book stores.