Books about boys may win more awards than those about women, and they may be more likely to achieve commercial success, but that hasn’t stopped a growing number of comic writers from sketching crime-fighting heroines a la Wonder Woman and Jessica Jones.
Among those authors is Rich Tommaso, whose surreal series “She Wolf” debuted earlier this summer. His soft lines lend themselves to a dreamy, atmospheric and, as he puts it, “surreal” world where heroine Gabrielle copes with bodily changes and social exclusion after transforming into a werewolf.
Inspired by “The Exorcist,” Tommaso wanted to create a character who was possessed, and who had to live with the social consequences of possession. Throughout the series, Gabrielle commits unforgivable crimes, is shunned by her peers, and learns to develop new relationships with other supernatural women.
I spoke with Tommaso about horror tropes, women protagonists, and drawing violence that isn’t gratuitous.
So many horror movies feature men as the protagonist, and women as the love interest or sidekick. Why did you choose a teen girl protagonist?
Right off I’d have to say that the initial inspiration for my horror stories comes directly from the films “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist.” So, whenever I’m forming an idea for a horror story it’s usually concerning a young woman. Often I’m thinking of a way to do my version, so to speak, of those two brilliant films.
They’re so influential — even the first spark of the “She Wolf” idea was a story about demonic possession — specifically, about how a young girl turns “evil” on her 18th birthday — as viewed by her younger sister. But that story mirrored “Rosemary” and “Exorcist” too closely, so I altered the story’s subject to werewolves — something I’d always wanted to write about.
Unrealistic body types are somewhat of a staple of classic comics. How did you hope to work against that in this series?
I wanted most of the werewolf characters to have very elongated bodies. I immediately pictured the lanky figure drawings of Gustav Klimt, a painter who I’d always admired. I thought, “those body types would be perfect for werewolves,” whose human forms would bring to mind the werewolf forms they’d inevitably change into, later in the story. I studied those paintings and drawings — drew some copies of them — and soon came up with the two sisters in “She Wolf,” Gabrielle and Lizzie.
Obviously, this comic features some violence. What is your approach to drawing gore? What emotion do you hope the depiction of violence will evoke in the reader?
I use violence in many ways — mostly in Issue 1, it’s used to shake up Gabrielle, who’s suffering from nightmares as she’s trying to figure out just what the hell’s happening to her. It’s a way of introducing her to the harsh realities of adult life that lay ahead of her.
But I also use violence in a cartoony way — as seen in the big vampire/werewolf fight of Issue 2 — which I think is kind of funny, but also plays out as violent as you’d think a boxing match between those two monsters would play out. Of course, I also use violence to jar the reader, to make a deep impact, when necessary. Like any other ingredient, I find many uses for violence, beyond mere gory entertainment for the reader.
The same goes for nudity: how do you approach drawing nudity so that it’s artistic, not gratuitous?
My hope is that it’s natural for the most part, as simple as someone sleeping in the nude, for instance. Nudity is also a very classic, gothic component of the vampire/werewolf horror story. You’re dealing with changes in the human body — and the vampire and werewolf genre both are usually about people whose lustful appetites go beyond the average, boring status quo that exists around them. In the Red Riding Hood dream, nudity is used to shock Gabrielle into understanding just what kind of monster she’s changing into — one that has no remorse for people. Young or old, they’re all just meat to the werewolf, used to satiate their every appetite, sexual or otherwise.
“She Wolf #2” features themes of female friendship — why did you want to write about this type of relationship?
Gabrielle is completely shunned by her schoolmates for the death of her boyfriend, so I needed someone who’d be in her corner. The new girl in town was a perfect solution. Also, I needed a girl — very much like Gabrielle — who understood what she was going through. That was important. Many people have had the experience of being ostracized from a group at one point in their lives, and Nikki is that one person who stands by your side regardless of how the rest of the pack feels about you. Nikki is also a person who — apart from everyone else — will most likely remain Gabrielle’s close friend well after high school.
Which other badass comic book heroines do you enjoy or admire?
Maggie and Hopey from “Love And Rockets” were the first realistic characters I’d been introduced to in comics. The relationship between the two — and all of the things they’ve been through, their progression from teenagers to drop out 20-somethings, to confused young adults, to middle aged adults still trying to get their lives together is awe-inspiring comics magic.
Marlys and Maybonne have a special place in my heart as well. The mood, the emotions that are depicted in Lynda Barry’s strips of the ’80s and early ’90s resonate so deeply with me. They’re sometimes hard to define or list. It’s the little things, forgotten moments in adolescence, that I can strongly relate to on a personal level and that have been rarely recorded by any other cartoonist. Feelings of isolation, loneliness, self-hatred, and the need to escape one’s hometown in search of something new and different.