I recently spoke with Emily McGovern, the writer and artist of Bloodlust and Bonnets, whose newest graphic novel Twelve Percent Dread is available now. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Sears: Your new book is very different in subject matter from Bloodlust and Bonnets in the way that it’s less silly and fantastical. Do you prefer to write siller, more fantastical stories or did you enjoy writing this more grounded story?
Emily McGovern: I’m lucky to be in the position of just writing whatever I want. Whatever ideas I have, I just turn into comics and people either buy into it or they don’t. For Bloodlust and Bonnets, it had followed on from a short comic I had made and when I was approached about doing a full-length graphic novel, I just thought there was more mileage in it. It was originally a four-page comic that I had written for a competition and I just felt like I had more to do with that kind of situation and those characters. I felt like I had more story to tell and I found those characters fun and the real high-octane silly, absurd stuff, I was really enjoying. Towards the end of that book, I started thinking about the next one. Not in any kind of deliberate way but ideas were coming to me that were more based in reality and something that was closer to my own life. And jokes and situations and characters were coming to me, and the Twelve Percent Dread story developed from that. So it wasn’t a deliberate shift, it was more to do with what ideas are coming to my head at any given moment and I had some things to say that were closer to my own reality, set in a recognizable modern world.
BS: The Katie character is loosely based on yourself, at least in the nannying storyline. Did you find it difficult to write a fictionalized version of yourself?
EM: Well, it’s not really a fictionalized version of myself, unless you think all the characters are fictionalized versions of myself because they’re all saying things that I’ve thought or made up. I think it’s more accurate to say that every character in Twelve Percent Dread says something I don’t necessarily believe, but something that has come into my head. Including characters like Jeremy or Michelle. I don’t think I’m like them but the jokes and stuff that I’ve put in their mouths are thoughts that have come into my head. I think you’re always sort of writing based on what you’re thinking since you can only know what’s going on in your own mind.
In terms of Katie’s situation, I was never in the position of having to share a room in London, though I had some friends that had to do so in Dublin and elsewhere. But after graduating, I did have trouble finding a “graduate job”, so I was nannying for a while; it was under the banner of tutoring, but it was effectively just homework enforcing.
BS: In that respect, in turning part of your life’s story into Katie’s, did you find it easier or more difficult to make jokes about that, or making Katie feel like a more fully-formed character?
EM: I do ultimately think of Katie as separate from me; the situation was inspired by my time as a nanny, and I found myself in funny situations. Just thinking about the interesting dynamic that happens when you’re in charge of a very small person that just happens to be a millionaire. The hierarchy of power is quite interesting, you’re sort of in this service role but a high-level service role. So I took those sorts of dynamics, as opposed to feeling like I was exposing myself, no more than in my previous book which was about psychic eagles and that sort of thing.
BS: For the record, I’d love a separate comic that’s just about the talking eagle from Bloodlust and Bonnets.
EM: [laughs] Yes, I do love it, but there’s a certain quality to a character that appears once every four episodes or so in a sitcom and says something hilarious and leaves again. You don’t want to over-do it.
BS: Twelve Percent Dread is also different from Bloodlust and Bonnets from a visual standpoint. You don’t use any color, and the structure of each page is so unique. Can you tell me a little about the decisions to structure it in the way you did?
EM: I think it’s all quite organic. I did spend a lot of time thinking about some visual aspects of the book. When it comes out, American readers will get a section at the end that shows how different it looked right at the start, where it had the big, four or six panels on each page. I think it was a combination of the way the horizontal panels reflect the text bubbles that we get on our phones, and the kind of 2010s aesthetics with the beveled edges of the panels. I wanted it to reflect that decade; I was writing this during the pandemic, and realized it was going to be a cut-off point between before and after, and this is very much a story from before. And also because that reflects the period of my life when I was in my twenties and living in London myself.
It’s also because my writing is made up of a lot of small moments. I think in a lot of traditional comics, they’re made with six panels or so per page and it’s a collaborative effort with many people, and you can’t just say to a colorist ‘oh, there’s going to be 20 panels on this page.’ It’s got to be a bit more standardized. But my comics tend to be made up of a lot of smaller moments of hesitation, and the rhythm of it has to be very important, so when someone is hesitating over a sentence, it’s very important to me that there be a separate panel while they stumble their way through a sentence, for instance. It kind of diverts from that, or watching a character process something in smaller moments. Some cartoonists really take that to a bigger extreme, where they’ll have a whole page of someone just having a thought, or having twenty or thirty panels of someone moving across a room.
BS: Those in-between moments really help to draw out the humor in a lot of situations.
EM: Yea, I have a friend who says that about my work. A lot of the humor comes from those pauses between things. You have to draw the pause, so it takes up space on the page. Visually, there’s a lot of other stuff that I tried to weave in. I was really focused on zeroes; there’s a lot of O’s and hoops and loops and things like that. There’s things that you don’t want to be too descriptive, but there’s some repetitive imagery that I tried to put in there, so it’ll be interesting to see if people are able to spot that.
BS: Do you read very many comics?
EM: I do. I was never really much of a “U.S.” comics person when I was growing up. I grew up in Belgium, so I would read a lot of Tintin and Asterix. They were my big ones, and I would be more familiar with that sort of Franco-Belgian style. I don’t really know much manga, but when I was in London, this very sweet young lady helped me buy my first manga comic. I do want to start reading more manga.
BS: Do you find that the comics that you read influence your writing style or your sense of humor?
EM: There were some books which had a huge influence on me, when I was a teenager, like the Sandman comics, especially the ones that were more artistically focused. So I really studied those, even before I was a comics artist, but I was really intrigued by the elasticity of the form. During lockdown I probably read Watchmen probably two or three times because there’s so much in there story-wise, and with the recurring imagery. Otherwise, I follow a lot of web comic artists on Instagram and Twitter. I try to follow as many as I can, and I really enjoy seeing someone who’s got a distinctive style. It inspires me when I see someone doing something really weird and different because it reminds you of how boundless the medium is.
BS: You can go into any comics shop and look at a lot of superhero-based comics and – while there are many that look great – they tend to look very similar. So when a comic like yours looks distinctive and unique, I’m already interested, regardless of the subject matter.
EM: Yea, obviously comic books and graphic novels are unlike textbooks, in that you can just pick it up and flip through it and get an idea of whether you’re interested or not. The mainstream comic that I really love in recent years is Saga. The artwork in that is just stunning and it pulls you in. It just has this vibrant quality which is so inviting. When I worked on Bloodlust and Bonnets, I worked with this colorist named Rebekah Rarely, and everybody tells me how great the color is in Bloodlust and Bonnets, and it’s because she did it. And whenever we had a doubt or a question, we would look at Saga, and look at how Fiona Staples did it. And I still do that sometimes if I have to color a comic, I’ll just look at what Fiona did.
BS: It feels like there’s so many comics and graphic novels that are being adapted into movies and TV shows and different properties today. Would you ever want to see your comics get adapted into a movie or TV show?
EM: For sure. I think I’ve said a few times that Twelve Percent Dread is my sort of sitcom. I’m a huge fan of sitcoms, and always have been. My style of writing is very much like that; it’s very joke-based and fast-paced, and I think this book would lend itself quite well to being a TV sitcom or something.
BS: The subject matter is definitely ripe for parody.
EM: My writing is very character-based, and that’s the heart of the sitcom, just characters bouncing off of each other.
BS: Do you think you’ll ever return to these characters? It feels like a collection of characters that could easily become a series.
EM: To be honest, it was really exhausting to make. It took about two years of constant work, and there are advantages to it, but when you work completely on your own it can be a little overwhelming. Obviously it’s nice because you have complete control, but I probably won’t in the immediate future. I have to take some time out, and I’m really enjoying just making shorter-form comics now, which is how I started out. It’s nice to just have a thought, write it down, and have it out within a week or so, and have people see it right after you come up with the idea, as opposed to spending months and months and thinking about it.
Twelve Percent Dread is available wherever books and comics are sold. Emily’s shop and Patreon can be found at www.EmilyMcGovern.com