With a week left in the Kickstarter campaign, Mark Bouchard and Shelby Criswell made their way to the Yeti Cave to discuss their new comic Leaf Peepers with Jimmy Gaspero. Mark and Shelby talk about their fresh take on horror, pacing, dealing with burnout, and their comedic influences.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Shelby, welcome to the Yeti Cave and Mark, welcome back! How have the two of you been doing?
MARK BOUCHARD: Hey! Things have been going alright. Would like the spring weather to finally stick, but I’m sure it will, eventually.
SHELBY CRISWELL: Hola. Recently I’ve been sitting in front of my fan dying because my A/C has been out (and I live in Texas,) but other than that I am doing well!
CBY: You are both here to talk about Leaf Peepers, a queer, romantic horror-comedy currently funding on Kickstarter. The KS campaign page states that Leaf Peepers “pokes fun at contemporary queer culture from inside the house.” Tell me what Leaf Peepers is all about?
MB: On its face, Leaf Peepers is the story of a non-binary couple who’ve headed to the woods in New England for a weekend away from city life. Upon arrival, they accidentally attract the attention of a creature that calls the forest home— a creature that doesn’t want them to leave. Underneath, it’s about a strong relationship getting stronger.
In a more abstract sense, Leaf Peepers is a story about the things that haunt us a bit too close to home, things that we might not want to confront. That’s where the horror comes in.
There is a lack of media, at least in comics, that do a good job poking fun at queer culture that comes from a place of appreciation. I think Caroline Cash’s comics do it well. So do Simon Hanselmann’s comics, and Archie Bongiovanni’s Grease Bats. We set out to make fun of some things like astrology and respectability politics, not maliciously, but because I think most things can be funny when you look at them in a certain light.
SC: I think Mark hit the nail on the head. Every time I reread the script while working on this, I do get a little spooked. So it’s a great piece of horror, in my opinion.
CBY: It sounds great and I can't wait to read all of it. What’s the most difficult part of creating a fresh take on the cabin-in-the-woods horror story? Were there any tropes in particular that you had fun playing around with for this story?
MB: I tried not to lean on any tropes in particular. I wouldn’t say that the genre is stale, per se, but I think my standouts don’t lean too heavily on any of the tropes of the genre. Coming up with a set of characters that are going to thrive within the narrative and a set of rules by which the horror is governed are probably the most difficult thing about making a fresh take on any type of horror.
CBY: Shelby, how do you create your art and what’s your process once you get a completed script?
SC: I usually dive in and start with characters before anything, sometimes even before I finish reading the full story. I want them to feel like my friends, someone familiar so that drawing them over and over feels natural.
From there, I move into the thumbnails and try to work out how all of the pages and panels will look next to one another. Once all of that is squared away, it seems like the rest just flies by. A lot of the brain work is in the preliminary “design” work. The drawing, inking, coloring, and text just feel like my brain is on autopilot.
CBY: Like Sal in It Took Luke, Cam is another character (until the start of the story) working a demanding job they hate. Mark, you spoke before about corporate burnout, is that something you still deal with the repercussions from and see friends continue to deal with it. Is that an aspect of the character you can relate to, Shelby? What are the differences, particularly in terms of burnout, for a corporate job versus life as a freelancer?
MB: I definitely see my friends burning out all the time — across most industries. Between overwork, commutes returning, and COVID, seems like everyone’s going through it. I think I’m all set now, thanks for asking. It took a solid chunk of time unemployed, and then in a contract position to pull me out of it, though. I feel like the biggest difference between freelance and corporate burnout is with freelance burnout, the hardest part is continuing to put in the work, but still waiting and waiting to actually get paid.
SC: After I dropped out of college, I was forced to work nonstop at shitty retail jobs to pay my way-too-high rent and student loans. I remember coming home every day feeling so burnt out and too depressed to do anything, much less make art. Now that I’m a freelancer, I have a lot more free time to check in with myself and make sure I am taking care of my needs emotionally, physically, mentally. But there are still moments where I find myself bordering on burning myself out creatively when it’s time to grind to get the bills paid.
CBY: Shelby, when did you get your start working in comics and what type of graphic design work do you do for the Central California wine industry?
SC: I’ve always been making comics, even when I was a kid, but I didn’t start taking it seriously until high school. That’s when I started making my own zines and minicomics at home to trade and sell at zine fests. My first real comic job was working with Mad Cave Studios as the artist on Terminal Punks in 2020.
For the past five years now I’ve been working with my friend, Jason Scrymgeour, at Wine Club Marketing. We work with wineries in Santa Barbara county to promote their wine clubs, draw in new audiences to the wine industry, and teach people about wine. A lot of the work I do involves designing marketing materials like emails and wine tech sheets, but every once in a while I get to design some wine labels.
CBY: Both horror and comedy rely a lot on pacing. How do the two of you work to get the pacing just write so a punchline or a scare lands?
SC: I try to pay attention to how this is done in movies and just transfer that into a drawn comic version. Sometimes the face of a character is the most important piece of making a scare or joke land. Over-exaggeration of features helps a ton.
MB: Nailing pacing in horror comics is incredibly difficult, largely because every reader goes at their own pace— some might scan ahead and see what’s on the adjacent page after they flip, ruining a reveal, not on purpose, but it happens. For scares, to exercise a bit of control over that pacing, I write to the page turn. For funny stuff, it’s a bit different. I vastly prefer snappy, funny dialogue and visual gags to jokes. Coming from satire though, I guess that makes sense. I try to play to my collaborators’ strengths with these. Shelby does a killer visual gag, so I try to write a bunch of those into the projects we work on, and just let them work their magic. For humor, pacing is difficult to pin down. I try not to crowd story beats, but for the most part, I just use what I’d call common sense, though it’s probably the years of satire writing experience.
CBY: I’m a fan of the Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell Evil Dead franchise, especially the camp that begins in Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, which fully explodes in Army of Darkness. What are both of your comedic influences and what really makes you laugh?
SC: I love really goofy and outlandish comedy that makes you think “What the hell is going on in this person’s brain?” like Chris Fleming’s sketches and stand up or the queer cult classic, But I’m a Cheerleader.
MB: I think my largest comedic influence would be satire. It’s where I steeped the longest. I wrote for The Hard Times and Hard Drive for a couple of years before really pivoting hard into comics. I still read Reductress, which is the current Pinnacle of Internet Satire, in my opinion. These days, besides that, I’m laughing the most at unhinged tweets and I Think You Should Leave.
CBY: The "Coffin Flop" sketch really got me. Shelby, how long have you been playing the banjo and, if I was looking to listen to banjo music, what should I check out? What is it about the banjo as an instrument that drew you to it?
SC: I bought myself a banjo for my 25th birthday in 2019 and picked up it up pretty quick. I love the fast, bluegrass-style banjo, but I am more into more traditional, clawhammer-style playing like Kaia Kater, Rhiannon Giddens, and Ola Belle Reed are masters at. I’ve always been into folk punk music and busking artists like Lost Dog Street Band and Nicholas Ridout, so that’s what made me want to pick it up.
CBY: In one of the preview pages for Leaf Peepers, referencing Fred Durst being an ally, Riley responds, “Ah yes, representation.” It’s a funny moment to think of the lyrics to “Rollin’” and in the comic it’s within the context of a game of Would You Rather…, but representation is important and the two of you are under the umbrella of create the stories you want to see in the world with this and, Mark, with It Took Luke, and, Shelby, with Queer as All Get Out: 10 People Who’ve Inspired Me. Do you think about someone reading your work and seeing themselves reflected back for the first time? If you do, does that influence how you approach the story or the art?
SC: I always hope that people can see themselves reflected back in my comics, even if it’s through a fine detail like how someone’s stomach pokes out of their pants or wearing a button of their favorite band on their jacket. I usually try to draw people I know or want to be friends with so they feel more real and relatable.
MB: I’ve only really thought about representation in regards to my work in the abstract, like, these are the experiences I have had, these are the perspectives I would like to see in media— now where do they intersect? This means that the majority of my protagonists are AMAB non-binary people, which is fine because that’s not something I see much of in media, comics included. The world is vast and filled with many different people, it just makes sense that our stories reflect that.
Thinking back, reading It Took Luke after we finished it was the first time I ever saw an AMAB non-binary protagonist in a genre book— and it was a cool feeling. I hope others feel similarly when reading ITL and Leaf Peepers, but it’s not something I think about when I’m first developing a book.
CBY: What other projects should CBY readers check out?
SC: My good friend Ashley Robin Franklin has been working hard on her graphic novel, The Hills of Estrella Roja, which comes out in 2023 from HMH. I am so stoked to read it. It’s gonna be a little spooky and a little queer, kinda like our comic.
MB: So many of the books I want to scream about haven’t been announced yet, or aren’t coming out for a year or two. (Keep a watch on Marie Enger, Emmett Nahil, Ray Nadine, and Son M.’s social media presences for more news on those) I’d like to link a short comic by Evangeline Gallagher and Hagai Palevsky here, it’s 8 pages and free to read, so you know, no excuse not to. It’s excellent.
CBY: Oh, wow. That's incredible. Where can you be found online?
CBY: Thank you both so much and good luck with the rest of the campaign.