While fantasy has often been the domain of the most adolescent and immature aspirations, for over a dozen years Linda Medley has been meticulously building her universe of ordinary adventures. And if the second series is still going on, the imposing collection of Castle Waiting published by Fantagraphics in mid-2006 was a quiet event in itself. Encounter with a storyteller.
Xavier Guilbert : I’m going to start off with what may be a very dumb question — who is Linda Medley ? Because I’ve been looking around on the Net, and there doesn’t seem to be much prior to 1996 and your Xeric Grant. Where do you come from, what is your background ?
Linda Medley : I grew up in a very rural country area in California. If you’ve read any John Steinbeck — that’s where I grew up. I went to school in San Francisco at the Academy of Arts College there, and I studied illustration. I wanted to do comics, but at the time they told everybody there “you don’t do comics because comics are garbage. You don’t, you know … you don’t do that”. But while I was in college, I met people who were doing comics and befriended them, so it was always a connection to the local comic-con shows, that kind of things. And while I was collecting and reading comics, I never told anybody, not my professors that I was still interested in comics.
XG : What kind of comics were they ?
LM : X-Men — I collected the X-Men. (laugh)
XG : And you kept reading them as you grew up ?
LM : No, I stopped reading the X-Men when I was about fourteen or fifteen — because that’s about what the level was, and I … I wasn’t reading a lot of comics until Love & Rockets came out, and I started reading more … “adult” comics. And when I was in college — because I couldn’t be doing comics I had to do children’s books illustration, so I started studying folklore and reading a lot of the original versions of fairy tales, that kind of thing. I had a little bit of an idea that I wanted to do … something with fairy tales, but I didn’t really know what.
Graduated from college, went on to do children’s books illustration for a few years, and then I started looking around. But around 1987 — ’87 to ’89, I was friends with Arthur Adams and Mike Mignola, who both do comics. We all lived around the same area, and Arthur needed — I was doing children books at the time, and Arthur needed somebody do some coloring for some of his books, and posters and the like. So I started doing coloring.
Somewhere in there I decided I wanted to try doing comics, and I did some sample pages and took a show and showed them to a DC editor, and they said “okay — we’ll hire you”. And about a month later they sent me a script, and I did Justice League for — a couple of years. I can’t remember the exact timeline, but there was Justice League, I worked with Michael Kaluta on a project that never got published. Went from that to doing some stuff for Vertigo, I did Doom Patrol for a year … but I thought that I was not any good at it. So I quit and I was only doing coloring for a while.
And sometimes in there, in ’94 — Mignola calls me and says : “What ? what are you doing ? Why are you” — I’m not going to repeat what he said because it was really kind of nasty, but he said : “you’re kinda throwing your talent down the toilet doing nothing but coloring when you should do your own book.” And I said “well, you know, I’m an illustrator, I don’t know how to do that.” And he had just started working on Hellboy at the time, and he said : “look, I’m doing it, there are all these guys doing self-publishing now, why don’t you do something with the stuff that you were working on when you were in college ?” And I said “I dunno, I’ll have a beer and think about it.”
And I did, and strangely, nearly overnight, I kinda came up with what I wanted to do, and then I was like “I have to start it, I have to try it.” So I started writing — the first thing I wrote was maybe chapter four, in the book. And it was Mignola’s idea to go back and do something that would stand alone, that you could try out first in the market to see if anybody would buy it. So I went back and did the whole Curse of Brambly Hedge, and put that out first.
XG : From a reader’s point of view, things seem to start out in a rather familiar territory, with a slightly different take on Sleeping Beauty. And then, things definitely move away from there, it changes a lot. But obviously, right from the start, you had the idea of doing something less referential. So it was about providing an easy introduction ?
LM : Yes, something that people would understand. I had thought, when I first started, well, it’s obvious there’s a castle with a big hedge around it, that people would get that it was Sleeping Beauty’s castle. And then maybe, maybe they wouldn’t, maybe it’s not obvious to some people. So I had originally intended it to be the little old ladies telling the story to Jain later at some point in the book, and make it really short, like only — maybe ten pages, you know, just like to clarify for anybody that didn’t get something that was kind of obvious. But after thinking that if I wanted to do it, then it would be more of an introduction, I went back and filled it out a little more.
Serge Ewenczyk : Narratively, there is a kind of discrepancy between the introduction and the rest of the book.
LM : Originally I was never going to publish the Brambly Hedge thing with the rest of it, but Fantagraphics wanted to put it all in one.
XG : So how did the self-publishing turned out ? And what about the Xeric Grant ?
LM : About the Xeric Grant … I — I applied for it, and I got it. I know it sounds like it was really easy but it wasn’t. They asked me to do a whole business breakdown. I figured all I wanted to do to promote the book, and everything that — and how much it would cost, about posters, about printers, everything. I didn’t know if it would be working that well, but it was going to cost a lot of money, but I thought “this is a good plan, I want to do it” — and they gave me the grant.
One of the things I did was I pre-printed the whole print run before I got orders from the distributors, that you usually don’t do. Because I wanted to have books — it wasn’t to ship until October, but I wanted to show the book in San Diego which is in July. So I went ahead and printed 5,000 books. And I got the orders, and there were 1,300, and I thought : “I’m stuck with 3,000 copies of this book”. But as it turned out, they did — I ended up selling all of them, it just took a while to actually start up.
Then when you get into doing the actual series, and kinda maintain any kind of schedule — while I was at it, I was still coloring, doing coloring on the side, and — that’s when things really got hard, because you can’t have a full-time job and have, you know, the part-time job of writing and drawing and illustrating the book … and try to promote it, and everything else. After a while, it’s gotten to be too much, and I couldn’t afford it anymore, and I had to quit.
XG : Then how did Fantagraphics come into the picture ? And how did they convince you to start working on the series again ?
LM : They had been aware of the book when I was self-publishing. That’s when they first found out about it, and it was about the time that I was quitting, so tired of fighting against the comic book industry, to get the book noted and sold, that they started saying “let us publish it” — and I said “No, I’m not interested, I’m not doing this book anymore, I’ve had it”. And I said no for about three years, and finally they kinda wore me down, they said, “well, at least let us make a collection of everything that you’ve done, that you did do up to when you quit”. And I said fine.
Somewhere around then a fan wrote to me and asked me : “I hear that they’re doing a collection, are they going to start up the series ?”. So I contacted Fantagraphics and said “so — do you want to do the series ?” and they said “yes we do”. That’s about how it happened.
XG : And now that you’re about eight or nine books into the second series, how do you feel about it ?
LM : It’s nice to not have to have another job. The money is not real great, but I’m glad I don’t have to do coloring on the side. But at the same time, in that three-year hole I was coming up with new ideas for other projects I wanted to do, so it feels a little bit — I still want to do those other projects that I have, but there’s no way, if I’m going to do Castle Waiting. It’s good and it’s bad like everything, there’s not enough time in my day.
XG : I’ve mentioned the impression that, for Castle Waiting, things evolve from a starting point that would be the singular take on Sleeping Beauty — but obviously, it is very wrong. So how much of the whole story do you have planned in advance ?
LM : Hm… Pretty much all of it. There might be little bits and pieces that come up afterwards that I am working on, but almost all the story was there — formed within the first week that I started working on it. Because there is stuff in the very first issue that kinda relates to the very last story, so I knew where I was going, from the beginning. But I have met people who, the first time they wrote, they wrote everything down in stone. And they finally start working on it, they go “I can’t stand it anymore, you know, my life has changed, things have changed, and I can’t work on it”. I didn’t do that, I just came up with the basic outline of what I wanted to do and left it open, because I knew that in a few years, I’d be a different person, and things would have changed somewhat…
XG : There’s a lot of affection for your characters that comes through, with most of the story revolving about them growing and evolving, rather than straightforward adventure, so to say.
LM : Well, that’s partly because for me, the book is still beginning, and I wanted to have really solid characters that people would be able to follow easily. Well, not just follow easily, but they could really have a lot of feelings for. And in some way, I know there’s not a lot of typical adventure happening, but a lot of the conflict that goes on in the relationships in there … it sounds really dull to just say it, but it’s like, you know, the whole adventure is to do laundry. Something that’s mundane and …
XG : Or dying your hair or …
LM : Yeah. I mean, it can be funny, or it can be a disaster. One thing I wanted to do, the main thing is that nobody in the book is a Prince, or a Princess — they are all working-class people. And there are some pretty big adventures that come up later, but I wanted to show them grow, and all sort of things happen. There could be conflict — but how do you handle it when you’re the guy who scrubs the toilets, how do you do something heroic if you’re just a cook, and … you know, rescuing two people that are slaves is a bigger deal than killing a dragon.
XG : I want to react on something — you’ve said “the story is only beginning”, you’ve got about 450 pages of the trade, already eight or nine issues of the second series — how long is it going to be in the end ?
LM : Hm, I don’t know. I don’t know how long it is going to be, but … the third volume, the way I’m looking at it, is all Jain’s story which is kind of an adventure about all the things that have been happening in her life. So it gets to be more of what you would think of a traditionnal adventure story.
But there’s also the whole Solicitine section, the bearded ladies, that wasn’t supposed to be there. That was supposed to come later, much much later in the series, but since Cartoon Books was publishing it, they insisted that I changed the story. So I just stopped what I was doing, and took the story out of context, and … I wish I could take those seven issues out and put them where they were supposed to be. You know, Brambly Hedge, first seven issues, and then right to issue fifteen and on, the way it should have been.
XG : The story is very much rooted in fairy tales, and I get the feeling it has more to do with, say, a British tradition going back to Lord Dunsany rather than the American tradition with Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. It’s also the difference I see between your work and Dave Sims’ Cerebus or Jeff Smith’s Bone, which have more to do with sword and sorcery. Obviously, it stems from your studies…
LM : Yes, definitely. When I was reading what I used as a basis — all the old Grimm stories, and when I could find them the original versions of them. A lot of the stories originated in the Czechoslovakian region, and indeed, around the European area. Although I read Conan — but I wasn’t really interested in sword and sorcery. I was more into the kind of … domestic magic.
XG : Yes, Conan is about some sort of self-achievement, while your work is more about the little miracles of the everyday life — indeed, some sort of domestic magic.
LM : Yes, I think that’s just, for me, the way I am and my background, it’s what that appeals to me. Maybe because I just never wanted to go out and slay a dragon, or do anything hugely heroic. But rather doing some more … small things. The kind of things that nobody ever really notices, but in the end it all turns out to be one big, heroic thing.
XG : That’s another aspect that’s very present, the fact that there is magic all around, to start with with the animal-headed characters, and nobody ever seems to question that. It’s like they belong to the normal order of things, which is very refreshing. In The Hobbit for instance, things start off normally, and then you go out where, you know, “there be dragons”, and then they come back with that knowledge of something different. In your work, it’s in their everyday life and people accept it very easily…
LM : Yeah, what I would like for people to get out of the book — and one thing I know is that, in the book people would sometimes refer to “oh, that happened back during the war”. Like, something happened at some time, but they sort of accepted it all, and now you know that. There are people of different colors of skin, all over the place ; there are people who look different than you. And a lot of the time, in the standard fantasy there is this whole new race and — that’s already happened in Castle Waiting.
XG : What I know from the original versions of fairy tales, is that — they are rather gory, they usually end very badly, and definitely would not qualify as «family material» by modern standards. What were the elements that you took from them ? Or were they more a basis for you to develop your own vision ?
LM : It was — it was both, actually. Because I kinda — in my mind, there is that motivation still, and I think that, I know that in volume III there’s going to be a little bit of that, or at least a reference to a very bloody story. From everyone I know I get “Nobody’s ever mean to anybody, there’s no …”, and I say “Well, actually they are”. There was a really bloody war, there was — I mean, my father fought in World War II, and he never wanted to talk about it afterwards. And a lot of people are like that, they fought in the war, and they don’t even want to reminisce about all the really bad part of it. So I get kind of the same thing — really bad things happened, and sometimes you can hear about it but it’s fine. It’s not here all the time, but that’s what I wanted.
XG : There’s also the meshing of traditional stories with more original elements. I mean, I don’t remember anything about traveling circuses or bearded ladies…
LM : There were bearded ladies — that’s one thing that really shocked me, that’s a Grimm story. And the Grimm story is based on an actual Saint who was removed from the Catholic rules in 1968. And there are churches — one of the churches is in England, and there’s still a couple of them in Italy, and there are stories in South America that are about the same thing. It’s very much like a can of worms, you open one — I read the original version of Grimm, and then I started doing research, and I started finding so many of them. So I didn’t invent the Bearded ladies, believe it or not. People believed that — nobody even questioned it ! But the circus… I just like circuses so I had to put a circus in.
XG : Regarding your art, there are some similarities with Charles Vess’ or Craig Russell’s work. Were they any kind of inspiration ?
LM : Actually, although I love both Charlie’s and Craig Russell’s work, it’s more that they have the same influences that I do, from a much older, turn of the century illustration. I can look at their work, and I can see when they’re influenced by the same artists. There was Kay Nielsen, for instance, who I think is a Danish illustrator, from the turn of the century…
XG : Art Nouveau style.
LM : Yes. And that’s just beautiful. And that’s what I do nowadays when I’m trying to see if I’ve improved any, I look at that stuff and I just think — I’m not good, yet.
XG : Since we’re mentioning Charles Vess — would you have enjoyed working with Neil Gaiman on Sandman ?
LM : I don’t know if I would have wanted to do any Sandman… I have to admit I liked it at the beginning … Sorry Neil, but in the later stories, he didn’t do anything that really appealed to me. I kinda liked it when it was a little more somber, when Mike Dringenberg was working on it, that was great. It wouldn’t have suited my style at all, though.
XG : You mentioned having projects that you wanted to do, but couldn’t because you had Castle Waiting to work on. What can you tell about those ? Have you put them all aside, or are you working on them from time to time ?
LM : I do still work on them, in whatever free time I have. I rewrote a bunch of Wizard of Oz stories, and I did kind of the same thing I did with Castle Waiting and fairy tales. There’s a lot of things in Baum’s story that are kind of open-ended, and during the three years that I was away from Castle Waiting, I thought : “okay, what if this and that new things happened ?” So I actually laid out about nine volumes and started drawing. But I don’t know if I’m actually going to do them because I want to do them in color, and that’s really hard to get, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I’ll do it on the web or something like that, I don’t know.
XG : The inevitable question — how do you think being a woman comes through, or had an impact on your work ?
LM : I think in America, you don’t get a lot of respect. It’s a man’s business. Even when I was doing the Trilogy Tour, with Jeff and Charlie, all the time I was getting, “well it’s Jeff Smith and Charles Vess and some other guy”. I tried to tune it out. And now I look around and it’s like there’s all kind of girls, women getting into conventions and comics, and they never got that whole ten or twenty years of “women don’t do this”. They believe they can, and it’s great for them, to just get in and say “I want to do comics”.
XG : Finally, Castle Waiting has been very positively received in France, how do you feel about that ?
LM : I’m kinda amazed, really. It never occurred to me that it would be so welcome here. I was a little scared, because as I just said, I’m doing European fairy tales, and I thought that people would be angry. You know, an American doing European-based stories. But I’m really happy. From what I can tell, I think people in France get what I’m doing. They get it. And I like that.
[Interview conducted in Paris, on January 22nd, 2008.]