Kristen Gudsnuk was once in a position that many twenty-somethings find themselves in: she had a job she disliked, was struggling financially, and knew that she could be doing something better. So she started drawing, and her hit webcomic Henchgirl was born, even getting printed in a complete trade paperback edition by Dark Horse Comics.
Mary Posa, the protagonist of Henchgirl, is in a similarly relatable boat for many millennials. She has issues with her roommates, her family, and even a cute guy, plus she feels stuck in a job that isn’t right for her. Yet instead of working at a boring desk job, Mary works as a henchwoman for a local supervillain.
It’s a fun, heartfelt comic with charming art, memorable characters, and occasional moments of shocking (and hilarious) violence, so AiPT! couldn’t wait to sit down with the up-and-coming cartoonist to talk about Henchgirl‘s origins, its real-life inspirations, and much more.
AiPT!: Henchgirl started life as a webcomic. What was it like to see it in print?
Kristen Gudsnuk: [Dark Horse Comics] did such a great job on the design and printing and everything. And also it’s just really cool to have a book and be like “look, it’s a real book!” It’s not just a webcomic, even though webcomics are obviously real, and often they are more successful than “real” books, but still it was really exciting, just as a goal in life or whatever.
AiPT!: Was that something that was planned all along? To be printed?
Gudsnuk: Yeah … when I was self-publishing it long ago, because then I went to Scout Comics for the single issues, it cost me so much to print them up myself… “man, someday, I’m going to have someone else pay for this.” And that is what happened!
AiPT!: That is the dream. Comics are so expensive to make!
AiPT!: There are so many interesting plays on comic book superhero tropes throughout Henchgirl, even behind the whole premise of her, well, being a henchgirl, and there being superheroes and supervillains. Were there any particular superhero stories or characters or anything like that that inspired you, or was it kind of more nebulously “superheroes?”
Gudsnuk: Yeah, there’s definitely reference points for a lot of the characters. Mr. Great Guy is kind of a mix of Superman and Batman, because he’s rich and he’s also omnipotent, and he’s also, like, a dick, so he’s kind of like Batman in that way. I’m sorry, a jerk, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that [laughs].
AiPT!: You can say whatever you want, we don’t really censor that much.
Gudsnuk: He’s a dick! And his name is Mr. Great Guy! And yeah, he’s kind of the stand-in for the traditional hero archetype. Also Mary’s rival, Amelia, is kind of like Sailor Moon… she’s a magical girl. That kind of archetype. I was thinking of New York itself, because I live there, so when I was designing Crepe City, a lot of it was just me complaining about how dirty everything is. “Fine, I’ll draw garbage everywhere, because no one cleans up their s--t!” Just trying to draw from my reality. But also I was thinking of Gotham. Not the show, the place.
AiPT!: What is with all the crepes?
AiPT!: I love that that is such a recurring motif throughout the book…
Gudsnuk: Well first of all, crepes are great. There’s the catchy name, Crepe City. But also I like to think… oh this is totally subtext! I don’t say it in the book. I like to think that Crepe City used to be a booming town that, like, everyone bought crepes there, but the reason it has so much crime is because their main industry of crepes has gone downhill [laughs]… but there’s crepe pizzas…maybe I should have put that in the book. It’s just a background thing!
AiPT!: That is the kind of subtextual thing that maybe scholars will look back at and they’ll work it out.
Gudsnuk: They’ll use this interview, as an annotation.
AiPT!: One of the other great things about Henchgirl is it takes place in this sort of heightened reality with superheroes and supervillains, but it’s really relatable. She’s got roommate issues, she doesn’t like her job… of being a henchgirl… Did any of that sort of 20-something struggle come from personal experience at all?
Gudsnuk: Yeah. Definitely! When I started working on it, I was working on a job that was really… you know, it was okay. I wasn’t moving anywhere there, though, and it wasn’t like, the right job for me. I’m a creative type, not the filing, data person type, so I felt a little demoralized there, so I kind of poured some of those angsty feelings in there. Which is funny because my comic Henchgirl is how I ended up being able to quit my job, and it kind of worked out that way!
AiPT!: That is awesome.
Gudsnuk: But yeah, I don’t know, I had a boss that was like, kind of mean, so like a villain…I don’t know, when you’re an artist, you’re generally told, and even before I was an artist I was totally poor, so maybe those two elements are probably the biggest ones that come from my real life. And also the way that she loves money so much. That’s me. (laughs)
AiPT!: When you’re struggling, it’s something you care about.
Gudsnuk: Yes it is! You know, all these people who say “money is not important” are people who have money!
AiPT!: Yes, that is true. Also, one of the striking things about Henchgirl to me is that it is very charming and whimsical throughout much of it, but there are some really surprising moments of violence, to really off-putting — and I don’t want to say off-putting in a bad way — but whoa, it hits you! So what was your mindset with that kind of thing, where you think “here is where I am going to give a gut punch to the reader.”
Gudsnuk: Part of it is just kind of wanting to screw with people, you know, like lull them into a sense of security. Part of it is my art style looks very fun and happy, so I always think it’s funnier to have something horrible happen in something that looks cute than like, just a normal thing, so part of it was just like playing with that sort of tension there between the cuteness and the darkness. Another thing is I always…I don’t know, I just feel like I want to represent the world in a way, but like in a cartoonish, exaggerated sort of way, and so by having, like, horrific things happen, it’s kind of just like, peeling back the magic a little bit, and revealing reality. Does that make sense?
The best book I've read all year! pic.twitter.com/gDBRBC6bNR
— Kristen Ghoulsnuk (@henchgirl_comic) January 25, 2017
AiPT!: It makes perfect sense. Something you bring up is that you’re very aware of your art style, and so when you have someone like, let’s say to bring up another Dark Horse thing, Geof Darrow, with the way he draws violence, that is very much a part of his style; he has this very hyper-detailed kind of way of depicting it, and any number of Big Two artists that draw violence in a way that many readers are used to. And what you’re saying is, if I’m hearing you correctly, is that it’s like, when that is not an inherent part of your style, when it comes it just–
Gudsnuk: It’s super left field, and like, when I’m watching things, or reading things, and something comes from super out of left field, I kind of love that feeling of the unexpected. So I think I was trying to capture that in a way…I also have a weird sense of humor that’s very very dark.
AiPT!: Well it’s a weird sense of humor that we share. And I’m sure a lot of readers do too!
Gudsnuk: Everyone seems to like all my extremely dark, gross, gory moments! [Laughs]
AiPT!: It’s not done in, like, a really unpleasant way…even with those carrots, there’s a sort of grotesqueness to them, but you can’t help but love them… As we’re wrapping up, what’s next? Do you have any projects in the works that maybe you can tease?
Gudsnuk: Yeah! They haven’t been announced yet, but I have two things coming out next year, in 2018, that I think are going to knock people’s socks off, and I’m really excited. I spent all of this year just drawing nonstop, and I’m going to spend the next, like, six months drawing nonstop, so there’s a lot of content coming!
AiPT!: It sounds to me that after being in the kind of position of _Henchgirl_–Mary, I should say–you’ve made it! You’re making comics.
Gudsnuk: (Laughs) I guess so! Oh yeah, so one of my books is from Scholastic Graphix, and it’s coming out next summer. It’s going to be a middle-grade graphic novel… And I have another project with Dark Horse that’s going to be pretty cool.
AiPT!: Do you have any advice for people trying to break into comics, doing it kind of in the way that you did it? Putting it online and just making it happen?
Gudsnuk: Well the only way I know how to do it is the way I did it! Which is just, you know, do your own thing and don’t worry what other people like. Just do what you like, because a lot of people are trying to do what people like and so, you know, it kind of shows? Something I read — someone else said this, and I thought it was really smart — make the book that you wish existed so you could read it. I feel like that is good advice. Also, you don’t need a contract, you don’t need anything to make a comic. You just need yourself, and like, maybe a friend to read over it…you could basically do it all yourself at this point, you don’t need to wait for anyone.
AiPT!: Well if you saw my art, you could tell that I need an artist! [Note: Kristen happened to see a crude drawing of a ghost in Greg’s notebook as he was setting up for the interview]
Gudsnuk: [Laughs] Well when I started out, my art was really bad in the beginning! I had to redraw the first 80 pages.
Gudsnuk: I didn’t have to, but I chose to because they were really bad. The perspective was totally wrong, I didn’t know how to draw anything. I could draw a person, but I couldn’t draw a scene. So I learned that by doing it, while working on the book, and I’m glad I fixed it.
AiPT!: Did you fix it specifically for the trade paperback?
Gudsnuk: I fixed a couple of things for that, but most of what I fixed I fixed for the Scout issues. They were just black and white scribble comics at first.
AiPT!: But people took notice of it, people were reading it, and it actually saw print!
AiPT!: It sounds like things are shaping up nicely. I look forward to whatever is coming next…thank you so much for talking to me, and I can’t wait to tell readers more about Henchgirl.
Henchgirl is available on Amazon from Dark Horse Comics.