Colleen AF Venable is the author of indie bestseller Katie the Catsitter graphic novel series with Stephanie Yue, as well as the National Book Award Longlisted Kiss Number 8, a graphic novel co-created with Ellen T. Crenshaw. Her other books include Mervin the Sloth is About to Do the Best Thing in The World with Ruth Chan, The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom with Lian Cho, and the Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye series, also with Stephanie Yue.
Stephanie Yue is the illustrator of several picture books and chapter books in addition to Katie the Catsitter, and was the colorist for Smile by Raina Telgemeier. Steph travels the world by motorbike and spent the past year and a half converting a Sprinter van into a full-time mobile studio. She’s currently drawing the next Katie the Catsitter from all over North America, and eating and climbing all the things.
I had the chance to interview Colleen and Stephanie, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?
Steph: Hi, I’m Steph, the illustrator for Katie the Catsitter. They/She. I like to ride motorbikes all over the world, rollerskate, build things, and I live full-time in a self-converted Sprinter van.
Colleen: Hello there! I’m Colleen Ann Felicity! She/Her/They (People always want to know what the weird AF is doing in there). I’m the writer for Katie the Catsitter. I like to read, hug every the animal, rollerskate, and make ALL THE CRAFTS—currently learning stained glass, figuring out how to build a room from scratch then turn it into an audio studio so I can quietly figure out how to play a trombone I got for $30, and can make a friendship bracelet in under five minutes. Watch out, potential new besties!
What can you tell us about your upcoming book, Katie the Catsitter #3: Secrets and Sidekicks?
Colleen: * announcer voice * When last we left our heroes…Katie was officially starting to do sidekick training, Beth and Katie were still figuring out how to get back to being friends, and The Eastern Screech—the city’s highest yelp rated hero—was outed for being a fraud. In this volume Katie deals with not being the greatest athlete, feeling like her friends Beth and Marie are leaving her behind, the Eastern Screech disappearing, 217 highly trained cats running amuck, and a bunch of Killer Robots keep attacking the city. So yeah, nothing too exciting.
Steph: It’s going to be fun, with lots of action!
What was the inspiration for the original series?
Colleen: I always thought traditional superhero comics simplified things. Good vs. bad. No in betweens. (And don’t get me started about the underwear on the outside thing which I might need to write a doctoral thesis on one day.) I wanted a series where the “good guys” were kinda bad, the “bad guys” were actually good. I also loved exploring how heroes come to be through Katie, an average 12 year old who realizes being a hero is a lot more about heart than falling into vats of toxic things. Also as a kid I was always disappointed that Catwoman didn’t have cat minions, so that gave me the idea for The Mousetress who controls 217 extraordinary cats (as much as anyone CAN control a cat.)
Steph: Colleen and I worked together previously on a six book series called Guinea Pig: Pet Shop Private Eye. When she approached me with the pitch for Katie the Catsitter, it seemed like a natural fit for our humor and stories around animals.
How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly comics? What drew you to the mediums?
Steph: I loved the comics section in the newspapers as a kid, and poured over the collected volumes of Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts, and the Far Side my dad kept in his study. As I grew older, the Sunday funnies expanded to series like the Adventures of Tintin, and manga. I realized the visual nature of comics could quickly introduce a reader to fantastical worlds, and immerse them in a very real sense of action, danger, and emotion. In longer form comics like manga that span many volumes, characters had room to grow and evolve—by the end of a series like Rurouni Kenshin the characters were not the same as they were 28 books ago. That’s what I fell in love with, the ability for comics to share a funny visual gag, convey a sense of excitement and adventure, and handle character arcs, all in one easily accessible medium.
Colleen: Same with me! Those newspaper comics were such a wonderful part of my childhood. I recently did a school visit where I told the students “Imagine every morning someone left a whole pile of comic strips on your doorstep!” I blew the kids’ minds. They couldn’t believe that was true! I also convinced them I was 400 years old. For me, comics are such an incredible medium. I studied playwriting in college, and so many of the things I learned about dialogue, pacing, visual gags, beats, came from my scripting skills. But with comics you can control even more with page turn reveals, dramatic angles, zooming in to important details, scattering visual clues throughout…I truly feel like the true art of making comics is underappreciated.
As a writer/illustrator, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically young adult fiction?
Colleen: I always wanted to write for kids and teens from the time I learned to read. I hoped to make that book that could help a kid through a hard time and not feel alone. And being able to make kids around the world laugh?! That’s better than any power a toxic vat or outward underwear could give me! I love mixing absolute absurdity with heartfelt emotional story lines of real things kids and teens go through…though in this case, without as many cats in real life, I hope.
Steph: Landing in young adult fiction was a bit of an accident, to be honest. I started out illustrating for younger readers, but there are so many meaningful stories to tell for this age range as well. I remember how formative some works of fiction were for me at that age. In young adult fiction you can begin to explore more nuanced ideas, concepts, and character interactions while still leaving room to be goofy.
How would you describe your creative process?
Colleen: People watching, reading every comic/play/novel I can get my hands on, animal watching, swimming…if I sat down at a computer 8 hours a day I’d barely get anything done. Instead I write 1-3 days a week and only a few hours on those days. It’s the time between staring at a screen that I get the ideas. I start with handwritten notes. I’d like to say I kept them in a single beautiful notebook, but no, I write them everywhere. On the back of junk mail. On a mile long CVS receipt. In text messages to myself. I don’t even reference them after, but it’s the act of writing physically that gets my brain churning. When I finally sit down they just fall out of my fingers.
Steph: It depends on the stage of comics making. For pencils, I like to take my iPad to different places and set up with a printed manuscript. When it comes to inking, my favorite thing to do is put on a gripping podcast or some upbeat music, pour myself a beverage, and get lost in drawing.
(For Colleen AF Venable) In addition to the Katie the Catsitter series, you are also known for your graphic novel Kiss Number 8. Could you tell us about the inspiration for this project and what it meant to you writing it?
Colleen: Someone recently asked me why I haven’t done another novel for older teens since Kiss Number 8 and it’s because you have to get in the mindset of your protagonist to write a book…and going back to being a teen…lordie, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone! I know I will again, someday, and miiiight even have some secret first drafts, but it’s an emotional journey, and I think all the emotion I put into that book came through. I started it in 2004, which is why the book is set then. It was inspired by my very Catholic family and their reaction to my perfect older sister coming out of the closet. Suddenly I was the “good kid”—and trust me I was NOT, and I was also secretly bi…something I didn’t even admit to myself until my 30’s due to repression. I wanted to make a book that was truthful to what it was like to come out in the early aughts but also didn’t show the church as some giant big bad guy like all the other LGBTQ books did at the time. Even back then I was exploring themes of all the gray areas in life, no good guys, no bad guys. Mads the protagonist is both so likable but also makes the worst decisions of anyone in the book. I’m so proud of the book, which finally came out in 2019 and was even one of the first comic books to ever receive a National Book Award nod. I thought of it as a period piece, but the emails I’ve gotten from teens struggling to come out make me realize it’s less of a historical novel than I’d like.
Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?
Steph: As I mentioned before, Calvin & Hobbes is an easy one, and one that inspired many creators. Tintin introduced me to action and adventure in comics, and Rurouni Kenshin was the big series that landed at just the right age for me. When I toured on motorbikes, I liked to imagine I was Kino in Kino’s journey, self-sufficient and exploring the different cultures of the world. Nowadays, I live in a self-converted Sprinter van named The Bebop, after the converted interplanetary fishing trawler in Cowboy Bebop. On some days the name feels extremely prescient—with all the blackout curtains up, it feels like a little spaceship that could be anywhere in the galaxy. Putting away the curtains could reveal a different planet each day. I see myself in Ed, “self-styled”, taking my craft through time in space, and hunting bounties (making comics and taking on freelance gigs). I even keep a little plushie corgi copilot.
Colleen: Ah! I hadn’t realized Bebop was named after that! As a huge Saturday Morning Cartoon dork I assumed it was from Ninja Turtles! I’m going to second Calvin & Hobbes. I feel like every cartoonist of our generation has Bill W to thank for letting us be absurd, bend genres, and create REAL protagonists, flaws and all. Like Katie, my parents didn’t have much money growing up, so I spent my afternoons after school in the library, being annoying and VERY hyper. (Catholic Church, if you are reading this, please consider canonizing those librarians.) Books that blew me away: Amelia Bedelia, anything Ellen Raskin, Agatha Christie. At the time there was no YA section, and definitely no graphic novel section, but if those existed I would have eaten them up. I got into comics through webcomics after college. It was the thing I had been searching for. Now I am forever in love with anything Victoria Jameson, M.T. Anderson, or Urasawa writes. I swear it’s impossible for those three to create anything that’s less than genius.
Steph: Ha, that reminds me of how influential The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was for me! I read it at just the right age. If I ever build out another van, it might have to be the Heart Of Gold. It seems infinitely improbable.
As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general?
Colleen: Honestly, for me it’s more comedy icons: Monty Python, Gilda Radner, Mr. Show, Carol Burnett, The Muppet Show, The Marx Brothers. If I had to name comics, I’d have to give a nod to The Tick and The Far Side. I’m a huge comedy history nerd and read anything I can find on the subject. Even in my more serious books like Kiss Number 8, humor is the thing that drives the reader through the angst. Without comedy these stories would never be as powerful.
Steph: I know I keep coming back to it, but Bill Watterson was formative for me. I also really enjoy the mixed media work of Shaun Tan, and the life and work of Edward Gorey. His former home is now the Edward Gorey House, and it offers a wonderful peek into his life as a creative. It’s one of my favorite stops if I ever find myself going to Cape Cod.
What are some of your favorite elements of writing/drawing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or challenging?
Steph: Cartooning is a surprisingly physically draining profession, with long, lonely hours at the drawing tablet. Whenever available, I do my best to get some social time, outdoor time, and maintain an exercise routine. At the desk, I try to be careful about ergonomics and my posture, to avoid painful aches or repetitive stress injuries. Like many creative occupations that blur the line between work and play, it’s commonly misunderstood. Even after this long I still find myself justifying to people that yes, this is indeed a job, and no, I cannot do this for free.
Also, robots and horses are hard to draw.
Colleen: Whenever I write Katie I have a smile on my face and am often giggling out loud. I also adore the editing process, especially when I get to work with an editor as brilliant as Shana Corey, who’s notes always blow me away. I’m a big fan of jigsaw puzzles and mysteries and figuring out how to reshape pieces so they fit together perfectly. For me the frustrating part is not having more time. I have a full-time day job and can only fit in writing early morning. I’m good at meeting my book deadlines and my job, but my personal inbox and ability to have time for friends suffers more than I’d like. Other frustrating thing: I think I’m the only writer in the world who doesn’t drink coffee, so my love of writing in cafes means a whole lotta brownies and muffins, which I’m fine with but my dentist and non-stretchy pants might not love.
And sorry about all the robots and horses, Steph!
Aside from your work, what are some things you would want others to know about you?
Steph: I live to ride and travel and I love to build things!
Colleen: Steph is being modest, when they say travel they’re doing it on a motorcycle, Vespa (to 49 of the 50 states!!!), and in their amazing van. I’m in awe of them. They’re basically more badass than any comic book hero you could imagine. I can’t even do a somersault and cried the one time I did a tourist-y zipline. (The 10-year-olds and 70-year-olds also ziplining were very confused.) While I might be afraid of heights and worms, I’ve got a handful of things I’m weirdly good at. For instance I once broke a national co-ed jump rope record that hadn’t been broken in 30 years. I’m ranked in the top 50 of Dance Central international high scores…a game series that if I ever have enough money I will pay Harmonics to make another version. I also have an internet famous connect-the-dots tattoo that George Takei said was “the perfect tattoo” and Mark Walberg said was “a bad influence on children.”
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
Steph: What is your favorite flavor of potato chip? It’s salt and vinegar, the saltier and more tart the better.
Colleen: Noooo don’t out me as a weirdo who doesn’t really like chips, Steph!!! I have a sweet tooth. Actually I might have two, one in place of the salty tooth everyone else seems to have.
What advice might you have to give for aspiring creatives?
Steph: The most daring thing you can do is just make the thing you want to make and put it out there in the world. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s more important that you start.
Colleen: Don’t be afraid to get better! I started a webcomic in 2004 using MS Paint. Four years later I was the sole designer for First Second Books and had my first graphic novel contract. I wrote 31 books that were rejected by publishers before that contract…and even after that I wrote 6 others that never made it to publication. The most important thing to do is to set aside time for you to be creative every week. There will also be a million excuses, but be kind to yourself and make space for YOU. Also read. The more you read the better a writer you’ll become. And did I mention the muffins? They definitely help.
Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?
Colleen: This fall I have two books coming out. My first for adults! It’s a humor/inspiration book called The Swayze Year: You’re Not Old You’re Just Getting Started co-written with the brilliant Meghan Daly, with art by the incredible Tara O’Connor! It chronicles one person from age 35 to 100 who got their start at that age. It’s super inspiring but also SUPER absurd, more of the tone of your best friend saying “SHUT UP YOU AREN’T OLD!” than a cheesy self-help book.
The other book is a short story collection called Creepy Cafetorium, which is part Sideways Stories and part Gravity Falls. I get to be the Rod Sterling of the series and write all the intros for every tale as a very weird 600 year old lady. It’s incredibly goofy, heart-felt, and has stories from amazing writers like Jadzia Axlerod, Carol Burrell, and Marcie Colleen.
Steph: I’m always working on my van, my bikes, and future travel.
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books (comics included)/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Steph: Gender Queer spoke to me, by Maia Kobabe.
Colleen: I’m putting my vote in for Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado. It’s a love letter to the Bronx and a horror novel that bases those horrors on real events. But the queer romance was sweet and like little breaths of solace during the gripping thriller. (Note: if you read this book you will never look at the subway the same way again.)
As for comics, the one that got me recently was Galaxy: The Prettiest Star by Jadzia Axlerod and Jess Taylor. DC’s first trans hero! Written by an amazing woman I’ve known since our days making hand-stapled mini-comics to sell for a buck or two at small press cons! Not only is the story so compelling, but the character designs and the candy-colored art are delicious.