Joy Taney is a writer and artist currently interning at Gaijin Studios, the home of such talent as Laura Martin, Brian Stelfreeze and Cully Hammer. A child of two musicians and a graduate of the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Desgin, Joy has creativity in spades. She sat down with me over the holidays for this very candid interview. Enjoy!
Surfing the Bleed: Welcome to Surfing the Bleed, Joy. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Let's get started!
Joy Taney: Delighted.
Surfing the Bleed: Your parents were both musicians. You say that you grew up moving in and out of various folk music scenes. Does that mean your family uprooted a great deal, moved from city to city?
Joy Taney: We actually didn't move around that much. We did spend a lot of time in my father's station wagon driving all over the Northeast US, though. I spent a fair amount of my childhood in the backseat with a bunch of instruments.
Surfing the Bleed: What sort of an affect did that have on you as a child? Is there a part of that sort of gypsy lifestyle that you believe made you more aware of the "real world" and taught you more about life and people? That is to say, do you feel that having a non-traditional childhood made you a better storyteller?
Joy Taney: I consider myself extremely lucky to have experienced a childhood immersed in the artist community. I was exposed to the professional lives of literary, performing, and visual artists, and any expression of my own creativity was rewarded. I even played bass for the band for four years. Growing up in that environment made me think differently from the other kids my age, which helped with the originality of the stories I wrote and drew. It also prepared me for the hardships of being a professional artist.
Surfing the Bleed: You attended the Pennsylvania Governor's School of Excellence for the Arts when you were young. Can you speak a bit about the experience you had there and how it helped you develop as an artist?
Joy Taney: PGSA was the moment when I decided to be a comic book creator over being a writer. I always knew I wanted to tell stories. It was also the first place where I saw individuality being rewarded by my peers, which for a high schooler was pretty different. It was a magical experience. I have a distinct memory of coming back from the ER--I had this horrible ear infection--and being blown away by the kids setting up sheets in the grotto so they could project a movie on them and watch a life-sized Fantasia. We all had this deep love of the arts that united us, the dancers, writers, musicians, actors and artists. I keep in contact with some of the people I know through there, but not enough. I recently did a photo shoot with my fellow PGSA alumnus, Nathan Kuruna.
Surfing the Bleed: Does it disappoint you to see that the program for 2009 had to canceled due to the current abysmal state of the economy?
Joy Taney: It breaks my heart. For those of us that went to PGSA that didn't already know we wanted to go into the arts, that was the clincher. It means less lifelong artists.
Surfing the Bleed: You mentioned to me that you had a pretty tough set of years in your teens. Your mother succumbed to cancer, your grandfather to Parkinson's, and you yourself suffered from a chronic illness. It was that series of hardships that you say lead you down the path toward comics. I know it's not easy to recall, but could you talk about that time period in your life, what was affecting you, and how you eventually turned to comics to help you through that time?
Joy Taney: The worst period of my life was from when I was 14 to 19. First we discovered I had reflex sympathetic dystrophy (learn more at http://www.rsds.org/index2.html), which is a nervous system disorder that causes me to be in constant pain. Then my mother had a seizure that led us to learning she had a brain tumor, then my grandfather developed Parkinson's, and became verbally abusive to the people he loved. My mother and grandfather died six weeks apart, just months after I moved away for college. Comics were my escape. I would be lying in bed, in intense pain, but I'd still be able to draw. I made comics about my mother's cancer. I worked on stories where I created situations similar to the ones I was going through, and where it was safe to work through the ordeal without anyone telling me what was appropriate or how I should be feeling. When I was in pain, my stories would examine illness. When my mother died, I killed off my favorite characters. It was an exhausting process, to exorcise my feelings through story, but very therapeutic. And I know, when I'm having a bad day due to the RSD or missing my mom or something else, I can always turn to my comics as a way to let it out.
Surfing the Bleed: Were there any particular titles or any particular creators that really resonated with you during that time period and helped you start to cope?
Joy Taney: I started reading Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise at the tail end of all that misery, and I think it's been a very big influence on me, both in storytelling and style. Moore is never afraid to experiment with form.
Surfing the Bleed: Did you ever sense any disappointment from your father or the rest of your family when you decided to pursue art instead of music, or did you always feel a lot of support for your pursuits?
Joy Taney: If not for music, my father would have been a cartoonist. He was the one who taught me to draw, with me working from a cartooning book on the floor and him on the art desk above me. He has been my number one fan and supporter throughout my college years. My mother was more interested in my writing--aside from being a musician, she was also a journalist--but was happy to see me choose comics. In fact, on her death bed she made me promise not to drop out of college from grief. If anything, they were worried that I chose to be an artist because their lives proved that it could be difficult financially. The people who took it a little harder were my maternal grandparents. My grandmother wanted me to be a doctor and my grandfather wanted me to be President.
Surfing the Bleed: You attended the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA. SCAD has a history of really supporting the medium of graphic storytelling and even offers a degree in that field. Can you talk about your experience there, how it helped you mature as an artist and how it affected your approach to comics?
Joy Taney: I learned just as much about how to act like an artist as I did to draw like one at SCAD. Being able to do creative problem-solving and take criticism was something I really struggled with, and I think only in my senior year did I make headway (and if any of my former professors are reading this, I'm well aware and very sorry that I was a miserable little troll in your classes. I really am, I was terrible). For my last three years I attended the satellite campus in Atlanta, and the teachers there were very focused on visual storytelling, which is the key to getting the story across clearly. Let's be frank, my art isn't as beautiful as a lot of the other people who came out of SCAD, but with sharp visual storytelling skills I can make it more appealing.
Surfing the Bleed: You're interning right now for Gaijin Studios in Atlanta, a comics collective that includes such heavy-hitters as Laura Martin, Brian Stelfreeze and Cully Hamner. Can you tell us how you landed the job and what all it entails?
Joy Taney: I got the internship through SCAD. The application process went like a basic portfolio review, except that the guys cracked a couple offensive jokes to see if I was cool with their sense of humor. The internship itself is a dream--studio space and time to work on my own projects interspersed with jobs or errands that I do for the people at Gaijin. I've flatted, I've filled in blacks, scanned and resized work... the other day I used a kneaded eraser to lift off extra graphite so Karl Story, another of the awesome artists at Gaijin Studios, could ink some pages with less difficulty. Did you know there's even a special technique (learn more) for that? The most consistent job I do, though, is cleaning up the studio and taking out the trash. Maybe someday I'll find a discarded sketch in the garbage and sell it on eBay! Don't get your hopes up though, I can't see a faster way of getting that internship canned.
Surfing the Bleed: What have you learned from your time there and how has working with those big creators affected your work and your approach to the industry?
Joy Taney: I've been interning since June and I still can't stop geeking out over how cool it is, to work under the pros! They have all taught me something. What I love about Gaijin is that it's essentially a continuation of my education, only this time I don't have to pay for it. I get a lot of tips on advanced storytelling and professional etiquette.
Surfing the Bleed: You're currently working on your own creator-owned property, Son of Babylon. It's a story with deep roots in Hebrew history. Can you tell us a bit about the book and what your inspiration for the story was?
Joy Taney: Son of Babylon is my prequel to the Book of Ezra. It takes place in 500 BC, when the Hebrews were forced out of their home city of Judah to live in Babylon as second-class citizens. It follows Zerubbabel, who will eventually become the man to free the Hebrews, in his younger years and sees him start to take a hand in Hebrew history. The first thing on his task list is to ferret out the mole in his community who is secretly working for the shah of Babylon.
The inspiration for Son of Babylon was actually something that happened 2000 years before, involving the mysterious, marauding Sea People. There was a quote by Rameses III about them, "No land could stand before their arms... They laid their hands upon the land to the ends of the earth." Tell me that doesn't send chills up your spine! Originally the story would have taken place in 2500 BC and been about a farmboy who encountered the Sea People, but when I was researching Assyrian names I came across the history of Zerubbabel and realized that would make for a much more interesting topic. No one's told any stories about the events I'm covering since the writers of the Bible, so I have a lot of untouched material to play with.
Surfing the Bleed: What creative and historical influences are you drawing from for Son of Babylon?
Joy Taney: I've been developing this story for almost a year now, and the hardest part is the research. For instance, my best friend wants to do a comic that takes place during the French Revolution. She can get books on the historical clothing, take a virtual tour of Versailles, and if she was really hard up, she could go on Wikipedia. I don't have it anywhere as lucky. In a year, I've acquired only four books on the time period and a handful of websites. One of my biggest resources has been the Bible itself. You can agree or disagree with what it has to say theologically, but the records kept on the time period I'm studying were pretty detailed. There are some things in Son of Babylon that are intentionally historically inaccurate, like how all of the carts in my rendition of Babylon are actually Roman carts, because I can't find any pictures of Babylonian carts. Most of the inaccuracies I am aware of, and use for dramatic purposes. The creative part comes in when I not only have to weave a story around this series of historical events, but when I come to a piece of history, mostly visual, that I don't have any information on. Luckily Babylon has its own aesthetics and I'm learning to fake it convincingly.
Surfing the Bleed: You identify yourself as reform Jewish. Can you speak a bit about your journey through your faith, how it affects your life and how it influences your work?
Joy Taney: I came from a family that took a broad variety of influences into their faith. Every Passover seder, my grandfather, an environmental scientist, would loudly proclaim that the God he worshiped was not a little man in the clouds taking notes on everything bad that you did. My mother was, in college, part of a Hindu cult, and my father went to Catholic school, and I studied Theosophy for a while. It kept me very open-minded and I have had the opportunity to see a lot of different faiths in action. Jewish culture encourages intelligence and analysis--one of the most respected things you can do is become a Rabbi so you can analyze the hidden meanings of the Torah all day. I take a scientific approach to faith, and that's perfectly acceptable within the religion. It also allows me to look at the Bible, a major part of my research for this book, as not only a religious text but as a historical one as well as a guide to the culture at the time it was written.
Surfing the Bleed: Talk a bit, if you would, about the process of creating the pitch for Son of Babylon and what the reaction to it has been so far. Also, you're in competition for some grants for your work due to the nature of the subject matter, correct?
Joy Taney: I've worked on my pitch packets with a few people looking over my shoulder, chief among them Cully Hamner. I try to market them in eye-catching ways--Matt Kindt's creative designs inspired me to wrap the physical packets in actual papyrus, which I would cut down to size and print designs out on. The reactions I get from publishers have been two-fold--everyone finds the pitch and sample pages to be very exciting, but so far none of them have said it was a good fit for the company. I showed Scott Allie of Dark Horse my packet, for instance, and he was very enthusiastic, but when it came down to it, Son of Babylon just wasn't in the direction Dark Horse is moving. As for grants, I'm trying to find the right organization for Hebrew history that would be interested in the comic.
Surfing the Bleed: You mentioned that you have a couple of other projects going right now. Without divulging too much, can you tell us a bit about the other irons you have in the fire and what your plans for them are in the future?
Joy Taney: After Son of Babylon, which will be two graphic novels, I have plans for a three-graphic novel mystery set in a bar. That's inspired by my own experience working as a barmaid as well as a late-night musing on the duality of pleasure. However, the project I'm working on simultaneously with Son of Babylon is a lesbian romance novel with a setting similar to A Handmaid's Tale. It was inspired by Twilight, actually--or to be more specific, my reaction to Twilight, which was, "I can write a better story than this!" So I am.
Surfing the Bleed: You're a comics professional currently trying to break in. So far I've interviewed a number of people who struggled for a while but have finally managed to crack that glass ceiling. What's it like being right on the cusp, feeling like you're so close to a big break? Is the anticipation exciting, nerve-wracking? And what advice do you have for people in a similar position to your own?
Joy Taney: Definitely nerve-wracking. I'm creating this book that's in a genre you don't see a lot of, and that's working against me right now. It's a thrill to get such a good reaction from fellow creators though, there's a number of people out there rooting for me to break in. For people in my situation, I'd say treat every opportunity as a potential for business. Like this interview, for instance--I would love it if I a publisher read this and contacted me about working with them (hint, hint), but it's also adding to my visibility before I get that first job, which is good because people might recognize me.
Surfing the Bleed: The comics industry isn't one dominated by female creators. Do you think your gender makes it harder for you to break in? Have you encountered any situations yet where you felt like people were marginalizing you as a "female" creator instead of treating you as simply a creator?
Joy Taney: At this point in the comic industry's development, I feel that being a girl is an asset instead of a liability. People get excited when they hear about new female comic book creators. At Baltimore Con, the thing I kept hearing was how badly everyone wanted to read more books about girls, written by girls. That was great for my friend to hear, who's working on a female-oriented superhero story, but there I was, feeling awkward about being a girl writing a book about a boy! If anything, I've experienced reverse discrimination--people are more interested because I'm female and that's still rare. However, I do feel there aren't enough truly interesting women characters in mainstream comics, and I'd love a chance to help change that. Most mainstream comics are written for a male audience, and so the male characters have the more interesting stories while the women act as love interests and eye candy. It's rare to find a girl character who can really hold her own with the men while not simultaneously being shot in angles that emphasize her T&A. Men are strong, and women are sexy. I'd like to see some more inversions of that trope.
Surfing the Bleed: What creative goals would you like to achieve in your time in the comics industry? Any particular tropes you'd like to shatter or stories you really want to tell? What are you passionate about and what do you want the industry to know about you, about what you plan to do to advance comics into the future?
Joy Taney: That relates back to the last question, and what I said about interesting female protagonists. I would love to introduce new characters or rework establishing ones to be fascinating independent of their male counterparts. I'm also a strong proponent of idea-driven stories, and my goal with any story I work on is to carry through on the strong idea behind it.
Surfing the Bleed: Thanks again for doing the interview Joy! It's always great to sit down with a fellow Browncoat. You've been absolutely fantastic and I really appreciate your candor. I wish you the best of luck as you continue down this road and Surfing the Bleed will be pulling for you!
Joy Taney: It's been a pleasure, and I wish Surfing the Bleed all the best in the future!