Kleefeld On Webcomics #39: Rina Piccolo Interview

By Sean Kleefeld

Rina Piccolo is perhaps best known for her newspaper strip, Tina’s Groove, which has been in syndication since 2002. More recently, however, Piccolo has taken a dive into webcomics and has been concurrently working on Velia, Dear since 2010. We caught up with Piccolo to talk about working both in newspapers and online.

MTV Geek: It’s been noted in several places (including on your own site) that your first published comic was in 1989. But your “big break” was about a decade later when you took up the Wednesday slot for Six Chix. I understand that, in the past, you’ve noted that decade was filled with “trillions of rejections” but how did the strip come about? Was that something you and the others took to King Features yourselves after doing a lot of individual submissions, or did the idea come from one of the editors there, or…?

Rina Piccolo: Six Chix was Jay Kennedy’s idea. Jay was the comics editor at King Features Syndicate and he was well known as a promoter of women’s comics. He saw that the newspaper comics page was lacking humor from a woman’s perspective, and decided to increase the percentage of women cartoonists on the page in one shot. He had a pretty good idea from the beginning who he’d choose to be in the strip, and I was one of the names on his list. Like any good editor, he had his finger on the pulse of the cartoon industry, and so it wasn’t too difficult for him to find us.

Geek: At least from my seat, it would seem that Six Chix provided you with a great opportunity to work closely with King editors, who could help get Tina’s Groove started. Was Tina something you already had already been working on prior to 2000, or was that a matter of wanting to expand on some ideas that didn’t fit into the Chix format?

Piccolo: Tina’s Groove (although it didn’t have a title at the time) was underway before 2000 and long before Six Chix was born. (I realize that, on the surface, it’s logical to assume that it was the other way around.) Jay called me sometime in the early 90s to ask if I’d like to develop my own strip. It took years for me to actually do it! Anyway, we’d go back and forth with work, and ideas, and different premisses, and then sometime around 1998 he asked if I wanted to be in Six Chix. He told me it would demand only one gag a week and that it totally left room for me to continue working with him in developing my own strip. By the way, the reason Jay was aware of my work in the early 90s is because I was selling gag cartoons to a feature King was running called The New Breed. The New Breed was a daily single panel gag cartoon that hosted a different cartoonist every day of the week. It no longer runs.

Geek: What was the process of getting Tina syndicated like, compared to Chix?

Piccolo: The administrative/contract process was basically the same. The creative process was different — for one, it took me YEARS to get things right with Tina, and no time at all for the Six Chix gags! The reason behind that had a lot to do with the fact that, at the time, my strengths leaned toward gag cartooning, which I had been doing for years. And so, I really had to work hard to learn new tricks and figure out how to write for a comic strip. I had never before worked with characters, and I’ll be honest with you, doing a strip forced me to learn new tricks, and it didn’t come easy at first.

Geek: Unlike many, if not most, newspaper strips currently running, yours have come about after the internet became fairly well-known. It was around that same time, too, that I think people started realizing that a business model that might work in print might not work online. There was a fair amount of experimentation going on, at all levels of the process, from creators to syndicates to newspapers. I’m curious, first, what your take on things were since you were first getting into syndication right when a lot of this was happening and, second, what types of things were you hearing coming from the syndicate back then. Were you, for example, being told and/or offered different types of agreements than a cartoonist who may have been in the business even just a few years longer because of what was happening online? Was anyone thinking they’d have to change their business models or marketing plans at that point?

Piccolo: Six Chix launched in 2000, and Tina’s Groove launched in 2002. At the expense of looking like a total cavewoman I have to be really honest with you here — I didn’t even own a computer back then! I think I got my first email address in late 2002, or 2003! The internet, at least to ignorant me, had absolutely no bearing on what I was doing with my comics. That said, I’m well aware now in retrospect, that King Features was a bit more on top of things than its cartoonists were (thank God!). Anyway, my contract for Tina’s Groove was the standard contract that King had been offering for years. (Here’s a good place to dispel a myth common amongst some cartoonists: I want to make it clear that I own Tina’s Groove. Those days of syndicates owning cartoonist’s strips are long gone. I don’t know of any contemporary syndicated cartoonist who doesn’t own their strip. Syndicates just do not own peoples’ strips anymore. People should know this.)

So, in short, I really didn’t become aware of the whole digital vs print thing until I was well into my 5th or 6th year of Tina’s Groove. (And to tell you the honest truth, although I realize the business models have changed, I’m still waiting for the sky — that everyone’s saying is falling — to fall.) Who knows, maybe it’ll fall next week, and everyone can point to this interview and say “She had no idea it was just around the corner”! What I’m saying is this: if the syndicates were thinking of changing their business models as early as 2000, then I certainly wasn’t aware of it. As for my contract, it was a smart one. There’s a clause that covers any future technologies and platforms that will come into existence during the duration of the contract. So, yeah, they had the whole digital thing covered — right from the beginning — in the language of the legalese. Now that’s a contract with foresight!

Geek: I’d like to fast-forward a bit to shortly before you started work on Velia, Dear. When Velia first launched, you expressed an interest in having more creative freedom than in traditional venues. What was it that prompted thinking along those lines? Were you just really energized by seeing what other webcomic creators were doing, or were you running into issues with either Chix or Tina, or…?

Piccolo: I started it because I have a lot of ideas. And I think it’s good to have a lot of ideas. The thing is, not all of your ideas are going to work well in the available markets. Some ideas are transferable, but not all. So I created a project for myself to have complete creative freedom in. I had no idea about web comics — I only knew that I could write and draw strips with paper and ink, and scan them into a computer, and load them up onto the internet for people to see. A couple of months into it, I started leaning toward telling stories, and I began to look at the whole thing as an experimental learning process (I still do). It isn’t simply a case of having issues with the syndication markets — sure, I get frustrated now and then when I’m forced to behave in a family-friendly manner, but it doesn’t happen too often, and I really can’t complain. I just wanted to learn some new tricks, and exercise my funny bone in a fantastic new way. As a creator what makes me happy is to be creating a bunch of different things — not just one or two things. And since I’ve gotten really fast and efficient with drawing and writing, it takes me less time to do one job, leaving more time for new projects.

Geek: Being a bit behind the curve on computers — at least prior to getting an email account! — did you have any technical challenges on starting Velia, Dear? I’m guessing you’d already been submitting Tina’s Groove to King electronically by then, so how new/different was getting Velia started for you just from a technology perspective?

Piccolo: Oh, boy did I have technical challenges with Velia, Dear. Although I knew the basics from scanning and emailing my Tina’s Groove strips, there were a lot of things I had to learn in order to get the strips on the web. I hired a friend of mine (Tea Fougner, a cartoonist/editor/website wiz) to develop the Velia website, and to tutor me on how to get the images from the drawing board to the site, and how to manage the pages, and all that. So, yes — I had to learn all that stuff. I’m not going to say that I like doing it, but it’s a necessary step in the process of doing a web comic.

Geek: In reading Velia, it’s obvious to me at least that it couldn’t run as a syndicated newspaper strip. While I expect the occassional swear word or sexual reference could be tweaked for a more “family friendly” audience, I also note that Velia has some dark undercurrents to it that would probably make it a hard sell in newspapers. Has the difference in tone, do you think, brought in a new type of audience to your work, or does it seem like there’s a lot of overlap with Chix and Tina?

Piccolo: Yes, you’re right — Velia, Dear has a tone, and undercurrents, that would make it a tough sell for today’s newspaper market. From the feedback I’m getting, I think it’s safe to say that the readership of Velia, Dear is culled from both Tina’s Groove readers, and those readers who are new to my stuff in general. So I would say, yes, there is a bit of an overlap there.

Geek: How does your creation process compare across the three strips? I know you’ve noted Velia gets planned out months in advance, in part because you’re working with longer storylines, but in terms of laying out a page or trying to figure out the pacing or anything. With the different styles and tones across the strips, do you have set aside blocks of days to work on one versus another, or are you able to switch gears fairly easily?

Piccolo: The creation process, and how it differs between Tina’s Groove, Velia, Dear, and Six Chix…… wow, now that’s a question I can write a book on! I’ll try to be brief. Let me start out by saying that Tina’s Groove has been part of my repertoire for so long that the strip’s characters have become an intimate part of me. I can put those guys on the stage and make them do anything. There’s a level of comfort in writing Tina’s Groove that I really enjoy and have fun with. I block out one day to write a week (or more) of strips, and then schedule one and a half days to draw 6 dailies, and 1 sunday. Sometimes, when I’m in the mood, I’ll write dialogs for Tina in the evenings, and use the material later on, when I need it.

For Velia, Dear the process is a little different for two reasons: number one because there are longer story lines, and number two, because I’m just now learning about effective storytelling, and character arcs, and things of that nature. It’s a lot like writing a screenplay in which there is a beginning, middle, and end, and there are scenes that make up the structure. I feel that writing and drawing Velia, Dear presents a bigger challenge for me right now. (That’s not saying much. In 2002, Tina’s Groove provided all the challenge I needed!) I guess that means I’m learning, right?

As for Six Chix — As I’ve said before, gags were my first passion in cartooning, and after 24 years of writing these things, I think I’ve pretty much gotten to a point where it’s so much a part of me that it just comes to me naturally. I don’t want to say it’s easy — it’s never easy. But I can say it comes naturally.

Unlike a decade ago, I now find it easy to switch gears between different jobs. I guess it all just comes with practice? You do this stuff for years and years, and after a while you’re just kind of hardwired for it. Does that make sense?

Geek: I wonder if you could elaborate a bit more on writing for Velia. Obviously, with the longer story arcs, there’s more planning that goes into it, so I suspect writing a week’s worth of strips probably can’t be exclusive to one day a week for you. Or do you still handle the individual strips that way, but do the broader plotting separately?

Piccolo: When it became a continuity strip with story arcs, writing for Velia, Dear became radically different from writing for Tina’s Groove. There is more planning that goes into writing a story. I work with a loose outline, and determine what’s going to happen. Once I know what’s going to happen in the story, I arrange those events into scenes. The trick is to have each strip carry the story and reward the reader with something at the end of it — a joke, a funny situation, a cliffhanger, or insight into the story. On a good day, I can write 9 or 10 strips. I set aside a block of hours to write, and shut down the internet — no distractions! The plotting or planning happens on the same day that I write the actual scripts for each strip. It’s a long day, and the work is hard, but it’s engaging and fun.

I should add that the story I’m working on right now is not as outlined as the previous stories. I wrote a blog post about it. This is pure experimentation on my part — I want to see where the characters are going to go with it, and what happens when I work without a definite outline in mind. Kind of scary!

Geek: What about differences between Chix, Tina and Velia in terms of execution at the drawing table? It looks like you’re using less brush work and more pens in Velia, but then adding ink washes? I can see why the washes might not be something you could use effectively in a newspaper strip, but I’m curious about what your thinking was in using different tools.

Piccolo: Yes, I use different tools for different things, and I have to be honest here — it’s all to amuse myself! When you use a brush for years and years, picking up a nib feels refreshing, and new. I enjoy both the brush, and the pens, and I’m happy to have different projects in which to use them. So that was my thinking behind using pens for Velia, Dear is that I just wanted to try something new (it’s drawn with a Nikko “G” nib). As for the wash — I’ve always loved the look of washes. When done properly a wash enriches a simple line drawing and gives it tone. When I was younger I used to look at the cartoons in the New Yorker and I’d tell myself to learn how to do that.

It’s true that ink washes don’t translate very effectively on newsprint, and the only half-tones you can get with newspaper comics are with the old zipitone or ben day speckling, or cross-hatching — and still the results are different. This being so, I couldn’t exercise my “wash-muscle” in that venue. However, I’ve been using washes on my magazine gags over the years, and so I was well into using them by the time I started Velia, Dear. I love working with washes, and I really like the results — so when I started drawing Velia I wanted the strip to have a certain look — I wanted some of the panels to somehow float on the page, vignette style, when I wanted them to. I believe that how a comic strip “looks” contributes to the character of the strip as much as the content does.

Geek: You’re almost two years into Velia; how do feel it’s been going? Has it been successful — however you may define it? Has it changed your approach to your other strips?

Piccolo: Nearly two years in, Velia, Dear makes zero money, as I had imagined. For me, it’s been a two-year graphic and fiction-writing course. How much would it have cost me to do that at a university? The plus side is that I get to show my work, and get feedback. In one way, I foresee an end for Velia, Dear, but seen in another way, this project will never be finished.

Geek: By “this project will never be finished”, are you suggesting that Velia will be haunted by Nancy’s ghost after she passes?

Piccolo: Nancy’s ghost — ha! Nancy doesn’t have to be a ghost to haunt people, especially family members! Anyway, I mentioned in my blog that “this project will never be finished” because, well, I’ve got some stock characters here that seem to work well with each other, and a world that is in a lot of ways close to my own (minus the flying nuns) and well, I really can’t finish, can I? Although I don’t want to say anything definite about the future of the web comic Velia, Dear just yet, I will say that I will forever be making up stories for its characters, who don’t seem to want to stop getting into trouble.

Geek: Thanks so much your time, Rina! I really appreciate it!

Piccolo: Thank you so much Sean — It’s been a real pleasure.

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