DANIEL VANDERWEFF, Webcomics - Interview

This week, Rambling On welcomes the mysterious and deadly webcomic secret ninja known as Mr. V to our intervie…

Wait, hold on, that’s not right. Let’s try that again.

This week, Rambling On welcomes the funny and not-at-all-deadly Daniel Vanderwerff to our interview table. Daniel is the writer-artist behind SCHOOL SPIRIT, a very family-friendly webcomic about a group of Australian kids whose primary school (elementary/grade school to our American readers) just happens to be right next to a cemetery full of very active spirits (not ghosts, thank-you-very-much). Being a primary school teacher himself, Daniel (“Mr. V” to his students) has a keen sense of the types of adventures these kids would get up to, especially if they were friends with the dearly departed. The tone of the strip is usually light and often filled with visual and verbal puns, but Daniel’s not afraid to touch on more serious subject matter if it’s appropriate to the characters (a recent arc, for example, dealt with a student coming to terms with the fact that she might really be a bully without intending to be one).

Here’s a couple of samples:

Casper and Cody meet Wendy

Casper and Cody meet Wendy

Wendy the Spirit gets to know Grace better.

Wendy the Spirit gets to know Grace better.

Okay, on with the interview!

Anthony: Hi Daniel. Thanks for agreeing to “sit down” for this international email interview!

Daniel: No worries. Thank you for the opportunity to have a quiet chin-wag with you about it, and for considering School Spirit worthy of your time as a reader.

A: This past week, School Spirit hit a landmark 1,000 strips. Some nationally syndicated print strips here in America don’t get that far, so congratulations. When you started the webcomic, did you think you’d still be working on it 1,000 strips later? Was there ever a point where you thought you might give it up?

D: Some nationally syndicated print strips in America might not get this far, but I bet you Sydney to a brick that they made more money! But that’s not why School Spirit’s here. No, I didn’t think back in late 2003 when I first drew Casper and the kids for the first few times that I’d end up reaching 1000 (and more) strips without a break seven or so years later. When the idea of making a webcomic was first brought up to me (considering I hadn’t actually READ one yet until after I had started making one…) I scoffed and said ‘I’m a teacher! I don’t have time for rubbish like this!’ And… yeah. He we are, 1000 regular strips later.
I can’t really say, though, that there was ever a point where I thought I might pack it all in. It was never meant to be a job and I never expected to make a crust from it (although getting a few bucks back every now and then for it wouldn’t be passed up!), so in that regard it’s never been more than a hobby. There HAVE been times when keeping it running was taxing, but you get second winds every now and then, tie it all up with wire, so to speak, and keep the show on the road.

A: I won’t ask who your favorite character is, because that’s like asking you to choose your favorite student or favorite child. Instead, I’ll ask which of the student characters you feel has drifted into the background over the years, and why you think that might have happened. (Lynn Johnston, the creator of the print comic FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE tells the story of suddenly realizing a supporting character had virtually disappeared from the story, and then going to figure out why.)

D: Most of them, from time to time, if I’m honest. While she’s not a student character, Mavis the busdriver went over a year without popping up, which I only realised when a reader brought it up. Davey Jones, Brylcreem, Chastity and her two shadows have all dropped off the radar from time to time, but I don’t really think any of them have come close to disappearing. Davey is probably the closest, but he still pops his head in every now and then and occasionally gets a more prominent front row seat. The football match and some of the schoolyard cricket scenes are ones that come to mind for him.

The reason for things like this tend to be because they were only intended to be background colour to the principal characters, and therefore the stories didn’t always allow them appropriate spots to pop their faces in. Over 1000 strips though, each of the kids has had their chance to take centre stage and show their character.

A: Occasionally (and I’m thinking mostly of the year-end strips) it feels like the kids know they’re in a comic-strip. I can’t recall that you’ve ever directly addressed the issue, but I have wondered about it. Is this purposeful? Are they aware they’re fictional characters or when they look at the reader, is it more like they’re looking at a camera crew filming a documentary? Or am I just analyzing those occasional “oh, not this joke again” panels too hard?

D: Ah, the fourth wall. It’s a terrible, terrible mistake making your characters break that fourth wall and register the presence of the audience, isn’t it? Too bad. I don’t really agree with that. If it’s a serious story, then yes, it’s not usually a good idea. But this is a story about a bunch of kids doing kid stuff. Also, it started as a primary school musical production I was writing for the kids to perform. Most of the school plays (the fun ones!) I’ve seen have some sort of interaction with the audience and share the jokes with them, so School Spirit as a play was littered with audience references and interaction. I just adapted those sorts of little inside jokes between the characters and their audience into the strip.

So yes, it is purposeful that the kids are still only very occasionally glancing in the audience’s direction as though silently asking if they got the joke too. I’m not entirely sure they realise they’re in a comic strip (there is one strip very early where they appear to understand this, but that is one of the strips I recognise as a mistake now looking back), but then perhaps the documentary idea is closer to the mark. I just like to remind readers that what they are reading is, in fact, just a comic strip, and nothing more than that. Have a laugh and hopefully learn to love the kids along with me, but they’re in on the jokes from time to time as well. It’s not that they’re intelligent enough to work it all out, it’s probably more that they’re just filled with flat out kid cunning!

A: The main focus of the strip continues to be “the big three” of Casper, Cody and Grace, with Wendy the Spirit coming and going. Can you talk a little bit about the dynamic between these four characters, and how it has changed over the years?

D: Actually, the Big Three are Casper, Cody and Wendy, although I can understand how you include Grace in that number. Casper is the ‘every man’ of the strip. I suppose he’s the straight man of all the kids and tends to learn about the strip and the setting along with the reader (especially in the first year or so of the strip) whereas Cody was more his comic foil. These two were the invisible nobodies than no one really noticed or bothered about, and that is why they could see and hear Wendy, the young spirit in the cemetery next door. This was the original seed of the whole strip. Since then though, they’ve all grown and developed and the dynamics are somewhat more muddled now. Grace was their third monkey back at school, but Wendy was their third monkey everywhere else. Particularly over these last 100 strips, Grace has grown and developed much further (and it was not before time, it must be admitted), and it actually ended up being her interactions with Wendy that have been the underlying story for the last year. Now, Wendy has distinct relationships with both the two boys, and Grace, that are completely separate, which I think has given the strip an important change of pace and focus now.

A: The supporting cast has grown from occasional foils for the main three kids to characters with their own storylines that occasionally take center stage. What happens when you get that “a-ha” moment that a character is ready to carry a storyline (or, for that matter, when a background character is ready to gain a name and a best friend)?

D: I love working from time to time with the background kids, although they really stopped being background kids quite early on. They have all featured in their own storylines over the history of the strip. There are still original intentions for some of the characters that haven’t eventuated yet, purely because the time isn’t right for it just yet. Casper’s continuing wish to have Chastity register his existence is one plot point that still hasn’t resolved itself, although from time to time it does reappear and develop further.

I think the real reason the supporting cast have developed over the years is because it gave the main three kids a chance to have a break. It also allowed me to work with other stories and ideas that just wouldn’t work with Casper and Cody. Those two can’t carry the stories that Chastity and her girls can, or those that Brylcreem and Davey Jones can. They’re different kids which means different views and behaviours. They’re also important parts for the colour of the School Spirit world. I don’t think the strip would be anywhere near as rich in colour and warmth as I hope it is if those supporting cast characters had stayed in the background.

Oh, and I know exactly what point you are talking about when you speak of a background character getting a name and a best mate! Those two younger boys did just pop up as background kids for one strip only, but the moment I put words in his mouth (because he was the kid in the front of the group – and who knows whether I put the words in his mouth or he just said them to me himself!), I knew he was staying. As I mentioned with the recent stories with Grace and Wendy, the appearance of Jackson and Didj so suddenly at the start of 2010 gave the strip a breath of fresh air and I think again just added to the colour of the strip. I’m really glad those two kids walked onto the page and refused to bugger off! I really like them!

A: There seems to be a perception that comics like yours, in which the characters don’t age despite regularly celebrating annual holidays and end-of-school and so on, are not as heavily plotted as the more “real-time” comics are. Two questions: one, why do you think that perception exists, and two, how far ahead do you plot the goings-on of School Spirit?

D: I think it could be just as simple as people want a reason to justify not wanting to read certain genres. Every June School Spirit runs a birthday week, and every year it runs an End Of Year Series. None of these strips are part of the counted number or the main stories. None of the kids in the real strips have had birthdays or aged yet, although they have spoken about things like Easter more than once which could be seen as ‘not aging’. Other than that, School Spirit is just as much a ‘real-time’ comic as your common graphic novel set up. If there are stand alone jokes in School Spirit’s archive, they’re written into storylines that all tend to follow on and build form each other as the archive progresses.

As for planning ahead, there is very little actually written down. There are three major story themes waiting to start at this point, but they could well only appear after another 250 to 500 strips yet. I know what ‘main plots’ I want particular kids to feature in, but I also don’t want those plots to flood the strip for lengthy periods. Instead, the kids not featured in those strips tend to interrupt the stories with their own shorter ones every now and then. It just keeps my work a bit more fresh and breaks up the main plots a bit. To be honest, I rarely even script out each storyline! I usually have an ending in mind, an idea of how it can start, and then just fill the gaps as I go along, letting it grow naturally as I work on them. Many would probably think it lazy or unprofessional, but I’m still here, eh?

A: You include a page of Australian slang to help us foreigners understand the kids better. What I find humorous is that I rarely need to consult it — almost every slang word makes sense in context. Have you seen your international audience grow over the years, or has it remained consistent?

D: I honestly couldn’t say. I don’t think I’ve seen my audience grow much over the last few years at all. It seems to have stayed quite, well, stagnant! It’s never been a strong crowd pulling strip, but it has held onto a fairly quiet yet loyal little group. It doesn’t feature what I consider ‘internet humour’ or the cliches I feel many use and abuse, but I also don’t want to weaken what the characters have made for me by bringing cheap laughs in just to drag in an audience that didn’t appreciate it already. Internationally though, the audience seems to be predominantly American or British, although there do seem to be regular readers from Canada and Germany as well. One or two. I have had complaints that it isn’t in English, or that I’ve spelled words incorrectly (by the way, up above you spelled the word centre wrong, you American language killer!). Actually, I’ve even had people accuse me of pretending to be Australian just to have a hook, because no one in the world really talks like these kids do. I just laugh at stuff like that. I say g’day, I say struth, I say ‘Are you fair dinkum? Give us a captain’s at that, it looks a right corker!’ and ‘Avagooweegend’. I enjoy using Australian slang and lingo as well. It’s part of my character and it’s part of School Spirit’s character.

A: As you mentioned earlier, School Spirit started out conceptually as a musical and was actually performed. Did you record the musical’s performances, and what are the chances that you’ll someday add a music page to the site and let us hear the songs you wrote?

D: Yes. School Spirit: The Musical was performed back in 2004 by a group of grade five and six students. It ran for an hour and a half, was in two acts, and featured twelve original songs with each of the speaking parts having at least a verse if not an entire song to sing. I have a CD with the recorded show on it somewhere, but I’d have to dig around for the songs. I don’t have them recorded with lyrics though, just the music, so if they did appear on the site in the future, they’d have to be there alongside the written lyrics.

Many of the songs were littered with references and homages to various Australian bands and songs, too, which probably isn’t surprising if you’ve read the strip and understand how Australian I have tried to make it!

It was fantastic to see my characters walking and talking in live action, and the kids gave those characters I draw on paper different aspects and behaviours I could never have given them. Also, I highly doubt there’s another webcomic in the vast internet world that is actually also a musical production, eh?

A: There was recently a case in the US where a teacher who was also an author received negative attention from parents because the teacher’s books were not suitable for her students, despite the teacher writing under a pen name and never bringing her books up in class or in the school at all. Since you are a teacher as well as the creator of a web-comic about a school, what kind of comments or feedback have you gotten from students, parents, and other faculty over the years?

D: To be honest, very few people I work with know School Spirit exists, and I don’t think any of them read it anyway. To be fair, I don’t really advertise the fact to everyone I meet. It’s a hobby, and amazingly, there are many, many people out there in the real world who don’t give two shakes about things like webcomics. I have had kids read it and pop up from time to time, but their attention moves on quickly too. The main reactions I’ve had to School Spirit came when it was being performed. A parent took offense to the story featuring ghosts and didn’t want her daughter to take part. Her reason was because she believed in God and School Spirit was evil and featured characters who had come back from the dead. When I asked ‘isn’t that what Jesus did?’ she dropped the argument! The kid still didn’t take part. But other than that, there have been no negative reactions. If you can find something offensive in School Spirit, then really, you’re looking at it far too seriously!

A: Other than the odd way you spell things like ‘behaviour’ and ‘colour,’ I can’t think of anything offensive in School Spirit. haha Now for my usual closing question: What is your favorite book and what would you say to recommend it to someone who hasn’t read it yet?

D: Easy. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s just a beautiful, tragic, warm and simplistically honest story. I recently bought myself a little Jack Russell pup and he was always going to be named Jem. I just absolutely adore the book, and to me it’s not about the slavery or the court case or the right or wrongs of the racism undertones. It’s a story about the innocent and magic of childhood and the relationship between a man and his children, and to me, Jem is one of the greatest literary heroes ever put to paper. It’s one of the world’s true masterpieces.

A: This has been a fun interview. Hopefully, it’ll bring more readership to a webcomic I absolutely love. Thanks again, Mr. V., for your time… and here’s hoping we see another 1,000 School Spirit strips!

D: I’m not promising anything, but I don’t intend to pull up stumps on it just yet. I still enjoy the company of the kids, and I just hope there are some out there who feel likewise. Cheers.

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