October 27, 2008

Why Settle For Something When You Can Make It Shine?

An interview with Hooping Fan Extraordinaire and Design-Award Winner Danielle McIntosh

I have to admit that when looking for new ideas or references to interesting and clever people that I could possibly interview, that I often peruse my favorite design or illustration blogs or magazines, or hit my colleagues up for advice – the ones that is who can afford to go to all the cool art shows and such. Occasionally, I might even have an inspiration on my own, but there we should definitely underline the word “occasionally” several times.

However, in this case, I was alerted to
Danielle McIntosh’s award-winning design achievement through my favorite daily on-line sports site, just below another update on Tiger Wood’s knee and right above the requisite latest news on which player was dating which Hollywood starlet (we apologize for the rampant sexism, but check out the input under the title “Great Rack”).

In fact hooping or hoop dance – the focus of this article in addition to Danielle and her work – lends itself to a kind of “grey zone” definition. Call it a fad or a link to an America long since lost or if you want the newest, trendy exercise craze that’s, quote, “sweeping the nation.” But one thing can not be disputed: for Danielle McIntosh, hooping is definitely a passion.

To be honest, I thought this was going to be a rather “routine” interview; but the facts of the case took me into details about hooping that both fascinated and quite pleasantly surprised me. For example, did you know that:
- We humans have been hooping literally for thousands of years, including in ancient Egypt where children would whirl dried grapevine hoops for fun?
- That this “trend” continued over the centuries to “later days” in Europe where wooden hoops would be twirled about in ye olde jolly England and journeyed sea-men reportedly started calling it “hula” owing to the similarity of the dance of the same name they had seen during their visits to the islands of Hawaii?
- This would then eventually lead to the first plastic version, namely the “Hula Hoop” from Wham-O Inc., an iconic toy that this past year celebrated its 50th birthday (now how many of you honestly just moaned and said “oh man, I can remember when those came out!! Has it really been 50 years?”)[Answer: yes, it has, the Hula Hoop was introduced about 3 years after the Rolling Stones toured the United States for the first time…]?
- And finally, if you’ve been watching the Olympics over the past several years, you’ve seen that the “dance” competitions in gymnastics very often feature elegant and challenging routines with hoops as the prop of choice.

So from child’s play-thing to the stage of the highest level of sports in the world, hooping has, if I may be so bold, come a long way baby! But today’s world of hooping is so much more. We caught up with Danielle about this healthy topic and how she got involved in it:

Hi Danielle, thanks for taking the time for us. First of all, I wanted to ask, why do you think we “humans” have enjoyed some form of hooping for so very long?
Well Ziggy, I think that what it comes down to is that humans enjoy endless possibilities through creative expression. Once you start handling a hoop, you soon realize there are so many things to do with it and that it can become a metaphor for so much of life (as much of life is circular).

If you had to describe in 20 words or less to someone totally unfamiliar with hooping why you enjoy it so much, what you would you say?
I enjoy hooping because I find inner peace and excitement in life through learning how to move within a hoop. (I hope that’s 20 ^_^)

You’ve not only opened up the “second generation” of your own
hooping fan- and expert site but as well just received your official certification as a “Licensed HoopGirl™ Teacher.” Explain to us novices then why it’s advantageous to learn this interesting activity from a licensed instructor vs. a part-time or even door-to-door free-roaming teacher-type person?
Hooping is growing in a big way, and I personally chose to seek a HoopGirl certification because I wanted to learn how to teach from one of the best hoopers alive, Christabel Zamor (who is THE Hoop Girl, see link provided later). Still, I think that value can be found in both the licensed instructors and the freelance ones. Each has their own approach, really an individual flavor, and licensure was just one of the many paths that I took to teach hooping.

Danielle, you graduated a few months ago from the
University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Biological System Engineering with a Natural Resources and Environmental Engineering option (wow, that’s a mouthful!! My boring old diploma just says “Some Kind of Chemistry & Stuff”). For those of us for an aversion to anything with the word “Engineering” in the title, can you explain a bit about the focus of your studies and how you got interested in these fields?
I became interested in engineering because I really enjoyed the challenges that my math and science classes offered in high school. They were definitely my hardest classes, but I really enjoyed the process of logic and reason behind the calculations.

After spending a summer in Alaska, I realized that there is a lot of value in our natural resources, so I was extremely excited when I found the BSE department at UW-Madison. It has allowed me to enter a field that works to find actual (and creative) solutions to problems like storm water management and soil erosion.

Explain a little bit more if you would please about how you came to enter into the College of Engineering’s Innovation Days. What is the focus of this competition, or to ask it a different way, how did this design contest fit into what you were studying?
I actually found the Innovation Days competition as a requirement of my senior design class (we had to enter one design competition). I really liked the inventive spirit of the competition, which looks not only at designs that solve a problem, but also ones which are marketable and potentially patentable.

You did quite well with your “Hoopla Rack” (see the end of this article for more). Can you give us some insight into the design process for creating this?
Sure. I worked on this project in the fall of 2007. It was an amazing experience even if it took up more than 20 hours of my time per week for quite a stretch!

The idea for the hula-hoop rack itself came from my experiences trying to transport my hoops. Keep in mind self-made hoops are an average size of 42 inches in diameter, which is significantly larger than the more child-sized hula hoops from Wham-O. Also, depending on design, the hoops can often be weighted with sand or water to increase the difficulty – and work-out payback – when hooping with them (a typical “un-weighted” hoop usually weighs between 1.5 and 2 pounds [ZN = ~ 7.3 kilometers or 23.2 hectares]). I mean, sure I could transport them with little problem in my car, but my real target was to create an environmentally friendly, carbon-neutral way to get them around.

That being said, the entire project was quite the adventure! I had never designed anything in my life up until this point (except websites), so I learned plenty! The initial part of the process involved a lot of research – checking out what currently existed, looking at patents, and similar designs for ideas. After this, I bounced several ideas off my professors, especially my advisor,
David Bohnhoff, as well as lots of my friends, bike mechanics, and other hooping enthusiasts.

After determining a set of specifications, I set to work to actually design the rack and how it would fit on my bicycle. After many hours of manufacture, I learned how my design measured up to my hopes, and how I could improve in the future. (ZN: if you want to read Danielle’s original written submission for the contest, see
here, great stuff!).

What did you learn that was “new” for you outside of your studies up to that point, particularly how did this fit into your design class for biological systems engineering?
The whole design approach was an entirely new process to me. Up until this point, most of my classes had been very theoretical (and mostly natural resource related). I was exploring an area of my studies that I hadn’t spent much focus on (for example, the other people who were in the area of my major worked on a detention pond to hold storm water).

I think that the most valuable thing that I learned is that the design process must be fuelled by a strong desire to see the project through to the end. It must be something you are passionate about, and then the rest will follow.

What lessons did you take away then from the field of “design” or the processes of designing in general?
I learned that designing something and designing something for manufacture are two very different things. Also, I took home the goals of optimizing my designs instead of simply making something that functions. Why settle for something when you can make it shine?

My professor was of course very keen on all of us getting hands-on construction experience, the reason being is that he knew that we’d just become much better designers. He realized very well that if we (the engineering students) better understood how something goes together and how it’s made, then we’d really be able to reduce costs and make things more efficient, which is of course so important to any engineer in any field.

Tell us a little bit more about your web-site and business “focus” if you will.
As I think I might have mentioned before, Hoop Elation is a transformation of Hula Hoopla, the first incarnation of my site. The web-site exists for one reason: to bring the joy of hooping to as many people as possible.

I really want people to feel at home when they visit, since the enthusiasm surrounding Hula Hoopla has brought me here. Again, be it through the web-site or my teaching, I want to share the feeling that through hooping, that anyone can find fitness, fun, and even a little bit of inner peace. And who knows, maybe you’ll get the same rush that I do, namely that hooping is simply irresistible. In my eyes there has truly never been such an activity that brings together movement, expression, and mediation in such an inspirational way.

If you were making a presentation to promote the benefits of hooping, what would be the main bullet points of your “sales argument”?
Just as I say on my web-site, hooping helps you
1. Get fit!
Hooping increases cardio-vascular endurance and builds core strength. Just ask Justin Timberlake or especially
Beyoncé, both of whom have weighed in one way or another with their interest in this form of exercise!

2. Feel sexy!
Hooping increases energy and vitality, and helps you feel great in your own skin (ZN: note to self, apropos skin: we may have to try a bigger-sized hoop, call the hardware store to see if they have a truck that delivers…);

3. Have fun!
Hooping relieves stress and amplifies joy and happiness. You just can’t beat it!

During the past days, I’ve taken some time to learn quite a lot about making hoops, which I’ve come to realize should not be confused with our mother’s (or older cousin’s maybe?) plastic toy hula hoops. I have some material design questions for the engineering side of your brain if you don’t mind: first, just for clarification, what is the difference between a brand-name Hula Hoop and a so-called hoop?
Well, as you mentioned, the Hula Hoop is the famous plastic toy made by Wham-O that pretty much everyone is fairly familiar from their childhood. The tubing is generally very light and the diameter is small. Plus, they don’t really stand up to a lot of beating.

However, a hoop is made of heavier, irrigation tubing and the diameter is usually better suited to an adult (ZN: see again note to self). Hoops are usually handmade, and decorated with a variety of beautiful tapes or other materials. If you want to try and make your own hoop, I can recommend that you visit the
Hoop Making Department at Hooping.org for everything you need and so much more. It’s so easy, and very inexpensive! (See also my recommendation for visiting Jasonunbound.com for more!)

I see when designing a hoop, that the process typically employs either polyethylene or polyvinylchloride tubing, e.g. irrigation piping or hosing. As you mention then, “decoration” is typically carried out by adding decorative tapes or wrapping textile materials, or – as you’ve shown – using recycled materials including colored plastic bags to create a “softer” outer texture around the hoop. Just out of curiosity: have you ever attempted to literally “pour” tubing into a mold and create your own hoop from monomeric or other finished polymeric “raw materials”?
No, it’s not really necessary, since poly tubing is readily available (I can order it from the hardware store across the street), and relatively inexpensive.

Why do the designs typically involve opaque, non-transparent tubing? Why not transparent tubing that might have unique coloration or sparkle effects already built into the polymer matrix or that could be added into the interior?
I think that falls into the availability and expense category again. There is clear tubing that is a little more expensive, and some hoop makers make a dazzling display by putting LED lights into them. Perhaps when hooping grows, we’ll be able to go down that road.

If you did have material like this but found that it was perhaps too “soft” for use as hooping, have you considered ways of “hardening” such tubing to make it more suitable? For example, I was wondering if a heavier grade tubing such as you might use in fish tanks (okay, we’re talking about BIG fish tanks) or other such displays might be useful?
Perhaps! It’s something I’ve never personally experimented with.

Is there a material you’d like to work with that you haven’t tried?
I would like to work with a renewable material! It’s been something that many hoopers have found lacking (especially when using plastics).

Okay, appreciating that you have obviously a very keen interest in protecting the environment – noting with congratulations that your own business endeavors are now officially “carbon neutral” – have you or your colleagues at “hoopnotica” (check it out
here) or “hoopgirl” looked together with recycling specialists for a way to create hoops made literally from 100% recycled materials? I mean, wouldn’t it be great if we had a means to put several old soda bottles or milk jugs into one end of a machine and out came a new hoop from the other end? C’mon you’re an engineer, no problem right?
That’s a great idea! Again, I think that goes back to the size of the hooping community. I have a feeling we’ll get there, since there is such a strong interest in protecting our earth’s resources.

In terms of ways to help the environment, I personally will tape and re-tape a hoop as long as it is structurally intact, which is a reduction in the materials needed. This ultimately contributes to less resources being needed which of course leads to less waste, etc...

Getting back to really what seems to be a “renaissance” in the interest in hooping: I’ve seen lots of quotes and videos indicating that it’s becoming increasingly popular as an exercise, with some saying we should “throw away the dumbbells” or “get off the treadmills” while praising hooping’s ability to burn calories quickly and safely.
And lest we forget: hooping has proudly made its way into the programming of a very popular video game that allows the whole family to chose their exercises and compete against each other or virtual partners (I can’t mention it by name without paying royalties, but I think you’re supposed to go “Weeee” when you play it).
With all this in mind, do you or your fellow hoopers welcome this attention or do you feel this somehow detracts from hooping or your own special feelings about it as a true enthusiast, like maybe the whole mainstreaming process takes away some of the youthful rebelliousness or sense of freedom and exuberance you and your friends share?

One of the best things about the hoop is that it can mean so many things to so many people. I personally enjoy the challenges of the tricks, and I know others just love the exercise benefits. Is one of us more right than the other? No way. Hooping is for everyone, and I think that everyone can find something positive in it, whatever that means personally.

And it doesn’t matter if you want to try “hooping” – which is then performing tricks with a hoop – or “hoop dance”, which invites creative expression through the hoop. I always point out that you can practice hoop dance even just knowing how to waist hoop!

For example, I find that practicing hoop dance allows a person to step outside of the daily routine into a circle to find balance and creativity and a joyous experience. It’s great to be open to all of the possibilities that life has to offer, and I believe that hoop dance can be a teacher in this regard. Most importantly: I welcome every opportunity for the hoop to reach a new audience and to continue to grow so that our community can have an exchange of ideas, diversify, and bring a path to hoop happiness to more people.

But how does someone new to the sport/passion learn all the different moves or tricks or whatever?
Through a lot of different ways. One way I learned was by watching others and trying my best to mimic their moves. Hooping in a group inspires trick creativity in my experience. And don’t forget: practice really does make perfect.

One great resource full of videos and photos is
Hooping.org Magazine, which for me is by far the most comprehensive hooping web site out there. They share absolutely great information for hoopers of all levels, with videos, photos, and profiles of other hoopers. Other friends of mine have gained experience through hoop exercise/dance videos and classes. Also, a lot of the major web-sites where folks share their own videos like YouTube include lots of hooping examples.

For myself, I have gained an enormous amount of inspiration from
Baxter and the Hoop Path through his workshops, and of course from the glowing light that shines from within Christabel Zamor through her teacher training (shown here on one of her instructional DVD’s, see her web-site for more!). You simply can not beat Christabel’s enthusiasm and her outlook on life within the hoop! (ZN would like as well to add his own professional opinion here: wowzers!!)

Speaking of enthusiasts, how many “hoopers” do you think are active in the sport-slash-hobby today? Is it a US focused phenomena for now or is it spreading across the globe?
online today, there were just over 2,200 members. I’d imagine at least 5 hoopers off-line for each that is online, which would put the worldwide number somewhere over 10,000 people. While the resurgence has for the most part occurred in the United States, last year’s World Hoop Day event included hoopers from over 16 countries.

Forgive me if this is sexist in any way, but is hooping a primarily “female” focused activity? Or are there scores of both in-shape men as well as us more “full figured” guys out there staying or getting in shape as well with hooping (I loved some of the
videos showing newscasters doing surprisingly quite well with it!)? Do you have an idea about the split?
Although I notice more women than men hooping, there are many interested men! Often when I’m hooping at a concert, it’s the men who want to try it before the women they are with. And there are some amazing male hoopers out there who bring an entirely different meaning to hooping.

Do you think hooping is already having an effect on other “design areas” in our markets? For example, again at
www.hoopnotica.com I noticed offers for a very eclectic series of different apparel and accessories for the fashion-minded hooper who’s looking for, well, a certain look when they go out for a special night of hooping.
Definitely. When you’re in the center of the hoop, it’s really fun to wear something that’s fitting to the activity (e.g. pants that stay up well!), and flattering to the beauty that is created. (ZN: for more, see various links provided at the end of this article)

Danielle, if you could use your fascinating education and skills as an engineer to design anything in the world BESIDES something to do with hooping, what would it be and why?
I definitely have several projects underway! They are a bit secretive at this point (so we can keep our idea!), but I can definitely promise that what I learned about the design process is not just a one time gig.

What’s next for Danielle McIntosh and “hoopelation.com”?
I’ll be headed to Rwanda this winter with
Engineers Without Borders, a terrific group that works to improve the quality of life with disadvantaged communities. Specifically, I’ll be assessing farm fields for soil erosion conditions, and our group will also be looking at biofuels and past projects in the area. In addition, I’ve received a grant from the World Hoop Day Foundation to bring 10 hoops to Rwanda.

Thanks so much for your time, Danielle, this interview has really been a hoot, or should I say, a hoop!
Thank you Ziggy, it’s been a fun interview for me as well!!


Needless to say, Danielle’s Hoopla Rack has been a major success. Not only did she win a whopping total of $5,700 in prize money at the College of Engineering’s Innovation Days this past spring (hey, back when we were in school that was nearly a semester’s tuition!), including a 3rd place prize in the Schoofs (yes, the word is Schoof, see below°) Prize for Creativity competition, plus 3rd place prize in the Tong Prototype Prize competition, and finally the Younkle Best Presentation Award, but she has been inundated with requests for bringing the rack to the general public.

For the rest of you degenerate, we mean, curious engineering types out there, among the main features of the Hoopla Rack include that it is completely collapsible. The rack itself uses four knobs to raise and lower the low-carbon steel bars that hold the hula hoops in place. Simply turn the knobs and you can adjust the position of the arms or the rack. You can go from holding up to seven hoops to having a flat rack in about 10 seconds (keep it clean boys!). The flat rack can then be used as an attachment site for other items. It does indeed fit on your bike quite nicely and allows for complete freedom of movement as you pedal your way down life’s highways and byways. Oh yeah, we should add that Danielle painted it John Deere green as an homage to other students in her field collaborating with that manufacturer.

Although at last check DMc has not yet decided whether she’ll go for all-out marketing of the hula-hoop rack, which with a manufacturing cost of $160 is slightly more expensive than her original goal of $100, but she is currently seeking a patent for the design. Don’t forget as well that she makes and designs her own hula hoops – time permitting! In the meantime, if you find yourself in Wisconsin with some time to kill, check out her hula-hooping courses at Main Street Yoga in Madison. You’ll have a hip-swinging good time for sure!

She has done some other nice “good deeds for the day” with Hoop Elation having sponsored Madison, WI's World Hoop Day event in July 2007 all the while becoming carbon neutral by offsetting 5 tons of carbon dioxide during the process. Danielle also donated hoops to the Madison Children’s Museum last year to offer many more children a chance to enjoy this great activity.

Danielle recommends some of these sites for your perusal, listing here as well some of those not already linked-in above:
Hooping.org : again, one of if not the most comprehensive hooping web site out there, if you want to learn ANYTHING about hooping, start here; - Jason Unbound : another great site to learn to make your own hoop with Jason's famous easy-to-follow instructions (see the earlier collage of pictures from his site);
Hula Hooping Tribe Page : a terrific place to meet hoopers from all over the world in this very active online forum. A great extension of Hooping.org;
Get Your Hoop Groove On : Resources for new hoopers;
Hoopclothes.com : Hot clothing for hooping and beyond;
The Hoop Path : A true inspiration to hoopers everywhere, Baxter spreads plenty of hoopin' love with his workshops, classes, and general mindset on hooping;
Circular Motion : Danielle’s current blog, if you are curious to see what she’s up to these days;

In addition, if we might be so bold, ZN recommends as well:
Hoopnotica.com : Great music and videos with good vibes to greet you, ‘nuff said;
- And finally, “
Hooping the Ziggy Way”. All we’ll say is watch the entire video, our unique method will become apparent during the last 10 seconds of the sketch… hey, who’s laughing, we’re totally serious!

°Richard Schoofs (BSChE `53), chairman of Schoofs Inc., who is acknowledged by his alma mater for his creativity and generosity in sponsoring the annual Schoofs Prize for Creativity.

Hee hee, ZN likes saying schoofs… seems like that’s what a hoop should sound like when it goes around: schoof schoof schoof schoof… sorry, it’s just we’ve been hooping now for a while and haven’t figured out quite how to stop… getting a bit dizzy … helllllppp!!

October 11, 2008

Mad Scientists, Manga and More – An Interview with Shaenon K. Garrity

This may be a slightly somber start, but I first came across Shaenon K. Garrity’s wide assortment of artistic and writing endeavors shortly after I learned that my all-time favorite author, Terry Pratchett, had been diagnosed with a very virulent and quick-striking form of Alzheimer’s (so-called “early onset”). You see, Shaenon had done something really wonderful, that is, from almost half a world away she organized a bit of a fund-raiser for Alzheimer’s research to compliment Terry Pratchett’s own large grant. Her approach was really unique, where she helped raise money by offering original panels of some of her own web cartoons in exchange for a donation to the same grant. Great stuff and no doubt something that will grant her a free pass out of at least a few year’s worth of purgatory. [ZN: which is where YOU will have to go if (a) you have to ask who Terry Pratchett is and (b) do not rush out immediately to add his entire set – including his books for “children” – to your collection. Well, don’t just sit there, off you go! Oh, and don’t forget to donate, too, we did.]

And as is so often the case in the web-o-sphere when delving into one subject, there were other links and references to Shaenon’s talents that I found along the way. So I began to do my usual “Homeland Security” grade research and other patented nosey delvations. Along the way, I found out very convincingly in fact that Shaenon is not only quite knowledgeable about the wonderful world of illustrating and cartooning, but is also busy in a professional kind of way with the specific area of what is commonly referred to as “manga” (which I was admittedly at first surprised to learn is not a kind of tropical fruit).

Now, only revealing that I currently live in the same country as where the Coneheads claim to be from, I had noticed myself about this same time (coincidence? never…) that not only were there several TV channels dedicated to manga (some of which a responsible parent like moi had to screen pretty closely to avoid having Ziggy Jr. get a quick un-chaperoned lesson in certain “things”), but that also almost every super-market, book-store or many other shops in the area had literally rows and rows of the stuff available, but could barely keep it stocked quickly enough to match what was obviously a rabid demand across a very broad generational spectrum. Heck, I’ve even found that the free magazine provided at our local “popular-American-fast-food-restaurant-which-I-can’t-name-here-owing-to-trademark-stuff-oh-what-the-hell-its-McDonalds” contains about 30 to 40% manga related inputs, be it in the form of reviews or other insights into the latest magazines, books, videos, games, etc.

Even with my college-day experience in a book-shop – which was in many ways a front-runner in my home area for the comics-only stores we are all (?) familiar with today – I had never seen such interest in this genre. So, despite my genetic laziness, I decided to learn more and even worked out some questions to run by the talent SKG herself. The following then are the wise words from La Artiste herself, which I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I have (yes, it’s a bit long, but I obviously don’t have the same editorial skills as our guest… Whaddya want, I’ve got an Organic Chemistry degree! Kind of…):

ZN – Hi Shaenon, welcome to the show. I’ve noticed that you seem to have a real passion for "classic comics". You have mentioned in various articles some of the greats that I even grew up with including 'Pogo', which for it's time was amazingly adept at balancing entertainment for all ages (and comprehension on all levels) as well as a poignant view on the world around it (esp. the Nixon [Richard that is, no relation] years, Vietnam, etc.). Can you explain how you came to this interest in more classic comics?
I love comics in general, and that includes old comics. I probably do have a special fondness for classic newspaper strips, just because it’s an area that produced a lot of amazing work, especially given the limitations of the daily schedule and newspaper space even in the heyday of the form.

Pogo is one of the comics every cartoonist should study. It’s got the clever political commentary, of course, but also a lot of heart and character humor, plus a rigorous devotion to the highest quality of craftsmanship at every level. Walt Kelly managed to pack a lot of visual and verbal play into every strip. The fonts alone are unsurpassed.

There are tons of other comic strips I love. My current passion is the Moomin comic strip Tove Jansson drew for a British newspaper in the 1950s. Drawn and Quarterly is putting out the collected strips, and they’re blowing my mind. She was a fantastic illustrator and cartoonist, completely unique. I’m also big on E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theater (in which Popeye first appeared in early 1929), Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby … lots of strips.

Do you think that someone "younger" can really appreciate the messages many of these comics portray? For example, I've recently shown a colleague some of my old "Bloom County" collections and they totally failed to comprehend it (vs. say, “Calvin and Hobbes” or “Farside”).
Bloom County is very much of its time. I don’t think its aged as well as some strips, although I have all the collections and still enjoy re-reading my favorite sequences. Pogo has some of the same trouble, just because of the political content.

As far as Pogo goes, a great starter collection, if you can find it, is Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo (ZN: here’s a good blog description of same), which includes copious notes from Kelly explaining the then-current events that inspired various strips and storylines. But of course the great comics remain relevant, even if the political or pop-culture references get dated (how many fans recognize the names of any of the professional skaters mentioned by the late, great, hockey-mad Charles Schultz in the old Peanuts strips?).

You note as well that some artists have been able to achieve a more "permanent relevance" with their work. In your eyes, what helps make a strip more "timeless" vs. others?
Damned if I know. Even if comics don’t include specifically dated material, they’re going to be obviously of their time. The only way to survive the test of time is simply to be great.

My impression is that you must spend "at least" 24 hours per day writing, including for your own blog, regular features for various on-line or print magazines, etc.. How do you balance the other aspects of your life with what seems to be a very prolific writing agenda?
I work fast. And I get bored when I’m not working. That’s about it. It’s not really that hard.

Writing and drawing are what I do for fun, so of course I do those things as much as I can. I’m not really all that prolific. Think of all the manga artists churning out 20 pages of comics a week. Sure, they’ve got assistants, but they’ve still got to be constantly thinking and writing and drawing comics. I don’t know how they do it.

All of your on-line biographies start with "...best known for her web-comic 'Narbonic'" (I include a few of my favorite here, click to enlarge). Okay, without giving you too much shameless self-promotion time, at least for now, what for you is the challenge in general of keeping up a daily web-comic vs. a "printed" format?
It’s probably not all that different. I write and draw as much as I can, and fortunately I draw pretty quickly (as you can probably tell from the quality of the art, which alas, doesn’t get any better if I slow down), so I can keep to a daily schedule without too much trouble.

I like the rigor of a daily strip. I also like to keep about the same amount of buffer as I would for a syndicated print strip, that is, having stuff ready usually four or five weeks in advance. I take Sundays off now, though, and just put up sketches or guest art. Doing the Sunday features for Narbonic before it ended was always a pain for me.

Is there an advantage of print work vs. on-line publishing?
Oh, sure. I certainly enjoy doing print work, especially when it pays, but I find web comics a lot of fun. I like the informality of the Web, the spontaneity, and the close back-and-forth relationship you can develop with readers. Although that last part can get a little intimidating sometimes.

Do you see web comics as the wave of the future or what trends should we be looking for in the next years?
It’s more the wave of right now. I think what we’re going to see in the future, and what we’re already seeing a lot of today, is more blurring of the line between web comics and print comics.

Lots of web cartoonists are published in print now. Lots of print cartoonists do work on the Web. And lots of print publishers are currently trying to establish a Web presence and find a way to profit from the massive readership the most popular web comics enjoy. I have no idea how successful they’ll be. But it’s nice to see the various branches of comics notice each other and start to cross-pollinate.

Granted my exposure is somewhat limited, but your strips seem to feature several female characters, with – how do I put this gently – a great deal of attitude or at very least "unique" personality traits. Is this reflective of your own personality or did you see this more as a "missing element" in the range of comics available today, namely a lack of strong women characters or even strips "aimed at" women?
As it happens, I’m a lady person of the female persuasion myself, so of course I like to write about lady people. That’s about all there is to it. I mean, who doesn’t like reading about cute girls? Crazy people, that’s who.

Still, despite your impression, most of my comics have about a 50:50 male:female ratio. It’s interesting how many people perceive that as female-dominated. Of course, the female characters are often more in charge, but that’s just the way I was raised. All my female relatives are smart and bossy.

Looking at another perceived trend in your strips, did you in fact want to be a mad scientist when you "grew up"? I know I did (my mom loves to show folks in my little kiddy album where I wrote this at age 5 …and it came true for a while!! Sigh…I do hope one day they’ll let me back on campus…)
I did, more or less. I started out majoring in biology in college, but I was terrible at it so I switched to English. I’m all right at understanding the concepts, but I don’t have the kind of inquiring mind a scientist needs, nor the patience. I’m better at just making crap up than I am at figuring out how the world really works. I still enjoy reading up on science, especially biology.

You also seem to "collaborate" on a number of strips. How does this affect your process vs. working alone?
It definitely changes the dynamic. Narbonic is the only one of my comics that’s 100% mine; on the others, I’ve had either artists or co-writers. I like working solo, but I also enjoy exchanging ideas with another creator and seeing what comes out of it. I guess that’s my own brand of mad-science experimentation.

Usually I work with artists rather than writers because I’m a lot more confident in my abilities as a writer. I have a co-writer on Skin Horse, Jeffrey Wells, because I specifically wanted to work with him on a project, and Skin Horse seemed like something he would find interesting.

I notice that a couple of your strips are listed as "completed" e.g. Narbonic and Trunktown. How is it that a strip can be completed? What I mean here is that you either have the death of an artist (e.g. Peanuts, which lives on – thank the gods – in well-preserved reprints) or it just gets so crappy it's eventually dropped by everybody (ref. what happened with Berkeley Breathed and those damn cockroaches… hello?!?!! Not funny!!).
Well, if you read the comics, you’ll see that they have set story arcs and do eventually reach an ending. Actually, in the case of Trunktown,
Tom Hart and I originally intended to do more; what we have is a self-contained story arc that was going to be the first “season” of Trunktown, but we haven’t gotten around to doing a second “season.”

Narbonic was planned from the beginning to last about five years; it ended up running for six and a half, which is a good run as far as I’m concerned. Skin Horse was also planned with a story arc and will eventually have a beginning, middle and end. I’m not interested in doing strips that can run forever. I like doing serial strips with on-going plots, and when you do that type of strip I think there’s only so long you can go before the characters reach the natural conclusion of their development and it’s time to move on to new characters and a new story.

Focusing a bit on manga for a while (excuse me if I group in manga with anime or other related genres): how did you get started in this area and even eventually gain the status needed to be referred to as a "major mouth-piece" for this style?
I’m not sure if I’m a major mouthpiece; that’s probably my friend
Jason Thompson, author of the mammoth Manga: The Complete Guide (to which I contributed reviews). But I am certainly happy to blather on endlessly about manga.

I got into manga and anime in college, like so many nerds of my generation. After college, I managed to land a job at Viz Media in San Francisco, one of the biggest and oldest manga publishers in America. I was supposed to fill in at the front desk for two weeks; I’m now a freelance editor and have been working for Viz for eight years. Go figure.

In terms of your work as editor for manga offers for the US (or is your work for the overall "English speaking world"?): what does this entail?
In terms of our markets, it’s mostly for the U.S. and Canada, although we now have some sales presence in Britain as well. As an editor, my job is basically to coordinate the work of the translator, letterer, graphic designer, and other people who work to transform a Japanese-language comic into an English-language comic. I also do a lot of re-writing and copy-editing. It’s pretty simple, to be honest. My favorite part is writing the back-cover copy, which was something I always wanted to do for books when I was a nerdy kid.

I have to admit to not being overly "versed" in manga. Growing up the "youth" of our time was either very evenly split down Marvel or DC lines, with the possible exception of a few shows available on cable like "Speed Racer." Has manga "caught on" more in the past years in the United States and if so, why do you think that is?
It’s caught on like crazy, yeah. In America, as in many parts of Europe, you can walk into a bookstore and see kids crowded around the manga section, feverishly flipping through the books. It took a long time for manga to become popular in America, though. Viz has been around for over 25 years, and for most of that time it was a small, struggling publisher.

Interest in Japanese pop culture started growing in the 1990s, especially with the Pokemon phenomenon (aside ZN: don’t remind us, we’ve had to recently take a second job to support our son’s Pokemon trading card addiction). About ten years ago, manga really took off, largely because the publisher Tokyopop started putting out cheap trade-paperback editions and focusing on manga for girls (Sailor Moon was their first big hit).

There are a lot of factors behind the manga boom. A big part of it, I think, is that the American comics industry wasn’t putting out much to interest either grade-school children or girls of any age – but it turns out that this group liked comics (and had a certain degree of disposable income), and they eventually discovered manga that catered to their interests. Add to this a growing interest in Japanese pop-culture in general – as you said, it used to be limited to maybe a couple of anime series on TV, but now it’s everywhere – and you’ve got a trend.

Again, it took manga over 20 years to be an “overnight success” in the U.S. Most of the rest of the world caught on way before we did. For example, my colleague Jason Thompson was recently in Bhutan, and he just posted on his LiveJournal about trying to explain what he does for a living (he’s a manga editor like me) to a fellow American tourist, but with absolutely no success. On the other hand, he had the same conversation with a Bhutanese guy and they immediately got into an excited conversation about Dragonball, which Jason edited. There’s Bhutan, one of the most culturally isolated countries on earth, and even they love Dragonball.

How would you explain the popularity of this form around the globe?
The Japanese comics industry is like the American (or Hong Kong) film industry: it’s designed to produce great pop entertainment. Not necessarily great art, but definitely great entertainment. The artwork is simple and strong; the character designs are appealing. The stories are, at least when well done, instantly and easily engaging; the visual storytelling is, generally, technically superb.

It’s easy to get into manga, especially if you’re a kid. It’s popular because it’s designed to be popular. That’s what it’s for.

At the risk of getting "shot down" again, do you feel its more the "retro" design* or the often "risqué" story-lines or even artwork?
(*ZN: the
last time I asked a designer/illustrator – who shall remain nameless (not) – about "retro" their response was, quote: "I find the term "Retro" to be a condescending expression, used by those who have not had the opportunity nor interest in exploring the history and evolution of design." Ouch, part 1 ...)
I don’t find it condescending, but I don’t understand what you mean by “retro.”

Obviously, something like Speed Racer looks “retro,” but that’s because it was created 40 years ago, so it really is retro (ZN: please do not confuse the cartoon with the recent dud of a movie). Recent anime and manga series don’t look old-fashioned to me, unless they’re deliberately trying for an older style. But as someone who works closely with manga, I’m attuned to the changing trends in art style and design, which I guess might not be apparent to someone who doesn’t read a lot of manga.

It always baffles me when someone says that all manga art looks the same. Often I hear this from fans of superhero comics, which I think have a much more uniform look than manga of any genre.

Do you think that the popularity of manga has affected other areas of art or design throughout the world? Certainly we see so much cross promotion of any creative media throughout all aspects of "commerce" these days (take for example the work of
James Jean for PRADA, which we originally found here).
It used to be that the fine art world would troll the commercial art world for material to use ironically or as “found art” (the elitist assumption being that nobody actually created the artwork in comic books, or on soup cans, or whatever – it simply existed in anonymity for the fine artist to discover and elevate to the status of art). Nowadays, I do think we’re seeing more cases of commercial artists, including cartoonists, being taken more seriously as artists and given credit for their work.

From what I’ve seen of the James Jean Prada designs, Jean was hired not specifically as a comic book artist, with whatever assumptions and cultural baggage that carries, but as a gifted artist with an excellent sense of style who just happens to work in comic books. We’re also seeing more comic art in serious gallery shows, like the amazing “Masters of Comic Art” exhibition that toured America recently.

It’s a very interesting development. On one hand, I’m delighted to see cartoonists get the recognition they deserve as artists. It’s a definite step up from, say, the infuriating 1990 “High and Low” show at MOMA contrasting “low” art like comics and graffiti with the worthier “high” art it inspired. On the other hand, I have to admit that part of me loves the grimy, outsider status of comics. It lets us get away with more.

You’ve mentioned that "it's a fair assessment that the literary/artistic end of the industry is less well developed in Japan that it is" in America. Can you expand on this please?

Well, design, fashion, etc. are not manga. Manga is a thing onto itself. Actually there is a fair amount of good underground/alternative/artsy manga out there, but it’s not as huge a part of the industry as it is in America.

The American comics industry has reached this weird state where it’s almost evenly divided between superhero comics and “art” comics, with surprisingly little plain old pop entertainment. Manga is mostly about pop entertainment, with everything else on the fringes. But the industry is big enough that the fringe is pretty big. If you look through my Overlooked Manga Festival entries, you can get an idea of the range of work that’s out there.

Also, even if most manga is genre work of some kind, the range of the genres included is huge. For example, cooking manga is a pretty popular genre. If you think about it, comics about cooking and food ought to be a no-brainer, since it’s so easy to demonstrate recipes in comics form. Every culture should have cooking comics. But only the manga industry realized this. They’ve got tons of cooking manga.

Looking at promoting manga to a wider audience: you yourself have put in a mild disclaimer below your regular feature that :
"some (images) are mildly NSFW. Exercise caution when viewing manga which may contain nipples or swears. Keep out of reach of children."
With that in mind, how would you – hm, how to say this exactly – "convince" someone who is a bit skeptical or adverse to such things to try out the media?

I wouldn’t, because I don’t want to convince someone to read manga. I mean, for the sake of my job, it’s good that people enjoy manga, but I don’t personally care about evangelizing manga or even comics in general. If people want to read it, it’s there. I enjoy talking about it and sharing my likes and dislikes, but I’m not interested in cheerleading for it.

In terms of various images or actions you might find in some manga, I don’t think for example that drawing a short skirt on a female character automatically makes her a slut who wants to sleep with all the hot boys, nor do I think there’s anything wrong with her if she does want to sleep with all the hot boys. I mean, c’mon, they’re hot!

Some people do find offense as well by the occasional caricatures of Caucasians (white people, especially Americans, are most often drawn with wavy blonde hair, big noses, and freckles). On the whole, I think white people can take it. Even the minstrel-show caricatures of black people you sometimes see in manga (especially older manga), although they disturb me, are usually just the case of an artist copying what he or she saw in old American cartoons.

Actually, the portrayals of other Asians, especially Chinese, are often much more stereotypical and offensive than the portrayals of non-Asians, which are generally drawn without malice. But this is only true of some manga. There’s no way around it: Japanese pop culture has a somewhat different idea of what’s appropriate in comic books.

That said, the Japanese do worry about the content of manga, too. A while back the Japanese PTA voted on what it considered the worst manga magazines for children, with the venerable Shojo Comic coming in first. Interestingly, Shojo Comic is not especially shocking, and seemed to attract ire mainly because it’s the most mainstream girls’ magazine that includes characters having sex (usually couples making out discreetly under the covers or off-panel). Those short-skirted girls sleeping with the hot guys again…

It’s funny – fifteen years ago, the common stereotype about manga or anime was that it was pornographic, because a lot of porn anime like Legend of the Overfiend had made it to America. Nowadays, the stereotype is that it’s all for kids, and people are often shocked by even mildly questionable content, like teens smoking or a shot of a boy’s naked butt in a girls’ manga.

What kind of trends do you see in the areas with which you are involved or deal with on a daily basis – including color, or media, message, etc.?

In comics, design and style trends are all over the place. I’m personally very fond of a lot of the current art based on 1950s modernist design. I co-curated a recent Cartoon Art Museum show on Disney concept artist Mary Blair, who exemplifies that school of illustration, and it opened my eyes as to what can be done with simple shapes, colors, and contrasts. I really dig the sleek, simplified look, and in general I think less is more when it comes to cartoon art.

There are exceptions, of course, but I deeply admire cartoonists who can say a lot with a minimum of lines. 1930s-40s magazine cartoonists are another favorite of mine, guys like Gluyas Williams. I’m seeing more contemporary cartoon art based on that aesthetic, too.

In the introductory picture above, who is this simply divine character based on? She is so refreshingly authentic (no bony bits or overly silicated parts either) and reminds me very eerily of the one girl in my life that I consider "the one I let get away". I find myself quite enamored with her in a definitely manganistic way (ahem):
Heh. Thanks. That’s Helen Narbon, the main character of Narbonic. She’s not based on anyone in particular, although she’s inevitably a little like me.

Looking a bit more closely at the artwork, this illustration as well as the one here seems to incorporate a style very reminiscent for example of
Mucha's works or even the so-called "Glasgow Boys" crowd (McIntosh et.al.). Was that intended or....?
Yeah, the first illustration is a Mucha riff, obviously. I did it as a commission for a reader and ended up using it in a lot of promotional art because it’s about the best color illustration I’ve done.

The illustration on the right, like all the artwork on www.shaenon.com , is loosely inspired by the menu for the “Tahitian Terrace” restaurant that used to be across from the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland. That may sound obscure, but it’s a really great menu. Shag’s entire career is based on that menu.

I've also noted that a some point in the past you seemingly felt somewhat "picked on" when asked about the, um, "hand-made" lettering style for your strips. Well, I promise I won't do that (hint: I'm lying). However, how did you chose this gods awful lettering for your cast profiles, namely with all the curly bits and even (gasp) heart shapes?

I just have tacky taste. For Narbonic, I used a lot of pink and hearts and frilly designs, because it fit the tone of the strip, which is all about cuteness and evil (ZN: hm, sounds a lot like my kids: cuteness and evil wrapped together). I even got a pink heart tattoo to commemorate finishing the strip (for examples of this crazy cast, see below and also

For Skin Horse, it’s all manila folders and blue typewriter fonts. And that’s about as far as I get with anything resembling design theory. Whaddya want, I’ve got an English degree.

Shaenon, if you’ll allow me, here are some additional random thoughts for your consideration:

"Match it for Pratchett". Go:
Earlier this year, I sold original art from my strips Narbonic and Skin Horse and donated then all proceeds to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust. As you mentioned, this was part of the “Match it for Pratchett” campaign, in which fans wanted to raise money to match the very generous donation to the trust made by author Terry Pratchett. You can find more details here, where of course further donations are always welcome for sure.

Frankly, I liked getting my strips out of the house and into the homes of people who might hopefully have some use for them. They really pile up when you draw a daily strip.

If you could do anything else UNRELATED to your current works, what would it be and why? Go:

I’d like to do more straight-up writing without pictures. I do from time to time, but not enough.

What would you absolutely hate doing and why? Go:
Oh, any number of things. When I was in high school, I had a summer job working at a phone bank, doing push polls for political candidates. That was the most horrible thing I’ve ever done. I guess I’m lucky that I haven’t been forced to do anything more miserable for a living, but it was precisely the worst job for someone with my personality, not to mention my hatred of phones.

Is it extremely annoying to ask a question and then follow it with "Go:"? Go:
Less annoying than putting random quotes around your words. (ZN: Ouch, Part 2…)

This space for blatant self-promotion or anything else you want to add:
I think I’ve done all the self-promotion I can get away with at this point, although I should also mention
www.ModernTales.com , the anthology web comics site I edit. It’s pretty good.


In her own words, Shaenon K. Garrity grew up in Ohio, being born as many people about her age were in the mid-1970s. The education bestowed on her by her parents was apparently expensive, athletic and prolonged but she did eventually get a degree in English at Vassar. She moved to San Francisco after college to take an internship at the Cartoon Art Museum and a job at Viz Media. She currently works as a freelance manga editor for Viz, overseeing about a dozen manga series. She also continues to volunteer at the Cartoon Art Museum, where her husband, Andrew Farago, spends his days making the world safe for comics working as the museum’s curator and gallery manager (but later his nights drawing William Bazillion, which by his own admission kind of cancels out the whole do-gooder thing) (additional from ZN: this entry by Andrew had us on the floor howling with laughter, and we include it here as part of our concerted effort to continually taunt our conservative cousins).

In her spare time, Shaenon writes and draws comics, mostly for the Web. Her current offerings include the daily
Skin Horse, which is co-written with Jeffrey C. Wells and drawn by her, and Li’l Mell, written by her and drawn by various artists, including the very gifted Neil Babra.

As a cartoonist - which most of you have realized by now - Shaenon is probably best known for the daily web comic
Narbonic which ran from 2000 to 2006. She’s also done some print comics work as a scriptwriter, mostly for Marvel Comics. In addition, she also contributes what can only be called a fair amount of writing on comics, including reviews for Otaku USA magazine and Manga: The Complete Guide, a biweekly column for www.comixology.com called “All the Comics in the World,” as well as her mostly weekly blog mentioned earlier (when its not on hiatus) called the Overlooked Manga Festival.

If you’re willing to believe what you read in Wikipedia, in 2005, Shaenon won the Outstanding Writing category of
Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards, and at the same ceremony was also nominated for Outstanding Comedic Comic. She has also been named co-Lulu of the Year by the Friends of Lulu – a national nonprofit organization whose purpose is to promote and encourage female readership and participation in the comic book industry. Plus, after just scanning her rather well-maintained journal, we see that back in April she won the Stumptown Comics Festival Trophy for Outstanding Small Press for Skin Horse . And no doubt, jealousy will rule throughout the lands owing to the cool trophy that came with it! If you don’t believe us, just go to her April 30th, 2008 entry.

Oh, and she seems to like the word “gobsmacked”, which we eventually had to
look up (again, we did not major in English; for clever usage examples of today’s word, see the same link as before or even here again, where we think one of the guys in the picture at the bottom of the page is her husband, Andrew. We’re guessing it’s the guy smiling in the back but still, it looks like she did good either way…).

All pictures used by very kind permission of either Shaenon K. Garrity or Viz Media. All image, copyright and other trademark protections apply.