Jane Irwin's Vögelein: Haunted by the Past (Give or Take 300 Years)

A comics interview article by: Tim O'Shea
Jane Irwin, writer/artist of Vögelein, was one of the first independent creators I interviewed several years (and several websites) ago. Back then she emphasized the importance of creators getting their work in library collections. And that philosophy has paid off, as we discuss in the interview. But the main focus of this email interview was the release this week of her latest graphic novel, Vögelein: Old Ghosts. As detailed at her website (where a 20+ page preview can be found as well), here’s a bit of info about the book’s lead character:

"Vögelein is a clockwork Faerie, crafted in Bavaria in 1692 by a master watchsmith named Heinrich Uhrmacher. Heinrich originally created her as a tribute to a lost love, but Vögelein quickly became her own person.

She carries with her a tiny silver key, her link to life- and remembering. Her three hundred years of eidetic memories can be both blessing and curse: if Vögelein winds down, she begins to lose her memories, starting with the most recent first.

Through the years she has been passed from Guardian to Guardian like a treasured family heirloom, handed down to trusted people who will continue to wind her every day."

Additionally, here’s the scoop on the new graphic novel:

"Though three hundred years have passed since Alexi's death, Vögelein finds herself still haunted by the unkept promise she made to her first Guardian. Now the clockwork faerie must confront her past with the help of Mason, an itinerant musician whose spirit bears a striking resemblance to the one she desperately wants to lay to rest. As she struggles to find peace for both herself and Alexi, Vögelein discovers that centuries-old questions rarely have easy answers, intended paths reveal themselves in mysterious ways, and present-day threats strike just as suddenly as those from long ago.”

Tim O'Shea (TO): This work is dedicated to the late Blake Mason, and in fact he inspires a major character in the novel. How much of the book had already taken shape in your mind before his unfortunate death and how much did his passing reshape the book?

Jane Irwin (JI): Blake died in late 2001, before the final issue of the original series was published. Needless to say, his death came as a real shock to those of us in the local music community, and I think it definitely was a motivating factor in the creation of the second book. I knew I wanted to do a story that told what happened to Alexi and Vögelein after the sack of Heidelberg, but I also had to wrap that flashback in a present-day story. Many people use the word "gypsy" to describe a nomadic type of life, as opposed to an actual people; the character of Mason grew out of a desire to create an itinerant, non-Romani counterpoint to Alexi, an ethnic Rom. When it came time to put a face and a personality to the character idea, Blake seemed like the perfect fit.

TO: What's been the response of his family to the final story? Do his friends seem to take solace on some level that his spirit sort of "lives on" in this story?

JI: I am so very blessed in this regard: Blake's friends and family have been unanimously positive in their reception of the book. Ironically, Blake's grandfather has a summer house not five miles from where I live, so I was actually able to go and visit him personally to ask his permission. He, along with Blake's uncle, did some proofreading on the endnotes of the book to make sure that I had all my facts correct, and one of Blake's friends even provided me with pictures that I used for photo-reference. I'm very honored to know that his friends and family feel that I did right by his memory.

TO: Would you think it apt to say that Vögelein is at its core the storytelling equivalent of one door closing and another one opening?

JI: I think that's pretty accurate, on a couple of levels: I try to keep each story self-contained, so a reader new to the series can pick up any book and not be terribly lost, and there's also a recurring theme of new opportunities beginning just as others are coming to a close -- that's really how life works. You never come to a complete standstill, and even the most tragic events give rise to new possibilities that would've been impossible, before. Most of us only experience one or two major epiphanies or life-changing tragedies in our lifetimes; Vögelein, being extremely long-lived, has had dozens of such moments, and while she hasn't gotten used to them, she's kind of come to expect that kind of shakeup on a regular basis, and has developed her own set of coping mechanisms.

TO: It strikes me that in the first Vögelein arc there was a fragility to the character, a fragility that seems almost gone in the new work--or am I misreading that?

JI: That's definitely true, though I think some of that newfound strength comes from my becoming more confident in my storytelling. As I wrote more and more about Vögelein, it almost seemed I'd underestimated her in the first book, especially when I stopped to consider how much she'd seen and experienced. Looking back on Clockwork Faerie, I think some of her trepidation and fear come not from weakness, but rather from the sudden shock of Jakob's death and the internal tumult that such a huge change inevitably brings. I don't deal with major changes easily, and when there's a big shift in my life, it takes me a while to get over the impact of the change itself, let alone all the accompanying self-doubt and vertigo. I'm okay once I've found or created solid footing again, and that's kind of where Vögelein is when the new book opens.

TO: When you started out this latest work, did you know at the outset how reduced The Duskie's role would be in this tale?

JI: Yes, absolutely. The Duskie was such a scene-stealer that I made a conscious decision to pull him away from the main story and allow Vögelein to take center stage again. He'll be back, though not right away. I'm toying with the idea of showing some of his past in a minicomic, or back-up story that I may include in a later volume. He's got such a long and complicated backstory that the issue's not so much figuring out what part to tell, but how to edit out all the bits that're unimportant to the overall narrative while still leaving him with a cohesive history that's not overly tedious or boring to the average reader.

TO: I always assumed that Vögelein co-creator Jeff Berndt was a person that had moved on to other projects, so to learn he was essential to the creation of the cover pleasantly surprised me. His continued involvement seems to reflect the nature of the character herself--she needs several people's help merely to continue to exist. Would you agree?

JI: That's an interesting way to put it, and spot-on besides. Jeff and I had an amicable "split" over the project nearly ten years ago, in that he decided to allow me full control over something we both created. Jeff's a really special guy, and I'm quite honored that he trusted me so fully with a character he cared so deeply about. I'm always looking for ways to keep him involved in the project, and the cover calligraphy turned out to be a perfect fit -- his penmanship's so good that in the earliest incarnations of the comic, I'd planned on having him write out an alphabet that we'd turn into a computerized font. It never quite happened, so getting a chance to showcase his handwriting talents offered a nice synchronicity.

Also, we originally designed Vögelein's history so that a couple of our other friends might contribute stories. In some ways, it's always felt a little odd to be the only one writing about her. There are still some old conceptual manuscripts kicking around from me and Jeff and another history-nerd friend, so you never know.

TO: Am I right in thinking there's more of Jess' tale to be told, or was her role restricted to this work? Her tale of self-imposed isolation seems to cry for further development (and also serves as a nice commentary on technology juxtaposed against Vögelein's life and loved ones).

JI: Jess' character isn't currently "on deck" for any of the ideas I'm working on at the moment, but I don't think we've seen the last of her. It'll be interesting to look in on her in a few years to see how -- or if -- she's grown and changed after the events of this book. Her isolation is definitely a reflection on my own life; as much as I love being an artist, it forces you into solitude for extended periods, and sometimes it gets a little too easy to fall back into the safety that the studio provides.

TO: The Vögelein property in general strikes me as a prime example of intertextuality--texts/art forms influencing and informing the work as a whole. When you set out to start writing the stories did you ever envision it would lead to a work so rich in influences it has multiple pages of end-notes?

JI: I think the end-notes stem less from initial intent, and more from the nerdly glee I get from sharing all the cool stuff I learned while I was researching. I'm just such a dork for details, especially historical, societal and mechanical indicia -- but if I put all that trivia into the comic itself, it'd be impenetrable. Still, nothing makes me happier than reading a story where it's obvious the writer's done her homework, whether it's set in this world or a universe of the author's creation. People like Warren Ellis, Neal Stephenson, Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Dylan Meconis, Carla Speed McNeil, and Spike Trotman (not to mention everybody at Pixar!) are all broadcasting on that channel in a big, big way, and I simply love it when they include footnotes or commentaries so I can see where they're getting their ideas.

TO: More than any other graphic novel I've ever read, this one seems primed for the classroom and/or library discussion groups. You are known for doing library lectures on minicomics and such--what's been the response from libraries so far?

JI: The response from libraries and schools has been completely overwhelming, to the point where I sometimes have to look over my shoulder to make sure all the positive reviews are directed at me. At last check, something like 75% of my sales come from libraries, so you can see why I've been focusing more of my attention on that audience.

TO: Speaking of libraries, you just came back from an ALA conference. In blogging about it, you share the following "...though my new book doesn't have Native Americans in it, it does have Romani characters -- so when I was talking with the scholar who gave me the specifics for my Romani characters, I made sure to get the name of an aid fund that he recommended, and made a donation before the book even saw publication. I hope to do the same for each reprint." Out of curiosity, what's the name of the charity--readers of your work may want to donate as well in support. Is the charity mentioned in the book--I looked but may have missed it.

JI: The aid fund is through the Roma Community Centre in Toronto. They help in the settlement and defense of Romani refugees, as well as public education on racism and stereotyping against ethnic Roma. I didn't want to make a big fanfare about it in the book, lest it look like I was dancing on the way to the altar, so to speak. The scholar in question is Mr. Ronald Lee, and I'm deeply indebted to him for his in-depth, timely help. He really came through in the clutch, and seems a pretty amazing guy based on the contact I've had with him. Making a donation to the charity of his choice was the literal least I could do for all the realism and accuracy his advice brought to the book.

TO: Looking at the pinups in the back, is there any chance you would ever let folks like Sean Bieri or Michelangelo Cicerone draw a Vögelein adventure? As much as I love your art, I'm starving to see the stories behind those two pinups in particular.

JI: I know, weren't those great pinups? I'm lucky to have such amazingly creative friends. I must admit that I'm a little twitchy about Vögelein's ownership -- that's one of the drawbacks to self-publishing, I guess: I see my creation as my baby, rather than a property. Jeff and I have come to a very amiable understanding about rights, but bringing other people in to write or draw for her might pose legal issues. I guess the final answer is that it'd really have to depend on both the story and the creator, and what we could work out ahead of time.

TO: How could you have a collection of pinups and not run one by your husband, Paul Sizer? Was he asking for too much money? :)

JI: Actually, I wanted to get pinups from entirely new creators this time around. Trust me, though, when I say that Paul contributed plenty to this book, from design help to acting as chief guardian of my sanity.

TO: How much of a help and influence has Paul been in taking Vögelein where want, both in terms of publishing and storytelling? And how do you think you've helped him in his work, or is that a question I should save for my next Sizer interview?

JI: Paul and I contribute pretty significantly to each other's books. We read scripts, edit, make suggestions and act as sounding boards for plot points and character development. Part of the reason why this works, though, is because we're really careful about how much we volunteer our services. We tend not to voice our respective opinions until we're asked -- rather than just giving criticism, however constructive. It's worked out well, and I really value Paul's input on my books, both in the creative and the material sense, and I do my best to return the favor.

TO: Not to annoy you (I know this storytelling is hard work)--but any timeline on the next Vögelein installment?

JI: This is, unfortunately, the hardest question of the interview. As of right now, I have general ideas of what I want to happen, and which characters I want "on stage", but I haven't written anything yet. I'm reading voraciously about 1690's France for the flashbacks, and I also have a dozen books on myth and legend, and another dozen works of contemporary fiction that I need to plow through. I usually get a number of character and plot ideas from texts like these, and then I just have to nurture them, first into scenes that make sense for each group of characters, and then into a full-fledged book. It usually takes me a couple months to write a script (I'm really envious of creators who can just wing it and create plot as they draw) so I hope to have something solid by year's end. There's definitely at least two more books I'd like to do using the Vögelein characters, and though it may take a couple years, I'm planning on finishing them both. Sorry that wasn't a more useful or cohesive answer, but I'm just barely getting going, and it's hard to estimate.

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