by Nevs Coleman 10-Jun-13
Nevs Coleman’s interview, from April 2013, with Holly Golightly, the writer/artist of such diverse series as Cheryl Blossom, School Bites, and Tarot, Witch of the Black Rose!
A few years back, there was a bit of a tempest in a teacup about a new Comics Convention starting up in London. Most of the nerd-rage was aimed at the lack of small press/independent publishers being represented (because, obviously, they were entitled to get tables even though they weren’t paying for the use of the venue, the cost of the staff, the advertising, the flight fare of the top name creators who would actually draw the punters from the streets and pay for tickets) and also the lack of women creators on the bill.
Now, at the risk of being lynched, I thought “Well, it’s his show. He can have whoever he wants there, he’s paying for them.” Apparently, though, he was bound by some unwritten rule of comic fans that he had to live up to their demands, even though he was the only person in the UK who’d actually got rich out of comics and decided to give back to the community that had rewarded him, rather than buggering off to a hermit-like existence and complaining about the state of the industry without actually bothering to read the comics. (And mind you, for all the outrage of these people, it didn’t stop them applying for jobs as extras when one of his comics was turned into a film.)
So, having realised that writing petulant updates on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t tend to change anything, the conversation went towards the obvious idea of having a female-centric comic convention. Being known for – amongst other things – knowing far more than is healthy about the history of the comics industry, I was contacted for suggestions for women who ought to be recognised and invited by for this dream convention.
I threw out the usual names: Trina Robbins, Marie Severin, Roberta Gregory, Kathryn Immonen, Donna Barr, Colleen Doran, Gail Simone, Elaine Lee, Sara Dyer, etc, etc. And then, just to see what would happen, I said “Oh, and Holly Golightly.”
“Oh, who’s that?”
“Holly? Oh, she’s great. Awesome Rockabilly Lady. Worked on Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Josie And The Pussycats, Cheryl Blossom. Oh, and her and her husband have been doing a bi- monthly independent comic for years now.”
“Wow, really? Which comic?”
“Oh, you know, Tarot, Witch of the Black Rose.“
“I, er, don’t think she does the kind of comic we’d be wanting to promote, to be honest.”
“… Er, have you read it? It’s just big boobs.”
“No it isn’t. Some of the protagonists are a bit booby, yes, but there’s quite a deep story going on there about magic, rebirth, regret. It does help if you don’t judge a book by its cover, though.”
“Still… No, though.”
“Right you are.”
Personally, I think that was a great shame, because it suggested to me that the idea of solidarity for the independent scene came with conditions, that it was all well and good to be a woman making a career working on a successful comic, as long as the content fell with the parameters of an unspoken consensus of what was acceptable to that collective.
I recently had the same problem with someone who wanted to talk about how great she thought All Star Batman was and was worried she’d be torn apart in print (or digital form, I guess) for not speaking out about how terrible it is that these comics are allowed to exist or whatever.
All of which seems entirely not to bother Holly whatsoever, who is possibly the perkiest person I’ve ever spoken to and is filled with enthusiasm for, well, everything that enters her orbit and you’re vaguely wondering if you’ve suddenly been transported to the set of Cry-Baby mid conversation…
– Nevs Coleman
Nevs Coleman: Hello and welcome to a collaboration between BAMF! and FA. Today I’m talking to Holly Golightly, of School Bites and Tarot, Witch of the Black Rose – say hello, Holly!
Holly Golightly: Hello, Holly!
Nevs: So, here’s a list of questions obtained from, oh, several minutes of research, so is there anything you want to say before we get into the deep and meaningful, almost Comics Journal-like, interviewing techniques I’ll be using on you today?
Holly: Oh boy – I almost said, “No handcuffs?”
Nevs: Well, I’m glad we managed to get handcuffs into the conversation early on, just to get it out of the way! So was there one artist you saw as a child that made you go, “D’you know what? I like this person’s work enough that it’s made me want to do this myself!”
Holly: Well, I didn’t know that you could “be” a comic book artist, but there are two artists that stand out for me – it was Frank Thorne and it was, oh, hold on a second, Jose Gonzalez.
Nevs: Frank Thorne I know, from Red Sonja, and he did his own series, Ghita, but who’s Jose Gonzalez?
Holly: He did a lot of Vampirella, and – I didn’t drink a lot of coffee today, because I didn’t want to have to make a lot of pit stops during the interview, (laughs) so if I do forget names, places, please forgive me!
Nevs: You heard her, Internet; do not judge her harshly for her lack of caffeine! That would be mean and rude! So Frank and Jose have made you want to be a comic book artist…
Holly: Well, I was an artist. I think they made me look at comics, and then after I discovered Wendy Pini, because she actually was Red Sonja in this little play that Frank would do in shopping malls, and I was convinced she was the real Red Sonja, so then I read all her comics!
Nevs: I’ve seen pictures of this, because they did a retrospective of her career in the Comics Journal, and it was a travelling show Frank used to do; and if he couldn’t get Wendy, or whoever to be Red Sonja, he’d apparently knock around in bars, and say, “Right, you’re a six-foot redhead, d’you fancy dressing up in chain mail for various sweaty comic fans?”, which sounds like the best pulling line in the world!
Holly: I didn’t know he did that! I mean, I know Wendy Snow was another one, and – I do forget the other girls’ names – but I have met Frank, and I was lucky enough to watch him perform and spend a whole day with him, and he’s very proud of the models and women and artists that he’s worked with, I never felt that he would just nonchalantly pick anyone! He seemed very knowledgeable about the women that he worked with, and he would become very charming with people – you just wanted to hug him, he’s so sweet! Like your sweet, dirty old uncle! (laughs)
Nevs: A position I’m aiming for myself in comics – now I have a role model! Okay, you’d decided that this is what you wanted to do, so how did you go about it? I’d read somewhere that you basically stormed up and down conventions with your portfolio, was there something before that?
Holly: I was 29 when I got into comics. Before that I’d worked in the theatre as a child and teenager, then I wanted to make movies, I went to Bard College to study film making – mmm wasn’t for me there – so I went to Parson’s School of Design and studied art – they told me I’d never be an artist, I was going to be an actress, so I went to Marymount Manhattan College and studied acting – they said I’d never be an actress – I would be an artist … sheesh! So I’d studied a lot of things, and all that actually helped in creating comic books, because I knew how to break down a script, direct, I knew scene beats and character development.
After college, I taught pre-kindergarten for a year at Dalton, and that was very exciting, I really love children but they got me sick as a dog! (laughs) And it got very frustrating that all day you’d just pour your life’s being into these lovely five-year-olds and you’d come home sick as a dog, and you’d have no strength for anything else, so I decided on my summer vacation that I would quit and start my own company. I did hand-painted t-shirts for children, and then that turned into ready-wear, which is, you know, little outfits, I even did Emma Peel outfits for kids, it was a little strange! But very well received! It was kind of like Betsey Johnson for little girls.
Then, I didn’t “feel” it any more! It kind of petered out on the creativity, there’s only so much you can do as a fashion designer, at least for me, who was a storyteller, so I had a look inside myself and thought, okay, where was my bliss, and I remembered making Star Wars cakes as a fourteen-year-old, and reading comics, and I thought, “Okay, I’ll bake cakes in the shape of my favourite cartoons and movies and try and be a comic book artist.” So I supported myself by baking, like, the Batmobile, and Barney cupcakes, and dressing up as The Little Mermaid, going to parties and painting little girls’ faces and telling them stories, while I was building my portfolio and taking it to conventions. That’s why I had a different name when I started out in the comic book industry, because I was doing children’s parties.
Nevs: We’re in a different generation now, when people can compile a portfolio and upload it onto Tumblr, and just link to whatever they’re interested in and say, “Look, this is a collective of what I draw, and this is what my stuff looks like, so if you’d like to see how I’d draw a cover for Batman or Archie or whatever, it’d look like this.” And you come from a time when you wandered from convention to convention with portfolio in hand.
Holly: It was a pink portfolio!
Nevs: Tremendous. For the benefit of people who’ve never had to go through that, who don’t have to go through that as much – I don’t know how much work gets taken on at conventions – can you describe what that was like?
Holly: Erm, it was pretty interesting. Remember, I was from the theatre, so I was used to going on a go-see, an audition, to doing interviews. I really came to it unknowing what the industry was like other than my own experiences in the theatre and fashion, so I just approached it as an interview. There were a lot of people who were very friendly, a lot of people who weren’t! But I think, I’m a pretty happy person, so I was excited. I grew up being one of the very few girls who read comics, and wanting to dress up as Princess Leia, and talk about Dungeons & Dragons, and I thought, “Oh My God, I’ve found the Land of Everyone Like Me!” So I really went into it very naive and excited.
Nevs: Well, let’s not try and drop anybody in it, but I’ve heard some stories about editors saying things like, “You know what? I think you’re the prettiest lady in comics!” and –
Holly: But you said that to me, and I was so impressed – I told Jim, “I’m going to do this interview because he said such really nice things!” (laughs)
Nevs: Oh, right, that actually worked! (laughs)
Holly: But are these recent stories?
Nevs: I’ve had some conversations in the last five years with women in the comics field who still get this, and I was wondering if you’d had any experiences like that.
Holly: If I did, I just thought they were being nice or something, I – I don’t take that stuff so seriously, y’know? I just look at it as – something was sent to me by another artist, but – why bring those kind of things up? I don’t like being negative, and they’re still alive, and I kind of like them, so… Catch me when I’m in a really nasty mood, and… (laughs)
Nevs: Okay, well, taking it from the other end of the spectrum then, from possible sexist actions by male editors in comics to, um, you worked on Cheryl Blossom, tell me about that.
Holly: I loved Cheryl, she was awesome! She’s one of the less well-known Archie characters, she’s even richer than Veronica and even more – er, demanding – and I was really happy to get that title, because I felt that in the Archie Universe, there were a lot of father-daughter relationships, and I thought that what I could bring was a mother-daughter relationship, you know, a smart businesswoman mother and a daughter who, though just as smart, was a little too cocky, too sure of herself, and that’s what got her into trouble, and that kind of reflected my relationship with my mother a little bit. It was exciting to bring a strong female voice to that, and there weren’t a lot of those while I was working at Archie, and that made me feel very proud.
Nevs: Are you aware of the stuff they’ve been doing the last couple of years, of –
Holly: Yes, and I am so jealous! (laughs)
Nevs: It’s awesome, isn’t it?
Holly: A gay Archie character, damn!
Nevs: I think Dan Parent’s a great comic writer who’s totally underrated, and what they’re doing at Archie is so progressive; anything where they actually get into trouble with the One Million Moms movement…
Holly: Ah, but we were in trouble with them back then, too!
Nevs: Oh, really? I didn’t know that ..
Holly: – because Sabrina was a Witch!
Nevs: So, was there a mass protest, attacking Toys R Us, or… ?
Holly: Well, I don’t know exactly what happened, because I stayed out of it – it’s just ridiculous! But I was as far as I know the only Witch who ever drew Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and I tried to bring a little of that energy in there. It wasn’t so airy-fairy – or if it was, it respected the faerie! (laughs)
Holly: It was okay – I used it as inspiration, because I liked the aunts, and – it was okay, but it went on a long time. They have this in England, where sometimes it’s a pro, sometimes it’s a con, but – we were watching the Misfits, and really enjoying it, and it doesn’t stay around long enough for the series to go south, y’know? Like Black Books, or the Young Ones, where shows that are really great, they never lose their potency, because there’s no-one in Hollywood trying to beat it out of its last rating!
Nevs: Well, that’s the thing with shows like Misfits, and Skins as well – you’ve basically got a revolving cast, so you’ve got here are five characters, and you follow their story arcs through one or two series, and then that story stops, their story stops, and the setup is the same, but next series there’s a whole new bunch of kids and stuff, and I’ve often thought if superhero comics had taken that on, where you had like, the fifth or seventh Captain America, they could have done it all on real time – does that make sense to you?
Holly: It does, but for me there was a problem, because I started bonding with some of the characters in Misfits, and then they go away, and I kind of want to go away too! Because I may not relate to a new set of characters, I get very emotionally involved with the characters, and I don’t mind that the story ended, because it ended well, and I think it’s quite a challenge to introduce new characters, because it took me a while to get used to it. Once I did get used to them, I was very excited to see the next episode, so… I think it would work for some series but not for others, but as long as there’s a good quality it’ll keep me curious, keep me interested. I bond with my favourite characters; I have tattoos of my favourite characters!
Nevs: Fair enough. Okay then, for the uninitiated, those on the Internet who are just discovering you for the first time, obviously the best known thing you’re working on at the moment is Tarot, Witch of the Black Rose... Tell us about it; why should we be interested, and when we decide we are interested from your amazing description, where do we find it?
Holly: Tarot, Witch of the Black Rose, is my husband Jim Balent’s creation; he was drawing Catwoman at DC Comics, and then in the year 2000 he decided he wanted to create his own character and his own company, and Tarot is a supernatural adventure, but it’s more for grownups, it’s sort of like Batman meets Xena but on HBO! It has really interesting supporting characters, Tarot is a practising Wiccan, and she’s been entrusted to be the Sword-Maiden of Magick, to keep the balance between Man and Magick. Because there is the faerie realm and there is our realm. She has a sister, Raven Hex, who, basically thinks, “mankind has not been very accepting or supportive of witches, why should I be accepting and supportive of them?” She has her own agenda, and sometimes that clashes, but we’re on issue 80 right now, and there are a lot of stories in play, a lot of characters have been introduced, a lot of adventures, so really just come over and take a look, you can visit the Jimbalent.com website and get a taste – definitely over 18! – there’s not a lot of physical sensuality, but there is nudity, and I find it funny that people are so freaked out by that, that someone taking a shower and that’s crazy, you know, but somebody blowing somebody’s head off? Totally acceptable! Kids can see that, just don’t let them watch someone bathe!
Nevs: I’ve been looking through the letters pages, and I notice you guys have built up this incredibly intense and supportive community in your letters page, and you seem to be the go-to person in comics to talk to about magick – that seems like a whole wealth of stories waiting to happen. Have you met with your readers?
Holly: We have met some of our readers – some of our readers work with us, actually; our awesome colour flatter, Randy started as a reader, our editor Neal started as a reader – it’s wonderful connecting with them. We also invite witches to share some spells or points of view. We’ve met a lot of interesting people.
Because we show the fantasy of the craft, we also want to show “These are real-life witches, and these are their ideas”, and some of them are readers, as well as professional authors. We like to share whatever we learn with our readers, and I think that sets us apart from most companies and most creators.
Nevs: Moving from Tarot to your new solo project, that you’re clearly in love with, School Bites. I can’t wait to hear you… expound with enthusiasm upon this!
Holly: (laughs) Well, I’m kind of enthusiastic about everything! But okay – School Bites is sort of like Harry Potter with fangs, or a Molly Ringwald movie with vampires. It takes place in the Shadow Academy, which is a school for young vampires, learning how to drink responsibly. They’re trying to fit in to a new world that they’ve found themselves in, and my vampires come in all different shapes, sizes, colours, and they’re not all… they’re not all pure vampires, there’s hybrids in there, and as the story unfolds, you hear of all these different kinds of vampires, and how they’re learning to accept all different traits they have, and to find out what love is – but not like Twilight (disgusted voice) not like that! Nothing like that! It’s more fun, more happy – not always, because life isn’t always happy, it’s more from the heart, you know, about friendship and love… but they’re vampires!
Nevs: But… not like Twilight? (laughs)
Holly: No! I was, yes, inspired by Anne Rice books when I was thirteen… so I do like beautiful vampires, I do. But not that beautiful! And also my vampires are more – I’m writing in a lighter genre, they mainly eat cupcakes and candy, and – you have to read the book to find out why! But it’s different, it’s just different! But I’m sure a lot of people who enjoy Twilight read my book, so I’m not going to be nasty or mean… I did watch the first movie, because I didn’t want to be one of those people who never watches anything, but still goes (disgruntled quacking tone) “Mweh mweh mweh…“
Nevs: That was the Sound of the Internet right there, I might just save that as my ring tone!
Holly: Yeah, I wasn’t going to quack about it until I saw it, and then when they started playing baseball, I was all freaked out…
Nevs: Vampires playing baseball?
Holly: You’ve never seen it?
Nevs: Yeah I should qualify to the listeners; no, I’ve never seen anything to do with Twilight, and I know a fair amount of people who have seen it, and whenever I need to know anything, I just ring them – it saves me my life!
Holly: Um… yeah… no… I didn’t like it…
Nevs: It’s all subjective opinion. I imagine any Twilight fan who doesn’t like the fact that you don’t like Twilight will probably find other things to do with their life, rather than writing in and complaining about why you should like Twilight! Speaking of negative things… I don’t know how much attention you pay to stuff that’s written about Tarot, or about School Bites.
Holly: Sometimes, you just stumble on something, and it hurts your feelings, which is why I don’t go looking for it! I grew up, like you’ve noticed, in a time that did not have the Internet, where I learned etiquette, and being polite to people, and – honestly, you’ve seen me online: when do I get grumpy? Or rude? There’s enough rudeness, so – I don’t go lookin’ for it!
Nevs: Well, this is a thing that I’ve been thinking quite a lot, and you guys, for want of a better way of putting it, seem to draw a fair amount of personal snark, and I don’t really know what this is, or why this is, but it strikes me that we’ve gone now beyond “I don’t like this comic because, subjective reasons”, to “I don’t like this comic and here are mean things I can say about it”, and obviously, one of the things with the way that Jim draws, is that a lot of the women have humongous boobs, and there’s a lot of, “Well, real women don’t look like that.” And I was quite amused when I found out that you actually –
Holly: (Raucous laughter)
Nevs: – that you actually modeled for Catwoman, when he was drawing all the covers which were causing the controversy at the time, so obviously they are real aren’t they?
Holly: … Yeeess… Russian-Jewish stock!
Nevs: I was wondering how you felt about that, because if I was in your position I’d be quite annoyed at how this had moved from “How do you feel about the comic?” to “Making assessments about somebody you’ve never met based on their work”, which I think is going too far…
Holly: Well, I had to go through an evolution – I actually asked Howard Jones how I should deal with it, because he’s a Buddhist, and I was lucky enough to have a private meeting with him, and he shared with me some information – that people were rude to him about his positive songwriting, and that’s one of the reasons I loved it, because I am very positive and optimistic, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would be rude to him because he was optimistic and happy, and he said “Well, people are just going to have their opinions, and you just have to go ahead and let them have them.” I consider myself a junior Buddhist – I wanna hex them, but I have to understand them!
So, I understand that a lot of the way they react is just from them, they have their own baggage, they have their own problems, and obviously something triggers this, like how your parents can trigger and push your buttons, so if you have a sensitivity to your own sexuality or your own self-worth, or you feel envious because you wish you were doing something – ’cause that’s when I get grumpy, especially with Twilight, I’m, like, “Hey! I did this first, why’s everybody looking at that? My stuff is fun, my vampires aren’t glittery, why aren’t I making a big paycheque?” So I just assume that’s what they’re doing, and if not they’re just being mean, on their blogosphere, so they get more clicks from Google. And in a way, they’re riding the backs of all the people who’re working so hard; we work every day, we work on the weekends, we give up a lot of our time to create, and we do everything – pencils, inks, colours, production, lettering, covers, lithographs – we do our own promotion, web-building, wholesale, retail, everything. What’s so sad is that if they weren’t so snarky and mean, maybe they’d learn something!
I don’t know how far you went into my webcomic, but I extend myself, especially to young female artists, and I encourage them to do pin-ups for me, and to do sequentials, and I hope that I’m teaching them, or at least giving them a platform to show how amazing they are! I think the women in the webcomic world are often incredibly helpful – like Gisele aka GIZ, who does Menage a 3, she’s the one helped me open my webcomic, she taught me everything, and it’s because she read my stuff on Archie and knew me, and it made me happy to know that other artists were enjoying my stuff.
(There’s a break in the recording here, while Holly recharges her computer; we resume with her response to a missed question, presumably, from context, something about nudity or body awareness or body image.)
Holly: It’s just different worlds. I grew up in an artistic world, where I was taking life drawings at eleven at the Art Students’ League, so I grew up with live models, spent time in the theatre, I did some modeling, and you’re running around naked backstage doing that – it’s no big deal!
Nevs: I’ve seen you use the phrase a few times in interview, but I’ve never seen it elaborated on – “Follow your bliss”; what do you mean by that?
Holly: Something that I gleaned from Joseph Campbell: It means pursue what makes you happy. You remember a time when you felt the joy, that this was you, that you fit in, you can’t wait to do it, you don’t mind not stopping – that, to me is bliss, when you’re just so centred – in the moment and you know who you are, and I think – this might be a reflection of who I am – when I’m doing something, that makes me feel more who I am, I am a doer, a creator, and for me to follow my bliss I need to keep creating, and to tell stories, and to share them and make people happy. And I think if you’re honest with yourself, you can find your bliss.
Nevs: You’ve got this whole magick thing going on in the comics and in your persona and stuff, I was wondering – did the magick lead to following the bliss? Was it a stepping stone to happiness, or was it just a thing that you do that you happen to find beneficial in your life, or…?
Holly: I started reading tarot when I was eight years old, so I think it was something that I was attracted to when I saw my first tarot deck – could be because it’s so visual. I was an only child, and it’s a way of relating to other people, for me it’s a bridge, it’s also a way of looking into yourself; into dreams, into storytelling, into the collective consciousness. So I think to me magick is nature, it’s also imagination, and science. Everyone will find their own path; I found mine all on my own. That’s what it meant to me. But I met teachers along the way, so that I could grow in abilities or understanding, and – honestly, Jim knows a lot more about the history and the different ways that people practise magick, than I ever did, because I was on my own, so I kind of taught myself! It’s like learning to play guitar by yourself, it’s another instrument for being creative.
Nevs: Speaking of instruments, you don’t just do magick things or comic things, but you also do a lot of work with bands; tell us about that!
Holly: Oh! Well, first, I’m not the Holly Golightly that’s sung about in the White Stripes, that’s not me – I think she’s younger and British – but I do do t-shirt designs and they tend to be for British bands! I did a design for Howard Jones, and before that Thomas Dolby. And also for KC Carlisle aka the Evil Elvis of Canada, and I did some art for Horror Story in New Zealand, and they actually wrote a song about Cherry Creeper. So did KC/Evil Elvis, he wrote a song about Cherry. They’re awesome; kind of punkabilly. They’re on the website, schoolbites.net, I think there’s some links there, if not I’ll put ‘em up!
Nevs: For the benefit of those of you on audio, Holly just did a little dance, to celebrate her happiness… That’s pretty much all the questions I had for you, Holly; d’you want to say again the various links to your websites and stuff, before we sign off?
Holly: Oh, okay; well, my link is schoolbites.net, and our main website is Jimbalent.com, but please be 18 to visit that. Then, from there, you’ll find all these other little links, like bdscdigital.com, which is our digital library where you can read our books online, as a member – you pay $5, and you can go into our library. Then we’re on the COMICS+ app, where you can buy our books singly for your iPhone, Android, iPad, all that – and I’m on Facebook, just type in hollywitch… Have I forgotten anything?
Nevs: If you have, I’m sure we can add it in later. Do you have your links tattooed to your body?
Holly: No, but I have R2D2 with Mickey Mouse ears, and Tinkerbell…
Nevs: And if Tinkerbell isn’t a good place to close the interview, I don’t know what is; thank you!
(Holly Golightly, artist and writer of such diverse comics projects as Cheryl Blossom, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, School Bites, Josie and the Pussycats, and Tarot Witch of the Black Rose, was interviewed by Nevs Coleman in April 2013; transcription by Will Morgan.)Tags: Archie, Catwoman, Cheryl Blossom, Holly Golightly, Jim Balent, Sabrina, School Bites, Tarot Witch of the Black Rose