We had the chance recently to sit down with the creator of the fantastic webcomic Unsounded, Ms. Ashley Cope! Read on to find out about Unsounded‘s origins, the truth behind pymary, the delight of writing villains, and more.
Hey Martin! My name’s Ashley Cope, and I’m a freelance illustrator and graphic novelist. Does graphic novelist sound too fancy? I live in central Florida, I enjoy video game music, horror movies, and hand-drawn animation, and I’m probably best known as the creator of an online comic called Unsounded.
Unsounded is a story about Sette Frummagem, a despicable little thief whose duplicity is matched only by her fierce loyalty to her Thief-lord father. At the story’s onset, Sette’s sent away to test her mettle, and though she fancies herself a street-hardened criminal, the world outside her hometown is scarier and more mysterious than she’d ever imagined. The only thing standing between her and a slew of perils is her bodyguard, a stuffy undead wizard named Duane. The pair of them get sucked into a bloody conspiracy on the way to Sette’s cousin’s, and things only get messier from there.
Unsounded is at its core an adventure story told in shades of magic and monsters and, most importantly, family. It’s about healthy families and broken families and conventional families and the families you have to make for yourself when your own has rejected you.
I’m a huge fan of Herman Melville. The title partly refers to Ahab’s soliloquy in “The Symphony” chapter from Moby-Dick, a speech that agonizes over the illusion of Free Will and the culpability of God. The title also refers to an important story concept that has not yet been introduced in the comic, so you’ll have to wait to learn more about that, haha.
I frankly have very little interest in print. I much prefer the immediacy and control of digital publishing, and was also intrigued right from the beginning by the idea of breaking out of the template that webcomics have inexplicably restricted themselves to. It’s a pet peeve of mine that so many internet comic creators are so loathe to thinking outside of the rectangle when it comes to their work.
I suppose it’s probably also true that I’d have a difficult time finding a publisher interested in Unsounded. It’s a schizophrenic tale, leaping from the lighthearted to the macabre with abandon, and holding very little sacred.
What are the daily (or weekly) rigors, of writing, drawing and maintaining a triweekly webcomic?
Finding a balance between freelance work and comic work is always a challenge. Unsounded is my passion, but freelance pays the bills. Still, I have myself conditioned to keep a healthy buffer of pages so the posting deadline never starts feeling like a real deadline and affecting the quality of my output.
A lot of the improvement is pretty boring and came simply with practice: better anatomy, sleeker stylization, improved consistency. Other things I’ve learned by trial and error, like not letting characters look casually at the “camera,” not putting speech balloons between characters, trying to spread out dialog and let pages breathe more. I believe it was Ted Naifeh who said that every artist has 1,000 crappy comic pages in them. Get those out of the way and you’ll start producing good work. I still have another 500 to go but I’m on my way!
Thank you! I have a BFA for the art part, but I’ve never taken anything more than a poetry class when it comes to writing. It’s definitely my weaker skill. Again through trial and error I’ve learned to trust my readers more to pick up on clues, to leave more to the art and less to the dialogue bubbles, and to chop out the unnecessary stuff. I have a sick love of dialogue, however, and an indifference towards my art—it’s hard to control myself and keep from covering it all up with text!
The entire sprawling story is plotted. I have a few chapters ahead scripted in detail. And I keep an average of 70 to 80 pages of finished art in the page buffer.
The relationship between my comic and my roleplay is a strange and twisted one. The comic came first, years and years ago, but I never had the will nor the skill to translate what was in my head to the page in a satisfactory way. Still the characters and the setting were so strong to me that I was aching to do something with them, and hence many of Unsounded’s seed elements were incorporated into a roleplaying setting I created for my friends. We played in this setting for a decade, and all the time the comic was feeding into RP and RP was feeding back into the comic.
Ultimately the RP ended, but at that point I had both improved my art enough and worked up confidence enough as a storyteller after years of DMing, that I knew I was ready to really buckle down and start the comic. Also I had seen how receptive readers were to other fantasy-themed, page-at-a-time webcomics, so I felt there was an audience for me.
RP taught me a lot about pacing and about keeping people engaged in a story; about how much information to convey and how much to keep close for the big reveal. I suppose it really gave me a love of entertaining people, too. I think there are some creators who could do with running a game or three. We need to always entertain ourselves with our work, but overcoming self-indulgence and putting plot and delivery first can really make a story stand out.
Unsounded is a breath of fresh air, mixing great artwork with a wonderful, unique fantasy story. Can you tell us a little about where the idea came from?
It’s difficult to pinpoint any one source. Unsounded is the culmination of thirty-two years of looking around the planet and amassing a collection of concepts I find important and interesting. Many of the trappings—from the giant dogs to the programming-like magic system to the Mandelbulb design of the khert—stem directly from my personal interests. And these things really are only trappings. What is core to me about Unsounded are the characters and their stories. Sette’s red-faced refusal to be a victim and Duane’s battle with mortality and Quigley’s struggle to learn to love his son are what turn me on most, but I’m not sure where these characters came from outside of my concern with kids and death and family.
Primarily I wanted to be different! We all know the old tropes, the endless parade of elves and vampires and dwarves and barbarians (and zombies). I love all that stuff, and Tolkien and D&D are a blast, but I didn’t feel like any of it could serve my characters. I wanted a setting that felt a little closer to our own; something seedier, more political, more ugly, with theoretical gods, unproven religion, people of all races, and characters who weren’t bogged down by frivolous… I can only call it design-yness. I don’t want my characters to feel designed, I want them to feel real.
For the magic system, it was important to me that it not come from divinity—that the reader could perceive it as supernatural while in the reality of the comic it would be utterly natural, allowing for copious doubt when it comes to the characters who prate on of concepts and beings that we see no evidence of, a fantasy world with room for atheists.
Politics have only been in the background of the story so far but they will rise to the forefront later. When designing Kasslyne’s world I wanted a real variety of societies, from the socially liberated to the utterly repressed; the honorable to the criminal; but I never wanted anything to fall to absolutes or stereotypes. So already in Cresce with its supposed moneyless economy we hear of bribed police. Already Duane, our supposed white knight, has proven himself bigoted, murderous, and in fact monstrous if the mood takes him just right.
So it’s a world where nothing is allowed to be what it seems, and where Sette’s greed and insistence on pleasing her Da become something of a relief, if only for their transparency.
Programming really is the best way to look at it, and I can tell you exactly how the idea came to me. I spent a good six months playing Morrowind years ago, and used to abuse the heck out of the console window. One day I wondered what our world would be like if you could pull up a console window any time you pleased and hack reality to your liking. From there it was only a matter of conjuring checks and balances, a visual style, syntax, and what the backbone of a world that supported such a system would look and behave like. I never wanted pymary to look too computer-y however, nor for the khert to look like Tron or an episode of Reboot. Pymary needed to resemble magic but with scalding neon colors and geometric shapes that give it a modern bent, with hand gestures reminiscent of Doctor Strange, with classic magic words like spells and casting and ghosts that keep readers from having -too- many new things to memorize. Pymary can for all intents and purposes be thought of as classic magic to the casual reader, but there’s a system underneath for anyone who cares to look.
They’re in a lot of ways the classic goofball/straight man duo. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, if you will. But each has a painful need that the other fulfills, and I think that’s apparent even at the height of their disagreements. Sette needs a da; someone to protect her, love her, teach her, and take her abuse. And Duane needs to protect, to love, to teach, and… well, maybe not to be abused, but it comes with the territory.
Sette is probably my favorite. She’s a delightful mix of contradictions: shrewd and naive, clever and ignorant, eloquent and illiterate, obnoxious and charming, vindictive and soft-hearted. She has a very black and white way of looking at the world, but she’ll switch it all around on a whim if it suits her purposes. She’s tenacious and irreverent and those are always fun qualities in a character.
There is a second character that really charms my muse and he’s only recently been introduced. Murkoph’s a villain, and villains are notoriously enjoyable. He’s a bit of a poet and an aesthete, utterly broken free of the chains of the conventional world. He’s unspeakably horrible and offensive, but the most successful evils are charming in their atrocity.
This is a good question. From day one I’ve received flack over some of the story’s contents, particularly when it comes to sexual violence and Sette’s inappropriate jokes. But the fact is that the world has always been unreasonably harsh to children, and different cultures are not going to accommodate our modern, western sensibilities. Sette grew up surrounded by villains and criminals, and she’s never known a person who didn’t want to take advantage of her somehow. She deals with it by expecting it, and her jokes are a defense mechanism. They’re drawn like a blade to diffuse Duane’s decency, a decency that’s foreign to her.
The rest is the world. Unsounded‘s world is like our world, and it exists on a foundation of destruction and death. Its system is one where the strong survive by exploiting the weak. I refuse to shy away from calling a spade a spade. Death happens. Sex happens. As a creator one can soften the blows or fog the lens but pretending sex and violence stop just because children are involved is not fair to the story or to the children.
None of the horrible stuff is ever meant to be exploitative, but it has to be there. It has to be there as much as any of the other does.
I should probably rethink that rating though, eh?
Considering it’s a comic there’s no doubt the two are inextricably intertwined. Before Unsounded, my writing and art were always separate, but I’ve learned that just because one can do each separately that it is no indication that one has the skills to combine them into a comic. It’s tough.
A lot of the information pertinent to Unsounded‘s story isn’t the kind of info easily illustrated visually. In some ways the entire tale would work better in prose. Being unable to go into expository depth in word balloons makes one have to reconsider what’s truly important to the narrative. For instance, though it feels important to me that every spell be readily explainable in every fight, I had to make myself see that it’s the consequence of an attack that matters most, not the reasoning behind it.
And situations like that in themselves become a new search for balance: instead of text vs. visuals it becomes important vs. dismissible.
Wow, the Kickstarter was an insane experience, and as I’m still in the middle of shipping books out to people it’s an experience that goes on every day. The most important thing I took away from it was the realization that more than a few people dig my work. That was amazing and gratifying. I have so many generous, fantastic readers. They help me get through the dark patches.
On the technical side, Kickstarter does its job very well. It does take a healthy percentage of your earnings for itself, but the tools it provides all through the process are all very well done and helpful. Printing and shipping 1200 books out all by oneself is not easy. I still have at least another month of it, and after that I want to take the rest of the year to produce more Unsounded and get back to work on my freelance. But there will be a volume 2, don’t doubt that. I could see myself announcing it in December. The next volume is significantly longer and will be that much more awesome!
Only when I’m feeling crabby, haha. Otherwise I love talking with anyone who wants to gab on Formspring. That’s one of the wonderful things about digital publishing—I can make myself immediately available to anyone who wants to have their ear gnawed off. And I’ve met some really warm and wonderful people because of it. There are always haters of course, but I don’t have much respect for people obsessed with tearing things down. Building things up takes skill and time and work; tearing things down is the task of any monkey with a stick of dynamite.
I’m so glad you had fun! And FUN was the intention. Fanfiction was the first thing I ever seriously wrote and I’ve always had a passion for it. I’ve never agreed with the stigma against it and in fact think it’s a great way to encourage kids and young adults to get out there, be imaginative in a safe environment, and dip their toes in creative writing. Fanfiction all the things!
In the next few chapters I can promise that Sette’s mission for her Da will be resolved for better or for worse. Much sooner than that though we’ll be learning a great deal more about Duane. Stay tuned!
Come check it out! Though I’d never advertise it as a story suited to everyone, it does have giant mechanical ogres and interesting hats.
Ashley, thank you so much for your time! Best of luck and continued success with Unsounded!
If you’d like to check out Unsounded, it can be found here.