Imagine being a kid, bored of your humdrum existence of homework and pee wee soccer, wanting nothing more than magic and adventure to break the monotony. Then, whether through an old wardrobe or within a never-ending book, you find it. But the land of rainbows and gumdrops isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – oh, it’s magical alright, but what if that trip through the looking glass was a one-way ticket? All that whimsy might start to grate on your nerves after a few years.
Such is the case of Gertrude, the tiny foul-mouthed protagonist of I Hate Fairyland, Skottie Young’s new series from Image Comics. Having aged mentally but not physically, Gert is a fully jaded and miserable adult stuck in an 8-year-old’s body who’s had just about all the unicorns, elves and narrating moons she can handle. After spending the last 27 years stuck in Fairyland searching for the key that will open the door back home, she’s a bit—shall we say—psychotic. Actually, she’s a straight up maniac, inclined to shred some cuteness with her bare hands and mass-murder the witnesses. The result is akin to Tank Girl sinking the Good Ship Lollipop.
I Hate Fairyland is chock full of candy-colored visuals, and even puke and entrails look like tons of fun. Young takes the familiar tropes of children’s fantasy, shakes them up violently and creates a dark, sarcastic and downright hilarious variation. Though, if we’re being honest, he didn’t exactly have to look too deep for darkness in the genre – Dorothy’s first act in the land of Oz is manslaughter, Alice did a bunch of drugs in Wonderland, Neverland has something of a child predator problem and behind Labyrinth’s amazing sound track is a tale of kidnapping. But instead of an innocent youth traversing a menacing landscape, it’s Fairyland that needs to survive Gertrude.
Young took a break from ravaging Fairyland to talk about his influences and how he built such a sweet world for Gert to tear up.
Paste: How did the idea of I Hate Fairyland come about and change to its permanent form?
Skottie Young: It was while I was working on the Wizard of Oz stuff at Marvel that I started developing it—but not as a reaction to me not wanting to work on the Oz stuff. I loved the Oz stuff. I found myself thinking, at some point, would Dorothy be super annoyed by all these characters. Around the same time we had our first kid, so we started reading a lot of books at night. Picture books are very short and rhymey, and the first couple of times you read them they’re cute and funny, but you read them 50 or 60 times and characters just start driving you nuts. It’s that kind of idea—all the stuff I really like, like fairy tales and old-school MAD Magazine, Lobo and Tank Girl—I put all that into this new life I was leading as a father reading these books over and over. That was the seed of the idea. Over the years, seeing what visuals played against each other, it ended up being a 40-year-old adult shoved into a little eight-year-old girl.
I Hate Fairyland Concept Art
Paste: So you’re Gertrude! You’re the 40-year-old stuck in Fairyland.
Young: Yeah! It is funny when you have kids, one of the things nobody tells you is how many times they repeat things. In a lot of ways it’s fantastic because you’re watching these little people explore and learn, but on the other side you’re stuck in a room watching the same three episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba for about three years. If you hear the Dora map song one more time you definitely want to find an axe and do something bad to the television. There’s a lot of humor in that juxtaposition of adults being stuck inside a kid’s existence, which as a parent you kind of are.
Paste: With this kind of story, you have a ton of tropes at your disposal to play with. Which ones are you focusing on?
Young: I think one of the biggest challenges here is to tell a fairyland-like story that we’re familiar with, but not feel like I’m doing a parody of those stories. That’s a real challenge because I’ll come up with ideas and basically I don’t want this to feel like Shrek, where I’m doing my take on Pinocchio. I’m trying to stick classic tropes, like talking trees and elements like that. And sugar and ice cream.
Paste: Sometimes genre clouds a more serious theme. Is there something at the heart of this we might not realize?
Young: There’s definitely not any serious theme as far as some deep-rooted emotional core. In a way, as comic book creators, maybe we’re all a little bit of Gertrude. It’s just the reverse: We’re kids trapped in adult bodies. I come to work and my office is bright green with drawings all over the walls by my friends, so I’m living this weird dual life playing pretend all day by telling stories with cartoon-like imagery, but at the same time I have bills to pay.
Paste: It’s funny you mentioned Tank Girl as an influence, because my first reaction reading the book was “Tank Girl in Wonderland.”
Young: That’s awesome! I was such a big fan of Tank Girl—I am such a big fan of those slightly juvenile, bombastic, hyper-violent comics. There was even a time in the development stage where she was closer in age to Tank Girl and it was probably getting too close to actually being Tank Girl in Wonderland. That spirit of Tank Girl, which is a very spunky, strong female character carving her own path in the world and blowing a lot of stuff up along the way, was always very appealing to me.
I Hate Fairyland #1 Interior Art by Skottie Young
Paste: Right about the time she shoots the Moon in the head, I thought this would make an awesome cartoon. Can you elaborate on how cartoons and other influences show through in the book?
Young: Spy vs. Spy was just two characters trying to blow each other up, that was huge for me. There’s no words, so a lot of the visual storytelling came from that. I grew up in the era of Looney Tunes. That cartoony violence, I think you’re going to see a lot of that. Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragonés’ classic run on Groo, that really is going to come through. Jhonen Vasquez and Invader Zim in the early 2000s. I think that’s one of the funniest shows ever, and they’re back now with that comic too and it’s just out-of-this-world funny.
Paste: Your style very much lends itself to this type of world, rather than something set in reality.
Young: For sure. We joke all the time because I don’t even own a ruler. There’s nothing I hate more than drawing a straight line or skyscraper that needs to have correct perspective. I love everything to look like it’s made of melted butter. Jumping into the creator-owned world, you try to add to the landscape in a way that wouldn’t fit at the other publishers. Marvel and DC are fantastic at what they do, I don’t need to do it again or replicate what I do there.
Paste: In terms of designing the world, did you have to study up?
Young: Not really. I tried my best to think of the kinds of stories I liked and the movies I liked growing up, and then coming up with as much whole cloth as I can. Sometimes if you go back to that stuff and soak it in too much, it’ll stick with you more than you want it to. It’s better for me to reference it as how do I remember being inspired by that kind of material.
I Hate Fairyland #1 Interior Art by Skottie Young
Paste: A lot of the book hinges on clichés—it’s what makes it recognizable, because you’re playing off those familiar things. How do you navigate it so you’re not becoming overly cliché?
Young: I don’t know. Maybe I am too cliché, I’m not sure. I have to let everybody else decide if I was too broad or too on the nose. I try not to get too wrapped up in that because I’d just lose my mind. I guess the hope is that you’ll be invested in the character, and have enough fun with her and Larry that if they walk through a clichéd land, that’s fine. If you’ve seen stories with ice cream cones as trees, but Gert’s saying the things she’s saying, or throwing up on Larry’s food, you won’t care.
Paste: In a context where you can literally make up anything, do you find it hard to make things up?
Young: Yes. As fun as it is not having to draw a car, sometimes just knowing what a car looks like, it’s kind of easy. I can’t just make up a person walking in a suit, I’ve got to make up a pointed tree elf walking and harvesting strawberry hearts. That can be fun, but there’s also days where you’re like My God, my mind is so blank.
I Hate Fairyland #1 Interior Art by Skottie Young
Paste: Artistically, what are some of your tricks for conveying that Gertrude may look like a little girl but isn’t?
Young: Gert’s almost never looking sweet. I’ve always got her hair frayed. I really go out of my way to make sure Gert’s posture is bad. Usually looking manic or insane. Her teeth were one of my really big design choices at the beginning, that once she gets to Fairyland her teeth get all messed up. So she’s got a pretty jacked-up grill. That helps keep you from thinking this is a sweet 6-year-old, she looks haggard and beat up, kind of mean.
Paste: When she hit the ground in Fairyland… It’s almost like the opposite of Dorothy arriving in Oz and killing someone.
Young: It’s kind of playing on that. Dorothy gets to Oz and her house landed on someone, but Dorothy didn’t get hurt. And Alice falls down a hole. That’s one of those tropes, entering into the world. They always enter in a very dangerous way, but never seem to get hurt.
Gert, I Hate Fairyland
Paste: You’ve said that previous versions of Gert were older or male. What were some of her earlier forms that you opted away from?
Young: Like I said, my first version was male. The story was a boy goes through and then you jump forward the same way and it’s a hulking, grimaced man. I like the juxtaposition of a big, balding guy in this cute world. I thought this kind of character we’ve probably seen a lot, so I changed it to a girl. But when she said the things she said, it just wasn’t that funny because of course 20-year-olds act like that. So I spent a lot of time asking my friends what’s funnier—older guy, older girl, little girl—and all of them would say something different. I thought there’s way more milage I can get out of her looking little but being old.
Paste: Was there a similar progression with other characters?
Young: Larry was pretty much always Larry. I knew I wanted that guide-like character, like Hoggle from the Labyrinth or Jiminy Cricket. But I also love Ralph Bakshi and that old kind of bowler cap, cigar-chomping throwback feeling to early animation. That was a big thing for me. He’s equally as stuck as she is, because he can’t move on until the person he is guiding gets through. That’s why you’ll notice Larry’s expression almost never changes, he’s not shocked by anything because he’s been through it all.
Paste: I don’t know if it’s just me, but I thought the slug character looked a bit like Kim Jong-Un.
Young: That’s not intentional! I had more of a Rick Ross in my head, like a really big dude, gold chains and everything, just holding court. As the ideas would pop into my head, I’d write it on an index card. So by the time I actually sat down to write scripts, I had a stack of 20-30 cards, and one of them was an overly rappy slug. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, grew up loving hip-hop, so that’s where the slug came from—my love of hip-hop, the four-finger rings, Slick Rick and high top fades.
The Queen, I Hate Fairyland
Paste: So, tell us about the Queen and her cloud hair.
Young: The Queen was hard, man. At first her name was Queen Butterbee because I couldn’t think of anything and she was half butterfly and half bee. It was real generic. So I just filled the script in with that, and I actually drew some page with that version of it, and it bothered me so much because there’s nothing funny. I just started sketching her and as I made her hair big and poofy, and I thought well this is kind of how I draw clouds. Then I thought this is perfect because I already had the scene of Gert blowing the moon up, and the Queen gets mad about that. If the queen is kind of sky-based, then it makes sense that that would be the final line. The hardest things about comics is conveying a sense of movement. When she get’s mad, it’s a perfect emotion changer because her hair can now turn into stormy clouds and lightning can hop in there. It plays for some really cool movement.
Paste: So what else is in store for future books?
Young: The end of issue #5, I’ve had this ending since the very first iteration. The last page was written almost the day I came up with the idea and it’s never changed. The great thing about Fairyland is that it’s literally never-ending. She can’t find this key because every time she gets to a new place there are more places to go look. Once we get past the first arc, I really plan on opening up this world up to some really fun stuff. We’ll get to introduce more characters and play with more of the fantasy world tropes. Beyond just the Alice in Wonderland tropes, we might enter into a Lord of the Rings flavor.