Last September my girlfriend Amber and I went to Rose City Comic Con in Portland Oregon and during our adventures my girlfriend stumbled upon Cassie and her booth where Lifeformed was presented. Amber asked Cassie to explain her books premise because she really liked the art. Cassie was more than happy to explain as well as very enthusiastic about it making it an easy buy for Amber. Of course Amber devoured this book the day after we made it home from Portland and I quickly followed suit so imagine my surprise when I walked into my LCS one Wednesday to see the smiling faces of Cassie and Matt. I told them my story and bought their art book of Lifeformed that was made specifically for their little tour. I thought that would be the end of our interaction until possibly seeing them at a con again but imagine my surprise when Matt reached out on Twitter and asked for an interview.
How did you guys meet and how did you decided to collaborate together for Lifeformed?
Cassie: Matt found my work online and reached out to me with his story idea. I read through the synopsis and fell in love with the characters. Cleo was so sassy, but also had a depth to her that felt unique and interesting. Her relationship with “Alien Alex” was really intriguing to me. So Matt and I met up for coffee and collaborated on a few test pages. When that went well, we jumped into the first 24-pages of the story, which has changed a lot since then!
Matt: I found Cassie’s art online via a freelance artist directory website and then started following her on Tumblr and Instagram. Going back through all her work on those sites I felt like she had an amazing ability to convey emotion and a nice and clean and effective approach to storytelling. I had been working on the script for what became our issue-length pitch packet for a while, and so I think I sent that to her to check out before we met up for coffee. We hit it off and picked three pages to do as sort of a trial for collaborating together, and those went really well, as did the character designs that we did before those pages, so we went ahead and started work on a 24-page first issue, which ended up becoming the pitch packet for the book.
The first thing I noticed about Cleo is she stands defiant front and center on the cover, is Cleo’s experience something that you guys wanted to make front and center as well? And if so, Cassie, how do you translate that to the art?
Matt: Lifeformed: Cleo Makes Contact is for sure primarily Cleo’s story, and her being hesitant about growing up to becoming more of a warrior, becoming strong and defiant as she faces the battle with the aliens, is something we wanted to show on the cover, I think. We also wanted to convey her tween-age attitude and the fact that her relationship to everything that is happening is complicated.
Cassie: Cleo and her experience is definitely one of the big focuses of the book. We watch as her life is completely uprooted and turned upside-down, and we see Cleo grow and get stronger in the face of that. She’s also the lens that the reader looks out onto this strange new world with. I did my best to convey that with the art; she’s out of her element and doing her best to hold on to what she knows, often weaving a familiar cocoon around herself (with her backpack, her clothes, and her Cheez Curlz).
Matt, Cleo’s age and emotional development seems to be a major focus of the theme of the book, was it hard to write a preteen girl and her emotional development as a grown up man?
Matt: I have two daughters, one of which is a preteen, so I have a lot to draw from on that front and it didn’t feel too tough. I’ve also always been able to recall how I felt myself when I was that age, so I felt like I accessed a lot of that for Cleo as well. It’s also possible I never grew up all that much.
Being a grown up who reads comics and watches cartoons on a regular basis I think I understand the second guessing when it comes to being a grown up.
Cassie, as an artist you had to balance Cleo’s age with grown up themes, how did you develop Cleo in relation to the script and balance her age with her adult themes and hit that sweet spot where she doesn’t look too old or too young?
Cassie: Matt and I went back and forth a lot, especially in the very beginning, of how to best portray Cleo. We didn’t want her to come across as too old or too mature, especially as the story begins. I gave her a few clothing elements to ground her in that innocent pre-teen adolescence, especially in the beginning, like her pink dress and her cat shoes. And, of course, big eyes and round cheeks help to reinforce that younger appearance. In the story, Cleo is faced with some very tough situations, and even does some scary stuff herself Matt and I did our best to make sure Cleo’s reaction to these situations was as realistic as possible for her. She isn’t always an emotional pillar, and she doesn’t get off scot free when violence does happen.
Speaking of emotions, I feel like the mark of a great artist is the emotions shown in characters body language and facial expressions. How did you guys collaborate to make Cleo so expressive, was it something either of you took the lead on or was it more organic throughout the script?
Cassie: I had so much fun trying to capture the emotions throughout the story! It’s one of my favorite things to draw, and it was always exciting when Matt gave me a scene that focused on emotional gravitas over action. Before starting the whole book, I did a lot of facial studies of Alex and Cleo, trying to give them a range of emotion while also keeping them “on model.”
Matt: For me it was being lucky enough to work with someone who’s so great at capturing the expressive, emotional side of things. I would script an idea of Cleo’s state in a scene, but Cassie would really bring it to life.
Cleo’s relationship with her dad is very sweet but also very short lived and although it was short I feel like the sequence set a tone for the book, was that your intent or was it something that happened naturally?
Matt: Yeah, that was pretty intentional. I wanted to build up Cleo’s dad’s character enough to make sure that readers felt Cleo’s loss, and so that, once the alien “replaces” him, we understand the things Cleo might expect from this alien that it either is or isn’t going to deliver, and how these characters that look the same are actually very different. And, for the alien and Cleo, who build a relationship that is also very different from the one she had with her dad, I wanted to both set the tone I guess and be able to contrast those.
Cassie: We really wanted to set the stage for what Cleo’s relationship with her dad was like before, you know, tearing it into a million pieces. It allowed for a more stark contrast with her later relationship with the alien posing as her dad. So in those early pages, it was really important to us both to capture as much of human dad Alex as possible.
Lifeformed is multilayered and although Cleo’s story is probably the most important there is also the alien (her dad) and his story. Was it tough writing an alien and how did you capture his emotions and make him so relatable?
Matt: I didn’t find it too tough. I don’t ever have a hard time tapping into feeling alienated, or like I don’t know what I’m doing. And when the alien arrives and is suddenly in charge of Cleo, that to me felt a lot like when your kid is first born and you think you just have no idea how to keep them alive, or at least you have no confidence in your ability to do so. So I tried to draw on all that, and combine it with the fact that Alien Alex, as we call him, is strong and he knows how to fight and he is sure that he must fight. That’s why he’s here. So he’s got a clarity, a sense of mission, that was really fun to lean into. I also like the fact he’s pretty sure he and Cleo will never beat the aliens and “win” in the larger sense, but that’s not going to stop him from getting up every day and trying.
Cassie: From the drawing side of things, it was a bit challenging to take this guy that looked pretty unfamiliar and make the reader root for him. In the beginning of his story, he is totally being taken advantage of, but he doesn’t think he has any other options. Getting that hopelessness across was important to me, because later we see him break free and fight hard for himself and also those that can’t or won’t.
Cassie, I loved the Lifeformed Tour Book that I picked up at my LCS while you were on tour. How did you come about and settle on the design of the characters?
Cassie: Thank you! It was definitely a group effort. I would do some sketches based on how I envisioned the characters in the script Matt gave me, then pass them over to him for his thoughts and feedback. We both had pretty strong feelings for what Cleo would look like, but nailing down Alex was a little harder. Finally Matt told me, “He’s just a dad. Give him a dad body.” And I went from there!
Do you plan on making more Lifeformed?
Cassie: Fingers crossed! We definitely would like to continue this story, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Matt: Nothing is set yet that we can discuss, but in our minds, Cleo and Alex’s adventures definitely continue, and if we get the chance to tell more of the story we’ll follow not only the development of their relationship but also investigate the aliens more and get to explore more of the what the world is like after the invasion.
Well I can say for certain that this fan would be excited to see more of Cleo and Alien Alex!
Do you plan any sort of spin offs of Lifeformed?
Matt: I’ve worked on ideas for the whole Lifeformed world for quite a while, so if we get the chance, I certainly wouldn’t be short of ideas, and I think spin-off stories could go off in a variety of directions and be pretty fun and interesting.
Do you have other projects outside of Lifeformed planned?
Cassie: A few things in the works, but nothing far along enough yet worth mentioning. I did finish my webcomic, An Ordinary Princess, this year and am hoping to get it published, though.
Matt: A few things at very early stages, but nothing concrete or that could really be talked about yet.
Dark Horse is one of the most recognizable names in comics, how was it working with the good folks over at Dark Horse?
Cassie: Not what I expected! This was my first time working with any big publisher, so getting to be a part of the whole process of making a book was eye-opening. The people that helped us make this book a reality are really the best. Dave Marshall first saw it’s potential and helped us get started, then Aaron Walker and Rachel Roberts saw us through to the finish. It was great having such informed and knowledgeable comic people give us feedback and guidance.
Matt: It was great. Our editor, Rachel Roberts, is fantastic and really believes in the book, and we got a lot of good input along the way from her, Dave Marshall and Aaron Walker at different stages in the process. I was born and raised in Portland and I remember when Dark Horse Presents #1 was on the shelves at the shop I went to as a kid, and one of my absolute favorite and most formative books as a youth was Mark Verheiden’s The American (from Dark Horse), so it’s pretty cool to have Lifeformed be out on Dark Horse.
Do you have day jobs and how is it trying to balance creating with the mundane 9 to 5?
Cassie: I do freelance work with a slice of nannying on the side (for my excellent and lovable little cousins, which is great). It works out really well, because I can get up early and draw, then pick kids up in the afternoon right about when my brain starts turning to mush from too much time staring at a page.
Matt: My day job is doing user interface design and development, so I get up super early in order to get some writing in before I get to designing screens. And then, if Cleo and Alex or some other project is really in my head, I’ll do a couple hours after work and more on the weekends. I feel most sane when I can get a good chunk of writing done regularly, so I just do whatever it takes to make that happen. And I run a lot and do a lot of writing in my head while I’m doing that.
What are some of your biggest influences?
Matt: Story-wise, for Lifeformed, 80s sci-fi like The Terminator (and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), The Hidden and Aliens, plus a lot of Buffy and Veronica Mars, were the biggest influences. As far as comics, I grew up on all the 80s stuff there as well, with Claremont’s X-Men, Watchmen, Batman: Year One and Year Two and the KGBeast and Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe being things I read over and over again that definitely set my standard for what a good comic book story was. Oh, and the first Punisher miniseries and Kraven’s Last Hunt… basically if Mike Zeck drew it or did a cover for it, I read it. All that said, I got back into reading comics via Ultimate Spider-Man, and Bendis’ decompressed style, not getting Peter into costume until issue 6 or whatever it was, that really sucked me in and I think played a big part in how I like to structure stuff.
Cassie: Growing up, I was super into anything with a strong female lead, bonus points if she was magical. So basically Sailor Moon was my jam. My family has a deep love for sci-fi TV, so growing up I watched Star Trek, Stargate, Farscape, Firefly, and more, which definitely has had an impact on my art and storytelling. I also love the work of so many artists! Some of the people whose art I look at and admire the most are probably Claire Hummel (famous for the “historically accurate Disney princesses), Tony Cliff (creator of the Delilah Dirk series), and Lucy Knisely (cartoonist and memoir novelist).
What comics are you reading right now?
Cassie: I just finished the first few issues of Papergirls (finally!). I can’t wait to read more. I also finished Sam Bosma’s latest Fantasy Sports book, which is fantastic. I really admire his backgrounds and use of color. I’ve been really into graphic novel memoirs over the past couple years, too, and Spinning by Tillie Walden was profound and moving.
Matt: Anything by Tom King, particularly Mister Miracle by him and Mitch Gerads… it’s amazing. Speaking of structure, he just nails it every time and also does something unique with it almost every time. Mindbogglingly good, and the art… seriously if you’re not reading this you need to. It will haunt you in the best way. I also look forward to every issue of Shade, The Changing Girl, Copra and Paper Girls. Saga has been around for a long time now so I forget about it, but I think 5 of the last 6 issues of Saga have nearly brought me to tears. Oh, and Deadly Class and Black Hammer. Both those books are so consistently good and inventive. There’s so much good stuff.
I haven’t been reading Paper Girls but Y the Last Man is a comic book classic and Saga is awesome so I understand the love for anything Brian K. Vaughan. I like Tom King’s writing style and his current Batman run has been shaping a really complex love story between two iconic characters so I certainly can relate to his ability to structure a story.
How can people get a hold of you?
How can people get a hold of Lifeformed?
Matt: Lifeformed should be available at your local comic shop and possibly at your local graphic novel-carrying bookstore, and you can get it from most online retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and so on). And if you’re a digital comics reader, it’s available from Dark Horse Digital.
Cassie: You can send up a smoke signal, then either Matt or I will send a carrier pigeon with a book to you. Turnaround time is usually a couple months though, so if you don’t have that kind of time, you can pick it up at your local comic shop, bookstore, or online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and more! Also it’s on Dark Horse Digital if you don’t want to deal with actual pages.