Kickstart This: The Princess Who Saved Herself

Two years ago, comics writer and filmmaker (and familiar name to NOC readersGreg Pak, known for his work on several Hulk and X-Men titles, including the current Storm book, and his current runs on Action Comics, Batman/Superman, and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, among others (like Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology), was raising funds on Kickstarter for a graphic novel based on beloved geek culture singer/songwriter Jonathan Coulton‘s Code Monkey character. As a reward for meeting a stretch goal, Pak and his collaborators promised an original children’s book based on Coulton’s popular twist on children’s fairytales, “The Princess Who Saved Herself.”

00-pwsh-cover-2015-pressMy multiethnic Asian American daughters (now 10 and 6) and I have loved Coulton’s song since SiriusXM Kids Place Live started playing it heavily in advance of the 2010 release of Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti, the kindie fundraising anthology for which it was written. My youngest, especially, is a lot more stereotypically girly in her pop culture tastes than this feminist, gender-role-stereotype-fighting SAHD expected, and so I’ve always tried to give them positive feminist and anti-racist messages and images and pop culture to consume and interact with. This song, with its catchy and funny lyrics, has certainly fit the bill, and I cannot wait to share the picture book version with them.

Today, with the ebook completed and delivered to those original backers, Pak and company are launching a new Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of a physical, IRL, paper edition of this much-anticipated storybook, with words by Pak and art by Takeshi Miyazawa and Jessica Kholinne. In honor of today’s campaign launch, Pak sat down with us (virtually) to talk about the project.

JASON: Can you tell me about why and how you and your collaborators came to develop “The Princess Who Saved Herself” as a Code Monkey Save World stretch goal?
GREG: About two years ago, singer songwriter Jonathan Coulton and I launched a Kickstarter campaign to make a graphic novel called Code Monkey Save World, based on characters from his awesome songs. Our wonderful backers went a little crazy and hit every stretch goal we dangled in front of them, and by the end, we had the funding not only to make the Code Monkey book, but also a digital children’s picture book based on Jonathan’s classic song “The Princess Who Saved Herself.” We delivered the Code Monkey book last year. And now, at long last, we’ve finished the princess book and have just delivered it in digital form to our backers!

So today we’re launching a Kickstarter to create a print version of the Princess Who Saved Herself for anyone who wants a beautiful hardcover of the book to read to the small ones in their lives.

What was the reaction to the stretch goal? What had you expected?
We honestly had no idea what to expect. But the reaction was through the roof and we were blown away and incredibly grateful. It does confirm something, though — people are hungry for surprising and diverse stories. The audience is out there. We just have to find them.

pwsh02-3_Color_LRF What is your relationship to Jonathan Coulton?
We went to college together, so we’ve been friends for a couple decades and change. It’s been fantastic working together — we’ve got a lot of shared history and and kind of shared ethos about independent media making and emotionally honest storytelling that we can really bond over. It’s just hugely fun, too. He’s a pretty amusing dude and we laugh a lot as we work on this stuff.

What does he think of the project? How do the storyline and characters take off and build from the song lyrics’ outline?
GREG: You know, I actually have Jonathan right here. So let’s let him answer this himself!

JONATHAN: I love it! Greg took a couple of bits that I only touched on in the song and spun them out in a really satisfying way. The witch got fleshed out into an actual person, which I sort of forgot to do. And Tak’s artwork is hard for me to not see when I think about these characters now. It’s always fun to see one of my songs get exploded into some other thing, but this is a particularly satisfying result.
GREG: Jonathan’s song established such a great foundation — I just had to find some of the dramatic mechanisms to make it come together. What I love the most about the project is our heroine. Her name’s Gloria Cheng Epstein Takahara de la Garza Champion and she’s an awesome princess who eats cake, has a pet snake, and plays rock ’n’ roll guitar all day. Of course, the wicked hipster witch who lives next door plays classical guitar and hates our heroine’s music. So hijinks ensue.
What makes the character really work, though, is that Jonathan established in the song that she’ll always tackle a problem head on without fear and may kick some dragon butt if she has to, but ultimately she always turns to compassion. That’s real and true and inspiring and also a lot of fun to write, because it allows for gentle but surprising twists that can really resonate.
pwsh09 I love that “The Princess Who Saved Herself” is multiracial and drawn as such. Can you tell me about the thinking behind that decision?

GREG: I’m biracial, Korean and white, and I’ve always been aware of how corny so many depictions of multiracial people in pop culture are. You’ve got the savage half-breed and the tragic mulatta and that’s just boring after a while. I wanted to take the opportunity to throw those stereotypes out the door and depict a non-stereotypical, everyday, awesome multiracial kid.

Who is this book for and why? Is it a different audience than your other work? If so, how and why?
GREG: It’s for awesome kids and the awesome adults in their lives. In a way, it’s an aspirational story, about a kid who’s becoming the kind of fearless, compassionate, funny person we all want to be. Jonathan’s song certainly inspired me. I like the idea that reading the story might make being that kind of person a goal for both kids and adults, or to just give support to those fearless kids who already are heroes.

I also tried to write something that would be fun for an adult to read to a kid again and again, which was made easier by the fact that I had the rhythm and rhymes of Jonathan’s song in my head as I was writing. And we were lucky enough to work with artists who bring great energy and nuance to the table. If we did it right, the images should be fun and inviting and exciting for younger kids, but with enough subtle emotion and humor to intrigue older kids and adults.
pwsh16_Color_LRF The We Need Diverse Books campaign for diverse children’s literature in both subject and creation has really illuminated this long-standing problem recently. Why do you think, as a creator and artist of color, we need diverse books? How can diverse comics and speculative fiction in particular reach readers in different ways?
GREG: As an Asian American kid, I grew up reading Spider-Man and The Hulk and had no trouble identifying with and caring about the white heroes in those stories. But at the same time, I was blown away whenever I saw a person of color depicted as a multi-dimensional human being in the stories I loved. I remember Robbie Robertson, the managing editor of the Daily Bugle in the Spider-Man comics, making a huge impression on me. He was one of the very few depictions in mainstream American media that I’d seen up to that point in my life of a smart, calm, wise, strong man who happened to be Black. I’m not Black, but I definitely knew I was a minority. And Robbie Robertson sent me the message that I belonged. That these comics were for me, the stories were for me, and hell, America was for me.
I’ve always tried to cast my films and comics diversely, partly because I live in a diverse city and world and that’s just how the stories come to me in my head. But also because diverse characters mattered a heck of a lot to me as a kid. I also love the way genre fiction can reach huge numbers of people with diverse casts and maybe subtly change hearts in small ways on an almost subliminal level. There’s that famous story that Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking with Nichelle Nichols about how important it was for her to stay in that Star Trek cast in the role of Uhura. Dr. King got it. We have a little bit of power to help create the future with our fiction. Diversity in fiction helps make the world a better place for all of us.

All art above has been provided by Greg Pak. If you like what you’ve seen and read, check out the Kickstarter page and pledge so that you can share this story with your own NOCs-in-training.

UPDATE: The campaign reached its $15,000 goal in SIX HOURS today! Congrats to Greg and crew! As this project itself originated as a stretch goal, we can only imagine what goodies will be offered in the remaining 14 days of the campaign, so check it out and pledge.