Ben Fisher is the writer of The Great Divide, The Misadventures of Grumpy Cat, Splitsville, and more. Emily S. Whitten regularly writes about pop culture at ComicMix and other web sites, is a convention organizer, and an in-demand moderator. Michelle Nguyen has illustrated Grumpy Cat (and Pokey), Reckstar, and more. They’ve all come together to bring you The Underfoot, a post-apocalyptic tale of a group of intelligent hamsters trying to survive in this strange, new world. Fisher, Whitten, and Nguyen sit down with Westfield’s Roger Ash for a revealing look at this new series.
Westfield: How did The Underfoot come about?
Ben Fisher: Like all the timeless classics, The Underfoot was born from a half-joking late-night Twitter conversation. Emily and I began taking turns building a backstory for one of her pet hamsters that eventually spiraled into emails, then less-joking phone calls and, eventually, a ridiculously serious world bible.
Westfield: Reading the first issue, it seemed like there were shout-outs to classic animal tales such as Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. What stories influenced The Underfoot?
Emily S. Whitten: As Ben notes, this story grew from our shared sense of whimsy and apparent desire to spend our valuable Adulting time talking to each other as hamsters on social media. However, there is no question that tales we grew up with have influenced our imaginations and work. Since childhood I’ve loved stories about small creatures overcoming big odds, including The Rats of NIMH and Watership Down. I’ve also been a fan of anthropomorphic action animal stories, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for as long as I can remember. Epic tales like The Lord of the Rings have undoubtedly snuck their influence in here and there. And while Ben and Michelle share some of these fandoms, they’ve also read or seen stories I have not, so those have fallen into the mix as well. That’s one reason I love collaborating – because mixing up our life experiences and influences into one creation pays homage to the stories that have gone before, but also results in something totally new. And that is such fun!
Westfield: What can readers look forward to in the book?
Fisher: The Underfoot: The Mighty Deep is our welcome mat to the post-apocalyptic world of H.A.M. The reader is introduced to the inner workings of the Hamster Aquatic Mercenaries and the religious and political structures of animal society as they see it. A diverse range of critters, each with their own history, quirks, and prejudices, will guide the reader on this journey. And as the story progresses, those beliefs and understandings will be challenged as shocking revelations come to light and old mysteries begin to unravel.
Oh, and also badgers with glasses. You can look forward to that, too.
Westfield: Who are some of the characters readers will meet?
Whitten: We’ve got all kinds of species in the book, but our main focus at this juncture is on the hamsters in the H.A.M. burrow. They really run the gamut – from burrow leaders like Luciana and Hap to hamster pups just growing into their responsibilities, like Mac, Ruby, Ani, Tori, and Beck. We’ve got Ives, the H.A.M. shipmaster who is dealing with some past trauma, and Rem, our explosives expert who just really, really loves to blow things up. One of my unexpected favorites is Basie, who deals with some of the fun science aspects we’ve worked into the book. He’s a hard worker and a bit of a worrier, which is natural given he’s responsible for some very important aspects of keeping the H.A.M. burrow running. I can identify with his personality traits for sure. But there are so many hamsters in the burrow that I am guessing every reader will find someone they can identify with.
And of course, we can’t forget those other species: cats, snakes, badgers, and even hermit crabs make their debuts here! So there’s something for everyone.
Westfield: There is more than one type of hamster and many are represented in the book. What went into designing the characters and the type of hamster they are?
Michelle Nguyen: Emily, with her infinite wealth of hamster knowledge, would decide which type of hamster a character would be (example: Ruby is a Roborovski hamster) and, if applicable, describe who or what inspired that hamster. With this knowledge, I would find applicable references and go through various rounds of sketches before passing them along to the team for revisions. The key is to embody all characters with their core values, but also change them as their character grows. Ruby is intelligent but sheepish, so she is usually seen with nervous hands and feet, with a facial design geared towards a furrowed brow and a body that lends itself to being defensively curled or stooped. Tallis is strong and confident so he is built to be top heavy and muscled like a linebacker, with a facial structure inspired by birds of prey — long, sleek, and pointed.
Westfield: As the story moves along, it’s obvious that there’s much more to the world than readers, and the characters, realized. How much world building did you do before starting the book?
Whitten: Ohhhh, so much. When The Underfoot: The Mighty Deep comes out it will have been seven years in the making. We’ve got reams of chats, texts, emails, and notes about this world and its immense depths that we would like to explore with our readers. Over time, some ideas have been used, some discarded, and some set aside to revisit – but out of the years of brainstorming chaos we’ve built a ton of history and complexity into what this world and our animal friends have been through. From hamster units of measurement and special abilities to why the Giants-That-Were disappeared, if you have questions about it, we probably already have answers. We have had so much fun weaving some of this into The Mighty Deep, but in reality, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more we plan to share as we continue to follow our hamsters’ adventures.
Westfield: There is danger in the world. How do you go about creating a character that you want readers to care about but you know might not make it to the end?
Nguyen: This is hard, because you become so attached to all of the characters while building the book. As the artist, I can only hope to translate that care into how the characters are illustrated and represented. I know certain scenes have to be nailed, otherwise all the build-up of certain characters would be lost.
Fisher: My general philosophy for long form storytelling, whether it’s a graphic novel, comic series, or sitting down to play Dungeons & Dragons, is that the threats should feel real. This doesn’t always come in the form of outright physical danger, of course — the threat could be emotional or personal — but without consequence to actions, there’s no urgency to turn the page. What that means, from a practical standpoint, is that no character’s safety is guaranteed when I’m writing any given scene. I’m a monster, is what I’m saying.
So if you become attached to any particular character, I suggest you begin directing your sternly worded letters to Emily right away, because she’s your only chance to stop me.
Also, I didn’t mean “play Dungeons & Dragons.” That’s totally for nerds. I meant “do one-armed push-ups in between drafting Fantasy Football teams.”
Westfield: Emily and Ben, you’re co-writing the book. How does your collaboration work? Who does what?
Whitten: You know those cartoons of a little snowball rolling downhill, going faster and faster and getting bigger and bigger? That’s how we brainstorm. I love building this world with Ben, because he will enthusiastically add something I didn’t think of to an idea of mine, or I’ll add a detail to something he’s said, and we’ll keep going until the end result is a bigger, better, and more tightly woven idea than we would have had on our own.
Collaboration can still be a challenge to figure out, though. Each team-up of creators is different, and it’s a learning process unlocking how best to collaborate with your chosen partner or team. We’ve tried different methods as we built Book 1 and now as we are building Book 2. Ben and I have taken turns pitching plot points and themes, building the loose and tight frameworks for the stories, creating characters and dialogue, and drafting, and we are planning to keep doing so. One thing that we are very consistent on, though, is editing. Once we have the first full draft of a chapter’s script, it goes back and forth between us being fine-tuned and discussed until we are both totally satisfied with the end result.
We also split tasks during the art and lettering feedback and proofing and production process. I tend to get really into the details of the art and lettering and suggest tweaks there. Meanwhile, Ben did some truly Herculean work in ensuring that our publisher Lion Forge Comics had all of the correct finished lettered art for the book; and with astounding patience, considering every time he thought we were done I’d find another tiny thing that needed to be adjusted!
Overall, collaborating with Ben is a joy; and even when we do disagree on something, it’s almost comical how quickly one of us comes over to the other side and says, “Hey, you know what? You’re totally right!” I love that.
Westfield: What can you say about your collaboration on the book?
Nguyen: We try to show each other our processes along the way, and share ideas or news articles that we can use as inspiration later on in the story. Communication is key with a team with so many moving pieces.
Whitten: I totally agree; and I think that being open to feedback and trying different things to see what works best is also key. Everyone here is focused on what serves the story and I think that’s what really makes it work.
I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing Michelle bring to life the ideas Ben and I have written, and adding such expressiveness and detail to them. There are times when I literally clap my hands in glee when I see a new art page. I can’t bring my thoughts to visual life like that, so it’s great to see what someone else can do with them, and her art is alternately adorable, beautiful, scary…or all of the above! Working with Thom Zahler (the ever-patient Thom!) on the lettering and SFX was a good learning process for me too, as I really knew next to nothing about what goes into that when we started. I’ve learned a lot from that and from everyone, which is great!
Also, I’m really lucky Ben doesn’t get mad about texts coming in at 5am Pacific time. I tend to forget about time zone differences when I get excited about ideas.
Fisher: Collaborating was genuinely a joy. Emily brings so much enthusiasm to the table and she’s an idea mill of the highest caliber. My inbox and text messages are a flood of news clippings and research papers with ideas on how they might apply to a human-less world.
I’d had the pleasure of working with Michelle before (on The Misadventures of Grumpy Cat) and so I already knew she possessed the attribute that every writer hopes for in an artist collaborator: she makes me look better than I am. Michelle worked tirelessly every single day, often until late into the evening, to create an absolutely beautiful book, and I know I speak for Emily when I say we both feel very lucky to have her on the team.
Westfield: Any closing comments?
Nguyen: I think I speak for the entirety of the H.A.M. team — we cannot wait to share the world of The Underfoot with everyone!