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Sara Varon's 'Sweaterweather' warms you up with friendship

A turtle and a rabbit seek refuge from a snowstorm in a turtle shell, a raccoon wins a pie-eating contest and a dog builds a robot friend. If there's a cuter collection of tales, we dare you to find it. Adorable animals with awe-inducing plot points populate the short stories of Sara Varon's charmingly titled "Sweaterweather." 

Initially published in 2003, Varon describes "Sweaterweather" as "a labor of love."

This February, First Second Books will release an updated hardcover edition of "Sweaterweather," which includes new introductions from Varon providing commentary and background information for each comic in the book.

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"I tried to put the book together in a way that it would be interesting to readers who are interested in how artists make things," said Varon via email about the new "Sweaterweather."

"At first it was a little painful to revisit the stories from 'Sweaterweather' because I think some of the older art is kind of terrible," Varon said. "But the whole book, for me, is like a diary covering about a decade, so it was interesting for me -- and hopefully readers -- to see my style evolve."

Varon's style is distinct. The characters in her work are predominantly anthropomorphic animals and foods whose interactions are often depicted in dialogue-less panels. The narratives are driven by the art, with the characters' expressions, movements and sounds pulling readers in to connect with the story.

Revisiting "Sweaterweather" brought Varon back to the beginning. "It was fun to think about where the ideas come from and also to remember what I was doing in my life at the time I made each of those comics," Varon said. "I’m not a very reflective person, so I don’t normally look back on events or think about how I come up with ideas."

Varon's other works include the graphic novels "Robot Dreams," which chronicles a friendship between a dog and his robot (the short that inspired the book is featured in "Sweaterweather"), and "Bake Sale," about a cupcake that owns a bakery and is saving up to travel with his friend, an eggplant. 

Varon discussed "Sweaterweather," friendships and her love of baking by email.

In general, do you often revisit your previous work, or are you more interested in looking forward to your next project? 

No, I am always sort of plowing forward. As soon as I finish with one thing, it’s all over for me and I’m on to the next. Sometimes readers ask if there will be a sequel to "Bake Sale" or "Robot Dreams." My answer is "no." There will never be a sequel to anything I write. I can’t think of anything more boring sounding than continually drawing the same character (although if I got hired to illustrate, that might be a different story). 

However, as a reader, I’m happy to read multiple books about the same character, and I’m sometimes even sad when the series is over.

In a lot of the comics in "Sweaterweather" there isn't any dialogue. What do you like about creating these particular comics? And how many words go into creating these wordless panels?

I am not particularly articulate, so telling a story without dialogue comes pretty naturally to me. I love to use sound effects and arrows and dotted lines to help propel the story. Before I get to the drawing, though, it’s only words. I’ll write out what happens entirely in words, break it up into pages, and then I start drawing.

Do you see these characters in the various shorts living in a common universe? Or does each comic have its own unique, expanded universe beyond the glimpses we see in the short? 

I don’t know if they live in a common universe, but each of my characters seem pretty real to me. I imagine that when they are not appearing in my comic, they are out doing something else. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a lunatic.

Can you talk about the colors in "Sweaterweather"? Is there any particular reason you went with blue for the main color? Were the comics always blue?

I figured that it needed to be a cool color, because of the title, and Reflex Blue is one of my favorite colors. I’m interested in printing (I started my post-art school career as an off-set printer), so the first version of the book, [which came out] in 2003, was, for me, a fun experiment in printing. 

I love using spot colors, as opposed to standard CMYK. Spot colors can sometimes be brighter than the colors you get in a CMYK color palette and you can get some nice surprises by overlapping multiple colors. 

The original version was light blue and dark blue throughout, with some orange in places. By combining the three colors, I got a pretty full, and also slightly strange, color palette. I love images that use limited colors, so I stuck with that for the new version.

From "Sweaterweather" to "Robot Dreams," "Bake Sale" and even "Odd Duck," friendship is a common theme in your work. How aware are you of this when you’re creating comics? Are you thinking about aspects of friendship to explore early in your creative process, or do you come up with your characters first and friendships weaves its way in?

One of my instructors in art school said that every artist has a theme that is inherent to him/her. This theme (according to the instructor) will always run through his/her work. For some reason, mine seems to be friendship. It’s not intentional. 

When I’m starting a book, I usually first come up with a character, and then the physical things that I want to draw. And then I figure out how to make a story out of it. So I guess friendship is kind of a default way for me to weave things together? 

Sometimes there are other themes in the story, but I find that my editor often edits in such a way to emphasize the friendship aspect. I suppose this makes the story universally relatable. And friendship is an especially important topic to kids, who are still learning how to relate to other people in the world.

Friendship itself is a very human concept, but there are very few actual humans in your comics. What about exploring this sort of humanity through animals, robots and baked goods is appealing to you? 

Well, there are a couple reasons I turn to nonhuman characters. First, and most importantly, I am terrible at drawing people! But also, what I love about drawing an animal or a robot or a potato is that I think anyone can relate to it. The character isn’t any particular age, race or gender, so I think it’s a little more inclusive. 

I was a tomboy growing up, and I always gravitated toward animal characters, since I found that human characters in books were so gendered in a specific way with which I did not relate or aspire. 

I also think a story can be funny just by featuring a slightly ridiculous character, like an eggplant. And it’s fun for me to think about which nonhuman characters would be friends, and especially to pair up seemingly incongruous characters. 

One of my favorite jokes in "Bake Sale" is that there is a park scene, and one of the characters is a fried chicken leg walking a dog on a leash. Imagine how tormented that dog would be if it really had a fried chicken leg for an owner!! But the great thing about creating stories is that I can make anything happen.

"Sweaterweather" includes a short that’s the basis for "Robot Dreams." Had you always planned on expanding that short, or was it some time later that you realized you had more to tell about Dog and Robot? How did "Robot Dreams" come to be?

Well, before "Robot Dreams," I’d made the original version of "Sweaterweather," which was, as you know, a collection of short stories. "Sweaterweather" was a labor of love, for a very small publisher, and I only got paid in books. 

I enjoyed making "Sweaterweather" and was hoping to make another book, but one which I hoped to get paid for. I liked the original eight-page story about the robot, and I intended to make a book of short unrelated stories about that same robot. My agent said I probably couldn’t sell a book of short stories and that I needed to make one long story. 

I sold "Robot Dreams" as a proposal that included just the eight-page story and a vague paragraph which didn’t explain much about the plot and didn’t include the ending. As I thumbnailed the story, I had no idea where it was going, and let the story unfold on its own -- I wasn’t working toward reaching a specific goal or conclusion. 

In retrospect, I could say that the story (which I explain in the new version of "Sweaterweather,") kind of mirrored the experience of putting my dog to sleep. I did feel like I betrayed her (it’s a hard decision to make, which anyone who’s had a pet knows), and, as it was for the dog and robot in "Robot Dreams," there would be no reunion. 

"Robot Dreams" depicts this friendship that doesn’t quite work out but it’s not necessarily sad or condemning of the "bad friend" in the relationship. How did you decide on exploring this sort of less flattering side of friends and friendship?

I had recently put my dog to sleep. It felt very much like a betrayal to take the life of a friend who trusts you, even if that friend is falling apart. But it’s also part of having a pet. So I liked the idea of a story where one character does something really terrible to a friend, but not on purpose, and certainly not out of malice. An accident. 

And it’s something anyone can relate to -- unfortunate endings happen in everyone’s life. People move, and if you’re a kid, that move may be welcome or not. People die, or people sometimes just grow in different directions. Also people can hurt other people unintentionally, just out of obliviousness or misunderstanding. 

You include recipes for the baked goods Cupcake makes in "Bake Sale." Do you bake often? What kind of research went into creating Cupcake’s bakery? Do you watch any baking shows on TV? 

Oh, I love to bake! And also to eat baked goods! But I don’t watch baking shows because I don’t have cable TV. I guess I could watch on Hulu or something, but I really just don’t watch TV. Once or twice I have seen them, and they do seem very exciting! I think I saw an episode of "Cake Boss" once, and I learned a lot. 

One thing I love about writing/making books is the research. If I’m spending money on research, I can write it off on my taxes, so I feel like I can spend money that I normally wouldn’t. One super-fun thing I did was to take a professional cake-decorating class. 

It was a weeklong class at a cooking school in New York, and it was awesome! I learned all about different icings and icing techniques. Relative to most people, I’m now a pretty good cake decorator. 

In fact, I made the cupcakes on the endpapers of "Bake Sale," which is the thing I am most proud of about that book. 

I also did some other research for that book. I didn’t know what a commercial bakery kitchen looked like, so I went into a local bakery, and made a deal with the owner. I paid her for about an hour of her time, and she explained to me what her days and weeks are like (i.e., what are her work hours, which are different from the bakery hours, what kinds of ingredients she uses, when she receives deliveries, etc.,) and she let me take reference photos. So Cupcake’s bakery is modeled after her bakery. 

For "Odd Duck," you worked with Cecil Castellucci. How did that collaboration come to be?

I’d received requests to illustrate manuscripts, but Cecil’s was the first one I accepted, just because it was the first one I felt I could relate to. The publisher paired us up. It was a great experience.

I think the norm is for the author and illustrator to work independently of each other, but we were fortunate in that we worked very closely. It was a fun project and I learned a lot through working with Cecil, and also she had great suggestions that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.

How different is it to work on a story that isn’t entirely your own?

I think that, as an illustrator, you have to really be able to access the world that the characters live in, otherwise your illustrations won’t be convincing. I felt very much like I could understand Theodora (the main character) because I too am an "Odd Duck," so it was a natural fit.

"Robot Dreams," "Bake Sale" and "Odd Duck," are books where the entirety is one story. Do you have any interest in creating short comics again after revisiting "Sweaterweather"?

At this point in time, I’m happy making longer stories. What I like about making longer stories is that you can create a whole world. At some point in the future, though, I may be interested in some other aspect of story-telling.

What are you currently reading? Do you have any favorite comics to read? 

I am currently reading Jesse Hartland’s graphic biography of Steve Jobs, which is pretty great.

What’s next for you?  

Currently I’m working on a graphic novel about a donkey who lives in a tropical village. The donkey has to leave the comfort of his village to search for a missing friend. It’s inspired by my visits to Guyana, where my husband is from (although no one went missing)! 

I’m working on final art right now. I made it way more complicated than I should have, but I am pretty happy with it, so I guess it’s OK. It’s a mix of comics panels and full-page illustrations, and I’m just about halfway through with it. It should be about 200 pages, and I hope to be finished by the end of 2016, so hopefully it will be out in late 2017.

And after that, I have some other books lined up. The two I’m most looking forward to are a picture book about a gardening turtle and a (much shorter) graphic novel about a monkey explorer.

Twitter: @tracycbrown

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