Spotlight Interview with the Creators of The Underfoot (Emily Whitten, Ben Fisher, and Michelle Nguyen)

This month, Lion Forge will be releasing the first volume of The Underfoot: The Mighty Deep. It is the first of what will be at least a trilogy of graphic novels that are suitable for all ages of readers. It will be in comic shops on April 10, and everywhere else on April 23.

It is a post-apocalyptic story of intelligent hamsters and their struggles for survival in a world without humans. We have had the opportunity to read the book, and it is truly a wonderful and inspiring story. It is full of danger, clever concepts, and lots of humor. We certainly recommend reading it.

At C2E2 last month, we were able to get together with the creative team responsible for The Underfoot. It is co-written by Ben Fisher and Emily S. Whitten. Michelle Nguyen is the artist on the book.

PopCultureSquad: Where did the idea for The Underfoot come from?

Emily S. Whitten: So, I have tiny hamsters and other rodents as pets, and I was on Twitter managing an account as my tiny hamster, Izzy. Around the same time, I reviewed Ben’s comic Splitsville, for ComicMix. I guess that was seven years ago. I tweeted at him that I really liked it. Ben then found my hamster account and started tweeting at that account as well. After many real and hamster conversations, we decided that we should write a comic together about hamsters, and that is how it started.

PCS: Ben and Emily, how does your collaboration process work?

Ben Fisher: It’s an interesting process. We start out by trying to bounce ideas back and forth. I would say that is the longest part of it.

EW: I would say that part never stops.

BF: Yeah. That part goes for a pretty long stretch, and then we get a solid first draft of the script. Then we go over it together to make sure the characters sound the way we want them to sound. That takes about four or five bounces back and forth before we are really comfortable with a take on a script. Then we send it to Michelle, and she tells us if it is worth doing or not. If she gives it the green light, then we go from there.

Michelle Nguyen: Yeah. I have final say… No! I don’t [laughing]

PCS: There are definitely messages in The Underfoot. What would be the thing that each of you think is the message you want readers to take out of this story?

EW: The very first one is that we are having fun with it. We want our readers to enjoy it, because it a story that we enjoy telling for a myriad of reasons. There are people out there who are going to enjoy it because they have brains that work a little like ours. So, we want people to feel joy, or get excited and makes them think about things.

BF: Yeah there are definitely elements of a sort of “Question Everything” built into it. A big part of the story starts off with the characters believing their own sets of mythologies on why the humans have all disappeared. We sort of challenge those notions of why they might be feeling that way. Our audience is all ages, but I think that is particularly helpful for a younger audience to get that message early on. To question what is going on around you, and to form your own opinion.

MN:  I think for me it is a story of overcoming the worst odds. It is basically about the underdogs or “The Underfoot” fighting against forces of nature that for all intents and purposes should win. [Their opponents] are bigger, stronger, and faster, but the Underfoot are smarter. So, I think that the story, for me, is that even if you are faced with adversity, you should always do your best and try to overcome it.

EW: I would say one more thing is that as this trilogy (so far) will continue, perspective will become really important, and going from a smaller to a larger world view can change the way that you approach things. I think that is something that our hamsters are already beginning to learn.

PCS: That is really great. Now, we talked about how Emily and Ben got together. How did Michelle get involved?

MN: That was Ben’s fault. Ha-ha. Ben and I worked on the Misadventures of Grumpy Cat and Pokey. We worked on several stories together, and one day Ben approached me and said, “I think I have the perfect story for you to illustrate?” That was kind of it. Unless I am forgetting something.

BF: No. That was exactly right. The main thing you want an artist to do is make you look better or smarter than you are as a writer, and she did that consistently. If you were to list the top ten jokes that I put across on Grumpy Cat, over half of them were actually [Michelle’s], and I just got credit for it. She is a perfect complement because anything that we put on paper she just makes it look better.

PCS: This is a question that each of you need to answer. Which is your favorite Underfoot character?

MN: Buddy! I love the cowboy hat. Perfect badass. Buddy is just rough and tumble in nature. She says “No, Forget that! I am just gonna do what is most important for my friends”, and she kicks butt while doing it.

BF: Mine is little bit of a cop out. If I divulge info from Volume 2, my answer is kind of changing a little bit, but I am a big fan of Hap. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he is trying to get the team through as best as he can. It is a thankless job, and he has taken that responsibility on. It’s easy to identify with that sometimes.

EW: I am struggling here, because there are so many, and I love them all, mostly. I would have to say Mac, because of all the young pups trying to find their place in the world, she is having a really difficult time with it. I don’t think she has even figured out yet the place that belongs to her. She is getting there but maybe she doesn’t quite understand it yet in her head. I like Mac. Plus, she is a little grumpy and adversarial aggressive, and I do that in my head, but in real life not as much.

 

PCS: Michelle. What was the process like of shrinking your camera to draw the world we know but from a much different perspective?

MN: I have definitely caught myself at times remembering that a blade of grass is as tall as a hamster. It requires always putting the perspective at ground level, which is hard. All the other things that I have illustrated before are at human level, or Grumpy Cat level. It was really interesting to be like, “Oh, they are tiny!” For example, to throw a hamster into are river is gonna mess up a hamster, or they are standing next to tree and realizing that tree needs to take up the entire panel.

PCS: That was one of the things that really stood out in the book. The sightlines were always at the hamsters’ level.

EW: Michelle is really great drawing something huge, and you can only see a little bit of it, but you can still tell what it is.

PCS: You have mentioned that there are three trade paperbacks to come out in the series. What are the overall plans for the story?

EW: Yes! There are slated to be three at the moment, although we certainly could tell more stories.

PCS: Why did you go for a graphic novel sized trade instead of single issues?

MN: The short answer is that I don’t have the time to do single issues on a monthly basis. I have really high expectations of art on myself. So right now, I wouldn’t trust myself to get out an issue a month.

BF: When we brought it to Lion Forge initially, we were open ended with our plan. We were certainly leaning towards the graphic novel format, and they jumped on that immediately. They felt that it was the right format for that. It is a story better told in large chunks.

EW: We went back and forth on different ways to tell it. It has been in development for almost seven years. Our vision for what we want to do is very broad, and in the end, it makes sense for many reasons, some of which aren’t apparent yet, to have it in this larger format.

PCS: Well that was just great. We will be looking forward to the release of the book and having the public get a chance to read it. Thank you all so much.

You can preorder The Underfoot at Amazon here.

You can follow the creative team on Twitter:

@BenjaminPFisher

@theemilyesse

@KuBits

NOTE: The book is lettered by Thomas F. Zahler. He was not present for the interview, you can check out our previous interview with him here.

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