One of our top-most frequently asked Qs is: “Do I need to study art or animation to become a creator”? Our long-winded answer could really be replaced with: “Look up Kate Leth”. For many of you, this intro itself will be redundant. Since she began posting her personal Kate or Die! comics in 2011, the growth of Kate’s now-ginormous online following – as well as heaps of talent and hard work – opened doors for her to become one of the most exciting comic book creators and animation writers working today. It was awesome talking with Kate about her adoration for Plum, the rising tide of female and non-binary voices in animation, and witches – lots ‘n lots of witches.
Kate: So now, where are these being posted?
Cooper: On our Tumblr! We have a long-running Studios blog. Do you know the Frederator // Tumblr origin story?
C: David Karp launched Tumblr from his desk at Frederator when he was an intern! Fred Seibert was one of its first bloggers and investors.
K: Oh that’s funny! I still use Tumblr sometimes, as like a less stressful platform than Twitter. Which it used to be much more so?
Yeah, Twitter’s really taken over, huh? Do you like Twitter or does it feel like a chore?
Half and half! I like the fun side of Twitter but it is also pretty depressing. I’m starting to use Instagram more, cause it’s just happier. It’s like a nice break, scrolling through pictures of my cute friends!
Has social media been very important to your career?
Oh yeah – all of the work I’ve ever gotten has pretty much been through social media. I come from a super small town in Canada, which makes it harder to network and connect with people. It used to be you’d meet people at Cons, but now you meet everybody online. So many of the connections I’ve made and so many of the jobs I’ve gotten have been through Twitter and Tumblr. I don’t know where my career would be without those platforms!
That’s amazing. Did you know those opportunities were out there when you started posting?
I got into Tumblr just to follow people. I worked at a comic book store at the time, and my boss knew that I was drawing and encouraged me to put my stuff online. So I did, and slowly started to amass a small following. It got bigger, and that was how I got discovered by BOOM!, which is how I did my first published comics—including the Bravest Warriors comics, which is kinda funny!
Whoa, cool! From comic book store employee to comic book writer – how was that transition?
I started working there in like… 2009 or 2010? It was part time; I was also working at a dress shop. But I got fired from the dress shop (laughs) so I became full time at the comic book store. My boss, Calum Johnston, was a really engaged member of the arts community. He pushed people to make comics and share them, and that’s how I got started.
He must be so stoked to see where your career is now.
It’s really wild to look back on. When I wanted to self-publish my first zine, I had no money. I was a super broke art student. Cal sold his original art of the cover of the first volume of Scott Pilgrim and used the money to help me and a bunch of other people self-publish our comics. He’s a really good dude.
That’s so generous! Do you stay in touch with people there?
Yeah, I try to! His daughter is in animation school now. I’ve known her since she was like 14. It’s cool cause now I can promote her work and help her get a foot in the industry, so it comes full circle!
When you got the job at the store, were you just a fan? Or did you know you wanted to be a creator?
Just a fan! I was really big into autobio and self-published comics. Kate Beaton, Lucy Knisley, Erica Moen, and Jess Fink were all creators I was following at the time. Kate Beaton is from Nova Scotia like me, and I watched her get successful on LiveJournal and things as a comic artist—and yet she had studied history! She had no formal arts training; she’d just started making comics for fun. I had always thought that if you didn’t go to art school, that wasn’t an avenue for you. Seeing what she was doing made me realize, “Oh, people can do that!? Maybe I could too!” I’d been reading web comics since junior high, but it was never something that I thought I could do, until I started doing it. Being on Tumblr was also really encouraging; seeing so many other people just starting out and at a similar skill level with their art.
How did the path from self-publishing to BOOM! go?
It was sort of accidental. An editor came across Kate or Die!, and I was offered a backup strip in one of the Adventure Time comics. Only like 2 pages – super short. And then they came back with an offer to write a whole graphic novel? I’d never written anything longer than 4 pages in my life. But I was like, “Sure, I can do that!”. So I wrote Seeing Red, my first Adventure Time comic. And it did well, so they asked me to write another one. And all of a sudden that was my job! I was like, “Oh, okay, I better get good at this.”
Wow, so you taught yourself how to write comics? And to screenwrite?
Oh yeah, I didn’t go to school for any of this. I went to school for makeup and photography. I was a professional makeup artist for a couple years. Then I studied photography for two years. Then I dropped out. A college dropout made good!
At first, I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. I’ve been writing comics for 6 or 7 years, and I only now feel like I’m good at them (laughing) I know people will disagree! I’m very self-deprecating. But I definitely feel like I understand what you need to craft a story now. When I started, I didn’t think about stories as a whole: knowing where you’re going, how you’ll get there, the themes you’ll touch along the way. I did a lot of improv in high school, so I felt fine sitting down and just starting! I’d make stuff up as I went. But that doesn’t make for as good of stories. So over time I’ve learned to sit down and really figure out the world, the arcs, the timing for big moments. I fill books with outlines!
Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on?
Spell on Wheels, which just came out from Dark Horse last year, is something I’m really proud of. It’s about witches on a road trip. Megan Levens and Marissa Louise, the artist and colorist I’m working with are so awesome; I’m really happy that we’re gonna do more of it. And it’s nice to have an original series out there, because I’ve worked on so many other people’s properties.
What are the biggest differences there?
It’s very freeing to write an original. You’re not beholden to any corporate standards or licensers, so it’s easier to tell the kind of stories that you want to tell. Especially in terms of things like diversity and queerness, there’s nobody saying, “Oh, we can’t do that because it’s not in the TV show”. It’s nice to not have to worry about things like that. Dark Horse has been very supportive of it, which is cool.
Is Spell on Wheels your main project right now, or what else is goin’ on?
I work in animation primarily now, so I’m working for Hasbro and some other places that I can’t talk about yet, as is always the way. But I’ve been with Hasbro for about a year and a half, as a sort of jack of all trades writer. I’ve worked on My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, Littlest Pet Shop, and a bunch of other things that haven’t been announced yet. As for comics, I’m currently working on the Mysticons graphic novels – the first one comes out in August.
What do you like best about being a writer?
I love it. I think it’s amazing to create worlds and characters and stories and see them brought to life by so many different kinds of people, with so many different artistic styles and talents and specialties. It’s just like magic. Animation is so exciting. You write a script and then you wait… like a year… and then it’s animated! And there are voices saying your jokes! I feel like the thrill of that might wear off at some point, but it definitely hasn’t yet.
What are your favorite cartoons?
Sailor Moon is top of the list. And Cardcaptor Sakura – any magical girl anime I would just eat up as a kid. I watched Disney’s One Saturday Morning religiously, Doug and all of those shows. And now Steven Universe is a big favorite. I got to write an episode for Craig of the Creek, which is great, and I’m really excited about that. And I’m a huge fan of Bob’s Burgers!
What is your episode of Craig of the Creek about?
Witches. I’m very into witches! I grew up on Buffy, Charmed – every YA book I could get my hands on. Practical Magic is my favorite movie. I feel like there were so many movies and TV shows about witches in the 90s. I’m ready for that genre to loop back, in a BIG way. And for the episode of Craig of the Creek, I created characters that ended up becoming part of the recurring cast! So it was neat to contribute to that world a little bit.
What is your favorite thing about Bravest Warriors?
Plum. Just Plum, in general. She’s my favorite character to write – she’s just so fun. She’s silly and weird, and once you get her voice right, she’s such a laugh. She’s so blunt and harsh, but in this innocent, unintentional way.
Your episode “Chained to Your Side” has the Scaley Williams Dance – what inspired your play on Sadie Hawkins?
We don’t actually have Sadie Hawkins dances in Canada, which is funny. But I’ve always been kind of fascinated by the concept: “Oooh it’s so rebellious cause the girls ask the boys.” Which is so outdated! So I thought, what’s the futuristic version of that… and got: ‘the girls ‘dart’ the boys’. And we had this conversation, like, “Okay, they dart the boys – but it has to be consensual! They have to say yes!” That was very important (laughing) I could only take that joke to a certain point. But I knew the dance idea would let me do a lot with Beth and Plum. And I love beating up Danny. Like that’s my favorite thing to do in the comics. Just let terrible things happen to Danny. He’s such a goofball.
What are the themes that recur in your characters and stories the most?
Surface level, the obvious: witches and gay stuff. In a deeper sense, things I come back to a lot… there are a lot of characters I’ve written that work retail or minimum wage jobs. Because that’s what I grew up with—I moved out when I was 17 and started working, and did that up until 4 or 5 years ago. So that’s a huge part of my experience. Definitely characters who aren’t borne of privilege and are struggling to prove themselves. Like Hellcat especially, is very much about someone in their 20s just trying to get by. And I talk about self-acceptance a lot. I like genuine moments between people. Amid the comedy, I like there to be something real – especially if it’s something difficult to talk about. Hellcat is this really upbeat superhero, Saturday Morning Cartoon vibe—but I did an entire arc about how people misinterpret and mistreat men who are bisexual, and how that’s different from how bisexual women are treated. So it’s this funny comic, but still touching on real topics. I like to try to say something. But not, you know, hit people over the head with it.
Do you have a cartoon project that’s your favorite?
Yeah, but I’m not allowed to talk about it yet! I have had a lot of fun working on Equestria Girls. It’s so exciting to write stuff for kids. Since I started in animation I’ve actually tried to shoehorn myself: I want to write action-adventure for girls. That’s what I want to do. I’ve managed to get to a place where that’s everything I’m working on now, and that’s really exciting. A lot of people don’t want to be pegged like that, but I’m like, “Oh, you want me to write girls punching and having feelings? Good, I’m here for it!”
It’s funny to pigeon-hole yourself! Most writers seem to want the opposite.
I doubt I’ll want to do the same thing forever! But I definitely don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to tell stories for girls. For a long time I think there was an onus to make sure your show could appeal to boys, and that led to a lot of female characters getting side-lined, because executives would say, “Boys need someone to relate to!” And I agree with that—but I really don’t believe there’s any reason boys can’t relate to or look up to girls. And I think perpetuating the idea that they can’t is pretty harmful.
In your time in the industry, have you noticed animation becoming more inclusive and diverse?
I’m lucky in what I’ve worked on. Hasbro has a huge female staff and a lot of the executives are women, so they’re very supportive of that. There’s always room for more diversity, but it’s been good. I know there are parts of the industry that are still very much a boys club, but I’ve stayed pretty far away from those, and would prefer to keep it that way. There are so many women coming into animation now. I know so many women and non-binary folks working in the field that are just going to keep rising. It’s definitely a rising tide.
Well, I have to believe that, or else I get depressed! (laughing). My boyfriend and I play a game where at the end of movies, we count how many title cards we get through before seeing a woman’s name. (I groan) Yeah, it’s wild. Usually it ends up being a producer, or the casting director, or a costume designer. It’s rarely someone on the creative end. And when you start looking for it, you really start noticing it. But it’s heartening when you see a movie that defies that. Like at the end of Black Panther, there were a ton of women’s names early on in those credits! That’s my goal, is to like (laughing), be the early in the credits female name. And then fill the rest of those credits with people I know.
Oh cool, so you would want to make a feature film?
Yeah. I have lofty goals. We’ll see what happens, but I don’t want to close myself off to any opportunities.
Do you know what that movie would be about?
Probably witches. But I guess we’ll see! ❀
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Follow Kate on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr: @kateordie
Thank you so much for the interview Kate! I’m excited for your upcoming projects, especially the ones about Girl Magic. Soo… all of them 😀