“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Bring up the name Stephanie Cooke to a comics fan and their reply might be, “Do you mean the writer or the editor?” Say that it’s the one who’s been involved in multiple award-winning anthologies and their reply might be the same. The lifelong writer who at first thought this wasn’t a sustainable career turns out to have built an impressive — and still growing — resume of comic projects.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer/editor
Your home base: Toronto, Canada
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I start with the same question for each guest: Why comics? In your case, what attracts you to working in the graphic novel format as a writer?
Stephanie Cooke: Comics are such an incredible way to tell stories. I’ve been a longtime fan and the collaboration process between all the different creators that goes on behind-the-scenes and then comes together to make this beautiful final product? That’s magic to me.
KS: Was there a specific, or general, age when comics really arrived in your reading life?
SC: I suppose it depends. I went through a bunch of phases in my life when it comes to comics, but I started reading very early with Archie Digest. They were really the only thing that was available to me when I was growing up and if I was good, my parents would let me get the latest copy while we were at the grocery store! This was also around the time that X-Men: The Animated Series and Batman: The Animated Series were airing so paired with Archie, I was enjoying those whenever possible too!
After that, I got into anime and manga as a teenager with gateway drugs like Sailor Moon and Escaflowne. My best friend would find and buy all kinds of manga and then let me borrow it after but that was the thing that started me collecting.
And then finally, when I was in college for Advertising & Graphic Design, I was taking art courses and one of our units was on comic book figures. And that got me back to stores to buy comics and graphic novels to use for reference; I started with things like X-Men because it was familiar to me — from the TAS days — and it spiraled from there.
KS: On the flip side, what was your creative life like growing up? Were you an avid writer as a kid?
SC: Yes! I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I always had these big ideas and notebooks full of started — but never finished — stories. I didn’t understand outlining back then and just thought you dove right in and figured things out along the way so nothing ever panned out. But the need to write and create was something that has been with me for always.
When you grow up as an only child, you get used to living in your head a lot. And in addition to being a voracious reader, I created stories for myself to pretend I was living in to help fight off the loneliness. I think it all started as a coping mechanism and then became something I couldn’t live without.
KS: Is there a piece you’d classify as your first “serious” writing project, whatever age that was?
SC: Hmmm… Well, as I mentioned, I had a lot of stories that I started and never finished. In high school, though, I had a creative writing class that I was taking and we had to create a children’s story. My cat had just passed away and I was devastated by it. I channeled that sadness into writing a story about that and illustrated the entire thing. So, my teacher saw it and I eventually put it up on my ancient deviantART account — it’s not there anymore though, sorry! I think that’s the first time I ever completed a story and felt proud of the end results.
KS: On that note, Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative in 2020 to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. What was a comic story that really had an impact on you as a younger reader?
SC: There was actually this one Archie comic that I read when I was young and I remember it super sticking with me. I had no idea at the time what climate change was or any real notion that we were doing things to actively harm the Earth and the environment. Anyways, there’s this one issue where gas becomes so expensive that Archie can’t afford to hang out with his friends or drive his jalopy. It had a lot more to it than just that but it was one of the first times I remember reading a comic and thinking that there was other stuff going on while these stories were being told.
I don’t know that it made an impact on me as a writer, necessarily. But it got me thinking and made me understand that there was more to every story.
KS: How about the transition from practicing your writing as a hobby to thinking of it as a professional goal? Can you recall when that switch flipped in your head?
SC: My parents were never not supportive of creative endeavors, but somewhere along the way as I was growing up, it seeped into my mind that writing wasn’t feasible as a career. I would be poor, I wouldn’t make it, there was too much competition out there. It’s a culmination of teachers, peers, childhood bullies, and all these other factors that wear on you. After I dropped out of college, I was so lost and didn’t know what to do with myself. I wound up in a retail spiral where I wanted to pursue other things but couldn’t afford to. It really started to get to me and eat away at my mental health. I created all kinds of blogs to be an outlet for myself to write and put my voice out there.
KS: Which college had you been attending?
SC: I went to Humber College in Toronto. But again, I dropped out after a year and decided I didn’t want to go back. School is expensive and if you realize that it’s not for you, or what you’re studying, there’s no shame in choosing to walk away.
Anyways, in the midst of the worst part of the retail whirlpool of doom, I decided to move to somewhere more affordable than Toronto — which is very expensive to live in — and I packed everything up to move to the middle of nowhere where I lived for a year. Just as I was moving, I got an email about a job I’d applied for on a whim. I had reached out to an entertainment website that had been looking for a news editor —I got the job! It was the first time I realized that I could start getting paid for my writing. I did news editing, reviews, and wrote columns for a number of years. Eventually, I started doing a couple of podcasts, began traveling to conventions, networked with other people, etc. and one day after I’d been doing this for several years, someone said, “You write, right? Well, you know all these people and how the industry works…why don’t you write comics?” and it was that moment that really changed things for me. I started writing creatively after that.
KS: You mentioned before that you were taking art courses during college. Was some kind of art a possible career path for you back then?
SC: My art course was a part of my [Advertising & Graphic Design] program. In addition to design, we also learned typography, color theory, art history, and then we had traditional art courses since a lot of graphic design can involve sketching out your designs and laying things out on paper first. So, the course itself was mandatory! But it was incredibly interesting and again, covered comic book art. I was considering graphic design as my career path since I enjoyed it but it just ultimately didn’t feel like what I wanted to do.
KS: Where did your writing ambitions fit in at that time?
SC: [I] was mostly just working on things for myself at the time like blogs and little reviews, etc. Although I was definitely caught up in the excitement of being away from home and living by myself for the first time.
KS: So, how did you go from that moment of inspiration about writing comics to your actual first paid job in the business?
SC: I am a big advocate of the short story. I think that it’s something that every creator that wants to work in comics should do and practice regularly throughout their careers. They teach you a lot. Anyways, my first paid comics gig was on an anthology! The Toronto Comics Anthology [from TO Comix] was looking for submissions, and I knew I wanted to send them something. I put together a pitch about my Oma coming to Toronto and how she thought it was just a visit to bring her sister home but she met and fell in love with my Opa and wound up staying here instead. It’s very different from just about everything else I’ve written since then, but the editors loved the story and I was paired up with artist Shawn Daley to have it published. It set off a fire within me and I continued pitching short stories to other anthologies as I worked on building a portfolio for myself.
Not too long after that, my first big publisher project was released. I won a spot in Mark Millar’s Millarworld Annual and was given the opportunity to write a Huck short story with artist Jake Elphick. So, the former was my first official comics work with a small press publisher. The latter was with Image and Millarworld.
KS: Where did you learn how to write a comic script? It must have looked way different format-wise than what you’d been doing up to that point.
SC: I don’t know that I really know? I did read a lot of examples like Fred Van Lente’s and Jim Zub’s, but I’d also networked with a lot of other creators over the years and made friends with them. So sometimes, I’d be asked to help with a pitch or if I could read over a sample script, and I think I sort of picked things up from those experiences. I would talk to other creators at cons about their work sometimes too and I think I cobbled together my own idea of what a script should look like and married that with existing templates like Fred and Jim’s.
KS: As someone with experience in both fields, could you talk a little about your approach to writing comics versus prose fiction? Obviously in the former you’re writing for an artist, but how about as far as story planning and construction?
SC: I think the biggest similarity in how I approach prose and comics is that I outline very heavily. I’m a big fan of figuring as much as possible in a loose point form stage where I can easily revise and adjust my story. Being able to see as much of the story as possible and poke holes in it at that stage makes it easier to work out issues. So, I spend a lot of time doing that before writing anything else. And then from there, it’s using the outline to guide getting the story down on paper, in whatever medium that is!
I will say that after writing comics, going back to prose is like trying to walk through molasses. When you’re scripting for comics, the descriptions don’t need to be fancy, they just need to get the point across and help convey the story. That’s obviously not the case with prose and everything ultimately has to sound nice and help your reader visualize the story. You need different skillsets to approach them and going back and forth between them can really be tricky. I will say that while I like challenging myself with prose, I’m far more comfortable with scripting for comics.
KS: Do you set writing quotas for yourself these days? For example, a daily page count or word count?
SC: I don’t really do either of those things, necessarily. I thankfully have enough work to keep me pretty busy but I set office hours for myself — up until April of 2021, I had a day job that was Mon-Fri, 9-5. I was in that routine for a number of years and decided to keep those as my freelance office hours, too, so I rotate what I work on during the week based on a list I make of priority projects. If I finish something early, I continue on until it’s time to clock out. So, I give myself evenings and weekends off to relax, decompress, and help to make sure I’m not burning myself out.
KS: I won’t ask the dreaded question about where you get your ideas, but rather how you approach this medium. In your mind, what makes a story best suited to the graphic novel form?
SC: Just about anything can be a story for a graphic novel; it’s more about the creator and how they set the story up. For instance, it’s rarely interesting to read a story about two people talking for a number of pages. Talking heads can be interesting but it’s extremely hard to do. So, if you have a story that’s heavily based around conversation, it’s about knowing how to make that compelling to read and look at within a comic. But like everything else, there are tons of different genres and styles that you can play around with in comics. People are always doing new and incredible things! Ultimately, the best graphic novel stories are the ones written with the entire team in mind and what everyone can bring to the table to make it incredible.
KS: In addition to writing, you’re also an editor. Does one of those roles inform the other for you? Is there an Editor Stephanie sitting on Writer Stephanie’s shoulder while she works?
SC: God, yes. In a lot of ways, I feel that doing both roles makes me a better creator. When I edit, I can see how a creator might be approaching something or how they might interpret feedback, so I’m able to help in a way that’s accessible to them because I go through the same things when I get feedback and write. But the flip side of that is when I write or even in the pitch phase of things, I can really get in my head as an editor and poke holes in my own stories relentlessly. It’s helpful sometimes but then also halts progress when I can’t seem to dig my way out. I’m not always self-editing in my own style either though, if that makes sense. For example, I’ve worked with a wonderful editor at HMH Kids/Clarion several times now, and we know each other pretty well in terms of how we work and approach things. So sometimes, if I’m working on a project for her, I hear her voice in my head as I do something that I know she’ll call me on later. So, I have to stop, think about it, and find an answer so it doesn’t come back to haunt me.
I do try my best to let Writer Stephanie and Editor Stephanie live as separately as possible but it’s definitely tricky sometimes.
KS: Do you have a trusted reader, or readers, to give feedback on your work in progress? How do you know when a manuscript is ready to “leave the nest” for publication consideration?
SC: My partner is also a writer, so he often will look over my work and help me develop it more and vice versa. In the pre-pandemic times, a lot of our dates revolved around working in a cafe or library and writing our stories together. And then I do have friends and peers that I trust to give me honest feedback as needed, too. It can be really hard to share your work with someone else — it’s something I’ve struggled with over the years — but now it’s almost exciting to see what they’re going to think and how they might give you feedback that will push you to make it better.
Additionally, I have an amazing agent, Maria Vicente. When I have a story that I feel is ready to go out, it always goes to her first. She might not be the first eyes on something but she’s definitely up there on the list. She gives me invaluable feedback to make the story better and helps get it in the best shape possible for submission to editors. Agents aren’t just a middleman between you and editors — they’re often editors, too, as well as contract experts, career coaches, problem-solvers, and more.
KS: What’s a passion of yours totally unrelated to comics or writing? Something you collect, study, practice…
SC: Ha, I have a lot of hobbies and passions. But I guess more recently I’ve been doing textile arts — I make tapestries and rugs and other random things with yarn and pom poms. It soothes my soul and has a calming effect on me. I also love drawing and I’ve been practicing that a lot lately. I have ADHD and in the evenings to decompress, I really enjoy watching movies and TV shows but I struggle to stay still a lot of the time. So, tasks that allow me to be doing something with my hands while I have something on makes it so that I can sit through things without pausing a billion times.
KS: As we wrap up, please give us a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration.
SC: What comics don’t I admire in some way would be a shorter list. But I think within the realm of what I have been working on — within the Middle Grade and Young Adult space — I will never not stan the crap out of Raina Telgemeier. The way she integrates complex themes and topics within her extremely relatable stories for kids is nothing short of astonishing. And it resonates so deeply with those young people and they can’t get enough. That’s just incredible to me. And she carved out a space for herself well before the graphic novel boom… and in fact, I feel is part of the reason why we even have the boom now. So, I guess Guts, Ghosts, and Drama especially are three books I deeply admire.
And then Molly Ostertag (inject The Girl from the Sea directly into my veins!), Lorena Alvarez (Nightlights and its sequel Hicotea are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.), Jen Wang (Stargazing and The Prince and the Dressmaker are perfection.), Trung Lê Nguyễn (The Magic Fish is breathtaking.), and…well, I could honestly go on forever. Each of these creators brings such a unique, beautiful voice to the table.
KS: Tell us a little about what you’re working on now and what’s coming down the road for you work-wise in 2022.
SC: I have a story in the Archie: Love & Heartbreak Special [available now]. I got to write a Veronica and Dilton story with the incredible Lisa Sterle on art.
Oh My Gods! II: The Forgotten Maze, co-written by Insha Fitzpatrick and myself, with art by Juliana Moon, is out April 5. The first book came out last year, and we’re so excited that the sequel is nearly here now!
Not comics related but interests-adjacent, I’m writing a video game with Kitten Cup Studio called Pekoe. It’s a cozy, tea-making simulator that takes place in a town populated by cats. It’s been such a blast! I think we’re aiming for a Spring 2023 release, but you can add it to your Steam wishlist and be notified when it’s available!
And then beyond 2022 — I’m cheating, I know — I have my first YA graphic novel coming out from Clarion called Pillow Talk with art by Mel Valentine. And Racc Pack is the first in a new middle-grade graphic novel series by myself and Whitney Gardner. Both of those books are slated for Fall 2023.