Exclusive Interview: Small Favors Writer, Artist Colleen Coover
Seventeen years after was first released, Colleen Coover’s sex-positive lesbian comic Small Favors is being celebrated with Small Favors The Definitive Girly Porno Collection (hardcover), which not only includes the comics from both released volumes of Small Favors, but a previously uncollected color special and other fun stuff as well. In the following interview, Coover talks about how the comic initially came together, how this collection came to be, and why no, she’s not going to be writing any more Small Favors.
For those unfamiliar with Small Favors, what is the comic about?
Okay, it’s about this woman, Annie, who masturbates all the time, and one day while she’s fantasizing about her next-door neighbor, she falls through this dream portal or whatever, and is confronted by The Queen Of Her Conscience. The Queen says Annie has used up her lifetime allotment of masturbation and has to stop, so she assigns Nibbil, one of her conscience-minions, to be a sort of anti-masturbation Jiminy Cricket. But the twist is that Nibbil, being part of Annie, has just as much of a powerful sex drive as Annie herself, and they end up having sex all the time and falling in love. Oh, and Nibbil is about six inches tall but she can grow to normal human size at will. I could only draw a human having sex with a tiny doll person for so long before I ran out of ideas.
Right, of course. So what was the original inspiration for Small Favors?
I was working in a comic shop and noticed that a lot of the women who came in — the ones who weren’t weekly regulars picking up X-Men or whatever — they were often looking specifically for adult comics. The problem was I didn’t really feel like there were a lot of adult comics that were very lady-friendly at that time, especially for queer women. Most of them were explicitly marketed for a male readership, which is fine, but I felt like even the comics with “lesbian” scenes left any woman reader being cast into the role of a male voyeur. I decided to make an adult comic for women, but one that could be enjoyed by everyone.
What writers and artists do you consider to be the biggest influences on Small Favors?
Definitely Bondage Fairies [by Kondom] was a model for how a porno comic could be cute and fun and have loving relationships. That was probably one of the reasons Nibbil starts out as a tiny sprite type of creature, too. But even though it was one of my favorites, it would occasionally delve into some really dark and violent situations that were adult, but absolutely not sexy to me.
[Larry Weltz’s] Cherry Poptart was another light-hearted porno book, but it came more directly out of the underground comics genre, so it had a lot of drug and counter-culture themes that didn’t really interest me.
Love & Rockets, both Jaime’s work and Beto’s, is probably the most direct influence on my work as a whole, particularly in the way they took their art seriously. I think Beto’s Birdland sort of gave me permission to imagine doing a porn comic that was also a seriously good comic.
Were there any non-literary influences on the comic, like any movies or TV shows?
Mostly social influences, really. Like I said before, I was aware that “lesbian” porn was created mostly for dudes, and I was uncomfortable with that. One time, I was in an adult bookstore and was looking at a VHS case — I’m old enough to have rented VHS tapes — and the title of this thing was like Hotel Lesbos Volume Two or something. But there was this big blurb on the cover that said “the only man in the room…is YOU!” And I thought, but no, I’m not a man, and I want to watch Hotel Lesbos Volume Two. I felt like that blurb was assuming a lot, you know?
Right, right. Speaking of Hotel Lesbos Volume Two, Small Favors is pretty explicit. And I’m sure you got grief from people who would’ve complain even if all you did was show two women holding hands. But did you ever get grief from people who weren’t bothered by the inclusion of sex or nudity in the comic, but by how graphic it was?
Nah. I think everyone who picked up Small Favors pretty much knew what they were in for. I consciously gave it the subtitle Girly Porno Comic Book for that very purpose. Because my style is very cute, it can look like an Archie Comic or whatever, and I wanted the fact that it was porn to be front and center.
Also, we didn’t have the kind of Internet in the early aughts that we have now; I took my reader mail through a P.O. box, so I only got real fan letters written out on paper, not the kind of insta-comments you can get now.
Though I did have some guys ask why the girls have anal sex, because I guess they assumed that only dudes with prostates were into that, or why anyone would perform fellatio on a dildo.
So how did the Small Favors The Definitive Girly Porno Collection come about, and what made you think it was a good idea?
It’s been on the back burner of things I should do for some time, but because I was always working on other stuff, I just never got around to really making it happen, no matter how much I wanted to get it done. So two things happened to get me going. First, I was at a reception for ComicsPro, which is like a trade show specifically for comics retailers that was being held in Portland a couple years ago, and in independent conversations, two retailers from major comic shops asked me when it was going to be in print again. So I thought, if these two guys both are wanting to stock Small Favors, I really need to get this together. The second thing to happen was Ari Yarwood got the ball rolling with Limerence Press as a sex-positive imprint of Oni Press, and she sold me hard on putting together a complete collection with them.
How involved were you in deciding what went into the book?
It wasn’t much of a decision; just, everything that was in the original two volumes, plus the color special issue that had never been collected before, and whatever else I could find to include as extras. I’m very fortunate that Limerence had a great designer, Hilary Thompson, design the cover, and I worked with her to choose a title font and color for the cover.
In putting it together, did you change anything about the original comics? Like did you redo any of the art or rewrite any of the dialog, either out of necessity or for artistic reasons?
It actually never even occurred to me to change anything. I guess I figured that ship had long since sailed.
As you were assembling the Small Favors The Definitive Girly Porno Collection, did anything surprise you? Like did you ever come across a panel and be like, “Wow, I can’t believe I went there”? or “Geez, what was I thinking” or even, “Man, I could draw a better couch than that”?
Mostly that last thing. Just replace “couch” with any other noun.
How do you think your work on Small Favors shaped what you did later on?
Well, it was the first major thing I’d ever worked on, and then kept working on it for a significant amount of time. One of the skills I hadn’t developed before Small Favors, that I really had to teach myself, was the discipline necessary to completing a long piece of work. That’s one of the reasons I went for an adult comic, I figured that I wouldn’t get distracted or bored and lose interest. Learning how to do the work, finish the work, communicate with a publisher, set a deadline, that was the practical education I got out of it. Also, my art got lots better in the course of the series.
Did working on the Small Favors The Definitive Girly Porno Collection make you want to do more issues of Small Favors? Or something similar?
Again, this was my first comic. It was fun to revisit, but I’m not a big one on trying to revive past projects. Even the new story that I drew just for this collection was from an old, unused script. Now I’m focused on current book Bandette, which is the most fun thing I’ve ever worked on, and neither I nor Paul [Tobin] and have any plans to bring that to an end. When we eventually do, I’ll probably want to start something entirely new again.
Things between men and women have changed a bit since Small Favors came out fifteen years ago, and, sadly, not all for the better. Do you think you could do something like Small Favors now, or do you think you’d just get too much shit from people about it?
Eh, I think things have gotten a lot better on the whole; we just aren’t as shy about pointing out shitty things when people do them. Not to say that everything’s great and perfect, I just think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe they weren’t way worse before. Again, I didn’t have randos on Reddit or 4chan or whatever opining on what I whore I was, but that’s just because there was no Reddit or 4chan then. It takes way too much time and effort to tell someone she’s a whore via snail mail.
Now? I don’t know, I’m more concerned with how people like my art and storytelling than anything else. And now there’s no shortage of sex-positive erotic comics available for every gender and orientation, especially online, so I have to wonder if I’d have the same motivation to start one up.
In the years since you did Small Favors, you’ve gone on to work on such superhero comics as Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Fantastic Four. Now, you’re a professional, and would obviously never inject any erotic content into those comics, but as you’ve worked on them, has there ever been an instance where you thought to yourself, “This would be so much better if so-and-so got naked” or “Man, this could really benefit from something edgier”?
No. One of the things I often enjoy most when making comics is setting the restrictions to work in. So like, for Small Favors, it needs to be sexy, it needs to be happy, and everyone needs to have fun. Those are the rules, and I need to work inside that set of restrictions.
Now at Marvel, I was working in the all-ages line, and there were a different set of restrictions. For example: no guns, but lasers are okay; no tobacco; no overt sexiness. And you know, duh. So the fun is to tell the story within the restriction set, and seeing what kind of fresh angle you can bring without breaking the rules. I think most people who work in a lot of different genres will agree that it’s all the same stories, it’s just the situations, characters, and outcomes that are different.
As you know, movies and TV shows based on comic books are big thing these days. Has there ever been any interest in adapting Small Favors into a movie or a TV show?
I can’t even imagine. I read Exit To Eden, by Anne Rice writing under one of her pseudonyms, I can’t remember which, when I was in high school. It’s just a straight up erotic romance novel set on a private BDSM island, right? And a mistress falls in love with her slave man, and they live happily ever after. It was a lot of fun at the time, it’s the first time I read about pegging. But like years later they made a movie out of it, and I never saw it because it looked terrible, but I guess they made it a murder-mystery comedy where Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell are cops who have to go undercover on this island and ha ha they’re wearing a leather harness and rubber bustier, respectively. The mistress and the slave are there too, I think, but it looked like that was all just gauzy asides. And all I can think is, why did they even bother purchasing the rights to Anne Rice’s book?
Don’t get me wrong, someone wants to buy the rights to produce Small Favors as a TV show, come at me. But I have no idea what it would look like.
If someone was going to make a movie or TV show out of Small Favors, who would you like to see play the main roles and why them?
Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell.
Sorry. I’m the worst at fantasy casting for any book or comic that I like, much less my own.
Finally, if someone enjoys Small Favors, which of your other comics would you recommend they read next and why that?
Bandette [collected in Bandette: Volume 1: Presto!, Bandette: Volume 2: Stealers Keepers!, and Bandette: Volume 3: The House Of The Green Mask]. It’s a lot like Small Favors in that it’s light hearted, but it has a great adventure story and you can share it with kids, even though there’s some oh-la-la in the backgrounds sometimes. It’s the adventures of the greatest thief in the world, Bandette, who lives in a not-quite Paris and steals art and treasures from international crime lords. It’s like what if Nancy Drew and Raffles the Gentleman Thief were the same person and had all the style of the Pink Panther and Audrey Hepburn.