Shawn Lenore is the creator of the webcomic, How to Be A Werewolf, a full color comic that is currently on its seventh chapter and over 250 pages. How to be a Werewolf (abbreviated HTBAW) is the story of Malaya Walters, who, after being bitten as a child, has been managing her werewolf-related issues along with her human family. Because she’s never met another werewolf, Malaya has developed a lot of anxiety about potentially hurting other people. HTBAW primarily focuses on her growth in accepting who she is and her personal power, as well as Malaya confronting her fears over time. One of the other main themes HTBAW explores is family, and how family can help, hurt, or straight up destroy you. Most of the characters are dealing with the realities of early adult life and what it means to have those family dynamics change as life takes you in new directions.
GenderTerror had a chance to interview Shawn and talk about her, her webcomic, her inspiration, as well as her choice of medium to tell such an interesting story with extremely diverse characters.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Okay! I’m 32, a Cancer, and I enjoy long walks on the beach. I also graduated in 2008 with a degree in Animation from the University of Southern California. I lived in Los Angeles for five years total, but I’m originally from Indiana just outside Chicago, and that’s where I live now. Before starting How to be a Werewolf, I mostly did freelance graphic and web design and worked retail. Just like I always planned! (Ugh.)
How To Be A Werewolf is a relatively ‘newish’ webcomic, having started in 2015. What made you decide to write a webcomic?
It feels so weird to think of HTBAW as new because it seems like forever to me! I think making a comic has always been one of my main life goals as far back as I remember, though the timeline on when I thought I’d get around to it has always shifted. Growing up, I always enjoyed coming up with elaborate stories, but I’ve never been much for writing prose, so I started drifting towards more visual mediums like animation and comics. I grew up watching whatever weird stuff my dad and I could find on late night TV, but in the early 90s, my anime phase kicked in. Anime and manga really exposed me to diverse stories and visual styles, which just fed my determination to make my own stuff one day.
I would have started my own comic sooner, but a combination of anxiety and feeling defeated from having to leave behind my hopes of getting a job in animation kind of got in the way. Finally, three years ago, my friend Neil challenged me to make twenty small comics in twenty weeks, just to see if I could get something off the ground and because he likes challenging people to stuff as a form of motivation. HTBAW was born out of one of the more popular weird scribbly comics I made, and a few long, thoughtful dog walks later, the story started to solidify in my mind and I decided to run with it.
While not horror per say, How To Be A Werewolf has one of our favorite horror monsters in it, werewolves! Why did you pick werewolves over a different medium to tell this story?
So, I mostly write in my head while I’m walking the dog. I had come up with my short werewolf comic that people on tumblr liked, and I thought it might lead into a larger story if I messed around with the idea long enough. The longer I walked the dog, the more I started thinking of how being a werewolf related to how I felt about being a woman, which is kind of an odd comparison, but I realized how well it worked. There’s a body horror aspect to werewolves, which I think is one of the reasons the genre survives. As a werewolf, your body literally gets hijacked once a month and you turn into this terrifying wolf-beast. You’re extremely powerful (physically), but you have to learn how to control that power and embrace it, or you could really do damage to the people around you. I can definitely relate to my body being hijacked once a month, and I can’t really explain why specifically, but I draw a lot of my personal power from womanhood.
At the time of all this dog walking, I was 29 and thinking a lot about turning 30 and what I’d done up til then. I had shed a few really toxic relationships from my life and for the first time, really started to realize how proud of myself I was and how much power I really had as an individual. I felt like a very complete person and a real bad ass, and that sort of combined into all my werewolf narrative ideas at the time. I realized I wanted to write a story about a woman really realizing her personal power, while overcoming her anxiety and fear of what she’s really capable of, and it just so happens that werewolves are a great vehicle for that metaphor!
I’d love to say that I’ve always been a huge fan of werewolves, but I think I’ve always been pretty neutral on them? It just so happens that my brain grabbed on to werewolves and blended them up with a coming-of-age story, and I couldn’t shake it loose if I tried.
Your cast is extremely diverse with the main character being a woman of color, as well as several supporting characters being people of color and LGBTQ people. Why is this representation so important to you?
So, I grew up in a small midwestern city that for the longest time…wasn’t very diverse. We’re still pretty white around here to say the least. My dad is probably to blame for why HTBAW turned out as diverse as it did. When I was growing up, he’d take me with him to meet his construction clients. Somehow, despite how homogeneous my area is, he had clients that were from every walk of life, every income bracket, and every age. He had clients who didn’t speak English, and he’d gesture and draw pictures to work through issues and pricing. My dad never talked down about anyone who was different from him, and that’s always stuck with me. We’d go into Chicago all the time when I was a kid, and we both found a lot of joy in experiencing all the different cultures, foods and religions together.
That’s a really long way of saying that after my dad passed away, I honored his spirit by trying to treat everyone kindly and with respect as an adult, and to seek out new opportunities and perspectives as often as possible. That’s landed me a pretty diverse friend group over the years, and I think I’d have done those friends a disservice if I had just written HTBAW as a bunch of white people, as well as hurting my own growth as a writer. Obviously, I still have a lot of limitations. My main character is Filipino and so is her family, and even drawing from some of the experiences of friends of mine, there’s only so much I can do as a white person to make their characterization authentic. I try to focus on telling stories that make the characters feel like real, whole people, even if I don’t really have the authority to dive into their specific experiences as people of color. I’ve gotten some great feedback from Filipino readers who are really excited to see themselves represented, and that makes me feel like I made the right choice to take the scarier route and write about characters from a culture I’m not a part of :).
I ended up with so many LGBTQ characters because I’m queer, and I kind of had my blinders on when I was starting to come up with characters. By the time I got underway, I realized…hey, like…half my cast is queer. Oops? Then I figured I should just run with it, because sometimes the only thing that will keep you stuck on a project without burning out is if it’s hopelessly indulgent. I have a trans woman werewolf planned for the second story arc, but it’ll take me forever to get there at my current pace. SIGH. Webcomics aren’t a quick process.
Are there any comics, writers, movies you draw inspiration from?
I’m generally bad at identifying my influences, because they’re all over the place. My anime phase started in elementary school and lasted through college, and I know that influenced how I view storytelling a lot. I love the pacing in most anime. I rewatched Gundam Wing after graduating college, and I was stunned at how good the pacing is. It’s such a long, bizarre story, but there’s a great balance of action, character development, locations, political intrigue, more giant robot battles…I think anime made me less afraid to take my time and do the required work to really lead the audience into the emotional state I’m aiming for. Given the breadth of topics anime has covered, I think it proves that any story can totally gut punch your audience if you give them enough context. Otherwise, we wouldn’t all have been so traumatized by that episode of Futurama with Fry’s dog waiting for him.
On top of all that anime, I also really enjoy books with dry humor. Slaughterhouse Five, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Discworld, etc. That shows through in my writing style, I think. My last big influence is watching way too many movies from the 80s and 90s, when we still had feelings and the explosions were smaller. I maintain that Die Hard has an almost perfect narrative structure.
How do you get your butt in gear to consistently work on a web comic?
So, part of what helps with making HTBAW so consistently is that I’m naturally a really high strung, get-shit-done kind of person and always have been. I was the kid that came home and did all their homework directly after school without my parents intervention, so I’ve always been naturally very good at accomplishing whatever I’ve got on my plate. The thing that always helps me is to set reasonable expectations with periodic rewards, though. I only do two pages a week because I know that’s the limit of my focus. I avoid creating situations that stress me out, so finding my limitations and only pushing them a little bit at a time goes a long way to avoiding burnout. I also try and set specific tasks per day, so some days I work longer than others. On Thursdays, I write and do thumbnails, Fridays I sketch my pages, I ink over the weekend, and color on Monday. If I finish anything early, great! Then I’m done for the day. If a little work spills into the next day, then I have the space in my schedule to allow that if need be. I use Tuesdays and Wednesdays to post pages, do social media stuff, catch up on commissions, and run errands.
Who is your favorite character? Who is the most fun one to write?
Damn, that’s a hard question. I think they’re all kind of me, so I like all my characters. Malaya and Marin might be my favorites, though, because they’re the most closely based on myself. Marin’s story arc comes up in the current chapter I’m working on, and I’m really looking forward to having the audience know more about her, because it means I can give her a larger role in the story. There hasn’t really been space for that up until now, so she’s remained a bit of a mystery.
Elias and Vincent are the most fun to write! Elias gets all the best lines, and Vincent gets the best deadpan reactions. Weirdly, for a dude whose face barely ever changes, Vincent is hilarious to me.
Anything you want to tell/include about your characters?
Hm, probably nothing specific. I think one thing that helped me write my characters more smoothly is to just give in and accept that each of them would be like me in some small way, or like other people I’m very close to. I think when you hear the advice “write what you know,” it really means to invest your own experiences into finding commonality with your subjects. I know what it’s like to be in unhealthy, abusive relationships with other people, so that’s something I can explore in Aubrey and Connie’s relationship. I know what it’s like to have to manage anxiety, so that’s something I can bring to Malaya’s character. I know what it’s like to have your safety net go askew, and that’s something I can explore when writing Elias. Little aspects of me work themselves into the story, and I think that helps make things feel grounded, even though a story about werewolves is automatically fantasy. Writing characters in a real way requires being very honest with yourself and who you are, but it pays off.