Nika & Amy
Our conversation with professional geeks Nika & Amy
Growing up, Nika the gamer had rather developed tastes – owing largely to her parents, who filled her childhood with Monty Python, Muppets and morality tales. Her favourite book series growing up was an odd series of books with names like “Tickle’s Tail” and “Rhubarb”, which - like all the best childhood stories - went right over her head at the time; “Looking back, there were some bizarre themed stories, like a squirrel that got addicted to drug-berries named, not subtly at all, “Crickle Crack.” I had no idea!” Her favourite band at the age of four was The Cure, and at seven had become Pink Floyd; “There’s a chance I was way cooler when my age was in single-digits than present day” she jokes, but as music was such a defining factor in her household she still loves most of the bands of her youth. Meanwhile, Young Frankenstein and Monty Python films were shaping her sense of humour forever, as well as preparing her for a future of blank stares at the exclamation of “She turned me into a newt!”
"There’s a chance I was way cooler when my age was in single-digits than present day"
Chances are that this passion for performance art and comedy was what made her want to be an actor. Instead of enjoying writing as she later would, she saw it as a conduit to a performance; a poem or a play that she could showcase to others. But living near LA meant that she was exposed at an early age to the harsh realities of acting - “it was so focused on ‘image’” - and instead dedicated herself to her writing. But through all the passions she had, “everything had a creative tilt,” she tells me. “Hopefully, it always will.”
When Amy was young, she wanted to do everything. “My mom used to claim I was going to be the first astrophysicist on Broadway, which wasn't far off, ambition-wise,” she says. “That curiosity about everything in the world has served me very well, even if failing to focus looked pretty scary (and still does, sometimes).” Eventually she had to settle down on something (semi)serious though, and chose as her double major at college both Dramatic Art and Japanese language. The latter was purely due to a love of manga which spurred on a lifelong passion for the language, but her drama major was the stepping stone to her current career; “I had some classes in the wardrobe department and got to watch those insanely talented folks do their thing," and a star was born.
While Amy got a much coveted job working in a comic book shop – “For anyone wondering if working in a comic book store is as great as it sounds, by the way? It is” – Nika was balancing massage and physical therapy training with plenty of video games experience. After two years at trade school, she wrote and gave a speech to the class, ensuring that she was known among them forever for her writing. “I went to school for massage, and graduated a writer” she notes, but she also got her first official job in the video games industry around this time. “I worked in community management, which spanned such tasks as creating a promotional Alternate Reality Game, brainstorming swag and merchandise, creating contests that tied in with the game, live shows and events where everything relies on thinking on your feet, all the way to writing and helping create parts of the game myself,” so obviously it was no easy task. Five years of working in the video games industry gave her plenty of opportunity to practice creative thinking to solve problems, something she still sees in her work day to day.
Amy was introduced to Geek & Sundry after meeting Wil Wheaton (geek icon) in her comic book shop and being invited as a guest to feature on his Tabletop web series in which he plays various board games. It was “the kind of experience that makes you think ‘well, I'm never going to top that.’” “And then I immediately got to top it by helping host the first International TableTop Day.” Geek & Sundry was increasing rapidly in popularity at the time, with topics of conversation becoming much more diverse, and under the tutelage of Felicia Day – “a hero to me and nerdy, creative women everywhere” and our co-cover star Nika Harper, Amy found herself hosting her own show, the hilarious Talkin’ Comics. “The rest is a blur-an incredibly exciting, lovely blur.” Since then, her show has been named one of Bloody Disgusting’s best comic podcasts, although it hasn’t affected her modesty; “You could've knocked me over with a feather when I saw it. And everyone else on the list is brilliant, so obviously it was just a big mix-up. I mean honor!”
Nika got involved with Geek & Sundry not through her video game credentials but through her writing – although a combination of the two is neatly achieved in her vlog Story Mode, in which she writes stories for games that have none. She also often discusses issues in the video game industry, such as diversity in representation and the shifting definition of the term “video game”, and has had the opportunity to put her creative spirit to work. She muses that “creativity is a malleable sort of word, it applies to so many different aspects of thinking, whether it’s logical, reactionary, engagement-minded or even fun pie-in-the-sky stuff,” allthough equally that "the day a job doesn't make me feel creative is the day I quit." Even on a smaller scale, creativity and craftiness on a daily basis is what unites so many of us, the kind of “impromptu resource magic that happens at events (‘Cut cut cut, tape this, use Sharpies and VOILA! A ticket collection box!’)”.
One of the best thing she's ever made, however, is an adorable story and a charming present. While watching Stardust with a close friend, they both admired the beautiful glass snowdrop flower which Jon inherts from his mother and is a beacon of good luck. Working with clay for the first time ever, she crafted the flower for her friend's upcoming birthday, packaging it inside a tin with the words "It'll bring you luck". "Gifts are curious things, as they are as much about the giver as the receiver. You want them to love it so much, and you just never know..." Luckily, a heartfelt gift like that doesn't go unappreciated. "Last I heard, it’s still displayed proudly on his desk."
Both Nika and Amy have also taken part in a little light cosplaying in their time. “Rigging a deer-body to myself for a dryad costume was really challenging and fun,” Nika says, but Amy has been lucky enough to work with some real professionals in the industry thanks to her comics vlog. “I am not an experienced cosplayer, but I'm very proud of the Harley Quinn I got to do on Talkin' Comics Weekly, with an old Halloween costume of mine and amazing make-up from Greg Aronowitz. And of course I can take even less credit for this one, but in another episode I was transformed into a Victorian automaton by the insanely talented members of the band Steam-Powered Giraffe (in an outfit provided by Clockwork Couture), which was just a spectacular experience.” But if she could do anything? "I think I'd have to go with a complete set of all the terrible costumes ever worn by Kitty Pryde. She's the best character, and she's worn the worst costumes. I'd love to have a closet full of those."
Anyone working in a creative industry or who loves to craft knows that there are times when inspiration just doesn’t seem to come – but Nika would argue that it can be found anywhere. “I think it’s all about asking the right questions,” she says. “Curiosity is the best muse.” Asked for an example, Nika picks the cheap plastic Halloween cup on her desk. “Is someone holding this cup at a Halloween party? What’s in it, and what is this person thinking about? The owls have big eyes, what is something that would scare an owl? Or maybe this is a cute story about an owl that needs glasses! Where did they get the owl art to put on the cup anyway, do they have a special designer who drew it? Is that a solid gig, plastic-cup-designer? What would their life be like?” With an active mind, it seems that anything can become a story. “Boredom is a choice. If you have a brain and a pen, you can usually find something in the world to be curious about.”
This was the inspiration behind another project of hers, Typeface Tales. “One day I was doing some rudimentary graphic design and I just... got distracted, as I always did when it came to those free font sites I’d go to. The designs, and the names! I remember thinking, there’s stories in there. I wrote three flash fiction stories that night alone.” As an ongoing writing project, it’s a brilliant idea; find an interesting font online and write a story based on its design and name. This was the first time she had ever shared her work with the public: “I was terrified. It was awesome.” In terms of writing inspiration, she’s named Stephen King and Neil Gaiman on previous occasions, but finds it difficult – as we all do – to pin down one definitive influence. Everything Nika has read, whether good or bad or ignorable, has shaped the way she writes now in some form or other. She also enjoys writing fan fiction, an excellent way to create a homage to fiction that you love, although she only ever writes with her own original characters. “In general, I preferred to use the setting more than anything” she says about her fanfiction, which has often involved the Harry Potter universe, and fittingly this year she is standing In Defense of Fanfic at LeakyCon, a fandom festival grown from a humble Harry Potter convention.
For Amy, her biggest passions were for key figures in the world of comic books, and she also finds it difficult to pin down just one seminal work or artist. She names Neil Gaiman again and his collaborative art team for their work on Sandman, the talented Brian K Vaughn and Pia Guerrea of Y: The Last Man and Alison Bechdel’s seminal Fun House. With so many stories having so many different opportunities to be told, there is a favourite artist combination for every concept and style, but a dream team for Amy would be “one graphic novel with chapters by Winsor McCay, Jack Kirby, Chris Bachalo and Brian Lee O'Malley.” She has even started thinking of late about getting into creating comic books. Spending so much time around the inspirational women of Geek & Sundry, she's finding that perhaps she needs to embrace her creativity and make something for herself. This is a long way off though, so don't expect her debut to come any time soon, but her reasoning is infallible - "I would never want anyone else to be intimidated by the idea of making their own art, so why should I be?"
When Nina published her first book, Echoes of Old Souls, it was incredibly emotional for her. "Pretty sure I cried. It’s a really amazing feeling to hold your work in your hands, or see a box of words that you created and know they’re out there in the world. I was terrified, I really was. I had been so shy about my writing ‘til that point and I felt like Old Souls was a good book but it could be better... so I was already focused on what the next one would be." "I remember opening the box, flipping to a random page, reading the entire Irma story, crying and promptly falling asleep."
"I would never want anyone else to be intimidated by the idea of making their own art, so why should I be?"
Amy is aware of how lucky she has been to be involved in the comics industry now, and not fifty years ago. "I obviously can't pretend that women in comics don't still face an uphill battle for respect, as they do in so many areas of life," she notes, but her experience has been fortunate. Not only gender but also the alienation of the geek factor into this, where as recently as twenty years ago comics were seen as the exclusive domain of pasty, bespectacled boys and conventions were completely devoid of female life-forms. But does she feel accepted? "I've been very lucky, personally, and found a great deal of acceptance and support." "Of course there've been other responses," she admits, but on the whole? "Absolutely, yes."
As for Nika, she prefers to take a more philosophical approach to the way she's treated. "I prefer to hope that people like what I make and invite me into the big party that is creative life," she tells me, although she knows too well the disparancy between emotions and reality. She's also full of generous tips for aspiring writers - "Write, write all the time, write things you’re good at and things you’ve never tried before, challenge yourself, switch between an easy project and a difficult one so you don’t feel inadequate or talentless, read a LOT, don’t talk about writing more often than you actually do it, be bold, write for fun, don’t use run-on sentences" - I see what you did there! - "or do whatever you want because I don’t think anyone cares and if Hawthorne can do it then you damn well can, learn the rules and break them as much as you want, don’t be afraid because it’s just words on a page, dedicate time, remember that not every piece is going to be your favorite thing and some of it might even be bad and THAT IS FINE, use it as a coping mechanism when something doesn’t make sense to you, write about plastic Halloween owl cups, don’t let it go to your head because everyone can write and they all should, don’t let it get you down if you foolishly start comparing yourself to other writers when you should be feeling inspired from them, and most of all, stop aspiring. Just write."
Meanwhile Amy's wisdom for the readers of Snippets was simply that she should take advice from them; "crafters are crazy talented!" She does however have a few thoughts on how to go about creativity: "Make the thing that seems the most awesome to you, even if you think no one else will appreciate it. Doing my comic book vlogs, I've lost count of the times I've said 'no one will care about this topic or that book' and been completely wrong. I've never NOT been wrong when I thought that. And the truth is, the thing you make will be awesome either way." Isn't that a comforting thought?
And the ultimate piece of advice for crafters, from Ms Nika Harper:
"Never underestimate the agony of getting hot glue under your fingernail."
Nika and Amy's work can be found on the Geek and Sundry Youtube, as well as the fantastic Felicia Day whose book You're Never Weird On The Internet (Almost) is a great geek read.