Katie Bair

by Bamboo Dong,
From wig styling guru to published comic book artists, Katie Bair is proving that a little bit of creativity can get you anywhere you want. Author of Oasis Destiny, published by Antarctic Press, and co-author of Ninja High School, Bair also goes to conventions to give workshops on wig styling. Owner of Katie Bair's Petting Zoo, the professional wig styler is one of the only people on the planet who can claim that they have tamed... the Anime Hairstyle. Even marketing her own wig dyes and styling products, she is arguably one of the coolest people in the cosplaying community, and ANN was lucky enough to catch her for an interview.

Tell me a bit about the projects you've worked on: Oasis Destiny, and parts of Ninja High School. How did that all come about?

Oasis Destiny was an original story I actually came up with after drawing the five main characters as T-shirt designs for Macy's youth department. I don't think the designs ever made it to print, but while I was drawing them, I could see their personalities forming, and it wasn't long after that I started writing up a script. I knew I had a good story on my hands, because the characters were very easy to write for, almost as if they were telling ME the story as I went.

I submitted Oasis Destiny to Antarctic Press and they picked it up. While waiting for it to go to print, they asked if I could send in some submissions for the Gold Digger Swimsuit Issue, and it was actually one of those pictures that caught the eye of the (at the time) writer for Ninja High School, Robby Bevard. He contacted me and asked if I'd like to take over Ninja High School after Ben Dunn's final issue, #100. So I did.

As an anime/manga fan, did you dream of one day publishing your own works?

Yoshiko from Ninja High School
Actually, I was originally a comic book fan, and had been drawing and writing stories since I was a little kid. (Much to the dismay of my elementary school teachers...) My first favorite cartoon was G-Forces (also known as Battle of the Planets and Gatchaman). Although I had seen anime while living in Germany when I was very young, I found that none of the other kids knew of it when I came back to the US my second grade year. It wasn't until my dad brought home a Famicom years later, that I saw Japanese style art again.

In high school, my friend Chynna and I would draw mini-comics for our friends. She had more of an Archie inspired style, while I was still cracking away at the Marvel look. It was very frustrating to me, because although I could get all the body anatomy right, the faces always looked horrible. I practiced, a LOT, but I just couldn't get a grasp on the inked shading of the facial features. Mine always ended up looking like they'd been hit in the face with a fire hydrant.

Then I had my epiphany. I was sitting in my room, playing Phantasy Star 2 for the Sega Genesis, and on the screen was the little head shot of the girl who worked in the "items/tools" store in the game. Just for kicks, I decided I'd draw that girl. I used the same methods for the head anatomy as I'd learned from those old "How to Draw Comics" books, but used the Japanese style facial features. And ya know what? I came out PERFECTLY. That's when I realized that I was never going to be a comic book artist... because I was actually a manga artist!

I've never stopped drawing in my own style since then, even though every editor told me it was a waste of time. I kept writing and drawing my own stories, until I found one I knew would be “good enough,” and the rest is history.

Where do you get inspirations for your works?

Music and real life. I often will be listening to a song, and it will create a scene in my head. I don't even know how many AMV's I've mentally created for my stories. (You know, for when they're made into an anime... *laughs*) The characters in my stories often have aspects of myself or people I know. It makes them more believable, and less static. I strongly believe that the best stories write themselves, and the easier it is to relate to the characters, the easier it is to illustrate their lives.

With Ninja High School, it was originally created by Ben Dunn. Do you think there's any difference in working on a project from scratch, or working on a project that had pre-established roots? Which do you prefer?

There's a HUGE difference with the two. Taking over on an established book is very difficult. The fans of the old book will automatically hate you, people will keep expecting/begging you to do things the same way the previous creator did, and depending on the previous writer, you could find yourself with a bunch of loose ends with no idea how they had intended to tie them up.

Luckily, I didn't really have to worry about writing for Ben's established characters, since the only one we brought over to the new series was Yumei, and she was pretty dang bland to start with. Since she didn't really have a personality besides “over-violent tomboy,” she had a lot of room to grow and develop. Right from the get-go, Robby had decided that this run was going to be nothing like the old Ninja High School, regardless of the pressure to cater to the old fans. There were a couple of times where we had to bring in one of the characters from the old series as a cameo, but other than that, everything else was new. Originally, Robby was going to be writing, and I was only drawing, but within the first 6 or 7 issues, it shifted to me doing the writing and drawing, and he was handling the backgrounds and tone work. I think by issue 111, I was doing it solo for the most part. (Robby was usually too busy at the office, since he was working on several books at once.)

However, even though there was some initial “Katie and Robby suck!”comments before our first issue came out, it died down very quickly, and we even managed to keep some of the old fans. (And made quite a few new ones!)

You're close to finishing your run on NHS. Any comments on the experiences it's given you, and what you plan on taking away from it?

Actually, my final issue (#126) should be out this week. ^_^

What I've learned from this experience is that I really work better by myself than in a collaborative team. I'm just too picky and way too much of a perfectionist when it comes to my work (especially when there's no clear indication for the readers about who is doing what).
It's not that I want all the credit, far from it. It's more that if someone thinks my writing or art is bad, I want to be sure it's not actually my partner's writing or art that they're just *assuming* is mine. I'm fine with taking criticism for my own stuff, but having someone make judgments about my art skills based on something I didn't even draw kinda sucks.

Another thing is, although all my friends in the comic industry tell me that you shouldn't get to attached to your work, because it'll hurt more when they change or edit it (it's true...), I still love my characters, and want to make sure they're taken care of. Nothing is worse to me than seeing a character being treated like a puppet because some marketing guy thinks it would be “cool” to have them start acting completely different to sell to a new demographic. “Lets dress this very modest girl in a skimpy latex bikini so we can get more guys to read the book.” Uh... no.

What advice can you give other aspiring artists who want to publish their own comics?

Kiana & Terril from Oasis Destiny
Firstly, don't get into comics or manga for the money/fame/free cookies. Do it because you love telling a story. This is very, very hard work, and you won't make it if you aren't dedicated, or “just like to draw.” If you've got a story that's just screaming to be told, and you have the willpower to commit to seeing it through to the end, then you just might have what it takes to be a manga artist. Of all the potential manga and comic book artists I've met, only a handful have passed the first test: they completed an entire first chapter of their story without getting bored or giving up. Editors want to see that you can complete work, not just that you're good with Photoshop.

Also, stay humble. No matter how much you practice, no matter how many pages you've drawn, there will always be someone better and more experienced than you. But that doesn't mean you should give up, or start bashing yourself because of it. (Editors hate that, by the way...) Just keep at it, and keep a positive attitude.

Are you working on anything new right now that fans can expect in the future?

Oh yeah, baby! I'm taking a little break to work on my “How To” book for wigs. (Complete with illustrated commentary!) But after that, it's time for Aesir Corp. The monthly format was too hectic to mix with my wig schedule, so I'm going to put A.C. up as a web manga. After doing as many as 48 pages in one week for the past two and half years, switching to a nice M/W/F schedule will be a walk in the park. (And if people like the series enough, I'll make it available in print format. ~_^)

Many critics of manga-styled comics say that American artists shouldn't try to draw things in a “manga-style” (leading to the term Amerimanga), and'instead just stick to their own “style.” Do you have'anything to say to that?

I'm not afraid to say that these “critics” are racists. I should introduce them to the guys who used to say “girls can't draw” and gas the lot of 'em.

Back when I was first starting out as a manga artist, I would often run into the situation that people would assume I was Asian. They would see my art online, and tell me how much they loved it, but then be totally shocked, even disgusted when they learned I was a white girl. These same people, who loved my art just moments before, would now call me a “fake” to their friends. Why? Because I wasn't Asian, but I was drawing in a style dominated by Asian artists. Never mind the fact that there are Chinese pianists who play like Austrians, or Japanese baseball teams, or Korean painters who work in a style heavily inspired by Alphonse Mucha. Anime itself was originally inspired by Disney's animated features, so why is it so bizarre that an
American would be inspired by anime?

What these “critics” neglect to realize is that people have ALWAYS tried to emulate the style they like. For years, kids would try to draw like what they saw in American comics, or on TV. It just happens to be that this generation has grown up with more manga and anime available to them, so they are doing exactly what every generation before them has, and emulating the style they like. Telling them that they are not allowed to draw the way people do in other countries is just narrow-minded and ignorant.

I'll admit, one of the main ways I was introduced to who you were was through your wig site. The magic you can make happen with wigs is phenomenal. Did you learn all this by trial and error, or have you had some kind of training?

What Katie thinks others think she looks like
Everything I've learned has been through experimentation, problem solving, some very basic chemistry knowledge, and a whole lot of logic. I had cut hair for my friends and family before, so I knew the basics of using the scissors and clippers, but I had never worked with wigs before I made my Final Fantasy X Shiva wig. However, after tackling that monster, I figured that the rest couldn't be too hard!

Seriously though, all it really takes is some confidence. Once you realize that it's okay to mess up, it makes the whole thing a lot easier. I find that most of the time, when I go to workshops and such, people don't realize how easy it is to style wigs once you get a few basic principals in mind. Most people treat wigs as if they're some sort of scary and exotic animal, when they're just strands of plastic and elastic bands. Taming them is really not so hard, and you can make them do some pretty crazy things with a little ingenuity and elbow grease.

All of my wigs are made in my tiny studio, using commonly available tools and products. It gets kind of cramped in there when I have more than one apprentice over, but we manage.

What's your favorite part of the wig styling process? Least favorite? Hardest?

I think my favorite part is the challenge. I look forward to the trickier designs, as if it's a competition of my skills versus the character designer. Sometimes we joke that they are making characters with sillier and sillier hair styles to try to foil me, but they haven't beat me yet! It also helps break up the monotony of doing simple cut and dye jobs, over, and over, and over....

My least favorite (and hardest) part of this business, and of cosplay in general, is the politics. I try my best to avoid it, but I find a new “let's bash Katie” thread on various message boards at least once a week. I've been called a Nazi, an elitist snob, a cult leader (that was my personal favorite...), an ugly, egotistical, power-tripping sell-out... the list goes on and on. And of course, none of these people have met me, but my site has gotten so popular, that a lot of people just lie and pretend they have, or pull the old “my friend got a wig from her.” (I've got an insanely good memory, so I know who has each and every wig I've made.) It makes me want to just stop making wigs sometimes, especially when people complain about the prices. C'mon folks, this is my day job. I need to eat.

Then I think of the people that write to me and tell me about how my tutorials have helped them, or I go to a con and see those faces light up when I do a workshop, and it makes it easier to ignore the haters. ~_^

What's the best advice you can give to aspiring cosplayers?

Ha! Prepare to be obsessed! And poor! Man-o-man this is an expensive hobby, at least if you want to make your costumes right. And if you're intending to compete, remember that getting the details right will make a biggest impression. A lot of folks can sew a basic costume, but not everyone will go the extra mile to line the inside, or get the props and accessories accurate. Believe me, I've been on both sides of the judging table, and sometimes the difference between two great costumes is as small as a button.

Also, if you are planning to show your costume in a competition, remember to take your time while on stage. I was just judging at Anizona in Phoenix, and that had to be the shortest masquerade I'd ever seen. There were fifty entries, and we got through it in less than half an hour. I was actually awarding points to entries who stayed on stage for more than two seconds. Take your time, walk slowly, turn slowly, let the judges see all the hard work you put into your costume. It doesn't make any sense to work on your costume for five months, then only stage on stage for five seconds, now does it?

Lastly, keep “neat shapes” if you find them. I have a drawer full of empty bottles, tubes, toy packaging, plastic bowls, etc, that comes in handy sooo often. There are so many little odd pieces of trim or parts of props that you can find an exact match for if you just look for the right shape. For instance, I helped one of my friends find the wristbands for her Aerith costume by using the top half of two large plastic cups from the dollar store, and made Tifa's hair band using an old Advil bottle as a base. Neat shapes! Learn it, live it, love it!

What's it like seeing people cosplay as character you've created? I feel like it'd be kind of surreal.

It is triiiii-ppy. I've seen a couple of different people cosplay characters I've created, and I think the most interesting part is to see how they translated what I drew, and how close or far it is to how I envision what the character would look like in real life. Different people focus on different details, and things that might seem obvious to me when drawing a character, might be translated totally differently by someone else. A good example would be Lokki's (from Ninja High School) ruff. She has a ruff of feathers around her neck and shoulders like a vulture, but a lot of folks seem to think it's fur because of the way I draw it. I guess that's true of a lot of character designs, which explains why you see so many different variations on popular characters. Everyone has a different way of translating that 2D image into real life. ^_^

Given all the experience you have with so many things, in terms of art, styling, sewing, etc... I'll leave with one question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A Toys-R-Us kid, of course! You know, if I went back four years ago and told myself I'd be a professional wig designer, I wouldn't have believed me, and if I went back fourteen years and told myself I was going to be a manga artist, I would have said “what's manga?” I never really plan these career changes, I just try to keep busy, and help people out along the way. I think that once my hand finally gives up on me (I have tendonitis in my right arm...), and I have to stop drawing and working on wigs, I'll probably become a teacher. Or an international super spy. Or a chef... Or the first woman president. (Vote for Kate in 2028!) ^_^

Thanks again for your time, and good luck with everything!

Panorama of the studio where all the magic happens

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