An Exclusive Interview with Cartoonist S.E. Case: Exploring the Heartland of Teenage Experience

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An Exclusive Interview with Cartoonist S.E. Case: Step into the world of Rigsby, Wisconsin, where the lives of ordinary teenagers unfold in extraordinary ways. Iron Circus Comics, renowned for its groundbreaking graphic novels, is proud to announce the launch of a BackerKit campaign for the first-ever print edition of S.E. Case’s acclaimed webcomic hit series, RIGSBY WI. This funny, naturalistic graphic novel chronicles the trials and triumphs of a group of average teenagers navigating the complexities of life in a small city in Northern Wisconsin.

As the BackerKit campaign for the inaugural book, RIGSBY WI: FOOTHOLD, goes live, we invite you to join us in a conversation with the talented cartoonist S.E. Case. Through vibrant art and naturalistic writing, Case captures the essence of adolescence — from the struggles of identity and acceptance to the joys of friendship and self-discovery.

In RIGSBY WI, readers are invited to explore themes of relationships, poverty, race, and sexuality while journeying alongside characters who grapple with the challenges of growing up in a rural town. Case paints a vivid portrait of teenage life with humor, heart, and irreverence, capturing its sweetness and complexities.

Join us as we delve into the world of Rigsby, Wisconsin, and discover the inspiration behind S.E. Case’s evocative storytelling and richly detailed artwork. From the nostalgia of teenage afternoons to the more profound questions of identity and belonging, RIGSBY WI offers readers a poignant and unforgettable glimpse into the heartland of teenage experience.

Take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about one of the most anticipated graphic novels of the year. Join us as we journey through the pages of RIGSBY WI and uncover the magic that awaits within its covers.

Continue reading the interview to gain insight into the creative process behind RIGSBY WI and to hear directly from S.E. Case about inspirations, challenges, and hopes for the series.

An Exclusive Interview with Cartoonist S.E. Case: Exploring the Heartland of Teenage Experience
An Exclusive Interview with Cartoonist S.E. Case: Exploring the Heartland of Teenage Experience 16

Toons Mag: What inspired you to create RIGSBY WI and explore the lives of teenagers in a small city in Northern Wisconsin?

S.E. Case: I was a troubled teenager. I was weird and awkward, and my peers didn’t always accept me. I struggled with depression, and I was often angry at the people around me who didn’t understand me. I didn’t feel like I had much of a future, so I became a bit of a nihilist and was generally kind of a shit. I often think teenagers are done a disservice in media; teenagers written for other teenagers are sanitized and divided into cliques and basic stereotypes, and teens written in adult stories are selfish and ignorant.

As a teenager, I had a lot of trouble seeing myself in any of these depictions. In reality, young people have complex and varied experiences. Adolescence can be an exciting time — there are many new experiences to be had and a lot of possibilities in your future. But if you live in an unstable environment or aren’t accepted by your peers, those new experiences can become fears and anxieties, and the excitement for the future can become dread and hopelessness. 

Rigsby WI is not autobiographical, but it is a comic for my teenage self — the protagonists are delinquents and underachievers, and there’s nothing special about them. However, they still have stories worth telling, and you want them to succeed. I would have appreciated that.

When I started drawing Rigsby, I lived in an unincorporated town in Northern Wisconsin. I had a lot of complex feelings about living there, and I processed them through the writing of this comic. On one hand, it’s a beautiful, peaceful, quirky place. The communities are close-knit, and the people are proud of each other’s victories, no matter how small. I loved that — I drew a lot of creative energy from it, which is part of why I chose it as the setting.

On the other hand, the majority culture is skewed, conservative, and regressive. There were parts of myself I felt I needed to hide to exist peacefully. I spent a lot of my time there being angry at authority figures and community leaders, trying to balance my desire for self-truth with my desire for self-preservation. It was challenging but manageable for me as an adult, but for a specific type of teen, that environment can be poison. Ultimately, Rigsby, WI, is an autopsy of why shitty, disaffected teens do shitty, disaffected teen things. 

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Toons Mag: How do you balance the comedic elements of RIGSBY WI with its more serious themes like relationships, poverty, race, and sexuality?

S.E. Case: Having teen characters is helpful. These are heavy subjects, and approaching them can be uncomfortable for both the characters and myself as the writer. Teens, by nature, are a little bit immature, so it’s natural for them to downplay their emotions or cut through tension with dumb little jokes or tangents. The tricky part is knowing when to insert moments of fun and when to be comfortable with letting a moment hang and be assertive. Every little thing can be heavy drama with teenagers, but these kids will riff through any situation. When they stop, you know something severe is going on. 

Toons Mag: Could you share insights into your creative process, from conceptualization to final execution, for RIGSBY WI?

S.E. Case: The original concept for Rigsby WI is actually from an earlier webcomic I started in 2007 called Cheap Thrills, which was about a teenage boy who experiences a family tragedy right before he graduates from high school. I got burnt out and quit doing comics in 2012, but after a six-year break, I was itching to make something new. I developed several concepts, but the characters from Cheap Thrills stuck with me. So I scraped out the parts of Cheap Thrills that I liked, reworked the characters and concept, and fleshed out the setting. Authenticity was important. I knew I would struggle to write authentic, modern teens, so I set the story in the early 2000s, which was when I was a teenager. 

I’ve lived my whole life in small cities and towns in the Midwest, so it was important to me to set it there. I wanted the setting to feel real, so I used the area I lived in as the primary basis. The wooded trails, the gated hunter access, the deer blind, the picket signs, and the rural roads featured in the comic are all real places near the house I lived in at the time. 

I wanted to change the art style from volume to volume, partially to match the chapter’s vibe and keep myself from getting bored or stuck in a rut. From there, the characters drove the story. The original skeleton was similar to the plot of Cheap Thrills. Still, as the characters developed in this new setting and timeline, it quickly veered in a different direction, which is good. While I was interested in revisiting the characters, I didn’t want to write the same story over again. 

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Toons Mag: How do you approach character design and development in RIGSBY WI, particularly in portraying realistic teenagers?

S.E. Case: I think it’s important to remember, when creating teen characters, that teens are New At This — they’re learning how to take care of themselves, differentiate themselves (or fit in), what works for them, and what doesn’t. Ninety-nine percent of teen characters should not be that well put together — while they have youth on their side, resources and experience are usually limited. Popular, pretty girls still have jawline acne; teen boys might have a tiny little mustache they don’t know what to do with yet. 

I put a lot of thought into how my characters present themselves, not just in regards to their aesthetics and preferences but also their life situations — Jeordie wears a lot of his older brother’s hand-me-down Gen-X grunge clothes; in the fourth volume, he has a NOFX “Not My President” t-shirt with a picture of George W. Bush on it, but he keeps it in a box — he doesn’t wear it. Jenna and Anna have similar mall goth aesthetic sensibilities, but Jenna shops at Hot Topic or online boutiques, while Anna’s outfits are well-worn thrift, Halloween store, or clearance finds. Because plus-size options were limited in the early 2000s, Beth’s wardrobe consists mainly of band tees, oversized sweatshirts, and, to her chagrin, matronly Lane Bryant attire. 

To portray the characters realistically, it was also essential to flesh out the character’s parents — a significant theme of Rigsby WI is how much your parents/guardians affect your life when you’re a minor, so it was essential to develop the parents as much as the main characters. 

Toons Mag: What role does nostalgia play in shaping the tone and atmosphere of RIGSBY WI?

S.E. Case: When I decided to set Rigsby in the early 2000s, I wasn’t trying to go for nostalgia but authenticity. That’s when I was a teenager, and I was confident I could write teen characters from that decade. I didn’t want a lot of sentimental nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia — I think work that relies too heavily on nostalgia to set the scene can portray an inaccurate, stereotypical depiction of that period. But I do think putting in precise little nostalgic details can help readers relate the story to their own lives and add a little humor as well — stuff like Jeordie and Jenna’s cringy AIM names, Jenna’s 12-year-old obsession with Kevin from the Backstreet Boys, or Anna drunkenly screaming at her sister to look up reptile facts on Ask Jeeves Dot Com.

Toons Mag: What themes or messages do you hope readers take away from reading RIGSBY WI?

S.E. Case: When I was younger and making Cheap Thrills, I hoped it would help people develop empathy toward struggling members of society and better understand why people are the way they are. While I still somewhat hope for that, now my comics act more as a mirror, and people see what they want to see. I won’t change your mind if you think people make bad decisions or act outside their best interests because of an intrinsic moral failing. You may need to understand why I chose the protagonists that I did. But, for those who see themselves and their friends in these characters, this comic provides a little catharsis and reassurance that you aren’t alone.

Toons Mag: How do you handle character growth and evolution throughout RIGSBY WI’s storyline?

S.E. Case: I’ve been writing stories about these characters, in one form or another, for almost 20 years, so I know them pretty well, and at this point, I let the characters do what they want. I try not to plan out too much character growth because if I let it happen naturally as I write, the characters grow in ways I didn’t expect, which is more fun than forcing the characters into a narrative that doesn’t fit.

When writing for Rigsby, I’m flexible about the overarching plot. I’ll always start with a story outline, but if the characters can’t naturally get from point A to point B, then point B needs to change, even if it means changing the ultimate trajectory of the story. This is an essential exercise because even though you couldn’t use that original plot, understanding why the characters couldn’t get to point B and needed to go in a different direction is invaluable. In this way, the characters grow in a way that feels natural and satisfying, not in a way that feels beholden to plot events. 

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Toons Mag: How do you ensure authenticity and sensitivity when addressing sensitive topics like trauma or social class in RIGSBY WI?

S.E. Case: I don’t think you can ensure anything; nobody is an expert on all subjects, and there is always the possibility of accidentally mishandling something. It would help if you were thoughtful in your portrayal of the subject, tried to understand it as much as possible thoroughly, and were open to listening to different perspectives and considering how they play off each other. On the other hand, if you are overly afraid to make a mistake or try to write to everybody’s sensibilities, you may end up with something bland and toothless that doesn’t speak to anyone’s experiences. One choice I needed to make in Rigsby is how I portrayed the language of the early 2000s versus modern sensibilities.

Language in the early 2000s, especially amongst teenagers, could be highly transphobic, homophobic, racist, and ableist. In Rigsby, I watered it down a bit, which I wouldn’t normally do — but there is a fine line between realism and gratuitousness. There definitely needed to be some of that language in the comic to define the social climate the characters are living in. Still, I didn’t want so much of it that it felt hurtful or excessive, even if it would have technically been realistic. 

Regarding research, you need to be genuinely interested in the topic you are writing about. If you are only researching and looking for feedback as a cover-your-ass move to justify your story choices, you may be writing the story for the wrong reasons. Ultimately, you have to own your narrative choices, be humble and ready for the possibility of getting something wrong, and be open to listening to new perspectives. That doesn’t mean you need to take all feedback at face value — there will always be someone with a bad-faith interpretation of your work, and you need to decide what criticism is valuable and helpful and what criticism misses the point.

One nice thing about Rigsby being a webcomic is that I get instant feedback from a large and diverse group of readers as the comic is posted page by page. If I fucked something up or mishandled something, I’ll usually hear about it. There have been times when the reaction to a page indicates that what I’ve written isn’t reading correctly, and I’ve been able to make adjustments accordingly. 

Toons Mag: What advice would you give to aspiring cartoonists or creators looking to explore similar themes and storytelling techniques in their work?

S.E. Case: Having a thorough understanding of your characters is essential. Writing what you know (knowledge through lived experience) is always good advice, but even writing what you know (if you want to do it well) still requires some research and openness to other perspectives and experiences.

“Write what you know” is also slightly trite because even if you are writing what you know, there will need to be characters in your story that do not share your perspectives or background. If you are interested in understanding those characters, they will stay flat. Complex, academic research into topics you need to understand is essential, but being an open-minded observer of the world is equally important. Watch people, take note of their subtle ticks, the way they talk, and interact with each other. Talk to people; don’t just make a note of the information they give you, but also pay attention to how they say it and the information they choose to withhold.

The best advice I can give regarding creating realistic or unique characters and situations is to never go with your first idea. Your first idea is probably always your worst idea because your brain will likely come up with the most generic, stereotypical answer first. Rather than accept it, even if it’s based on your lived experience, it’s always worth exploring your biases and trying to find a more honest and thoughtful solution. 

Toons Mag: Finally, can you tease readers of any upcoming developments or surprises they can look forward to in RIGSBY, WI?

S.E. Case: If you are reading book-by-book, then…volume two is a real treat, in my opinion. It focuses on Anna and how she went from having a generally stable home to ending up semi-transient. You meet some great characters, including super-senior Frank and Anna’s older half-sister Kierie. It’s my favorite volume in the series so far.

If you’re up to date on the website, the most significant upcoming developments will probably be for Beth. You’ll learn more about her dysfunctional family and find out, amongst other things, why she lives with her aunt and not her parents. You’ll also get more insight into Jeordie’s brother, Darius, and their strained relationship.

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I'm Sondre Borg, but you can call me Sondre. I'm a cheerful Norwegian Digital Nomad and writer, ready to embark on exciting adventures through words and pixels! 🌍✍️

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Comic Book Review: RIGSBY WI: FOOTHOLD