Monday, December 19, 2011

Nicole Le has a confession to make.

And now, I think, we’ve come to a very particular point in our little superhero epic—the moment where the reader, at least, discovers the hero’s secret identity.

Not that I’m claiming to be a superhero—far from it. But I have been maintaining a second identity on the side, and now I’ve lost my original reason for maintaining it and don’t have a replacement. So here’s the secret:

Nicole Le doesn’t exist. Or rather, she does, but she’s me.

Any illustration you’ve seen on this blog, or on Facebook, or on Pocket Coyote attributed to Nicole Le is, in fact, the work of one R.M. Hendershot. Yours truly. Quite a few of you already know this, of course; among my friends and colleagues, it’s just about the worst-kept secret ever, although some of them seem to forget from time to time and ask me if “Nicole” might draw something, then give me blank looks when I say, “Sure, if I have time.” But I drew those first sketches of Rae and Trevor and their world. I painted the images in that first trailer, in addition to taking the photographs. I did the art for the Comic-Con bookmark and T-shirt. And every blessed one of those black-and-white chapter illustrations on Pocket Coyote is my work, too. (Sorry about that!)

I’m telling you now because the book is coming out, and it seems disingenuous to claim that two people worked on it when in fact I did all the work myself. This is less because I want to brag about having done all that work than because I want to own up to any mistakes; whether the art sucks or there’s a typo on page 47, it’s all on me. That’s what boostrap publishing is all about.

So why did I invent Nicole in the first place, if it wasn’t to avoid taking the heat for lousy artwork?

Well, that was the original reason—but not in the way it sounds. Remember, I started out as a comic-book fan, and in comicdom there is a thing called a “writer-artist.” Writer-artists write and illustrate their own comics, a bit like singer-songwriters in music. There are some wonderful writer-artists out there—people like Aaron Williams of PS238 or Michel Gagné of The Saga of Rex. But—not to put too fine a point on it—most writer-artists are judged more by their art than by their writing. That’s only natural; you can look at a drawing of a superhero and tell pretty much immediately whether it’s any good, but you have to read an entire story to judge a writer.

And the fact is, I’m a much better writer than I am an artist. Always have been, and likely always will be. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been, shall we say, less than visually gifted; maybe it’s because I just didn’t like drawing as much as I liked writing, and therefore didn’t practice it as much. In any case, I have always considered drawing a pleasant sideline, a way to solve writing problems and occasionally get a little attention for my stories, and I didn’t want to have my real work judged on the basis of my hobby work. As long as I was writing superhero stories primarily for my fellow nerds, I wanted to avoid the stigma of being a writer-artist who couldn’t actually draw all that well.
So I invented Nicole, a fairly transparent fiction, and would gladly admit to anyone who asked that we were the same person—but most people didn’t ask. They were content to laugh at my stories of bribing my “friend” with fast food, smirk as I complained about having to take reference photos for my fussy, reclusive artist pal. (The rumor that she never uses her hands for anything but drawing, however, and therefore needs doors opened for her and food spooned into her mouth … that one wasn’t my doing. You will not be surprised to hear that the friend who inspired Tammy Hoffman came up with that one. Someday she’ll finish writing her own novel, and it will be a strange and wondrous thing.)

Perhaps nobody thought I’d make up an alter ego I couldn’t pass for, and there’s no way anyone will believe I’m Vietnamese. (For the record, “Le” is the Vietnamese equivalent of “Jones”—the second most common last name in that country, after Nguyen. It’s also the last name of a friend from high school. I chose “Nicole” as a first name because it sounded like a good Francophone “American name” for a Vietnamese American, and because it was the given name of my best friend in second grade.) Perhaps it was easier for people to enjoy my stories if they imagined the illustrations hadn’t actually come from the mind and hand of the person who made up the characters—that there was still some wiggle room between what was on the page and what those imaginary people were really like. (There is—if you think Rae and Trevor look like something other than what I’ve drawn, you’re welcome to it. I can’t actually represent what’s in my head.) Or maybe most people just didn’t care.

But now I’m not writing strictly for fandom, or at least not comic fandom. In the book world, it’s okay to be a slightly idiosyncratic artist if you’re illustrating your own books. I’m still slow on the draw by professional standards, and a bit short on genuine artistic talent by any standards, but if anyone complains about the art at this point, I can shrug and say, “What do you expect? I’m really a writer.” And that’s just fine, as long as I’m not doing full-on comic books. I also like the fact that this way I don’t have to feel bad when I criticize “Nicole” ’s art in public—I’m not picking on my absent artist, I’m showing off my low self-esteem.

And, I’ll admit, I think it’s just a bit more impressive to be a writer who draws her own illustrations because all her artist friends are busy than it is to be a writer who dragoons her friends into drawing for her. But maybe that’s just me.

Now, Nicole’s byline isn’t going away. The fiction’s just going to be a lot more transparent now. I really don’t care whether anybody knows I’m Nicole or not. Let casual readers think we’re two different people; you guys (and anyone who cares enough to Google this blog entry) will know the truth. If you meet me at a fair or a signing, I’ll happily draw you a terrible sketch and sign it for the both of us. I will continue to use the name Nicole Le for my artwork online and stick to my own for the writing (and on the books—the ISBN lawyers will get huffy otherwise). Nicole’s DeviantArt page will soon get going. I will probably keep making up silly stories about what I had to do to get Nicole to illustrate something this time. I quite like having an imaginary artist friend.

But next time I post a sketch signed “NLe”, you can have the warm pleasure of knowing you’re an insider. You know what’s really going on. You’ve seen behind the mask, you’re in on the secret, you’re one of the select few privileged to know R.M. Hendershot’s secret identity.

But if you get kidnapped by a supervillain and thrown off the George Washington Bridge, you’re on your own. Probably.


  1. So the question is, when is the book coming out?