Emily the Strange is a gothic conundrum with a sharp tongue and a clutch of black cats in tow. Globally popular, with celebrity endorsements piling up and a movie entering production, this underground phenomenon has the world at her curiously clad feet. The brainchild of Californian skater and designer Rob Reger, Emily was originally conceived as a skateboard design, but Reger soon understood that Emily was much more than stickers and decks. "A successful character," he says, "is one that can support an idea, be recognisable and memorable, and can work on lots of different products and mediums."
Picture the scene. It's the early 1990s and somewhere on the west coast of America Rob Reger and his buddies are busy printing T-shirts in the designer's garage. "There's lots of punk rock music, skateboarding and college parties," adds Reger. It sounds like the opening scene of Teen-Wolf.
Then, one day, they are beavering away as usual, producing characters and designs to feed the healthy Santa Cruz skateboard scene, when a character appears who would eventually change their lives.
"Emily was first drawn by my friend Nate," Reger recalls. "I was really drawn by the simplicity of his design." This initial seed of interest grew pretty quickly. "I had one friend in particular who really wanted Emily on a shirt, and then slowly people began to buy the tees as they were sold to several local shops," he adds. The buzz began to grow.
With careful nurturing and a series of design refinements, Emily began to come into focus as an individual. A very individual type of individual. "My touches, and those of several other artists, slowly refined Emily, ultimately bringing her to the iconic version we have today," explains Reger.
"Emily doesn't like people," he continues. "So the black cats became her best friends." Developing these additional characters began to flesh out the world in which Emily found herself, and along the way this rolling snowball of a character began to pick up a following.
It wasn't entirely self-sustaining; there was always plenty to do, especially early on. "The first five years or so I averaged four or five designs a year," says Reger. This was essential to keep pace with the fashion scene, but it also meant Emily developed quickly: "Having to come up with two or three different themes to explore four times a year for seven years means that a lot of good stuff gets put on the table."
Although Emily was emerging as an individual from beneath the business which she had spawned, it seemed a slow process to Reger and his collaborators: "Everything was done in a very collaborative way, but with intent - everything she does is written into her mythology; it all has a purpose." Little was left to chance.
The human psyche
"Even though there was no 'world' around her," theorises Reger, "I think people started to identify with the odd simplicity and mystery of who Emily was right from the word go." They recognised the perfection of traits common to many introverted people: independence and isolation, creativity and mystery.
Reger believes Emily's popularity has a lot to do with "the honesty and integrity of her message". Emily, he argues, is something of an archetype: "Everyone seems to have a little bit of Emily in their lives." She's the eternally rebellious kid, one who can stamp her foot loud enough to be heard around the globe.
So, having unearthed Emily as an aspect of the communal psyche, all it took was persistence for the whole thing to reach a kind of cultural critical mass. Soon, the little mystery girl had a catch phrase or two: "GET LOST!" and "BORING!" And for those who see themselves reflected in Emily's shiny black hair, there's amillion different ways to show that you care. Reger nods, saying, "We also make a lot of great products that are irresistible."
This commodification of values creates a feedback loop for Emily's fans which helps them identify with their heroine, but also begins to define their own quirks and traits. As Reger observes, "People see a lot of themselves in our characters, particularly Emily, and they like her because they can relate to her attitude." Products help to reinforce the power of that relationship because they give fans a focal point for their Strange thinking.
The creative team has also become enmeshed in Emily's world. "I practically live in Emily's world," says a serious-sounding Reger. Being surrounded by "dark and strange artefacts" at work and at home is, he says, essential. "I have to be that close to what I'm producing if I'm going to put my all into something for a long period."
Reger started drawing as a kid. "I really got started back in early grade school," he recalls. Having concentrated his attention in high school, the would-be artist then went to the University in Santa Cruz, before studying for his MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute. Despite all this schooling, Reger learned most outside the classroom. "My biggest influences and teachers were my friends and the artists who made punk-rock band flyers for shows," he says.
One collaborator in particular comes in for special praise: the artist Buzz Parker, who works at Reger's company Cosmic Debris. "Buzz always had a good handle on his graphic pen-and-ink work," says Reger, "So by the time he met up with Emily, it was an easy transition to combine his punk rock/skate punk attitude with Emily's and put that down on paper."
The surprising resilience of goth culture, and its ability to reinvent itself without ever going fully mainstream gives the design team at Cosmic Debris plenty to work with. "Her world and creative imagination is limitless," explains Reger. "It incorporates all that we find interesting about art, music, values and humour. All with a different twist to it - a dark one." As long as there's a dark side, people will be interested in it.
Suppose you fancy a bit of the multi-million dollar market in which Emily is at large, how do you go about designing a character with a chance of success? "First, you need to ask yourself some questions," says Reger. Things that spring to mind include: "What type of character is this? Human? Monster? Animal?" Then you get more specific: "Boy or girl? Sweet or dark? Scary or cute?"
Next comes style: "I may have a specific artist in mind, or a specific sketch of my own, or an idea drawn up to start from." The purpose of the character will determine how it's created. As with Emily herself, "Sometimes a sketch or a doodle is already a character, then you build the world around that simple idea." On other occasions you may need to do more basic research before you have a viable concept.
Character, name, story. That's the order in which Emily developed as a concept. Next comes the business of actually illustrating the character. "I usually start with a head of some sort," says Reger. "Then the eyes, then body parts." After this first cycle, "I change the eyes to fit what the character is now developing into." The eyes are the key for Reger: "There's so much expression in eyes..." Colouring comes last on the list.
Fun to be around
Miss Strange is a firm favourite with designers because she's got depth. "Emily in a natural environment is always interesting," argues Reger, "because so often she is identified with an urban setting or background! She may skateboard in the downtown streets at midnight, but she can also be found lost in a remote location while collecting seashore specimens for an undisclosed experiment she has in progress back home." This is a fun project. It gives the creative team something to get their teeth into, building the character's mythology at every step.
And when you've done enough of tying in strangely significant details, there's the interaction between a dangerous girl and her mood-enhancing felines. As Reger puts it: "Between Emily's imagination and her pack of kitties, the possibilities are endless. It's an easy colour palette to work with!"
The bewildering range of Emily the Strange products continues to grow in response to demand from around the globe: comic books, T-shirts, bags and badges, her adoring public cannot get enough. It's almost as if Emily herself has come to life and started calling the shots. Mary Shelley would be pleased, no doubt.
There's just one twist: instead of electricity - as was the case with Shelley's Frankenstein - Emily is animated by attention. It's the fans, explains Reger: "They keep it alive." It's for this growing band of admirers that Cosmic Debris is now working: "We definitely work with and towards what the fans want," agrees Reger. This is not so strange, he adds, "It's for them after all!"