Emily the Strange: From Quirky T-Shirt Character to Pop Culture Icon


By Liz Ohanesian

Twenty years ago, Emily the Strange first appeared on t-shirts and other odds and ends. Now, the 13-year-old girl with the long black hair, black dress and penchant for cats is the star of novels, comic books, iPhone apps and so much more.

Most recently, she's been fronting a band, Emily and the Strangers. Their adventures are documented in the comic book series of the same name, published by Dark Horse Comics. But it's more than that. Emily and the Strangers are the band credited with a new single, “Calling All Guitars,” and a video. They're an animated band in the vein of Dethklok and Gorillaz, but with a spunky sound and lyrics that promote the idea of living your life the way you see fit. The music and accompanying video were funded by a Kickstarter campaign held this past April. On Saturday evening, the video premiered at Tiger, Tiger in San Diego at a special party held for Kickstarter backers. Since I pledged to the campaign, I was able to attend.

I pledged to the campaign because I've been a fan of Emily since my own teenage years. Sometime around 1994, I stumbled across a few stickers and felt some sort of kinship with the pale, sullen character whose image was accompanied by quotes that encapsulated the isolated, but not necessarily lonely, existence of misfit high school kids. The slogans were poignant, but still funny. Emily was a weird kid and she liked being a weird kid. That was absolutely relatable.


In the 1990s, Emily became a mascot for goth teens, her likeness turning up on t-shirts, bags and other accessories. That wasn't by design. “The fact of the matter was, she had really pale skin because I only had one color ink and paper is white,” says Rob Reger, who created the character. “It was never my intention to make her a goth girl, per say, although she is a lover of all things dark.”

As time passed, Emily's appeal has gone far beyond the kids wearing black nail polish and Bauhaus t-shirts. At Saturday evening's party, there were a lot of young girls in attendance, ordinary kids who are probably too young to feel an allegiance to any particular subculture. They're into Emily as well.

“Emily has a very clean timeless look. Even I have the same hair as Emily,” explains Jessica Gruner, who writes Emily the Strange novels. “There is something in her that new generations and new trends can project onto her.”

Actress Chloe Noelle (True Blood) joins Rob Regar and Jessica Gruner at the Emily the Strange Kickstarter party.

In the beginning, Emily was a loner, a girl who seemed happy to not have to deal with people bothering her. While she still retains that sensibility, the character has grown immensely over the years. Gruner notes that the character's interests have evolved beyond music and into subjects like science. The moody teen of the 1990s has evolved into the Renaissance teen of the 2010s. She's smart, creative and doesn't need to give into peer pressure.

When Emily emerged onto the boutique scene, it was around the same time that Riot Grrrl, the feminist punk movement, was inspiring countless young women to pick up guitars, make zines and simply be themselves. She had some similarities to what was happening in the real world. Emily was always an independent young woman who didn't need to conform to societal expectations. “She's up there at the front of the mosh pit,” says Gruner. On Saturday, when Emily and the Strangers' new video premiered, the fictional character had a message that might resonate with the youngest members of the audience. Make music. Take control of your life. Be yourself.

Emily started out as quirky t-shirt character that struck a chord with a certain group of young people. Today, she's a pop culture icon and, quite possibly, a role model for young fans.

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