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

Categories: Geekery


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.

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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."

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