Hi, students! Thank-you very much for your interest in my work. Unfortunately I can’t review individual portfolios or answer every questionnaire thoroughly and thoughtfully. And so I’ve compiled some commonly-asked questions here. I’ve divided it up into three sections: Comics, Illustration, School/Life.
How do you and your cousin work together? How is it different from working alone?
I have always made comics on my own and with my cousin, Mariko. I enjoy both, for the different challenges they present.
Mariko and I had never really made a narrative comic before we started working together on our first story, Skim. She was a playwright and therefore wrote the script like a play–mostly dialogue with only a little bit of direction. I really enjoy overlaying my own ideas of character, acting, environment, direction, etc, on her stories. Typically we do not confer together, except for at the editing stage, when the whole thing is sketched out
When I work on my own, I either write scripts in a word processor first (much like how Mariko does) or I write and sketch at the same time.
When did you start making comics?
I had done one little comics project in art school–just three pages. I really enjoyed it. I started making mini-comics just after graduation in 2003, using this tutorial (still up!). My first mini was about the city of Edmonton where I was living at the time. It was collected in my first book, Gilded Lilies.
How did you get your comics published?
I sold my mini-comics online and in shops, and started going to indie comic conventions. Eventually people asked if they could publish them in books. Kind of a boring story! I guess the idea is to just start making a thing and try to put it in front of eyeballs. It’s easier to do that now, with social media and stuff–you don’t even need to learn how to collate Xeroxes, if you don’t want to. SuperMutant Magic Academy was a webcomic that was eventually collected.
What is it like to have a banned book?
Weird! It’s certainly not something that Mariko and I set out to do. But our books are about the very messy, scary, confusing parts of growing up, and we aim to depict them honestly. So I suppose it’s not very surprising that some people feel they are not appropriate for certain kids. And I actually agree! I think our book should be shelved properly–it’s recommended for 12+. Sometimes the fact that it’s a comic and that it won the Caledott Honor causes some confusion. As far as restricting its availability to people within the age range, I do have a big problem with that. You are free to read and not read what you wish, but it’s a big problem to tell others what they can access.
Are your books feminist? Is it important to you to portray different body types?
I don’t categorize my books as feminist–they do not explicitly declare themselves as such nor are they about feminist theory. But I’m a feminist and a lot of the stories are about women living autonomous lives, so sure.
Representation is important and I’m aware of that. However I would say that aim for a level of visual realism in my work, whether that means a car or a lamp or a body. I think it would be very strange to not include a spectrum of body types, as that is the nature of the world.
Did you grow up reading comics?
Yes! I loved Archie comics and newspaper strips. I read the weekend funnies without fail. My parents had Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Herman anthologies in the house. (I didn’t get Herman then and I’m not sure I do now?)
I stopped reading comics after I outgrew Archie but picked them up again in college, when my friends were reading Clowes, Tomine, Ware, etc. I read the alt weeklies for Fiona Smyth and Marc Bell’s Shrimpy and Paul. I really liked Bipolar by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, and later a lot of the D&Q stable–Doucet, Brown, Seth, Rabagliati. I learned how to cartoon exclusively through reading comics.
How did you get started in the illustration field?
Upon graduation from the Alberta College of Art and Design (2003), I was lucky to be introduced by a teacher to a local designer who gave me some jobs and enabled me to build up my professional portfolio. I worked at a video game company in Edmonton, Alberta, doing texturing and character work, while freelancing during (all of) my free time. Basically, I worked my day job until I had built up enough clients to allow me to freelance full-time, which I started doing in early 2005 when I moved to New York.
How do you manage to have so many styles?
I have a short attention span. And why not? It’s important to me, for my own happiness, to do all these different things, and luckily I’ve managed to convince others to pay me to do so. Certain clients will only want to hire you for certain things, and that’s fine. Other clients I have had for my entire career and are interested in supporting my zigs and zags.
What is your illustration idea process?
How do you market/promote your work?
In the past I have sent out postcard promos and targeted mini-portfolios. I have never done an email promo, but that seems increasingly accepted. In truth, I don’t promote directly anymore–at some point, published work becomes a kind of promotion.
Social media is the most effective promotional tool. As fraught as those spaces can be, I think it’s great they are cheap and accessible–it used to be hundreds of dollars to print/send mailers. I think it has really opened up the industry to new voices too. I think you have to manage your relationship to those spaces–you can participate and exist online in many different ways. Try to find a way that feels non-gross to you.
Do you have a rep?
I don’t have an illustration rep.
I have a literary agent who handles my book and comics projects. Book contracts are much more complicated, so I think a literary agent is very helpful.
What does it take for a young illustrator to be successful today?
Illustration has become a very competitive field. Freshmen entering art school are operating at a much, much higher level than when I started. That said, illustration as a career involves much more than talent or technical ability. Yes, you must create good work that people actually want to commission and buy (note: not necessarily the same thing as being popular on social media). But you also need to familiarize yourself in the specifics of your area of interest, as the illustration industry is multi-faceted–children’s books are a very different thing from editorial, for example, even though some people do flow between them.
Also remember that talent not enough. Professionalism, perseverance, and relishing the challenge of illustration is just as important in terms of longevity.
Do you recommend art school/masters programs?
Art programs can be hugely beneficial for some people and a colossal waste of resources for others. This is for you to decide. In an ideal world, art school would be an enriching experience that allows people to grow as artists and people– goofing off, making new friends, moving away from your hometown, being challenged personally and artistically. The equation changes somewhat when you factor in the student debt that accompanies these degrees, particularly in the US. Being an artist is a tough go, even if you are successful.
But you knew all that. I guess my more direct answer is: go to art school if you truly believe you are ready to learn and grow there and are willing to take on the debt. Don’t go to art school if your heart isn’t in it or believe the debt will be crippling. I have a lot of artist friends who didn’t go to art school.
I went to (a cheap) art school and learned a lot.
Can I become an illustrator if I didn’t go to art school?
Of course. I might not be the best one to talk to, since I did go to art school. But it’s definitely possible–I know many who didn’t. There are myriad podcasts, blogs, professional organizations, FB groups, etc, you could avail yourself of figure out how the industry works and how to promote yourself. Don’t forget local people and scenes in your city. Maybe move to where artists are. Follow people’s careers and see their path and career choices. Get on the social media platform du jour. To be honest, that stuff is way easier to figure out than to actually make something unique and interesting.
Do you recommend moving to NYC?
Sure, why not. If you want to do it and can make that happen financially, I think you should. Living there will expose you to a lot of creative energy and culture at a high level. The community is very competitive and will be very stimulating for some people. It’s a difficult place to live, both financially and (in my opinion) mentally. I also believe one can make a go of it in other cities/towns/countries. I don’t know what environment or situation is right for you.
“What do people want?” “Will I get a job/jobs when I graduate?” Those questions are hard to avoid and I certainly struggled with them myself. However, my piece of advice is to try not to think so “large”. Think small. Think about the marks you want to make on the paper in front of you… the ones that bring you pleasure and satisfaction. You can’t control what other people think or if they’ll give you a job. You can only control your own actions and the work you produce. (And make a good faith effort at promoting yourself.) You have to be a little delusional to pursue a life in the arts, so throw caution to the wind and make pictures that excite you and hopefully the world will agree. It’s worked for me so far.
Also: you have to take care of your mental and physical health in order to be a functional artist, not to mention a functional partner, friend, sister, son, etc.