Q&A with Artist Rachel Kahn

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Rachel Kahn walks the line between the real and the imaginary in her hilarious and touching comic series By Crom!, which follows her day-to-day “relationship” with a stoic barbarian. Rachel shares her thoughts on creating autobiographical comics, her artistic style, and the comic artists who inspire her.

I love how By Crom! plays with the autobiographical comic form, taking on elements of an advice column and a buddy comedy. What was your inspiration for matching yourself with a barbarian as you examined your life?

Thanks for your kind words! I knew I wasn’t going to ever do a straight autobio comic, as I wouldn’t feel comfortable being that detailed about my life publicly. By Crom! is my cautious angle on the genre. I guess you could say there’s a layer of Calvin and Hobbes in there, where my barbarian counterpart is a slightly less hairy constant companion, standing in for everyone else in my life; but that’s probably really only half of the story. The truth is that By Crom! was conceived during a discussion I’d had with a friend, where they suggested, given my new (at that time) passion for Conan the Barbarian stories, that I substitute his bio for my own in a presentation I was working on. I told them that was absurd, I didn’t imagine myself to BE Conan – it was more that he was my life coach. Immediately that brought up a lot of fun jokes and a really clear visual image for me, and thus By Crom! was born!

What were the advantages of having an imaginary character as part of your autobiographical stories? Disadvantages?

I guess the clearest advantage is that none of my friends or family or coworkers or classmates or whomever, no real actual people, would have to run the risk of being part of my comic. Using a fictional character as the core part of my autobio comic also helped me distance it from individual, specific moments of my life, and let me construct situations and conversations without being as sworn to detailed, exacting honesty. I certainly was still very honest! But since most of the situations depicted are moments where, in real life I would be alone with my thoughts, I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder criticizing the time of day, or other details, as inaccurate. For me it was a really useful device that way, and it let me zoom in on what I thought was important and drop anything that wasn’t. Finally, my barbarian could be a lot funnier than I think real people usually are in casual conversation, without breaking the conceit of the comic. All in all, I’m glad I went this route!

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To me, single panel comics are deceptively simple. It’s only one panel to draw, but it has to convey so much. Why did you choose this format for By Crom! ?

The single panel format actually came about because the very first few comics were drawn partially as homework – I’d gone back to school to study concept art, and we had a daily assignment to draw a composition from memory – something we’d seen or a place we’d visited, black and white in our sketchbooks each day. So I was already experimenting at length with setting the scene, and mood, and pulling in all the weather and props and objects and people I remembered from the day. It wasn’t a huge leap to add in myself and my fictional advisor.

However I think the single panel ended up being really helpful for By Crom! as it did a few things to the comic: firstly, it made me keep it short and sweet and to the point; secondly, it prevented me from having to figure out if my barbarian was “real”, or if he had a life outside of giving me advice, which I’m delighted to keep unexplored; and finally it kept my joke structure really, really simple, which I think is the secret to learning to be funny. Writing jokes is hard work and iterating a few pieces of dialogue and one pose per character is a much smaller possibility space than multiple panels and pacing and timing and all that would have been.

The loose, expressive lines you use in the series’ art really contribute to the dynamic feeling in each panel. Could you talk about how you developed your drawing style?

Thank you very much! I think you can see the style developing throughout By Crom! – I really didn’t lock it down at the beginning. I used By Crom! as a testing ground for a lot of different inking techniques, different materials, and as we get to, both greyscale and color approaches. I never set out to draw in a Very Specific Style, but I definitely had some guiding principles I kept in mind no matter the media.

I wanted my figures to be realistic enough that they could be serious if they needed to. I wanted there to be lighting affecting each scene, so I could manipulate the scene’s mood with it. I needed to leave room for word bubbles, and I wanted to hand letter the text, to integrate it with my inking on the comic. And I wanted to keep things really easy to read – whether that meant losing the background altogether, or focusing on clear silhouette posing for the characters, or manipulating the color to pop the characters out from the environment. And finally I needed it to be fairly quick to produce – it had to fit in around school and freelance and other comics, so it couldn’t take me more than a few hours to produce a comic from start to finish or it wasn’t going to get done. So over time the figures got a little cartoonier, and I narrowed down my materials to specific pens for specific purposes, and I got a lot better at hand-lettering, and I guess that’s how I arrived at the style!

By Crom! starts out in black ink and then moves into full color watercolors. Did the change from black and white to color alter your perceptions of the characters or which scenes you explored in the comic?

Initially, the addition of color was a way to keep myself interested and passionate about the comic after having done 52 strips in black and white. I needed an additional challenge. But I do think the use of color let me explore a lot of subtler moods, and I certainly found myself thinking a lot more about time of day, location, and the feel of a scene before hammering out the joke. In the end, I definitely tackled some of the most subtle subjects in the color chapter, but it’s hard to say if that’s because I’d drawn so many other strips or if the color enabled that subtlety.

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What part of your drawing and publishing processes do you enjoy the most? What part of your process do you find most challenging?

I like comics and self-publishing because the whole list of tasks can be very challenging, but each step usually has Something to Show for it and that’s where I get my satisfaction hit! Drawing in itself is often able to surprise me with the challenges and with the successes – as much as I’ve fought with some poses, or faces, or color schemes, when I land a drawing it feels great and reenergizes me to move forward.

The publishing process, in contrast, is complicated but generally consistent. I’ve had the good luck to work in a few different roles in the printing industry so I’m familiar with the process and how best to tackle many of the steps involved, like getting a quote or looking over a proof. However, the size of the By Crom! Kickstarter introduced some new challenges, namely shipping. The Kickstarter is fully fulfilled now, all the backers have received their books, but I’m still thinking of ways to make shipping go smoother next time. If I outsource any part of my next big project, it will definitely be shipping.

What artists have been important influences for you and your work?

I mentioned Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, and that’s definitely a big one for By Crom! – alongside Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. Schultz taught me that a punchline can feel like a punch to the heart instead of the gut, and that you can deliver some really complicated feelings in a small space. But I’m also a fantasy illustrator, and I can’t talk about By Crom! without talking about Frank Frazetta’s amazing, over the top paintings and John Buscema’s glorious Savage Sword of Conan comics. Buscema’s glowering, bowl-cut-bangs Conan is definitely one of my constant references whenever I’m drawing my barbarian. I definitely was inspired by some of the funniest webcomic artists I follow, including Shaenon Garrity, Danielle Corsetto, and John Allison. Their cartooning is all very different but their work taught me so much about posing, joke delivery, facial expressions and where to put the camera to land a laugh.

What art forms do you find inspiring?

I read a lot of webcomics, these days. I’m starting to feel like that word isn’t specific enough anymore, because what I love about them is the huge breadth of formats within them, from the daily newspaper strip style comics to long form graphic novels being serialized online, to comics formatted to use Tumblr’s image sets, to infinite canvas pieces spread out across single huge webpages. So all those formats ping things in my mind, make me curious and excited about what comics can do! I’ve also had the good fortune to get to attend some amazing comic festivals this past year, and events like TCAF, VanCAF and SPX seem to highlight folks who are taking printed comics to exciting new places as well.

I love illustrated books and there are some amazing explorations of storytelling in that format going on right now, especially in the science art communities and the fantasy illustration worlds. The world of indie narrative-focused videogames and interactive fiction has been creating some amazing new stories and story formats as well, things that weren’t possible before now! And one of the best things I have in my life right now is a regular tabletop gaming habit – some of the tabletop RPGs coming out now lead players to entirely new storytelling experiences as well as new gaming worlds. And there’s nothing quite like a beautiful painting, whether or not it’s in a book or a game or a website or on the wall.

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What is some of the best advice you have received as an artist?

I think one of the best things I learned about making art I learned when I went back to art school the second time, to study to become a concept artist. The whole program I attended was built on the principle that the process is more important than the outcome. Now, as a comic artist and freelance illustrator, I am in fields where the outcome is seen by a lot of people, and especially with the internet, there can be an intense feedback loop of draw-something-and-share-it-and-get-likes that can distract me from the real reasons I’m drawing!

So, returning to that idea that the process of drawing – the conception of the idea followed by the technical creation of it on paper – is what is most important, really helps me enjoy all aspects of the work. And it makes me a better artist, because I don’t just skip to the final stage. The process can be a larger concept, too. Not just creating a single drawing, but the process of enjoying each update of a webcomic, or the process of putting together a book for print, or the process of spending years building an audience and growing that rapport. There is no End Goal to creating, and I find keeping that in my mind to be the best route forward.

What do you love to geek out about?

I am pretty nerdy! I geek out a lot about storytelling technique, tabletop gaming, heavy metal music, natural science and geology, human history – especially bronze age and earlier, fantasy fiction, sci-fi novels and movies, and animal intelligence. If anyone is interested in what powers my nerd wheels I highly recommend they check out my public research blog posts on my Patreon. I try and share my nerdery regularly there!

Thanks, Rachel!

For more of Rachel Kahn’s work visit patreon.com/portablecity and follow her on Twitter. Rachel will be appearing at Emerald City Comicon, March 2-5 in Seattle, WA and Breakout Con, March 10-12 in Toronto. Be sure to visit her there!

Rachel will also be launching Wolf Neighbours, a sword and sorcery/mystery webcomic, on WealdComics.com in February. Learn all about it on Rachel’s Patreon.

 // Images courtesy of Rachel Kahn. 

Kate Gorman is editor of Art & Literature on Paper Droids. She is also the author of the speculative fiction novel ON THE ICE, the screenplay and creative how-to collection INT-EXT, and the locative fiction audio walk series GREENWAY QUARTET.