Conversing on Comics: Svetlana Chmakova

Svetlana Chmakova has sent demons to school, been on the run with witches and wizards, and braved the world of comics as a fan-turned-professional. If you asked her, she might argue the last one was the toughest of all.

The Russian-Canadian cartoonist made a name for herself as part of a wave of artists working on TOKYOPOP's OEL Manga line. 2005's Dramacon and the two follow-up volumes showed Chmakova delving into the world of comics and manga with a story inspired by attending comic conventions and interacting with cosplayers. Chmakova went on to be one of the star players hired for Hachette's graphic novel imprint Yen Press, first creating her own series Nightschool and then adapting hit novelist James Patterson's Witch & Wizard series. Chmakova's work has been prodigious, with 10 graphic novels released in just over nine years, and now here in 2014 she's beginning a new chapter with a new creator-owned series with Yen, webcomics and a line of video podcasts on drawing. ROBOT 6 caught up with Chmakova to find out about what's on her plate, as well as what's on her mind and in her future.

Chris Arrant: Svetlana, I have a lot of things to ask you about but let’s ease into it; what are you working on today?

Svetlana Chmakova: Mostly I am working on my new original graphic project which has not been announced yet.  But for side projects I also do a video drawing podcast on my YouTube channel and contribute short stories to the BentoComics collective here. Most recently I started a fun little project with my boyfriend, it’s kind of a life story of this mythical figure of a blues musician named Old John Smokey.  It’s still only reeeeally rough storyboards, but if anyone’s interested, part of it is here,

Your last major work on shelves was Witch & Wizard Vol. 3. Can you say what you’re working on now?

Not yet, but the announcement should be coming soon! :)  I’m really excited about this book, it’s for a slightly younger audience than I usually write for, and I get to play with all my favourite things. Fans of my series Dramacon and my Flight anthology story, “On The Importance of Space Travel,” especially may want to stay tuned for news on this.

Can you say what publisher it'll be with, and if you'll be writing and drawing?

Yes, it's for my publisher, Yen Press, and I am both writer and artist for this one.

You came up in comics writing your own material, but for the past four years you’ve been adapting Witch & Wizard; what’s that like telling someone else’s story and making it your own?

Well, I really can’t say I made it my own; to me, that’s not the point of doing an adaptation.  When I work with a writer, or am adapting something I did not create I do my best to respect the integrity of source material and translate it into the comics medium as faithfully as I can.  The hard part about adapting the prose novels was of course the volume of storytelling that they contained. I had to cut and change things, and sometimes invent bits for clearer transition, but I did so with care. I can say that I don’t take as much care with my own writing, haha!  It’s easier to sort out any creative differences when it’s just me, myself and my esteemed editor.

And doing that, how did it leave your own ideas and plans for writing your own material? Did you find new outlets for doing it, or find a balance for yourself?

I did do some small side projects, but mostly I focused on adapting the book and giving it my best.  It was a great opportunity for me to grow as a draftsperson—I did not have to worry about creating the story, so I could focus more on the art and on leveling up in that particular battle arena.  I think those three books have some of my best art so far, especially the third volume, I really learned a lot during this process.

After doing some tutorials on YouTube, in December you launched you’re an official video tutorial class people can take to learn to draw manga. You’ve done quite a few speaking engagements outside of comic conventions at schools and libraries, and now this; how do you feel about being an ambassador and teacher about comics?

My class is actually more about effective character design than it is about manga!  I’ve observed that having good expressive character design is really important to successfully reaching an audience, so I wanted to share what I’ve learned.  I don’t really consider myself an ambassador, though, just someone who really really loves sequential storytelling as a form of creative expression.  If there is any small way in which my classes help anyone learning the medium, that makes me very happy.

What prompted you to get into doing video drawing podcasts?

My podcast actually started out as an attempt to livestream my drawing process, because I get asked about that. But the first time that I tried to draw live I got terrible stage fright and ended up being unable to recall a single word in the English language, oops. The very first episode of Svet's Paper Theatre only has some paper rustling noises--I just silently drew for a few minutes while internally sweating and trying to will my voice cords to function. Then I gave up trying and just sneakily muted my mic. I did manage to talk more than none in the second episode, but realized that I'm not good at that kind of multi-tasking, so the following episodes ended up being a pre-recorded endeavor.

You have a degree in animation, but could you see yourself teaching comics professionally at a school or college at some point in your life?

I could, but once I’m done learning, myself, I guess?  (If that ever happens, this certainly has all the appearance of a life-long process.)  I teach now because I am asked to, and because of a somewhat selfish reason -- I love seeing artists grow and develop into their own and I love the energy that I always get with students in the classroom.  It’s very inspiring.

In the fourth volume of Nightschool: The Weirn Books, you unveiled some big things that had been built up: the details of Alex and Ronee’s curses most notably, but also how much of a bad-ass Principal Chen is at fighting. What’s that like for you seeding these things that you and the reader won’t fully see for years later?

Excruciating.  Even with the character secrets already revealed in the four books, there are way more seeds that have been planted.  I barely scratched the surface of the world and the characters with the first story arc.

The fourth volume felt like a bit of a finale, but you said you wanted to do more after Witch & Wizard. Is that still the case, for more Nightschool in the future?

As far as I know there is a plan to have more books, but just no idea as to when. Fingers crossed that it’ll be soon, I’m so anxious to get back to it!!

For almost your entire career you’ve worked on long-form work – 10 graphic novels by my count, back-to-back, in 8 years. You started out doing serialized webcomics, but how does it feel to squirrel yourself away for a year and a book come out versus the more frequent nature of serialized comics, either online or in print as comic books?

Well, I’m squirreled away in my studio either way, so that part’s not different.  But it sure takes way longer to wait for readers’ feedback with long-form works!  Webcomics are much more immediate in terms of that connection with the reader, it’s really satisfying.  I miss doing webcomics a lot and plan to go back to the ones I have on hiatus.  I’m veeeerrrry slowly slogging through 100+ pages of Night Silver—reformatting them for print and web re-serialization.

What do you do when you finish drawing a book? Movies have wrap parties, but you’re just one person - -what do you do for yourself?

Getting a book to the finish line usually means a LOT of late-nighters, so the first thing I do is sleep and nurse my aching drawing hand.  And then I have a little celebration with my family.  And then I venture back out into the world to shock my friends with the news that I didn’t, in fact, expire at my desk.

You’re pretty much a decade in to the comics business – what big goals do you still have for yourself?

My big goal is to keep making comics and telling my stories, whichever way I can.  Another decade in the comics business would also be great, but it’s an ever-shifting and hazardous landscape, so I’m making no bets. Luckily, all I ever needed to make comics was a pencil, some paper, and a story that wanted to come out--so I think I’m all set, come what may. Yay, comics! <3

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