Eisner-nominated creator Danica Novgorodoff has led a very varied existence, having worked as a horse trainer in Virginia, an English teacher in Ecuador, an assistant to controversial photographer Sally Mann, and a graphic designer, and that breadth of experience is on full display in her new graphic novel, "Slow Storm." The book, published this month by First Second, follows a rural Kentucky firefighter as she tries to help an illegal immigrant, survive a massive storm, and get over her own frustrations.
Having grown up in Kentucky before eventually becoming a designer for First Second and then a comics creator, Novgorodoff called upon her background in Kentucky and time spent in South America to craft the story. She talked to CBR News about “Slow Storm” and the way it was shaped by her life.
CBR: Did your time as a teacher in South America influence this story in the plot about Rafi and the illegal immigration angle? How did you research that side of the story?
Danica Novgorodoff : Living in South America for a while gave me a sense of being alien and lonely and struggling with language, and an idea of why some people want to come to America while at the same time loving and missing their home. I have some friends in Kentucky, Mexican guys who work on a horse farm, so Rafi was inspired by them. I also read some articles and books and watched some documentaries about the journey across the border into America.
Growing up in Kentucky, what were the things you liked and disliked about that setting?
Kentucky is beautiful; I love the landscape and the horses -— I’ve been riding since I was seven. I spent every day after school at the barn, and many weekends competing. It’s a great place to spend time alone, to write and make art, but I also longed for the wild pace of New York City; the constant art shows and concerts and plays, the crazy people and an audience for my art. Most of my friends from college and even many from high school are living in New York. I keep happening into great opportunities in the city, just by putting myself in the right place at the right time.
You've worked a lot of very different careers, and "Slow Storm" incorporates a lot of them, but firefighting is something you haven't done, right? How did you decide on casting Ursa in that role?
I have a good friend in Kentucky who’s a volunteer firefighter. He got me to come to a few training sessions, and I briefly considered training to be an EMT. He thought I’d be good at it but that I would probably become too psychologically involved, seeing people die violently in car wrecks and storms and floods and whatnot, and I decided instead to write a book.
Weather is obviously an important element in this story. Is that something you find interesting?
I’m interested in uncontrollable events that bring unlikely characters together, and a tornado certainly does that. I’m also interested in the active, changing landscape. And the skies are just so fun to paint.
With your background being so much on the art and design side, did any challenges come up in scripting the book?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid. My biggest challenge is that I’m a visual writer, but in comics the art supplies the imagery, and the script is mostly dialogue and action. So I can’t write using my strength, which is descriptive text.
The mix of watercolor and ink in the book is very striking. Is that your preferred artistic approach? What, in your mind, makes that combination so effective?
It’s the first time I’d used watercolor, so it was sort of an experiment. I ended up going back and re-doing a lot of the first pages I tried. I like the looseness the watercolor adds to the art. I think most artists start loose and then tighten up an image as they draw; but my pencils are fairly rigid, then the ink is a bit looser, and the watercolor is just messy. It works great for outdoor scenes and figures; interiors are a bit harder because of all the straight lines and hard angles.
Clearly, you put a lot of care into the page design of the book. How do you go about the layout process?
I used InDesign to lay out the book. It was fun to design my own book; usually I’m designing other people’s books at work.
You were already working at First Second when you started on this book. How did you approach them with the project, and how did it come to fruition?
I first met Mark Siegel, the editorial director and then my boss, as an artist rather than as a designer. The playwright Adam Rapp was working on a graphic novel script for First Second and was interested in my artwork for it, so I met Mark to show him some samples. Mark ended up not taking me for the project, as I was still pretty inexperienced in comics, but six months later I moved to New York and asked him for a job. When he hired me, he told me I was still welcome to propose my projects, and soon enough I had the beginnings of "Slow Storm" to show him.
Is there anything else you're working on now?
I’m working on a graphic novel called "Refresh, Refresh," which is adapted from a screenplay by James Ponsoldt, which is based on a short story by Benjamin Percy. It’s about three boys living in a small town in Oregon whose fathers are Marines serving in Iraq. They’re trying to graduate high school, meet girls, sneak in to bars, and so on, while also dealing with becoming the men in their households, growing up too fast, missing their fathers but also resenting their absence.