Oleksyk Watches "Ivy" Grow

During Comic-Con International last summer, it was announced that Oni Press would be publishing Sarah Oleksyk's acclaimed comic, "Ivy." Those reading the story while Oleksyk was serializing it as minicomics, were thrilled to see the book had been snapped up and would be given the release and attention its fans feel it so obviously deserves. And it's not just the comic's fanbase that feels this way -- it was on the basis of "Ivy" that Oleksyk was nominated last year for the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award, which is given to a "comics artist who, early in his or her career, shows a superior knowledge and ability in the art of creating comics."

As someone who'd read the early chapters of the book, the beautiful linework, Okeksyk's ear for dialogue and especially the lyrical wordless scenes that really help to give the book a unique rhythm and sense of place were every bit as strong as I remembered. What is most striking when reading "Ivy" in one sitting is just how well the book holds together as the story bobs and weaves towards an ending, that while just as messy and unresolved as the book's teenage protagonist, also manages to find just the note and emotion to end with. It's the first of what will doubt be many comics from the relative newcomer to the world of comics, though as Oleksyk jokes, she doubts that any project will take her as long as "Ivy" did.

The book hits stores this Wednesday, February 2, and on February 3, Floating World Comics in Portland will be holding a book release party starting at 6 pm.

You've been releasing chapters of the book as minicomics for a few years now, but just how long have you been working on "Ivy?"

It ended up being about six years altogether. I took a really laborious process with it. At the time I was working on it I had a day job and was working on a bunch of other projects, too, but I finally got it done about a year ago.

So it was mostly a question of finding the time.

Well I always wanted to do comics full-time, but I hadn't yet gotten to the point where I was getting paid. [Laughs] I did have a part-time day job, but I got laid off last spring. Since then I've been full time freelancing in comics and illustration.

Is that working out okay? I know in this economy, "okay" is a relative term.

Yeah, it's difficult. A lot of touch and go and trial and error, but there's always work if you're looking. You just have to look a lot. [Laughs]

How quickly do you work?

I work pretty quickly, actually. When I started this book, I saw it as my grad school experience in comics. I have learned so much about the process and how to streamline it and edit out the unnecessary steps. When I started working on it, I had a much more convoluted way of making comics and now I'm a lot more efficient at it. I can work very quickly if I have to, but sometimes I'll walk away from a project for a little while and just get more perspective on it.

So, "Ivy" took six years to finish -- do you think that the time it took changed how the overall book turned out?

Oh, definitely. I had the whole script written before I started working on it and I really stuck to it in the first chapter. But from there, I just used [the script] as a guide of where I wanted it to go. I wasn't quite sure how to wrap up the very ending of it, but as I went I was making changes to the layouts, changes to the dialogue, just realizing that there's a ton that I could take out to make it a lot stronger. I just kept doing that and then when I got to the final chapter, I wasn't a hundred percent sure how to wrap it up until I got to that moment, and then it just revealed itself to me. I wanted to end with a really strong finish and I just let the end dictate itself to me.

That's interesting, because throughout the book there are many beautiful, wordless moments.

Thank you. Those are some of my favorite parts. There's a part, I think in the third chapter, when Ivy gets suspended for a couple of days and the notes in my script show her walking around doing things by herself. I wasn't sure what to do, so I just gave myself those two pages to draw panels of her out in the world and at home. Those are my favorite on the fly decisions. Later on in the book, I really wanted to put a lot of time into showing her by herself walking around in the world, especially the natural world. Even though those were the more difficult pages to draw, I think that they're some of the most successful. A friend, when he was reading it, he said that nature was almost a character in the book and that made me really happy. I feel like the more time you spend drawing not just nature, but a city scene or any environment, it just enriches the reading experience so much.

You grew up in Maine, where book is set. Did you grow up in a similar environment to the town in "Ivy?"

Pretty much. I grew up in Portland, Maine, which is more of a town. It's got more things to do, but I spent a lot of time walking in the forest as a kid, and that's something I made Ivy do a lot of. The first two chapters of the book are pretty much taken from my own high school experience, but my own experience wasn't very interesting, so I fictionalized the rest of it for the sake of good narrative. [Laughs]

It's interesting to hear you say that, because I'm curious what you didn't want to do with the book. I think there's a whole sub-genre of teen books involving quiet, artistic protagonists who feel no one understands them.

Yeah, there are a lot of books that have the misunderstood teen as the protagonist. I didn't want to make my character a victim. I didn't want to make her the kid that everybody picks on and she goes home and cries. In fact, I wanted to make her clearly responsible for her own predicaments in life. I focused on her negative qualities and the fact that she's a little bit of a bully and that she's the only one responsible for her own problems, both with her family and at school with her friends. I wanted to make her, not quite unlikeable, but the type of character where you know that she's making mistakes and you know that she's messing up, but you root for her anyway. You want her to learn. I didn't want to make her a one-dimensional, sad sack, woe-is-me, no-one-gets-me kind of character. I really focused on her more abrasive qualities.

There is a point in the narrative, about halfway through or so, where it becomes very clear that she's not passively being shaped. She's in a place she's brought herself to.

Exactly. I really wanted to show that she burns bridges and they're not fixed by the end of the book. I think a lot of the thrust of the story is just to drive home the lesson that I learned, that you really are just responsible for your own way in life. You're ultimately going to have to live with the decisions that you make. That's a tough lesson to learn. Fortunately, most people end up learning it before too many horrible mistakes have been made, but I just wanted to show my character digging herself in and trying to figure out a way to dig herself out. If there is a lesson to be learned from the book, I think that must be it: nobody's going to come by and rescue you. She has that white knight fantasy that a lot of teenagers have, that she's going to meet someone and run away and have this big fantastic life full of adventures together. But nobody's going to do that for her. She has to figure that out on her own.

What's your background, artistically speaking? Did you go to art school? And how did you get into comics?

I went to Parsons in New York City, but I couldn't study comics. They didn't offer it. I was in the illustration program, and I don't know what they're like now -- this was back in the late nineties -- but they were really negative towards comics. I got a lot of negative feedback from people there. I had one teacher who was like, I can tell this is what you want to do and I hope you go do it because this is where your heart is. I wish I'd gone to a school that allowed me to focus on comics and didn't denigrate them, because it's really all I've ever wanted to do since I was ten years old. Comics are so unique and fascinating and it's almost completely untapped. Every year or so you get a brilliant work that really pushes the boundaries of what's been done before, but there's just so much more room for this medium to grow and explore itself and I'm really excited to be working in it. I do wish I'd taken my four years of undergrad in school and focused on comics instead. I did it on my own time. I used to procrastinate with the work I had for class and I started a minicomic.

After college, I know you moved to Portland, Oregon...

After I finished school and moved back to Maine, I just realized that after being in Manhattan, it was a really small town. There was one other cartoonist in town and I really didn't feel like I was going to be able to successfully be a cartoonist there. I just didn't have the peers, I didn't have the social support. I didn't want to live where I grew up. Three different people in a month all suggested that I check out Portland, Oregon. They'd either been there or heard about it. So I bought a ticket and flew out and I knew the first day I landed here that I wanted to live here. So I saved up my money and hauled all my stuff out here. I didn't know anybody in town. But it's been about ten years now and I feel like I made the right choice. I love this town. And now, of course, it's the comics mecca.

How did you end up at Oni with "Ivy?"

James [Lucas Jones] at Oni came up to me for several years at conventions and said, "I'd love to publish this." They just seemed like a really great place. They were putting out work that I really respected. I thought my book would be a good fit with them. It's been great working with them. Their designers helped me put this beautiful book together. I'm really excited to see it. And it's great that they're in town, because I can just ride over and show up at their offices and if we need to go over design or anything, I can chat with them in person.

In addition to moving to and working in Portland, you've also become a member of a local studio, correct?

Yes. Tranquility Base. I love it. There's seven of us. We've all got our own separate work spaces in a big room. We all have different schedules, but we all see each other a couple times a week, if not more. It's just great to have people around when you're working. It's not just shop talk either. It's just so inspiring to look at what everyone else is doing. If we have any questions, we can run it by each other. If we need an eye on our work, there's people here. If I need someone to pose for me for a minute, I can be like, "Get up, help me out." And it's great to not work from home. I get so much more done if I have to get up and commute to my job. It's a wonderful spot. It's right downtown, great view -- all around, it's great.

You were one the cartoonists invited to participate in an event at the Portland Opera. How did happen and what kind of work did you end up creating?

I'm not sure how they got my name, but I got an invite from the lady that put it together. They invite fifteen or twenty of us to watch a dress rehearsal of the show and we draw the whole time. It's just fantastic. Before I was invited -- I've been twice, now -- I'd never seen an opera before. It's just so fantastic and creative. I did a bunch of drawings of the characters and the stage. They're in motion the entire time, so it's this fast life drawing. Some of the other cartoonists put together comics or finished illustrations, but I liked the looseness of working on the fly, watching people on stage moving around. I thought it was a fantastic idea. I loved the idea of bringing together two kind of unrelated art forms and just finding this common ground. I was very honored to be invited to do that.

I really enjoyed the looseness of the drawings that you posted from the event. they're very different from your style when drawing comics.

I've always enjoyed doing life drawing. It's nice to loosen up because I do have a tendency to sort of tighten down when I'm doing finished work for comics, and I think that sometimes that can just suck the life out it. [Laughs] If you get too tight, it just looks stiff. Doing those loose life drawings prepares me to put a little more looseness into the finished comic work, which I've alway felt like I needed to keep in the back of my mind so I don't make them too stiff-looking. I do like the contrast. I think anytime you switch gears in art, it helps you all around because you're strengthening different aspects of your skills.

What's coming up next from you? Writer Fred van Lente said that the two of you were doing a book together.

It's called "Renaissance." At least that's the working title. It's historical fiction.

I know it's still early in the process. I don't know how much you feel comfortable saying about it.

I can tell you the title. And that it's historical fiction. [Laughs] And that I'm incredibly excited about it. It's a whole new direction for me. Fred's an incredible writer. I'm very, very excited.

Are you still working out when it will come out and where?

It's still being worked out. We'd like to serialize online, but I've got to get more of it before we're ready for that stage. So we'll wait and see. Right now I'm just trying to settle into the routine of working on it and see how long it's going to take. It's going to be a full color comic, and I've never done that before, so we'll have to see. [Laughs] But I would love to get it up online before the end of the year.

Are you planning to color the book as well?

Oh, yeah. I'm going to be doing all that.

I know you don't want to get into specifics, but how has what you learned in making "Ivy" affected how you're working on "Renaissance?"

The thing that I regret the most about "Ivy" is that it took me a year and a half to do all the thumbnails, where it should have taken about a month. I was spending way too much time with all the details and thinking about what every panel should look like, and it wasn't even the pencil stage. It was just my layouts. I wasted a ton of time that way.

I have to do a lot of visual reference and research about the time period for this new project, so that in itself is a stage that I didn't need with "Ivy." Now it's like, what's an old oil lamp from sixteenth century Florence look like? So you have to look up all these little details, which I find fascinating. I love going to the library and hunting these things down, but it is an extra stage in the process. Hopefully one that will make a more interesting finished work.

Is that a major challenge, to maintain some looseness even while doing all the research that's needed?

Yes. The script that Fred gave me was laid out panel by panel, so I didn't really have that stage. When I'm working from my own script, I'm the one that decides the pacing and the action and that kind of thing, but that was already written for me in this project. Fred's such a good writer I could instantly understand what he was doing and where the focus was meant to be. Working with him is fantastic and he's there to answer my questions. He had done a ton of research as far as gathering reference and adding it to the script. He really sent me on my way very well prepared.

How did the two of you connect?

We actually met in college. His wife, who back then was his girlfriend, was my college roommate. [Laughs] So we met back in the nineties and then about ten years went by. A couple years ago I was at Mocca in New York, and they were at Mocca, so we reconnected. Then I was trying to get a project with First Second this fall and had done about two months worth of character design and sample pages and then it fell through. On Twitter, I was moaning about how I needed work because this fell through. Fred had this project which didn't have an artist yet and he realized we would be a good match. He got in touch with me and we just took it from there.

So it really is a small world after all.

The comics world is the smallest world of them all. [Laughs]

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