At the Stumptown Comics Festival in Portland, Oregon, this April, Dark Horse set its sights on new talent for MySpace Dark Horse Presents, its monthly web comics anthology. With on-site portfolio reviews and submissions, the publisher overturned what is often the most difficult obstacle to breaking into comics, the challenge of getting one's work in front of editors. "Previously Possessed," by Portland local Sarah Oleksyk, is the first of two comics accepted at Stumptown, and is now appearing in the August issue of MDHP. CBR News caught up with Oleksyk to discuss the strip, her experience at Stumptown, and her indie publishing credentials.
Oleksyk had been aware of the MySpace Dark Horse Presents series of online comics, but did not know in advance that the publisher was looking for new talent at the Stumptown festival, where she had a table to exhibit comics and prints.Â "A friend clued me in and suggested I bring my minicomics over, and I did. And lucky me, I got picked!" Oleksyk told CBR News.
"Previously Possessed" is an offbeat take on the "haunted artifact" concept. Our hero Lesley discovers a fantastic dress at the vintage clothing store, only to find out later it's tainted by a ghost that just won't wash away. "I presented the first three chapters of my graphic novel, 'Ivy,' at Stumptown," Oleksyk said, "but I wanted to do a story specifically tailored for an eight-page format, so I came up with an original idea for MDHP. I tossed around several ideas before coming up with this ghost story parody, which I chose specifically because it seemed like the most fun to draw. I also wanted to tailor the art a bit differently in this work than in my graphic novel, both because it would be in color in the final version, and because I try to test new ways of working in all my short stories and side-projects."
Oleksyk's style does seem to take on different forms depending on the project. The black and white strips on her website have a very alt-weekly cartoonist feel, whereas the added texturing and grayscale used in "Ivy" creates a sharper look more appropriate to a longer series. "I do try to work differently according to the project," Oleksyk confirmed. "Right now I'm in the middle of a 200-plus-page book whose style I am trying to keep consistent from beginning to end, so I don't feel like I have a lot of freedom to play around with new styles and ways of mark-making. I save that sort of trial and error for new short pieces. If it works, great, I've learned something new; and if it doesn't, well, it's only a couple pages and I can try something else next time."
The cartoonist's experimentation with style may come down to her eclectic comics influences. "I've read comics all my life and have been dedicated to the pursuit of being a cartoonist since I was ten or eleven," Oleksyk said. "I moved from comic strips like 'Calvin and Hobbes' and 'Pogo' to full-length graphic novels like 'Maus' during junior high, and from there I started to immerse myself in the sort of books I read now, like Pete Bagge's 'Hate!' and Daniel Clowes' 'Eightball.' Jaime Hernandez, Phoebe Gloeckner and Charles Burns have all left an impression on me through their gorgeous linework and attention to character.
"Right now I'm studying up on a lot of the newer works coming out, from people like Eleanor Davis and Dash Shaw. I'm seeing people head out of the gate with an innate understanding of the comics medium and a real dedication to improvisation and innovation, and paired with the more mature works from people who have been doing indie comics for 20+ years, I think there's a huge range of work right now leaving impressions on me."
The indie influence Oleksyk cites, from creators immersed in the self-publishing movement, might also be seen to contribute to Oleksyk's own small press endeavors. "I self-published my first minicomic, 'Roadside,' in college, and that got me into the trade-by-mail and 'zine scene," the artist told CBR. "I used 'Roadside' to develop my storytelling skills and hone my style, and when that wrapped up I spent a couple of years preparing the script to 'Ivy' and contributing short stories to anthologies. I have a few other full-length books already written that just need fleshing out, so I can pull those out of storage later on and see which one needs to get completed next."
Despite all of this experience, one might think there would be a degree of pressure in submitting a comic live to the Dark Horse team, but Oleksyk said the exchange was pretty breezy.Â She summarized her presentation the editors as, "'Hey, how's it going? Having fun at the show? Here's my stuff. Later.'"
Oleksyk elaborated, "I already knew several editors at Dark Horse just from comics-related events in Portland, and I'm familiar with the company, so I went over to [editor] Scott Allie and introduced myself. It was highly probable I would have met him around town eventually anyway. I was very busy at the show, so I didn't actually stick around to hear a review, but Scott came back with a lot of praise for my work later on and that was great to hear."
Oleksyk said her work for MySpace Dark Horse Presents, "Previously Possessed," represents the first time she had worked with an editor. " I was so scared that my work would get ripped apart, autopsied if you will," she said. "But Scott made some great suggestions and helped me pull it together in a finished way. It was also nice to have someone prodding me to get the work done, since I usually work without deadlines, and as you can see my book is still in progress. It was a great experience all around."
As to that book still in progress, Oleksyk indicated that it is well on its way toward completion. "I am on my fourth chapter of five with 'Ivy,' and I'm just trying to make it to the end at this point because I have been working on it a number of years and I'm ready to move on to something else. I consider 'Ivy' to be more of a character study than anything else; I wanted to really explore and delineate a complex character by putting her through a variety of everyday adventures. Burying her and letting her dig herself out, you could say. It's a coming-of-age, road-trip runaway, first-love and first-heartbreak sort of book. For me it is a bit of a proving grounds to see if I can actually get this first novel out of the way. I've learned so much about what to do and what not to do with 'Ivy' and it's prepared me well for the next book."
A sample of "Ivy" is available to read at Sarah Oleksyk's website.