Happy New Year, and apologies for the lack of updates, it's been pretty insane in Real Life lately. But enough excuses, let's forge boldly into 2008 with a timely look at the work of one of my current comic heroes, Mr Aaron Alexovich. Those of you who move in certain circles of animation fandom may be familiar with his design work on Nickelodeon's Invader ZIM and Avatar: The Last Airbender. However, Aaron's self-stated first love is comics, for which we should all be grateful - because from his "spookycute" series Serenity Rose for Slave Labor Graphics to his latest work on DC's MINX line for teens, a writer/artist with such a knack for intelligent, elegant and - yes - funny comics is a rare and precious thing. If you've never seen any of his comics (shame on you), you can find a handy link to his website at the end of this article and indeed, on panelbeat's link list. In the meantime, here's a cheeky little taster of what to expect (all images copyright the people they should be copyrighted to, blah blah):
Serenity Rose, Aaron's five-part series about the complex life of a reclusive twenty-something witch, gorgeously rendered in pencil and black marker.
"Confessions of a Blabbermouth", Mr A's first entry into DC's MINX line for girls. Writen by Mike and Louise Carey.
Kimmie66 is Aaron's latest MINX title, released in the UK in December 2007. Set in a 23rd century world of hyper-sophisticated Virtual Reality, it's been garnering glowing reviews from many quarters.
Wanting to find out more about what makes Mr A tick as a comicker, and not being a fellow who's well-represented on the interview circuit, I eagerly took him up on his recent offer to answer any five questions eager cyberspace-dwellers would care to lob at him...
L: Let’s start with a little about your creative process… do you tend to start with an idea for a story, or an idea for a character?
A: I'd have to say story and character usually develop at exactly the same time for me these days. They're kind of the same thing in a lot of ways, I think... The best stories always start out as "what if this peculiar kind of character got into this peculiar kind of situation," you know? And it's kind of hard to say which kind of peculiarity came first. They sort of build on each other, interesting characters suggesting story ideas, and interesting story ideas bringing up more character possibilities. That's how it works when I'm brainstorming, anyway.
Serenity Rose definitely started as a character in search of a plot, though. In fact, that was the title of the first animated short I did with her back in school: "Character In Search of a Plot." That's kind of a unique situation, though, because Sera is so autobiographical. Back then I knew I wanted a character I could use to talk about things like social phobia, lack of direction, etc., but I didn't really know exactly how to talk about those things. Hopefully I've figured it out a bit since then.
L: Your characters have a strong sense of looking highly stylized yet also completely believable as people you might know. What's the main influence on your character design?
AA: Thanks! I think the biggest influence on my character design sensibility is probably Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away). The amount of expression they get from so few lines is just... awe-inspiring. They say that's a big part of relatability, too... The simpler the character, the fewer the lines you use, the more the reader can project him or herself (or other people they know) onto that character. I'm not sure if that's true, but it's a really cool idea.
L: DC's MINX line was partly created to attract teenage girls who read manga but not necessarily “traditional” comics. Do you think there are certain elements a comic needs to lure in female readers?
AA: I'm not sure, honestly. It's probably death from a creative standpoint to even think about it, though. "is this interesting?" is really the only question you ought to be worrying about while you're trying to hack out a story, you know? I think so, anyway. Maybe "Are these characters believable?" too. But trying to tailor your story to a specific audience (especially an audience that does not include, y'know, YOU) just feels like pandering. People can usually tell when you aren't really into what you're doing.
L: It’s a fairly well-known fact that earning a living from indie comics can be extremely tough. What’s your view on non-profit esoteric personal projects versus work-for-hire?
AA: I think if you're living exclusively on work-for-hire projects, you absolutely have to find time for personal projects, esoteric or not. I seriously think the worst thing you can do to yourself as an artist is to give all your time and all your creativity to someone else. Self-expression isn't an indulgence... it's the whole point.
If we could all get our bills paid doing nothing but our own personal work, it would be a beautiful world. That seems sort of stupidly obvious, but it's easy to lose sight of that goal when you're toiling away on other people's projects.
L: And finally… there are several ideas/themes that recur in your stories, ranging from the supernatural to philosophy and social commentary. What do you think is the core “Aaron A theme”?
AA: Well, I mentioned introversion and lack of direction earlier, but... I'm not sure I'm the best person to pick up on all the themes in my own work, really. Themes kind of bubble out of the stories you're working on whether you're aware of them or not, and a lot of the time, you're so close to it you can't see what's bubbling. Any fan could probably point out my "core theme" better than I ever could. That's part of the fun.
Of course, to make Damn Good Comics you've got to bring more than pretty pictures to the table. Aaron Alexovich has this ill-defined "more" in spades, but one thing in particular sticks out for me. Speaking as a laydee comics reader, I'm always receptive to, and appreciative of, any creator who can "do" good female characters. And by "good", I mean ones that can't be summarised in a sentence that contains the words "boobs", "sassy" or "headstrong". Girls that respect other girls, instead of envying their shoe collection or cat-fighting with them over some guy. Probably called Ethan. Girls, in other words, like the heroines of Japan's acclaimed Studio Ghibli films - absolutely no surprise that Aaron cites these as an influence. Commentators who grumbled prior to the launch of MINX that female creators were poorly represented in the line-up of artists and writers could do worse than to sit down with a bunch of Ghibli DVD's then spend a while musing on the utter irrelevance of Miyazaki's Y chromosome...
But you certainly don't have to be a girl (or a Goth, or a Manga reader, which are the sections you're likely to find Aaron's books in your average comic shop) to appreciate his dark, beautiful and cynical stories, just a reader with a brain and an appetite for a good story. That's a big 'ol percentage of the comics community right there. Are you prepared to stand up and be counted among them? Well, good! Here's some linkies to get you started:
Heartshapedskull, Aaron's website. Lotsa art, including actual pages for sale.
Amazon.co.uk will sort you Brits out for all the titles mentioned above.
DC's Kimmie66 page.