Interview: Willow Dawson
As curious readers seek out more nonfiction graphic titles, they are sure to notice that the best titles, with engaging art and intriguing true stories, are few and far between. Happily, Kids Can Press is focusing on creating great nonfiction graphic novels for younger readers, and Willow Dawson, alongside writer Susan Hughes, has had the fortune to launch their first title: No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure. Willow here discusses her start in comics, how she got involved in No Girls Allowed, and what it’s like being a woman in the traditionally male world of comics. You can find out more about Willow at her website and get all the details about the book at the Kids Can Press site.
Robin Brenner: How did you get started working in comics?
Willow Dawson: I had a boyfriend years ago who reintroduced me to the world of comics after having long since forgotten all about them. A common misconception is that all comics are for kids and I had fallen into the trap of believing this to be true. He showed me the work of Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean and I was hooked again. I started self-publishing zines in 1997, which eventually turned into comic zines and then full fledged comic books.
RB: If you read comics as a child, which comics caught your attention? What would your ideal comic (that may or may not have existed) have been as a child?
WD: I had some Archie’s Digests and Betty and Veronica’s but they were a little too goody-two-shoes for me. While I identified more with Betty, I just felt that neither she nor Veronica were very interesting. I also had one issue of Conan the Barbarian in which a helpless princess comes to Conan in an apparition, begging to be saved from the clutches of an evil crone. This was very disappointing to me, the old fairytale scenario rehashed for the umpteenth time without even an ounce of progressiveness. I also had one issue of the Astonishing X-Men in which Calisto fights Storm. Calisto was definitely my favourite. She was super bad and her appearance reminded me of Patti Smith, which I thought was very cool. All these comics had female characters, some in leading roles, but in retrospect, what I realize I really wanted to see more of were strong, independent, realistic female characters. Ones I could identify with and look up to as role models.
RB: How did you get involved in No Girls Allowed?
WD: Kids Can Press contacted me after having seen some of my work on Violet Miranda: Girl Pirate, a comic I did with writer Emily Pohl-Weary. Violet is historical fiction set in the early 1700’s. We based the stories of our two main characters Violet Miranda and Elsa Bonnet on two of history’s most famous female pirates: Anne Bonney and Mary Reade. Kids Can Press liked my illustration style and could see I could handle the research/reference aspect required to illustrate No Girls Allowed.
RB: How closely did you work with Susan Hughes? Was this title more of a collaboration, in terms of which women were featured and how the book came together, or was the script set before you started working on it? Was there anything that changed over the course of your creating the art for the title?
WD: The choice of women and the writing of the script were already decided and completed before I came on board. That said, this was one of the publisher’s and Susan’s first graphic novels and so they actually gave me a lot of freedom to suggest changes. I did get to meet and discuss the book with Susan at the very beginning, which is extremely unusual in book publishing. And Susan was consulted at each stage of the art; she was editing the script right up until pretty much the very end. It was very collaborative, even though most of our communication was done through our fantastic editor, Karen Li.
A lot of the revisions I requested and additions I made had to do with the research my editor and I were doing. For instance, I discovered that the last name Wakeman (Sarah Rosetta Wakeman), dating back to ancient England, meant the person in the group who’s job it was to alert the other people to oncoming danger. In Sarah Rosetta’s opening shot, Susan had her shooting at crows in a cornfield. Crows in ancient England were considered messengers from the otherworld bringing news of mass death and destruction. Sarah Rosetta then goes off to fight as a male soldier in the American Civil War. At the end of her chapter is an image of her gravestone, upon which I put a crow who then flies away. The crow brings a circular touch to the end of the book (bringing you back to earlier imagery), but it also has a deeper symbolic meaning to her people which seemed to be in keeping with her story specifically, and the story of war in general. I tried to put extra details into each of the other stories, things that would bring deeper meaning to those who understand the specific culture in question.
RB: Your style is very distinctive, and you do a fine job of indicating each period without getting bogged down in every detail. Did you use historical references for each woman? Did you enjoy shifting from time to time, woman to woman?
WD: Thanks for the compliment! It was definitely a challenge inserting enough historical references while not overcrowding the art. My editor Karen was a great help with the research. She was able to track down a lot of very specific details through special sources I would otherwise never have found. For example, the tiny two person carriage James Barry is pictured in when leaving the governor’s house was, in fact, specific to Cape Town in South Africa at the time James would have been living there.
The shifting from time to time and woman to woman was amazing. I am now a certified history geek, having completed this book. It was so much fun researching all the different era’s and cultures, I only hope I did a good job depicting them all convincingly.
RB: It’s very refreshing to see nonfiction comics aimed at younger readers that are well done, with style and wit. Do you think you’d like to do more such comics, and if so, what kind of topics would interest you?
WD: I would love to do more comics like these! I have a few ideas of people I’d like to cover, but I can’t tell you just now… It’ll have to be a secret.
RB: From your previous work, like Violet Miranda: Girl Pirate, you seem to enjoy telling stories both for girls and about strong girls. What do you think about the state of comics for children? For girls?
WD: I think the state of comics for girls and kids in general is very promising right now, especially with reputable book companies like Kids Can Press, Scholastic and Hyperion bringing out new lines of guaranteed kid, tween and teen friendly graphic novels. For so long the comic book industry pretty much ignored their younger audience and alienated a lot of women. The influx of female friendly comics has been picking up speed since the late 70’s, it’s nice to finally see kids comics catching up.
RB: Which comics do you read now? Are there any recent comics aimed at kids or girls that you recommend?
WD: I like a lot of Top Shelf and Drawn and Quarterly’s books. My favourite comics for kids are Bone by Jeff Smith, Jellaby by Kean Soo, and the Scary Godmother books by Jill Thompson. I also like Hope Larson’s books and have really enjoyed several of DC Comics’ graphic novels from their new Minx line, in particular, The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, and Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston.
RB: The comics industry does not have a great track record when it comes to employing female comics artists or aiming comics at female readers, especially in the mainstream world of comics. What have been your experiences working in the industry? Is being a woman an obstacle in any way? Is there hope for girls and women who are trying to break into the industry?
WD: I think in any industry where men are the majority, women are often not taken as seriously as they should be. I have been fairly lucky to date with how people treat me. In general, I have found the comics community of Toronto to be nothing but supportive. Same goes for other cities I have visited. This may be because my friends (even those working for DC and Marvel) and I are involved in the world of indie comics, which is generally considered to be more community based, or it may be because I have spent time earning my stripes, so to speak…
Either way, I definitely think the times are changing in a positive way! It is much easier now for women and girls to break in. The best way is to self-publish and distribute your own work to start, even if you’re photocopying little comic zines and stapling them together by hand. But I think the most important thing is to always take yourself seriously. Self-confidence is attractive and people will want to work with you.
RB: Do you have any advice for aspiring comics artists?
WD: Keep drawing, writing, and exposing yourself to new ideas and new kinds of storytelling… And watch good movies. Watch how they set up shots, establish scenes and use perspective and point-of-view. These are some of the things movies and comics have in common and they are important devices for making comics communicate effectively.
About Robin Brenner
Robin Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.
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