Willow Dawson keeps herself busy.
While illustrating books like No Girls Allowed and Violet Miranda: Girl Pirate, the Toronto, Canada based artist is deep into her semi autobiographical graphic novel, 100 Mile House, excerpts of which can be found at Top Shelf 2.0 (www.topshelfcomix.com). She’s also got her many illustrations in paint and ink to keep her occupied throughout the day.
In-between a hectic schedule of convention appearances, panel discussions and book-store signings, I was able to catch up with Willow over the phone while she was at her studio and ask her, in this first part of our interview, all about her work, her audience and female interest in comic books.
JP: What first got you creating art?
Dawson: Well, my father is an artist. I grew up with art throughout my whole life and he introduced me to all kinds of interesting people. His passion is the turn of the century sort of modern art – Picasso and such – which isn’t exactly my taste. What sort of came out of that was my interest in people like Aubrey Beardsley – those sorts of early modernist poster artists and illustrators so, for the two of us, it’s the turn of the century but we both go in different directions from there.
JP: What does he work in?
Dawson: He does all kinds of stuff actually. He’s multidisciplinary which was where I sort of started as well. He does drawing and painting, sculptures in all different kinds of media including stone and clay and wood – and he’s building an airplane right now actually. A real one!
JP: You’re extremely busy. From book illustration, to teaching to con-attending to simply creating art in your studio – you’re constantly working. What does a typical workday look like for you?
Dawson: (Laughing) Very busy! We’re here (in studio) about 6-7 days a week right now and pretty long hours for the most part. So, there isn’t really a typical day. That’s the thing when you’re self employed and you’re freelance, you’re sort of bouncing from one thing to another to another in terms of projects and it kind of depends on what’s being asked. I write as well so whether I’m working on a manuscript or illustrating or if I’m literally just doing networking stuff.
JP: What kind of writing?
Dawson: Well, I’m working on a graphic novel right now – it’s kind of hush-hush in a way. It’s another graphic novel for Kids Can Press but I can’t say more than that.
JP: Is there an ETA at all?
Dawson: I guess – Fall 2011.
JP: Ok. That was actually one of the last questions I was going to ask you – about your upcoming works – to see what you’ve got on the way. That far out too, eh? It’s amazing to even think that what you’re doing now is two years away.
Dawson: Yeah. Well, typically with book publishing they need about a year with the final artwork and final book ready to go in order for it to go through the sales and marketing department and through various other departments before it’s ready to be put on the shelf.
JP: What’s your studio look like?
Dawson: (Laughing) It’s a nice big space! Hardwood floors, very tall ceilings.
JP: You share it with other people?
Dawson: It’s (counting) one, two, three, four, five of us in here. Big windows. It’s really beautiful.
JP: How’s that dynamic? It must be kind of fun.
Dawson: Yeah. It’s really great actually, I really enjoy working there. I haven’t been there very long – I’ve been there for 6 or 7 months. It’s a big change. I worked at home before so you can imagine 6 to 7 day weeks, working at home. You don’t get a lot of, you know, seeing other people. So this is really nice. It allows me to socialize a little.
JP: But it’s still more like work.
Dawson: Oh it’s totally like work but at least there are people there! (Laughs) And to be able say “hi” and maybe talk for five minutes about what’s happening out there in the world.
JP: It’s good to have a social aspect, I guess.
Dawson: Yeah, it has a little bit of a social aspect and we also have a lunch once a week. It’s a group of us which are most of us in the studio and then a bunch of our other friends in comics outside and we call it the Superman Club. So that’s pretty awesome as well.
JP: You attended the MoCCA Comics Arts Festival in New York this June; you’re at both the Fan Expo and Word on the Street in Toronto this August and September respectively and then the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco in October. How important is it for you to meet your audience as well as other creators?
Dawson: Oh, I think both are equally important. Other creators help inspire you and give you feedback on what it is you’re doing and the same with your audience as well. They let you know what they like and what they want to see more of. I find often too, especially when I teach and you start getting to know the people who are looking at your work, that they are just so inspiring! It’s kind of like this circle that continually feeds itself – it’s a perpetual circle of inspiration.
JP: Last year saw the release of No Girls Allowed (written by Susan Hughes) which you illustrated. It’s basically a graphic novel – it sort of looks and feels like a book but it’s a graphic novel comprised of several historical short stories about real-life, adventurous women, who happened to occasionally dress as men in order to do the things that interested them in a male-dominated society. Why was this particular project of interest to you?
Dawson: Well, for one the historical component was really interesting. I discovered over the past few years that while I hated history in high school and elementary school, I actually really love it! There’s that aspect of it. Drawing all of those things is pretty amazing and researching that stuff as well is pretty cool but also just the aspect of giving – putting stories out there that I feel are positive and, certainly in the case of this book, these are examples of women throughout history who did what they had to do to achieve what it was that they were passionate about and I think that that’s really important for girls and boys to see today. I think it’s just as relevant.
JP: Of the set of stories, was there a favourite that you were drawn to?
Dawson: They’re all amazing. My favourite was the story of Ellen Craft. Just the kind of strength that it took between her and her husband to pull off what they did and make it to freedom was pretty inspirational. I don’t know if I would have had that kind of courage. I would have been very scared and, you know, maybe they were – I’m sure they were – certainly at the point on their journey where it was close to their being caught – I’m sure it was very frightening but they did it! I mean, it’s crazy!
JP: What’s kind of neat is that there is an image in 100 Mile House of your Dad and you’ve illustrated William in that story and they kind of look the same!
Dawson: (Laughing) I think that a lot of the men that I draw tend to look like my Dad in a lot of ways! My Dad is also pretty much, besides my husband, my best friend so the two of them are pretty much my two best friends and he’s pretty special to me. I like to draw him when I can. That comic I did a while ago, Violet Miranda: Girl Pirate, with Emily Pohl-Weary – at the end of the very first chapter, the father of the main girl looks almost exactly like my Dad!
JP: Comics have historically been a boys-centric field yet in the last decade – and even more so in the past five years – there has been a noticeable increase in girls and women involved in the industry as writers, artists, collectors and even convention patrons. You were a panelist at the Graphically Speaking seminar of the Keep Toronto Reading festival last April – half of that audience was female! What’s happening?
Dawson: Oh yeah! I think that there is just more and more work being created and there’s also more and more companies marketing books to girls and women so it’s becoming more interesting. Prior to my actually making comics I was working retail in comic book stores and certainly in the bigger cities, there were tons of female readers coming in and looking at stuff – all kinds of different material – and buying stuff for themselves but then there were also the few, sort of girlfriends, that would come in and not really know what they were looking at but then, suddenly, notice that there’s five women working in the comic book store. Slowly but surely they would start asking us what kind of stuff they might like. I’m not saying that every store has been so forward in terms of staffing it with women and making sure that there are all kinds of different types of books that would appeal to a broad audience of people. Certainly in the bigger cities a lot of those stores are doing that.
Also there are comic festivals. TCAF (Toronto Comic Arts Festival) is very girl and guy heavy in terms of creative and audience as well. I don’t know exactly what the first thing was that happened to begin to tip the scales but I think a big part of it too is the fact that there’s a lot of book publishers that are coming into this and are really interested in getting children’s stuff – graphic novels going, lines of children’s graphic novels. For a long time they (the industry) were really concerned because girls weren’t reading as much as boys were and now I think it’s turned – I think it keeps fluctuating or shifting but certainly comics have been touted as a vehicle to bring more kids into reading.
JP: We should just happen to be happy that kids, young adults, are reading.
Dawson: Yeah. Also, over the past bunch of years there’s been a huge influx of manga and manga that is very girl-specific in its target audience. I know that’s had a big impact on it as well. There’s also, in terms of the comics publishers, lots of women now, you know. It’s probably nowhere near equal in terms of numbers but it seems that there’s more and more woman getting into these positions as well. It’s exciting.
Thanks to Willow Dawson for her time with Biff Bam Pop! You can catch her next at the Toronto Fan Expo on August 28-30 or at Toronto’s Word on the Street on September 26. Check out Part 2 of our interview next week. For updates or to see more of Willow Dawson’s work, visit her website at www.willowdawson.com