At the beginning of the year I wrote about 5 works that I thought deserved recognition. One of these was Star Bright and you’ll find what I wrote about it here, this will be a very specific dig into just a little thing I noticed in the work that struck me.
I keep coming back to this work for a couple of personal reasons, not the least of which is that it’s really a good world to spend time in. By that I mean that, I enjoy how calm it is, that it’s filled with kindness, but most of all, the strongest sense that brings me back is how it models acceptance. Sometimes showing an answer is the best way to help someone with hard questions.
So, I guess I’ve read it four or five times by now, critically read it I should qualify and then the other night, that’s mid-April 2020 or mid COVID-19 lockdown, I just sat down to enjoy it and not dig in.
Then I started noticing something I’d not picked up before, which is one of the joys of re-reading really. Now, I can’t say for definite whether it was intentional, whether it was the writer or the artist or the team figuring it out. I can say it doesn’t matter, sometimes you’re a good story because things happened that came together well. I can tell you that I had seen these things, but not consciously considered them before. To unpack that, my mind has felt the story being built those actions, but until now I’d never THOUGHT about how that was achieved.
I’m going to stop being coy in just a few more lines, but I want one more piece of context before I do that. When you write a story, you will have actions, scenarios and often similes and analogies in your story. It’s considered good literature if you manage these in a consistent way, so all similes relate to water or fire. In visual media you can achieve the same but in a slightly different manner, they are often repeated visual cues. Critics have picked apart works like Watchmen for its use of such literary techniques.
Well, here I was stuck inside and facing another seven weeks before I could go out. I have a child we’re having to shield and had spent two weeks with them having to be separated from my other two children and then from me as we showed symptoms. Then I was reading and seeing all these panels with hands clutched away from friends, afraid to reach out as well as panels of hands just gently held, friends in love with their friends. It was like fire through my veins, but it was also so very simple and very human and that’s why I keep coming back to this beautiful little comic.
Robin and Sarah in the background holding hands
all art copyright and trademark it’s respective owners.
I spoke to Alice a long time ago and have been very slow in getting this interview up on the site, for which I apologise.
I’d seen Star Bright in the small press section of my local comic shop (without realising that Alice worked there at the time) and was intrigued by it, flicking through, but never quite committing as it wasn’t my normal art style. When I put out a call for interviews and reviews and Alice responded I was pleased as it gave me the reason to engage and test that prejudice. I’m glad I got that chance as I was particularly struck by Star Bright, so struck I awarded it one of the five Paper Underground awards zine love gave out for 2019. I was very moved by the story, it ended with an admittedly quiet emotional outcome, but it hit with quite a heavy weight.
I also want to thank Rob Zwetsloot for their additional responses (and help with editing!!)
That there are only 200 copies, and not all are sold, seems to me a big shame. It’s a strong and accessible work, even for younger children and it seems like a comic that could fly with the right publisher to raise awareness and get some strong distribution.
ZL – Hi Alice, could you give a brief introduction about yourself first of all?
AC – Hi Iestyn! I’m a Brighton born & raised artist. I’ve been drawing since a young age and graduated from the University of Brighton with honours in Illustration in 2017. I lived in Texas for two years from when I was about twelve, which is where I first came across manga in my middle school library, and ever since then I’ve been hooked on comics.
ZL – I guess the obvious question is, what have you been doing since the strip finished up at the end of October 2018, apart from, running a successful Kickstarter to get it physically published?
AC – It took quite a few months to fulfil the Kickstarter as I was doing almost everything by myself and I was working full time. In April I quit my job to sort and pack all my earthly possessions and on the 1st of May I moved to Japan – so since then it’s been an adjustment period I suppose! Comics-wise I’m working on my first solo comics project, a lot of which has been building up the courage to start drawing. I’m thumbnailing it right now!
ZL – How did it feel to see the Kickstarter do so well, and then receive positive reviews from the likes of Broken Frontier as well?
AC – It took me a long time to work up the confidence to even try to make a comic in the first place and I only feel I was able to do it with the support of my wonderful co-creator and writer, Rob Zwetsloot, as well as friends and peers who cheered me on every step of the way. So, for the Kickstarter to be such a success, I was completely overwhelmed and overjoyed. I am extremely grateful that people such as Stephen at Page 45 and Holly at Broken Frontier took the time to read and review our work and say such nice things about it.
ZL – You got a lot of backers, I was wondering how many copies you had produced over and above those to fill the initial Kickstarter orders and how well they are selling, and where people can buy them if they want a copy?
AC – We had a pretty small print run of 200 copies, around half of which were for the Kickstarter. We have around 30 left over not including copies may be left on shelves in comic book stores – my previous workplace, Dave’s Comics in Brighton, Page 45, all the Travelling Man stores…
You can buy them on my Etsy store! Rob is fulfilling orders at the moment since most of our readers are in the UK, it didn’t make sense to send them to myself in Japan.
ZL – I’ve read Star Bright myself and – terrible person I am – as soon as you said it took you two and a half years I went and looked at the first drawings and the last ones to see what improvement there was. I was struck by two things straight away.
The character designs were strong from the outset, it is easy to tell characters apart and there’s great scope for communicating their emotions, which is very important in this story.
Your figure work and anatomy were very strong by the end, also your line work was much more assured.
Do you see the difference and how do you feel about your progress?
AC – Thank you so much. That’s not terrible at all – I always do the same, I think it’s fascinating to see someone’s growth in this way! For me personally, I feel the change is immense (I actually can’t bear looking at the old pages haha) and I learned so much as I drew each page of the comic – people aren’t kidding when they say if you want to get better drawing, draw a comic. It forced me to draw many things I would never usually draw (backgrounds!!) and think about how to lay out each page and panel in a way that was visually interesting but conveyed more than just an illustration on its own would. I think I also got a bit more confident in my work and was more willing to take risks with angles, poses, etc.
ZL – Is there a point where you thought that the drawing really hit its stride and you felt that you were achieving an outcome you could be proud of, were you proud right from the start?
AC – I don’t think I was particularly proud of my work (meaning the drawings themselves) until maybe end of chapter 3, chapter 4. A long way in, I know, but I have a lot of self-confidence issues with my drawing (thanks art school) and it wasn’t until that far in that I think I found my stride and the way I wanted to draw the comic. I am pretty proud of all the pages at and after that point.
ZL – What was the genesis of this comic, did you know the writer Rob before you started working together?
AC – I think we knew of each other through mutual friends and the UK cosplay community, but it wasn’t until I put it out on Twitter that I was looking for a writer for a comic project that we really started talking. Rob came to me with a rough outline of ideas and character concepts and I just loved it straightaway, the rest is history!
ZL – I find it interesting that you call it out as an LGBT comic, because, to me at least, it’s far more universal, dealing with social anxiety and self-image. I’m particularly interested to see a comic written by someone with different life experiences that handles the feelings and emotions of teenage girls so convincingly and wondered what inspiration and insight Rob drew on to write the story. Did you work together on the storyline and character decisions or was this a more traditional writer and artist collaboration?
AC – As LGBT creators we always want to create work that reflects ourselves and our community in one way or another, and while Star Bright may not feature a story with a hard-hitting LGBT subtext, I think it’s important that people can read and access comics and books that feature gay and trans characters without that necessarily being the focus of the story. Especially as a book aimed at a younger audience who may not have figured out or even thought about those things yet (I know I certainly hadn’t when I was Zoe’s age…) I wanted to manifest LGBT themes in a manner that was more suggestive but also conspicuous. Accepted. Like Robin and Sarah always showing up holding hands, Zoe and Star’s progression from friendship to something more just being accepted. I hope that makes sense.
Rob is non-binary, so I think those self-image issues and feelings of anxiety and not fitting in would not be too dissimilar to a young teenage girl’s at all. Although it was chiefly Rob who wrote the story, it was quite different when originally brought to – there are whole characters we decided together not to use in the final version.
I would say we were co-creators more than anything else when it came to the script, and as someone who was once exactly in Zoe’s shoes, a young teen girl struggling at school with loneliness and friendship troubles, I did my best to help nuance Rob’s wonderful script in a way that echoed my experiences. In that way I think we are a little bit outside the traditional writer-artist style of collaboration. Rob also gave me almost complete freedom with page layouts and pacing, only really giving me stage direction and visual pointers when they had a strong idea for how a certain page or scene needed to be drawn. I think our collaborative method was really symbiotic and we both helped each other constantly to build on our strengths and grow our skills.
ZL – This sounds like an interesting point and I’d like to bring Rob in on this and get their point of view, how did you find the experience of writing about teenage girls?
RZ – First and foremost, I wrote these characters as just people, with wants and desires, different history and life experiences. I think that’s important with storytelling, otherwise you’re concentrating on just one part of them (and it reeeaaaalllllly shows when you do). A lot of Zoe’s character was based on me growing up and some of the problems I faced. It was sort of wish fulfilment for how I’d liked to have been able to face my issues while I was still a teenager. It’s been nice to learn that a lot of other people had these sorts of experiences, so I wasn’t quite as lonely as I thought – although I guess the irony there is, we were all too lonely to reach out to each other at the time. Having said that, while writing the story I was worried that I might end up not writing the girls ‘correctly’ – despite the agnostic approach to creating the characters, I don’t have experience as a teenage girl. I think at one point I was even asking friends “did you ever just talk in Simpsons quotes as a kid?”.
However, I said to Alice at the start that she should correct me if I did something wrong. It really helped with the way the scripts were written. I’d write the chapter, do my edit passes, tweak it until I was happy with it (or as happy as I could get), and then Alice and I would read through it together and punch it up, almost like a TV show writers’ room. We’d add bits and change stuff for story reasons, consistency, for better visual layout in the comic, etc. It definitely would not have been as good as it is without her input. I think Zoe ended up an amalgam of Alice and myself in the end, and really the only mistake I made with them was initially writing them a bit too mature. We added in more of the uncertainty and confusion of being fourteen and left it up to the reader.
ZL – What impressed me most with the art on this was how you used it so efficiently to highlight emotional states, it’s interesting to see someone approach a Japanese style comic that develops the use of body language and silent connections more than the hyper normal, speed line mania one usually sees being aped. The approach lifts what is really a small, introverted narrative and lends it a heavy sense of emotion, rather than playing up an opportunity for melodrama. I’m wondering if there was a conscious decision to play the story that way, or whether it was something that came from the characters as they emerged, or whether it was something that the two of you brought from your own influences?
AC – Thank you very much, I’m really pleased you picked up on some of my visual choices. I am not really sure, I think for my part I just tried to draw and convey the story and the emotions in a manner that felt natural to me. Some of my most favourite storytelling techniques in comics are found predominantly in manga, so a lot of the ways I decided to draw certain scenes involving drama and emotion are probably very influenced by Japanese comics. I find the quietness and subtlety of melodrama in manga oftentimes much more emotive and appealing than some of what I’ve seen in western comics, and I think it’s closer to reality so it works better for stories like Star Bright where the narrative is close to home and relatable, (well, except for the whole alien thing haha).
ZL – I don’t know whether you were aiming for this, but it’s definitely something that I picked up, whilst this is clearly a comic aimed at teenagers, a YA style, it’s also something that I, as an adult could read and identify with. The style is engaging and endearing and open and it feels like I’m getting an insight into the lives of the girls and girls that age in general. What was the aim of creating this story, who were you hoping to talk to and what was it you felt you had to say to them?
AC – Thank you so much. I really like books that have a wide appeal, that have something for everyone. Many of my favourite series fans’ ages range hugely so I guess maybe it’s a natural way for me to create work (Cardcaptor Sakura, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Lord of the Rings…)
For me, not having a voice when amongst my peers and the smothering feeling of loneliness and being misunderstood as a teenager was something I had rarely, perhaps never seen represented in books and comics I’d read, so I really wanted to voice it myself with this comic. With Star Bright, I was hoping to talk to that lonely girl who spends her school breaktimes at the library reading by herself, who begs her mum for sick notes, so she doesn’t have to go on school trips, the girl who’s always last to be picked in P.E., who never has a pair for group work. I’m sure there are lots and lots of Zoes out there in the world, and I wanted this book to find them somehow and let them know they’re not alone, and if they didn’t find them yet, there’s definitely a Star waiting for them.
ZL – It’s also surprising how, if you gave it as an elevator pitch, something seemingly sweet and so low stakes in terms of character arc, manages to be so engaging and supple in its storytelling. I genuinely came away feeling happy and like something good had happened in my day. Part of that was how well the art managed to communicate the characters feelings, both using body language, character interaction and then more subtle artistic effects, for example, when Star first goes and stays with Zoe’s friends. How much thought and how many tries did it takes to nail that approach? Did that solution just come naturally to you or did you think it through and try different approaches?
Double pages – illustrating what happened
and how it feels
AC – Wow, thank you. That means a lot to me! We spent a lot of time reworking the last chapter and a half or so, trying to figure out the emotional beats and get the height of the drama just right for the bus scene with Zoe and Star. Like you say, it’s a low-stakes story and I was always worried that it wouldn’t be enough to engage some readers. It’s hard to know how many tries and rereads it took to get the script right, since I was always working with Rob right up until I had even finished drawing the page to tweak lines of dialogue, etc. I can say however that there are almost no pages I drew more than once or that changed dramatically from their original thumbnail sketch.
ZL – Final question, I promise!
What are your plans for the future, would you like to do more comics and see them published, or stick to webcomics, or are you out of the comics games for a while?
AC – I would love to have my comics published someday, it’d be a dream to be published by somebody like First Second. But small steps, for now I’d like to try and successfully complete something solo and really indulge in my interests.
ZL – …and you Rob?
RZ – At the moment I’m (very slowly) working on a new story concept that may end up as a book. As for Star Bright, it’s over for now but we may always return to it in the future.