In this edition of Let’s talk comics we have read over the wonderful Artema created by Rachel Cholst and illustrated by Angela Boyle.
Artema is raised in the ways of her people, the Koma’i. She follows the guardian’s path instead of her mother’s healing skills. The Koma’i teach strict rules and Artema is a hot blooded and tempestuous young lady, will she manage to control her temper and follow the teachings of her people? Only time will tell.
I throughly enjoyed reading through Artema, it is a tale that I feel many can relate too, especially those who maybe feel at odds with their place in the world and in society. Artema is a strong willed child and even stronger willed young women, as she grows her passion to succeed and carve her place amongst the men and the soldiers only grows.
She is often at odds with the teachings of the Koma’i and especially with her mother, but we know that the bond between mother and daughter is strong. When Artema is injured in battle it is down to her Mother and her healing ways to help her back on her feet, but after the injury Artema is more dedicated than ever to prove herself which doesn’t end well.
Artema is a true creation of love and writer Rachel was kind enough to talk us through the inspirations behind Artema and her writing processes.
Rachel is a New York based educator and activist. She also writes about alt- country and punk for her nationally recognised blog and podcast, Adobe and Teardrops. Artema is dedicated to Pamela and Kyle, for giving her the push.
What inspired you to create Artema?
It’s a lot — so I’ll try to keep things brief! I’ve been reading comics for as long as I could read. I remember when my dad brought home an issue of Superman that showed him punching through a brick wall — the story was the end of an arc about him struggling with Red Kryptonite. For fun my twin sister and I would draw comics for hours. One of the best presents our parents got us was a case of 100 blank notepads. She tended towards epic fantasy and I focused on superhero stuff.
Fast forward about twenty years, I transitioned from teaching high school history to working with community college students. I suddenly had a lot more free time and I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. I knew I wanted to create something and I knew that one of the reasons I struggled with depression while teaching was that I felt I didn’t have enough places to channel that creative energy. A big reason I struggled during those years, though, was because I was struggling with PTSD as a result of a violent encounter I’d experienced.
Around the holidays one of my students, who has created an extremely elaborate video game in his head, invited me to create a character for his game. I knew that I wanted the character to be a berserker-type who wishes she could control it better. Eventually, I found a story to go along with that character trait. So Artema is semi-autobiographical: my struggle with my anger and depression ultimately hurt the people around me and necessitated some major life changes. The story is about Artema’s reconciliation with these emotions and figuring out how to use them healthily.
Who would you cite as your writing influences?
It sounds really cheesy but the specific inspiration for Artema came from an essay in Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. As I was falling asleep I wondered to myself what kind of story I had to tell. The first issue of Artema popped into my head almost whole. The force of it scared me — I hadn’t been inspired to write a fantasy story since middle school. I avoided putting it to paper for like a month but the story wouldn’t go away, so that’s how I knew it had to stick. There are certain elements that I still haven’t quite figured out. The book opens with an older Artema arriving at a baobab tree at the end of some kind of quest. I have no idea what it means but clearly it was swimming around in the back of my brain so I’ll figure it out eventually.
While I’m writing the scripts, though, I keep three people in mind specifically: Ursula K. LeGuin, who used fantasy and sci-fi to push back against her readers’ long-held assumptions about the world; N.K. Jemisin, who’s following in those and other giants’ footsteps; and Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag’s web comic Strong Female Protagonist, which does a beautiful job of incorporating perspectives from so many marginalized groups of people seamlessly. I’m hoping I can add more representation to comics as matter-of-fact-ly as they do.
What are your top five books?
Comics-wise, I’m still a pretty committed DC fan.
Green Arrow and Batwoman are my favorite go-tos, but my save-the-best-for-last comics are Matt Fraction’s Ody-C, Lumberjanes, and Giant Days, which is criminally underrated.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I think you need to just do it and you need to persist. I’ve been writing an alt-country/Americana blog for the past 7 years. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful musicians just kind of disappear, but the ones who make it work pounded the pavement for 5 – 10 years and are finally seeing the fruits of their labor. And they help each other when they do succeed — like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. That’s also true for the trajectory of the blog — I got to write freelance for a prominent country music site for a while because of all the time I’d put in to doing it. Writing on a regular schedule helps the words flow easily — for me, at least. And, of course, it’s important to write about your passions. Five years ago it wasn’t very popular to call out homophobia and racism in the Americana scene but people are more receptive to it now and it helped me get a seat at the table.
Of course, it helps that I have a civil service job with regular hours and benefits as well as being born into privilege. Honestly, I don’t think I would have travelled this path the same way if I didn’t have that consistency.
What, if any, difficulties did you face when creating Artema?
Lack of confidence, mainly. I procrastinate because I’m convinced it’s going to come out poorly. It took me about a year to work on issue 2 for that reason. But people have been buying issue 1 fairly consistently from comic stores around Manhattan, where I live, so that helped me feel good about continuing. Also, being disciplined about putting aside time to write. I have this voice in my head telling me I need to feel inspired to write the comic, but I’ve found that once I sit down to work on it, no matter how I’m feeling, I have about ten new ideas a minute.
Do you think your time teaching has influenced your writing?
I’d like to think it helps me create more empathetic characters. I see the people in the story as different parts of myself, but that also includes what I’ve learned about being a complete human from my students and colleagues. And, of course, as a history teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about systems of government, exchanges of ideas, non-Western philosophies, and revolutions. Those all come up in the story as well.
How did your collaboration with Angela come about?
Another inspiration for Artema was my experience with a trauma survivors’ support group. We learned pretty early on that we all loved Steven Universe, so we created zines with the comics artist Jennifer Camper as a way to conclude the group. I created an autobiographical mini-zine and I wanted to take it to zine fests to raise money for the non-profit that organized the group. (In the past year I’ve raised a little under $200.) Jen’s been really helpful in telling us about zine fests and conventions around the city. She also gave me advice on how to find and hire artists. I met Andi Santagata of Trans Man Walking at FlameCon, a queer comics convention in New York, from the Center for Cartoon Studies who referred me to the school’s jobs board. I love how Angela’s style is simultaneously photo-realistic and feels animated so that’s why I ended up working with her.
How much involvement did you have in the creative process when putting Artema together?
I wrote the script and created the layouts, put together the character designs and the reference photos. I do draw but I’m nowhere near ready to make something on this scale. I did the layouts because I wanted the story to center around a specific splash page. Also, that’s always been my favorite part of making comics. Angela’s very generous and played a big role in editing the script and kindly making suggestions to clarify the story for all of the people who don’t live in my brain– as well as providing technical advice. It’s really streamlined thanks to her. She went above and beyond and I’m so grateful.
What is your advice to create and maintain a successful collaboration?
Angela lives on a completely different coast from me so everything’s been through e-mail and writing! There was one moment where I made a clarification and was on pins and needles the whole day because I was worried it sounded snippy. Turns out it didn’t to her! But I think for that kind of arrangement it’s good to assume best intentions. Also, since in this case I’m the one commissioning the work, it’s okay to be clear about what you want.
What plans have you for the next issue of Artema?
No one is an island and Artema is going to start to find a place for herself — but not without a little revenge first.
If you were going to create a comic on a figure from history which would you choose?
In college I studied the Early Modern Period — essentially the late 1500s to the early 1800s. In London in the early 1600s there was a phenomenon — I’m not sure how widespread, but enough to be remarked upon — who were described as women who dressed as men. The word for them was “viragos.” Some of the viragos were described as living like men, including changing their names and/or sleeping with women. I wrote a paper about Mary Frith, who according to documents was a thief but also revered by the public as a Robin Hood-style vigilante. Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, two of the best Jacobean playwrites in London, wrote a truly horrendous play about her called The Roaring Girl. But after doing some digging, I found the play was actually pointed political commentary about King James I. I’d love to write something about Frith. Given the increasing state-sanctioned discrimination and violence against trans and gender non-conforming people all over the world, it’s important to remember that we’ve always been here and always will be — even and especially in cultures that pretended we weren’t.
How did you go about organising the printing of Artema?
There wasn’t a trick to this. Angela made a PDF for me to send to Staples. A few people there gave me a run-around about how much it would actually cost but once I got a clear answer I went for it. For some reason it’s significantly cheaper to submit the order online by yourself than to have an employee fill out the exact same form.
Was the project self funded or did you use a crowdsourcing platform?
The project was self-funded. I used the money I earned from writing to pay Angela for her incredible work. My parents were nice enough to help me out with the printing costs. I’m mulling using crowd-funding this time around — especially because I know Kickstarter can help artists out with the technical side of things like printing once the project is funded. I’m planning for a small print run so it feels like a feasible fundraising goal.
Are there any plans in the works to combine your love of alt country music and comics?
One of the things I learned while tabling at the New York Feminist Zine Fest and FlameCon this past year is that it’s important to diversify as much as possible. Not everyone wants to read a fantasy comic and, not surprisingly, even fewer people want to read a comic about sexual assault!
There is a vibrant and growing queer country scene in Brooklyn and Nashville. I think it would be fun to make a queer country zine in the vein of the original riot-grrl zines. I plan to spend November researching those zines and figuring out how to country it up.
I’ve also considered selling my comics at concerts (which I’m going to do at the next queer country show at the Bowery Electric on November 18th) and asking artists if they want to bring a few on tour with them to sell at their merch tables. I still don’t quite believe it but out of sheer coincidence one of the artists I happened to write a review for had somehow gotten a copy of Artema — he lives in Portland. At the time, there were no copies being sold there. There’s a big overlap between folk-punk fans and comic book fans so this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.
What is a typical day for you?
Well I work 9 – 5 but I do spend a lot of the day listening to music that gets sent me way. I’ll observe my students while they’re in class and meet with them during their breaks to make sure they’re doing well in class, have their financial aid applications in order, etc. The college is in the Bronx so at times my students come to me with significant health, legal, or financial concerns and I connect them to resources that can help — both on and off-campus. On Mondays I record my alt-country podcast with my co-host Von Cloedt. I usually write Artema on the weekends (if at all – see above) because I feel I need a few hours and some decompression to really focus on storytelling. I usually polish my music reviews off during my lunch break.
What would your advice be for girls, like Artema who are struggling to find their place in the world?
It may sound cliche but don’t worry too much about what other people think. That’s not the same thing as being a jerk to the other people around you or doing everything the way you want to do it at all times. You’ll be happiest when you do the things that feel true to you and you’ll find yourself people who are attracted to that happiness.
A HUGE thanks to Rachel for talking with us all about Artema and her experiences in creating this wonderful tale.