SPX Spotlight 2014: Whit Taylor Interviews Carey Pietsch

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series! For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press ExpoYou can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here

Carey Pietsch is a Philly-based cartoonist with an academic background in cognitive science and psychology. Interestingly, it wasn't until after she graduated college that she started to focus more intently on comics, going to night school to build a foundation in studio art. She now balances comics with her psych-related day job, self-publishing minicomics and showcasing her work in Terrestrial, Hana Doki Kira, Dirty Diamonds, and Secret Prison. She has also done artwork for backup shorts in Adventure Time, Bravest Warriors, and Regular Show.

My first exposure to Carey's work was the charming Snapdragon Queen, a classic yet forward-thinking fairytale that in some ways turns the story of Sleeping Beauty upside down and Keepsakes, a tale of two sisters dealing with the loss of relative who stumble upon a family secret that leads them down a magical wormhole that they wouldn't have expected. Her new comic Rift will be debuting at SPX (and it's a really fun read). What stands out to me about her work are her strong and diverse female characters, her knack for keeping fantasy whimsical, and her appeal to young adult readers.

I decided to check in with Carey and ask her about her work.

Whit: How did you get into making comics?

Carey: I've always, always been deep into storytelling and writing, but it took me a little longer to find my way to comics. For a long time, drawing and cartooning was just a thing I did on the side; I messed around with a few projects that went nowhere in high school, kept sketchbooks, and drew incessantly when I was supposed to be doing other things. But I'd internalized this messed-up view of drawing as an inborn talent, when in fact it's absolutely not; it's a learned and practiced and fought-for skill like many others. It took me ages to get past that and start putting work out in the world. I did a silly little weekly comic in my college newspaper my senior year, and it was hard, but it also let me start to recognize that comics were something I desperately wanted to keep around in my life. So when I graduated, I looked for a city with a lot of accessible art classes, and stumbled my way into Philly. Philly Comix Jam folks were so supportive when I was just starting out-- drawing low-pressure shorts with them let me begin to build a toolkit I could use in my own, longer work as well. The Drink & Draw Like a Lady pre-MOCCA event was really important in starting to connect me with a larger comics community, as was volunteering at SPX a few years ago. SPX 2013 was my first foray into tabling at shows further afield than Philly, and I'm really excited to go back this year. 

Whit: You have a knack for merging the fantastical and magical with the real world. What inspires you to tell these types of stories?

Carey: For me, bringing a fantastic element into the story is helpful in creating danger and conflict that makes sense within the framing of the world, but also leaves part of your brain free to focus more on the interpersonal elements of that conflict. In a more selfish sense, I love the feeling of discovery and exploration of new spaces that comes from reading a story with a magical, otherworldly side to it. And the sense of wonder that comes from the worldbuilding of bringing these smaller magical elements together-- starting to put together a picture of How It Works. A lot of my favorite stories growing up (and now, really!) had a little bit of magic to them, but were primarily about the people in that world and the relationships between them; that's the balance I'm enjoying working with and writing in now, too. I'm hoping for a little bit of suspension of disbelief for the otherworldly elements, but aiming to keep it all together with an emotional, personal anchor that's the heart of the story. 

Whit: How did you develop your art style? What tools do you use?

Carey: I think my approach or style is very much still a work in progress. The tools and methods I've been exposed to and actively experimented with have had a huge influence in the way I work. I took a life painting course at Community College Philly where I was working only with black and white acrylics that got me very interested in big, blocky, dramatic shapes of light and shadow, and messing with gouache in my sketchbooks is a fun way to try that kind of large-shape approach to color. Most of my finished color work is done in photoshop right now, working with custom brushes and scanned textures to try to get a little more of a visible hand into it. And on inks, I jump around between scanned brush pen-work and digital brushes. I'm still on a wacom tablet at this point, and while I've been using it for years, there's always this weird disconnect between what your hand is doing and what pops up on screen. I'd love to work on a tablet monitor someday.

I've been moving towards figures that are a little more cartoony and stylized; I really like playing with the exaggerated emotions and body language/ acting they allow for.  And I'm definitely very influenced by a lot of cartoons, anime, and animation in general-- I'm a sucker for saturated, bright and candy-coated colors. 

Whit: One thing I've noticed about your comics are your strong female characters. I think this should be the case, especially if you are a female writer, but do you think about this deliberately when developing your characters? Do you consider yourself to be a feminist cartoonist? 

Carey: That's absolutely always on my mind when writing. And I do consider myself a feminist cartoonist. For me, that means doing my best to write characters and stories with empathy and care, and trying to expand beyond mainstream, well-traveled narratives where the characters who get to act with agency and be fully-realized people are often limited to a very narrow set. And as someone carrying a substantial amount of privilege, it also means a lot of listening to and reading the stories of people whose experiences differ from my own, people whose races and genders and  sexual orientations and classes and ability and health are vastly under-represented in media and in the set of comic creators. It's an area I genuinely have a lot of work to do in, but also not one I ever want to stop working on and learning more about. And there are so many really thoughtful people talking about it! I know Shing Yin Kohr and Taneka Stotts are starting up a site focused on intersectional feminist comics criticism, and I'm really looking forward to reading their work. Because stories matter, representation matters, and the conversations we have about stories and the ways they fit into or challenge existing cultural narratives are incredibly important.

Whit: What projects are up next for you?

Carey: Right now, I'm working on finishing scripts for a few other Keepsakes stories-- about the teens working in animal control, about Tiffany & Elena, about the kids at the vet's office in the first book. I'm really excited about using this loosely-connected story format as a way to explore and expand on a bunch of different characters. I'm also working on finishing up two short stories for upcoming anthologies, Then It Was Dark and Blood Root. They both have horror/ supernatural elements to them, and it's been surprisingly fun for me to try that out. And finally, I'm tackling writing and drawing a bunch of one-page backup comics for BOOM!, and it's been a really neat challenge to make something that compact still be cohesive and fun.

In between all that, I've been picking at bits and pieces of another short comic called Fledgling, about a kid who's been held as a diplomatic hostage and the knight-errant golem who breaks her out, and the total lack of trust between the two. I'm aiming to have that at MOCCA next year. 

And I'm about to start working on a larger project that I'm completely over the moon about, and really looking forward to actually talking about in a few months :)

Want to check out Carey's work? Stop by her table at SPX (E12B)!