Isolation, Empathy, and Wistfulness: An Interview with Aubrey Nolan

When comic artists Aubrey Nolan and Jeremy Nguyen co-hosted Panels to the People they thought it would be great to have a place where a solitary people, comic artists, could share their work. It worked and part of the thrill was that you could show your digital work before others in a physical space. Nolan also works at the children’s book publisher Enchanted Lion, which is on the cutting edge of that timeless experience, sharing a story through visual (pictures) and audio (a voice) mediums with someone else. Now with her show at Usagi, "Protection Spells", Nolan wants to create a relationship between artist and viewer. The opportunity to hang her work on a wall meant a whole new approach to how a comic can be made and how an individual will read a panel or story. The show contains previous pieces with entirely original art both fundamentally changed by the fact that a viewer can walk around them. It may be obvious, but it is always a useful reminder of the different ways one can approach the artistic process. I talked to Aubrey about what she learned from the art show, her influences, and how she sees her work going forward.

The show Protection Spells is now up at Usagi NY from now till January 20th

Sam Jaffe Goldstein: You have a show at the Usagi gallery, what has your journey been as a comic artist? 

Aubrey Nolan: This show was supposed to happen in 2020. I was always curious about where I can take comics if I have a physical space to display them in. I am driven by world-building and incorporated the layout of the gallery in how you walk and navigate through the art. It challenged me, as well, to make new pieces that are actual drawings, so for those works there was no digital editing. When I made a couple of changes to those pieces, I was cutting and pasting and painting over things. Digital tools are amazing, but I am nervous that those tools are significantly affecting my process and it’s exciting to be tactile again. 

Did those physical drawings push your comics to somewhere unexpected? 

The experience of reading and looking at them changed when walking through a space versus reading them online. Part of the show is prints of older comics, but in the gallery, you can be looking at one piece and in your line of vision there might be another print or artwork. Thinking about what will be sitting around the space and why was fun to explore because I have never had to take that aspect of composition into consideration. I also wanted to show entirely new work and that meant making pieces from scratch. I sometimes felt insane with these poster-sized original pieces. If I screwed up, I could not fix it. I had to change my brain to adjust to the process. After a while I looked forward to screwing up, and the process of how I could fix the mistake. Any fix would be visible and that could, in turn, make things more interesting.

Is there anything that you are going to bring back from this process to how you make digital comics?

I got back to what I love about making art and I think I will not be so complacent with the ease it takes to fix mistakes. It pushed me to come up with my own solutions. It was a high to have a blank paper in front of me again, making that first mark was exciting, and there was a tension of starting it and I would be scared for like two weeks. There was more of a risk, but once I started it, it became exciting in a more heightened way and I felt really engaged. 

You work at Enchanted Lion Books. What have you learned about comics through working at a children’s picture book publisher? 

Children’s picture books is one of the most exciting art mediums happening right now, but sometimes people don’t realize that because they are prescribed for kids. Enchanted Lion wants to break down these delineations. Picture books are art to be enjoyed by everyone. An idea we talk a lot about is, “It’s more a medium than an age group.” I have that in mind going forward: nothing has to be dumbed down for children and kids can handle emotionally mature ideas. All the picture books that I love share the same qualities as my favorite comics. They make word and image come together to create a unified entity. 

Other than mature content is there a distinction between a comic and a picture book?

I used to say, “a comic has panels,” and things like that, but picture books can also utilize panels and many other tools that are associated with comics. The book Small in The City, for example, uses comic format elements, and then a lot of comics will have almost no panels, or they will utilize spreads. All these things have broken down and feel fluid and a lot of cartoonists will do picture books and vice versa.

Is that a recent trend?

Maybe there was less cross-pollination between the two. Now I know a lot of people who are working on picture books and comics simultaneously. They are moving between those two mediums because they are closely linked, and they strengthen each other. Even a few years ago I would have said, “Yes! There is absolutely a distinction.” But the things that marked the difference are falling away. 

Are there any problems that you see with cross-pollination or are you more "everyone should get on board". 

I’m more in the second camp because those separations between mediums can be an obstacle to someone new to these mediums feeling like they have permission to explore. If things are fluid, it will result in more people making something new and original. Considering yourself one thing or another is becoming less vital. It was never necessary, really. 

Do you think it’s also a financial thing? Neither pay like they used to, so you have to do both? 

That might be part of it. Working several projects going at once out of necessity is something that I have been seeing for a while. But I don’t think people jump mediums, but go more commercial within a medium to deal with that. 

Do you ever feel siloed off by the comics community?

Mostly I feel excitement and freedom about what is possible for me and others. There are a lot more people now who no longer view it as juvenile or as a lower art form. Artists are viewing it as another world to work in, in which to expand their practice, and I respect that. Personally, I am excited by things being more fluid, which is also why I decided to do this gallery show. Working in a three-dimensional space allows me to be more experimental and to take more initiative with my art. 

The kids and YA comic world have exploded. What do you think comic artists can sometimes miss when they write for younger audiences? 

Whenever anything explodes in this way and looks like it has potential for a big commercial market it is obvious there are books that are jumping on the bandwagon. You can tell that those books are not excited to be present in this format. Now there is just a lot more volume of kid’s comics and some of it is obviously formulaic. I think what works in the format is the same thing for any format. It has emotional depth and respects your intelligence. 

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to write for a younger audience? 

Never underestimate children. They can perceive it. 

Beyond that the best kid’s comics are as complex of a story as something you would read in an adult genre. Particularly Sci-fi/fantasy. There are some kid’s comics that have the same amazing world building as a Sci-fi/fantasy title written with adults in mind. 

World building is a phrase that’s made fun of a lot. Why is it so important to your work?

I work in sci-fi/fantasy aspects into my work because I love the sensation of interacting with an ever-expanding place. The world you build is also a reflection of an emotional landscape of what is happening. When I am writing something I am thinking about an emotion first. The world is then built to accommodate or expand that feeling. If it is a story between two isolated people who meet, then I am going to create this stark and lonely world. Where they come together is the one bright spot in that physical world.

What does world-building mean?

I never say, “it’s world building time” or anything like that when I’m starting a new story. It’s about creating the environment of a comic that feels convincing in a way that advances the story. One of my comics, Vacancy, started with the idea of two people meeting at a motel at the edge of the world where no one else is around. To capture the feeling of meeting someone against all odds in extreme circumstances I made a barren snowy landscape, at night. But in the middle of it there is a glowing motel. The world building is the isolated landscape with this motel as a beacon, which hopefully heightens the emotions of the story as these two people meet and feel a connection. 

Is there a book or series that does this and you want to emulate in your comics?

Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X was really frustrating in its conclusion, in my opinion, but its world left me with this sense of unease and dread that I am jealous of and would love to emulate. I am working on a longer book project now and I am trying to emulate Vandermeer’s ability to create a sense of unease and that something just isn’t right within a reader.

How do you illustrate that sense of unease?

Use of color is huge. I do a lot of color tests beforehand to get the emotion I want to capture. Inserting an unconventional color can also enhance a feeling. For example, garish neon colors can feel mournful depending on the context. In Vacancy, I used garish motel colors because it helped illustrate a sad wistful feeling when placed in an otherwise very dark and lonely environment. I am also drawn to deep-vivid colors. I always return to the color blue, as well.

Compared to the work of someone like Tommi Parish who find loneliness in the hustle bustle, your characters always feel hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. Why cut them off from the world?

In part it is an outcome of working in shorter formats. So, a lot of the stories I create are about an intense connection between two people, or a person and a creature, or a person alone experiencing something. The stories that I am drawn to are ones about empathy, connection, or being wistful for something lost. All those things become intense if you keep it as a snapshot in time versus a longer sprawling story. However, in my longer book project, there is a larger cast of characters. And any short comic could have also been made into a longer comic if you zoomed out. Each one could be seen as a beginning. 

But it does seem that these hermetically sealed worlds appeal to you, why?

Most of my characters are in isolated landscapes either in nature or are otherwise removed from my everyday surroundings. I yearn for quiet and isolation and that comes out in the scenes and characters I create. The stories that fascinate me are the ones where someone feels isolated and becomes truly known by another person. That feeling of isolation will come out in their physical space. 

It might be an outcome of being a part of the children’s book world. The classic theme of children’s books is going back to a place and realizing that it is very small, but it felt like the universe at the time. My favorite picture books harness that feeling.

Common elements in your work are woods and woodland creatures. What is it about the woods that keeps on bringing you back? 

It comes from childhood and going into the woods. When you are younger there are parts of the woods you are not supposed to go into, and your mind goes wild creating stories of what they contain. The woods are this place you can project onto. In fairy tales the forest is always a space of where your fears lie. It represents an unexplored place that can contain anything either magical or terrifying.