“Stories Are Just People”: An Interview with Anatola Howard

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Let me tell you a few things about Anatola Howard: She started putting her work up on deviantART when she was 10 years old. She’s designed two computer games, Penpals and Lung Boy. She’s drawn comics for Wolfen Jump and been published by Rigged Books. She has a work ethic that would make a full-time cartoonist blush. Oh, and she’s 16. It’s not her achievements, her maturity, intelligence, or self-assuredness in relation to her age that are note-worthy, it’s her sheer capability and talent. To be perfectly frank, it’s the kind of honest-to-God, true-blue, proper TALENT talent, the kind the internet only throws up every million people or so. And while everything is derivative, Howard’s art is something different, something special, recognizable even to the untrained eye. I’m not going to attempt to articulate why, instead I’ll pass that buck to British comics wizard (we used to call him a prodigy but it seems redundant here) Luke Pearson (Everything We Miss, Hilda and the Midnight Giant):

Anatola is my favorite artist right now. I don't really know where to even start in explaining why. Her drawings are really technically impressive while also being loose and kind of frantic. There's a physicality to her drawing that is really powerful. They emerge from the shadows in a million tiny lines and everything feels weighty and fleshy and when she pushes stuff up against other stuff you really believe it. Thick clouds, weird knotted stuff and dense plant life seem to press in on her characters from every angle and create this heavy, oppressive atmosphere that I've never really experienced before. The obsessive linework reminds me of Robert Crumb (if he grew up reading manga on the internet) but even wilder and more frighteningly psychological. At the same time as all that it's all super-appealing, she can draw simple and cute when she wants to and can explode into these lurid full-color pieces.

She's only really just starting to flex her comic muscles but she already has an output that's varied, emotionally complex, and doesn't seem to be born of any prevalent comics trends or tropes. She has an extremely distinct voice which is impressive for an artist of any age. I just find her work endlessly fascinating and exciting and I wish I was even half as good as she is. She seems to be ridiculously hardworking, she's super-generous and to my mind is already a more accomplished and interesting artist than any number of already well-established cartoonists I can think of. Basically, she's really cool.

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Zainab Akhtar: My friends and I have a thing, whenever we meet other comics people, we ask them what their comics journeys were. How did you get 'into' comics, as it were?

Anatola Howard: I don't know when I actually got into comics, since as a kid they were just like any other book to me. I really liked Inuyasha and Ranma 1/2, but they never excited me as much as they do now. Back then I was way more interested in anime instead of manga/comics. Like a lot of people the idea of a western comic that wasn't Superman was an idea that never crossed my mind. My dad was really into old underground comics and he introduced me to Robert Crumb (he had a Crumb biography which I read without his permission), and discovering the alternative scene was great. When I started to explore comics on my own it was still mostly manga that I found appealing, with only a few western titles mixed in. Comics that had deep narratives, little dialogue, and lots of art were my favorite for a long time. 

Yeah. It’s interesting how kids don’t really view comics as separate from other literature. That’s learned. It's only when you get older that you become aware that they’re viewed separately. It's cool you had your dad to guide and encourage you. Is he into comics? Did you have them around the house, or were they something you actively sought out?

No comic books were in our house besides the ones that I had checked out from the library, and so all the comics I read were ones I picked up on my own with some inspiration from my dad. He told me about how he used to buy underground comics like "Pudge Girl Blimp" but that he had lost them all, so later on he and I visited a con where he was able to buy a new copy. Later, I went to a bookstore and stood alongside him and bought a copy of Fantagraphics’ reprint volumes of Robert Crumb and kept looking at him saying, "Should I get this? Would you want this?" Whenever I discovered somebody or something new, I would always tell him about it. But Crumb is what bonded us as two people who knew about comics; Crumb always shows up in every small talk we have about them.

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What is about the manga tradition in particular that speaks to you?

I don’t know! I just love how much work is put into it, and I love that one manga can turn into an anime, which turns into a movie, which turns into candy bars and figmas and posters and museums. Of course any other place has this all too, I just feel like manga hits me on the back. "I am a Hero" hit me hard, and I love it. The simple floaty expressions in manga, even if serious just make me fall in love. Detailed clothing and scenery, but simple child-like faces, and shameless pauses of goofy relief are things I find often in manga, and it's always a pleasure to see it. Berserk is a great example of that, I think. A character with an extremely scarred, intimidating face could morph to a big-eyed jaw-dropped cartoony wonder from one panel to the other. And that feels flowy and good.

When did you start making comics? It seems like you found out really young that this is what you wanted to do. When did that crystallize as the thing that you put your energies into? 

Well, when I was a kid I would make fake manga, and then I did some things when I was 12. My whole life I admired comics but I never made any real or serious ones until I found some European ones. I always had friends in middle school who drew buff power comics, while I was trying to copy Naruto. But I started drawing comics REALLY after I found out about comics with narratives and lots of art. I made something called Capio Cafe which was 16 pages if I remember right. I was about 12 then. When I made comics afterwards, I tried doing "cute sad" things. I am not proud of that! When I read comics, it's never while I make comics. I take turns. If I try to read and make something, it is never spread evenly... I always did/do things that kiss the work I've been reading, and that shows—to me at least. Because I went from fake manga to deep narratives to quick spontaneous sad/cute pandas. It's only because of what I was taking in then. And it applies now. I started loving long comics, so I'm trying to make a long comic. Now that you've asked me, I don't think I ever thought about this before.

When did you start putting your work online? And why? Was it a desire to share your work and get it out there, or to become involved in a community with similar interests?

I started putting work online when I was about 10 on deviantART. I think a lot of people start out that way. I had never been so excited about it. I went from searching Google images to going straight to the source of where all these drawings were being made. I drew Sonic the Hedgehog a lot, and the internet just made me confident because I was sharing all that Sonic fan art and at the same time I was anonymous. It felt really powerful, and especially because you could be whoever you wanted to be. The biggest audience I had was the internet (which accounted for THE WHOLE WORLD!), and so that excited me more than anything else. It still does excite me, and the internet is where everything goes and happens! If I make something I want people to see it, you know! I never wanted to limit my audience to my dad and mom and a few kids at school. The internet is a great place for kids to go and show their art, even though I would never agree it's a good working environment.

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You've talked about Crumb and the influence he's had on you. Which other creators would you say have or had a similar effect?

My inspirations, I have no idea... I always loved Katsuhiro Otomo, but his work was so good I would have to take breaks when I read Akira, because all that excitement would build up or I would become too jumpy from reading. Only Akira and a few other titles have done that to me. Like I said before I really love anime, so little snippets of old anime always get me. I'm sure there are some anime names in my head somewhere... The show Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist inspired me a lot, and same with an old Canadian animated film called Rock & Rule. "I am a Hero" by Kengo Hanazawa is amazing also. All works where I feel involved, those are all works I really like. Julia Wertz's Fart Party was my first favorite webcomic, and I read the book Missed Connections (a collaborative work she put together) too many times to count.

Luke Pearson was one of those first comic artists I found that made a big difference. I won't ever forget when I read one of his short stories and felt blown back, because I had never seen anything like it. Now I feel better and more familiar with works that are simple yet complex, because my whole life I was reading manga that was the product of years and years of heavy work that had strict deadlines. And the same with Sam Alden, too. I found him when I was just starting out... I was so jealous, and he heavily inspired me as well. He told me he took some inspiration from me also, and it felt like the inside of me had exploded! It felt great! People like Sam and Luke inspired me personally, so it means a lot. Little things are what inspire me also... like using my eyes to focus in and out of my hand, and snips of dialogue that I hear sometimes.

Do you take art at school? Some cartoonists went to art school and some didn't; is it something you'd be interested in pursuing, especially with more comics-tailored courses available now?

No. I'm a junior in high school though, so the topic of college has become a more common one. It's incredibly scary! I've been frantically asking people about their experiences in college, and someone I know even took a pre-college program. It's different for everybody and that's what confuses me so much. There are scholarships and money and it's too much for me to think about without worrying. As far as the past goes, took an after-school kindergartens doodle class once though, which I had to quit :D I've always been self-taught, and I hate to admit it, but I've even stuck my nose up at the idea of taking an art class. This was only because I never touched the idea, and was too scared to even take a step forward and consider it. There is a lot to learn, and there are so many things I can do. Some days I say, "I'll go to art college, I'll try my best." And other days I'm sitting there, unsure and very scared. I am motivated to go, I just don't know how. I'll try my hardest to fix that problem though. I've been to portfolio reviews, and I've read about colleges, I've asked my teachers and friends. I feel like the idea of an art college is just a bubble and I'm not in it. With things like this I assume everyone knows everything, so I've got mixed feelings that are based off the mixed experiences I've heard.


Coming back to your work, do you have an aim in mind when making comics? Are you ultimately trying to simply tell a story well (and all that can involve), or are there other purposes at play?

I am still getting used to making comics, all the stories I've written so far have just been trying to do something emotional. I want to make something goofy but serious. I'm working on something right now that SHOULD be around 100 pages. When I think about it, I like a story, but I like it more with a ton of undertones, because it makes something re-readable. If a character is real and complex enough, they can always be relatable, any emotional conflict can always be traced back to something personal. Problems can be so similar you know. If a comic is long, there's elbow room, and you can treat a character more like a person because people live for a long time. It's just what I think, but when I read long comics I feel like I can see everything. It's actually hard to make a character that’s boring and repetitive when there are 100 pages in front of you. It forces you to squeeze out everything you can out of someone. If a story has that then the goal has already been accomplished I guess... A story can be amazing on its own, but you always remember the little things. When you talk to a friend about your favorite film or comic, you compliment the plot because it was fantastic! When you talk about the small things and how a character feels real, it's easy to laugh and to become so excited. Plot has my respect but the little things have my laughter. Stories are just people. So I want to make good people and I admire good people in comics...

Is the long thing you're working on Mac and Dog?

Yeah! I just realized I kept bringing it up! At the moment, I have nothing but short stories to show for my work.

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Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Okay... Now that you ask, I feel uncertain. I started it half a year ago but it's far from the finish line. It's about a guy called Mac and a thing called Dog (like macaroni and cut-up hot dogs). And after Mac sets his house on fire they go on a road trip to a new location because Mac just didn't want to live with his parents anymore. I advertise the story as "two people trying to understand each other" but ... I don't know, maybe that's it. Mac always has steam/smoke coming out of his body, and Dog is bound to his computer. It was only going to be a four-page comic about something nsfw and being scared, but I wanted to do more. I'm excited mostly because I've wanted to make something beyond 30 pages, I'm finally doing it. I feel good about it, but before I can celebrate I have to finish. I've already decided when I complete it I'm going to buy myself a cake.

Cake is always a wise choice. What are your plans for Mac and Dog? Are you going to try and pitch it to some publishers, or sell it digitally yourself? I know you've self-published bits and bobs here and there.

I don't know, but I want it in a book. I will probably pitch it to a publisher, and I have one in mind already. The idea to have it up for free reading is floating there too, I just don't know how I'll do it. I've never sold anything digital before, and I don't know if I will. I love holding comics in a book the most, to me it feels the best and reads the best. Picking up a comic book is much different than scrolling up and down and moving your mouse. These are just two different ways of reading the same thing, and different people want a different experience. Some people can just click download and pay for their PDF and feel comfortable. I can't do that but I'm fine with it. I always want to read a comic in a book and I want people to see things I make in a book, it’s what feels natural to me because that’s what I’ve favored all my life. Brush strokes and pen marks on paper are very important to me even if a computer has its own equivalent of that. Even if something is made digitally, distributed digitally, and viewed digitally, it’s probably still fantastic. I admit though, I love reading books much more.

You've designed a couple of games, most recently Lung Boy. Is that something you're interested in doing more?

I tried at making those games. I want to make a horror game or a super goofy game... I really like old SNES/NES titles because of how shameless some of the bosses are. I'd love to do something like that. I've only made about two games and both of them were only learning experiences. Talking about that just reminds me how much more there is to know. I guess I will try to make more games, but like before they'll probably be done just for the sake of trying. I sometimes think I'm not cut out to make any more games because I often don't think about it from the point of a player, I think about the story too much. As a one-way route. It's very important to think about your game as an experience and think about how curious someone might be when they play. Maybe I'll try to make something fun.

It seems to me that you obviously love the medium of comics and invest a lot of time and energy in it. I guess it's stupid to ask if anything is forever, but is this what you see yourself doing for as long as possible if you can?

I don’t know! But I want to draw forever. It’s really confusing. Even though I love comics I know there is a lot more to love about them. I guess I’ll just see how it goes. I will probably make them for a long time, but I don't know if I'll be able to make them with confidence. I can say with total certainty though that I'll always read comics. They'll always make me happy. I'll make comics and try to learn from it... you know! There are a lot of questions I have about making comics, I know there's a whole world just full of them. I confuse myself often by thinking everyone else is in the loop about comics. I guess being passionate about comics is the same thing as being in a loop, but I can't say anything for sure because I still feel like I'm only starting.

Many thanks to Luke Pearson for his introduction.