“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
If one were to plot out Nadia Shammas’ comics career arc based on her entry point into the business, the best guess would be some job in editorial or publishing. Instead, she followed her inner muse into the writing sphere. She was the driving force behind the 2018 anthology, Corpus, and will soon have her name on multiple passion projects — one of them involving a little company called Marvel.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer
Your home base: Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY (and very proud of it)
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: As a writer, what draws you toward comics over other creative writing disciplines?
Nadia Shammas: I’ve been writing my whole life; I never wanted to do anything else, and I was a pretty voracious reader. In college, I focused on poetry and some short prose fiction; I fully intended to become a poet. [It] wasn’t until I did my editorial internships at Marvel that I learned how to edit comics, and therefore, how to think for the medium. Now, it’s my favorite format to write in… I love the collaborative aspect of it, and the challenge of trying to show something in a limited amount of space, and the way you can use panel layout to express a mood or idea. There’s a real economy of time in writing comics. You don’t have the luxury of extensive time, or a soundtrack, or jump scares, so you need to be extremely deliberate. Editors are a godsend for that.
KS: Speaking of editors, let’s dig into those two Marvel internships. How did the first one come about?
NS: There was a neighbor I grew up with who I absolutely hated. He was just constantly bragging about what a genius he was, and he was an absolute creep. At one point in sophomore year of college, he started telling everyone he got an internship at Marvel Comics. I thought to myself that if that dude could get one, surely I could get one. I didn’t actually believe that I would get it though, but I filled out an application out of spite anyway. A few months later, I got called in for an interview. Oh, and after all that? It turns out he never got that internship, or even was up for it — he was just lying after sending in an application.
KS: What about the second go-round?
NS: I had a great time at that internship, but I was focused on poetry so I decided to try to find an internship in traditional publishing. I was turned down every semester until senior year. I transferred schools in junior year, and then in my senior year I decided to step up my internship search. I actually did the thing where I looked up every literary agency and publisher of any kind in New York and cold called all of them. I honestly made it into a lot of rooms that way. The first offer I got was Marvel again, and I decided to take it again. It only solidified that [comics] is what I want to do with the rest of my life. So yeah: first time was spite, second time was passion.
KS: Was getting into the comics biz specifically ever part of your thought process before that?
NS: I think I was always passionate about it, but I never believed I could make a career in it. I had been going to NYCC as a huge fan for years, and comics were such a dream that it felt impossible, even more impossible than poetry. Towards the end of college I was having a really hard time personally, and I had given up on writing altogether. I was kind of lost on a direction, which is what fueled my push to find a place in publishing no matter what. When Marvel opened its doors twice to me, it rekindled [my] confidence and I saw that this was actually where I wanted to be for certain. When I had trouble finding work outside of the internships, I decided to try to break in with the biggest project I could think of. Hence, the birth of Corpus.
KS: As the “shepherd” of that book, when you look back now with some distance, how do you feel about the experience overall?
NS: That was my first time trying to do any comic work whatsoever, and I look back on it in complete shock that I even tried to accomplish something so huge for my first project. It was super ambitious, and I have no regrets on that part. I’m really passionate about the subject manner — Medicare for All is more important now than ever — and I literally met most of my friends and collaborators in the industry by either recruiting them or just going up to them and asking them to hear out my pitch. Corpus was the best decision I ever made.
KS: Did you learn any lessons — professional or personal — you were able to make use of going forward?
NS: I learned a lot about organizing my time, the business end of art, and a whole bunch about meeting obligations and becoming a finisher. Finishing things on time is as important as the work you finish. I’ve always been a really socially anxious person as well, and Corpus really forced me to break out of that shell. If I wanted this book to exist, I was going to have to go to bat for it, and therefore go to bat for myself and pitch this to complete strangers. I’m still very introverted, but [it] changed my relationship to public speaking/public life forever in the best way.
I learned to lean on people, which wasn’t a thing I was really ever used to, being the weird kid growing up. Most of all, I learned that I was capable.
With Corpus, I wanted to give a voice to people who didn’t get to talk about illness, disability, or healthcare experiences often. I ended up giving myself my voice back, too.
KS: Backing up a few years, when did reading comics first become an important part of your life?
NS: I started out reading manga in middle school after getting hooked on Toonami. I loved the classics like Naruto, Death Note, Inuyasha, and Fullmetal Alchemist. My mom recently, to my great dismay, reminded me of when I’d hang around the house wearing the Hidden Leaf headband. I was lucky enough to live a block away from a comic shop with some incredibly nice managers, so when I inevitably went full emo kid they helped me find my way to my first comic series, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Next, I read Scott Pilgrim, then Watchmen, then basically everything Alan Moore has ever written. I read a bunch of cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine, and eventually they handed me Kingdom Come and Marvels.
KS: At what point did you start noticing specifics of the craft beyond just enjoying the reading experience?
NS: The first book that made me want to start writing comics was Daytripper by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. Some other notable ones I can think of off the top of my head were Y: The Last Man and This One Summer, which I still consider the benchmark for perfect comic storytelling. Every week I’d skip lunch at school and save up so I could buy books. At some point, I hung around the comic shop lusting after books enough that they let me grab whatever I wanted and read in the back. I probably wouldn’t have ended up where I am without that kindness, because comics are an expensive hobby.
Big thanks to Matthew at Galaxy Comics in Brooklyn forever for that.
KS: You’ve now written for a variety of different artists in anthologies, each who probably has their own strengths for different types of stories. What’s something important you’ve discovered when it comes to this kind of working collaboration?
NS: None of my stories could exist without their specific artist. I tend to come up with story ideas for specific artists I’m working with. I try to think about the artist’s strengths, of course, but I also try to think more about what they like to draw. Half of the projects I’m working on are co-created with the artist, so they have as much influence on the story development as I do. If it’s a story I completely came up with on my own, before writing it I’ll often ask for a call (or several) to go over story beats and ask if there’s anything they specifically like to include in their stories, or what they want to draw/want me to keep in mind about their art while I’m writing. I also write my scripts to not be too precious.
KS: That must have affected your writing process.
NS: I talk to the artist directly in the panel descriptions to ask their opinion if I’m not sure about a certain sound effect or layout, and I try to add references I know they specifically will enjoy or relate to. I think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge that comics are completely the intersection of the writer and the artist; it cannot exist as it is without the intense efforts of both parties. Artists are not contractors set to make your vision, this is both of your visions and you should approach every working relationship with that respect in mind.
KS: Hypothetical time. A publisher is offering you an opportunity to write one story with an established character/team of your choice… Who do you pick?
NS: That’s an incredibly difficult question, but I think I’d have to say Miles Morales. He’s a good Brooklyn boy who loves sneakers, and Into the Spider-Verse was one of the most moving, significant pieces of media I’ve encountered in recent years. I’d love a chance to really indulge in the locality of Brooklyn and write a more grounded, closer to slice-of-life story about Miles.
I also can’t help but say I’d love to do Jason Todd, as well. Jason Todd is my punky, angry boy and I love that trope.
KS: Finally, let’s go from the hypothetical to your real upcoming projects. First up, what was the “secret origin” of Squire? Was it an idea you’d had for a while, waiting for the right time?
NS: [Artist] Sara Alfageeh and I had been talking just as friends, getting to know each other as some of the only young Arab women in the industry. We were thinking about putting an anthology together. One night, Sara calls me and says she’s ready to do a graphic novel, and she wants to talk about influences/story tropes we both gravitate to and see if we could possibly come up with something together. We talked about our love of fantasy, and how formative stories like Fullmetal Alchemist and Avatar were to us. Sara had also done a few designs for a class for a much different story also called Squire. Going off of our influences and discussions, as well as those initial designs, we spend literal days and hours on the phone coming up with [the book] and everything in it: the world, the characters, the politics. I did a ton of historical reading, and Sara did actual visual research while visiting Jordan and Turkey the summer of 2018. I can genuinely say I am so lucky to have written my literal dream project as my debut graphic novel.
KS: Why was a graphic novel the right format to tell this particular story?
NS: We never considered another format. From the onset, it was the only medium considered, so we developed everything about the story to fit the format. It’s not that I don’t think Squire could work in another medium, but I think it’s important to treat graphic novels as a completely valid format on their own that stories are created for, rather than the current “comics are a step to TV/film” attitude you see around sometimes.
[It’s] about a year away from publication. It can be really hard for me to admit when I’m proud of my writing, but I am extremely proud of Squire. Seeing Sara’s art coming in has been completely thrilling, and I can’t wait until you all read it, as well.
KS: Next up is your involvement with Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel for the new Scholastic “Graphix Media” line. What’s the appeal of writing that particular character?
NS: [She] means the absolute world to me. I’d largely fallen off reading cape comics until Kamala was introduced when I was in college. Nothing revitalized my love for those kinds of stories like Kamala. I think it’s very funny that this character gets any kind of pushback at all, when I can honestly say there are countless numbers of Marvel readers who wouldn’t be there if Kamala didn’t open the door and bring us there. She was a super nerdy girl, not overtly sexualized… a nuanced, loving portrayal of an American teen with a strong immigrant background trying to navigate the world and her sense of goodness. And best of all? She was never ashamed of her culture.
KS: It must’ve been a thrill to get the call for this gig, being able to contribute to the character’s budding legacy.
NS: I was stunned at how bold and on-point G. Willow Wilson’s writing was. Kamala was absolutely a bucket-list dream of mine, so it’s surreal to be writing her now. I know how much she means to others, so I hope do them proud.
KS: You’ve also perhaps got some news regarding a prose novel. Can you give us a brief tease?
NS: Secrets, secrets… I’m full of them. One little thing I could say is, expect some horror from me sometime in the future. Perhaps.