Some artists bring an easily identifiable, signature style to every project, while others are more like shifting chameleons. Shivana Sookdeo is an example of the latter — she’s created a portfolio as unique as her artistic voice, including not only comics but graphic design work in a variety of media. And that’s not even mentioning her Eisner and Ignatz awards!
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): I’m a cartoonist and do everything myself.
Your home base: Brooklyn, NY
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What attracts you specifically to making comics as an artform?
Shivana Sookdeo: I’m a visual thinker, and comics are identical to my thought processes. I picture concepts as sequential images, even down to my day-to-day life. Making comics, for me, is conversing with myself in a way that contextualizes my thoughts for others. I think the medium is a powerful art form for communication, a scaffold for a lot of exciting visual experimentation. And honestly? They’re fun. They’re way more fun than any art form I’ve dabbled in.
KS: Whereas many artists are easily identifiable from comic to comic, one thing that stands out about your various works is how different some of them look from each other. Is this a conscious choice on your part?
SS: I wish there was a deeper answer to this, but largely it’s because I get bored! I love trying new things, new styles, and new approaches to comics with every single one I make. To me it’s like interior decorating — some styles are needed for specific narrative “spaces.” Others might demand something different. I bow to whatever I think best suits what I’m trying to say. There’s no singular style, but I’d say I’m more thematically coherent than stylistically.
KS: Since you’ve played the role of both writer and artist, I wanted to ask about your comics creation process. Do you typically start with image or plot idea?
SS: It’s mostly determined by length. For short form, I begin with a thesis idea, followed by visuals and specific lines/thoughts I want to include. It goes right into thumbs, along with any dialogue, then to pencils and beyond. For long form, I start with a script alongside very rough panel layouts, then thumbs, and the rest. They both start from the kernel idea, but I’m far more loose with short form.
KS: Looking back, at what age did reading comics first become an important part of your life?
SS: Very early! I’d say around five. I had older boy cousins who were huge Spider-Man fans. I’d get their old comic hand-me-downs and scour them regularly. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but everything about the combination of text and images made so much sense to my brain.
KS: Did you gravitate toward favorite books or characters initially?
SS: I’ve bought about ten copies of Dinotopia to date, because I wore them to pieces for many years. I grew up with characters like Pippi Longstockings and Nancy Drew and Hindu heroes. It meant a lot to be raised reading about girls that did things, that were fiery and strong, that didn’t adhere to a feminine ideal to which I didn’t really connect.
KS: Was the idea of an arts career an “a-ha” moment for you or more of a long-simmering idea?
SS: It was very long-simmering — I’ve been making art since I was a toddler and continued through high school. It never seemed like something I could sustain myself with, though. I wound up studying psychology in college. (Many first-gen kids will know the tension between your parents wanting you to have a supportive job vs. where your passions actually lie.) The turning point was probably picking up David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. It represented what I wanted to do visually, a balance between the storytelling I was interested in and my fine art interests. I had a niche! I could make THIS kind of art! Everything felt right after that. I finally started making my own.
KS: Mazzucchelli is another artist whose style has undergone significant transformation, from his partnerships with Frank Miller to his solo work. Are you a fan of his in general?
SS: I wouldn't say a capital-F fan, as I haven't really followed the arc of his career, but I can see the things I liked about Asterios Polyp in his Batman work. He breaks a lot of previously used conventions moving forward into more abstracted narratives. I appreciate that ability to adapt and reinvent one's work to express different things. That's the kind of versatility I want to embody/emulate.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. What’s a comic story that really impacted you as a younger reader?
SS: I think the earliest formative comic of my youth was Hergé’s Tintin. They had the entire thing at my local library, and it was a revelation to read these adventures with art that was clear and adventures engaging in ways that superhero comics had not been for me. That was the first time I thought to myself: “This, this is what I want to do and how I want to tell stories.” The manga boom took over shortly after, and after picking up Inuyasha and One Piece, I was absolutely hooked.
KS: Can you pinpoint what worked for you with that particular material?
SS: Until then, comics never seemed like something in which a brown girl from the suburbs could participate on a creator level. To this day, manga is a huge part of my comics diet.
KS: Tell us a little about your current workspace or studio setup.
SS: My office is separate from my bedroom currently (though that will be changing when I move soon!). These days, I work mainly digitally and either curl up with my iPad or work with an inclined desk. I like surrounding myself with things that make me happy so my workspace is pleasant to be in like plants and comics I love and reference art books.
KS: Do you have a set daily (or nightly) work routine, or does it vary wildly depending on your workload?
SS: This is a pre-COVID and post-COVID kind of question for me. Before, I definitely had a set routine for weekdays, where I would head into the office for 9-5 p.m. and come home to work on my own things after dinner. The weekend would solely be for my own work, broken up by chores as best I could. These days, it’s difficult to constrain the design workload to just 9 to 5, for everyone working remotely, so I fit in my own work when I’m not too exhausted or working too late. There’s no real routine, sadly.
KS: All things being equal, what about your personal preferences: “on duty” day or night? Silence or background noise?
SS: I’m very much a night owl. I like working best between 5 and 10 p.m.. In my youth, it was a lot later (All nighters were definitely a thing.), but I can’t handle that in my mid-thirties. I’d like to live. No more skipping sleep for me. I like to have on things I’ve either watched a million times before, like Due South, so I don’t need to look up or ambient kind of things like Dianxi Xiaoge’s YouTube channel. Weirdly, I do a lot of good work with schlocky ghost shows like Paranormal Survivor on.
KS: Any go-to beverages?
SS: I’m much more mindful about my hydration these days, so there’s always ice water or cold seltzer at hand. I try to set my timer for breaks but I don’t always. Kids, don’t be like me.
KS: If you consider your earliest comics work, what’s something that stands out as different vs. the current version of you?
SS: I will never, ever ink with ballpoint again. Never! Shoot me into the sun if I even think about trying it; it wasn’t for me at all. I’m far more comfortable with my varied line weights from brushpens now. At the beginning, I was very much enamored with ligne claire because of my early days studying Tintin and a lot of shoujo manga, but now I’ve learned to embrace my naturally heavier line style. Sometimes, your hand’s diet is different than your eye’s diet!
KS: What’s a special moment of pride or joy from your professional journey that maybe still makes you smile? Your credits feature the words Eisner and Ignatz, so maybe something related to those…?
SS: The awards are always great; I think many cartoonists need that vindication or recognition in what is a very solitary, physically challenging activity. Ultimately, it’s not really what drives me. To be honest, I’d still be making comics if no one was left on the planet but me. They’re first and foremost a way to tell things to myself or to people to whom I want to speak. That moment of understanding is what I strive for. Thus far, when my mother read through Breath, Plucked From Heaven for the first time and cried was It. I wrote that story for her, thinking about the inevitable grief I’ll have to bear when she passes — and she felt it. I can’t top that moment. Not yet, anyway.
KS: How about a passion from outside the world of comics?
SS: I took a lot more physics courses than I ever needed, and astronomy/cosmology is still a big passion of mine. I try to keep abreast of the latest and occasionally brush up on the fundamentals. In another life, I’d definitely pursue science into a career.
KS: To spread some love at the end, what’s a comic/graphic novel by someone else that you look at with awe or admiration?
SS: Skip by Molly Mendoza is absolutely stunning. It stretches a lot of what comics can do and be in fascinating ways while still being recognizable as a narrative. Molly’s totally a powerhouse.
KS: Finally, talk about what you’re working on now & what we should be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond.
SS: I’m still chipping away on the art for a middle grade graphic novel and have two pitches in the works. One is an adaptation of a very well-known classic. And who knows… maybe I have a few picture books in me.