Once upon a time, an artist with a BFA in painting started creating a daily comic as a hobby. Since that modest beginning, Breena Bard published two graphic novels on her own before making the leap to the world of middle grade readers through publishers Scholastic and Little, Brown.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist/Writer
Your home base: Portland, Oregon
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What attracts you as a storyteller to working in the graphic novel format?
Breena Bard: Comics are such a unique and accessible way to tell a visual story. I say accessible and I mean both for readers and creators. I think in another life I would have gotten into movies, but since I don’t have that education or those connections, comics have been my “camera.” I try to take a cinematic approach to comics storytelling, considering “camera angles,” pacing, and even acting (via characters’ dialogue, facial expression and body language.) Of course, there are things you can accomplish in movies that you can’t do in comics, but that goes both ways… there are things I can draw in a comic that I could never achieve with a movie.
KS: Before your pro days, did you used to dabble in any kind of illustrated storytelling, as opposed to the more standard “one-off” drawings most kids might do?
BB: Definitely! I have a lot of “false starts” of comics projects that lasted 5-10 pages before I gave up. I was always intimidated by the amount of work that went into making a graphic novel, so it was hard to stick with a project. Looking back, it was all great practice. None of it should see the light of day now, but just to dabble, as you say, was an important step in imagining a career at this. Dabbling meant dreaming!
KS: Your bio mentions that you moved to Portland originally to pursue your dream of making graphic novels, but to back up before that… When did the idea of an artistic career take root for you? Was it a long simmering idea or an “a-ha” moment?
BB: I had been drawing comics since seventh grade but never considered it a career option until I was in my mid-twenties. I was living in Madison after college and working at a senior center. I had a BFA in painting, but clearly that wasn’t going to pay the bills! One day, my friend introduced me to James Kochalka’s American Elf. It seemed so simple, to draw a short comic about your day, every day. I decided to try it, and created my own daily auto-bio comic called Easel Ain’t Easy, which I still occasionally draw today. So, it began as an after-work hobby, and it was really fun. Maybe that was my “a-ha” moment, but it took some simmering to get to that point. I ran pretty freely into comics after that.
KS: When was the first time you ever got paid for a piece of art?
BB: Does a gift certificate to Toys R Us count? Because I definitely won that prize in a third grade poster contest!
KS: Readers would be disappointed if we didn’t hear more about that poster. What was the contest, and what did you come up with?
BB: [It] was a Mr. Yuk sticker contest. Not sure how universally known that is, but it was a sticker campaign to warn kids about bottles containing poisonous substances. Wikipedia tells me that the stickers were not highly effective.
The earliest I can remember making actual money was maybe in college? I remember getting a random email from someone starting a gallery in Georgia who wanted to buy one of my drawings. This sounds like a scam, but he actually sent me a check!
KS: How did that client find you? Was your work online at that point?
BB: I have no idea how he found my work! This was the early aughts, so I had a DeviantArt account that he might have come across. I honestly have no idea, though.
KS: Aside from your artistic ambitions, what about you as a reader? Roughly when did reading anything in the comics family first become a part of your life?
BB: The first comics I read regularly were the strips in the Sunday newspaper, which probably started as soon as I could read, since they were readily available. My parents knew to pass me the comics section before anyone else. It was a pretty safe and wholesome introduction to the world of comics, and I think I absorbed a lot of my storytelling sensibilities through those strips.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. Was there a comic story that really had an impact on you?
BB: I think in general, that credit has to go to Batman. I didn’t grow up reading floppies, so it wasn’t until I was in high school and wandered into the graphic novel section of the library that I even encountered these stories. I think No Man’s Land by Greg Rucka was the first I read, quickly followed by The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, Arkham Asylum, and The Killing Joke. I was initially shocked by how dark and gritty these stories were — maybe a little scandalized even — but definitely hooked.
KS: You certainly stumbled onto some all-timers with that list. What made those the right material at the right time for you?
BB: I think anyone who loves Batman could find a way to tie his experience to their own. For me, it was just the dark vibes of feeling misunderstood and trying to face the world alone (emotionally speaking). When Batman beat someone up, it was disturbing but also cathartic. This is strange for me, because I have always hated violence in reality, or even in movies, but for some reason on the comics page it felt good. I didn’t even have any specific trauma or pain I was responding to, just that general teenage angst, and it felt like a kind of mirror. I think as a budding storyteller, it was also really important for me to see comics potential beyond just a running gag. To see them as dramatic and suspenseful and carefully crafted. Eventually, I would move on to more grounded-in-reality books like Persepolis and Maus, but I’ve got to give Batman credit for that first push toward maturity.
KS: You eventually took all that background and published your own graphic novel, Picket Line, in 2011. Ten years later, what does the current Breena better understand about art and the graphic novel business than the one who created that book back then?
BB: I’ve learned the importance of doing lots of heavy lifting up front to perfect your story. Doing the visual research, the exhaustive character design, the multiple rounds of script revision. It’s tempting to jump right into drawing panels, but putting that time and energy into the early stages really saves time down the road, and makes for a better project in the end.
KS: I won’t ask the dreaded question about where you get your ideas, but rather where you start with an idea: images that lead to plot, or vice versa? What makes a story best suited to the graphic novel form?
BB: Hm… I think I tend to start with an interaction, or some dynamic between two characters. Sometimes, this is inspired by real life — the kids in Trespassers were based on a childhood interaction that my brother and I had with some neighbor kids. Usually, from there I can build out a situation and eventually a plot that encompasses the energy of this original scene. In Picket Line, I started with an imagined interaction between a young woman and a man whose arms resembled a T-Rex, and he needed help reaching the snacks at the gas station. And somehow I managed to turn that into a 270-page graphic novel!
KS: Trespassers is your first middle grade graphic novel. Did you have that audience in mind when you sat down to craft the book?
BB: Not exactly… I started writing Trespassers almost eight years before it was finally published, and I don’t think at that point I specifically envisioned a kids’ book. At the beginning, it was more of a memoir about our summers at the lake. The more I worked on it, it morphed into a fictional story and then a mystery, and at some point it became more clear to me that this was, in fact, a kids’ book. That meant changing a few details, and toning down the language a little bit, but ultimately the evolution into writing for kids was pretty natural. Probably I’ve been writing for kids longer than I realized, and my brain just caught up.
KS: Please tell us a little about your current workspace or studio setup.
BB: Currently, my workspace is set up in our basement — it’s not very glamorous! At the start of Covid, my husband needed to work from home, so we cleaned up our basement, hung curtains and some bright prints, set up our desks and some low-light plants, pushed the drum set to the corner and have a mini-home office down here. I write on a MacBook, illustrate on either a Wacom Cintiq or my iPad, and have a black hard-bound sketchbook at the ready for getting ideas out of my head.
KS: How about your work hours? Do you have a set routine, or does it vary depending on project?
BB: At this point in life, my routine is really determined by our family and the pandemic situation. Since we are all at home and my son is doing virtual kindergarten — we also have a three-year-old — I am mostly on kid duty during the day while my husband works. Once I sold my latest book, I needed time to write it, which has meant getting up a few hours earlier and working until school starts. I sneak downstairs, trying to avoid the creakiest steps, make coffee, and then get to work. I try to start with a few minutes of mindfulness, since I never get a chance to do that during the day. I also do “morning pages” — an exercise from the book The Artist’s Way — to help clear my head. Then, I get to work for a few hours. I’m actually far more productive when I have such limited time, so even though this arrangement isn’t ideal, it does help me to meet my deadlines!
KS: Given the situation you just described, what are your thoughts on listening to music, or any other soundtrack, while you work?
BB: I can’t listen to anything while I write, or even when I’m penciling. But when it’s time to ink or color, I listen to everything I can: music, podcasts, movies, yelling kids, fireworks, bring it on!
KS: Do you have trusted readers to give feedback on your work in progress? How do you know when a manuscript is ready to “leave the nest” for publication consideration?
BB: I do send my script to some trusted friends once I have a draft finished. When I was self-publishing, that was really my main source of feedback, and knowing when it was “ready” was more of a guess. The process for my newest book is really different, because I sold the book based on a synopsis and sample pages, which means that I get to write the script from scratch and get feedback from my editor before I ever begin drawing it. After the way I’ve worked in the past — lots of artwork getting scrapped in edits — that feels like a luxury! I’ll still show my friends to get feedback, though, that’s still important to me.
KS: Away from the drawing board, what’s a passion of yours totally unrelated to your work? Something you study, collect, practice, whatever…
BB: We have drums and guitars set up in our basement, and we have semi-regular family music time. I am really hoping that my kids grow up and think it is totally cool and normal to have a family-band with their parents.
KS: How about a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration?
BB: I’ll cheat and name two: Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal and Super Mutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki. I think since they both started as webcomics, they provide a really nice, little bridge between episodic character studies and longer arching narratives, which is kind of a sweet spot for me. The sense of humor is so sharp, the pacing is masterful, and the illustration knocks me on my bum, I’m so in awe.
KS: Finally, tell us a little about what you’re working on now and what’s coming down the road in the future.
BB: I’m working on a new middle grade graphic novel called Wildfire, slated for publication in 2023 by Little, Brown. It’s the story of 13-year-old Julianna whose family loses their house in an Oregon wildfire, and how she and her family members cope differently with that loss. All around her, people are blaming climate change while Julianna just wants to blame the boy who started the fire. I’m also working on MAYDAY76, an ongoing series that I began near the start of the pandemic. I call it my mumblecore sci-fi story, about a dysfunctional space crew trying to save the world from a mutated strain of coronavirus, set 50 years in the future. It’s fun!