Aspiring artist buying manga with her pocket change. Member of a pop-up comic art studio. Student at one of the most prestigious art schools in North America. Professional who has illustrated multiple properties, including Marvel’s most popular mutant. All of these describe phases of Ariela Kristantina’s unique, inspiring journey thus far — and she’s about to embark on what may be her biggest project yet.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Your home base: Indonesia
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? As an artist, what attracts you to making comics specifically that’s different from other artforms?
Ariela Kristantina: For as long as I can remember, I've been drawing — or attempting to draw — figures while I acted the words when I was a child with my sister. My parents introduced books to me very early on, and in my elementary school in the early '90s, I discovered manga. I'd say all the combinations above made me decide the “why comics.” I feel like what attracts me the most to making comics are the storytelling/directing/capturing moments and the craftsmanship itself. Movies capture moments, too, but movies take even longer time to make and single page illustrations, to me, are more limited than comics.
KS: Was manga popular in Indonesian culture back in the early '90s?
AK: Manga was and is still very big in Indonesia. In the early '90s, there [was] a boom of manga in Indonesia. We didn't really have local comics at that time to fill the market, so everyone mostly was reading manga. They're cheap, sold literally everywhere, and we never had to wait for long to get the next issue. The publisher group translating and importing these manga bought the rights in bulk and by doing so, they're ready to flood the bookstores with new volumes.
KS: Did you have a main go-to source for your books? Were there comic stores around where you were growing up?
AK: We have something similar to Barnes and Noble, Gramedia. That’s the biggest book chain that I know of — they have at least 50 stores in Jakarta alone. I wasn’t born in a rich family, so when I had a little money I could easily buy them. I think most of my pocket money went to buy manga, and my father was very supportive about my habit of reading everything, including manga.
KS: What about more North American-centered comics, like Marvel or DC or Archie? Did any of those make it into the marketplace?
AK: Archie I remember vaguely; I got a few of them. The difference is, there are a lot of cultural jokes lost in translation. If I read them now, I’d realize "Oh, that’s what it meant." Obviously, there are things we don’t understand [in manga] but I don’t think we need that to get what we’re reading. Things like Marvel and DC were all in English back then, and super expensive compared to manga. You could have five or six manga or one Marvel, once a month, twenty pages. As a kid, what would you buy?
KS: Looking back now, what was a particular story that really had an impact on you as a reader?
AK: I'd say there were two titles that will always stick with me: Captain Kid by Hiroshi Uno and Versailles no Bara by Ryoko Ikeda. Captain Kid is a shonen manga while Versailles no Bara is a shoujo manga. The interaction between the characters was what pulled me in the most in those two titles even when the stories can't be more different. Captain Kid is a story about the adventures of a bunch of pirates trying to find Atlantis; Versailles no Bara revolved around Marie Antoinette and her friends and love interests — a lot of it [is fictional], not really based on the real history.
KS: You were an artistic kid reading all this comic material… Did you ever make your own comics?
AK: I did! In school, I found three best friends who loved video games, Japanese RPGs. I didn’t have a console at all, so what they did was told me the story, told me the characters they loved so much, and they wanted me to redraw the game. We used the characters but we made our own stories. It was like a studio, with writers and an editor; we really had a friend who would read through and find mistakes. So, I was like, “Okay, you’re the editor now.” [laughter]
KS: Who were some of your first favorite artists, back when you started being able to identify different styles?
AK: I love Yuuho Ashibe's work in Crystal Dragon and together with writer Etsuko Ikeda, she illustrated The Bride of Deimos. Also, I'm always a fan of Kyoko Ariyoshi's Swan. Both Yuuho Ashibe and Kyoko Ariyoshi have a very strong, high-contrast style with thin, delicate lines and details. After I [got] to the States to get my MFA and decided to do something different than my style for the past 5-8 years in Indonesia, I started to study Bill Sienkiewicz, Rafael Albuquerque, Jock, Esad Ribic, Jerome Opena, and Stuart Immonen, among many others.
KS: When did you get the idea of being a professional artist? Was there an “a-ha” moment of inspiration or was it something always in your mind?
AK: I think there was no “a-ha” moment for me. Really, I have always known I wanted to be a comic artist. In my head, there's never a time when I used the term “a professional artist.”
KS: Is there a point you can mark then as what you’d call your first pro work?
AK: Not many people know, but before I went to the States, I had a studio in Jakarta with five other friends from 2005-2010. No one “published” us, but at the same time our books were on the shelves of the biggest bookstore chain in Indonesia [Gramedia]. We learned manga under the same sensei who was a Japanese mangaka living in Jakarta at the time and opened a manga course. She rounded up eight to nine of her students, all female, made a studio, and we launched our first manga anthology. We [went on to] produce our own four monthly manga magazines. By “producing” I mean we did everything: deciding on and finding the paper supplier, looking for sponsors, doing research on the printing companies, supervising the prints, checking all the printed books — all 3000-4000 books at one time— one [at a] time, and delivering them to bookstores personally. We did all this on top of making and drawing the comics.
KS: Were you getting any kind of pay for all this effort?
AK: No. We put our own money into the printing, each of us like an investor. Back then, we had no Kickstarter or Indiegogo. We had no profits or anything, but it was a very good learning experience for five years — producing something.
KS: And you went for your MFA after that?
AK: Yes, at SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design].
KS: You mentioned that your dad was supportive of you as a reader early on. How about you traveling to the U.S. to pursue an art career?
AK: My mom wasn’t thrilled when I told them I got a scholarship, because when I applied I hadn’t told anyone. I just applied out of the blue. At the very least I could teach with an MFA — that was my backup plan.
KS: Imagine yourself as that art teacher today, and the Ariela who was just starting out is a student in your class. What’s a piece of advice you’d give her about her work?
AK: I’d probably say to her to just draw everything. That’s also how I started back then, and I’m glad I did. Some people try to copy a style and stick to it, and that’s not wrong at all — but for me, I got frustrated when I tried that because it didn’t look the same. I never felt that I belonged. Going back to the question: try everything, draw everything, read more.
KS: If the arts didn’t work out career-wise, was there another professional path you think you could’ve been happy in?
AK: Wow. That's a tough one. I've never thought of another career until the past few months. That career would be being a red panda ranger or a red panda keeper. [Or] a vet maybe, specializing in red pandas.
KS: To jump to your time in the American comics industry, I’m curious about Adora and the Distance in the sense that most fans would first think of Marc Bernardin as a TV writer rather than a comics writer. How did you two end up together?
AK: When I was doing Insexts, an editor from Image contacted me to say they had a book called Genius, which Marc wrote. Afua Richardson had done the art for volume one, but they didn’t have an artist for volume two because Afua was doing something else. I said, “The timing isn’t right, I’m so sorry.” Then, I was doing Mata Hari when Marc contacted me and said, “Hey, Genius [volume three] needs an artist.” I told him I was sorry but I couldn’t, and please contact me next time. Finally, he came in with Adora — perfect timing.
KS: Was it scary saying no when they offered you those earlier jobs? I know sometimes as a freelancer there can be an anxiety about when the next gig is going to come.
AK: Yeah, but the flip side is, even if I said yes, I didn’t have the time to do the work. I did also say no to DC when I was doing Chain — that was scary.
KS: Do you keep a regular work routine these days, or does it change significantly based on what’s on your plate?
AK: I’m located in Jakarta, but I’m following East Coast time, so in my home, I will sleep from 1 to 6 or 7 p.m. and be active from 7 p.m. to noon the next day. It’s a weird schedule; that’s why I try to follow a certain [number of] work hours daily.
KS: What about listening to music, or any other background noise while you work?
AK: That’s how I work! I listen to Audible, YouTube documentaries, late-night show clips, and even half watching Netflix. It’s good to keep my language skills sharp, too.
KS: As someone who’s done a fair amount of cover work, are there specific elements or techniques that catch your eye when you look at other covers?
AK: I'm very drawn to good anatomy — it doesn't have to be realistic, per se — and the dynamic composition of the cover. I like when a cover is “smart” and is telling a story. [I’m] usually not a fan of the money shot type of covers unless the craftsmanship is flawless.
KS: Is there more pressure on an artist when sitting down to tackle, say, Wolverine than there is on something like Adora or Mata Hari?
AK: I felt more pressure back when I started The Logan Legacy than if I got contacted now to draw Batman. The pressure is still there, but at the same time you have several more books under your belt and a feeling of I can do this. You have more confidence in your work than before. With creator-owned, there’s a different pressure — especially when you’re working with a famous writer like Scott [Snyder] or Marc. Then, there’s a feeling of "What if they love the writer but my art sucks?" Fans already like the writer, so the eyes are on the visuals.
KS: Which brings us to Scott and the upcoming book Chain from his Best Jackett Press, where you’re listed as co-creator. Tell us about that opportunity.
AK: I have to blame the meeting on [editor] Will Dennis.
KS: Blame or thank?
AK: Both. [laughter] I actually have known Will for years, because back when I was a student we visited the Vertigo offices. Will will deny this, but… [former Vertigo editor] Mark Doyle liked my work and he called Will in to look at my portfolio. Will didn’t say it, but I could see in his eyes he hated my work.
Years after that, he found me on Twitter because he saw my Batman sketches. He said, “Sorry if I sound ignorant, but are you in comics?” I said, “Yeah, and you hated my work!” [laughter] From there, we built a good working relationship, so when Scott told Will he was looking for a new artist — someone up and coming that he’d never worked with before — Will showed him my work.
KS: How far along was Scott with the idea when you first sat down together?
AK: He sort of had the background of the story in his head. We had several meetings with Will, where we put things together. He’s a creator who really loves to hear feedback from the artist: What do you want to draw? What do you feel about this? How do you want me to write the script? He sends me a script that’s very loose so I can fill in the gaps; I have my choices about paneling, layout, where the dialogue should go. I can go to him and say that a page doesn’t need dialogue at all.
KS: Sounds like an artist’s dream.
KS: When you’re not at the drawing board, what’s a hobby you enjoy?
AK: Video games? Not sure how far it is from art. However, I won't call myself a gamer since I don't spend enough time or play [as] many games as I want. It's just that I've been playing video games since the original Tomb Raider, DOOM, and Wolfenstein were out.
KS: How about a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you admire?
AK: Recently, I follow the art more than the story — sorry, writers. So, anything that has Raphael Albuquerque, Jock, or Jerome Opena, I'm usually buying those. Also, I follow most of Scott's works outside DC: American Vampire, Wytches, Nocterra … Aside from those, I love The Color of Earth — and two other sequels: The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven — by Kim Dong Hwa; a trilogy about a girl coming of age, set in beautiful landscape of pastoral Korea.
KS: As we get to the end, please tell us what readers can be on the lookout for coming up from you.
AK: In November, I have six pages in the Gotham City Villains Anniversary Giant with Mairghread Scott and Trish Mulvihill. I’m still the main cover artist on Maw from BOOM! Studios — a really good book, very creepy.
In 2022, we should definitely have Chain coming out. I may also have a secret project...