Consider how many kids grow up making fan art of their favorite comic and cartoon characters, then consider how many transform that early hobby into a steady, successful illustration career. Andrea Bell is an example of the latter — from DIY manga to having multiple titles on bookstore graphic novel shelves.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Illustrator, colorist, writer
Your home base: Chicago
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms?
Andrea Bell: I can come at it from two perspectives — as a kid I chose to draw comics because it felt like the only available way to combine my story ideas with a visual medium so I could show my family or friends my creations. The second time in my life I chose comics would have been in college, near the end of my degree journey. I had some really great cartoonists as teachers who really helped expand my understanding of the craft. I think comics making might attract those who feel like they need a sense of control, maybe it’s just me. Being a comic artist feels like being a film director but better — not only am I blocking the actors’ movements, writing the scripts, costume designing, creating sets... I’m also in the mind of every character reading their thoughts and then portraying that emotion in my drawings.
KS: You got your BFA in 2013. Did you already have this end goal in your mind when you started school?
AB: Ah, the funny thing too is that I didn’t attend [Columbia College Chicago] with a career in illustration in mind at all. I started out as a marketing major. I had been drawing most of my life but didn’t think it was a career option for me. After my first semester I switched my major to advertising art thinking I could marry my love of psychology with art. It wasn’t until my drawing I class I overheard other students mention they were illustration majors, and that’s when it kind of clicked that illustration might be the better fit for me.
KS: Looking back, does any art project from before then stand out for you as a particularly big deal, whatever age that might have been?
AB: In 7th grade my illustration of a hat was selected to be the imagery for the school’s production of Oliver. They put my drawing on the playbill, on the shirts for the entire cast, on posters. I remember thinking I was a real “working artist,” like I was really elevating my work from the anime fan art drawings stuffed in my binder sleeves.
KS: When was your first try at making comics?
AB: I think [it was] these saddle-stitched manga-style — read them from right to left — books I was making when I was 11? I had some original stories I was writing for those, and some were definitely fan fictions/fan art. I just had stories I wanted to tell and this was the best way I knew how to get it out.
KS: What types of anime or manga were you consuming back then that lit the fire for you to make your own?
AB: I technically wasn't allowed to indulge in anime/manga, so I feel like I never reached my full potential! I borrowed manga from friends at school and at home I would record shows like Inuyasha, Trigun, FLCL, Rurouni Kenshin on VHS tapes so I could watch them when my mom wasn't home. I also was really big into Harvest Moon and Earthbound fandoms — the reason I go by andyharvest today is because it was my name on those forums back in the day.
KS: Did you know others in the fan fic/fan art community back then, either online or in real life?
AB: I did have a little community of friends through the fandoms — we all had fandom/art-centered GeoCities websites and would chat on AIM all day long.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative in 2020 to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. Can you think of a particular comic story that really had an impact on you as a younger reader?
AB: I was 19 and someone lent me all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim. After reading the series, and learning more about Bryan Lee O’Malley’s work, I feel like I could finally make sense of how one combines their interests/inspirations/loves into one cohesive illustration style — and really how that is a journey itself. I mean take a look at Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1 compared to Vol. 6 — it was a style evolution for him! I’ll back up a little more — O’Malley cites a lot of anime/manga inspirations for his art style, but also once mentioned that the way he draws eyes was taken from that one stop-motion Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer movie. Something about Scott Pilgrim and diving into O’Malley’s comics trajectory, I finally felt like I had permission to draw in my own pseudo-manga style. I feel like when I was in college there were a lot more instructors who looked down on this style of drawing, so I think this is really when I started trusting my own drawing process.
KS: When you were self-publishing your early comics, is there anything you wish the Andrea of back then had known? This wouldn’t be with the aim of changing the past, but rather to make her life a little easier…
AB: I think all my experience self-publishing was crucial and integral to how I work as a freelance illustrator today. There’s a lot of problem solving you have to do when you self-publish — maybe that’s figuring out how the double-sided printing works at the FedEx print shop, setting up my own templates, or learning how to talk to a printer who will be handling your book. I don’t think there’s anything I would have wished Andrea of yesteryear would have known. It’s all part of the process!
KS: How did you get the opportunity to work on Fifth Grade Outlaw? Did someone see your self-published work and reach out?
AB: I was approached by an editor of Epic! Creations at comic conventions I exhibited at, I think because I had a full table of self-published work — which included a full-length graphic novel.
KS: A full-length graphic novel requires a serious level of commitment, especially for a self-published creator. What kept you going back then when trying to make a name for yourself?
AB: It is such a challenge, especially if you share a story like me, where you worked a full-time job that didn't exactly fulfill you creatively! Which I should iterate is very normal for a lot of artists just starting out. Honestly, what really kept me going was surrounding myself in Chicago's comic community. The friends I made in school or at comic conventions, they were also creating art and it was just inspiring to also create art alongside them.
KS: Back when you were tabling at those cons, like the one where the editor found you, did you have certain criteria for what made a show “successful?”
AB: I never really thought about a checklist or anything, but some ways one could judge if a show was successful could be if you earned back the fee that you paid for the table spot. And really a rule I have with earnings at conventions is that I never track down how much I'm making during the day. Yes, I keep inventory, but I tally that up at home — I don't want to get in my head during the show. On the other side of it, too, I often felt like a show was a success if I made a lot of new connections with other artists for folks in the industry.
KS: These days, do you have a set daily (or nightly) work routine, or does it fluctuate significantly based on what’s on your plate?
AB: I try to keep a pretty standard work schedule — weekdays, I’ll start working around 8-9ish and break for lunch, then I’ll work into the evenings until 6-7 p.m. Of course, if I’m under a heavy deadline that might call for longer days or working on the weekend, but I do try to keep those open to reset and recharge.
KS: What are your thoughts on listening to music, or any other background noise while you work?
AB: For me it depends on what I am working on, what sort of background noise I can put on! For thumbnails/sketching/writing, it either needs to be instrumental or wordless music, or silence. Once I get to the inking or coloring stage of a project is when I will listen to podcasts, political commentators, or YouTube — I prefer it being a conversation that I can tune in or tune out of.
KS: If art had never worked out, can you think of an acceptable Plan B career path?
AB: I think I would have really liked to be a lawyer, perhaps specializing in creative rights/fair use cases. Now when I'm drawing, I watch/listen to court filings for fun.
KS: How about a hobby of yours totally unrelated to art? Something you study, collect, practice, whatever…
AB: I really enjoy being creative in other ways like baking new recipes or sewing. I’d also like to get more into identifying plants.
KS: To spread some love at the end, what’s a comic by someone else from any era that you look at with admiration?
AB: Hands down, it’s Ripples by Wai Wai Pang, published by PEOW! I am constantly looking back at this book as an inspiration for gentle and fun storytelling. There’s really dozens of wonderful things I could say about this book, from how I absolutely adore Wai Wai’s line art to how the structure of this work is a perfect example of how malleable the comics medium is. I love it, everyone should read it.
KS: And finally, tell us a little about your most recent projects and what you’ve got upcoming in 2022.
AB: My most recent project was in late 2021, my newest book was released! The latest edition to the Maker Comics series, Conduct a Science Experiment!, was written by Der-shing Helmer illustrated by me, and available wherever you get your books! Later this year, I’ll begin work on my next graphic novel, Crumble, written by Meredith McClaren and being published with Algonquin for Young Readers, so I’m really excited to begin work on that. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes, so I’m sure in good time I can share more!