“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.
Noella Whitney could have followed a number of illustration-centric career paths after leaving the Maryland Institute College of Art. But comics is where she took her unique voice, creating web series, contributing to anthologies, and winning two PRISM Awards (which “recognize, promote, and celebrate diversity and excellence in the field of queer comics”).
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Penciler, inker, colorist, writer
Your home base: Presently, Japan; previously Baltimore, MD
Current project title(s) (either already released or upcoming):
Broadside (2015-2019, webcomic)
Dates, An Anthology of Queer Historical Fiction Vol 2 (Margins)
To Measure (Summer 2017, self-published, 2018 PRISM Award Winner)
To Cut (2020)
69th Circle of Hell, an Angels and Demons Zine (published at TCAF 2019)
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I start with the big question: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically over other art forms?
Noella Whitney: Comics are the combination of two things I love: drawing and telling stories! I found I really enjoyed telling stories from writing Naruto fan fiction early on in high school. I loved making my readers cry. The first comic I ever drew was a scene from a fanfic I wrote and the feeling of accomplishment was astounding. I knew I wanted to make more comics at that point, but it didn’t materialize into a career goal until I was halfway through college.
KS: At what age, or roughly when, did reading comics first become an important part of your life?
NW: I was super into fantasy in middle school (Hello, Eragon…), so a friend recommended Naruto to me in 8th grade. I had never read Japanese manga before then, but I was very aggressively tomboy and had been taking karate lessons for six years by that point and loved martial arts, so Naruto’s character and outcast status resounded with me so much that I devoured the whole anime as quick as I could. My curiosity led me to fan fiction sites, and once that happened, it was over. I couldn’t get enough. Rather than read many series, I would always (and still do) stick to one at a time but go deep into it. I tend to gravitate towards characters who have unbreakable wills, because anything I’ve ever done was because someone told me I couldn’t or it was wrong. Bonus points if that person has only one or two people they will bend themselves to.
KS: Do you have a specific memory where a comic put the “I want to try doing that” bug in your head?
NW: In my early high school years, there was an internet artist a long time ago that went by the name “Endling,” and he had a series named Everafter. He took familiar fairy tale characters and made his own connected universe story with them, and even though I’m not really a horror fan, his nightmare-ish iteration of the Big Bad Wolf stuck with me. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, and I knew wanted to make something that gave people the same reaction!
KS: When you were studying illustration as an undergrad, what did you envision as your career path going forward?
NW: Hmm well, I wasn’t really sure at that point. Adventure Time had opened my eyes to animation as a career path. I didn’t and still don’t have a particular career path, so much as goals, like, “I wanna put out a fantasy/sci-fi/etc book” or “I wanna do a collab” or “I wanna work on a cartoon” or “I wanna try being an editor/publisher/organizer.” Unfortunately, I can get bored easily, but the skill sets for all of these are different and flex different parts of my brain, so I always stay interested! Currently, I’ve put my art career on hold so I can live here in Japan since I knew moving to a foreign country was something that’d be hard to do once I got the art ball rolling; however, I’m doing small things on the side so I can jump right back in, like To Cut, the second installment of my butch lesbian werewolf comic, and I’m looking to table in Tokyo a few times before I return to the U.S.!
KS: Talk a little about Broadside, which began life as a thesis project but kept going afterward. Considering where you started and ended, what was the journey like for you?
NW: When I started, I knew either way – if I finished it or I didn’t – I would learn so much about how I personally make comics in a longer format. To that end, the story and characters fulfilled their purpose even though the story was only about 1/3rd finished when I decided to discontinue it. I learned a lot about, well, every part of making a comic, but especially how to hone your characters and how you frame/portray them, because, ultimately, it is about them and their choices, not just some good vs. evil conflict. If a character is a mouthpiece for an idea, they’ll immediately fall flat. You need to show the depth, nuance, contradictions, and things left unsaid that you still know anyway because of their actions. That’s what turns them into something people connect to, because we ourselves are exactly like that.
KS: You’re our first PRISM Award winner to appear in this interview series. Can you tell our readers about your experience?
NW: I made To Measure simply because at that point in my life, all my comics were collabs or had an unfinished story, so I wanted to finish at least one all by myself! I already had character ideas for a human/werewolf pair of butch lesbians, so I just figured out the script in about an hour on a day trip to the beach with my parents. The script just flowed and I got the feeling I had something really good. The more that I drew it, the more it became this extremely self-indulgent project.
KS: How did the nomination come about?
NW: I submitted it for consideration solely because I was encouraged by a friend, and the judges liked it enough to give it an award! So, I guess I should be more self-indulgent, huh?
The other PRISM award I share is from being a part of the Dates 2 anthology of queer historical fiction! Shoutout to the editors, Cat and Zora; they really helped elevate my piece for it.
KS: Looking back on your comics journey thus far, is there another particular moment of pride that stands out for you?
NW: Hmm, well, getting those awards felt really good, like I actually have something to say in comics! Even though I know it’s not true in the slightest, I often feel passed over or not special/talented/stunning/unique enough, so someone saying “Yes, I want you” or “You’re good at this, keep it up” is very validating. I sold To Measure for the first and only time so far at FlameCon 2017, and watching people’s eyes light up when they picked it up and flipped through reminded me why I do this incredibly stressful and vulnerable medium.
KS: Do you have a set daily (or nightly) work routine these days?
NW: My work schedule is just whenever I’m not at work, whether that’s before or after, just keep plugging away until it’s finished — but taking snack breaks and watching something; however, if I’m in the planning stages of something where I have to think a lot, like designing, research, writing, doing thumbnails, etc, I HAVE to go out to a coffee shop and work. I can’t stay at home, home is the art factory, not the design studio. The buzz of people around me helps me focus on getting the work done and having an espresso doesn’t hurt either (I’m a recovering former barista, okay).
KS: Hypothetical time: A major publisher is offering you a PAID chance to work on a single story featuring an established character/team — could be one issue, a miniseries, or a graphic novel. Who do you choose?
NW: Oh man, I’d love to work with Chiho Saito, the creator of the official Revolutionary Girl Utena manga and character designer for the TV anime. Utena has a special place in my heart. Juri is still one of my favorite characters ever. I’d love to make anything with Ms. Saito, fantasy, magical girl, sci-fi, as long as it’s about girls in love and there’s plenty of opportunity to draw sparkly romantic scenes, ahaha.
KS: We’ll go from there to spreading more love: What’s a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with awe or admiration?
NW: Gotta say my friends are my biggest inspiration. Rebecca Mock’s Compass South and Knife’s Edge have gorgeous, well, everything! Her layouts, colors, character expressions, and line quality are all to die for!! And Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is just flawless; the efficiency of the simpler style really does more, not to mention how much of a gut punch the story is.
KS: To wrap up, talk a little about your upcoming project.
NW: Well, I wanted to revisit Ida and Osa from To Measure, so I’ve been working on a sequel called To Cut about their life after (spoiler) Osa decides to stay! Often, we focus on characters getting together, but we don’t often see what happens after that. Plus, I wanted to draw a big, strong momma werewolf, so, of course, following the thread of self-indulgence, it made a good excuse. I have all the designs and thumbs done, and it’s looking to be about as twice as long as the original. All I need to do now is just sit down and make the pages. I’m hoping to finish it in time for Tokyo COMITA 131 in February!