“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.
Ashanti Fortson established her reputation and varied body of work via web comics. As both writer and artist, she’s taken readers from sci-fi to fantasy to slice-of-life stories, all told in her distinctive voice. We spoke on what was supposed to be the lead-up to her debut graphic novel before publishing plans changed and… well, she can tell the rest of the story.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Cartoonist (I do everything!) and editor
Your home base: Baltimore, MD
Cress & Petra (HarperCollins, 2023)
Leaf Lace (Hiveworks, summer 2020)
Colors for Song of the Court by Katy Farina (Sterling Publishing, 2020)
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms?
Ashanti Fortson: While I’ve been drawing all my life, I never even considered making comics until my freshman year of college. I had always been a fan of stories, but I had a really difficult time trying to write prose as a teenager. I felt like I could envision everything happening so clearly… but when it came to writing the words, I froze. Translating the images and sequences in my head into words was just the worst. For all that I wanted to, I never managed to write a single piece of fan fiction (probably for the best).
As it turns out, I think in comics. That’s the best way I can put it. I make comics because that’s how I think: each moment a panel, each thought and feeling a line or a color, each worry a sequence of interwoven imagery. Aside from that, I find comics very fun to make. Solving the problems of communication is always exciting. How do I best share this feeling? What panel shape does this need to have? How much motion should I include? I greatly enjoy essays, and each comic is an essay about something different. How do you get to the heart of it, whatever it is? That’s why I love comics.
KS: When did comics first become a part of your life as a reader?
Five words: tracing Inuyasha panels in 2007.
Really, though, I have my town’s public library to thank! I was a voracious reader as a child, and my library had a modest comics section with an even more modest manga section. The American comics there never really appealed to me; they were hard to get into, boring to look at, and why would I read about Batman and Catwoman when Inuyasha had actual dog ears?
The manga volumes tucked away in that little library corner made all the difference for me then, as they do for many kids now. Special shout-out to whichever librarian ordered the four-volume set of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. What was a particular story that really wowed you as a younger reader?
AF: And now to talk about Nausicaä! I read Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga at around nine years old, which was simultaneously far too young and exactly when I needed to read it. The library didn’t even have all four volumes of the set available to check out; I started with the second volume and had zero idea as to what happened before that. It immediately captivated me and reached me deep in the heart. I vividly remember weeping for the ohmu and weeping for Nausicaä and weeping over the impact and significance of the ending. I can say, without a doubt, that it changed my life. Reading it made me want to be like Nausicaä herself: kind, perseverant, willful, caring, courageous, gentle, and human above all else.
That story also made me want to tell stories. It’s why I do what I do. If I can tell stories that make anyone feel a fraction of what I felt reading Nausicaä, then I’ve done all right.
KS: Flipping to the other side of the comics equation, who were the first artists you really responded to?
AF: Frankly, the first was Monet! I adored his use of color and light (still do). Seeing images of his paintings felt like stepping into a slightly more magical version of our world. His water lily paintings are some of my favorites, and I love to show his paintings of Parliament to my sophomore illustration students. So much emotion, so much depth!
The second was Der-shing Helmer, author of The Meek and Mare Internum. I started reading The Meek around when I started high school, and I absolutely lost my marbles at how good everything was. That hasn’t changed, except now I love Der-shing’s work even more.
KS: What’s the first “real” art project you remember creating? Something that felt like a serious endeavor for you at the time, whatever age that was and whether or not anyone else ever saw it…
AF: In late high school (around 16-17 years old), I created a bunch of characters with a really convoluted and contrived storyline. The characters were corrupt gods and the people who sought to overthrow them. None of my art or writing for that project will ever see the light of day, but it was an important creative process for me to go through. It was also the first time I did heavy visual research for my art! That helped me immensely going forward.
KS: Since you now work as both writer and artist, talk about your approach to crafting stories. Do you typically start with plot or with images?
AF: Definitely images and sequences over plot. I use those sequences to figure out the heart of the story, and I build the plot around that. If I already know the heart of the story and/or the themes in general, then I start with that before images/plot. My approach boils down to pinpointing the heart of the story as soon as possible and as accurately as possible, and then making sure everything else works to strengthen that heart. I mentioned before that every comic is an essay — I mean it! That’s how I approach comics and storytelling in general, though it’s not as clinical as “essay” typically implies. Comics are essays, told passionately.
KS: Can you expand on that? Most people probably think of an essay as something more analytical or “dry” than a comic.
AF: When I write an essay and when I make a comic, the fundamental objective is the same: I’m asking you to believe me. I have something in mind that I want you to understand after reading my work, whether comic or essay (or illustration or anything else), and everything in the work must help strengthen, supplement, or enrich that which I want you to understand. With traditional essays, it’s an argument; a thesis statement often rooted in interpretation of facts and data. With comics, it can be far more subtle: an emotion, an atmosphere, a relationship, a character, an experience. I always try to ask myself: How can I more effectively communicate the foundational concept, the heart of the story, the thesis of this comic? To be clear, I don’t mean a “moral” to the story, but rather… when you turn the last page and close the book, what are you left with? What have I told you? What part of myself have I shared, and do you understand me?
KS: When you look back at your earliest comics work, what’s something that stands out as different vs. the you of today?
AF: I was much more afraid to let my comics be weird. I like to play with panel layout more now, because it’s an essential tool in telling a story. I used to only use square or rectangular panels because they were easy. As I’ve grown, I’ve become less interested in doing things because they’re easy. I aim to only do things because they’re effective. Those things can overlap, of course! But I’d say that intentionality is what’s changed the most over time.
KS: Let’s talk about where you do that work. Please tell us about your current workspace or studio setup.
AF: My workspace is kind of an L-shape: I have a very large, long desk (Technically, it’s an Ikea dining table.), and one of those big Ikea square-shelves. The desk has my monitor and Intuos tablet on it, and it’s where I do most of my comics/illustration work. I have a mic and pop filter attached to my desk, because I like to stream art and games sometimes. My desk is also big enough that I can fit my old laptop on it for answering emails, as well as whatever knick-knacks and doodads that accumulate on my desk at any given time.
My square-shelves are where I keep art supplies and my special books: the first two volumes of Pluto, The Meek Volume 1, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, the collected and illustrated edition of The Books of Earthsea, and – you guessed it – both the manga box set and the watercolor artbook of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I also use my square-shelves for sewing and fabric/notion storage!
I have more storage for mailing supplies, needle-felting supplies, yarn, and boring, but important, documents. I love storage!
KS: How about your routine? Do you have a set one, or does it fluctuate significantly based on what’s on your plate?
AF: My typical work hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m. on weekdays, with 3-4 breaks throughout the day. I try not to work on weekends unless I want to. That said, my work routine can vary a lot because of health reasons. I live with various chronic illnesses, and they get in the way of my work pretty frequently. On bad days, I may only work for 2-3 hours total (but not all at once). On really bad days, I can’t work at all. It’s hard not to beat myself up when I’m unable to work — especially in this industry, which is so demanding of time and labor — but I’ve gotten a lot better about it. I’m a person, and I want to stop burning out. So if I can’t work, I won’t. That’s that.
KS: Listening to music while you work: yay or nay?
AF: If I’m alone, I’ll often work in silence! Usually, the most intense things I can listen to while working are the classic “lo-fi beats to study to” channels or videos. If I’m feeling really tolerant of sounds, I might put on a video game speedrun, but only when I’m drawing. For those unfamiliar with speedruns, it’s when someone plays a game as fast as possible, by any means possible. They get pretty exciting. I like the ones that go for 6+ hours, personally.
My favorite ambient videos to listen to while working are “videos for cats to watch.” It’s just a nature feed with a bunch of birds coming to eat seeds. Pumpkin the cat is very interested in those videos, and I like them too.
KS: Let’s spread some love as we wrap up. First, is there a person who was especially valuable to you at some point along your career path?
AF: I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of people believe in me, pave the way and open doors for me, and connect with me on a kind and genuine level. That said: I must always, always give a special shout-out to cartoonist Kori Michele, who took a chance on mentoring me after my freshman year of college, when I contacted them out of the blue and asked in the most roundabout way if they needed a studio assistant. They have always been so kind and supportive to me, and it’s frankly all thanks to them that I make comics. They rock, they’re an excellent human being, they make excellent work, and I’m so lucky to know them and to have learned from them.
KS: How about a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration?
AF: Since I don’t think I can pick just one: all of Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s work. It’s so clear, from each drawing of hers, how much she loves being alive. Her work is steeped in it. I greatly respect and admire that genuine love, tenderness, and vulnerability. Rosemary kicks ass.
KS: And finally, tell us a little about your upcoming projects. You’ve got a debut graphic novel on the horizon, though that horizon has gotten a further away due to outside circumstances…
AF: My most recent project is a short comic [Leaf Lace] for Hiveworks. It’s about a goddess of spinning and weaving, about her dying, elderly wife, and about the desperation that comes with grief. It’s based on a lot of feelings that I’ve had to process, and I’m proud of how it’s come out. I hope that folks enjoy it.
My debut graphic novel is called Cress & Petra, and it follows the relationship between the titular characters: one, an undiagnosed autistic teenager interested in robotics, and the other, a sensitive, fully sapient android with existential concerns. It’s about trying to define yourself when others insist on telling you who you should be, understanding yourself and your needs, and finding those special people who see you for who you are. I’m so lucky to be working with editor Carolina Ortiz on it.
Book timelines kind of don’t feel real, but… it’ll be out in 2023 from HarperCollins! This story is one from deep within my heart, so I’m excited to be working on it. Can’t wait to share it with the world.