“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.
If cartoonists’ works were shelved in separate categories, one would have to walk through an entire bookstore to track down Kaylee Rowena’s oeuvre. An artist who’s been singularly focused on her craft, she traverses different subjects and storytelling styles while maintaining a voice clearly her own.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Your home base: NYC!
Instagram: @kayleerowena (not very active)
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Big question first: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms?
Kaylee Rowena: Big question, indeed! Is it a complete cop-out to say I don’t know? Obviously, I made the choice to make comics at some point (and keep making that choice every time I pick up a pen), but something about comics just feels inexplicably, unexplainably magical in a way nothing else does. The possibilities feel so infinite.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. What’s a particular comic story that really stuck with you from the time you found it?
KR: I got into comics in high school, right around the time Fraction/Aja/Hollingsworth’s Hawkeye was coming out, and it’s definitely one of the comics that made me realize I wanted to make comics myself. And on a less career-based level, the way it wasn’t afraid to show these superheroes as humans with depression and trauma and complicated families and personal issues galore was absolutely vital to me as a young teenager just coming to terms with my own mental health issues. It made me feel less alone in a time when not much else could do that.
KS: Do you remember when/how the art bug first arrived for you?
KR: My mom claims that the first career goal I ever had, at age two or three, was saying I want to be an artist. Obviously, I have no memory of that at all. I bounced around in what my dream job was a ton as a kid, from paleontologist to singer to astronaut, but I was always drawing regardless of what I thought I wanted to be, which is probably good given that I’m certainly not good enough at math or science to go to space.
KS: How about making the decision to actually pursue this career path? What was your thought process in choosing NYC’s School of Visual Arts?
KR: Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing when I chose SVA! Not that it wound up being a bad thing, but when I was 16 and applying to colleges, my primary thought was that I wanted to get out of my hometown. I went to a magnet high school for visual art, as well, so art as a career path was pretty solidly decided by the time I was 14 or so, though my memories of why I decided on that are pretty vague beyond just “it was what I was good at.” The teachers at that high school were also very against comics and very much the type to say that comics weren’t “fine art” and therefore weren’t worthwhile, and, well… spite sure is a powerful motivation!
When I started at SVA, I didn’t really know what I wanted my career to look like — I thought I’d want to do LGBT historical fiction & nonfiction work, actually! Which would still be cool, honestly, but it’s not my primary goal anymore. A lot of this has been me making it up as I go along. I think “fake it till you make it” is probably easier to do in art than as an astronaut, thankfully.
KS: And what’s different about the Kaylee who came out of SVA vs. the one who went in?
KR: God, I’d say there’s more differences from the Kaylee of four years ago than there are similarities at this point. I attribute that a lot more to living on my own in NYC than to the school itself; though my time at SVA was definitely worth it and I improved a ton as an artist, the question of whether or not all those student loans are worth it is still one I’m trying to answer, haha. But going from living in a very isolated family in the suburbs of Baltimore to being completely independent in a new city was the best choice I’ve ever made, and taught me a lot about myself.
I’m also at least five times gayer than I was when I started at SVA, and that’s certainly made my comics better.
KS: Who have been some of the influential artists for you, either due to their work on the page and/or their career model?
KR: Emily Carroll, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Annie Wu, Noelle Stevenson, Ravi Teixeira, Kathleen Jacques, Pam Wishbow, Jake Wyatt, Shing Yin Khor, Reimena Yee, and probably a thousand others I’m forgetting.
KS: At this point, you’ve written and drawn your own comics, as well as working with other writers. When you’re doing the former, how do you typically start — with image or story?
KR: I usually start with a loose story and work my way forwards from there, though I do a lot of doodling at every stage to solidify character designs and general aesthetics. My scripts are more bullet-points of dialogue than full comic scripts, since only I have to interpret them, so I usually like to get all of that on the page before I move onto any images.
KS: What’s a snack and/or drink that’s always close at hand during your work time?
KR: Coffee! I don’t get much actual energy from it (Thanks, ADHD.), but it does help me focus and tastes good. Favorite is a good iced mocha.
KS: Looking over your work thus far, you’ve bounced among several different genres of storytelling. Has that been a conscious approach (i.e., you want to specifically try these different items off the menu)?
KR: It’s more me figuring out what I want to do as I go! I’ve figured out fairly recently that the genre I’m most interested in is horror, but it took me a long time to get there. I do enjoy dabbling in other genres, though, and I’ll probably keep doing that — I don’t want to tie myself down to one just yet, and I think there’s a lot of value in exploring different ways to tell stories.
KS: Without asking you to pick your favorite among your projects, is there one work you could point to that most fully represents you as a person and an artist?
KR: It’s a very short comic (only three pages), but I think A Comic About Going Home is probably the most Me™ of my work so far. The pink, the slightly melancholy real-world wondering projected onto fantastical settings (in this case, I was working out some stuff about homesickness & disconnect from my Jewish heritage), the astronauts and abandoned/overgrown settings — it’s all stuff I enjoy a lot.
KS: Hypothetical time: A major publisher is offering you a chance to draw one story featuring a character/team of your choice. Could be a graphic novel, miniseries, single issue… Who do you pick?
KR: I had an answer for this about my favorite unappreciated Marvel character —Angelica Jones! — and then I remembered The Umbrella Academy exists and immediately erased everything I’d written. I’ve got mixed feelings on both the comic and Netflix show as they exist now (mostly boiling down to: both have so much potential and so many horrifically problematic elements), but exploring that world would be so fun. I’d love to take a crack at expanding Vanya Hargreeves’ story specifically.
KS: What’s something you’re passionate/geeky about totally outside the world of comics?
KR: Ghosts! And haunted houses! That might seem like a weird choice, but I’m absolutely fascinated by ghost stories — not even necessarily from a point of believing in ghosts (though I do, mostly, believe in them), but I think the way people tell stories about death and ghosts says so much about any given society. This has been a huge interest of mine since I was a kid — I used to stay up and watch awful ghost hunter shows on my tiny pink Barbie TV way past my bedtime, and now I stay up and watch awful ghost hunter shows on my laptop, so not much has changed there.
KS: Give some love to a comic/graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration.
KR: Everyone must be picking Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s Don’t Go Without Me for this, right? I’m constantly awed by every aspect of her work. The panel layouts, the use of limited palettes, the storytelling. I’ve read this book probably at least a dozen times since I got it a few months ago.
KS: Finally, tell us what you’re working on now and what we should be on the lookout for.
KR: Recently released is The Scent of May Rain with Mark O. Stack at Weekend Warrior Comics. I also have a piece in the upcoming anthology, Gothic Tales of Haunted Futures.
I’m in the beginning stages of a new comic right now — not a lot to show, and I’m still deciding where I want to go with it, but I’m already very excited about it! It’s about fae curses, ghosts, and flower language.