“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.
From creating her first comics and zines as a teenager, Sally Cantirino seemed destined for the sequential arts. Aside from making her mark in comic stories, her distinctive art has graced such media as t-shirts, music posters, and more.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Your home base: Somewhere in the swamps of New Jersey
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? What attracts you to working in comics specifically over other artforms?
Sally Cantirino: When I was a teenager, I wanted to be in a band, but I didn’t have enough friends/skills/confidence to start a band, so I got good at drawing instead. Comics turned out to be the best form of storytelling for me — what I couldn’t convey in words, I could convey in pictures, and vice versa. I enjoyed the DIY aspect of making them as a teenager; I liked that you could use pretty lo-fi inexpensive tools and a copier at the library or Staples. That’s all you needed to make a mini-comic or zine.
KS: At what age – or roughly when – did you become a serious comics reader? How did that door open up for you?
SC: I became a serious comics reader around 13 or 14. Our public library had a pretty good selection of graphic novels and trade paperbacks. I picked up offbeat superhero books like Doom Patrol and Animal Man. I picked up stuff like Love and Rockets, Essex County, and Stray Bullets. I discovered artists like David Lapham and Becky Cloonan and Ryan Kelly who were doing phenomenal black-and-white work at the time, as well as EC Comics and Creepy and Eerie artists.
KS: Tell us a little about the first comics you made back in high school.
SC: Nothing particularly original! So many of my early comics were just me riffing on narratives from songs or concept albums I was listening to, or music videos I saw. I did a few diary or autobio comics here and there.
KS: Many young artists fill sketchbooks and maybe show work to friends and family, but you actually self-published. What was the impetus for that?
SC: When I started taking pre-college classes at SVA, with Tom Hart as my teacher, I was exposed to comics that existed outside of the mainstream, and the whole culture of making zines and mini-comics. I found people my age or close to my age that were also self-publishing.
KS: Were you creating actual physical comics?
SC: I was! I had taken one pre-college course at SVA and had a supply list — there was a Pearl Paint like 20 minutes from our house where I could get supplies. I was working on 9 x 12 or 11 x 14 Bristol board; I was trying to use dip pens, then brushes, then inkwash which was a nightmare to copy/scan so I gave up on that. I would scan it in two or three pieces on a little scanner, and stitched it together in a bootleg version of Photoshop. I’d make photocopies of it at Staples and assemble them by hand.
Later on when I was in college, I had a friend with similar hair to mine who would let me use her SVA ID to get in and use their copy center on the top floor, or I’d end up at a 24 hour Kinkos with my friends the night before a con. Once I was at SAW [Sequential Artists Workshop], they had a copier and a very temperamental risograph.
KS: Who was the customer base? Did the other artists who were self-publishing create a trading community and/or was there some outlet to get the work in front of others?
SC: There was no customer base! At that point I was just making stuff to give to my friends or classmates at SVA or hand out/trade at shows. Starting around 2008 or 2009, I started tabling at shows sometimes, either with friends or running SAW’s table. I never did great selling at shows, I always had more luck just kind of yelling into the void of the internet.
KS: You studied at both SVA and SAW. What was different about Sally the artist who came out of those programs vs. the one who went in?
SC: I had a hard time socially in middle school and high school; going to shows and going to SVA Pre-College and hanging out in the city was a huge blessing because I really found “my people” in those places. I ended up not going to SVA for college because it was too prohibitively expensive, so I spent four years at community college and a state university instead. It was probably for the best, because I got to spend a lot of time hanging around North Jersey and going on roadtrips to go to multiple shows on a tour — I think those things very deeply informed and influenced my style and aesthetics.
My friend/mentor Tom Hart founded Sequential Artists Workshop in 2012, and I dropped out of college and went there next. I certainly became a better artist and inker, and felt much more connected to a comics/illustration legacy through my mentor Justine Mara Anderson during my time there. Gainesville was a relatively inexpensive place to live and make mistakes and start out as a freelancer.
KS: How did your first paid comic art gig come about?
SC: It technically wasn’t comics — I did comic pages and illustrations for a YA book when I was 24 or 25? I think Tom Hart passed my art along to someone at Clarion when they were looking for someone to do comic pages for Laura Williams McCaffrey’s book, Marked.
KS: What are some of your favorite art tools/techniques to work with, even if you don’t get to use them often? For example, if you were set free of any obligations and created a piece just for the joy of creating, what might you come up with?
SC: I like photography and collage and making zines/sketchbooks that are layers of photos and text and drawings. In any medium I work in, I like juxtaposing words and pictures, and collage allows for a more stream-of-consciousness or intuitive approach than comics. I did a lot of photo intaglio in college like that, and I wish I still had access to the space and supplies you need to do that technique.
KS: Where do you get most of your work done these days?
SC: Right now due to the pandemic and family circumstances, I’m living at my parents’ house and working out of the bedroom I grew up in. I have a nice little setup here though: I have a small flat-file; I’ve got a computer desk and a drafting table; I’ve got all my records and guitars; and I’ve got art up on the walls and my cacti on my desk.
KS: Have you been able to maintain a set work routine?
SC: I usually wake up around 9, answer emails while I have coffee and breakfast, and then start drawing around 10:30 or 11. After a dinner break, I usually work another couple hours in the evening, until 9 or 10 PM. If I’m juggling multiple projects at once, I’ll split up my day between them (work on one during the day, and one in the evening). I’m getting better about taking weekends off and resting — this [past] year really drove it home how important it is to be fully present with the people you love and not take spending time with them for granted.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. What’s a comic story that had a particular impact on you in your earlier reading years?
SC: Love and Rockets was a huge eye-opener for me. The public library had the big coffee table Locas book that came out in 2004, with all the Maggie and Hopey stories.
KS: Excellent choice. Why was that the right material for you at the right time?
SC: I started going to shows when I was 14, around the same time I started reading comics and realized drawing was what I was good at. There was so much in L&R that was like, “Oh, me too!!” — they went to punk shows, they had confusing crushes on their friends of the same gender, and Maggie had the same body type as me. The artwork in L&R was gorgeous but it was also black and white, which felt like an accessible aesthetic to aspire to for me.
KS: You’ve worked with a variety of writers across different comic projects. Is there something you understand better about the business now, with experience, than you did when you first got involved?
SC: I think my low self-esteem, trouble asking for/accepting help, and lack of knowing what my worth really was got me into bad spots. When I first started freelancing, I was in the first half of my 20s, living away from my parents for the first time, and I was in a rush to feel financially stable and accomplished. I wish I had waited a little longer to gain connections in the industry and the humility/knowledge to ask for advice from them before I had said yes to anything.
KS: Hypothetical time: You can stand over the shoulder of any artist from the history of comics and watch them work in their studio for a day. Who do you pick and why?
SC: This is such a hard question! Chris Bachalo’s work on Shade the Changing Man has been a big influence on I Walk with Monsters, so I think I’d want to look over his shoulder for a day of working on those layouts and pencils!
KS: What’s a passion of yours totally unrelated to comics or art? Could be something you collect, study, practice, whatever…
SC: I knit! I love knitting. With comics, I work in black and white all day, and there’s usually months between when I finish my part of something and when I see the actual physical finished product. Knitting is the opposite of that — It’s all color and you get to have the physical finished object pretty much as soon as you cast off. I’ve also gotten back into playing guitar for the first time since I was a teenager, and I want to pick up mandolin as well soon.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration?
SC: I never get tired of looking at Becky Cloonan’s By Chance or Providence. I have both the black-and-white and color versions of it. I always find new details in it that wow me.
KS: To wrap up, what should we be on the lookout for from you in 2021?
SC: I’ve got four more issues of I Walk with Monsters with Paul Cornell, Dearbhla Kelly, and Andworld Design coming from Vault in 2021. Hazel Cedarquist, DHP Gastelum, Frankie Lennon, and I are working on another arc of our webcomic, CHSR. I’ve got some unannounced projects on the list, too…