“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 the young girl discovering manga, through her college study of classical arts, Catalina Rufin followed her creative calling all the way into the comics field. She’s built an extensive, eclectic catalog of self-published titles — all told through her own unique voice and artistic sensibilities.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist/Writer
Your home base: Boston, Massachusetts
Etsy store: www.etsy.com/shop/Fairycomix
Webtoon: Winged Feet
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Big question first… Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically?
Catalina Rufin: Because of their ability to combine images and words in storytelling seamlessly. I always loved writing fiction, but also drawing, and comics was the best way for me to combine both.
KS: Do you remember at what age, or roughly when, comics first came into your life?
CR: I grew up with a lot of comics around me, but it was in 5th-6th grade that I found out about manga and began seeking it out to read in libraries and bookstores. The art style and way of storytelling personally appealed to me much more than comic strips and Tintin — what I grew up reading. There was a focus on drama, relationships, and teen issues that spoke to me.
KS: Once your horizons expanded, did you discover any favorite books or artists?
CR: The series that was most important to me is W.I.T.C.H. It was a comic made by Italian artists that was very manga-influenced in its style. I didn’t follow specific artists’ work, but I quickly realized that I liked the shojo genre of manga — generally appealing to girls with themes about romance and friendship — so I sought it out more.
KS: What was it about W.I.T.C.H. that made it work so well for you at the time?
CR: The five main characters — each of their first names forms the WITCH acronym — are misfits of some kind, along with having magic powers. The series does a great job of conveying how uncomfortable being 13 is, without being uncharitable. The characters are diverse in race and size, so one could easily find someone to relate to and feel seen in.
KS: I like to try and find the origin point where someone decides to pursue a career in the arts. Can you pinpoint when that thought took root for you?
CR: When I was ten, my aunt gifted me one of those “how to draw manga” books which got me really excited about drawing my own comics. For years I made comics with a vague idea of being a cartoonist or some other art-related job. I made a conscious decision to pursue a career in the arts in junior year of high school, when I signed up for a pre-art school portfolio class, then applied to art school. Once in art school, I majored in Illustration as a way to strengthen my cartooning skills.
KS: At which school did you end up?
CR: I went to Suffolk University’s Illustration program — which sadly is no longer being offered — and CCS in Vermont for an MFA in cartooning.
KS: Aside from strengthening those cartooning skills, what other benefits do you feel like you got out of your time there?
CR: I benefited from learning in a structured, classroom environment. My art lessons before that were minimal. Going through the foundation year of art school, I had to do a lot of projects that had nothing related to cartooning, such as making large sculptures out of plaster and insulation foam, but made me an all-around better artist. I can thank those two brutal years of foundation for my strengths in color theory and craftsmanship today.
KS: Is there a time of day you feel the creative engine burns best? If so, are you able to bend your work routine toward that time?
CR: Mornings and afternoons are best. On my days off from work, I like to get all of my artwork done in the morning and early afternoon and have the rest of the day to do other things. On days that I have work, I tend to do easier parts of the comics process that I can “shut my brain off” for, like, inking.
KS: Thumbs up or down: listening to music or background noise while you work?
CR: Big thumbs up. I like to watch TV and movies, music, and podcasts while I work.
KS: Can you share what we might hear on the official Cat playlist?
CR: I like virtuosic, literary music from the ’70s and ’80s, so a lot of progressive rock. I’m also influenced by singer-songwriters who take moments from their personal life and embellish them or obscure them with metaphor. Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Joni Mitchell do both, so they are major inspirations for how I approach my own comics.
KS: If you look back now at your earliest comic/zine work, what’s something that stands out as different than the current version of you? Not necessarily worse, just different.
CR: I had more experimental styles, even if my figurative drawing wasn’t as skilled. I did comics in pencil, different kinds of markers, with more abstract and playful panel layouts. Over the last five years, I’ve settled into a style where I go from pencil to ink to watercolor.
KS: Since you’ve played the role of both writer and artist, do you typically start with image or plot idea?
CR: I start with a character that I want to tell a story about. Since my comics are character-driven, the story takes shape from what the character wants, what motivates them, and how they grow into a better person.
KS: Is there a recent example that comes to mind of how you built out from that origin point?
CR: With my most recent webcomic, Winged Feet, my idea was a story based on my experience as a cross-country runner. The protagonist, Lita, is my voice as a creator: We are Latinx, nonathletic, and yearn to be approved by the in-group which in this case is Lita’s teammates.
KS: Hypothetical time: You can spend one day standing over the shoulder, asking questions of any artist in the history of the comics medium (living or dead). Who’s your pick?
CR: It would be Atelier Sento. They are a couple who make gorgeous watercolor comics and illustrations together. I would ask questions about their painting methods and how they decide who does what in their comic-making process. As my spouse is also a cartoonist, I’m intrigued by the idea of combining both our strengths to make even better comics!
KS: Many of the items on your comics resume are self-published. Please take the readers through your process there. Is that a decision made ahead of time? You sit down and create your particular comic and then…?
CR: By going to local comic cons, I saw that it was possible to self-publish really nice-looking books, and how to print minicomics from home. I also learned a ton from going to the Center for Cartoon Studies, who have a lot of resources available for DIY publishing. Now I have an agent who is helping me with the process of being published. But I still love having complete control over how the end result of my comics looks, so I will always want to self-publish some of my work.
KS: We’ve all been away from conventions for a while now. As someone who’s used those occasions to grow their personal brand, can you share a personal favorite and least-favorite aspect of “con season?”
CR: Favorite: Seeing in real time how my art is received by other people. Getting likes from social media isn’t the same. Compliments from customers and attendees at conventions is a wonderful boost to motivate me. Least favorite: By the end of the day, all the small talk I’ve done leaves me exhausted. I usually feel burnt out for a week after doing one of the larger conventions like TCAF or SPX.
KS: What’s a passion of yours from outside the world of art or comics? Something you practice, collect, study, whatever…
CR: Recently, I’ve gotten into the doll hobby. I customize and collect Pullip dolls from Korea. They have oversized heads and eyes, and extravagant outfits, which end up influencing my art.
KS: To spread some love at the end, what’s a comic/graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration?
CR: Rat Queens, published by Image Comics. It’s an aspirational work for me; I love the blend of the stereotypical high-fantasy world with modern dialogue and situations. My favorite comics are ones about a group of oddballs with a powerful relationship to each other.
KS: Finally, talk about what you’re working on now and what we should be on the lookout for in 2021 and beyond.
CR: I’m working on Winged Feet which will be released as a graphic novel by the end of 2021. I’m not sure when there will be comic conventions to sell it at, but it’ll definitely be available from my Etsy page.