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Between the Panels: Cartoonist Nicolette Bocalan on Making Horror Scary, Getting Past Self-Doubt, and Writing What You Want to Read

“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.

Nicolette “Skelehim” Bocalan has carved a path for herself as a cartoonist focusing primarily on horror stories — which grew out of a love of scary stories and a desire to see more of them out in the world. How did a manga-obsessed, novel-writing teenager become one of the most original voices in indie comics? Keep reading…
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist/Writer
Your home base: California!


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Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I always start with the overarching question: Why comics? What attracts you to working in the comics form specifically?

Nicolette Bocalan: I came of age in the early 2000s, when the webcomics scene was really starting to get cooking — SmackJeeves, anybody? Anyone with an internet connection and some way of mark-making could publish a comic and find an audience. It was no longer necessary to go through traditional publishing. You didn’t even need to be able to draw or write! Indie comics still hold this sort of magic for me. It’s a medium that doesn’t ask for permission and it belongs to everyone.
Nowadays, I’m all about making horror comics. Art is subjective and that’s true for horror, too. But I do like that there is a slight objective aspect to horror — either it’s scary or it’s not! I’m always working really hard to design my comics to really scare the beans out of people in ways that maybe movies and prose fiction can’t.

KS: Since your work is so horror-centric, I’m wondering how you found your way into that genre initially. What were the formative scary experiences for you, either through movies, books, or whatever else?

NB: This is a “write what you want to read” scenario for me. A few years ago, I had this really intense horror kick, and I just wanted to read all horror all the time. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of domestic/sexual violence in mainstream horror. I got in the habit of having to brace myself for it, whether I was reading a celebrated, traditionally published horror novel or a creepypasta. Got sick of that pretty quick.

The thing is, practically every horror fan I know is also sick of gratuitous domestic/sexual violence! I think lots of people are figuring this out now. So, now’s a great time to write horror for anyone who wants to write it!
KS: And when do you remember comics first coming into your life?

NB: I’m old enough that I remember reading comics in the newspaper. Even Calvin and Hobbes was still in there. We also had a couple of the Calvin and Hobbes collections. Then of course, I discovered manga as a teenager; my first really big manga obsession was probably Death Note.

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KS: Did you ever encounter horror comics back in those early reading days? While it’s changing now, that genre hasn’t traditionally been a big seller for publishers.

NB: I don’t think I did. The first horror comics I read that inspired me were Emily Carroll’s short webcomics, which I read as an adult.
KS: What do you personally find scary as a consumer? Is there a horror subgenre or type of premise that can really get under your skin?

NB: I love found footage! Also, demons, exorcisms, and the occult. And I’m always down for a classic haunted house story.  I’m pretty much interested in anything except for zombies.

KS: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask for some of your go-to scary stories in any media format.

NB: Movies: The Ritual, Hereditary, Lake Mungo, Ghostwatch. Books: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, The Ruins by Scott Smith.

KS: Was there a comic story that particularly stuck out to you as a younger reader, horror or otherwise?

NB: I remember reading the fourth volume of the Evangelion manga as a middle schooler. There is a certain scene when — without spoilers — one character is forced to harm a friend in a really graphic way. I remember having to stop and catch my breath after reading that scene. The mental anguish and violence stunned me. I don’t think I had ever read anything that graphic up til then.
KS: Moving to you as an artist, what’s the first “real” project you remember creating? I’m looking for something that felt like a serious accomplishment for you at the time — whatever age that was and whether or not you showed it to anyone else.

NB: When I was 17, I finished NaNoWriMo for the first and only time. It was my first time ever actually completing something and it was an important lesson for me. Finishing something feels really freakin’ good. Not even the most beautiful WIP can compare.
KS: If that was an important milestone for you as a writer, what about when it came to making comics?

NB: I made my first attempt at comics in middle school! I loved pirates back then, so it was a comic about a young pirate girl.
KS: Do you remember roughly when you first got the idea to seriously pursue art as a career goal?

NB: I used to work as a technical writer, documenting APIs, and I loved it! Can’t shake a stick at relative financial stability and health insurance. I’m not generally interested in doing commissions or illustrating other people’s work, so I was happy with comics as a hobby for a long while.

I started considering the possibility of someday quitting when I posted The Sacker Street Ghost. It was the second time that something I drew for myself hit viral numbers on Twitter. I started to wonder if I could have a career drawing only what I wanted to draw. So, I posted more stories and started applying for grants and stuff, and now here I am! I imagine someday my luck will run out, and I’ll have to get a day job again. But I’m taking this as far as I can.

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KS: If Sacker Street was your second time going viral, what was the first?

NB: The Magazine!
KS: Tell us a little about your current workspace, or where you find yourself making art.

NB: I have a drafting table that I use about half the time and a portable slanted desk that I take to coffee shops. I’m also a fan of lying on the ground.

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KS: What about listening to music, or any other background noise while you work?

NB:  It’s great! I need it pretty bad! I love Buckethead and Tool. I also like to sing loudly and badly as I draw, so I like pop music like by Dua Lipa and Lizzo. And podcasts about ghosts or aliens.  
KS: Has there been a project so far where you felt like you most “found your footing” as a creator?

NB: I don’t know that I have a voice or footing to find. Every comic I draw is a learning exercise or an experiment in something new. I have to approach them all that way, with a mindset of aiming to learn and fail, or I’ll lose my mind with fear of expectations.

KS: Now that you’ve been at this for a while, what’s something you’ve learned about making comics that you maybe didn’t fully grasp when looking in from the outside?

NB: So far, every time I’ve started a comic, I go through a period of self-hatred, anxiety, and just extreme suicidal depression related to my comics. I keep thinking I’m over it, but as soon as I start a new one, there it is again! I’m starting to realize that there will always be a wall of fear blocking me from my work. And the way through that wall isn’t to brute force myself to work, but to prioritize my mental health and take a gentle approach with myself. When I feel good, the work feels good.

KS: For someone totally unfamiliar with your work, what would be the project you’d suggest as a good starting point?

NB: Maybe Stanley Needs a Nest. Or maybe My Wife in the Wood. [Or] just pick something!
KS: Hypothetical time: A comics publisher is offering you a chance to illustrate one story featuring an established character/team of your choice. Who’s your pick?

NB: Drawing is the hardest part of making comics for me, so I can’t imagine letting someone else have all the fun of writing the thing. I would love it if someone were ever to offer me a story-writing job. If I really had to choose… it’d be a single issue of Over the Garden Wall for BOOM Studios.

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KS: What’s a passion of yours totally unrelated to making art? Something you collect, study, practice, etc…

NB: I love houseplants. I have over 25 unique houseplants, and I especially love ferns. Just today, I repotted my asparagus fern who is almost two feet tall. I also really love growing vegetables and herbs. I got a couple Ace 55 tomato plants growing in my kitchen right now.
KS: How about a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration?

NB:  The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis is pretty damn near flawless. I also reread You & A Bike & A Road — again by Eleanor Davis — and the first volume of Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo every time I start a new story.
KS: As we wrap up, tell us a what you’re working on now and what we should be on the lookout for in 2021.

NB: I’m working on my next story, The Acorn, with the support of the C4C [Creators for Creators] grant! It’s going to shake out at around 120 pages, my longest yet.

KS: That opens up a whole new topic: the C4C program. Could you let readers know a little about that?
NB: C4C encourages and supports creator-owned comics by awarding $30,000 every year to a single cartoonist or artist/writer duo. Whoever receives the grant gets to decide how they can best use the funds in their lives. You can use the funds for living expenses, or you can choose to self-publish and use the funds to print [your] book, or you can do something else with it! It’s best to learn about them from their website. You can read about past winners there, too.

The application is a pitch for the comic you want to make, with a minimum of five completed pages. I pitched The Acorn, and I won the grant for 2020-2021!

KS: How has it been personally beneficial to you?

NB: I used [it] to take a year off my day job and prioritize my comic. And I really cannot overstate how much the support of this grant has kept me in the process of making comics. I had to quit my full-time job due to health issues, and ended up giving my two week’s notice right before lockdown started in my state. The fear of financial insecurity has just been unreal. Without the grant, I probably wouldn’t have made any comics for a good few years… that is, if I didn’t decide to quit altogether. The C4C grant, and Nick Dragotta’s advice and support in particular, carried me through this year!


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