“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.
One could conceivably get deep into Jadzia Axelrod’s creative resume without even realizing she makes comics, because that medium is only one of a group which also includes graphic design, costume making, podcasting, puppeteering… and that’s sill not the complete list. On the comics front, she came up the DIY route, with stops along the way from self-publishing to writing for DC.
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer/Artist
Your home base: Philadelphia, PA
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: The big question that I ask to all the guests to start off is, why comics? What is it about this medium that attracts you as a creative person?
Jadzia Axelrod: Well, I first started doing comics ‘cause I was a control freak, so I have to not only tell you the story, I have to draw the story, too, so you know, so you know exactly what I’m doing. That is not how I approach the medium now, but when I was making my own comics as a teenager, my main impetus was that I had to control everything. I just think it’s a beautiful medium; I think there’s an amazing potential in it. You’re not limited by budget in the same way that you are with film. You can portray anything you want, provided the artistic skills are there. You also have control over time in a way that you don’t in prose, which I enjoy. There are also limitations in it that are fun to play with. Like, there’s no sound. You can encourage a reader to have a silent moment, but that’s not necessarily what they’re seeing; you can encourage a reader to hear a very loud noise, but that is, again, not necessarily something that comes [across] in the medium. It’s just a medium that I fell in love with at a very young age and continue to enjoy.
KS: There are so many different creative fields you’ve worked in or at least dabbled in, whether it’s writing, drawing, puppets, costumes, on and on. What was the first artistic lane you found yourself pulled into? What was the first passion?
JA: The fun thing about this being a professional career now is because it was absolutely comics. I wanted to be a comic strip artist when I was, like, four. I loved drawing as a kid, I loved making up stories, so those things went hand in hand. I’ve tried to make a go of comics my entire life in different ways, shapes, and forms, and I’ve frequently gotten frustrated or there’s something else in my life that’s taken precedence. So, I’ll put comics aside for a while, but I always come back to it.
KS: Let’s talk about the start of the love affair. Were newspaper strips your main source of comics? Or what kind of access did you have to floppies?
JA: My first exposure to comics starts with Super Friends which is not comics, but a television show. I had all the toys, I loved those characters, but I was an avid reader of the Sunday funnies in the newspapers, so that was my idea of comics for the longest time. My first floppies were actually gotten out of a yard sale. My father picked up a copy of The Flash—I begged him to get it for me ‘cause the Flash is my favorite character. It had a sequence that has burned itself into my memory to this day, where Flash has to be Flash and Barry Allen at the same time in front of someone so that she doesn’t think that he tried to murder her. We don’t need to get into the story, the point is Flash and Barry Allen have to coexist, so he runs back and forth in front of her taking off his costume, putting on a robe, taking off the robe, putting on the costume, all of that. It’s a ridiculous sequence, one of those things that could only work in comic books. It looked cool on the page because there were speed lines, there was the robe floating in midair, there was all sorts of stuff that you can do with comics that you can’t do with a medium where time is not controllable.
KS: What were the newspaper strips that really used to light your fire?
JA: Bloom County, number one. Calvin and Hobbes. Everyone loves Calvin and Hobbes—you might as well say you like air. Kudzu by Doug Marlette. That was a really formative strip for me, in part because Doug Marlette lived in my town. We met on a couple occasions; I don’t want to play it up and say there was a mentorship angle or anything, but he did help me out and gave some advice multiple times in my artistic young artistic career. I came into Peanuts during the “shaky line” era, so I didn’t really appreciate the beauty of [it] until much later when I got one of those old collections. But Bloom County, number one with a bullet, was like everything I wanted to be.
KS: Thinking back to reading that as a young person, I wouldn’t say that I always “got it,” but I never missed it.
JA: Doonesbury, too! Another one where I didn’t “get it” but always read it. That’s because the characters are so sharply done in both Doonesbury and Bloom County. That’s where the humor comes from.
KS: If we can time travel back mentally, and I ask you to flip us through your teenage comic book collection, what kinds of books would we find in there?
JA: All sorts. I was voracious. This was during the black-and-white boom, so there were all sorts of crazy things that you could acquire if you looked hard enough. That was really cool. I really enjoyed Sandman obviously, let’s just get that out of the way. Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. JM DeMatteis and Sal Buscema’s Spectacular Spider-Man run, which I feel is vastly underrated. Alan Davis and Chris Claremont’s Excalibur stuff was a big thing. I loved Berlin by Jason Lutes. Strangers in Paradise, which I wanted to like more, but I couldn’t get into it. I love the art and I was like, “I want this to be better”—but I couldn’t tell you why, [or] what was missing. Ship of Fools. I remember being just so impressed by that.
KS: Of all those titles, the one that stands out is Spectacular Spider-Man, in that it’s more of a classic corporate comic run, whereas the others are from a very specific voice.
JA: They’re so good. It’s uneven; not all of them are gems, but when they are on fire, they are on fire. There’s a whole sequence with Harry Osborne that is really deep and textual—I ate that up with a spoon. Then, in between these very deep, psychological, probing stories, they also did stuff like Frog-Man shows up and it’s just hilarious. It’s a great run.
KS: Were you aware at the time of comic book writers? With an artist, it’s easy to say, “I like this style versus this style,” whereas pinning down a writer seems more challenging depending on what books they’re working on.
JA: I was all over writers. I tracked down everything Neil Gaiman wrote. Grant Morrison. JM DeMatteis. I loved Moonshadow and I tracked that down because of his stuff on Spider-Man. Jason Lutes. David Mazzucchelli’s Rubber Blanket.
KS: You mentioned particular traits of these comics that you responded to, and the Flash sequence, but what about a story? At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums and about the way a reader can find an important story at just the right time. Did you ever find that one right story at that one right time?
JA: The thing that comes to mind immediately is Grant Morrison’s first arc of Doom Patrol. There’s a sequence in it where Robotman just bangs his head against the wall ‘cause he’s so frustrated about the body that he’s living in and the life that he’s living. When I was a teenager, I had a lot of fantasies about self-harm; I didn’t actually go through with anything, but I had a lot of fantasies. That’s stuff that I see now as a trans woman. I similarly felt trapped by a body that didn’t seem right and wanted to break it. To see that on the page really touched me in a way that I don’t think I realized the power of at the time, but it’s something that really resonated and has stuck with me ever since.
KS: If we can shift to talking about you as a creator instead of as a consumer… Can you think back to the first art project you made—any type of art, any age—that you looked at as a serious accomplishment?
JA: It’s a difficult question to answer, because so often in my life I have not been happy with the end result. It’s always fallen a little short. My parents put me into a storytelling camp ‘cause they knew who I was, they’d met me. [laughter] At this camp they talked about the oral tradition, and the idea was that at the end, you were going to stand in front of the audience and tell a story that you had written. I remember writing that story and then performing, and just being immensely proud of it. Being really elated to have told that story and gotten that reaction. I found it recently [while] cleaning up; I was, like, nine when I wrote this and there’s some solid jokes in there. I was a funny kid. [laughter]
KS: For any curious readers, what was the logline for this?
JA: It was a detective story pastiche. I was really into Encyclopedia Brown books—any sort of child-age mystery, give it to me. It was about a mouse who was a detective and wore a fedora. I do remember one joke was, he describes himself as a “private ear,” which I thought was the funniest thing—and did get a laugh!
KS: You mentioned self-publishing your DIY comics as a teenager. The self-publishing world looks so different now than even five years ago, so what was that process for you?
JA: It was very small. I don’t want to imply that I had hundreds of orders or anything. The important thing—and I see this now and I’m glad that this is my takeaway—was not that I was selling a bunch of copies or anything like that, but that I was finishing them. That put me ahead of my peers; we were all drawing comics together, but I would finish these books. I had two that were very character-based, very much in a slice-of-life mode. I called it “Afternoons and Coffee Spoons,” I think, ‘cause I was a pretentious kid and you gotta do a TS Eliot reference. [laughter] Do your black-and-white comics about people who are 10 years older, all in their mid-20s. I don’t know what I thought I was writing about, but it was not anything like my life.
KS: And you were a one-person show, writing and drawing?
JA: And taking it to Kinko’s! I did it all.
KS: What did the distribution look like? Did you take them to school or set up at any kind of shows?
JA: I didn’t do any shows. I did do one arts fair, and I had them there. I didn’t really sell any, but I had them there. A friend of mine also challenged me to do a superhero story. At that time I was down on superheroes and I was like, “I’m doing real stories here, about real people.” The only superhero I [thought] was great at the time was Mike Allred’s Madman. So, it was in that vein of this pop art, metaphorical, allegorical thing. “Anyone” was the character’s name. He had a full mask and a suit that didn’t fit right and sneakers. It was a little bit of a parody and a little bit of an examination of what kind of person would actually be a superhero. I spent a long time on it and… I’m not sure that was the best use of that time.
KS: Regardless of however many you sold, it sounds like the act of making theses comics was the point. Did you ever have any kind of a career North Star, as far as a career path goes? Any person you looked up to in that way?
JA: I was such a big Jason Lutes fan. I wanted to do that. And so what else? I remember really wanting to be published by Slave Labor Graphics. I submitted some stuff to Dark Horse. I found that pitch in my cleaning up and… I see why they said no. [laughter] There are some good ideas, though, again it was me reaching farther than I had the skills to do—which is not a bad thing for a young artist.
KS: So, where do you finally break through, in the sense of getting paid for your comics?
JA: The first time I got paid, really paid, for comics is when Battle of Blood and Ink came out. That was the first time that I was being published and not just like, “Here’s the Xerox.” That was mind blowing and wonderful.
KS: Because a lot of our readers are aspiring creators, can you walk us through how that happened for you? No two people break in the same way, as the old saying goes.
JA: There are two answers to that question. There’s how that happened, and then there’s how to break into comics. Those are two different answers. We’ll start with the first one ‘cause the first one is a good story. My friend Steve Walker, who drew Battle, and I were confident this is how you get published. We made a pitch, he had art samples, I had a script sample, we had a synopsis. We were good. Then, we took it to New York Comic Con and tried to talk to editors, and the problem with doing that is the editors you can talk to at New York Comic Con are not the editors who make any sort of decisions about what is published. We lucked out, though, because we talked to Liz Gorinsky when they were working at Tor, and not long after we talked to them and gave them our pitch, they got promoted and were put in charge of Tor’s graphic novel section. So, all of a sudden, they had to come up with a bunch of graphic novels to publish and they had our pitch. That shouldn’t work. That was a lot of stars aligning, and I don’t think anyone should do that and expect those results. By all means, put together a pitch, walk around a convention, no harm there, but don’t expect anything.
KS: How is the second answer different?
JA: There’s a five-year gap between Jadzia Axelrod book number one and Jadzia Axelrod book number two. I could not get another book sold [after Battle] even though I tried really hard. Then, an editor at DC approached my agent at the time and was like, “We’re looking for new voices for this new line that we’re doing. People who have a familiarity with characters but have a different point of view.” And [my agent] said, “I have the girl for you.” They contacted me and I got a chance to pitch them. The reason that that worked is because while I hadn’t published another graphic novel in those five years, I had kept making things. I had a podcast that was semi-successful. I was publishing short stories. I was still creating things and had not just a reputation as someone who creates weird things that people enjoy but who finishes things. That last one is very important. When the opportunity arose, I was ready. I had ideas and I knew how to present those ideas well, because I’d spent the last however many years refining my personal voice and what stories I want to tell.
KS: Could you boil it all down to any piece of advice for others?
JA: It’s hard to break into comics, because you can’t force it. I think a lot of people do, and certainly I did—when I was very young, I wanted to force it and wanted to skip to the end. Especially the way the industry is now, the best you can do is make your own stuff and hope that when the opportunity comes for you to break in that you are ready. I don’t like the term “breaking into comics” ‘cause to a lot of people the perception is that I’ve broken into comics recently which is that I’m writing stuff for DC. DC is not all comics. Marvel is not all comics. Battle of Blood and Ink came out 10 years ago, and before that I was putting comics on the internet. Was that not comics? Another great thing about the medium is the barrier for entry is so low. It’s such a cheap medium to do. You don’t need a camera that’s expensive. You can do it with a very low amount of technology. You can also do it with a very high amount of technology if you want to do that, but it’s very easy to just make something and put it out there. I think a lot of people get hung up on, I need to be published by a big publisher. I will tell you, being published by a big publisher is great. Go for that. It’s nice to get your book into the hands of people that wouldn’t have gotten it normally if you had just put it up on the internet. But also, it doesn’t make the stuff that’s not published by a big publisher less valid.
KS: For somebody who was publishing her own solo comics, what strikes me about the two pitches you’ve mentioned is that you’re teamed with another artist. Was that a specific decision or was there ever a thought to you both drawing and writing Galaxy?
JA: I’m a very slow artist. This is what it comes down to. I can’t do it with the speed that Steve can or Jess [Taylor] can, and certainly not with the style that Steve or Jess can. I’m very much a self-taught artist. I was never going to be the sole creator on Galaxy, because the deadline that DC wanted, I would never be able to achieve. I have a comic of my own that I’m drawing, that I’ve been working on off and on for a long time because it takes me a long time to draw. I used to be faster when I was a teen, but that also meant I had a lot of time. I was a nerd. I didn’t do anything that a lot of teens do because I was in my room drawing comics.
KS: Let’s talk about Galaxy. Was this concept something that you had come up with, that you kind of had locked and loaded for whenever you had the opportunity to pitch? Or where did it start from?
JA: Galaxy started when [DC] asked me for pitches. It was very much a conscious idea to play with the kind of tropes that DC luxuriates in, which is like aliens with superpowers. If Marvel had asked me, Galaxy would’ve turned out differently. They weren’t even asking for original heroes, I want to point out. I put this in at the bottom of a pitch about Superman. There was a pitch about a teenage Lex Luthor taking over a boarding school, which I thought they were gonna take. This was not something that I thought they were going to do, but I was like, “I really want to do this trans queer superhero story and there’s not a character that I can do that with.” It was one of those things [where] I’ll be mad at myself if I don’t try. It was not something that I’d been holding onto; at that same time, when they said, “This is what we want. Let’s have a longer version than the two sentences you gave us,” a lot of story ideas that I’d been wanting to tell got worked into the narrative. So, on the one hand, this story came about the moment they asked for pitches; on the other, it is something I had been preparing my entire life to write.
KS: At what point did Jess enter the picture? Were you writing knowing who was going to illustrate it?
JA: They wanted the script first, so we did the whole script first with me having no idea who the artist was.
KS: So, you’re just writing for a competent artist in general rather than playing to any one person’s strengths?
JA: Yeah. When I write a script, unless I have a specific artist in mind, I write like, “If I was drawing this, what information would I want?” I’m a visual thinker to begin with—that’s part of the reason I love comics—so there’s a lot of visual reference in the script. A lot of pictures of buildings, especially of interiors, because that’s something I would want as an artist. There’s a lot of stuff with people’s clothing, ‘cause I think that’s important to characters. Sarah Miller, the editor, found Jess and showed me the art. I had never seen their work before, but she showed me [Jess’] website and I was like, “This is it!” Before, Sarah had contacted Jul Maroh, who did Blue Is the Warmest Color; they turned it down because they had just finished You Brought Me the Ocean and [didn’t] want to do another big book on a tight deadline. I’m so glad that Jess ended up doing it. Their depiction of everything I had written is just so gorgeous and so much of it is not what I imagined—in a good way. It’s like this beautiful kaleidoscope of color and style that I did not have in my head.
KS: Did you either have to, or choose to, do any revision to the script once you knew who your artist would be?
JA: I’m trying to think of a way to say this without being self-aggrandizing. I don’t want to say I let Jess do whatever they wanted, because that’s not how the relationship was at all. They interpreted the script as they wanted, which is great because they have those really cool panel ideas. There was one part where I did push back and was like, “In order for this joke to work, panel one and panel two need to be swapped. You don’t have to redraw anything, just flip them.” And they were fine with that. It was a lot of back and forth—I mean, it’s a collaborative medium and you can’t hold too tightly onto your script. As I said, I’m a former control freak. There was some stuff in the very beginning where I really wanted Jess to be a little closer to the script, and that was because I wasn’t fully understanding what they were doing. Now, I trust them a lot more and I would love to work with them again.
KS: When you sit down to write do you have any kind of measurement? Page count, word count, time at the keyboard…?
JA: I try not to measure it. I used to be a journalist, so what was important was doing something, and quickly. There was no expectation of word count, there was an expectation of finishing something. What that did is it trained me to sit down and write. When I sit down and write, I don’t stare out the window—which is not the same with drawing, which is why that takes me longer. If I sit down and I write something, that’s great and that’s wonderful and that’s what I was there to do. I am aware of word count when working in large prose. I recently finished a novel and was very aware of how long it was, ‘cause I did want to get it to a certain length. That wasn’t like, “I need to do 2000 words today.” I used to be that way [and] it was not healthy for me. I like to see the end of things, so the closer I can get to the end of things, the more excited I am.
KS: Thumbs up or thumbs down: listening to music while you work?
JA: Oh, the biggest thumbs up. I have to have background noise in order to work. I need to be distracted in order to focus; I have to have something to center me, ‘cause if there’s silence, I’ll just do something else. If there’s music, or a coffee shop, or if there’s music in a coffee shop— perfect.
KS: Does your playlist change depending on whether you’re drawing or writing?
JA: No, but it does change on the project. There are certain albums that I cobbled together for Galaxy to kind of get that teenage angst mood. Then, there’s other stuff that I listen to for my novel that’s different. And then there was a whole ‘nother album I listened to when I was working on a pitch for DC for something else. I do specifically buy music with the project in mind and then have that on repeat essentially. It’s usually just one or two albums and have those on repeat so often that I don’t think about the music anymore, but the mood carries me through the writing. With Galaxy, it was Rilo Kylie’s The Execution of All Things, which has this wonderful kind of very young person, very bleak kind of outlook. It sounded to me how I felt as a teenager.
KS: Do you have a hobby that gets you completely out of the writing chair? Something unrelated to any of your professional pursuits, which, for you, covers a lot of pursuits.
JA: Does costuming count? I did that professionally for a little while. Cooking is also one. I love to cook. I make increasingly elaborate meals for my family, who really wouldn’t care if I didn’t. [laughter] If I put up macaroni and cheese and hot dogs every night, they would be perfectly happy. But I’m always interested in how things fit together and how ingredients fit together and how recipes work. The costuming, I don’t do as much of as I do as I used to ‘cause I have a child. We go all out for Halloween. We were haunted houses this year, which was a delight; we got to light up the windows and have ghosts and all sorts of fun things with those. That’s, again, putting all the pieces together, figuring out how things fit, working in the limitations of the medium—whether that’s a plate or something you wear or a comic. Those are the things I find fascinating.
KS: Final question: Please give us a nominee for the hypothetical comic book hall of fame. Something you’d hold up as an example of the medium at its very best.
JA: Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, which is the best of their collaborations. It’s Gaiman at his most restrained. The scripting is still “every word a pearl,” because that’s Neil Gaiman, but he’s limited by trying to tell, for the most part, a very realistic story. Then, at the same time, it’s Dave McKean using every technique at his disposal, from painting to sculpture to photographs to digital manipulation. It’s a beautiful work of art. It kind of broke my head when I first read it back in my teen years when I was tracking down everything by Neil Gaiman. I still think it’s one of the best examples of the possibility of the medium and how it can achieve things that other mediums can’t.
KS: To wrap up, I’ll turn the floor over to you. Tell readers what you have out now, what you have coming, what they should be on the lookout for…
JA: I sadly can’t talk about some of the things I’ve got coming. Definitely read Galaxy: The Prettiest Star. I’m so proud of it. Jess did an amazing job on the art. It’s a story that I’ve always wanted to tell—not necessarily in that form, as we talked about, but it was definitely something that had been growing inside of me my entire creative life.
You can still find my podcast “Voice of Free Planet X” at planetx.libsyn.com. It’s still there. It’s still a lot of fun. There’s a lot of podcasting stuff on that feed; if you want to delve into everything Jadzia did since 2006, you can find it there.
Then is The DC Book of Pride, which I’m very happy and excited about. [It’s] not a comic per se, it’s a book about comic characters. That was a lot of fun to research and to write those stories. It’s a selection of DC’s queer characters, and it kind of tells you who they are and what they’ve done so you have a working knowledge going into stories now. Some of those characters, ‘cause they’re not leads, have stories that are told in the corners of pages and in the backgrounds. It gave me a whole list of characters to fall in love with. That comes out next year, and I’m very proud of it, as well.
This interview was edited for length.