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Between the Panels: Artist Rachel Distler on Feeling the Ground Shift, Learning from Scott McCloud, and Considering a Career in Auto Repair

“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 there is a “traditional” way to break into comics, Rachel Distler might be a model example: study the form, practice one’s craft, build a portfolio, and be prepared for opportunities. She started in anthologies, steadily adding to her resume, building up to the new graphic novel, The Nightcrawlers — with so much more still to come.

First off, the basics…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Pencils/inks/colors/letters
Your home base: MD native, PA resident

Social Media 
Twitter: @redtiebear

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: We always start with the big question: Why comics? As an artist, what appeals to you about working in this medium that may be different from other artforms?

Rachel Distler: Comics [has] a lot going for it, especially in terms of its unique mode of storytelling—the way it handles time, sound, and space are things that should be hampered by its format, but to overcome them, people have innovated things like sound bubbles, special SFX, paneling, and have done so in such a brilliant way as to make them one of the most accessible forms of reading. Those things don’t seem like they should be so intuitive, but they are, and the way that comics speak to such a human intuition of understanding is incredible. I was lucky enough to attend an Art Spiegelman talk some year ago, and he started his talk with an observation made in a paper he read, about how things like ideas and memories are strung together in our minds in single images that segue into the next, just like comics. Of course, we can talk about how a comic can be done by a single person, is cheaper to create than a film, but I think that can be somewhat distracting to the identity of comics itself— yes, they are true, but it treats comics as a convenient second option. To be a comic artist proper, you have to be committed to the language that comics has created for itself and respect it as its own thing. Some things are best done as comics, and I think Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli is one of the best examples, and before I get too lost in the paint, anyone reading this who hasn’t done so yet, please do yourself a favor and pick it up—you’ll get it.

KS: Since you bought up Mazzucchelli, who were your first favorite artists back when you started being able to identify different art styles as a reader?

RD: Hoo, it’s hard for me to say. I was probably first charmed by the art of Bill Watterson from the Sunday paper, but after seeing Totoro and Pokémon, it was like feeling the ground shift. Of course, I watched a ton of Batman: The Animated Series basically religiously, but when I saw work by CLAMP, Ken Sugimori, Naoko Takeuchi, Ken Akamatsu, and Masaki Kajishima, really just a ton of stuff I saw hitting bookshelves and debuting on Toonami, they had to have been some of the people I first tried to emulate.

KS: How were you initially exposed to the medium? The Sunday paper, obviously, but any other avenues?
RD: Haha, starting to read Garfield comics at the age of five will always be part of my origin story. I don’t really know what it was that made it gel so much in my mind, I just know that my dad always picked up a Sunday paper, and he himself has a decent-sized collection of Garfield paraphernalia, so it was never a challenge to like, get him to then buy me a collection of those comics, or hand over the Sunday comic section of the newspaper. My mom was always going to the library to rent movies or books, and, of course, I’d come along to do homework or borrow a book, and it was just amazing to see manga start to filter into the shelves. The advent of anime coming over to the US more accessibly was absolutely huge, and probably did more for me at the time to push me in an artistic direction. I was always writing stories and honestly thought I’d be more on the writing side of things, but beginning to understand the language of comics and manga and anime, and knowing that was the language I wanted to write stories in clinched it… so that lucky accessibility sealed the deal.

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KS: You’ve teed me up again by talking about stories. 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. Looking back, is there one that really had an impact on you as a reader?

RD: It’s all such mashed potatoes in my brain at this point—as I was just inhaling whatever I could at the time—but I could give two at different points, one when I was just a kid, and another as a more late teen reader, before giving enough credence to being a dedicated artist. As a kid, I just remember all these goofball gags in Toriyama’s Dr. Slump series—just bit gags like Arale not having nostrils giving away her status of being a robot, or his lampshading on how he draws every girl’s face exactly the same and that allowing a character to perfectly assume the identity of another girl. Or even just his own 4komas about himself at the end of every chapter, and he was always this robot himself, before donning the bird self-insert he used later, and just thinking, “These jokes could not be told half as well in a novel.”

Then, as an older reader, after consuming McCloud’s Understanding Comics, I picked up his collection of Zot! and finally hit “Earth Stories.” In one story, he focuses on a friend of the main character’s, who is coming to grips with her identity as a lesbian—in the early ’90s, in high school—and her crush on a classmate who seems to have feelings in return. Skip here to avoid spoilers, because I highly advocate reading the story yourself, so reader beware: at the “end” of the story, she eventually runs away from the classmate, essentially rejecting her and her feelings… but! That was a trick of the format, and McCloud goes on to talk about that trick in this collected edition. Of course, in those days, you had a letters to the editor section in the back of many single issues, so you’d have that final page on the left, and then the letters began on the page to the right. If you turned that right page to the next section, you’d see a hidden page where she turns around and asks her crush out! In talking about it, McCloud said he received angry letters himself where people cheering on our characters were livid at the ending, and he imagines people having angrily thrown the issue under the bed, resting there for all time, with the reader never knowing the ending they craved was a trick page turn away. As a lesbian myself, of course that story had a lot of meaning to me, as I was also coming to an understanding of who I am, but to see that sly trickery of format, again, it was like, “Where else but comics?”

KS: Aside from seeing some of yourself reflected in the character, can you pinpoint what it was about the storytelling that made it work so well for you?
RD: First, it encouraged me to keep understanding the language of comics and the ways it plays with form. Second, as I was just entering art school, deliberating on being more of an illustrator or a comic artist, it was just sealing the deal with my love of the form. And it was incredibly important I read Zot! as a whole, because McCloud was writing it as he considered his thoughts for Understanding Comics and doing his own work in furthering understanding of the medium. I think I was always drawn to writing because of my passion for language and, to me, understanding the format of comics and how things became conventions—how things got deconstructed and innovated upon. It’s like learning a written language: panels as statements, pages as paragraphs, etc., and I had to know more.

KS: What was the first “serious” piece of art you ever remember creating back in your formative years? Something that felt like a big deal to you at the time, whether or not you showed it to anyone else.
RD: I just remember achingly drawing this character from what was an early Pokémon manga, just belaboring the crap out of it, probably the first time I’d ever put that kind of effort into a drawing. [It] was probably third grade? But my classmates saw me working on it, and I got so much praise, which was great for an unpopular, introverted kid like myself. It gave me a sense of self, and I was so proud of it, and I guess it was all downhill—uphill?—from there.

KS: So, when does the idea of pursuing art professionally enter your thinking? Many kids enjoy that as a hobby, but way fewer actually set out on that career path.

RD: Reading stories about CLAMP just like, working together, living together, gave me this impression, like, “Wow, that’s exactly what I’d like to do when I grow up.” I still joke about this to my current group of friends, though I guess now that would be considered a “content house” these days. I just loved reading any kind of side-story a manga artist would write about sitting at a table or kotatsu all day, dying inside to hit a deadline, eating cheap noodles and snacks; for whatever reason I was like, “Yes, this is exactly how I want to live.”

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KS: Was there a career Plan B you had in mind? Or would there have been a career path where you think you could have been happy if art didn’t work out? 
RD: I have to be honest: I threw my chips in totally when I made the decision to be an artist. I only applied to one school, and, thankfully, I got in, much to the chagrin of my dad who paid extra money to send me to an SAT prep school, only to go to an art school that didn’t even look at your SATs. After school, there was a very, very long section of my life where, suddenly, in my fervor to pay the rent, I took a lot of service jobs while looking into things like working for the local magazine or newspaper and putting my art program knowledge to use, but it was just this long period of anxiety and stress that really killed me inside.

There were a lot of things going on at the time, just handling my parents’ disapproval, my wife’s mental health and shaky employment, not having a car, and then chasing art as a distant backdrop. Right before I started getting plenty of jobs and taking myself more seriously, I had considered actually going to school to become an auto mechanic—I think it’s really satisfying to not just fix things, but understand mechanical systems in a really practical, everyday way. And to be honest, if this doesn’t work out, I think I might just enjoy that a lot. It’s that, or become a musician, but I don’t have all the talent for that, and let’s face it, would probably sadly make even less money than as an artist, especially without much knowledge of recording programs.

KS: Despite your dad’s early chagrin about your pursuits, did there a come a point when you felt that parental viewpoint shift, if not to outright approval then at least understanding?

RD: I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a full approval on doing it for a living, per se, but there were definitely times where I could feel he was coming to an understanding. My parents, particularly my dad, had me when he was pretty old, so there was always an issue of generational difference, and it was already a pain for people with younger parents to explain the phenomena of anime. [O]ne day, he brought home an ordering catalog from Viz, and I just completely devoured it. Eventually, he’d order me some anime, and more crucially, my first set of Japanese nibs and screentone… sometime between 12 and 15. He wasn’t really ever the most emotionally available dad, so it meant a lot to me. Come some years later, after I made a lot of friends in high school who were into anime, as well, he even let me go to a convention even though it meant not being at school on Friday. I remember him asking, “Well, do you have any tests on Friday?” I didn’t, so I went! It’s always had an element of tenuousness, but those moments went a long way.

KS: You had your artistic ambitions, but then how did the idea of working specifically in comics come along? There would seem to be more lucrative avenues for an illustrator.

RD: At least at the time, the idea of having juuuuuust enough to live on was never a downside to me. Now, in art school, taking a History of American Illustration class showed me exactly how lucrative it used to be, being an artist. One of the classic Bond movie illustrators used to drive around in a Rolls Royce! I knew comics would largely be a total crapshoot, financially, and even though I really just want enough money to pay the bills and buy a burrito comfortably, it’s challenging to do even that. But, I guess when you’re as deep in the paint as I am about making comics, it seems like an acceptable gamble, especially after struggling so many years to do the same thing but spend it just hating whatever you’re doing. I really enjoy working on single illustrations, and it’s a great way for me to work on something with fuller detail and not worry about making it a sequence, but it doesn’t get the blood going like comics do. I tried 3D modeling, and maybe it was just Maya as a program, but it was like pulling teeth. Animation makes my brain spin. And I guess, ultimately, I’m too in love with the comics medium that I’d happily trade personal fortune for a chance to just live my life with just enough to do what I really love.

KS: If we could back up to your comment about getting plenty of jobs as an artist…  Because many of our readers are aspiring professional comics makers, can you talk about what concrete steps you took to make that dream a reality? You were getting plenty of practice on your own time, but what about getting your work out into the world, in front of people?

RD: It was a long time in the making, especially for me, but the most concrete step I took was making my portfolio and having it ready to send whenever I saw an opportunity. You never want to scramble to put something together when you see an anthology opening, or even just someone looking for a pitch to complete. I host mine over on WordPress, which I’ve done since art school, since it has a lot of flexibility and you can start one for free—but ArtStation, Behance, they’re all great, just find one with a format you like so updating it isn’t as much of a chore as it can be. Make sure it’s easy to navigate; editors and clients don’t have all the time in the world, so you want to be sure they’ll at least make it through three of them before clicking off.

KS: How about finding the right opportunities?

RD: [I] find most of them through Twitter, since anthologies like to announce on there, as well as Reddit; from there, it’s as simple as having a photo roll on your phone filled with your art, uploading some samples, and leaving a link to your portfolio or at least having it linked in your Twitter profile. After that, it’s genuinely communicating to people in your “graduating class”—that is, finding people around the same age or skill level as you, building relationships, and sharing your web of knowledge. It gives you many different ears to the ground, and not only has that kept me aware of what opportunities there are, I’ve joined Discords for just hanging out, or talking shop, and even an art study group to keep learning and growing together. To boil it down: be ready, be visible, and make friends!

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Art by Elisa Romboli

KS: You put yourself in a good position, but then how did that first comics break come about?

RD: In my case, it always just feels like a lot of luck. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the “break” happened, so I’ll go to the point where I first had anything in Previews and how that came about. After some anthology work, I incidentally saw a call for the anthology, The Color of Always, and messaged one of the editors, Michele, who liked my work, but I was a little out of her price range. But she kept me in mind, so when her co-editor, Brent, was convinced to do a story for the book, she was like, “How about Rachel? Her work looks like what you’re looking for, and she’s really nice!” So, they messaged me on Twitter, and from having that readied portfolio and a series of messages, we realized we really had a lot in common and were kind of instantly friends. Brent’s concept for “Extra Pages,” our story together in the book, immediately struck me with its heart and sincerity— that kind of directness to the heart is something I think comics does best, so I couldn’t wait to sign on.

From then on, we became “anthology buddies,” and at one point, saw this call for Source Point Press to make Dandy Presents: Penny Dreadfuls, and they asked me if I wanted to do the art for a short story in it, I said yeah, so they filled out the paperwork, wrote a script, and sent it off with my portfolio, and we actually made it in. From that combination of work, since Brent had made a lot more connections in comics than I had at this point—and I would say still has more connections—it brought more eyes to who I am, as well as readily demonstrated my ability to work on interiors. A lot of interiors. At the time The Color of Always wrapped, my crowdfund for The Nightcrawlers wrapped, as well, so that combination of anthology work, published work, and soon-to-be published work seemed to make an impression of “Oh! She can handle a lot of interiors! And she’s worked with a trusted member of the community quite a bit, so she must be good to collaborate with.”

KS: Tell us about the secret origin of The Nightcrawlers, your graphic novel with Marco Lopez.

RD: It’s probably my “right place at the right time” moment, but it must have been 2016 and I was looking at a forum called Digital Webbing Forums, where posts go up for both paid and collaborative work; I saw a pitch from Marco on the unpaid collaborative work section, and since I was otherwise doing so little, I decided to give it a read. I made this connection when I reached out, and we had a lot in common with our love for mythology, and a desire to create a book for kids that nurtures that kind of love with characters we can relate to. We decided to give it a go, and Marco ended up shopping it around for years until it found a home at Ablaze, so it’s been this thing simmering in the background while I tumbled through my ups and downs, so by the time the agreement was made and signed and then funded through Zoop, it felt like everything decided to take off all at once, even though all the pieces in motion were all started at different times.

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KS: You’ve spoken in other interviews about the influences—movies, urban myths, etc.—on the overall project. What I’m curious about is whether you as the artist were conscious of any comic-specific influence? Either another artist, art style, past series—a kind of vibe you were going for.

RD: When thinking about comic influences, I mainly picked up things like Lumberjanes or Gotham Academy to give me some additional thoughts about how I’d like the characters to read in their gestures and expressions, but I think Marco had nailed the kind of interactions I’d been looking for that I largely felt free to be myself while creating the pages. I never looked out to making middle-reader or YA my bread and butter—though I do enjoy it very much and would like to keep making it—because I have so many interests, but even before this, I’d been told I’d make a good kids’ book plenty enough. Maybe it was reading the really old Pokémon manga that did this to me, haha.

KS: You’ve worked with various writers at this point, but what about writing for yourself to draw? Is that something you’d like to do more of eventually?

RD: I would absolutely love to do more of my own writing with my art down the road, especially as I’ve had this graphic novel languishing in my back pocket for quite a long time. Growing up, my time writing was split very evenly with drawing, and for a time, actually surpassed it, until I made that decision to focus heavily on improving my drawing. Said graphic novel aside, any story I write would have to be really character-focused, and I tend to enjoy writing comedies, so who knows, maybe I’ll get the graphic novel going after establishing myself out there more, or put out a miniseries if the right idea strikes me. I had originally set out to be a 100% all-in-one creator, but after reading Making Comics, I was really struck by the illustrations of writers and artists working harmoniously and complementarily—and it sparked an interest in branching out. And after collaborating on comics many times with writers, I also find the trading of ideas really, really interesting and quite fun and informative. There’s a lot of value in exploring another’s idea and growing it together to make an organic story. So, while I would love to have a book or two with just my name on it, I think joint ventures will also stay in the cards.

KS: Thumbs up or thumbs down: music or background noise while working?

RD: I can work silently if I get really in the zone, but that happens more accidentally than intentionally. Often, I’ll put on a YouTube video for chatter, often some kind of indie horror game or a small documentary, but when I decide on music, it depends on my mood.

KS: What might we find on the Rachel playlist if the mood is right?

RD: My favorite band is Weezer, and I could listen to a handful of their albums on repeat forever, but my hot choices recently have been Soccer Mommy, Phoebe Bridgers, Snail Mail, Liz Phair, Dinosaur Jr., Plumtree, The Pillows, YMO/Haruomi Hosono, The Muffs, The Beths, The Breeders…

KS: What’s a hobby of yours totally unrelated to art? Something you study, collect, practice, whatever

RD: Hard to say, as I keep many things relative to what I create. I’ve always loved video games, but it was a video game that really pushed me to create comics, weirdly enough, and I love playing guitar and listening to music, and I end up creating comics set to music. I enjoy reading about car repair and working on my car, and the schematics will give me ideas of what it would look like if I built a machine based off 1980s car engines; I’ll read a novel and it gives me framing ideas; I love my cats and I end up drawing my cats! But while [they] give me plenty of food for my brain to chew on artwise, they all do still provide needed escapes from actively creating a new piece of art.

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KS: Give us a comic series or graphic novel from any era that you would nominate for a hypothetical Comics Hall of Fame. A title that represents the medium at its very best.

RD: Oof! This is the hardest question, really. I’d give it to either Bone or Asterios Polyp, like I mentioned earlier, so I’ll expound on Asterios Polyp. There are times where it plays with form and style in such a way that I don’t even think an animated interpretation would suffice. When you take into context that the main character, Asterios, is a “paper architect”—that is, an architect who’s never actually had any of his drafted buildings created—it makes these relationships between art and artistic influence and his real past and present relationships that’s just indescribable to me, but makes perfect sense as you read it. Many comics do the form excellently, like J.H. Williams’ Batwoman and its iconic layouts, or again, with Bone, the way Jeff Smith is able to bounce between comedy and drama and heart with the turn of a page, but there’s really something to me about how Mazzucchelli did it in Asterios Polyp—and I would have never heard about it if a random old guy browsing the shelves beside me didn’t tell me about it! It feels practically criminal. He might never know that his book suggestion—which he proffered because he also thought it was practically criminal so few people in his life had read it—would resonate so hard with someone he spoke to randomly that she’d end up on an interview later encouraging others to read it, but dangit, give that old man his justice!

KS: Finally, what should readers be on the lookout for from you in 2023?

RD: Obviously, we’ve got The Nightcrawlers launching [this spring], and then there’s Sharp Wit and the Company of Women, another project with Brent and Michele as editors. Then after that, I’m working on The Catskin and the Rose with Wells Thompson, a 64-page graphic novella next summer on Kickstarter, featuring plenty of daring swordfights, intrigue, and girls kissing. Then another graphic novella through Dauntless with Brent Fisher and Marcus Jimenez called Unbroken, set in a magical and futuristic world, at around the same time.

I’m working on lots of pitches right now, as well, a minicomic called Oracle with Sinead Kinney, maybe even finishing my own music-based comic or two, so you might see things like Moonbat with Bryce Abood and others if we get these pitches to the right home. All I know is that I need to update my studio at this point to start accommodating all the work coming through, and I couldn’t be more grateful to start doing it.

Kevin Sharp, Fanbase Press Contributor



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