“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.
Writer. Artist. Editor. Comics maker. Awards organizer. Podcast host. Eisner and Ignatz nominee. Since making the decision to pursue her artistic dreams as a teenager, Sloane Leong has let her interests guide her into numerous fields and projects. On the eve of her latest graphic novel release, we spoke about the path that formed this unique creator.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): All of the above
Your home base: Portland, OR
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I always start with the big question: Why comics? What attracts you to working and creating in this medium?
Sloane Leong: The creative control and the excitingly generative interplay of language and image together. There are things language alone can’t convey for me that I can convey with art. The same goes for language which can convey subtleties and abstractions that my art cannot. That I can control every line, every word, and produce a more exact expression of the ideas and visuals in my head makes this one of my favorite mediums.
KS: To go back to the very beginning, please let readers know a little about where you grew up and how comics first came into your life in whichever format.
SL: I was born in La Jolla, CA, and grew up partly in Oceanside, CA, and Maui, HI. I remember seeing newspaper comics first but didn’t really connect to them, though they made me curious about the medium. When I was in middle school, a Barnes & Noble opened up in my town and I was finally exposed to manga, which changed the course of my life. I would go sit in the bookshop all afternoon while my mom worked at a salon nearby. Some formative manga included Naruto, Blame!, almost every CLAMP title, lots of josei and shoujo. There was one narrow shelf with a random selection of superhero trades, but the only American comic I remember reading and liking was Sandman.
KS: What made Sandman different for you from other American comics? Obviously, it’s different from the standard superhero fare, but do you recall responding more to the art, the story, or was it a combination?
SL: I liked the dark fantasy soap opera premise paired with the art which was, of course, different from the manga I was reading, so it was interesting to me! Also, it was the only American series the store had most of the volumes of, whereas all the superhero stuff was random and non-sequential which made caring about the stories pretty hard.
KS: One theme we’ve talked about at Fanbase Press is the connection between reader and story, especially how a reader can find the exact right story for them at that time. In your younger years, was there a comic book story that really had an impact on you?
SL: Oh, such a great question! I think Magic Knight Rayearth really had a strong impact on me. The full run showed up at my local bookstore and I was obsessed. I loved the decadent, Art Nouveau aesthetic and the epic story centered on three young girls who are friends and rivals. There were also lots of beautifully designed characters and costumes, cool magic mecha, and bittersweet romance. Obviously, there’s a lot of stories like that, like Sailor Moon and Utena which I also adore, but for some reason that manga hit me in particular as a pre-teen.
KS: Aside from you as a reader, what about your creative life growing up? What kinds of things did you enjoy making or dabbling in?
SL: I was constantly crafting, drawing, writing, anything I could get my hands on, I would try to make something of it. My parents would always ask me before throwing things out because my catchphrase was “I can make something with that!” In third grade, I would make a full comic based on the week’s vocabulary list. I’d base the story on 15 words, illustrate and letter it, then staple the copy and give it to my teacher. She was not thrilled to have to read through a whole story to see basic vocabulary homework, but by the end of the year, I had stacks and stacks of these proto-comics.
KS: The proto-comics combine multiple skill sets, but did you having a favorite discipline in general?
SL: I honestly don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing and drawing. Even if I wasn’t making my proto-comics, I was writing stories in notebooks and painting, sketching, and exploring whatever mediums I could get my hands on.
KS: A lot of kids have art as a hobby, but far fewer actually try to make it a professional reality. What were your thoughts about setting off on that path?
SL: I never really had any delusions that it’d be something easy to do, but I was determined to make it a full-time part of my life regardless. I was 16 when I dropped out of school and got my GED, and that was when I began to take my creative practice more seriously. I started developing a portfolio, sharing my work online, and making connections with other artists.
KS: Did you have parental support for that GED decision? Had you communicated your artistic dreams before then?
SL: Yeah, my parents knew early on I was going to be an artist, I didn’t even have to tell them. They’re blue collar and practical, so as long as I was pursuing art and also trying to find work in the meantime after I got my GED, they were supportive of me. Also, the public schools I was attending in Hawaii were just horrible, total waste of time, so they definitely thought I’d be better off spending my time building up work experience rather than sitting in class learning nothing.
KS: Was there any kind of specific vision for what an art career might look like for you? Maybe you had a role model, or maybe you would have been happy in various fields as long as you were able to create.
SL: No role models really, I just had a vision of being able to do all sorts of creative things as I got older and developed my skill set. I wanted to explore, to make comics, paint, write books, work in animation, just to name a few. And all of which I’ve been lucky enough to get to do.
KS: Was the first time you ever got paid for a piece of your art before or after this?
SL: I would actually get paid by my classmates in middle school to draw them dragons, Goku, and other fun aughts-flavored imagery. Like five dollars a pop, which I then spent on manga of course.
KS: Can you talk through the steps you took to get yourself and your work out there during your early start on the career path?
SL: I started sharing my work on Deviantart, then joining private art forums and comic communities. I credit a lot of my career to Twitter when it was in its heyday, and it was easy to find people you wanted to connect with, like fellow artists, but also editors, publishers, art directors, etc. I didn’t go to art school when I was starting out; I was in Maui which had no comic shop, no art scene beyond whale paintings and sunset photography. So, social media was the only avenue for me to network.
KS: Those steps might look different in 2023.
SL: The landscape is totally different now in the sense [that] platforms and online ecosystems have changed. Social media has taken a nosedive in regards to its viral potential and ability to reach others. The platforms who do have reach are focused on video, which is not art friendly unless you’re sharing process stuff or memes. It’s rough out there for artists not inclined to market themselves in tandem with their art as influencers. My solution for that is the Cartoonist Cooperative, which I launched with a group of comic artists and writers in February. It aims to provide not only a supportive community for cartoonists in all stages of their practice but also give promotional support to those publishing comics, among many other benefits. If we’ve learned anything these long, social media-filled years, it’s that we can’t rely on platforms to support and protect us and our work. We need to turn to each other for that.
KS: Moving specifically into comics, what was your first pro gig and how did it come about?
SL: I joined this comics competition site called EnterVoid back in the aughts, and they collaborated on some anthologies with the defunct Slave Labor Graphics. My first comic was published in a robot-themed anthology they put out when I was 16. I was so stoked. That came about just by being active in the Void chat/forums and connecting with other artists who suggested my work to the editor. Making friends with other artists is probably the core of how I was able to make a long-lasting career in comics and art.
KS: On books where you’re both writer and artist, what is your creative process like? Do you typically find your way into a story through images or text?
SL: It changes! With Prism Stalker, I had the themes and the world in my head first, and then I sort of built out the characters and society to serve those themes I wanted to explore so they’d been in direct conflict. That involved more prep work because there’s worldbuilding rules and limitations to establish on top of a mystery, so I needed to have enough of the world foundation outlined before drawing it so I could mete out clues and red herrings.
With something like A Map to the Sun, it began with the characters and a few choice interactions between them. I did a one-page story summary and then started drawing the comic and writing simultaneously. It felt more organic and I kind of let the characters ‘act’ how they wanted on page, letting them dictate the pacing and emotions.
KS: Since making it in the arts can be such a crapshoot, please shout out a person who’s been helpful to you anywhere on this journey. Could be someone who gave you valuable feedback, made an introduction, opened a door at a key time…
SL: My longtime friend Kris Mukai, cartoonist extraordinaire, artist, and screenwriter, has always looked out for me since we met years ago. From recommending work opportunities to me and others, giving me feedback on my work or helping me navigate my career, she’s always got my back. Everyone should be so lucky to have a friend like her.
KS: Would there have been an acceptable Plan B career for you if making art hadn’t worked out? Something where you could imagine being at least content day to day.
SL: I used to work on a ranch helping train polo horses, and I also competed in dressage and taught kids horseback riding. Working with animals in some capacity would have been cool for sure.
KS: Please share a hobby of yours totally unrelated to art or comics. Something that gets you away from the drawing desk.
SL: I took up pottery and sculpting clay during the pandemic, and it’s so fun and meditative. I love using my whole body to shape the clay on the wheel and find its responsiveness exciting; you never know when it’s going to go south or end up looking super cool! It’s a totally different use of my brain than two-dimensional art, which has been a nice break.
KS: Finally, imagine a hypothetical Comic Book Hall of Fame and you get a ballot to put in one comic/graphic novel from any era. What’s your pick for something that represents the medium at its best?
SL: Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro! It’s a formative comic for me and just hits on all levels — incredible depiction of bodies in motion, engaging narrative and characters, flawless inking, beautifully designed environments, staging and solid layouts. GOAT level.
KS: I’ll turn the floor over to you now. Let readers know what you have coming out next and where to find more of your work. Also let anyone who might benefit from Cartoonist Cooperative know how to find out more.
SL: Prism Stalker: The Weeping Star comes out July 4th at all comic and book stores, and you can pre-order online here. I also have a new short comic that will be featured at the Shortbox Comic Fair in October.
I also co-founded the Cartoonist Cooperative this year, an initiative meant to support cartoonists around the globe, to make our creative practice more sustainable and successful! Our other goals include setting an industry standard for livable pay rates for all freelancers working in comics, establishing an equitable industry standard for contracts and calling out bad actors. If you make comics in any capacity, we encourage you to apply for membership!