Greg Anderson-Elysee: Welcome, Micheline Hess, to (Heard it Thru) The Griot Vine. How are you today?
Micheline Hess: I'm fine, thanks!
Greg: For the uninformed, can you please tell us about yourself?
Micheline: I'm a woman who designs by day and makes comics by night. I live in NYC and work as a designer at an ad agency in Herald Square. I enjoy taking all the zany ideas and characters in my head and using that as fuel for the adventures found in my comic, Malice in Ovenland, which is published by Rosarium Publishing. I also recently put the finishing touches on a children's book called The Island Cats of Cunga Ree. I created all the art and text for the book on my iPad and published myself using Lulu.com. I love doing art on my iPad so much, I gave a talk at the Mobile Art Conference in California (MDAC2015) on how to make comics on the iPad.
Greg: Have you been making art all your life? When did you start and what inspired you growing up?
Micheline: I've been making art for as far back as I can remember. My mother noticed my ability very early on and often brought home art supplies to keep me from drawing on the walls of our house. As a teen, she enrolled me in art classes at The Art Students' League of NY to better hone my skills. My father, who was often out of the country on business, would often come back from his trips with comic books from the different places he's been to.
Often times, he would bring back comics from France Like Petzi, Pif Magazine and The Adventures of Tin Tin. At this time in my life I couldn't read French very well, so instead I relied on the images to help me figure out what was happening in the story. The colors, drawing style, and characters were very unlike the look of mainstream comics at the time in the U.S., and I promptly fell in love with them.
Greg: What brought about the idea for the weird world of Malice in Ovenland?
Micheline: I was inspired to create the world of Malice in Ovenland because I love the idea of creating fantasy adventures with positive messages that have people of color in them. As a child, this is something that I almost never saw. I really wanted to have young kids be able to see themselves more in the stories I created. Ovenland is also a kind of tribute to all the fantasy based media I loved so much growing up. The strange creatures, layout of Ovenland, dark tunnels, ghosts and perilous dangers represent some of the things I enjoyed most about the comics I read, video games I played, and movies I've seen. Lilly is the centerpiece.
Greg: What is Malice in Ovenland about?
Micheline: Malice in Ovenland is about a young girl from Queens named Lilly Brown who, one day while stuck at home doing chores for the weekend, ends up finding a hidden passageway to another world populated by strange creatures called Frites. These creatures are largely hostile to her as they feel she is responsible for reduced supply of their favorite thing to eat, bits of greasy food. Lilly must use her smarts and wit against the Oven Frites to make it home and have things ready for her mom before she gets back home.
In the Summer time before I went off to camp, my mother often left chores for me to do while she was at work. I hated it at the time, but ultimately I think it went a long way toward making me a more responsible and resourceful person.
Greg: Haha. So in a sense Malice is art emulating life then?
Micheline: Heh heh, yeah in some ways it is art imitating life, although happily, I was never made to clean out the oven as a kid.
Greg: How long has this book been in development?
Micheline: I started Malice in earnest between 2009 and 2010. I had been working on it on the side after work developing the concept and characters but after I lost my job, I had a lot more time to work on these things and so I poured myself into the process. It was a little nerve wracking at first since it felt weird not working full time, but soon I really started to get into it.
Greg: Can you tell us about the various designs for the creatures, The Frites? I would be so creeped out and disgusted if I were in her shoes.
Micheline: The denizens of Ovenland are a mixture of various things that have influenced me over the years. I wanted them to be a combination of cuteness and greasy grossness. I don't think that's a word but you get the idea. (Laghs)
Greg: I think you're good. (Laughs)
Micheline: The Queen is modeled a little after the Queen from Alice in Wonderland, but with more reptilian qualities.
Greg: How many issues are you planning for this series? Is there a finite ending or do you see this going further as an ongoing of sorts?
Micheline: There will be 4 issues in the first volume, which will then be printed as a trade paperback. After that, I may do four more issues since right now the story has kind of taken on a life of it's own, but that remains to be seen.
Greg: What's been a challenge for you working on this book and in the indie comic scene in general?
Micheline: One of the bigger challenges has been making time to work on the comic consistently after work. A lot of times after I come home I don't feel like doing anything but sitting around and reading or watching TV, so this endeavor has more or less forced me to be more focused about making sure that I try to do something every day after I come home.
Another thing that can make it challenging is that a lot of times I have to pass up opportunities to hang out with friends or family on the weekends because this is the best and only time that I can really focus on my work. After awhile I start to get some funny looks when on Monday morning, coworkers ask me what I did on the weekend and my answer is always, "I was drawing all weekend." (Laughs)
Greg: Awww! (Laughs) But I'm sure it comes with its rewards!
Micheline: The most rewarding thing has been seeing the world and characters of Malice in Ovenland come to life as well as seeing how well people have been receiving it.
Greg: What has been the most surprising reaction so far on the book?
Micheline: It's been surprising and awesome to see how teachers have responded. More and more teachers and libraries are welcoming graphic novels into their midst as it encourages kids to read more. Hopefully once the trade paperbacks come out, Malice in Ovenland will make into these places.
Greg: Is this your first comic book, by the way?
Micheline: My first ever published comic, yes. Toward the end of the first book I was simultaneously working on my Anansi Kids comic, which was also a fun and different experience since I did all the art for it on my iPad using the app Art Studio.
Greg: Hmm, Anansi Kids? I'm a big fan of Anansi the Spider so I'm excited to hear about this!
Micheline: Anansi Kids and The All Saints' Day Adventure is a comic that I used my iPad to do all the art for. It takes place on the island of St Vincent where my Mother grew up. It tells the story of 3 kids who make up the Anansi Kid's Club. They often use the book of Anansi stories to deal with different challenges that come their way, since Anansi is so clever. The comic uses elements of Afro Caribbean folklore, and historical elements to drive the story that is one parts mystery, two parts comedy and some scares thrown in for good measure.
Greg: That sounds like a whole lot of fun! And can you tell us a bit about The Island Cats of Cunga Ree?
Micheline: The Island Cats of Cunga Ree is a rhyming picture book for kids that tell the story of a colorful colony of cats that live on a tropical island. When a violent storm washes all their favorite foods off the island, one cats comes up with the purrfect solution to help them out. I did all the art for this book on my iPad using Paper53 and a portion of all sales go to a local charity called Island Cats which helps give vet care, food, shelter, spaying and neutering as well as re homing services for the stray cats on Roosevelt Island. I published it under my brand Kuronekko Creative through Lulu.com which is a print on demand service.
Greg: These books sound like a lot of fun. Is there a particular reason why you've felt the need to produce work mostly for children?
Micheline: They definitely were. As a young girl of barely seven years of age in Brooklyn, I used to go on comic runs with my older brother. He was and still is into comics. Even though there were titles we bought (mine were Wendy the Witch or Devil Dinosaur), I rarely if ever saw characters with brown skin or kinky hair. No one that looked like me. I want children of color especially to be able to enjoy more diversity earlier on in life in the comics they read.
Greg: Do you see yourself doing books for an older audience in the future?
Micheline: Yes actually. I'd like to start experimenting with stuff for older audiences. I think one of my bigger challenges will be possibly managing more complex story-lines and character relationships. For the time being Malice in Ovenland has been a very educational experience in terms of helping me strengthen those skills.
Greg: What influences your style of story telling, from your writing to your art?
Micheline: As a kid, I actually loved the comics my father brought back from his business trips to Europe more than American comics. The character designs, line weight, colors and story telling were all enchanting to me and I think that a lot of that influence comes through in my work. Even though I also enjoyed reading a lot of manga later on in life, I'd say that the European style is a much bigger influence in my work.
With writing, I'm not so sure what the exact influence is, although Kid-Lit is a pretty strong factor along with my own very fertile imagination.
Greg: You've mentioned doing art on iPad a few times now. What is it about doing art on an iPad that works and appeals to you compared to creating in the more "traditional" way?
Micheline: The great thing about creating art on the iPad for me has been in both the mobility factor as well as the library of powerful apps available at very reasonable prices. With my iPad, I can create wherever I am and it's a lot like having a fully supplied art studio right at my fingertips where I can emulate almost any medium. I don't worry about styluses much anymore since I draw and paint with my finger. Quite a few apps also allow you to up-size your work to resolution that works for printing. My favorites are Procreate, Art Studio and Paper53.
Greg: Comics have always been seen as a boys' playing field of sorts. As a female creator, did you ever feel any discouragement during the production of this book when fleshing out Malice?
Micheline: It can be hard to get people to take you seriously I've found. In many instances if I'm sitting at a booth or table, people will assume that I'm just there to watch the table or count the money. In some cases they won't address me at all and instead will address any men that are at the table instead. Getting mad about it doesn't help of course but it's important to speak out and make sure that my voice is heard. Also, I feel it helps that more female creatives band together to present a united front as well as support each other. That's why I'm glad I joined up with the Women in Comics NYC Collective International!
Greg: Women in Comics NYC Collective International!? You have to tell me more about that!
Micheline: This group was founded by Regine Sawyer in 2012. It is designed to provide a welcoming and encouraging environment where women can share ideas, get advice and support each other as well as showcasing the art of women in the comics industry and get the word out concerning our achievements.
Greg: Thank you, I definitely need to look more into that. What are your thoughts on the current state of diversity when it comes to comic books?
Micheline: It needs MORE diversity. This is something that is changing little by little in my opinion but still has a ways to go, especially in terms how women are represented both on the character side and the creator side.
Greg: What advice would you give someone trying to break in, particularly creators of color and women?
Micheline: I feel like one of the biggest detriments to starting my comics making journey was my own self-doubt. I try to maintain the sense that if I don't at least try, I'll never know. So my advice would be to give your ideas a chance. Draw them. Get them down on paper. If you can't draw, then write about them. Daydream about the worlds you'd create. Read comics that tell stories that you enjoy and pay careful attention to the way narratives are explored and illustrated. A lot can be learned and applied to your own endeavors. While things are slowly getting better, there is still a need for creators of color (women especially) to get their stories out there and into the hands of potential future story tellers, so it's important for artists to persevere in working on their projects and sharing them with the growing community of like-minded people.
Greg: Anything else you'd like to say as we wrap up?
Micheline: I'd like to say thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss what I'm doing and share my creations with your audience. It's important that women in comics (particularly women of color) have platforms that they can speak from and get the word out on their various creations.
Greg: No problem at all, Micheline! It's been an absolute pleasure. Before we wrap up, where can we find your books to purchase and support?
Greg: Each link above leads you straight to Micheline Hess' books, everyone. So be sure to click on those links! You and your kids are going to love them. Micheline, where on social media can we find you?
Micheline: You can find out more about what I'm doing creatively speaking at https://about.me/kuronekko
To keep up with posts about Malice in Ovenland you can Like the Malice in Ovenland Fan page on Facebook.
Greg: Thanks for stopping by! It was an absolute pleasure having you!
Micheline: Thank YOU!