I reviewed Numb by Niina Salmelin a while back on The Outhouse. I love the webcomic, especially its horror-themed imagery, experimental use of color, and engaging characters. We both met through the Twitter group #ComicBookHour where small press comic creators come together to discuss various comic-related topics. Niina and I sat down and Skyped chat about Numb, her various influences and motivations, and how much we just really, really love horror movies.
How are you doing?
(Cat moves across computer screen).
Damn it, Tiger.
Get down from there. Sorry about that.
(Several minutes of banter later).
I think we should go ahead and start the interview. Please, introduce yourself.
I'm Niina Salmelin. I'm a webcomic creator and aspiring illustrator. I'm currently studying for a Master's in Art Education at the University of Lapland. I enjoy movies, comics, and animation.
When did you start reading comics and when did you decide to start making them?
It was pretty early on. I started reading them before I could read books. At my grandparents place, they had this big pile of Spider-Man and X-Men. I couldn't read yet, so I just looked at the pictures because there was nothing else to do (laughs). But I liked comics because of that, and I really got into them. My sister started making comics when she was six years old, and because I was the little sister, I started to mimic that and eventually started doing it without her. I don't remember when I wasn't doing comics, but Numb is the first one I put out there.
It's your big break into comics.
(Laughs). Yes. Hopefully. We'll see how it goes.
Who are your personal inspirations in comics and other media?
Definitely Jeff Smith, especially Bone. That was one of the first comics I read when I learned to read and it was great. I love his style because it's really loose and has great movement. He's very good with line art and use of black. It's kinetic, while having dramatic moments. Everyone can enjoy it. When you read it as a kid, it's a different experience than from when you're an adult, but you still find things to enjoy about it. There's also Wendy and Richard Pini who make Elfquest. I don't know if you've heard of that one?
Yeah. I've seen it in collections at bookstores and stuff. I haven't read it yet, but I've been meaning to because it looks like something I would enjoy, especially the art.
They are still making new comics out of it and it's like they have so much energy to make it. I admire Richard, the writer, and Wendy, the artist, is one of the first artists I saw who took inspiration from Japanese comics. It combines with her western style quite well. In other medium, I think a lot of movie directors like David Lynch, John Carpenter, and many other horror directors. I find that their movies are really like art films because they use visuals so much. If it looks pretty, I'll like it. I'm shallow that way (laughs). Some music, but I'm not a good music listener. There are some bands I remember, but not a whole lot. I like jazz, electric...just basically every genre does something for me.
How did you come up with Numb? What was the inspiration for it?
I had many comic ideas when I was a teenager and I played around with them for a bit. Numb just happened to be the easiest for me to draw (laughs). It has a few buildings and stuff, but nothing crazy like sci-fi or westerns. Numb is mostly character interactions and dialogue and pretty colors but nothing complex. I do want to draw more ambitious, crazy imagery, but it's a good place to start. Story wise, it just seemed the most ready to be told.
Well, like with Argento you can do a lot by placing a story in a modern setting as long as you're experimental with it.
Yeah, that's true.
Why did you decide to make Numb a webcomic?
It was mostly because I was so young when I came up with Numb and didn't think about taking it to any publishers. I wanted to get it out immediately for people to read. Also, webcomics are a good way to get an audience for your stuff and learn slowly. If I were lucky enough to get this for a publisher and they wanted to change or something else like that, I don't know if that would have been a good deal. Numb is too personal a story for me at this stage. I'd rather do it myself and not be responsible for anyone else. It's easier for me, at least now.
How has it been using Tapastic as your webcomic's main outlet? Are you happy with it?
It's good for all comics, but mostly for humor and slice of life because they support mostly those. If there was another platform for horror or mystery comics, I would give it a shot.
Would you like to do a print version of Numb?
What, you mean I can't just be digital (laughs)? No, no. I definitely would. That's the ultimate goal. When I started I was like, "yes I want that (laughs)." I love print comics the most. I'm not a good webcomic reader. I want to buy the book and read it in one go rather than waiting for it which really fucks up the pacing.
I feel you on that one. I'm doing my best to read more digital comics, but I prefer printed reading material in general because that's what I grew up mostly reading.
Yeah. If it's in a book, I can go back and read it easily.
You do everything in Numb: story, art, color, lettering, etc. What made you decide to go completely DIY?
Because I have no money to hire anyone (laughs). It's also because Numb is a very personal project and has to be exactly like I envision it in my head. Again, I don't have money to hire anyone to help me and even if I did, I can't expect them to ride along with me to the end. They might quit or I could run out of money. It's better to do it yourself if you can afford it. Also, it's a learning experience. I want to know how to do everything, practice as hard as I can, especially with coloring.
Well, I think you're doing just quite well. Especially with the color.
Thank you. It's so great to hear.
What's your creative process like? How do you get story to page?
When I started Numb, the planning was the longest part. At first, I was just fantasizing it in my head. After that, I got this new notebook to do storyboards in. Those were the first things I drew for the comic. I knew exactly how long the comic would be--400+ pages--but I needed to plan out the story arcs. The one we're reading right now is the first arc. It's about 150 pages, and I storyboarded the whole thing because I wanted to exactly know how long it would be and how to break down the scenes. It was a really good decision because I did that storyboard three years ago and as I started the story and characters grew; I knew what I wanted to change and what to keep. After storyboarding, it's mostly just drawing pages. While I color the final pages, I also storyboard the next chapter so there's always something ready to go and something in waiting.
Wow. You certainly have a master plan. Out of all that work, which part of the process is your favorite?
I think the most enjoyable part is to plan out the pages--the storyboard thing--and to figure out the panel layout for each scene. Also, coloring. I used to hate it because I was still learning and fucked up a lot, but I've gotten so much better at it. Which is why I was so happy when you complimented my coloring. I've worked so hard to improve and it's good to know my efforts paid off.
Aw, you're welcome. Coloring is my favorite part of your comic. Also, how long does it take to get a page done?
3 to 4 hours. The layout is done in an hour if there's like not something hard to do. I do really loose sketches of backgrounds because the colors will fill it up. The coloring process of a good page can be an hour, bad 3 hours, but I try to keep it simple. In a good day, I can do at least 4 pages a day, but normally it's 2 and not even all the time.
I particularly love the fact that your choice is watercolors. Is that a preference?
It's faster. I'm not good at digital. I'm just learning to use it and takes a long time to make something with it. Also, with watercolor you cannot back up. It's done and you have to fix it quick or move on. That's a better mentality when you do a long comic and have to make pages fast instead of one illustration you can ponder for a long time on. If I did digital, I think I would just get stuck on coloring for hours instead of just doing it. I also enjoy without working on a computer. I prefer drawing and coloring on paper. If I did it digitally, I would never be off the computer which is not healthy (laughs).
How do you decide the layout of a scene?
It's actually funny because I use little time. I do them really fast. I have some really strong notes of what I want to do. I just need to scribble them down in a couple of minutes and it will be enough to set up the page.
So efficient! Going back to color, you seem to be really experimental with your approach to coloring. Do you want to experiment with color this way? Do you feel enough artists experiment this way or could there be more?
There can always be more, but only if they feel it's important for their art. I know other artists want to do it digital or just normal, and I cannot say anything about it because that's there vision. For me, I like experimentation. I remember reading Lucky Luke comics and they would have panels of characters getting angry and nervous and the person is colored green, or people are getting into fights and the background disappears and just turns completely red and the people another color. I think that just expresses the mood much better than having a perfect background. Also, it's much easier to use color this way. I'm still not that good a colorist. Like, if I were to do it realistically the scene would fall apart immediately. Experimental color compliments my style better. I like my coloring for a scene to be shocking, like with theater lighting where they swamp the scene in a single color. You find that in some movies, too. I really enjoy it and want to bring that style to my comics.
We've talked about this before, but you really like how Dario Argento uses color in his movies. How does he influence your coloring?
I just really enjoy the look in his movies: the music, the color, the slow scenes, and how it looks like they're living inside of art. It adds to the surrealism. Really bright colors and architecture. His (Argento) stories are really simple, but the way he films them are these really complicated visuals and I love it.
I noticed that there is a manga influence in Numb particularly the character Nikita. Would you say manga influences your work?
Definitely. When I was in elementary school, there was this huge manga wave. Akira and stuff like that. My sister and I read it all because it was completely different from western comics in pacing and the focus points. I was lucky to be interested in that and the books were pretty cheap, so I could afford to read most of it. There's definitely a lot of influence, especially in Nikita because one of the points of his character is that he looks pretty but is shady. It's a fact that if people look pretty and better posture you think they are nicer even if they do something shady. So, Nikita being appealing is a deception much more effective than if he looked nasty. Now, he has freedom to be a lot nastier, but people don't take him seriously because he has a pretty face.
How much does the western and eastern style influence your art and do you think one influences the other more or are they equal?
I think it's equal, but for panel layouts I prefer western so use more of a western look for my comic. With the characters and how they express their emotions are a bit more like manga with how large their eyes are. That's also from animation movies. In more realistic art styles they have a problem expressing their emotions because they have to look good all the time. The loose style works better.
You've told me that even though Numb is more of a mystery drama, yet in our previous conversations you also mentioned how the comic has a lot of horror elements. What is it about horror that influences your work?
I was really obsessed with horror movies as a kid, so I think that's what has a lot to do with it. When the idea of Numb came, I was at the height of my obsession with the Halloween movies and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, especially TCM which is a big inspiration. Numb was actually going to be more horror, but the more I pondered over the story, I decided toning down the horror elements would work better. So, I love Chainsaw, but Numb is definitely NOT going to be that (laughs). But I still love the movie.
Probably one of my favs! Got a T-shirt and everything.
Yeah. I still love horror because it's an emotional genre which I really like. Even though I've grown more cynical and barely watch newer horror movies, I'm still interested interested in seeing one every once in awhile. It might be bad, but I'll give it a shot because I'll enjoy it at some level.
In that case, do you feel Numb is a mashup of genres?
Yeah, I think so. I wanted it that way because originally it was a lot more of a horror comic, but I think horror works best when it's mashed up with another genre because if it's only horror, there's not much except you sit, wait, and expect the horror. If it's a longer story, it's best to mix it with drama so when the horror comes out and hits you there is time to breathe and wait for the next scene. Also, it's more unsettling if horror's mashed up with another genre you're always up on your toes waiting and wondering "when is the horror coming?"
How do you feel about horror comics or horror in general right now?
I think movie wise it's betting better because now horror movies are getting to cinemas again. It's still pretty bad, but there's movies like The VVitch and The Babadook and even some not so good but at least different, new approaches. These movies want to create a mood and story instead of just simply scaring everyone. There's always gonna be slumps and high points, but at least right now there is hope. It's starting to look pretty nice. In comics, I haven't read enough horror comics, so I can't say. Right now, I'm mostly reading Junji Ito. I'm not sure about western horror comics. The only western horror comics I'm reading right now are more campy than terrifying (laughs).
I can feel you on that one. I like campy but also want something serious. There are a few more serious horror comics, like Insexts, but there could always be more of them.
Do you hope that Numb puts some creative juice back into the genre?
If people consider it good horror, I'd really be happy, but that's not my goal.
We should probably get into the story now. I really liked how in Numb the characters felt like real people. How much time did you put in developing them?
I'm really happy to hear that because my biggest issue were the characters. They took up most of my time because I knew what was going to happen with them and the story, but knowing how it would all fit was challenging. I think in horror it's really important that you make readers care about characters. They all have their own inspirations. Sue, for example, is kind of a reflection of people from my childhood. I knew many chain-smokers who were like "Niina, you should never smoke. It's bad for you." And they said this while just puffing and puffing (laughs). It was a changing point for Sue's character when I realized she would be that kind of person just always smoking and drinking. She used to be a different kind of character, really just a bland love interest and innocent type. I hated her, so I thought it be nice to change her into a nastier, cynical person with a lot of bad habits. She's a lot more interesting to right now and I'm glad how she's come out. Probably my favorite, honestly.
Then there is Levi who like Sue changed drastically. Originally, he didn't have a name. I was struggling with him because he started off as a nasty, awful person and not a fun way like Sue. If I kept him that way, readers would not like him and no other characters would want to be around him. It changed after I named him. Levi is the name of my very first plushy toy.
(Holds up a toy bunny.)
Aw, how cute.
Thank you. After I named him, I realized I did not want someone so awful associated with my favorite plushy, so I changed Levi to be a nicer guy. I can't talk more about Levi because that would give away too much of what's going to happen in the story, but I can say he is a sweet guy based off of my memories of comics, being a nerd, and running in the woods. Nikita's not based off on anyone in real life. He's trickier, and I can't give much away because like Levi there's a lot going on later in the story that will reveal more about him. I like Nikita though. He's just a really mischievous person but also has a little good side to him.
It seems so strange to me Levi and Sue would be friends. They are such bipolar opposites. What do you think makes them friends? Is it purely platonic?
I think it's that they've known each other since childhood and it is implied that they use to be closer but they have grown apart. I guess that's more of them figuring out what can they do with themselves now that there's this big question of what happened to Tim weighing them down. For me, their relationship is purely platonic because I'm not interested in romance for my comics. You can find that everywhere else, so I just want to focus on friendship.
Sue seems very cynical. Is that just how she is?
I think she's the kind of person that figures if you're pessimistic then you can't get hurt because you don't expect to get anything at all. She chooses to play it safe with already being kind a person with a nasty attitude toward dreams and nice things because she doesn't want to get too use to them. She wants to be realistic, like there are good things but most don't last and play out like a childhood fantasy. I think in her own way it is a defense mechanism to avoid getting hurt.
It's like you said. Whatever happened to Tim drove a wedge between their relationship. Why do you think Levi and Sue want to forget about it?
I think it's because if they put the cat on the table and discuss it, it would be a different era. It would force them to move on, and maybe that scares them the most. So, fixing the fact will change everything for them.
Amy and her father are interesting. Can't recall if he has a name other than Old Man. If he does I would be fine with that (laughs).
He actually has a name but it's in the later pages. His name is Carl. I don't know if I said it right. It gets revealed in the scene where Sue's driving to his place. Page 60-something. I also like the idea he's just the Old Man of the house everyone visits.
Clearly they have ties to Levi and Sue. I'm guessing you can't reveal what that is exactly yet because of the story.
You mean what are their ties to Levi and Sue? Well, I can spoil that. They have a history. Sue is a family friend to Carl and Amy. Levi is Sue's friend, so they hang out with each other. Carl is closer to Sue, so that's why he seems to care about her more. Sue lived at his place when she was younger, so that's why he's more comfortable with her. He respects Levi enough though because he and Sue are friends.
The reveal of Amy's powers was quite interesting and I think it complicates the story because at first I thought it was just a ghost story, but now I'm wondering if it's alternative realities or something like that. Did you want to make the story more complex, to be deceptive to where you think it's one thing but it might be something else?
Yeah. I always wanted to have this alternative world that's right next to them. Nikita is somehow connected to that but we don't know how yet because in the really early pages when he was walking the field there was uh....
The woman with the voices?
She's really scary by the way.
That's when I started thinking there was more going on. That and Tim seeing another world. Or even with your visuals in the beginning: they tipped me off to the fact things weren't as they appeared. It seems you have a lot planned out to the big reveal what's the big supernatural thing in this story.
Yeah. There is a bigger picture going on and that woman will be part of it. I don't know how much I can talk about it.
Keep it secret. I'm willing to wait and read.
Yes, but she will be a big factor. It's not just artistic choices. It's...It has an endgame.
What was that character's inspiration, by the way? The woman?
She kind of...It's difficult to tell because there is stuff that's gonna be revealed about her. Pretty soon actually. But she is connected to Nikita. That's something I can drop. And maybe there are some clues you can pick up on later. Right now though she's just scary (laughs).
I talked a little bit in my review about how life and death is a theme in the comic. You told me also friendship and personal responsible are also important themes. How do you think those play into the story?
I think that they are just a really big part of life and getting over deaths. So, they are a really natural thing to follow in this team (Levi, Sue, Nikita, etc.). This story is heavily character-driven and those themes are important for their interactions. These people are the main part and the big things happening around them are either something that's effected by them or comes to bite them in the ass. It all happens because of these relationships.
How do you think your art expresses those themes visually?
Well, I think somewhat good because I chose the surreal way to go with it. So that's why the other world and this weird stuff doesn't feel so far-fetched because the art plays with it, and it would be boring to just use normal colors because if you can do it this way, why would you do it like in a regular movie where they can't do it? You can draw whatever you want, so why not do it that way? And my writing isn't so good, so I have to play it up with the colors and the art. Like, if the dialogue isn't so good, I can show it visually. Like the page where I changed the color in the background while Sue and Levi were talking. That showed emotions better than dialogue could. That's how I try to keep it good.
You seem to have a sizeable readership now. How does it feel having fans reading and enjoying your story?
It's really great because it was hard to do it when there's like no response, especially when you put out one page per week or so. I think this comic was hard to get into when it's only the first 20 pages and you can't get a hang of anything. So, it's really...I got excited when I got my first fans. I love it when people interact, comment on the story and telling me what they think will happen and I can answer that. I really love webcomics for that so I can interact with my readers so well. I'm really happy they found, and more people are finding it slowly. I'm happy about that.
Any readership is good, especially webcomics.
What's the ultimate goal for Numb?
Get the story done (laughs). Maybe create a story that some people can relate to and find something out of the story. I want to give people some feelings or something to look forward to reading. Something that if they get passionate about it I will be really happy because I am a really passionate comic reader. It's something that I want to give back to people, so I will really be happy and enjoy it as much as I want them to.
Any other projects you have planned during or after Numb?
Plenty. There's so many comics I want to do. I'm going to make them, but I have an order in which I'm going to do them. I want to do a little bit of every genre. Not comedy because I'm not that funny (laughs), but I want to do a sci-fi, a western, and even some fantasy. I want to do everything I can. I'll have to see which one gets fleshed out better as I work on Numb. It'll probably be sci-fi, but I'm not sure. There will be comics for the kids if I can stay healthy and alive (laughs).
How do you feel about the comics industry as it is now?
I'm optimistic. There's like so much more possibilities to get published or to put your comics out there now. Like webcomics. They're great and still growing. And then there's all these individual publishers that are getting more notice in some ways. It's not only about superhero comics anymore. It's not like it was here in Europe, but I think in America it was more about superhero comics.
Oh, yeah. It is. I can say that as an American. Although most of the comics I'm reading right now have nothing to do with superheroes. Most of them are their own different genres which I think is better. I like going to see the movies, but with the comics, I have yet to be blown away by a Big Two comic. Once you've seen the same art styles for the same people, you lose interest. Not without some exceptions. There are some that are really fun to read.
I love superhero comics because I grew up with them, but I got through them quickly. I love Chris Claremont because I think his are the best X-Men stories. After that, I tried to find some other ones and figured out how hard it was to find a good story from that franchise because there are so many storytellers. When there is a good one, it's like "I love this", but then they cancel it. Strip comics are really popular here in Finland, but I think right now people are starting to find other, more dramatic comics. I think it's going to get better. I think other people are starting to realize that there are more stories in comics and not just stuff for stereotypical comic people. Also, I would like to see more comics for kids because I think people find it difficult to think there can be comics for that demographic.
What do you hope for in the future of comics? Even though you're optimistic, what do you hope to see happen next?
I hope that we find some new creators instead of jerking around with the safe picks. It will be great to give chances to different creators from every genre. You can see what is fashionable right now. Like, everyone will like that person but see so much of them that they end up hating it and move on to the next thing. It'll be great to have a little bit of everything instead of growing angry with only one thing you used to like but now it's everywhere. I don't think this will be possible, but I can dream.
Any advice you would give to people making comics right now?
The most important thing is that you have to start doing it and not just fantasizing about it. I don't mean it like you have to start drawing the picture from nothing, but you have to plan it out. If it's just a hobby right now, have fun. Don't stress about it. But if you want to have a future and have big dreams for this story you want to tell, then take it seriously. Be patient. It's going to take time.
Final question for today. This is probably my cheesiest question, but Behemoth or A Place To Bury Strangers?
A Place to Bury Strangers. I was lucky to see both live, and A Place To Bury Strangers had nicer visuals and it put me to sleep (laughs).