Who are you and where are you from?
I’m Alyssa Varner. I’m from Brooklyn. I’m a cartoonist or a comic-book-maker. I write and draw an ongoing series called Blown Away. It’s going to be a five-ish issue mini series and the first three have been published already. I'm working on the fourth one while I'm here.
What’s it about?
Blown Away takes place in 1975, in small town Iowa. It’s about a girl whose best friend is abducted by a tornado under mysterious circumstances. It’s sort of a sci-fi rural noir story. It’s basically about a girl’s search for her best friend. There’s also a preacher who believes he can control the weather, and it explores how these stories intersect.
What’s your process like?
I have a spreadsheet — I call it “Series Outline” — and I have a breakdown of the plot points for each issue so I know basically what’s going to happen throughout the whole series. While I'm writing the script for each one, I flesh out the story and usually change my mind a little bit as I go and get to know the characters a little bit more. I like to leave a little bit of room for having better ideas than I had a year ago.
Does the script come first? Do you ever discover something unexpected once you start drawing?
Yeah, so the process is that I write the script first — it usually takes like three drafts. I write it as if it’s for another artist, so I'm talking to future-artist-me. And then by the time the writing is done I start doing what are called thumbnail sketches, plotting out the composition of each page and where the panels will go, where the lettering will go, and getting the design of each page down first. And then I start drawing and I do everything digitally. Sometimes when I get into actually drawing out a panel, I’ll end up editing the text because of space constraints or the amount of detail the art needs, or I realize that I can convey a detail or something with a character’s expression rather than having them say something. What I try to look for are those moments where the art can do the work instead of the text.
What are some of your favorite comics?
One of my favorites is Charles Burns’s graphic novel, Black Hole. It takes place in the 70’s and it’s about a group of teenagers that get infected basically with an STD that makes them kind of mutate in weird ways. He uses such perfect brush strokes that it looks mechanical, it doesn’t look like a human has drawn it. sometimes using black and white, no midtones, he can make things look shiny or hairy or textured. He’s incredible.
Do you like superhero comics?
I do! I was reading an issue of Squirrel Girl last night. I highly recommend it. It’s hilarious. Written by Ryan North and drawn by Erica Henderson. Squirrel Girl is a computer science college major who has the powers of both squirrel and girl and she fights crime. She’s a badass. And she has a little squirrel sidekick named Tippy-Toe.
Speaking of girls with the powers of squirrels, if you could be any farm animal, which would you choose?
I would love to be a horse — they’re so graceful and sleek. But I'm definitely more of a donkey.
If you remain human, what will be next for your series and for you?
I worked a good amount on issue number four of Blown Away while I was here, but another project really took over. I’ve been wanting to work on it — it’s a nonfiction graphic essay. It’s my first attempt at doing comics in that way. I used to write creative non-fiction, that’s what I studied most in college. But I’ve gotten away from that writing fiction and comics.
Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?
In broad terms, it’s about unexpected loss and how you make sense of that. It’s told around the framework of hunting for mushrooms with my dad. It’s called Foraging.
Can you tell us about the space where you wrote that?
Here, in the barn. It smells like hay and there’s just enough light — it’s like a shaft of light coming in through the doors. It’s perfect. I’ve done pretty much most of my work here. I think it’s mostly the smell of the place that I connect to. It reminds me of barns from growing up — it’s just a really comforting, peaceful smell.