Vera Brosgol is the creator of Anya’s Ghost, a young adult graphic novel about Anya, a teenage girl who wants nothing more than to be normal. When Anya falls down a well and meets the ghost of a girl who died a century ago, she quickly discovers that her new friend can help her with her social life and her schoolwork. As is always the case, this friendship is more complicated than she initially realizes.
Vera was kind enough to answer seven questions for me for the SBBT.
Why did you choose to create Anya’s Ghost in black and white?
I honestly didn’t think it needed color. Full-color can really add a lot to a story especially when it takes place in an interesting location or fantastic world, but for this particular one I feel like it would’ve been superfluous. The monochromatic palette served the mood of the story, I think. And it would’ve made the coloring take twice as long.
In addition to creating comics and graphic novels, you are a professional animator. In Anya’s Ghost and the art on your website, you create a sense of movement in still images. How do the skills required for comics and animation overlap?
I’m actually a story artist rather than an animator, though I went to school for animation. [K: My bad!] In college I learned that the part of the process I enjoyed the most was the storyboarding part, so that’s what I went into. I didn’t have the patience for animating! I think animation made me a much faster and more flexible artist – when you have to do thousands of drawings you can’t fuss with them too much. It also taught me how to be efficient in communicating with a drawing. I started focusing less on making a pretty picture and more on telling some kind of story with it. That definitely carried over into my illustration and comics work. I feel like the same part of my brain gets used for storyboarding and comics.
Like you, Anya came to America at the age of 5. A lot of Anya’s concerns over her appearance and behavior are magnified by the fact that she comes from a Russian family. How do you think having this extra level of being different affects common teenage concerns?
It’s just one more thing making life difficult. Anything that makes you in any way different from everyone else makes you a target, and when your skin is bad and your clothes are fitting weird you don’t want to pile anything else on top of that. I didn’t have a hard time about being Russian but I was constantly aware that my home life didn’t exactly match that of my friends, and a part of me definitely wished it did. Of course it depends on where you live. I went to a high school in Brooklyn where there was a huge immigrant population and being from another country didn’t cause problems – at most it just dictated what group you’d be friends with.
While Anya’s worries are common to most teenagers, Anya’s Ghost adds a supernatural element to issues of friendship and peer pressure. What do you think is powerful about using the supernatural to tell this kind of story?
Part of the reason I added the paranormal element to the story was to make it more fun for me! Regular old school drama is all well and good but I don’t really get excited unless there’s something weird or creepy going on. And Emily served as a way to reflect all of Anya’s bad traits back at her, so that she could get a good honest look at herself. That would’ve been possible to do with a non-ghost character but it made sense for me to do that with someone who literally didn’t have a life of their own.
On your website, you feature fan art for other works such as Scott Pilgrim and The Hunger Games. Who are some of your favorite artists and writers? What about their work inspires you?
I’m a big fan of Fred Moore and Earl Oliver Hurst, both of whom drew lovely lady illustrations. Jillian Tamaki is one of my favorite modern illustrators – I love her embroidered Penguin covers and her amazing ink work. There’s a Czech illustrator named Stepan Zavrel who did the most amazing watercolors – I’d love to get some of that looseness into my own work. And I’m friends with some phenomenal artists – Jon Klassen, Chris Turnham, Steve Wolfhard, Emily Carroll… so I am constantly inspired by them. Writer-wise, I really like Haruki Murakami’s books. Before that I read Dracula and Geek Love. Right now I’m working through the Song of Ice & Fire books. I usually want to draw a picture to go along with whatever I’m reading just to get it out of my head!
A lot of your art, such as your collaborative Tumblr blog Draw this dress! and your many circus-themed pieces, draws on vintage imagery. What is it about these images from the past that appeals to you?
I love fashion. I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was little (as well as an animator and a children’s book illustrator and probably a vet or something). Though really I think what I meant was costume design – I love anything that tells a story and clothes can absolutely do that. Vintage clothes tell you about the kind of person who wore them, what their life was like, what was going on in the world at the time… it’s really easy and fun to insert a character into them, which is what Draw This Dress is all about. Modern fashion can be a lot of fun too but there’s definitely more variety if you’re borrowing from the past.
When you were in high school, you created the webcomic Return to Sender. What did you learn from this experience that has helped you in your career?
Haha! I kind of learned what not to do. I did that comic before school and the whole thing was a very fussily-drawn, poorly-planned experiment. I generally knew where the story was going but putting it up online one page at a time was not the best way to do tell it – once a page was up it was up, there was no going back and reworking things to improve the story. Maybe for a comic strip that would’ve been okay but I was essentially trying to make a graphic novel. It reached a point where it had gotten sloppy and I got too busy with school to deal with fixing it so I just stopped. I’m much more careful with plotting now and try to think of a book as a whole, rather than a series of installments. And I stopped using those darn Micron pens!