Smash Pages Q&A: Priya Huq on ‘Mana’ and more

The webcomics creator discusses painting and watercolors, her minicomic ‘The Bride’s Quarry,’ working on anthologies and much more.

Priya Huq is a painter and comics maker who is probably best known for her webcomic Mana — the story of a woman who has a vision of the sea, in a culture where tradition requires her to go on a quest after such a vision.

Huq is a prolific maker of short comics and her work has been found in many recent anthologies including The Secret Loves of Geeks, Habibi, and multiple volumes of Dirty Diamonds in addition to minicomics like the recent The Bride’s Quarry. Her work is typically painted in watercolor and it’s beautiful and striking, and she’s managed to craft a tone and sensibility that make her work stand out even more than her art does. I reached out to Huq to ask about how she works.

How did you come to comics?

We didn’t get the newspaper, so my first introduction to comics was Disney Adventures in the grocery store checkout. I really got into comics during the manga boom. I was in middle school and would borrow volumes from friends to read in class. I wanted to draw comics all through high school but felt like I wasn’t allowed to (and was discouraged by how bad my drawings were at the time). I majored in biochemistry in college, but when I knew I failed my chemistry midterm I totally lost it and ended up in the psych ward. When I came out I knew making comics was the only thing I wanted to do with my life.

I’m curious, how do you describe Mana?

Poorly! I’m awful at describing my work. My friend Olive (of OliveOilCorp) told me to tell people I make ETHEREAL WATERCOLOR FANTASY comics. So I tell people it’s an ethereal watercolor fantasy comic. If pressed I will also tell people it’s about ghosts, trauma, and diaspora. My elevator pitch is “When young khandati (swordsperson) Samudra finally has her dream, it is about the ocean: a sight she has never seen.  Tradition holds that she must quest to find it, but those who leave the mountains are not allowed to return.”

Has Mana changed much since you started it?

As I’ve gotten more confident, I’ve gotten less concerned with making sure it has things I think it’s “supposed” to have, like complex battles and political intrigue. The story has gotten more personal. It was originally a practice project so I could work on something bigger, but I love it too much and it became my main project.

How big a story is Mana?

In terms of length, I’m staring down about 800 pages right now, but that might change.

I feel like in the past year or so I’ve seen your name in a few different anthologies and elsewhere – Dirty Diamonds, Secret Loves of Geeks, Habibi. Is this your plan, to have this big project and then constantly making smaller ones?

It’s not really a plan so much as practicality. Mana doesn’t pay the bills.

In broad strokes, I feel like your work is this mix of personal work and fiction. Do you prefer one over the other?

I definitely, 100% prefer doing fiction! I’ve had an extreme life and most of my stories (unless I’m heavily editing) are traumatizing. It feels awful to rehash them. A lot of my autobio work is out there because there was literally nothing else I could focus on (or it was commissioned and I needed the money). I had to tell these stories because the fiction was buried under them. But my folder of comic scripts is 90% fiction.

What is your process like?

It depends on what kind of comic, but typically I have an idea that I make sure to write down as quickly as possible. Then if it’s meant for print, I make a dummy book out of printer paper and thumbnail the comic into the book, so I can design the pages as I decide what goes in the panels. Then I pick a size (A4 unless I only have Letter size for my printer and a con’s coming up). For Mana, I used to pencil onto manga paper and then use a lightbox to paint the comic onto watercolor paper, but lately I’ve been pencilling right onto the watercolor paper. I use the biggest brushes to get the washes in first, then go smaller and smaller until I’m painting on the details with a liner brush. I letter the comic with that brush. I use a warm toned black paint, then desaturate the page in Photoshop so it’s true greyscale, then mess with the color balance or add any color accents. I sometimes paint over the comic directly in Photoshop, especially for white accents and I almost always have a multiply layer for darkening tones. I always have to resize the lettering because I write too big.

What is it about painting and watercolor specifically that you like? I’m assuming that you both like the look and you just enjoy painting in watercolor.

It makes me happy while I’m painting, and it’s easiest for me to control. I can use other mediums, but watercolor listens to me. I can get a nuance of feeling in expression that I can’t really get with ink, and definitely not with a tablet (because of my own hands, not because of something intrinsic to the mediums). I think that’s because watercolor is easy to “erase” like pencil, so I can redo lines easily or change their size. I’m not a very good “cartoonist” in the sense of economy of line. So I try to “cartoon” with paint. I’m getting a little better at it with each page.

Do you want to say a little about your recent minicomic The Bride’s Quarry?

The Bride’s Quarry is a comic I printed for ECCC about a woman going on a very important and adorable quest across the mountains. It’s a bittersweet comic and the storytelling functions a lot on color. I had to rush some of the drawings to meet my deadline, but I’m happy with how the color shifts from page to page.

Do you do a lot of painting outside of comics?

Yeah, I keep a watercolor sketchbook, and I’ve been learning to oil paint. I do a lot of still lifes and portraits.

What are you working on now? What do you want to do next?

Right now I’m working on a pitch for a graphic novel, a splash page for the next volume of Dirty Diamonds, and a short comic about birds in the post-apocalypse that I’ve been sitting on for over a year. When those are all done, as always, I want to work on Mana!

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