Smash Pages Q&A: Jen Hickman

The artist of ‘SFSX’ discusses taking over the art for the comic, their new series from Aftershock and more.

Jen Hickman is an artist and writer who in recent years has made a splash in one comics series and one webcomic after another, showing a striking sense of design and composition and an ease at storytelling. They have been writing and drawing comics like Calvin and Long Haul, which appears on Filthy Figments, and has contributed to a number of anthologies including Femme Magnifique, Score! and Theater of Terror. Hickman remains best known for their work on a series of comics and graphic novels for a variety of companies including Jem and the Holograms: Infinite, Moth and Whisper, Test and BezKamp .

Hickman drew issues #4-7 of SFSX, and the collection SFSX: Volume 1, Protection comes out July 22. Hickman is not one for resting on their laurels, or even pausing, with a new series, Lonely Receiver, launching from Aftershock in September and more SFSX in the works.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I was in my early 20s and adrift, working dead-end jobs I hated, trying to figure out what I wanted to do career-wise, and I just wanted to make comics. So after I got home from work and on my weekends, I tried to teach myself. I felt like I was hitting my head against the wall and I knew there were huge gaps in what I was learning, but I didn’t know what they were. This was before the internet became the amazing learning resource that it is today. So I saved as much as I could and did one year at SCAD. I lucked into the most amazing cohort of fellow students (a bunch of them are my current studiomates) and learned everything I had been missing (I came into the program not knowing what inking was, let alone anything about the industry itself!) and from there, I had the tools I needed to make comics. 

I first came across your work a few years ago. You had drawn comics in a few anthologies and worked with a common friend of ours, Casey Gilly.

Casey Gilly is an amazing person! I honestly don’t remember how I met her (Maybe at APE? Before it died?) but I am so glad I did. Every time we get to work together, it’s wonderful. 

So how did you end up working on SFSX?

I actually came to SFSX in a roundabout way, through the Bay Area cartoonist scene! Justin Hall and I had met at a comics camping event, and he reached out to see if I would be interested in working with Tina Horn on an anthology short for Theater of Terror: Revenge of The Queers. I love doing anthologies – they’re great places to experiment, work with new people with low stakes and build community. Tina and I had a good time making a story together. She asked if I wanted to take over art duties from Michael Dowling for SFSX, and I said hell yeah!

You came into SFSX after Dowling drew the first two issues and Alejandra Gutierrez drew the third. Are you looking at those issues for how you need to make the book look? Is it similar to drawing Jem, where you had examples of the characters, and the tone and style of the book, to draw from? 

For that transfer, my top priority was to make sure the readers didn’t bounce off the changeover. Since Alejandra Gutierrez’s issue was a bit of a flashback and I’d be continuing the main plot, I tried to look at what Dowling was doing and shift my style to make the transition as easy to read as possible. Dowling has a very cinematic, more photo-realistic style than I usually go for – my manga influence is strong! – but I tried to move in that direction. It was intimidating! It was, actually, a little similar to drawing Jem, in that I felt like I had to live up to the work that had come before.

Do you think changing your style to draw SFSX has affected your work since? Has that approach opened up new ways to work?

I tend to shift my style – inking more than anything else – project to project to whatever I think will suit the story best. Usually it’s primarily in the inks/general mark-making, but I’ll consider other stuff as well – will emanata make the story too cartoony? Will really strict layouts suit better, or will something a little more freeform work? I also find myself chameleoning whatever work I’m into as I’m drawing, and I try to keep that in check. But shifting my style keeps me from getting bored with my work, and it gives me new things to play with on the page. 

So much of the work I’ve seen from you has been science fiction and fantasy and horror, things like Test and Bezkamp and Moth & Whisper – and SFSX is different from all of them, but it shares a lot with those projects.

My first love is science fiction. I grew up reading nothing but sci-fi and still find that it’s the genre I enjoy the most. That’s definitely why I got incredibly excited about Test, Moth & Whisper and Bezkamp – all of them are (arguably) about the impact technology has on humanity, in some way or another, and drawing/designing that tech was a delight. I don’t know that I would call any of them fantasy, though Test’s tech only got a little textual explanation and Bezkamp’s has the trappings of fantasy as part of the setup. I think the nebulous definitions/ambiguity is why we all just say speculative fiction now, right?

Pure horror in comics is kind of my white whale – I find it maddeningly difficult to do well without my favorite horror-tools: no jump scares, no audio and you can’t really disempower a reader in a medium like comics. But I love horror and like to create things that freak people out. SFSX’s touch of horror (and science fiction) is definitely very close to our current world, and that closeness is where the rubber hits the freakout road for me. 

I know that you also have another comic, Lonely Receiver, coming out from Aftershock.

Lonely Receiver is horror and science fiction. We’re going to start releasing monthly in September! I think I nailed a couple of horror moments in it. We’ll see – hopefully I’ll get some reader/reviewer feedback that confirms it! I’m very excited for this book; Zac Thompson wrote something extraordinarily weird and heartfelt, and I really enjoyed drawing it.

The fourth chapter of Long Haul, your serial on Filthy Figments, just launched last month. For people who don’t know, do you want to say a little about what it is?

Long Haul is an erotic comic series digitally published by the wonderful Filthy Figments. I’ve been describing it as “dysfunctional queers, extremely flippant D/s stuff, and the most hand-wavey of sci-fi backdrops.” This is probably going to be the last installment for a while- I like these characters a great, deal but I want to play around with some different stuff after this chapter. It was supposed to be a one-shot, actually, but people seemed to like it, so I kept going.

Besides Long Haul, you’ve written different projects like Calvin, Mind the Gap. Do you want to write more going forward?

Honestly, when I decided I wanted to make comics, I always assumed I’d write and draw. But I really enjoy collaboration, and the way the industry is structured, it’s financially – and emotionally if I’m honest! My own books can’t get rejected if I never pitch them! – most secure for me to link up with writers and collaborate with them and just draw. It simplifies things.

Calvin, specifically, is autobio, and I am planning on a follow-up. It needs one. Calvin was a distillation of about seven years of journaling and being too cowardly and nihilistic to come out as nonbinary, and I used its existence as a sort of push to start asking people to use they/them pronouns for me. In the two years since I self-published Calvin, my thinking has shifted; I’ve grown, and I’ve shed a lot of the fear I had. So I’ve got, like, 50-ish pages of journaling that I am flinging at the follow-up, but because it’s so personal and introspective I have no idea when I’ll feel like I have the right chunk to start transmogrifying that into a comic. But it’s good for me to have something that is just me, as far as projects go.

What did SFSX mean to you and what did you take from the experience?

It’s so incredibly refreshing and fun to see queers and whores do a heist against such a familiar-looking evil establishment! Like, honestly, just shifting who the hero is, and having them, Avory in particular, slip into a role that traditionally she’d never get to play, rocks. And what I like most about Tina’s writing is that every person in our ensemble is a complex flawed character rather than a trope on a pedestal. I think that’s a big ask for an ensemble book, and Tina knocked it out of the park. And since I’m from the Bay Area, getting to draw locations that I remember fondly was an added perk. I’m really honored to get to help bring SFSX to life.

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