Smash Pages Q&A: NireLeet

The illustrator and teacher discusses the story “Not Alone,” which was part of Decoded’s Pride Month anthology.

NireLeet is a teacher and illustrator, and this year for Decoded, the annual story-a-day anthology for Pride Month, she made the short comic “Not Alone.” A quiet and perfectly told story, it’s a story about a witch that’s about loneliness in a way that will resonate with people more than the story would have previously.

This year’s collection of Decoded has been released as a full color PDF, and NireLeet just launched Malic’s Deep, a new webcomic on Tapas. We spoke recently about art, fantasy and the joys of teaching art in elementary school.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I loved comics and graphic novels. I collect graphic novels of varying age ranges and mostly independent ones. I’m not really into DC or Marvel comics much. Comics were way more accessible for me than prose.

Was that always the case? You’re just a visual thinker?

Definitely. I guess that’s why I do art so much – and got into art so easily and early. Whereas people will say, you’re so talented – well, that’s what was easy, and what was fun to do. [laughs] When you practice something since you were five, you get good at it!

At a young age it’s fun and you get encouragement, so you keep doing it.

I think that’s a big part of it. Even things that you’re not necessarily really good at, if you enjoy doing them then you’re more likely to do them and then you get good at them. 

I’ve been poking around online and seeing all that you do. Where do comics fall in the midst of illustration and teaching and the other work you do?

I love reading graphic novels, but as far as making them, I am really at the very beginning of that. Professionally I teach and illustrate. Those are the two things I have gotten paid for. [laughs] I love making comics and sequential art and thinking about the way the pictures tell the story. I love comics that don’t need words. I love animation. Yesterday I was trying to animate something and I’m not any good at it but I like trying. I’ve made comics and webcomics for fun, but this is the first time I’ve submitted comics to somebody.

So what made you start submitting comics or pitching comics?

I was looking up submissions to see who was accepting them and Decoded popped up. I emailed them because I’m aromatic asexual, and so I never know which spaces are inclusive. I emailed them and they were so nice and said they wanted to hear from ace voices. 

Did you have this idea in mind before, or did you develop it once you set out to pitch Decoded?

I love fantasy and I had the character, the little witch girl, in mind. After I saw what the guidelines were, then I fully formed the actual comic. I saw this would be a way to show some inner thoughts and emotion. Specifically to the queer experience.

This is a wordless comic that is very internal and really manages to convey her thoughts and her emotional state.

Thank you. When I was thinking of it, I wanted it to showcase feelings and not necessarily a queer experience, but an experience a lot of people have of being an outsider. Of looking in and feeling like they’re not a part of things. I wanted to be able to show that visually.

And as you say, it’s not necessarily a queer story, it’s not necessarily an ace story, but I think after this year, it’s a story a lot of people feel and understand on a level they might not have before.

Yeah, hopefully. When I was making it, I felt like it was a personal experience. But writing the synopsis I thought, hopefully this is something everyone can relate to in some way. To me it seemed very relatable. Feeling alone and finding a place where you’re not alone. Or finding someone you can be with. Definitely after this year, I like the idea of the crystal ball being Skype, which I didn’t think about initially.

All those little details which used to be fantasy, and now it’s a metaphor.

[laughs] Yeah.

That is one of the joys of fantasy, finding these connections, and it giving us some distance from what’s being addressed.

If you can’t distance yourself from it, it feels too sad, but if it’s fantasy and it has a fun witch and magic, then you can.

I’m going to guess you’re a Terry Pratchett fan.

I am! He’s my favorite author!

He liked witches and using fantasy in different ways.

When I was younger I would make fan fiction and it was very generic, but nowadays I always think, I have to subvert that. What if he was a she? What if the characters who are usually the villains are the good guys? You have to do that when you’re older. What I loved about Terry Pratchett, and what I want to do in my work, is to work with heavy themes, but to be lighthearted. Take really heavy themes but then show there are things in life to look forward to.

It sounds like you want to make more comics and focus more on storytelling.

I am. I have a note on my phone of just comics ideas. A lot of them are, “I play a video game and then I think of something funny and make comics about something that happened in Animal Crossing.” Most of them are quick one offs like that, but I have some ideas for mostly short comics. World building is such an endeavor. I have a lot of different irons in the fire. The struggle of teaching is that during the school year, so much of your time is doing that and it’s very difficult to do your own creative work. 

You teach younger kids, who require a lot of energy.

I wouldn’t want to teach older kids. With younger kids you can teach them a basic art skill – or life skill – and you can see them grow over the course of the year. I teach Pre-K to Fifth grade. Plus there’s less drama than you get in middle school and high school.

True. It is a very different job teaching older kids. 

Yeah, high school teachers have to grade. I just go, did you color? Yes. [laughs]

Speaking of color, talk a little about how you used color, which is such a key part of the comic.

I love fully colored comics. And I love playing with color. For this I went more naturalistic. My process is, I assume, pretty generic. I sketch it out and then I line it with black and then color it. Lastly I just shaded and tweaked it. I was proud of myself because I wanted the coloring of the forest scene to have light coming down between the trees and when she peeks between the trees, the light from above shines on her. There’s a little metaphor there with the light from the clearings where she sees people having a good time with their lover or friend, and she’s in the shade away from that. And in the beginning there’s a glowing frog cave, which I just thought looked cool. [laughs]

It does, and the way you lit the cave and how the candle throws light. You spent time on the colors and tried using light in different ways.

Part of making a comic is drawing the reader in and having those moments so the reader goes, this is interesting. I should keep reading. So in the beginning, what’s happening? You can tell right away there’s magic and it puts you in the world before it starts telling the story. She’s working here and doing something and then she’s leaving. I don’t know why these magic frogs are glowing and what she’s doing with the bucket, but it seems interesting. [laughs]

That’s true, especially in a wordless comic

There needs to be an interesting visual. What’s happening? Who is this?

Why did you draw the witch with a hat?

I draw a lot of fantasy characters and recently I saw there’s an artist who draws these witches and they wear more modern clothes but they always wear the hat. I just love that look of these little witches just living their lives. Again, I was using the the archetype and setting the scene visually because you can see the character is a witch. I was talking about having different ideas and one comic I would like to make in the future is about a magical land with witches and young girls going to a magical school. I have ideas for the school and their outfits and my take on various influences related to the fantasy genre. 

Is there more you want to do with this character or this idea?

I don’t know about that character specifically. I made her for this comic. She’s not exactly like me, but she’s an insert for my feelings. I don’t know if I would use her specifically again, but that style of witch and the fantasy world is something I’ve been ruminating on for a long time. I love drawing fantasy characters.

So you have nothing planned, but you have a lot of ideas.

Yeah. I’m trying to be more online and build art communities. It’s very difficult to do social media, especially during the school year. I’m trying to be better about posting things and talking with people. My sister likes to write fantasy and we were talking about writing something together. It’s a balancing act. There’s a lot of things I want to do. At the beginning of COVID when school first got out it was like, we have so much time to do things! I think that is when I first submitted. And then as time wore on– [laughs]

Decoded Pride Issue #2 is now available in a full-color PDF. Follow the link to buy a subscription or pick up Issue #1 (2020), also in full-color.

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