Smash Pages Q&A | Natasha Donovan on ‘Borders’

The artist and cartoonist discusses adapting Thomas King’s short story into a comic, working digitally, the often-thankless work of mothers and more.

Natasha Donovan has been working for many years as a picture book artist and cartoonist. She drew the Mothers of Xsan series of books written by Brett D. Huson, and the graphic novel Surviving the City, written by Tasha Spillett. She’s contributed to many anthologies, including This Place: 150 Years Retold and The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance. She also drew a story in the upcoming Marvel’s Voices: Heritage #1.

Donovan’s new book is Borders, an adaptation of the acclaimed short story by Thomas King. The fable-like tale is about a mother and son traveling from Canada to the U.S. to visit family, and when asked their citizenship at the border, the mother responds “Blackfoot.” It’s a book about strength, resisting categories and the imaginary lines that divide us. Adapting and drawing the story required a fine touch, and Donovan was masterful at depicting silence, telling it from the point of view of a child who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening, but is reflecting back on these events years later. It’s a striking book in so many ways.

Donovan was kind enough to talk recently about the book and how she works.

How did get involved with Borders?

The editor Suzanne Sutherland saw my work on Surviving the City, which is a graphic novel that I did with Tasha Spillet-Sumner. I’m pretty sure that’s how Suzanne came across my work? But she sent me a pitch e-mail.

Did you know Thomas King’s work before?

Yes. I don’t know if he’s American or a dual citizen, but his work is really well known in Canada. I’d read several of his novels and I had actually read this story in English class in high school. I was very familiar with his work.

So you were on board when she e-mailed you.

Oh yeah. I read it several times and was like, “Am I reading this right?” [laughs] This guy is way too famous!

Did he adapt his story, or did you adapt it?

He wrote the story, I think it was about 30 years ago, and he gave his blessing to the project. Suzanne developed a very rough script where she just basically went through the prose and divided it into page suggestions. I took that and wrote a comics script, breaking everything down into panels, and then I drew the thumbnails.

Readers can see how you used spreads and the page designs to really underline the emotions of the story, and I’m curious about those little details you had to pull out and find ways to make work in comics.

I tend to be a very visual reader. Which is probably not surprising. When I’m reading – and I read a lot of fiction – I’m already laying it out in my head. This was really exciting to me to think about how to make it work as a graphic novel. It’s a 10-page short story that’s really light on dialogue. That’s nice for an illustrator. It gives me a lot more space on the actual page and it lets me think a lot about facial expression and body language which are something I put a lot of thought into. Having those emotional beats where characters have some dialogue, but it’s really about their reactions, them looking at the landscapes.

The story has a narrator who I don’t want to say is passive, but he’s an observer. You have to make clear that he doesn’t get everything happening but conveying what he sees so the reader does, and comics can do that well and you really managed to do that.

Yeah and I really love that. I think the story itself is very successful at portraying the experience of a kid new to the world and seeing all these huge things playing out. And also having kid thoughts at the same time like, “I want a cheeseburger,” while all this is going on.

I’m curious how you work, because this is the longest book you’ve done.

I don’t know if it changed all that much. In part, how I worked changed a little bit because of the pandemic. I had been going into a co-working space and I think lockdown started just as the art was beginning in earnest. [laughs] So I was stuck at home. We were living with a bunch of other people at that point, which was its own source of craziness. Out of a desperate need to get out of the house, I ended up working on my iPad a lot in my car. [laughs] That was interesting. I’d had this idea initially that I could drive to the border and take some photos, but that was not to be. So I did a lot of roaming around on Google Earth for reference photos.

The story is old and I did keep thinking, “This is what border looked like in pre-9/11 era.

I was thinking a lot about that when I was working on the duty free parking lot scenes. If someone camped out at the border now, they would descend upon you!

It works because, naive isn’t the word because the mother knows what she’s doing even if the kid doesn’t, but it plays into this fable-like aspect. How do you balance telling a realistic story that is partly a fable?

That’s a feature of a lot of Thomas King’s writing, a balance of realism and surrealism and magical realism. I think its nice to just accept it. [laughs] I think it works really well.

You mentioned hunting on Google Earth and doing research. Were you looking for reference about landscape more than anything?

For me the story has a really strong sense of place. That’s important. The land that they’re camped out on is almost a character in and of itself. From a visual perspective, I didn’t want to just draw grassy plains without anything on it. I was looking for any sort of imagery that calls your attention to the specificity of place.

You mentioned drawing the book on an iPad. Do you mostly work digitally?

Lately. On some of the earlier picture books and anthology work I’ve done I did the inks with a brush. I love doing it that way. But ultimately just from a pragmatic point of view, I’m the sole income earner for my family and it goes faster. I think there’s a little bit of romanticism attached to working in a traditional medium and ultimately for me the outcome is pretty similar.

I think some of it is not being attached to a screen.

Oh definitely. [laughs] Maybe there’s some magical point when I have one project that pays for the whole year and I’ll go back to working with a brush. But until then. [laughs] 

So you handled everything.

Except for the lettering.

Talk about the color palette, which really feels like the plains.

I wish I had smarter answers to questions about the color palette. [laughs] It’s largely intuitive for me. I tried for some level of consistency throughout and then people will say things like you just did and I’ll go, it does? Sure. That’s what I was thinking all along. [laughs]

Color plays into that sense of place the art captures.

I think that you’re right – and I don’t know how it does that. [laughs]

I’m autistic and part of what being neurodivergent means for me is that, as I said, I’m a very visual thinker. There’s a lot that happens in my head that’s just an emotion and when I’m working, that’s the part of my brain that I’m using. Which is hard when it comes to interviews later and trying to translate that into the verbal part of my brain, which I just don’t use as much. [laughs]

You’ve made picture books and comics; what are you more interested in doing?

I really loved Borders and it was really exciting because typically I am illustrating manuscripts that have been written with a lot more detail and a lot more direction. It was a unique challenge to adapt this story into a comic. There was a lot of freedom. I would love to do more of that. And right now it’s just a lot of picture books.

Did you enjoy writing and adapting the story?

That was the first time that I’d done anything like that. I liked having more space to play around with what the end product would be. I’m perfectly happy to draw projects where I have less control over what happens, but it was really exciting and gratifying.

Do you want to write more going forward?

Maybe? I’m open to it. I haven’t had a lot of time or mental space to think about that as a possibility. It’s one of those things on the long-term “to do” list.

You dedicated the book to “three generations of mothers” and anyone who reads the book knows what the mother means to the story, but what did the character mean to you?

There are a lot of narrative threads going on in the story that are all really interesting, but the mother character is so delightful in her stubbornness. [laughs] She is doing so much for her children in this completely unspoken way. She’s dragging the narrator along on this larger crusade and I really admire that. I appreciate that in my own mother and grandmother and great-grandmother. How much work they have done – and how thankless it has been for the most part. It’s made me think about that aspect of my own life while I was working on this. That’s who I was thinking about.

I keep thinking about how many Native American and First Nation characters are written as silent and passive, and the book takes that and recasts that silence as strength.

That’s a great way of putting it.

And dragging your kids along and what that means as a parent.

She’s providing all of these lessons for the narrator in this way that’s very impressive. Providing a really incredible model for him. I do think that even if he is thinking about orange soda and cheeseburgers, I imagine that this story is being told years later, and he’s thinking back on it and remembering all of these aspects that he wasn’t fully appreciating in the moment. But it made a huge impact on him.

I think she knows that.

I think so.

What are you working on now? 

I just finished a picture book that I’m really excited about, about the building and removal of the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula and the cascading effects on the ecosystem in that area. I just did the inks for my first superhero comic for Marvel. It just came out about Snow Guard in Voices. I don’t know anything about superheroes, so I felt like a major imposter, but it was super fun. It was really interesting because Marvel of course has their own rigid process and it was fascinating to learn that.

To close, how do you think about the book?

I think that this story has a lot for everyone in it because at its core it’s exploring the idea of categories and identities. How we are asked so frequently to fit ourselves into specific boxes and how our own identities often don’t fit. It’s a story about resisting those categories.

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