Smash Pages Q&A | Taki Soma on ‘Sleeping While Standing’

The artist of ‘Rapture,’ ‘The After Realm,’ ‘Sinergy’ and more discusses her deeply personal new graphic novel, her creative process and more.

Taki Soma is a writer, artist and colorist best known for comics like Rapture, The After Realm, Sinergy, Bitch Planet, The Old Guard: Tales Through Time and many others. But her new book Sleeping While Standing, which is out now from Avery Hill Publishing, is a departure from what she’s done previously.

A collection of stories four pages or less, it’s a deeply personal work, as Soma explores her father’s suicide, moving to Minnesota as a child and her complicated relationship with her mother, among other events in her life. It also looks at the horrifying way she learned that she has MS, features laugh-out-loud stories about pets and children, and shows her deep and complex storytelling skills.

It’s an incredible work by a talented creator, and Soma was kind enough to talk about why she made the book, her creative process and why she makes comics.

Sleeping While Standing is a very different book from your other work.

It’s very true and this is one of the reasons why I sought after a publisher that fit this content. I just didn’t think that a direct market comics publisher was the right one. Avery Hill is, I think, the perfect publisher for this book.

You mention in the afterwards that “Box” was the first story you made. Were you conscious of this being a project? Or did it just start as making a story you needed to get out and process?

That. That exactly. I didn’t think it was going to become anything at all. I just needed to process it. I thought it could only be captured perfectly in a comic because that’s where I live. That’s what I know the best. It was a sad dream, but it was also an important dream, I think. I wanted to preserve it just as much as I wanted to process it. My dad is gone so the only new experiences I can have with him are just memories and dreams, so it was important to preserve it. 

It’s a brutal story but so well done and there’s that line that drawing is thinking for a lot of cartoonists, which is often utilized to talk about it as a form of writing, but I think a lot of us through art or writing, come to understand things. And that felt like part of the making of the book for you

Absolutely. The language of comics in itself is unique. It is one of the reason why I love it so much. It speaks to me. I understand the ins and outs of it, to a certain degree. There’s no limit to what you can do.

So were you working digitally on these stories?

I’m all digital now. It’s not the most satisfying way to produce art by any stretch of the imagination, but you adapt. I recently taught two semesters of comics writing at Portland State with Brian Bendis and just had a tremendous experience. I realized, I think I love writing just as much as I love drawing. If not more. I just fell in love with the process of storytelling. I’m leaning more in that direction.

Focusing on writing and storytelling first, that’s this very conscious shift in your mind?

I think so. Like I said, drawing digitally is not the most satisfying feeling. Writing gives me just as much, if not more satisfaction, of the creation that I would get from actually physically drawing something.

So you finished “Box” and I can imagine it being brutal but therapeutic.

A lot therapeutic. I’ve been in therapy for years and years, so I had the tools to know how to process it through my art and writing. As far as all the subjects that I tackled in the book, I’m not burdened by them the way I was before working on them. It was incredibly therapeutic. The pain is still there, but it’s tolerable. I almost welcome it because I know I can handle it, I guess. 

So you finished “Box,” which is four pages.

Four pages along with a title page.

After finishing that, how did you go from that to this book?

I don’t know if I’ve talked about this before with anybody, but right before my father passed away he put in a request for a very specific drawing. I was like, I’ll get to that. I was just starting to date my now-husband. I was busy living my life. And then he passes. Probably five years after he passed, I finally sat down and drew what he wanted. My husband and I took the drawing to a remote place where I think he would have enjoyed and we burned that piece of art. I remember thinking, that was cathartic. It didn’t feel like, I just wasted my time drawing this for somebody who’s never going to see it and I ended up destroying it anyway. It meant a lot to me. 

So after doing that and then working on Boxes, I was like, this feels good. It actually feels good because running away from my own demons and traumas is just tiring. They’re always going to catch up, so I might as well catch them and make friends with them. After I worked on Box, I thought, wow, I’m getting the same feeling when I burned that piece of art for him. I thought, I can handle four pages of any trauma. Because it’s short. So I just started working on more and more. And after a few more I was like, maybe I have enough to have a graphic novel? I started from there and was working on it on the side. Sometimes I would work on a story and then not touch the content of the book for months while I was working on other stuff. I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere, I was just doing it for myself at the time.

I understand about making that drawing and then burning it. After someone dies, that unfinished business, those conversations you can’t have, the things unsaid, and it was a way to stay in conversation.

Exactly. I mean and he was cremated too so it just felt appropriate. 

What you were saying before about you could handle four pages.

Four pages is good. After I made that decision to only keep it to four pages, it became such a fun exercise to have to just get down to the very very absolute necessary bones of the story. I found that to be challenging and fun and I really enjoyed it. I don’t want to do it always but I learned a lot about killing your darlings and editing.

Making comics is always about formal challenges in different ways but you’re an artist so you don’t want every story to have the same structure. And these stories don’t need the same approach.

Right. Some of them are dark and some are kind of fun and even funny. Somebody mentioned that as dark as some of these stories get, they never felt hopeless. And I said, thank god, because I don’t feel hopeless. I do have hope and I’m sharing these stories because if I can deal with it, maybe somebody else can feel like they can deal with their traumas. It’s a journey, but I’m still here. I’m right here and I’m okay. 

I would have said dark but not bleak, and some of that is also the way you approach these stories and how you ordered the book.

I think so, too. I also made the conscious effort to try to think of how to tell the stories so that the readers can relate as much as they can. The story “Diagnosis” about being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I can talk about the ins and outs and what the disease is about and all that, but not everybody has chronic illness or multiple sclerosis. I thought the best way for somebody to be able to relate and understand where I was coming from was I’m pretty sure that a lot of people have gone through nurses or doctors and were dismissed. Oh it’s just a cold or wait a couple weeks and you’ll be fine. That feeling of, I know there’s something going on and I’m not being listened to. I think most people can relate to that so I went in that direction more so that everybody can be like, yeah, I know that feeling. [laughs] I tried to look for ways so that it’s easily relatable. And I hope I succeeded in most of them.

Like I said in each you’re very conscious about playing around with storytelling and the approach, the design and layout. I’m thinking about “Missing” or “Hysterectomy”, but in all of them you’re having fun with the approach.

Absolutely. “Hysterectomy” was really fun. “Missing” definitely was just incredibly fun. I have a Sherlock Holmes outfit one second and then not the next. It was really fun.

In flipping through the book, one can see how you use color. You’ve done a lot of coloring but you clearly know how to use color for storytelling and to play with mood and tone.

I hope so. Maybe? [laughs] I approach color like without a lot of conscious thought for it. I usually just follow my gut. I have a hard time describing why I chose this color scheme or whatever. I just know my gut feeling and hope for the best. [laughs]

In all your work you use color as an artistic tool, a storytelling tool. You may be working from gut, but you know what you’re doing.

Thank you. I appreciate that. And this was my first time lettering.

How did lettering feel?

Oh man. What a tedious task! [laughs] I know there’s this art form to it, so no disrespect, but my god! I just figured, I’m a visual artist so I think I can pull it off. There’s no artistry at all. If any letterer was looking through my book, they’d be, ugh. And that’s okay! They’re not wrong. [laughs]

Drawing digitally many be less satisfying, but lettering digitally was probably easier.

Oh yeah. If I had to do that by hand, I would have been like, I’m out! [laughs] I think I would have just hired somebody else. But I’m really really really proud of the fact that the whole thing – from writing to drawing to coloring to lettering – was done by me. I am extremely proud of that part. And I may never do that combo again because it’s just a lot of work. 

After you had a number of stories, how did you figure out what else it needed or where else to go or how to move forward?

I didn’t. After I Avery Hill accepted my book, Ricky Miller, who’s the publisher was, do you have like a direction? Is this how is it going to lay out? I was like, I don’t know. I thought maybe you could tell me. [laughs] I’m just making all these four page stories and I wasn’t really thinking about how to put it in a linear sense at all. I just thought, this story is interesting or this story is something I want to work on. I really didn’t have a set goal. I used to send him a bunch of different subjects that I wanted to work on and he would say, these are great, do what you do. Towards the end he said, you know, it might be a good idea to do a story about why you like comics. That was what became the very end of the book and it just made so much sense and without his suggestion, I don’t know if I would have had such a strong ending. I think it was a strong ending. That was the last one I worked one and it just made sense.

It did. How much of the book had you finished when you sent it out and pitched the book?

Probably like half of it. 

So they knew what you were doing, your style and approach and tone, and said, this is a good start, so what’s the rest?

And I said, huh? [laughs] After I worked on the very last story, “Comics”, we were going back and forth and as I was working through his edits, I was like, I have to lay this out in a way that has to be read by the readers. I guess when I did “Comics” which was the very last one, I went, of course that has to go at the very end because it just makes sense. After deciding that, everything just fell into place in the order it is in the book. I thought it worked. Maybe it doesn’t?

Do you want to more of these or have you continued to make these kinds of comics in between other projects?

Right now I’m not doing anymore of these, but I think there’s potential for more. I have a million stories. Like I said the challenge of four pages or less is an exciting, fun way to exercise my writing. So there might be a second volume or third volume. Who knows? Right now I’m just working on writing more. I’m also currently coloring Mike Oeming and Brian Bendis’ new project that they haven’t even announced yet. 

So maybe more of this but also more fiction and other things.

More fiction. More storytelling. I’m just going to keep going. Whether I draw them out myself or maybe I’ll find an artist, I’m definitely going to keep making comics.

And working from your gut.

Exactly. And my gut is usually correct. I hope. Maybe not. [laughs] Maybe there’s somebody out there going, wow, Taki just doesn’t know anything.

I think everyone has someone like that in the world. And if they know we exist they think, you’re wrong about everything.

Absolutely. There’s no perfection in art. I think it’s more important to just know when it’s done. Even though you’re not completely satisfied or you don’t think it’s perfect yet. Just know when you’re done and turn it in. I think that’s more important. 

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