• Nilah Magruder Interviews 

    Talking With Artist Nilah Magruder about “M.F.K.”, The McDuffie Award, and Making Her Voice Heard [Interview]

    By | October 21st, 2015
    Posted in Interviews | % Comments
    MFK Chapter 1 Title Page

    Full disclosure: I am woefully ignorant of 99.99% of the current webcomics scene.

    That’s not by choice. I don’t actively block them or feel that webcomics are less deserving of inclusion into the medium as print comics. My comics routine simply doesn’t have seeking out or keep up with webcomics as ingrained in it as the same for print comics, which in itself is getting harder & harder to manage due to sheer volume. I say this to set up the fact that without hearing her name attached to winning the first Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity, I wouldn’t have the first clue about who Nilah Magruder was or why I should care about her.

    I reached out to Joseph Illidge, who served as one of the Award judges and helped select Nilah and her webcomic M.F.K.” over more-established print creators such as Gene Leun Yang, G. Willow Wilson, and more. His response was this:

    Her story, for me, was a breath of fresh air in tone and aesthetic. Her artwork is beautiful. The comic series she produced was about identity and acceptance, both of which I felt spoke to the themes Dwayne often explored in his work.

    How could I turn down something pitched like that? I couldn’t. So I went to the link above and checked it out. And he was right. This was accomplished work from screen one, but it kept getting better and more sure of itself with every chapter. I became engrossed not only in the lives of Abbie and her eventual companion Jaime, but in finding out more about Nilah as a creator. Emails were sent, schedules were surmounted, a companion chat conducted at NYCC, and the following interview was finally compiled.

    M.F.K.'s main characters: Jaime (left) and Abbie (right)

    The McDuffie Award you won at LBCC is for diversity of creative voice, so let’s start with how you found your voice. What moved you from just watching/listening to/reading stories to wanting to tell your own?

    Nilah Magruder
    Nilah Magruder: I remember writing a story in first grade… I don’t remember the assignment, I think it just for us to work on our handwriting and vocabulary. And it was a dumb little story, but my first-grade teacher raved about how good it was, and I got a smiley face and a “wow!” and everything! That was my first taste of the joy of storytelling.

    And — okay, this is a little embarrassing, I’ve never told anyone this — ever since I can remember, I mentally inserted myself into anything I read or watched. Like, I would create my own original character, and legit transform the story in my brain as I was watching/reading it to include that character. I wasn’t just ingesting the story, I fully immersed myself. Funny enough I don’t do it anymore, but I did it all the time as a kid. All that to say, I’ve kind of always wanted to tell my own stories.

    My mom was a teacher, she would bring home notebooks and reams of paper, and I would fill them with stories of these animal adventures I made up on the fly, page by page. I burned through so much paper! In high school I wrote fanfiction, I roleplayed, and I was still thinking up my own ideas. When I was sixteen (like in 1998) I ran an anime e-zine and I began posting my very first webcomic (a magical girl “Sailor Moon” clone) that I wrote and got other artists to draw. One girl in Canada would draw the pages and mail them to me so I could scan them. I’m still in awe of the things we did as kids, fooling around on the Internet! So yeah, I’ve always been fascinated with creating stories, but back then I really couldn’t see the path from kid with a lot of free time to full-time writer or artist. I think the real surprise for me is that I’m not a reporter or an accountant right now!

    For someone who hit on the creative career path a little later in the game than what seems like usual, you’ve already racked up a pretty diverse group of outlets: comics, animation, illustrated books. What do you think of as your profession, at heart, when you think “I’m a _________”?

    Continued below

    NM: I’m an artist. I feel more comfortable using that label than writer, illustrator, animator, etc. Seems to accomplish more.

    There’s a pretty documented pedigree of comic creators also working in animation (Bruce Timm, Darwyn Cooke, Dave Bullock, etc.). What are some of the benefits (and drawbacks, if any) of having animation as your 9-5 office job?

    Abbie & Jaime on the road.
    NM: I guess the greatest benefit is that I’ve gotten good at drawing fast and well. I’ve picked up a lot of skills in my day job that carry over to my personal work, and vice versa. And I watch a loooot of movies at work, at varying stages of completion, so I’m constantly studying staging, layout, dialogue, and plot structure. Downside is sometimes I get tired of drawing, haha. Drawing all day, then going home to do even *more* can be tough. I have to really push myself – and usually I’m much happier at the end of the night if I’ve accomplished something, but it can take a while to convince myself.

    With webcomics being such an integral part of how you established yourself as a comics creator, how do you think you would have made your voice heard if you had been born, say, 20 years earlier? Or in some other scenario where the Internet was not an option?

    NM: I have a feeling I would’ve started by trying to get a comic strip in syndication in the newspaper. That was where I read comics growing up – in fact, The Baltimore Sun had a kids’ drawing contest every week that I submitted to once or twice (and got honorable mention once!). I never went into comic book shops and I didn’t start going to comic cons until I moved to LA, so I was oblivious to how the industry worked. But I had a love for journalism, and I was the resident cartoonist for my middle school and high school’s newspaper clubs before the Internet became an outlet (I cartooned for my college paper too, for the record!).

    What’s it like working on such a single long-term project like “M.F.K.” so early in your career, where your audience is watching you figure out how to tell that story, almost page-by-page, in real time? Exciting? Scary? Too busy to think about it?

    NM: It’s always a little bit scary, lol. Common sense told me that “M.F.K.” shouldn’t be my first webcomic, but I’d been kicking the story around for a decade already and I felt like I’d made it wait long enough, so I went for it. Most weeks I’m working on the comic right up until it updates Sunday night. Working like that, you lose time to gain the distance you need to spot mistakes and inconsistencies. If I make a mistake, my readers are going to spot it before I do (can’t tell you how many times I’ve uploaded a page then realized I left off Abbie’s hearing aid or Jaime’s compass). And you know, I always feel a little trepidation with each page, revealing a little bit more of the story and not knowing how readers will react. Part of me is always bracing myself for a reader to figure out that I don’t know what I’m doing and call me on it, lol (it hasn’t happened yet, my readers are mostly very gentle and thoughtful). But at the same time I’ve had these characters and this world in my head so long that it’s really exciting to be able to share it all.

    What’s your favorite part of putting a week’s page together? Least favorite part?

    NM: Love that moment when it all starts to come together. That’s my favorite moment of any project; when I can begin to see what the final product will look like. My least favorite part is when that moment doesn’t come and I realize a page isn’t shaping up the way I envisioned, and then I’m embarrassed to upload it.

    Do you write a script for the page before you work on it? Or is all the page work done ‘on board’?

    NM: I script, definitely, but I don’t always stick to it. As I’m laying out a page, sometimes I realize I need to restructure or rearrange dialogue. The script is my guide, but I leave myself room to play around.

    Continued below

    For the animation gig, do you go to an actual studio? Is there a bullpen-type office you get to work in? If so, does being around other animators/illustrators/art-people help keep you inspired/motivated?

    Jaime Sketches
    NM: Yep, it’s a real studio with a semi open-office layout, two kitchens, a soundstage, and a bunch of dogs running around! But the only 2D artists are myself and the art intern (there’s also a graphics team that handles digital compositing, animation and 3D effects). We’re mainly a production and post-production house, so we’re equipped to produce, shoot and edit. My job is to handle any 2D art needs: storyboarding, concept art, production sketches, and whatever else needs drawing.

    For more artsy interaction, I hang out with my friends (a lot of old college classmates live out here, plus people I’ve met around town), go to local drawing events and gallery exhibitions, or go to conventions. Funny enough I was just talking to a friend about how important it is to be in an active art community! Surrounding yourself with people who are driven and doing things keeps you motivated to do the same. Just being around like-minded people helps keep you focused. It’s one of the things I love about living in LA.

    Can you watch animation now without going into ‘work’ mode and dissecting it?

    NM: Haha, I couldn’t for a long time, but I’m finally getting back to a mindset where I can enjoy a show for its entertainment value. I still notice when something’s executed exceptionally well or a little clumsily, but I don’t get too analytical about it. I rarely watch shows more than once.

    What was it like tabling at your first con once MFK was out in the world? Or meeting your first fan in person? (Hopefully they were at the same show)

    NM: It was at the same show! I was super nervous/excited leading up to the moment, but actually being at the con was super fun. It was my first experience pitching a comic live to a bunch of strangers who didn’t know anything about it… and it went pretty well! But a few times someone came up to the table and said they read “M.F.K.” online, and that was thrilling. At CTN Animation Expo, one reader all the way from the Netherlands came by my table, that was amazing!

    With webcomics coming in all different page formats, did you ever give any thought to going landscape layout instead of portrait for “M.F.K.“? Or, more generally, was keeping it print- or traditional-comic-layout-friendly always in the gameplan?

    NM: Nah, landscape never occurred to me because I didn’t really read landscape comics. I associate landscape with daily strips. I modeled “M.F.K.” after the comic books I’d read, which were all portrait. At a time I had pondered playing with the possibilities of web layout like Scott McCloud suggests, but in the end decided to focus on the story over the form.

    When did you first discover who Dwayne McDuffie was?

    NM: I can’t remember exactly, but it wasn’t that long ago. I might have already been living out in LA by then. It was just before he died. It’s kind of weird for me, having this moment now, when just a few years ago I was sad that he’d died so soon after I’d learned his name.

    Abbie stands her ground.
    Your McDuffie award came from your work not only being recognized but you submitting it for consideration. A lot of creators seem to have a really hard time with that second step of the work process (self-promoting/getting the work out there). Is that part of it, in general, something that’s been easy for you to do? Or if not, has it gotten easier? Do you have any advice for newer creators on getting over that mental hurdle?

    NM: People ask me about how to market a webcomic and I think this is a tactic that often gets left out, and I’ve been trying to be better about discussing it. Submitting for awards and requesting reviews is great marketing. When you’re with a publisher or have agent representation, you have people to worry about this sort of thing. But independent creators generally have to do the work themselves, of looking for the opportunities and putting a submission package together. I’ve submitted M.F.K. for awards before – I find that process a little easier than asking for reviews, actually. But I haven’t been great at researching awards. I just happened to stumble upon the awards I’ve applied to – I only noticed the Dwayne McDuffie Award because I was looking for Long Beach Comic Expo’s exhibitor info. The advice I usually give is: just do it. Just. Do. It. Don’t worry about whether or not you think you’re eligible, that’s for the committee to decide. Rejections are perfectly natural, and expected; it’s a sign that you’re putting yourself out there, and that’s a good thing. “Yes” is rare when you’re starting out, but no one will have a chance to say “yes” if you don’t submit.

    Continued below

    You were on the Normalizing Publishing panel at this past San Diego Comic-Con. How were you contacted to be on it? How did it go? What was it like being on the other side of the panel table?

    NM: My first career was in journalism and marketing; for a few years I wrote and talked to people for a living. So being in front of a mic in a room of people doesn’t make me terribly nervous, and it helps that with panels I’m not the only one behind the table. The most stressful thing for me is just making sure I get to where I’m supposed to be on time! I was not originally scheduled to be on this panel, but another panelist had a scheduling conflict and they asked me to fill in. It was my first SDCC panel which was pretty exciting for me, many thanks to Cindy Pon and Sara Ryan for reaching out to me. I thought it was a great panel, definitely one of the best I’ve been on because we were able to cover so many topics and offer so many perspectives. There’s a lot of discussion these days on whether conventions still need “diversity” panels and I believe they do. I’ve been to quite a few at various conventions and conferences, but as an industry, I haven’t seen enough in the way of “normalizing” diverse representation to lead me to believe that we’re ready to move beyond the discussion, yet. There’s still a lot to be done and a lot to be said, and conventions have some work to do to make their programming more inclusive.


    Greg Matiasevich

    Greg Matiasevich has read enough author bios that he should be better at coming up with one for himself, yet surprisingly isn't. However, the years of comic reading his parents said would never pay off obviously have, so we'll cut him some slack on that. He lives in Baltimore, co-hosts (with Mike Romeo) the Robots From Tomorrow podcast, writes Multiversity's monthly Shelf Bound column dedicated to comics binding, and can be followed on Twitter at @GregMatiasevich.