Paint, BB8, and Dismantling Oppression: An Interview with Priya Huq, An Artist Using Comics for Self Care

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As I started to read more and more web and digital comics I also began seeking out female cartoonists and artists online. This is when I first became became acquainted with Priya on Twitter after I bought one of her comics and discovered her Tumblr, and it all went down from there. I noticed that several of her comics and doodles were painted or had some element of paint used in their creation. I also discovered her autobiographical comics known to many as “auto bio comics,” which gave her audience a defined look into her life’s many experiences as a woman of color.

BNP: So I know you use watercolor paint to color some of your art, and there’s a scanner involved, but what exactly is your process? In a day and age where I see many artists using tablets, stylus pens and the like, I’m utterly fascinated to see strokes of an actual paint brush on the pages of the art you make. Is it wrong to view your art and techniques as more “traditional”?

Priya Huq: I don’t know if it’s wrong, but I do think it’s interesting how we tend to categorize techniques as either “digital” or “traditional” (maybe because of DeviantArt categories?). It’s especially interesting given the cultural history of watercolors, because if I remember my Euro art history right, watercolors were considered to be the cheater’s method of painting when they first came out. But oils were also considered blasphemous back when the only “real” way to paint was fresco (because with fresco, you basically have one pass at getting your painting to work, and with oils you can— gasp!— repaint the subject as many times as you like!). Watercolors are definitely older than tablets, but they’re also just as legit. Given how much the computer comes into my work, I don’t know if it’d be accurate to say it isn’t digital.

I usually start with a pencil drawing, either painting directly on top of that drawing or on another sheet of paper using a lightbox. Once I’m either happy with it or the deadline’s up, I scan it at 600 dpi into Photoshop. For a while my paintings had a heavy clean up routine in Photoshop but I’m happy to say that lately the only editing I do is some clone-tool to get rid of scanner dust, and color editing (so about three adjustment layers for all you Photoshop nerds out there). It really depends on the piece. Sometimes I digitally paint directly on top of the scanned watercolor painting, and sometimes I don’t.

Some of my work is painted directly into Photoshop with no “traditional” media at all, but I have an easier time drawing on paper, so there’s usually some element that gets scanned in, even if it’s just a sketch. But almost always I’m doing some level of composing in Photoshop: so I might scan in several paintings and put them together into one composition, or say for a comic page I might redo an eye or a leg and then paste that on top of a composition in Photoshop. Even if I’m scanning a painting that isn’t going to go through much editing, I’m usually expanding the canvas in Photoshop to give the image more breathing room.

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BNP: You were involved in contributing a comic to Dirty Diamonds, a successfully Kickstarted all-girl comic anthology that had an issue dedicated to the theme of “celebrating, examining, challenging, and embracing what beauty is all about.” Tell us a little about your submission, what led to its creation and how awesome it was to be part of such a great project.

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Promo art created for the Dirty Diamonds Kickstarter (which was successfully funded!)

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Huq: Don’t tell Kelly and Claire (the awesome editors on Dirty Diamonds), but my comic in Beauty was already written when I decided to submit it to the anthology. I did write a couple drafts that were like “What does Beauty mean to me?” and “When I was a kid, my mom was the most beautiful lady in the world…” but I kept coming back to this storyboard about the Brandy Cinderella on TV and cooking dinner for my mom.  I realized that there was a sort of underlying theme about what the true definition of beauty is, and I liked a comic that didn’t have to define that in words.

Dirty Diamonds is amazing for creators because you get access to two skilled and compassionate editors who really know their stuff. It was an honor to be included with so many amazing artists and really validating to be published in a really real comic book. That’s been my impossible dream since I was 12 and I can’t really express how much it means that Kelly and Claire gave me that opportunity.

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Snippet of submission for Dirty Diamonds – comic anthology 2015

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BNP: You’ve used the creation of comics to help illustrate the difficulties of navigating spaces as a woman of color and also as a multiracial person. Are there any other multi-racial artists, cartoonists or even characters in works of art that you’re been inspired by or whose work you’ve loved?

Huq: The first person I think of is Yuko Ota. I started reading

Johnny Wander in 2009 when I was in a really bad place and was really charmed by it. She did an auto-bio comic for that which didn’t explicitly say “I’m biracial,” but it was clear from the context.  I did some light, totally un-creepy digging and found out both of the creators were Asians of color and I just sat there and cried.

Lynda Barry was an underlying influence on me as a kid, but I didn’t realize she was also a biracial Asian person until a few years ago when I saw a video of her giving a lecture. I was really mad because I had grown up thinking “this person is normal” and I’ve been so conditioned to think of “normal” as “white” that it hadn’t even occurred to me that she seemed normal because she was like me.  She’s also an amazing inspiration because of the content of her work. Barry really understands not feeling allowed to create, and I try to keep her words and pictures in mind when I feel discouraged.

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Snippet from “What Are You” comic.

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BNP: On the topic of auto-bio comics, do you remember when you first started making them? Why are they significant? What have you hoped gets across message wise from the ones you make?

Huq: I’m pretty sure I made my first one in high school! We read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis in class and then we all had to do auto-bio comics.  Mine was about watching my nani make curry and then eat with her hands, and I tried to eat with my hands at my mom’s house and got in trouble (sense a theme here?).  Then we had a zine class and I made a zine that was like a summary of me, and got hooked on making zines (and on glitter glue).

I don’t know if I can answer why, or say if, my autobio comics are significant. They just sort of spill out, and then people seem to like them. I think some people like them because they see themselves in my stories. This might just be the misanthrope in me talking but I suspect some people like them because they feel like they’ve Done Something by reading about trauma. But I’m not really sure.

Comics like Persepolis are significant because they tell history from the point of view of an individual involved in it, which I think is really important. They’re also significant because other people who lived through similar experiences can find solace in knowing they’re not alone, and that their feelings aren’t invalid. Honestly, I don’t know what I expect to get across with my auto-bio comics. I guess I hope that if someone’s feeling lonely, my comic would make them feel a little less so. I think there’s also a part of me that feels an urge to vent.

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Snippet from “Amor Shonar Bangla” comic.

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BNP: You worked as a script writer on STARFIGHTER: ECLIPSE, a Date Nighto game project that’s an intense BL sci-fi offering. (Note to readers: this game’s intended audience is for mature gamers only) The game itself had to be adapted from the webcomic it’s based on and you also had a co-writer to work with. First things first: This sounds like a dream job to me — how did you come to work on ST:E?! (I’m serious. I want in!) What did you take away from working on such an awesome project? How does it make you feel to know and see that what you’ve worked has bridged from comic to video game — as in helping create a new medium for a comic to be enjoyed further?

Huq: It’s totally a dream job, and I have to be honest, it was total blind luck that I got it. In this case, luck was being friends with Stella Morgan, a friend of

Starfighter’s creator (Hamlet Machine). They met online through their BL drawings.  Hamlet asked Stella to write Eclipse and I basically headbutted my way into the project.  It started with me offering to type up Stella’s handwritten script and I ended up doing a lot of dialogue and script work. I can’t thank Hamlet and Date Nighto enough for including me when I wasn’t planned for in the beginning of the project.  I hope I did enough work to make up for it! It was really weird to work on a project with people whose work I was very familiar with, but had never imagined meeting at a con, much less hanging out with and arguing mechanics with. It was also funny because while I am extremely chill about BL, porn isn’t really my thing. I avoided writing explicit content until literally like a week before the deadline.

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I hadn’t thought about how Eclipse bridges from comic to video game, but that’s a really good point.  Visual novels are such a natural extension of comics.  I think the connection hadn’t occurred to me because when I think comics, I think about the visuals much more than the script.  When I write my own comics, I draw thumbnails, I don’t really write unless I’m sharing the script with someone else.  I did have visuals to work with, but when you’re working on a game with a team, you have to be careful not to add more visuals than absolutely necessary, since the more visuals you add the more work you’re giving an artist who is already working their butt off.  And for me, the order is backwards— the art mostly comes after the script, since they need to know what to draw.  So a visual novel is almost like an inverted comic in its process, at least for me. If I hadn’t worked on Eclipse, I don’t think I’d ever think of video games as a medium I’d want to work in, but there’s a unique storytelling in games (particularly in visual novels) that I’d love to explore further.

BNP: In regards to mental health and allowing us self-care, which can be defined differently from person to person, how does creating art aid you in finding balance and/or being an outlet to express yourself?

Huq: Comics are kind of a double-edged sword for me, because choosing them as a career was a move that I made out of self-care, but because of how much work they are, I’ve definitely used them as a method of self-punishment.  It’s a difficult balance when you’re trying to make something so close to your heart a job, because jobs are intrinsically draining.  You do them when you don’t want to be doing them.  At the same time, for me there is always going to be a part of comics that takes care of my heart, because I find so much pleasure in so many aspects of making them.  I have to be careful not to worry too much about my audience though, especially when I’m making autobio comics.  Autobio comics are like an open mic, but they stop being cathartic (and frankly, any good) when they hinge too much on audience expectation.  That’s actually a good rule of thumb for all comics, but at the end of the day if you have a deadline to meet, you can’t always create in the best possible way.

BNP: So we are both big Star Wars fans and perhaps even bigger John Boyega/Finn fangirls (and that we both would claim BB-8 as our child), what are your thoughts on the direction of the teasers and hints dropped about the next SW film. I hear that it’s going to be “darker”, which means what? (More) character deaths? A love interest(s) for Finn? What made Star Wars: TFA a success in your eyes as a person who grew up enjoying the franchise like so many others? Lastly, can you pinpoint down exactly in words just what makes the “new trio” of Rey, Finn and Poe so likeable?

Huq:  I promised myself when the first showing of VII was over that I wasn’t going to obsess over teasers for VIII, but I’ve already— it’s already so bad.  Okay.  So if they’re basically emulating the first three, of course VIII needs to be “darker” because they want it to mirror Empire.  VII was so good, I’m just gonna trust that they mean “the characters will go through more intense character growth and experience difficult obstacles,” not like “there will be a bunch of beheadings” or whatever.  I’d love Finn to have a love interest— well, I mean, let’s be real.  Finn is totally into Rey.  But if I’m honest with myself, they’d really need to sell Rey reciprocating that for me to buy it.  If she’s these films’ Luke, I don’t think she should be with anyone.

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A perfect reaction to the lack of Rey action figures & toys compared to her male film counterparts in SW:TFA

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 I’m a huge Finn/Poe shipper but they’d need to really sell that, too, because though Poe is clearly into Finn (Finn is so cute and hot but he also rescued Poe from certain death, if I were Poe I would be drawing hearts around our names in a notebook), Finn seems a little too naive for that to just happen behind the scenes.  It’d need to play out like Han and Leia did, over the course of an entire film, if that’s going to work.  I like the idea of a love circle.  BB-8 loves Poe, Poe loves Finn, Finn loves Rey, and Rey has sh*t to do.

I think The Force Awakens is successful as a Star Wars film primarily because of its tone.  It takes itself seriously, like A New Hope and Empire did, but it has levity through its character interactions.  The desolation of Jakku and the maze like forests of Takodana evoke that Western feeling of roaming, possibility, “a larger world.”  Also, BB-8 is so cute I might die.

Rey, Finn and Poe are well-written and well-performed, three dimensional characters, but I think there’s a metatextual influence in our liking them so much that has to do with representation.  Ultimately they’re so likeable because they love so honestly and are all so vulnerable.  It’s hard not to like a character that means so well and needs protecting, whether that’s from physical or emotional harm.  Finn and Rey are especially relatable and protectable.

BNP: Lastly, what are you working on now? Any future projects you can tell us about

Huq: I’m slowly hammering away at my long comic, Mana, which I’m releasing on Gumroad and Tumblr in installments.  I’m trying for Dirty Diamonds again (the theme this time is “Imagination”), and I have several more installments of Amar Shonar Bangla (an autobio comic) to release. Mostly I’m submitting to every anthology and con that I come across and hoping for the best!

See more of the artist’s work on her siteTumblr and also on Gumroad where you can purchase her comics. She’s on Twitter too, tweeting about all the important things: comics, dismantling structures of oppression, BB8 and her latest work.

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  • Carrie McClain is writer, editor, social media maven and media scholar. Other times she's known as a Starfleet Communications Officer, Comics Auntie and Golden Saucer Frequenter. Shuri is her favorite Disney Princess. Nowadays you can usually find her buried under a pile of Josei manga. She/Her

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