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Art by Chip Zdarsky. Copyright 2002.

INTERVIEW: Svetlana Chmakova
Interview Conducted by Jonathan Ellis

Svetlana was born and raised in Russia until the age of 16 when she moved to Canada and completed high school before going on to attend post secondary education in Sheridan College's Classical Animation Program. Spreading her work between freelance illustration and her self created webcomics CHASING RAINBOWS for and NIGHT SILVER for, Svetlana recently came under the spotlight with two well perceived properties. THE ADVENTURES OF COSMOGIRL, a serialized strip featured in CosmoGirl Magazine as well as the premiere book in her TokyoPop graphic novel series; DRAMACON, a story of drama and attraction at the heart of an anime convention.

We chatted with Svetlana about DRAMACON, working with TokyoPop and being caught up in the debate over what exactly an OEL [Original English Language] creator is.

Be sure to check out the accompanying preview pages for a look at Chapter 2 of DRAMACON.

Let's start at the beginning, did your interest in manga/comics first flourish while living in Russia or following your move to Canada?

The flourishing definitely happened in Canada (Sailor Moon!!), but the interest started in Russia! While still back there, I'd get up at god-forsaken hours of 6 a.m. something in the mornings to watch Candy-Candy, Robotech, Macross, Saber Rider and sometimes Speed Racer. It's hilarious how I had no trouble getting up that early for cartoons, but always overslept when it was just for school, hee.

Like most comics artists around the Greater Toronto Area, you're a Sheridan College graduate in the field of Classical Animation. How did your animation studies/work affect your ability to create comics? Do you desire to move towards animation?

I still love animation very much and would love to do some, time-permitting. But I've come to realize that I'm a storyteller just as much as I am an artist, so I am not content just drawing. I need to tell stories! The comics medium is perfect for me.

Animation study helped me tremendously with my comics work. Not everyone may know this, but animation training involves extensive study of everything; anatomy, perspective, composition, layout, different drawing styles. I mean, as an animator, you have to be able to animate anything from a Bugs Bunny to Beauty and the Beast! Ironically enough, when I was in school, I was not allowed to execute any assignments in Anime style (though that changed very fast, heh). Nonetheless, the training was priceless, because when I started drawing my manga-style comics all I had to do was apply the specifics of manga styles to the basics I was taught, and voila! CHASING RAINBOWS, NIGHT SILVER and DRAMACON. (Also YORIKO, MAIDEN OF THE FIRST FIRE, but people get serious points for even knowing what that one is)

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What do you consider 'Manga style' to be? Most people label Manga as a style because of Big Eyes, being overtly expressive and whatever other clichés you'd like to throw in but the Manga artists I had the most interest in when I was young were the likes of Ryoshi Ikegami and Goseki Kojima. Manga artists, but ones who don't fall into the clichéd stigmatisms of regarding Manga as a style, as opposed to a medium.

In my personal opinion, 'manga style' is both a storytelling and an art style. It's a very elusive feel that is hard to explain, the way that action flows from panel to panel, story pacing, artistic composition of a panel and a page... Big eyes, chibis, sweatdrops and other manga devices are just that. Devices, elements. It's how you put them together within a story (or leave them out of it) that defines a manga feel, to me.

Looking at your art I can see a wide range of influences, from animation to Mucha and Escher to various anime and manga, who do you feel has had an impact on your own style or approach to storytelling?

I borrowed from EVERYwhere when I was learning, so everything I've ever watched/read/laughed at had a role in the way my writing voice formed. My biggest anime influences are Sailor Moon, Slayers and Ranma 1/2, and these three really taught me a lot about comedic pacing.

How did you hook up with TokyoPop in regards to publishing DRAMACON? Did they contact you or vice versa?

They contacted me, and a good thing, that. It would've taken me ages to work up the courage to submit. Mark Paniccia, who was then still at TOKYOPOP, saw CHASING RAINBOWS on and wrote to me saying he liked it. It took almost a year for the stars to align properly. I followed up on Mark's interest with a proper portfolio, we batted a few ideas around, and in the summer of 2004 I signed a contract for my very first graphic novel/manga.

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For those who've yet to pick up the series, could you tell us about the premise and characters that comprise DRAMACON?

DRAMACON is about laughing your socks off, while you read my fine tale of an awkward love that blooms between two con-goers over the course of several cons. Christie, the main heroine, is an aspiring comics writer and Matt is a handsome, mysterious, and somewhat tact-challenged cosplayer. When they meet, sparks fly, and not always in a good way, because they both have temper problems. A match made in heaven! Add to the mix an evil boyfriend, flirty cosplayers and crazy roommates and you get your average Anime convention, full of stories that will make you want to scrub your brain clean for years afterwards. (Or laugh and think fondly on the good old days, your choice)

Oh, and the book is also about life, different people, dealing with harsh choices and facing the consequences. Because I'm very deep like that.

How much of Christie's character is really you? Did this evolve out of or have anything to do with you having a crush on a cosplayer yourself?

I don't crush on cosplayers... Often.

Nah, the idea for the book is only very very VEEERY loosely based on a con encounter of mine, when I ran into the same cosplayer two years in a row at the same con. Though he was very hot, too. ( kingdom for life to be a shoujo story *cries*)

What was your experience like when first visiting an anime or comicon?

It was both exciting and nerve-wracking. There was a loooot of drama I got caught up in, not counting the fact that none of my stuff was selling *weeps* People working out their relationship problems, people getting into major misunderstandings and fuming at each other for the rest of the con, people getting punched (I kid you not), hotel giving our room away to someone else, etc., etc. To quote someone's comment on the title of my book: "DRAMACON, yeah, EXACTLY."

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Like DRAMACON, one of your previous works, CHASING RAINBOWS, also revolved around a girl stuck with a choice between two guys... so... want to talk about it?

For the record, I've never had to choose between two hot guys. It's usually more like three or four. And it's always in my dreams.

As this is your first work of such length, how did you feel working with an editor through the stages? Considering you're doing everything from script down to tones, on average how long does it take you to complete a page?

The TOKYOPOP pages take a little longer than the ones for my online comics, but the average is 7 to 10 hours a page, depending on complexity. Pages with backgrounds and crowd shots take the longest because there is more pencil/pen mileage, as well as many elements that need toning.

As for working with editor, my experience with Lillian has been just amazing. I hope all my future editors are like her!! Or that I could just work with her forever. I could live with that.

Speaking of tones... you just got a tone artist for volume 2. Tell us how that working relationship breaks down?

It doesn't yet. I am still in the scripting stages! But how it will go is this; I will pencil, ink, scan and then send the page to Dee [Dee, creator of Onikimono: Detectives Of The Orient] for toning. She will tone it, send back to me for approval, which will be my cue to throw an artiste-ic fit and tell her to re-do it. At that point we'll probably have a big fight, she'll quit, I'll cry and harass her with phonecalls, leaving hundreds of phone messages saying that I didn't mean it and that if she'll only come back, things will be different...

...Fortunately the above is just a nightmare I had once. Dee is a wonderful toner and we already have a great working relationship from Book 1, when she helped me finish toning it.

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There's been a lot of labels being thrown around with the influx of non-Japanese creators working with Manga publisher TokyoPop, do you feel tied up in the need readers seem to have in trying to label people and their work? Do you think of yourself as an artist or manga-ka or OEL creator, etc, etc?

I think of myself as confused. Seriously, I don't know what to call myself. A comic book creator sounds safe enough, though that doesn't convey the fact that my work is heavily influenced by manga. Calling myself a manga-ka won't sit well with the manga purists. OEL manga creator works best for now, I think.

Also being rumbled about is the structure of TokyoPop's contracts with new artists. Do you feel you've got a fair deal? Did you have a lawyer look things over before signing?

Of course! I can't understand a word of legalese, and I wasn't about to sign something I didn't understand. I feel I got a fair deal and while I am not supposed to discuss private business details of it, I would just like to say that the 'rumbling' about TOKYOPOP contracts has a fair bit of misinformation tossed about. Especially regarding how much we get paid. I have no idea where they got the $7,000 per book numbers. Definitely not from my contract.

As a female Manga-ka do you feel you've garnered additional attention simply for being open online and having so many manga fans crushing over you?

Fans crush over me? Uh oh. That means that I am going to break some hearts when I dramatically reveal that I am already in a serious relationship... With my work. Psych!!

I do feel that having a web presence helps keep people interested in me and my work. Which is a Very Good Thing, since that means I can justify web-surfing and loitering about message boards/livejournals/etc that I love.

Editor: "Why are you online so much, you should be working."

Svet: "Uh. Um. I'm... Promoting...? Myself...? *sheepish grin here*"

In all honesty, I just love hanging out on the web, so many interesting people out there! (Though I do prefer to lurk rather then participate in conversations.) I also like talking about myself and apparently my hap-hazard life is always good for a laugh or two.

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What can fans look forward to in future volumes of DRAMACON?

Matt comes back with a girlfriend. Drama and comedy ensues! As for the third volume, that's still a mystery, even to me. I'm still deciding whether to make it a happy ending or a "Paradise Kiss" one.

All TOKYOPOP books are planned as 3 volumes and if a title is a riotous success, they are very open to possibly commissioning more. DRAMACON's been receiving amazing feedback so far, so there may be a possibility of a fourth volume... I guess we'll see what the future brings!

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Jonathan Ellis Is Co-Editor in Chief of PopImage

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