Each week, Alex Lu is highlighting the work of some of the coolest illustrators of our generation. Know anyone who should be featured (including yourself)? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.’
This Week: Sarah Bollinger and Tara Kurtzhals have an unparalleled sense of comedic timing and a catalog of collaborative work that showcases the breadth of their skills. In the charming Girls Have a Blog, we follow the pair through moments of their daily lives that are equal parts charming, hilarious, enlightening, and sometimes just too real. On the other hand, in Knight & Beard, we see Bollinger and Kurtzhals putting their imaginations in high gear, crafting a full on fantasy world that’s absolutely begging to be turned into a cartoon (just as they intended). These two artists, who comprise Open Field Studio, are talents to watch.
Alex Lu: Sarah, Tara– while Knight & Beard and Girls Have a Blog are quite different comics, they share a distinctly bouncy art style and infectious sense of humor. How do you two coordinate collaborating on these titles given that you’re both writers and artists? How do you split artistic duties, in particular, if at all?
Tara Kurtzhals: Sarah and I have an amazing back and forth. Since we both can write and draw, we split up the responsibilities pretty equally. Knight & Beard is a big story with a big cast, we have pretty extensive writing sessions together. We have a large bulletin board with notecards that have our story beats. Once we nail down the specific details or a story arc we then start working on the issues. I’m currently working on Issue Eight and I’m fully in charge of writing, layouts, tie-downs, inks and colors. And Sarah is working on Issue Nine. We alternate because it gives us a break to plan for our next issue. However, if someone needs help to finish an issue the other person will help with inks or colors. We’re also very fortunate to have help from Tanner Simmons. ( http://www.tannersimmons.com/ ) He flats all of our pages, making it possible for us to juggle both a fantasy comic and a slice of life comic at the same time.
Sarah Bollinger: And since we both work on Girls simultaneously, we’ve balanced it out to make sure that the one who isn’t also working on Knight & Beard handles some other miscellaneous business tasks – convention displays, merchandise, and developing the website for example.
Lu: It’s cool how relatively seamless the handoff between both of your styles is in your comics. Having worked together for so long, do you find that your artistic styles have become more similar to one another over time? Are there key tells that you’d say distinguish your work from one another?
Bollinger: Knight & Beard and Girls Have A Blog were designed knowing that both of us would be working on them. We wanted it to appear as seamless as possible, so we create model sheets and share references in the attempt to make it so. What’s interesting about these comics is that on our own, neither of us would draw like that. Our personal drawing styles are pretty different from each other. Our inspirations are different, so when it comes to working on the comics we’ve developed together, it’s only natural for that to come across in our work.
Kurtzhals: I think in our early Girls Have A Blog comics, the differences in our art were very apparent. In this comic, for instance, the first half was drawn by Sarah and the second half was drawn by me. Since we’ve been working together for three years now, I think our work looks more streamlined. It is obvious to us who works on which comics, but many of our readers never comment on it. I think my anime influence is pretty apparent in my work. And I’m still learning so much on the technical side of drawing. However, if I ever have questions about how to draw things better or keep things on model, Sarah is always willing to spend some time to break down how a character works in panel.
Bollinger: I can’t really pinpoint the things that have influenced my work over the years. I really value versatility in my work and want to be capable of achieving a wide range of styles, and I do my best to tailor my drawings to be distinct for each individual project. What inspires me at any given moment is pretty directly related to whatever creative journey I’m on.
Lu: One of my favorite parts about your work are the way you render exaggerated facial expressions in your comics (like in Girls Have a Blog chapter 20 and 27 and the scene in Knight & Beard #5 where Beard finds Knight sleeping in a stable). I always bust a gut laughing at moments like those in your comics. Is there any sort of artistic theory or methodology behind the way you can warp anatomy to achieve that hilarious effect?
Bollinger: Haha! I wish I could say there was! But honestly, doing facial expressions like that is probably one of the most thoughtless parts of the process. I think it’s because those faces are more about communicating an emotional truth rather than a physical one. As long as it feels right, it is.
Kurtzhals: The inclinations to draw big expressions are a result of my anime influence and the webcomics I read growing up. I love when character models are broken for the sake of a gag. So when it comes to Knight, I love to push her expressions because it shows just how much of an explosive personality she has. We always do funny voices for her when we read parts of the script to each other, and since most readers don’t know what that sounds like, it’s a lot of fun to convey her boisterous and HUGE personality with equally big expressions.
Lu: With fantasy stories like Knight & Beard, there’s always a lot of work that goes into developing a cohesive look and feel for the world. What were your visual inspirations for this series’ world? Were there specific medieval cultures you were drawing from when designing things such as Knight’s and Beard’s armor?
Kurtzhals: When it came to Knight & Beard, our development of the world has been very dependent on the characters we create. It’s a very character driven story, and the growth of these characters and the themes we want to accomplish with them actually have impacted how the world is presented within the narrative. Knight & Beard is most influenced by our animation background. We went to college for animation, and thus the characters and world were designed simply for the potential of animating them someday. As far as the individual characters, Knight’s armor is heavily influenced by Megaman. And we know it doesn’t fit her quite well. It’s a little too big for her. Her hair is also inspired by Goku’s. We flip it depending on what looks good for her pose or the composition of the panel. Her hair is huge and fun to draw, but sometimes makes layouts a bit challenging to fit it all in.
Bollinger: As far as what references we use for developing the visual style of the world they live in, to be honest… it’s a lot, and it’s continually growing. For the first few issues of the series, we thought Newport was going to just be a little medieval village for the most part. But once we started developing the full scope of the story, we decided that we needed Newport to be more like a medieval New York: huge with a very diverse population and built over time with evolving architectural styles. So we started looking everywhere to build the city and slowly started adding elements into their environment, putting a little more in each issue so the change doesn’t feel too jarring. We’re still in the beginning of making the transition from what it was originally intended to be, but we’re excited to get where we’re going.
Lu: It’s interesting that you designed Knight & Beard with the intention of possibly animating them in the future! Did you both originally intend to go into animation before you found success in comics? And what are the biggest artistic lessons that you think carry over from that animation training into comics creation?
Bollinger: We both attended the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, MI for their animation program, but I don’t think I was ever really interested in animating. I wanted to be a concept artist and have a lot of technical illustration abilities under my belt. But I went into animation because I wanted my work, even a singular painting, to tell a good story, and I figured studying film and sequential art was going to help me get there. I think animation also taught me about strong visual design and about how to achieve believable character acting. Comics combine a lot of my artistic loves together, and what you can do with them is so limitless that I have a lot of fun continually challenging myself and learning from the projects I take on.
Kurtzhals: I have always loved animation, but I found myself artistically through comics. As a young girl I gravitated towards Shōjo and Josei manga. The comic that has defined me the most to this day is Nana by Ai Yazawa. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I felt connected to those characters in a way I never did before. I found myself in their struggles of being young women trying to understand themselves in a big city. I loved how large the story was and how a singular artist and writer had the most say in the project. But I didn’t know comics was a career path, so I chose the next best thing; animation. I knew CCS would make me a better storyteller. But one of my professors told me I would be better off pursuing a career path in producing due to my extroverted personality and go getting attitude. For almost three years at school I spent most of my time organizing events and being a personality on campus. It wasn’t until Sarah and I created Girls Have a Blog that I began to fall in love with drawing again. With comics I had so much more control and could tell larger stories. I could also create characters that I wanted to see in the world. Knight in particular is a character heavily inspired by heroes of coming of age stories. I want to tell a story about a young girl who has a lot of growing to do. She’s abrasive and difficult, and I love it. Comics feel like a place where I can explore characters like this. And so far, it’s been an amazing ride.
Lu: One of the interesting things I find about autobio comics such as Girls Have a Blog is what cartoonists choose to show versus withhold. How do you choose what moments of your lives will serve as the basis for a strip? Are there any parts of your lives that you generally prefer not to delve into?
Bollinger: Tara and I started Girls Have A Blog with our friend Alex back in college as way to draw for fun outside of class. We posted it on Tumblr so that we could share it between the three of us and have a neat little record of our friendship. We truly and honestly never believed anyone would ever find it, and certainly never pay attention, which is why our first few comics talk so openly about crushes! Ha! That has always been a regret for me. When people we knew and mentioned in the comic started finding it, I felt immediate guilt for putting certain relationships into a spotlight. So now I’m very careful about who is mentioned and how they are mentioned. In fact, just recently, we worked on a series of Girls comics that highlighted a rough patch in our lives, and for the most part, a lot of the pain written about in those comics were from Tara’s perspective, and I became a smaller character. A lot of what I was going through at the time very heavily involved the troubles of someone close to me, and in order to talk about the hardship I was experiencing, I’d be forced to put that person’s life and behavior on display. And I refuse to do that to someone for the sake of a comic, even if I wish I could openly discuss some of it. And I want to so bad! Oh, man. I learned so much this year and have grown to care about things that I always thought were none of my business. I really do wish I could invite people into some of my recent experiences. Never in my life did I think I would have them.
As for the stuff we DO write about, we write about situations that we think are funny. We don’t do a lot outside of work, so those kinds of moments are pretty easy to pinpoint. Which is actually why most of out comics are about food! We know we have a young audience, and can’t really say much about being self-employed and having to work 10-14 hour days. Going out to eat occasionally is pretty much what we do to take a break, so our food experiences almost always wind up in the comic.
Kurtzhals: It is interesting being the one who is able to be more open about some of the hardships I went through last year. I don’t read comments that much at this point because it is difficult being so vulnerable. But I’m ultimately happy to share because people react strongly to that vulnerability. However, we know every comic can’t be sad. We want to highlight what’s fun. And even though things get rough sometimes, we find joy in many small and funny things in our life. Ultimately, it keeps us grounded and even makes us look at our lives in a different way. I actually started going to therapy after making a funny comic about avoiding it for a year!
Lu: I really like the range of experiences you’ve both included in Girls. As someone who eats far too much, I feel a kinship with every comic about burgers and pizza. But as someone who suffers through some of the consequences of that, I think it’s also quite brave that you both talked about your body issues in a previous comic. And your most recent story, where you revisit the warehouse guy– that was a gut punch. How did you go about deciding to turn that personal moment in particular into a comic? Did you work with the guy in question on this one at all?
Kurtzhals: My experience with writing about my co-worker at the warehouse was a very complicated one. Our first season of Girls on Line Webtoon was 26 episodes, and with that time restraint I was only able to write one comic about him. Because of that, our readers saw one side of him: the first meeting, which was a very hurtful one. And I never got the chance to show myself getting to know him and forgiving him. This was a hard lesson to learn about creating autobio comics. I didn’t realize that I would have so many readers threatening his life. That episode of GHAB has over 900 comments when we generally average around 150. As much as I wanted to talk about my complicated feelings about being a woman and the kind of sexual harassment we dealt with while working at a warehouse with a predominantly male staff, I think I could have handled it more delicately. So when he finally reached out to me after six months, it was a really rough conversation. I think it all comes down to what Sarah said earlier, being more careful about who is in the spotlight and how we handle the comics in the future. He ultimately forgave me but it could have gone a very different way. I’m lucky we could communicate and sort things out. Hilariously enough, I remember thinking during that conversation that I’d hope he’d let me make a comic about it. I wanted to give him the opportunity to speak from his perspective. After I had a few days to sort through my thoughts, I combed through our messenger conversation, wrote a script, and sent it to him. I asked if he wanted me to change anything, and he said something along the lines of “Do whatever!” and sent me a link to a Bowie song. I haven’t asked him if he read it yet. I hope he likes it.
Lu: When you’re not working on your collaborations together, what types of artistic projects do you work on? More comics? Design work?
Kurtzhals: We’ve been officially established as a business for almost a year now, and I think the interesting challenge we’re facing now is spending our free time branding ourselves and finding our voice so we can move forward. We want to pursue more freelance work as well as eventually quit our part time job to do art full time. Our free time this year is dedicated mostly to finding how we want to market ourselves and our future projects. It’s interesting juggling Knight & Beard and Girls Have a Blog with our branding, Patreon, and Twitch, so that sadly doesn’t leave a lot of time for personal work.
If I could do more personal work, I would focus on zines, romance comics, prints of beautiful and powerful fantasy women, and ridiculous anime nonsense.
Bollinger: If I had free time, I’d probably be doing a lot of digital painting and working on my graphic design chops. Maybe I’d start a t-shirt shop. I’d call it “Good Shirts”.
Lu: Between Knight & Beard and Girls Have a Blog, you’re visually covering a pretty wide berth of things to draw ranging from modern day representations of yourselves and current architecture to olde taverns and shining suits of armor. Is there another type of story, like sci-fi, Victorian Romance, or a sports story, that you both have been dreaming of one day having the opportunity to work on either separately or together?
Kurtzhals: So far both of our comics are appropriate for all ages, which is the audience I ultimately want to reach the most. However, I still want to create comics with adult themes. One personal project I hope to delve into this year is a short comic about a succubus that is terrible at her job. It would tackle themes of sexual manipulation and fear, while still maintaining some levity. I find that I am drawn to raw emotional stories with the slightest bit of hope sprinkled in. I also just love drawing monster girls!
Outside of my personal work, we talk plenty about other stories we want to pitch as graphic novels and webcomics. I think what’s great about our partnership is we’re open to try any setting and any challenge. We’ve had ideas ranging from a western, an all ages monster comic, and even romance. Our LLC is called Open Field Studio because we have endless possibilities! We love telling a good story and we’re always talking about what’s next.
Bollinger: True. Although there are times that I feel like I’d like to work on a book that doesn’t have a ton of depth. Something therapeutic that I wouldn’t really have to think about but would be super sweet to draw. Something with monsters and fist fights.
Kurtzhals: And I like the sound of that!
Samples from Sarah’s short comic, Yellow Jacket:
Samples from Tara’s zine, Sorry:
Additional Work by Sarah
Additional Work by Tara
Alex is the Managing Editor of the Comics Beat. He is also a freelance comics editor with previous credits at Papercutz. He is your go-to fella for creator interviews, conversations about comic book structure, and general DC Comics nerding. Currently geeking out over movies, too.