Continuing with our TCAF 2020 Interviews for week two. The Comics Beat usually runs a series of interviews with cartoonists attending the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, but due to travel restrictions and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, TCAF was cancelled. In the spirit of TCAF, one of the most influential and important comic book events in North America, and its mission to “promote the creators of comic books in their broad and diverse voices, for the betterment of the medium of comics,” The Beat has conducted a series of interviews with some of the phenomenal cartoonists that were due to attend this year’s festival. We hope that these interviews will improve our understanding of these creators’ voices, techniques, interests and influences.
Our second interview is with Vancouver cartoonist Scarlet Wings Kaili. Here we discuss her current comic series Halfsoul, mental wellbeing, experimentation, page layout and surviving in uncertain times.
Philippe Leblanc: For our readers who might not know who you are, could you tell us who Scarlet Wings Kaili (SWK) is?
Scarlet Wings Kaili: Well, that’s a harder question than it seems. I’m a comic artist, I’m very passionate about telling stories about mental health and recovery. I believe that narrative is a very important way to move people and move society in a positive manner. And I also love making puns.
Leblanc: Before we begin, you just successfully crowdfunded your latest graphic novel, the second volume of Halfsoul. You’ve done the first one two years ago is that right?
SWK: Yes, I finished the first part two years ago. The crowdfunding for the second part just ended and it will be printed shortly. Each part of Halfsoul will be about a different character. The first part of the series was around 200 pages. The second part is also roughly 200 pages and it’s about a different character. I’m working on the third and fourth part right now. I started Halfsoul in 2017 and I’m about halfway to the end.
Leblanc: How do you feel now that you’re at about the halfway point of this series?
SWK: I’m feeling good about it. After I kickstarted the first series, I got a lot of messages from individuals saying how much it helped them through some darker times. Mental wellbeing and recovery are really important to me and I’m really, really motivated for that cause. The whole reason I started writing this story is cause wondering what I wanted to tell myself when I was younger what and figuring out “what do I need to say?” I’m hoping that it would be something that would be useful for other people, especially since there are a lot of underlying mental illness recovery elements in the series. I really wanted to put it out there so people know that they’re not alone and that there is a path recovery out there, but it’s going to be a journey.
Leblanc: I felt that as I was reading Halfsoul, that some of it was personal, particularly in the themes you’re approaching around mental illness and mental health wellbeing and the importance of finding a way through to recovery. I’m assuming, and I don’t want to I want to probe too much, that some of it does come from personal experience.
SWK: Yes, definitely. I feel that when you’re creating a work, it should come from yourself, from your heart. I really think that having had my own experience with mental health and depression, having experienced it in the past, makes me a much more mindful creator. This stuff is very important for me and I can’t write about it irresponsibly because it is a very complex issue.
Leblanc: Mindful, I think is a really good word for it. I’ve had my bouts of depression in the last couple years and it is complex and hard to talk about. I could definitely see that there was something underneath the layer of fantasy that was very real, a lived experience filtered through a fantasy lens. Much like depression itself, constantly woven in and out of the pages, informing the work even when it’s not overtly referred to. I hope to see where it’s going.
Leblanc: Halfsoul has a huge fantasy influence on the surface and is also a look at mental health, mental wellbeing and depression. How do you manage to find a balance between those two elements?
Kaili: Yes. So that’s actually a really good question. I actually find it very, very difficult to write stories that take place in real life, because I feel like there’s less of a distance between me and the subject. I feel that fantasy takes it slightly out of context and gives it a certain distance in a way that’s not retrograde or alienating. It’s easier to manage using fantasy as compared to if I just wrote a story about how shitty life can be.
Leblanc: I find what you mentioned about trying not to trigger people very interesting. Even asking you questions about what your personal experience with depression and mental health and how it informs your work, I felt I was tiptoeing when asking you these questions. I didn’t want to probe or push too much. It’s a delicate thing to have to manage. But I think you’re doing it quite well in this series.
Leblanc: You were supposed to be at TCAF, but we’re under lockdown (at the time of the interview). How has that period been going for you?
Kaili: It was supposed to be my first year at TCAF so it’s kind of disappointing that I can’t go, but I’ll definitely try to make it for next year. Isolation has been hard, but necessary, I’m doing OK.
Leblanc: You’ve been exhibiting at VanCAF before?
Kaili: I’ve been exhibiting at Vancouver for the last two years, not counting this year. So it’s always such a great experience here, having to meet other comic creators. I feel like it’s good to interact with other artists and to help yourself grow. It was just always so inspiring being there. I’ll have another chance to go to TCAF. The organizers of VanCAF are doing a good job at bringing the same people or the same vibe and the energy to both. I’m looking forward to going to the Toronto event, I’ve heard it’s definitely an experience. Hopefully, next year will work out.
Leblanc: Are you working on any other things than Halfsoul at the moment?
Kaili: Yes, I actually do make smaller comics once in a while. Those comics are more exploratory because I feel like you should experiment with things in order to grow and get better at making comics. I have a series where called Calling of the Bells, which is actually what I was going to debut at TCAF where I take idioms and turn them into short stories. And the experimentation part of that series is more an exploration of the medium. This year, I tried a different process of inking. Then I would scan the ink and go back to do a second layer of inks and changing that once it’s on screen, seeing how that layers change and evolve. I’ve also tried making comics with marker and paper cutting. I tried etch comics before too. I like to do a lot of experimentation, but I generally reserve that for smaller, shorter comics because it does take much more time.
Leblanc: Do you feel you can bring some of those experiences back to Halfsoul or is that something you are approaching in a very different, independent bubble?
Kaili: For Halfsoul, I’m probably going to stick with its current style, because I want to keep the look consistent. However, for a future comic series, I’m definitely going to bring that more in and try and be more creative with the medium that I use.
Leblanc: I really like how kinetic Halfsoul is. Movement and momentum are a big part of the story as a contrast to the sort of inertia of depression. Could you talk to us a little bit about your influences and what you’re trying to do with the style?
Kaili: I think the biggest influence I’ve had is actually from Clamp. Tsubasa was the first comic that I’ve read. They have a lot of organic panels and it’s very interesting how each page has a very good flow to it. I learned a lot from that. I also go and look at other comic artists and see how they use your panels as well, what’s working, what’s not, what techniques are they using that I can try on my own. I’m always trying to improve on the way I do my panel layouts and pages. I also design panels as a spread because you want to make sure that the flow works for the entire two pages. I’m generally very mindful about how I design my panels because I feel like that influences a lot of the way that readers can read the comic.
Leblanc: I thought it was an interesting choice to have every single chapter on Tapas. It’s 200 pages, but there are a hundred or so pages listed. But they’re really two pages and you don’t really have any single pages. It’s always a two-page spread, which I thought was interesting. You wanted to make sure your panel layout and flow was consistent?
Kaili: Yeah. absolutely. Even though I did post online, my goal was to also have a print edition and I felt that designing for print is a little harder than designing for the web, so I basically designed for print.
Leblanc: I read Halfsoul on a tablet and on my phone, and I could tell that it was more a layout for the page on paper, but the flow of it still was working quite well. It was kind of impressive to see how it fit in both format seamlessly.
Leblanc: Apart from your ongoing series Halfsoul, you’ve also done work for kûs!
Kaili: Yeah, I’ve been in two anthologies of Finland’s küs! comics. One has yet to be printed. The other one is, has just arrived but is obviously not going to be sold at conventions for a while.
Leblanc: How can our readers help support you?
Leblanc: What do you want your readers to take with them once they’ve read your work and Halfsoul?
Kaili: I think I want my readers to take with them anything that they find helpful or healing from my work. I’m not really going to try to dictate what people find helpful in it, but when I write, my goal is to give a voice to a lot of concerns and experiences that people feel when you have a mental illness. I want to bring that awareness and let people know that it’s not all tragedy, there is growth afterwards, there’s light at the other end of the tunnel, even if you can’t see it, you can still move towards it.
We’ll see you next week with more installments of the TCAF Interviews 2020.