HERoes: Sabrina Cotugno

We get a chance to have a no pressure conversation about comics with female creators in the community. Their creativity is inspiring to people throughout the comic fandom who enjoy their work.

They are our HERoes.

sabrinacotogunaFrom interning at Pixar Studios and working with animation, storyboarding television shows like Gravity Falls, winning numerous film festival awards, to running a successful Kickstarter campaign, Bleeding Heart; Sabrina Cotugno’s artistic style is a force to be reckoned with here the next few years. It’s a style that feeds to the very nature of modern comics that appeals to younger readers who are looking for more of that offbeat Cartoon Network feel in their comics.

Jessica Boyd: What is your favorite aspect of comics?

Sabrina Cotugno: I love visual storytelling, and I feel like comics is a great medium for it. Coming from an animation background, I love how you can tell a long, in depth story in comics and not have to employ 500 people to do it.

JB: What is your favorite part of creating comics?

SC: I love that lucky moment when you figure out just the perfect staging for a panel. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I feel real good about myself for about five minutes. I also love doing loose writing, figuring out the story beats. It is simultaneously the most frustrating and the most exciting part of the whole process.

JB: What issue or series has had the biggest influence on your work? Who is your favorite protagonist/antagonist?

SC: For some reason, I really gravitate towards slice-of-life comics (something I don’t do in . . . any other medium!). I think I had most of Derek Kirk Kim’s comics memorized when I was in highschool (especially Same Difference). I watched and read Ghost World when I was probably too young for it- I actually that that was how most highschoolers acted! I also followed the works of Jen Wang, Vera Brosgol, and Erika Moen. More recently, I’ve gotten into Lucy Knisley and Kate Beaton.

As for comic series, I really love the Sandman series! I’m not sure I’ve figured out why it clicks for me- I reread it every couple of years to try and work it out. My favorite comics character is probably Rorschach from Watchmen. I adore a certain flavor of grouchy, introspective wanderer who monologues to himself from time to time.

JB: What is a typical creative working day for you?

SC: My work day is pretty scheduled- from 9am to 6pm I go to my day job- currently, I work as a storyboard artist on the show Gravity Falls. From about 6pm-8:30pm I get home, cook, eat, and generally decompress, and from about 9pm-12pm I work on my personal projects. On Bleeding Heart, I had a bit of a tight deadline, so I tried to cut my not-working time down to about an hour a day, but that wasn’t exactly an ideal work situation! It’s hard for me to have a “crunchtime” because I really don’t function well on less than a full night’s sleep. I compensate by sticking neatly- as much as possible- to my work schedule each day.

newsomealbumJB: Musical inspirations? Or do you need quiet to create?

SC: Too many to name! But for the past couple months I’ve been on a real Joanna Newsom binge. I don’t know how well known she is, but I’ve heard her described as an Appalachian folk . . . harpist? She has this tiny, warbly baby seal voice and crafts these strange, intricate stories into her lyrics. She can invoke such a specific sense of place. I love this description of early morning sunlight:

So I thank the Lord, and I thank his sword
Though it be mincing up the morning, slightly bored

I love how odd that is! Since I work in such a visual medium, I am easily delighted by how words- just by themselves- can create these kinds of abstract images. It inspires me to think (for lack of a more outside-the-box phrase) outside the box.

JB: What is your favorite representation of women in comics?

SC: I love Death and Delirium from the Sandman series. Death is so powerful that she doesn’t even remotely need to prove it to anyone- but no matter how light-hearted and silly she acts, you never doubt for a second that she has been around for longer than any human can remember and will be here long after we’re gone. Delirium is hilarious and tragic and I want to know so badly how she got to be that way.

bleedingheartprintJB: What is one of your favorite story or cover you have ever been part of creating?

SC: I’ve really enjoyed working on Bleeding Heart- getting to work on my own stories is my favorite thing in the world!

I have also worked on a lot of collaborative projects that I want to gush about, but I’ll have to be vague about them, since none of them have been released yet! I got to work on a Gravity Falls episode in season 2 that delves deep into one of the characters’ backstories. Much drama, very emotions!

JB: What do you think is the biggest impact of female voices in the creation process?

SC: I think the more female and minority voices we have in storytelling, the better stories there will be. That’s not to say that straight white men don’t write good stories, but a person’s life experience affects the kinds of stories they tell, and when an overwhelming majority of the comics and animation industry is controlled by men, then the stories they tell will inevitably be limited.

That’s also not to say that people can’t do research and write outside of their personal bubble of experience, but, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to tell a story from an Indian person’s point of view with nearly as much richness and insight as I could tell it from a Japanese American point of view. There is always going to be a difference between reading about- or hearing about- another person’s experience and living that experience yourself. You miss the little details.

I’ll take the Guardians of the Galaxy movie as an example. I can’t imagine director James Gunn intended to make the movie sexist. I imagine it just never occurred to him to question the casual tropes and throwaway lines of dialogue that collectively nudge the story in a “male gaze” direction. All those little things could have been easily changed in the script, but if a director is surrounded by only men (or women who don’t have the authority to safely call him out), then who is going to do the changing?

JB: What role do you think social media plays in comics or the comics industry? How has that changed since you began?

SC: I’ve pretty much only learned about comics through the internet, so naturally I believe in the power of the web to reach new readers, especially in niche markets. Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr are all good tools of promotion- although I secretly miss Livejournal, which allowed for so many more rambly, intimate updates! The main downside of any social media platform is you have to learn its particular quirks in order to reach as many people as possible. That can be stressful at times, but I would much rather deal with the stress of self-promotion than rely on the good favor of old school publishers and studios.

I’m currently running my first Kickstarter campaign for my short comic, Bleeding Heart. It’s been a very successful run, so of course I am in favor of crowd-funding for comics! I think it’s a great option for those of us who don’t fit neatly into a genre, or who happen not be telling the most zeitgeist-y kind of story.

JB: What do you feel is the biggest impact of the growing number of female fans or the acknowledgement of female fans in comics?

SC: I feel like there’s still a long way to go before the world really acknowledges the impact of female fans. Many people have such a skewed idea of what gender equality means- I had a professor at school who complained that “the only reason you girls are here is because of Fruits Basket”. I’ve heard someone insist that, because Faith Erin Hicks exists, sexism is over and there are now exactly equal numbers of male and female creators. (I love Faith Erin Hicks! But she is, mathematically speaking, only one female human person.) In animation, you hear guys complaining that women are “taking over the industry” but at last year’s studio-wide meeting, I was able to play “Spot the white male show creator” and my “winning” streak was only broken by one female showrunner.

The impacts of female fans are awesome, of course- more stories for women and by women! We just need a lot, lot more of it.


JB: What is some advice you wish someone had given you before you began working in the comic medium?

SC: “Don’t be afraid of speech bubbles.” Ah hah- I come from an animation background, so the differences between the animation and comics medium always freaked me out. It’s weird to me to have room in your compositions for speech bubbles, and to have panels that are all different sizes! I compensate by being pretty conservative with my panel layouts (which look more like journal comics than, say, manga) but I’m trying to experiment more as time goes on.

JB: What message do you hope people get when experiencing your work?

SC: It’s okay to be weird. It’s okay to be into nerdy things that no one else you know likes. It’s okay to feel anxious or depressed or sad. It’s okay to be pretty much anything. Just don’t, like, kill people.

I try to convey these messages by having characters who are these things (and feel these things). Nothing comforts me more than seeing my own experiences reflected in a story. Certain feelings have a way of isolating us- I’ll find myself thinking “It’s such a shame that I am the only person in the world who has insomnia” even if I know factually that isn’t true. But then I can read The Bell Jar and read Plath’s description of sleeplessness and feel so damn validated.

JB: When it comes to comics, “all I want or dream is …”

SC: All I want or dream is to tell my own stories well, and to find readers for whom those stories have meaning. Also, I would really like to be able to support myself with those stories so that I can take breaks every once in a while. It would be awesome if I had time to eat and sleep and have a family and not die young like that guy who played video games for way too long.

The Bleeding Heart Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2055027289/bleeding-heart
My Tumblr account: http://arythusa.tumblr.com
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My Twitter: https://twitter.com/arythusa


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