Natalia Lopes has always wanted to make comics for a living. As of 2019, she has finally begun to live her dream, starting with a successful Kickstarter that that brought the horror anthology Paroxysm to life under Lopes’ MystoPress: “From tales of modern vampires, to the horrifying implications of current events, to the feeling of being trapped with an unknown monster lurking around every corner, these works touch upon universally unsettling notions of knowing something is awfully wrong, but you won’t know what until it’s too late.”
Though Paroxysm features several creatives within its pages, Lopes’ own works as an indie comic artist (and art educator) shine in their own right, touching on horror with her own unique style of exquisite linework and symbolism. She has since collaborated on the nightmare-themed poetry and art zine, The Chilling Wind of Rage Rattles My Bones, a second volume of Paroxysm, and has recently completed a one-shot horror comic called I Thought I Saw A Deer Last Night. Here, Lopes takes some time to answer a few questions about her work.
What is your relationship with horror? What was your first experience with the genre and how has your relationship evolved over time?
Like many people, I have memories of first engaging with horror when I was way too young. I sneaked peeks at horror comics when no one was watching, and glanced at scenes from movies that my dad would label as “not for kids.” I guess there was always a curiosity for things that I was specifically told not to engage with or look at, let alone enjoy. Ridley Scott’s Alien is amazing and I’m glad I saw it when I was twelve, in fact that’s probably the age I started being actively curious about horror. Some kids in middle school brought in copies of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (back when you could still find the individual issues), and I fell in love with how weird it made my gut feel. Flash forward with way too many years in between, and seeing horror through my embraced queer perspective really opened my eyes to how I had been engaging with the genre all along. I can’t believe I never put the two together until recently. Horror as curiosity, particularly when it comes to sexuality or exploration of deeper things in the psyche, is something I actively experiment with in my work.
What works have influenced you and your style? How has your style evolved throughout your career?
A lot of people have compared my art style to Junji Ito, even though I have only recently discovered his work! Looking at his older manga (I especially love Tomie) really pumped my creative juices in terms of playing with tension and pacing, because he is definitely a master of making you afraid to turn the page! Osamu Tezuka had a few forays into adult storytelling, and his manga MW is one I really admire. It’s so unlike his other work, which is so interesting to me that someone normally associated with beloved kid-friendly fare had such dark things to say, even back in the seventies. Jhonen Vasquez’s work has been a huge influence, particularly in that I adore his inkwork. There’s just something so intriguing about having sensual lines and splatters to gorey scenes, which I’m sure came from his love (and mine) of H.R. Giger. I also love the work of Camille Rose Garcia, who also plays with the allure of dark topics depicted in a very sensual yet stylized way.
Regarding my earlier work, this is part of what I called the Freudian Bug series, and is heavily influenced by Giger, Vasquez and the like. Back then I was heavily exploring issues of gender and horror and trauma, and I represented it with more insect-like horror of the body back then.
I feel like I’ve started to return to that in some ways with my recent comic “Muse,” an art student horror comic that is part of Paroxysm Vol II, my independent horror anthology series. Also the hallucinatory monster that shows up in my vampire comic The Black Rabbit, from Vol I, is a Freudian nightmare if there ever was one.
Your imagery often features unsettling body horror combined with the delicate beauty of nature. Your body horror also comes in multiples, such as a multitude of arms or eyes. What meaning does the symbolism hold for you?
Trauma looks into us, and others look at it from the outside. Multiples of eyes/mouths/limbs almost feel like I’m giving the body an extra gaze into the soul, into what feels human but looks inhuman. Subjects that look beautiful or alluring, but have something not quite right with them is a contrast I seek out in my work, especially with organic subject matter. Making something meaningful/beautiful out of trauma or dark experiences is important to me. I like adding an alluring nature to horror, as a way of inviting people into feeling safe to explore these deeper stranger topics with others or with themselves.
I like the idea that horror, or queer horror, can give people a different angle or perspective into the genre without alienating those that are squeamish about its typical tropes. Like there are definitely layers to how creepy things can be, so easing people into it with my illustration work helps break down those barriers I think. Body horror definitely relates to queer horror and trauma, and utilizing the most organic parts of the world, flowers and plants, as a way of exploring transformation is something I’ve been studying a lot.
What was the motivation for you to finally turn your desire to make comics for a living into a reality in 2019? How does it feel to now be living in this reality you have shaped?
Honestly, I could not have picked a better time, and also a worse time, to be an independent artist. I had just come out of the real nightmare that is being diagnosed with a lifelong mental illness (bipolar, in this case), and the fog of medication and recovery made me really appreciate how empty my life was without having creativity and imagination constantly buzzing in my brain. I’ve always wanted to make my art and comics my life’s work, but a lot of the life got in the way of the work, in a manner of speaking. So I decided back in early 2019 that once I was well enough, that I should really give it a go. And it has been insane, both in a great and a not-so-great way, since the pandemic hit all independents especially hard. But at the same time, my productivity and creativity have never been more focused, and I hope that as we recover from quarantine, that things will continue to improve.
What have you learned since your first experience with crowdfunding a project and introducing your work to the world?
My first Kickstarter was a huge learning curve. I hadn’t made comics that were very long form, so having my first project be something that ended up at 32 pages right off the bat was a challenge. On top of that, inviting others to create work and put an entire book together that was print ready by our launch date required even more planning. But because of that, I’ve now found that it’s a little more intuitive to tackle a new project, but also at the same time it is just as hard and nerve wracking to get started on a new comic. Getting the first volume of Paroxysm funded showed me that it actually is possible to find my niche, and it’s been amazing to see a small but growing enthusiastic audience find me and look forward to my subsequent work.
Tell us a bit about your process, both from both a technical and psychological perspective.
As far as I can explain it, my comics process has so far looked like this:
Step 1. Have an idea I’m so hyped about I can’t wait to get started on it
Step 2. Watch it all fall apart as I work
Step 3. Find a way for it to all come together in anxious hope that it will work out in the end.
My storytelling process is so organic and chaotic, both in how I draw and how I mentally work. I know most people will start with a script, then thumbnails, then pencils, inks, etc. But for me, I’m often writing and rewriting dialogue while also getting inks done on the same page. I’ll know the direction the story is going in, but I may not have completely mapped out the next-to-last spread until I get there. I’m always asking my creative friends for feedback, and I am not afraid to start over if something just isn’t working. For many years I’ve struggled with figuring out my workflow with making comics digitally, since I’m used to sketching things out on paper and inking on paper a certain way; going from bigger shapes and working my way down to the tiny details. With digital, I would often freeze with it, because it gives you the opportunity to make everything look so perfect and streamlined, so making the tools work for me and my unique way of inking/creating helped me feel comfortable with it. It also helps that I downloaded a brush that was made specifically for mimicking the feel of Micron ink pens, which is what I use traditionally.
Regarding my sketches for the “Muse” comic, I will often find myself sketching out scenes and how I’d like for them to look long before laying it out on the page, or what part of the story they will belong in. The sketch of the main character as a silhouette as he walks into his art class for midterm critique was something I literally cut and pasted onto the page as I was working on pencils for it.
As an art educator, how does your work influence the learning in your classroom and vice versa?
One of the standout lessons I’ve learned from coaching my students is the importance of experimenting with your creative ideas. I am always reminding them (and also myself) that there’s no such thing as good or bad art, only creative choices made that are more or less effective in conveying what you’re trying to say. Good or bad are simply subjective tastes. We can all keep practicing and refining our drawing fundamentals, but ultimately learning what choices work better to our advantage can sometimes look unexpected to the outside viewer. There’s also a lot of forgiveness for how messy one’s creative process can be, so keeping track of the stages of development can look different for everyone, but as long as the ideas are there I leave it up to my students to showcase their unique process.
What are the next steps? What projects are you working on now?
I am currently working on a new graphic novel project, a queer horror fairytale story called The Witch of Ashwood, due to be completed by this summer. The project is being funded in part by a grant from the NC Arts Council, Raleigh Arts, and United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, which is super exciting because I’ve never received a grant before. I am also working on putting together a new contributor lineup for Paroxysm Vol III and a Kickstarter for it in October. I am hoping that in the near future I can put together a few shorter form projects, since I really enjoyed making one-off stories like I Thought I Saw A Deer Last Night and smaller zines.