Between the Panels: Cartoonist Tara O’Connor on Her Struggle with Webcomics, Teaching While Doing, and an Important Museum Visit

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

Since she started drawing comics at 14 years old, Tara O’Connor has amassed an impressive list of credits that range from short anthology stories to book-length graphic novels. One thing that comes through clearly — besides her compelling artistic voice — is that this is a creator always pushing herself to get better, to experiment, to tell the her stories as only she can.

First, the particulars…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): I typically do all the things! Sometimes for some books I'll have a colorist or a letterer, though, because it really does make a difference! Typically with my books, I'm the writer and artist, but I've in the past worked with other writers, as well!

Your home base: Originally from New Jersey; currently living in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Website: taraocomics.com

Social Media

Instagram: @TaraOComics

Twitter: @TaraOComics




Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms?

Tara O’Connor: I've always been interested in drawing, and telling stories, some of my earliest drawings as a kid were pretty crude attempts at comics, even if I didn't really realize it at the time. I've always liked writing but felt like I need the extra boost of art alongside of it to really get my point across, if that makes sense.

KS: Obviously, many people love art as a hobby but don’t make the leap to pursuing it professionally. How did that happen for you?

TOC: I always wanted to work in the arts in some shape or form. I wound up going to school to get a teaching degree for art as something I could do while I pursued an art career, so it was always in the cards. I actually wound up teaching comics for about five years before I moved to Ireland. I was working on my first big graphic novel [The Altered History of Willow Sparks] at the time — so in addition to teaching the basics of comics I also got to show [students] firsthand what went into making them. I think it helped make them see that it was possible and to also make them see the amount of work involved.

KS: Where was your teaching gig during this time?

TOC: It was at a local community college in New Jersey. I initially applied to a illustration teacher position and when I went to the interview, I brought a few of my books to show my work and I remember telling her if she wanted to keep a copy that's cool — and she's like, “I'm gonna keep it 'cos I'm gonna offer you this position” and she handed me the syllabus which was "Intro to Comic Books.” So, it worked out really well!




KS: As someone who’s been making art since a young age, what’s the first “big deal” project you remember creating? Something that felt like a serious endeavor for you at the time, whatever age that was.

TOC: I'm sure a lot of people will relate to this, but there was a manga competition held by the infamous Tokyopop for a few years called “The Rising Stars of Manga,” and I remember painstakingly working for months on this entry that was, I can admit this, quite awful. But I had so much fun with it as it was the longest comic I'd drawn at the time — only 20 pages but still quite a lot of work at that time, especially since it was all pencil and ink —
I'm fairly certain I completely botched all the technical specs of the pages so I really wasn't surprised when I got my obligatory “thanks for participating” paper. Regardless of the outcome, though, I had so much fun working on it I couldn't stop there!

KS: We can’t leave the readers hanging! What was the comic you made?

TOC: I don't really remember the exact plot of it; it was a play on the string of fate and a girl finding out her string was attached to no one, in this timeline at least. It was a fun story that may get used again in the future, but that remains to be seen.

KS: When’s the last time you looked at it?

TOC: It's definitely still around somewhere. I think it's one of the boxes of mine in my parents house, but it's definitely been a couple of years since I've seen it.

KS: Your bio says that you finally “braved the comics world” in 2010 with Puddles, but you’d obviously been making them well before then. What changed at that time that inspired you to put something out in the world?

TOC: I had struggled with the webcomics world for a time; something about a weekly update just wasn't jiving with my college life, but I still wanted to make comics. I went to MoCCA [Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, NYC] one year and was so inspired by all the mini-comics I picked up.
  I realized my lofty several-hundred-page webcomic probably wasn't the best place to start if I wanted anyone to know what I was doing. My peers agreed! Mini-comics are the best ways to get your stuff out there. It showcases not only your skills but also that you can get something completed. I also think it's much harder to tell a 20-30 page complete story than it is write a 500-page one. A few more webcomics and five years later, I landed a book-deal with one of my fave publishers at the time [Oni Press]!




KS: And how did that Oni deal come about?

TOC: I actually was contacted by one of the editors at the time. I mentioned in an interview with Comics Alliance that I always wanted to work with Oni Press, so they reached out to me from there!

KS: If you look back at Puddles now, what’s something that stands out as different vs. the current version of you? Not necessarily worse, just different.

TOC: Hmmm, that's hard. Despite it being one of my first and oldest comics, I'm still quite fond of it and I still see some of me in there. I do see improvement both in my storytelling and my art, but my overall storytelling is quite similar. Fantastical with a hint of...grimness.

KS: Let’s talk about Tara the comics reader. Roughly when did they first come into your life?

TOC: I definitely read the comics section of the newspaper every Sunday when I was a kid. Peanuts, Luann, Jump Start, Sally Forth, Calvin and Hobbes to name a few that stuck with me — but my real love of comics happened when I discovered manga.

KS: How did manga get on your radar? Did you see the books in print somewhere?

TOC: I discovered anime and manga around the same time as they kind of went hand-in-hand. There was a magazine at the time that I would get that had Sailor Moon on the cover so I picked it up — it wound up having a serialized version of the manga in the magazine so that was my first exposure to it. From there I sought out the volumes in the bookstore and then discovered manga like Ranma 1/2, Ah! Megami-sama, and Evangelion.




KS: Why was that the right material for you back then?

TOC: Manga was so different to me both in looks and story wise—alongside various Japanese and Korean comics, I read some DC comics and Marvel, as well, but I preferred the openness and freedom that a lot of manga had. There were panels and all that, but it felt different — more dynamic, more expressive.

[M]uch of manga as a whole really changed the way I was going about making up stories. It opened up a whole new world of what was possible, and that all stories didn't have to be a variation of which superhero got what power and when. There was horror, there was romance, there was slice-of-life, there were all sorts of stories that I'd otherwise thought “well, that's not really a comic story.” It made me see comics as less of a genre but more as a medium or format to tell the story. The possibilities were endless!

KS: Moving to the present, tell us a little about your workspace or studio setup.


TOC: I currently work at home in the spare bedroom in our house. I have a desk set up and my dog’s bed in here, so I have some company while I work. I have various stations set up; there's a place for a standing desk when I'm working on pencils, and my Cintiq is on my desk connected to my laptop when time comes to ink.


I do miss working “traditionally,” but with the turnarounds I have sometimes, it would be near impossible to get everything done on time — plus so much of digital tools now look so sharp people have a hard time telling whether it's done with a brush or with a stylus!

KS: Thumbs up or down: listening to music or background noise while you work?

TOC: It depends on what I'm doing—if I'm writing I can't listen to anything with actual lyrics, so I tend to stick on instrumental RPG OSTs, mainly Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy, Wild Arms, etc. — something I know that won't distract me while I try and get words down.

When I'm inking or penciling though? Anything goes.

KS: What might we hear on the “anything goes” playlist?

TOC: Typically, my playlist is a mess… it ranges from metal to rap to punk, to prog rock and back to metal again. A typical day is Ghost, to Dio, to Wu-Tang, to Simon and Garfunkel, to Rush, To Bad Brains, to Fugazi, to Neil Young. Every day is a whirlwind!

KS: Since you’ve played the role of both writer and artist, I wanted to ask about your comics creation process. Do you generally start with image or plot idea?

TOC: It's usually a bit of both; they kind of go hand in hand. Once I have a plot idea I immediately start playing out scenarios in my head. Sometimes, I'll figure out scenes for the end of the book before I've even gotten to start it! 
Since I haven't been writing near as long as I've been drawing, I still second guess a lot of what I write — thank you, editors! — so it helps me personally when I can kind of play out in my head how a scene will go and then write it out from there. Feels a bit like cheating 'cos I have this fractured movie in my head so all I have to do is sit back, watch, and take notes! So much of my writing process is just sitting with my eyes closed. This is also why so much of my writing happens at 2 a.m. when I'm trying to sleep!




KS: How did you go about building out the story for your new book, Fly By Night?

TOC: Fly by Night was a bit different than my normal means of developing a story—I actually got the idea when I was watching the local news. Long story short, there was a pipeline being proposed in the South Jersey Pinelands—upon seeing that my mind immediately went “Pinelands? Jersey Devil...” straight to “I wonder how the Jersey Devil feels about its home being used for a pipeline?” And it really kicked off from there. There was obviously more to the story itself, but it's funny how quickly a story can spawn itself. Inspiration is literally everywhere!

KS: Hypothetical time: You can spend one day standing over the shoulder, asking questions of any artist in the history of the comics medium (living or dead). Who do you pick and why?

TOC: Oooh, that's a toughy! I'd say Jaime Hernandez. Just the way he draws is beyond compare — those crisp black lines and dynamic silhouettes and just how effortless he makes drawing look? I'm just in love with everything he's done. It's hard to explain just how much his art makes me feel, but they all feel so real.

KS: What’s a passion of yours from outside the world of art or comics? Something you practice, collect, study, whatever…

TOC: Hmmm. Comics and work related to comics takes up so much of my time, it's hard to think of what I do in my downtime — sometimes I finish drawing for work and then I go downstairs and draw more! I suppose I do like to cook, not anything crazy, just enjoy being in the kitchen. I do enjoy playing video games in my time off, something to relax my mind but still keep me engaged — my latest chill-out game is Stardew Valley.

KS: To spread some love at the end, what’s a comic by someone else that you look at with admiration?

TOC: I'd have to say Mercury by Hope Larson. I really enjoyed reading it, and I've always loved her artwork; it's so calming and pleasing to look at. It was also one of the first comics I found with the main character and I sharing a name!  On another hand, it was also a comic I read a lot while my life at the time was very much up in the air, and it definitely kept me grounded to have something familiar and comforting. I don't think a lot of people realize how reading books during certain times of their lives can really have an impact, or if the writers and artists realize how much they are capable of, however unintended.

KS: Finally, tell us about what you’ve got coming out soon and what’s further over the horizon.

TOC: Well, Fly By Night will be out November 30! I'm also working on something that has yet to be announced, so watch my Twitter for more on that. I'm also working with Random House on my next book as we speak! Not too much I can tell, but it's my twist on a popular Irish folktale.





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