“I’m still working on taking my own ideas seriously”- Talking comics and body horror with artist Tessa Black

artist spotlight, comic, Comic spotlight, First Impressions, interview

Sea Wpage 76

One of the biggest pleasures for me reading and collecting comics this year has been the sheer volume of exciting and interesting anthologies that have been released thus far. Between the ones from the major publishers and kickstarters, it’s been really easy to find something inventive and interesting from complete newcomers to more well known names. I’ve sung it’s praises on here before, a lot I know, but for me Image comics Island is still one of most consistently inventive in terms of content and creators as well as being readily available in comic stores. One of the clear standouts for me so far has to be Tessa Black’s “Seawitch” which was featured way back in Islands third issue.A trans Designer, Illustrator and long time artist from Vancouver, Seawitch is surprisingly Black’s first foray into the world of comics and it’s instantly striking in how confident, fully formed and realised the idea and execution is.

Created over the course of a single weekend, this deliciously unnerving and thoughtful comic depicts a woman stood alone on a beach, before entering the ocean as she begins drifting down to the depths and slowly undressing in a slow build of body horror. Clothing and jewellery and even body parts discarded as she descends to the ocean floor.A long dead pilot the only silent observer on this arresting and quietly unnerving, yet intimate scene. Slowly transforming her body to match the environment around her it culminates on the final page with the Seawitch at ease in her new surroundings, undressed and comfortable in the silent watery depths. For me it’s the collection of smaller moments leading up to this. A series of panels depicts a figure gently pulling a pair of socks, each pulled down with the other foot. It’s an every day act but here it is oddly intimate, sensual but uncomfortable.Black reframes this almost crushingly mundane act and make it feel voyeuristic, a far too personal and intimate an act for us to be witness to.

With it’s clean fluid lines and coloured only in minimal blues it captures the solitude and coldness of the sea, adding in alien, oceanic textures to the figures body. Although it works on a surface level as a slow build body horror, after being lucky enough to  talk to Black over e-mail she also expertly uses her first comics creation to communicate her personal experiences of being trans, addressing the idea of clothing as performance and how environment and peoples ideas of us shapes both our identity and form to certain extents.

Before Islands and Seawitch, had you ever considered producing comics before? If so what ideas did you have and what prevented you from making them?

I’ve been around comic artists for a few years, but always felt the burden of their expectations or opinions of certain genres and approaches in the medium. I still don’t consider myself a comic book artist or even an avid reader, but it’d definitely something I’d like to explore.

Did you find yourself changing your approach to drawing a comic rather than single illustrations? How did the idea for the minimalist color palette come about?

I think you can definitely see the change in approach when you compare my regular art with the comic. I was pretty pressed for time, so I would have coloured it with flats in a limited palette if I’d had more time. I still intend to do so when I get some time, so I can re-release it anywhere else. I’d probably add in illustrations on the side, similar to to the work of William Stout, which inspired me greatly as a kid.

On your tumblr, have a run of insect girls, or people with insect parts. What about insects appeals to you? Is it there bodies mostly or also behaviours?

I really like insects for a whole host of reasons. Their anatomy is so different from ours, more similar overall to the things we make than the way we see ourselves as humans. Despite drawing sexy bug ladies, I’m more interested in conforming the layers and segments of insects to conform to a more familiar silhouette.


Also a series brightly colored goo-girls.  What attracted you to draw them, the malleability of them or some other aspect?

I like goo girls and shape shifting in general. I’d like to play around with the idea of being able to fluidly present your own body based on subconscious thought. Having a form decided by the subconscious, without being predisposed by genetic or environmental (physical) pressures.

You also mentioned you went through a phase of drawing yourself, what broke this series of drawings, or was it just a desire to move onto something else?

I think I started drawing who I wanted to be just after starting my transition. A lot of folks recommended that to work towards feeling comfortable with my body or thinking about clothing styles. I tried being pretty realistic with how I expected to look, and that shape formed the basis for a lot of my exploration of erotic art.It all started with a fairly simple and cartoony bodies but adapted to become softer and more varied as I experienced changes in my own body. I also get bored of things pretty easy and dislike seeing repetition in themes or processes in my art. I never really had much of a signature style and I’m always much more interested in trying new things than sticking to old ways. It feels like the best way to learn is to shake things up and tackle new directions in art, but that’s just me!

After reading your ‘Island Insights’ interview with Dilraj Mann about the ideas explored in Seawitch, I’m curious  if it was difficult to make it work just as an interesting and striking comic, even if people didn’t pick up on the subtext behind it?

Honestly I didn’t do a whole ton of planning before starting Sea Witch. There was a lot going through my head at the time but I think a lot of the ideas came out without explicitly thinking about it. I guess the way others see or define it could be fairly similar to how I experience explaining it to others. I can say that I just like body horror or marine biology or boobs or whatever, but I think that discounts what all those things symbolize to myself and others. I’m still working on taking my own ideas seriously, instead of reducing them to what I think others’ reductive thinking would be.

Seaaapage 75

Seawitch definitely shows a few things in terms of  transitioning such as, like you said, ‘clothing as performance’ that I’ve never seen presented in comics. Did it ever worry you about the making the comic about such a personal experience

I’m pretty comfortable with putting myself out there, but I think my bigger worry was that folks would just assume it’s a woman stripping and becoming a hot mermaid or something. I’d like to think I pushed the change in form and texture of her body to create something uncomfortably desirable. That sort of body horror (or body unease) has been central to how I see my own body in terms of attraction.

What was it about the sea rather than any other environment that fit what you were trying to so well?

I grew up on an island, and feel a strong connection to the water. Marine biology is fascinating and something I’ve always interested in. I feel like there’s some sort of positive disassociation that happens when I feel water on my skin, like some sort of breakdown of form and identity. That wasn’t something I had in mind when making the comic, just my personal relationship with the ocean.

Pilot Skeleton next to the plane. Represents anything more? Is just a cool part of the environment?

Hehe I don’t think I meant much by him other than looking cool, though I suppose he might be the skeleton in my closet, some crashed manifestation of a polar opposite life beforehand. But that’s me reading into my own art! The REAL question is how he got out of his plane, while under water. Maybe the witch dragged him out? We’ll have to find out in the inevitable Hollywood blockbuster adaptation

Tessa Black regularly posts art on her tumblr on twitter. Seawitch appears in issue three of the Island anthology.


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