Welcome to Independent Comics In Focus, a new feature here at Word of the Nerd where we talk to independent comics creators about their work, their process, and independent publishing. Today’s guest is Iasmin Omar Ata, the creator of Mis(H)adra, a comic about a young Arab-American struggling with epilepsy.
Can you tell us a little about yourself as a comics creator? Have you always wanted to make comics?
Pretty much! When I was 8 years old, my best friend showed me her copy of Sailor Moon Vol. 2 and that was it – I was in for life. I didn’t really have a lot of resources growing up in Florida, so I just kept quietly drawing in my sketchbooks until I came to New York; that’s when I found the whole comics community and it was amazing. I started making lots of zines and swapping them with people, and in doing so I found that I loved to draw leopard print, palm trees, and Ottoman Empire-inspired clothing. Now I make colorful comics, games, books and paintings about illness, my own experience/thoughts about Arab culture, and Miami (and other fun stuff, too).
What can you tell us about your webcomic, Mis(H)adra? What inspired you to write this comic?
I had my first seizure in April 2010 – and I kept having them constantly, but I wasn’t diagnosed with epilepsy until Winter 2012 because I unfortunately had dealt with a really bad doctor. Even though I had a diagnosis and an “answer” to what was happening, I still felt incredibly confused and lost. My new medication put me to sleep, I kept having seizures, and I found myself feeling distant because many people couldn’t understand my condition. I couldn’t find the words to tell anyone how frustrated and scared I felt. At some point, I managed to find a decently functional place, but it was really, really hard.
Over summer 2013, I started to have a new kind of non-convulsive seizure that would leave me in a stupor for hours. During this, I become unresponsive, confused, and find myself getting lost in the most familiar places. (Later, I discovered that this is called Complex-Partial Status Epilepticus). I remember that I was trying to meet up with some friends near Times Square and I just . . . I felt it coming on. After walking around in circles for a while, I tried to make my way to the subway to go home, but I could barely see straight, and I stepped in front of a bus zooming through the street. If the bus hadn’t moved two inches right before it passed me – I would have been dead right then and there. After I took a second to process this, I realized: people should know about this. And so, when it came time for me to submit my idea for my senior project at School of Visual Arts (just a week or two later), I presented what would become Mis(h)adra.
At first, I wanted to educate more than anything, but just talking at the “camera” didn’t feel right or effective. Most people don’t know what having a seizure is like, so I wanted to think up a visceral visual vocabulary to express the fear, the pain, and the urgency that I feel as an epileptic. I chose a representation of seizures/auras in the form of brightly-colored knives hunting down the main character – I figured this would be much more effective than Isaac just straight-up telling the audience “I’m in danger.” What was supposed to be an indicator for the audience became a form of catharsis for me, and I started to feel calmer about my condition as I kept drawing Mis(h)adra. It basically turned into monthly therapy for me! This all resulted in two years of showing the world my experience – which overall led me to finally being in a healthy place with my illness. I can’t even put into words how much making this comic has helped me.
You chose to publish this comic monthly over an extended period of time. Was that a rewarding experience? In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of the webcomic format?
Originally, Mis(h)adra was supposed to be pretty short – I had only planned on writing what became the first two chapters. But as I was drawing it, I realized that I had so much to say, and that I should keep on saying it. So I drew up a framework of 15 chapters that incorporated a ton of my experiences in those ~3 years, and as things kept happening to me, I added them into the story as well. (So nearly everything that you see in Mis(h)adra is 100% true-to-life). But then I ran into a problem — how the hell was I going to say all this in a decent amount of time? The first two chapters took me about 3-4 months to draw. After thinking about it for a while, I was inspired by what a couple of good friends said while they were giving a guest lecture at my school: If you want to do something, just set a date and get it done. No excuses, just mark it on your calendar and make it happen. That inspired me to just set myself on a schedule so I could say everything I wanted to say.
Overall, the monthly format was incredibly rewarding. Sure, there were times when I was just like, “Wow I have 20 pages to do in 5 days why did I do this to myself I’m going to shatter into 5000 pieces” – and that’s not great. But here’s the thing about serialization/schedules like this: it gives you chops. At first, you might have a lot of pages that look wonky because of the time limit, but if you stick to the schedule, you’re gonna improve real quick. Eventually, your “worst” pages for this month will still look 500x better than your “best” pages from a few months ago. Basically: you get swole. I think everyone should at some point try this format out, even just once!
Have you always known you would publish your comics independently? Is that the plan moving forward?
I never really knew for sure that I was gonna make things independently — it kinda happened because that was the easiest way to put my stuff out there. I started just by printing off pages at the school library, stapling them, and giving them out to my friends and people at shows/cons. It used to be like, the one option, but now I really love independent stuff over everything else. It spans everything from xeroxed zines to games copied onto CDs to webcomics to literally whatever you want. It gives everyone a platform to do what they wanna do, and for myself as a mixed-race artist, it brought me to a space where I could actually talk about my experiences. I don’t wanna speak for anyone else, but as a marginalized creator, independent art is a haven for me both to speak freely and to listen to fellow voices that need to be heard — and that’s incredibly important! Basically, the possibilities are endless. When I go to shows now, I’m always on the lookout for cool books that someone clearly put a lot of love into, even if they’re like xeroxed and not trimmed quite right, you know? That’ll always be the best stuff. I’m definitely down to work with publishers, but I’ll never stop upping my self-publishing game and looking out for all the great things that everyone’s putting out themselves.
What advice do you have for new creators? Is self-publishing the way to go?
A lot of times, people have a great idea but they hold back on making it happen because they’re afraid that they’re “not good enough” to do it. Trust – I’ve been there! Feeling self-doubt goes hand-in-hand with creating. But there’s something invaluable that making Mis(h)adra taught me: just do it. Do your comic, your book, your game, whatever it is – go bananas and do what you want to do. Handle it! Because doing that thing is gonna make you good. You’re gonna find your voice and be even better for it.
Constant self-publishing isn’t necessarily for everyone, but again, the possibilities are endless, it gives everyone a platform, and it’s fun as hell. So no matter what you’re doing – even if you’ve got a big book from a high-profile publisher or something like that – always keep xeroxing and stapling, and keep posting your webcomic.
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