Interview with Rose Bousamra, Co-Creator of Frizzy

Rose Bousamra is a freelance illustrator and comic creator born and based in Michigan. Frizzy (with Claribel A. Ortega)winner of the 2023 Pura Belpré Award for Children’s Text, is their first graphic novel, with their solo debut graphic novel Gutless also being published with First Second. When they’re not making or reading comics they love baking sweets and playing fantasy video games.

I had the opportunity to interview Rose, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you so much for having me! I’m genderqueer cartoonist Rose Bousamra, I mostly work on graphic novels, comics, and illustration. I’m based in Michigan, where I grew up, and most of my work is inspired by forests, fantasy, and the queer gaze.

What can you tell us about the graphic novel you recently illustrated, Frizzy?

Frizzy tells the story of Marlene, a Dominican-American kid living in the Bronx who goes to the salon every Sunday to get her curly hair straightened because she’s been told that’s what is “presentable” or “good hair”. But Marlene hates going to the salon, going so far as to imagine herself as her super-hero alter ego to cope. She loves her curls, and after trying to wear her hair curly for the first time, she ends up facing bullies at school, judgmental comments from her own family members, and more. Then, with the help of her cool Tia Ruby, she not only learns how to care for her hair, but that all hair is good and beautiful, no matter what. The Spanish language edition, titled Rizos and translated by Jasminne Mendez, is out now.

What was it like working on that project with the author, Claribel A. Ortega?

Working with Claribel was a dream. I feel so lucky that she trusted me with such a poignant and personal story. There was so much love and detail that she put into the script, with such thoughtful pacing and character development, it made my job very easy. I had the privilege of going on a Frizzy book tour with Claribel last year, and can confirm she’s not just a great author but also one of the kindest, most caring and funny people I’ve met.

As a creative, what drew you to the art of storytelling, particularly to the realm of comics/graphic novels?

Growing up, I was a really shy and quiet kid, who only really opened up when talking about my art. I’ve always struggled with social anxiety, but I found art was something I could always rely on to say something I didn’t have the courage to say out loud. Through lots of stressful and dark times in my life, getting lost in a story always helped me survive. Over time I came to love comics as a way to tell stories because while I wasn’t yet practiced in writing, I could use my drawings to help tell the story I wanted to tell.

How would you each describe your creative process?

It’s different for every project, but generally starting a new comic starts with what feelings, themes, or tropes I want to explore. For example I knew for Gutless I wanted to explore the trope of a puppet being brought to life who questions their place among humans, and all the other characters, the story and world were born from there. Then I sketch character designs, places, and interactions until I have some idea of what I want the story to be like. I’ll make a story-specific playlist, and listen to it while I plot the story from beginning to end. Then I go in and write more detailed dialogue while sketching thumbnails, or layouts, because developing the words and visual flow helps me better visualize the finished page. Then it’s time for sketching and I sketch the entire thing before I go in with the line work. Then, the word balloons and dialogue are added, then finally the colors.

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest artistic influences and/or sources of inspiration?

I think early CLAMP manga like Chobits and Magic Knight Rayearth first inspired my need to decorate everything with flower petals and sweeping tresses of hair, as well as a deep love for the detailed, skillful black line work manga is typically known for. My biggest inspiration currently is the manga series Witch Hat Atelier, both for the wonderful, touching fantasy storytelling and the incredible line work by artist Kamome Shirahama.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

As a kid I was a feral tomboy who didn’t have the word for what I felt, which was nonbinary, so I identified with stories where girls were subverting gender roles in some way. Sailor Moon was the first story like that I fell in love with, and now it’s not hard to see why the story about a girl who embraces so many traditional girly things and turns them into powerful weapons to fight for the good of the world resonated with little Rose. Princess Mononoke was another story that let me see characters who were somehow going against their gender expectations; in it, Ashitaka is a man who is tender and kind, whose strength is ultimately his compassion, while San is a feral girl raised by wolves and even denies her humanity in favor of the wolves she was raised by. Today one of my favorite depictions of a nonbinary character, as well as the experience of having a big, messy queer family that makes me feel seen is the show Our Flag Means Death.

What are some of your favorite elements of illustrating and the creative process in general? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or challenging?

I love designing characters, especially fantasy characters because there are so many options and possibilities outside of just drawing humans. I love what a good character design can tell you about a character right away, before you even read the story. I also really love collaborating with others to make comics because every person brings something new and fresh to the table.

Many creators would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this?

It took a long time for me to understand that finishing something is a skill in and of itself, and it is a massive challenge. When I first was publishing Gutless as a webcomic, I didn’t have a script or outline. I was working page-by-page, and ended up writing myself into a lot of corners. When I developed it for a graphic novel format I had to rework it entirely, giving it a proper beginning, middle, and end. I studied a lot of the structures of stories I considered to be the most satisfying and provoked some kind of feeling in me. It would have been much less of a challenge, I feel, if I had started with short comics first and had more practice with crafting a story from beginning to end. A big goal of mine is getting better at editing my stories down to more digestible lengths so I can tell more of them.

Aside from your work, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

When I’m not working I play sad songs on my ukulele and play a lot of fantasy video games. I’m really into Final Fantasy XIV and Baldur’s Gate 3 right now, and if I’m not posting about comics I’m usually posting my video game fanart because drawing silly fanart and engaging in fandom is what helped me grow the most as an artist.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

I wish I had more opportunities to talk about what age I got my first real job in comics, because it’s easy to see someone succeeding at a young age and compare yourself and start to panic, thinking you’re falling behind. I was one of many who ended up going to college for something I thought would be more profitable than what I really wanted to do, which was art. When I decided to seriously pursue comics, I thought that I’d wasted valuable time getting a fashion degree instead of studying illustration professionally. The truth is, there’s never a right time to do your dream, and studying things outside of art only made me a better artist in the long run. I was 26 when I got that first comic job, a 50 page chapter of an ongoing webcomic called Ladies Book Club, and 27 when I signed on for Frizzy. I was 30 by the time Frizzy was actually published.

What advice might you have to give for other aspiring writers?

The best advice I can give is to make friends who are doing what you want to do, who are at a similar level as you in their career. The best way to network is to build a community of creatives who lift each other up. I don’t necessarily see other comic artists as competitors, because I understand there’s room for everyone to succeed and no one artist has the same perspective or experience as another. Everyone has their own unique story to tell and that’s beautiful.

Also, start with small projects! You learn a lot about yourself as a storyteller with each project, and starting with many little projects instead of one big one will help you better understand how you function creatively, both practically (ie how long it takes you to sketch a page, or write 2000 words) as well as the content you like to write most.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

Sure! I’m currently in the sketching phases of my first solo graphic novel Gutless. It’s a YA fantasy graphic novel about three outcasts who have to break free from their isolated lives to find community and belonging. Milo, a wooden knight brought to life by a lonely witch princess named Juniper, seeks what it means to be truly alive. Along the way they befriend the last mermaid in the world, and together the trio navigate friendship, the trauma of isolation, and just might be the only ones who can stop a deadly blight from destroying all natural life on Earth. It’ll be out with First Second books and is also being edited by the wonderful Kiara Valdez. I can’t wait to share it with you all when it’s finally out in a couple of years, but I promise it’ll be worth the wait. I regularly share sketches and development work on my socials, so you can find more about Gutless there.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books (comics included)/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Genderqueer by Maia Kobabe is a beautifully honest autobiography that touched on a lot of similar experiences I had growing up as a nonbinary person. Ay, Mija! is a lovely middle grade autobiography by nonbinary cartoonist Christine Suggs about growing up queer and Mexican-American. I recently read Other Ever Afters by nonbinary cartoonist Mel Gillman, a collection of short fairytales that explore themes related to queerness and it’s one of my new favorites.