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.

Interview with Artist Deb JJ Lee

Deb JJ Lee is a Korean American artist currently living in Brooklyn, NY. They have appeared in the New Yorker, Washington Post, NPR, Google, Radiolab, PBS, and more. Books they have illustrated include The Invisible Boy by Alyssa Hollingsworth (Roaring Brook Press, 2020) and The Other Side of Tomorrow by Tina Cho (HarperCollins, 2024). They enjoy reality tv, sparkling water, and pretending to be an extrovert.

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

What can you tell us about your upcoming graphic novel, graphic novel memoir, In Limbo? What inspired you to write this story?

On the surface, IN LIMBO is about the intersection of Korean-American diaspora and mental illness, and difficult maternal relationships. But deeper down, it’s about the trials of asking for and granting forgiveness to and from those you have hurt, including yourself. 

The roots of IN LIMBO started in 2018 in the form of a weekend project—a four-page comic about trans-generational language barriers that made its way around Twitter when Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast retweeted it! My agent Ed and I were working on a picture book pitch at the time when he suggested the idea of a graphic novel, which I never thought I’d be capable of doing. That four-page comic was my longest sequential work, so a 350-page graphic novel was unheard of.

But I knew I have always wanted to make a story like this, even back when I was in the 5th grade. I was so miserable even as a 10-year-old since so much has already happened in my life that I wanted to write something to let it all out, but I’m glad I waited. Then you had those draw-my-life videos on Youtube in 2012, 2013? I must have been around 16 or 17 around then. I didn’t partake even I wanted to so badly, but again, I’m glad I waited. But at the end of the day, I wanted to make this book for me—a letter, a therapy session for myself. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, specifically comics? What drew you to the medium?

Though I didn’t think I could make comics into a career until I literally started the pitch of IN LIMBO, I think there were instances throughout my life where I should have known it would happen. I remember making tiny little comics (early zines?) when I was very little, maybe around 7 or 8. I would fold a piece of computer paper into a book, write little fanfiction and draw fanart along with it and put them on display on my windowsill. I suppose that was my first solo tabling experience? But I think I stopped because my brother found them and told my friends, haha. But then afterwards I’d sneak into the comics section of Barnes and Noble when my parents weren’t looking and inhale as much material as I could. Though that, unfortunately, stopped at around 12 for a reason I cannot recall.

Growing up, were there any books/media that inspired you as a creative and/or that you felt personally reflected in? Is there anything like that now?

Continuing on from the previous question, I wasn’t allowed to read manga or any comic medium as a kid, so I had to find loopholes (sitting in the comics section of Barnes and Noble, reading Death Note or Fruits Basket on my iPhone 3GS before bed). But in 2007 I did convince my parents to buy me a copy of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which is half prose, half illustrations, probably one of the first mediums that made me want to be serious about drawing well. I remember doing little studies of certain pages because Selznick was *the* artist I wanted to be back then! And even though Hugo Cabret isn’t a comic, I think the medium comes close.

However, there were no books that I knew of that I felt personally related to in the 2000s, the early 2010s. Obviously there a good deal now—I know I would have loved Almost American Girl by Robin Ha. Though Robin’s takes a different tone, the parallels on paper are quite similar to my own life—Korean in Alabama, art as solace, difficult familial relationships. 

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

For IN LIMBO in particular, I had Inio Asano, Brian Selznick, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Jillian Tamaki, Mariko Tamaki, and Shaun Tan’s work sitting on my desk. But for art in general, I’m lucky to be in a community full of artist friends who inspire me with literally every piece they make, and to even take the time to blurb the book(!) Other sources of inspiration include Art Deco, Japanese woodblock printmaking, Moebius, and everything maximalist.

For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process?

Making a graphic novel gets emotionally taxing, no matter the topic. If a book has, say, 350 pages, with each page having 3-6 panels, that would be up to 2100 drawings. I worked on this book almost every day for three years, pumping out one page a day, and it was exhausting. However, to have it printed and in your hands has to be one of the most rewarding experiences, and a unique one too, especially for us digital artists. And when it’s out, it’s out—the book has a life of its own.

What are some of your favorite parts of the creative process? What do you find to be some of the most frustrating/difficult?

The best parts of the creative process has got to be the beginning and the end—writing the story, thumbnailing it out. The freedom is yours, the book can be everything and anything you want it to be. The possibilities are endless! And the end of the creative process is, well, you’re done, you can pop a bottle of champagne with your friends, and then start the next project.

The most frustrating/difficult parts is everything in the middle. Cutting things out, learning that parts of your story doesn’t land or make any sense. Figuring out what it’s like to work under the timeline you’re given, realizing that it’s unrealistic in this economy, and having to ask your editor for a 2-year extension and holding your breath as you wait for their response.

I made a promise to myself that my future graphic novels will be worked under my own terms of being given as much time as possible—it will be done when it’s done. 

What are some things you would want readers to take away from In Limbo?

As hinted earlier, forgiveness is really hard to earn and grant. You may never accept or want to give it. And that is ok. Our problems will usually never disappear, but we can learn how to tame them as they fade in and out.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creators?

To find or build your community! To have friends who understand what it’s like to struggle with yourself and the industry despite the level you’re at, and to have people you feel comfortable giving and receiving help from is an unparalleled experience. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to recommend and share each other’s work, to bring each other up. Being a freelance illustrator and/or artist is a lonely practice, so to have people who you genuinely care about vastly improves the experience.

And on a similar note—kindness sometimes goes a longer way than being a good artist. There are plenty of people in the industry who are at the top of the game who have repeatedly been rude or mean to their peers, and word gets around. You don’t have to let your boundaries loose, just be kind!

In terms of skills, don’t be afraid to keep building your basic foundations. It’s always encouraged to break the rules, but you have to be very familiar with what those rules are. For instance, I think I have quite a ways to go in improving lighting and coloring—while I think I can tell what works and what doesn’t, there’s still a lot I am confused by. 

Also, avoid fixating on one artist to take inspiration from! Look back into history. Chances are if you have a visual problem you need solving, it’s been done 182379 times, multiple different ways. Looking into the past also helps you avoid emulating trends and saturated methods of drawing—it will make you stand out as an artist!

And when working on book projects, one of the most important things of the process is to have a good relationship with an editor, preferably one who understands the intense labor of drawing and can give you more time, which you should never feel shy asking more of. You only have one body!

Besides your work as an artist, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

Related to IN LIMBO, I do see myself exhibiting similar patterns of hopelessness but I definitely improved a long way! My problems have never really disappeared, but I like to say that I’ve gotten much better at coping with them. 

And even though I’m a she/her in the book, I’m very much a they/them. The nonbinary bit came in after the book was finished, but I decided to keep it she/her in the book still because that’s who I wanted to be at the time. But a lot of people don’t know the difference, so I’m still misgendered in a lot of notes, unfortunately 🙁

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

Question: How has writing a memoir make you look at your past differently?

Answer: Wow thanks for asking! Making IN LIMBO was therapy about a parallel universe. I’m much more comfortable talking about my past; writing about it for the public was the best way for me to process it all. The events that happened in the book vs in real life are as similar as I could make them, but the book version is much more palatable for readers. I wish I could have included every aspect (like how there were *three* orchestras I was part of instead of one, two different Korean schools, bullies in the New York art program, and how Quinn and I did meet up in Korea and were on good terms until 2018) in 350 pages, but that would make the story too complicated. The conclusions are the same, but the means to get there are slightly different. But I do worry that as time goes on I will start confusing one memory for one that I fabricated for the book. 

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

I’m working on THE OTHER SIDE OF TOMORROW with Tina Cho over at HarperAlley, which is about kids escaping from North Korea. I should be done coloring it by the end of this year so I think it’s publishing in Fall 2024!

We also just announced MONSTER SEEK, a picture book with Rainie Oet at Astra Books about gender identity.

As for projects that only exist in my head, I do one day want to work on a book that mixes PACHINKO and CLOUD ATLAS. I have no idea how I would be able to accomplish that but that’s part of the challenge, isn’t it?

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

The classics: SKIM by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, SUPERMUTANT MAGIC ACADEMY by Jillian Tamaki, DON’T GO WITHOUT ME by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, MAGIC FISH by Trung Le Nguyen, STRAY by Molly Mendoza, and SPINNING by Tillie Walden.

Interview with Writer & Editor Kiara Valdez

Kiara Valdez is an Afro-Dominican writer and associate editor at First Second. She was born and raised in New York City (shout out to Washington Heights) and has been an avid comics reader all her life. She graduated from Williams College with a double major in English Literature and Japanese, and spends her free time reading, writing, and enjoying a long list of other hobbies she can’t keep up with. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kiara, which you can read below.

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

Hiya, I’m Kiara Valdez. I am a proud Afro-Dominican born and raised in Washington Heights, NYC. I have a serious affinity to the color lilac and am a mom to a precious black cat named Ruthie and a pink corn snake named Posey. 

How would you describe your literary/ geeky tastes and preferences?

I have been an avid fan of manga and anime since I was young, and since becoming a graphic novel editor, I’ve become very invested in the American comics scene. I watch a wide variety of animated shows ranging from anime like my beloved Haikyuu!! to shows like Trollhunters, and I also enjoy a wide assortment of teen fantasy shows of the non-animated variety (even the ones of questionable quality). The one common thread in most of the media I enjoy is that they don’t make me TOO sad and even if they do, that they usually have reasonably happy endings.

As an editor, how would you describe your journey into publishing, specifically toward First Second Books?

I find that my journey has been quite straight forward. I knew I wanted to be an editor since the age of 16, so I did a bunch of internships throughout college, and then my senior year I applied for a position at First Second. I’ve been with them ever since.

Is there anything you wish you had known when you first entered the field?

I wish I would have known how much of editorial is balancing different personalities and knowing how to deal with other humans. If I had known that I would have started learning how to meditate back in college and maybe I would have a disciplined routine by now. (This is only a half joke). 

As someone who has had their hand in a number of acclaimed titles, among which include Check Please!, Snapdragon, Bloom, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, what usually catches your eye professionally and creatively?

That’s so hard to answer because SO many things catch my eye—more than I can acquire for the sake of my sanity. I think if someone goes through the list of books I have acquired so far they’d be able to tell that my taste in artstyle tends to lean towards what I personally call “eye candy”—something polished, usually leaning closer to the realistic, whose lines give you a sense of either warmth or melancholy, and with (usually) one or more lush colors. And there are times where something completely opposite of this attracts me. All and all I am attracted to projects and creatives that have a strong vision and direction. And professionally, I am attracted to honesty and clear communication.

As someone who is involved in projects from acquisition to publication, what would you share are of the hardest/weirdest/ and coolest parts of the development process?

-The hardest part is definitely the acquisition phase—whether it be participating in an auction, or even just presenting it at Acquisitions Meeting—it’s always a time of high tension and nerves. 

-The weirdest part…that must be thumbnails. Man, I have seen SUCH a range of ‘I honestly can’t read these” to “wow these are practically finished pencils” and it makes me laugh so much. Of course, I adjust how I work depending on the artist and their needs, and the variability is part of the reason my job is so interesting.

-The coolest part is that first moment of holding that book we worked on for 3+ years in my hands. It feels like Christmas every time.

As a queer woman of color, you’ve probably noticed quite a bit about the successes and failings of the publishing industry when it comes to promoting diversity. Could you share some of your thoughts on this?

I kind of feel like I am stuck in a wave pool. Like, I can see the efforts trying to be made by people around me—and so much of it truly comes from a good place in their hearts—but I of course also see the missteps. I think at least from when I first joined the industry 5 years ago, we have made some progress. It’s been slow, and it often doesn’t show up in obvious ways, but there is a slow current moving us forward. And I hope it soon speeds up. 

Aside from reading and developing books, what are some of your other interests and hobbies?

I have more hobbies and interests than I can keep up with. As said before I love watching anime and reading manga, I write, dance when I can, really love fashion, am on and off trying to learn how to rollerblade, and recently bought an electric guitar I’d love to be able to properly play one day.

What advice would you have to give to aspiring creatives, both who wish to enter the publishing field and those who wish to get publishing?

Have a lot of patience and hustle. No matter if you’re trying to break in or are just trying to survive after you “made it”, you’ll need those two things daily.

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 don’t think I’ve ever gotten asked if I love my job. And I do, I absolutely love my job and the comics community even with the many hardships and flaws. 

Are there any projects you are currently working on (professional or personal) that you feel free to speak about?

Yes! A book that I have poured half my soul into editing, Himawari House by Harmony Becker, is coming out this Fall. It’s a multilingual slice-of-lifey YA graphic novel following three girls who live in a sharehouse in Tokyo. The book is truly fantastic, and Harmony is so extremely talented and has been a total joy to work with. Everyone please go preorder it!

What LGBTQIA+ books would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Oh my god, I have so many comics recommendations:

Classmates by Nakamura Asumiko

-Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

Our Dreams at Dusk by Yuhki Kamatani

-Given by Natsuki Kizu

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Check, Please by Ngozi Ukazu

Seven Days by Venio Tachibana and Rihito Takarai

-Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganuheau

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw-Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu