Mel Valentine Vargas is a Queer Cuban-American graphic novelist based in Chicago. They hope to draw the kind of illustrations that their younger self, and others like them, could have seen to feel less alone. Mel Valentine Vargas loves singing in Spanish, playing farming video games, and eating lots of gyoza with their friends.I had the opportunity to interview Mel, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Mel Valentine Vargas, I am a Non-Binary Queer Cuban- American graphic novelist and illustrator. I speak both Spanish and English and currently reside in Chicago, but I am originally from Florida.
What can you tell us about your most recent project, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass: The Graphic Novel? How did you come to work on this book?
I can say that it is as relevant today as it was ten years ago when the original chapter book came out. I loved working on a book that my younger self would have really needed while growing up. I’m very thankful to my agent Elizabeth Bennett, Transatlantic Literary Agency, for getting this book deal for me and connecting me with Candlewick.
How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, especially comics/graphic novels? What drew you to the medium?
When I graduated High school back in 2015, that following summer was such a weird time for me. I didn’t really know what to do with myself and I was about to start college on a biology track. I spent that summer like a bit of a hermit, but I was reading so many webcomics and watching so many animated shows. Something within me was really drawn to those stories and mediums, I wanted to be part of their creation. I’ve always loved storytelling, both listening and creating, so as I tried creating my own comics that summer it’s like things just clicked.
What are some of your favorite things to draw?
My favorite things to draw are people. I love drawing different kinds of people. I love deciding their outfits, coming up with silly t-shirts they wear, styling their hair, it’s like having Barbies all over again. I also love drawing plants, I really enjoy making some up as I go. And while we are on this topic, my least favorite thing to draw is animals… I should practice that.
How would you describe your creative process? And what went into collaborating with Meg Medina for the book?
My creative process always starts with immersing myself into the topic and medium for said project. With this book I read the original book twice. You should see the copy Candlewick gifted to me, it’s covered in highlighter marks and little color-coded sticky notes. It’s important for me to really get to know what I will be drawing, and in this case, adapting.
I think people would be surprised how little illustrators partner with authors of graphic novels. I actually didn’t get to speak with Meg very much during the process of this book. Of course, she saw and approved everything in the end, but she and I really did not discuss anything much during the making of this book. Occasionally I would get a note from my editors that Meg really wanted something a certain way and I would of course make sure that what I drew was true to her vision.
As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?
Some of my greatest influences are, of course, other graphic novelists and cartoonists. I love Rosemary Valero-O’connell’s work as well as Leslie Hung’s and Lucy Knisley’s comics. Generally, I get very inspired by work that showcases people.
Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?
Growing up I didn’t have many stories that I saw myself in. I grew up Hispanic, bilingual, and fat. It was difficult finding books or movies and shows that talked about that in a positive way. I really gravitated towards media that showcased awesome women though. I remember being awestruck at Raven and Starfire from Teen Titans and Marceline from Adventure Time. Now I am so thankful that there is much more media that showcases different people in a way that I would have loved to witness as a kid. Turning Red, Dead End: Paranormal Park, The Owl House, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, and so much more.
Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?
I would want readers to know that illustrators, like me, work really hard on graphic novels and would love it if you spend just a tiny bit more time on every page. Just really soak up the details. I would want readers to know that all comics and graphic novels are a labor of love. I would like readers to know that I watch so many shows while I draw, specifically BoJack Horseman which I watched about 13 times through the course of making this book alone.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?
I’m not too sure. This is my first book interview. What is my zodiac, perhaps? It’s cancer by the way. I’m a cancer sun and moon, do with that info what you will.
Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?
YES! My next graphic novel Pillow Talk, written by Stephanie Cooke, is coming out in 2024! There are also other projects in the works that are a bit hush-hush.
What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, especially those interested in making their own graphic novel one day?
The advice I always give people who say they want to get into comics is MAKE COMICS! You can’t possibly get hired or followed or whatever your end goal is with comics if you aren’t producing them. It doesn’t matter if they are bad, or if you don’t post them, just make them. Diary comics, or little joke comics, zines, or fan art comics. Read and make comics!
Finally, what books/authors (LGBTQ+ and/or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of GeeksOUT?
Books I recommend-
Anything by Nicole Dennis-Benn, Maggie Nelson, and Madeline Miller. Of course anything by Meg Medina! Graphic Novels– Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, Snotgirl series, The Leak, and honestly any graphic novel written/ drawn by women and genderqueer people.