Interview: Sarah Oleksyk

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A woman working at an all-night copy shop becomes emotionally involved with one of her customers and discovers he’s a heroin addict. Graveyard is Sarah Oleksyk’s comics narrative that made it into the hands of Lynda Barry. “It was very difficult for me to write,” she says. Sarah Oleksyk draws her stories into highly-structured pages that she meticulously renders with brush and ink. “And I wasn’t proud of the artwork,” Oleksyk confides. “But it’s the story that has gone the farthest, so I just have to learn to love it.”

Lynda Barry is a fan of the hard-to-love misfits, and Oleksyk loves her work. “She writes about the emotional realm.” Oleksyk agrees that her own work also centers on a character’s reaction to situations. “The books I get attached to are always character driven. I have to care about the character.”

Reading Graveyard in The Best American Comics 2008, I recognized Portland and wondered if I had met Sarah Oleksyk. When I found her Website, I remembered seeing her illustration of a young lad reclining on his scooter. It was up on a friend’s wall. The large-scale color reproduction impressed me; and I talked with the artist where the poster hung. She told me her boyfriend worked at a copy shop, and he was able to print these huge posters for her late at night.

I contacted Oleksyk through a mutual friend, and we tried to figure who’s wall the poster was on–-but memory is elusive. We agreed to meet up at the Half n’ Half on a Wednesday afternoon. Oleksyk got iced tea to go, and we went up into the Triangle building–-Half n’ Half is among the ground-floor storefronts and the Independent Publishing Resource Center is just upstairs. Portland is really something of a community; it’s all connected. Greg Means, the editor of Papercutter, had been a long-time presence at the Independent Publishing Resource Center. He featured Oleksyk’s  Graveyard in the fourth issue of Papercutter.

“To me, my writing is something I really . . . I think more in visual terms now. I’m thinking in scenes and how I want things to look-–pacing the moments graphically.” Oleksyk gets up to close the window and clarifies, “The most important thing on the page has to be highlighted, and there’s different ways to do that. When I start seeing people doing these really loose pages, I start seeing how it’s done. That’s how it’s done, you learn from example; you’re a product of your environment; you absorb all this stuff, and decide what works for you.”

Oleksyk has been at work for almost four years now on Ivy, which has grown to more than 200 pages. “It’s taking me so long; so I decided to start making mini-comics to have something to show people at conventions. In the last two years I’ve been very social-–a huge turning point for me–-as soon as I started going out to shows and meeting people . . .  Scott Allie, one of the editors at Dark Horse got me the Dark Horse Presents gig.”

And, as for the humdrum stuff, you know, a day job, Oleksyk works for a tiny Web applications company. “Our big client is Adidas,” she adds matter-of-factly. “I just do Adidas stuff all day in Photoshop and Illustrator.” The computer also plays a role in creating her comics. “I use it to clean up my originals, and for my book I use it to add the gray-scale. I don’t use white-out anymore.” When I asked if she would ever draw directly onto the computer with a tablet, she reiterated her love for draftsmanship. “I just can’t replicate my line quality on the computer. So it’s always going to be hand drawn for me.”

“I don’t need comics to be perfect. I enjoy a lot of stuff–-like Johnny Ryan–-comics that aren’t tightly rendered. I don’t know why I can’t give myself that freedom.” Oleksyk looks sidelong out the window and then pushes the hair from her face. “That’s what 24-hour comics really taught me. I didn’t care if anybody read it. When I was drawing that I started out with a concept, but I didn’t have any idea how it would look. I was ad-libbing and taking chances. I was drawing for nine hours and it felt like 20 minutes. I was having so much fun. By page 18, I started caring how it would look and getting tired, and I didn’t want to screw it up so I stopped . . . I’m very critical, mostly of my own work. It’s always in the back of my own head.”

“I wanted to finish up my third chapter of Ivy for Stumptown this spring. I had 12 pages to do in eight days. If I was to it full-time, I could do a page a day, but it would be grueling. So, I told myself the most important this is not how beautiful or good it is, but that it’s finished. I had this open intermission in the story where it just shows time passing, and I’m thinking I could do anything. That’s the freedom, so I’m thinking what do I want to draw? and it turned out to be my favorite two-pages in the entire chapter.”

Oleksyk> pulls out thumbnail sketches, explaining that they’re Ivy pages. She scripted the story and then drew thumbnails for the entire book. “For me, the story is more important than the art. I’m much more an outline person than a poetry person. I like structure.” Publishers have already approached Oleksyk with interest in Ivy. “I want it to really get out there.” She knows she’ll need a major book publisher to reach her audience and has talked with Baker’s Mark Literary Agency. “Since my book is fiction, they can’t sell it until it’s complete; they want to sell it when it’s whole; they want to know I’m going to finish it.”

Embraced by the comics community, Oleksyk’s voice has an audience–-readers and writers, person to person. Oleksyk adds, “I want to make the story so someone out there can relate; so they know they’re not just drifting out there; they’re not alone.”

–Arthur Smid

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