Rachel Kahn is an illustrator and cartoonist with a love of heavy metal, megafauna, and mighty-thewed barbarians. She has a passion for telling stories, creating a sense of place, and featuring diverse characters and cultures, and she loves doing thorough research. Find her illustration at www.portablecity.net and her comics at www.wealdcomics.com. Rachel provided art for last week's story, "Let's Tell Stories of the Deaths of Children," by Margaret Ronald. This interview was conducted by email in October 2015.
Tory Hoke: You work often includes dynamic figures from challenging angles. What attracts you to those compositions? What impact do you hope to have on the viewer?
Rachel Kahn: Every time I sit down to draw that third perspective point in, I remember how challenging crazy angles are. In the end, though, it's always worth it. I love surprising the viewer, and dramatic angles can make them feel like they're a part of the scene—often in a strange and unsettling way. It's also a staple of pulp literature cover illustration, so when I'm working on projects set in the '20s and '30s, or referencing paperback fiction of that era, I love giving them that compositional callback.
© 2015 Rachel Kahn, "Sasha in the Woods," cover for The Sugar House
Tory Hoke: Your "joke-a-panel autobiographical comic" By Crom! was brilliant—clear, clever, and often profound. What inspired it? And though you had to put it down for other projects, are you ever tempted to pick it back up?
Rachel Kahn: Thank you for those kind words! By Crom! came out of a newfound passion for Conan the Barbarian comics and stories. I was getting into Conan so much that a friend suggested I substitute his bio ("between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and…") for my own at a small speaking event. I countered that with a quip about how I didn't imagine myself to be Conan, just that Conan was . . . sort of my guide. Since that thought was so hilarious, and the visual, especially, of Conan hanging out with me in my boring, day-to-day life was so absurd, it felt like a perfect fit for a small and simple comic project.
When I started it, I couldn't have predicted that he'd have so much to say, or how much people would respond to it all. Nowadays, while I do miss Conan's firm, stoic one-liners, I'm more comfortable publishing fiction and saving my autobiographical work for friends and family only. And unless I have a clear idea of where I'd want to go with it, I don't know that I can improve much on what's already out there. I'm proud of it, and I'm touched that it's meant anything to a wider audience, but that's it for me and Conan, for now at least.
Tory Hoke: Your many comics—By Crom!, Orin and the Dead Man's Sword, Wolf Neighbours—seem to be set in sword and sorcery fantasy worlds. That's a tremendous amount of hours, and they must take a tremendous amount of passion. What keeps drawing you back? What do you think it is about those worlds that keep pulling people in, generation after generation, book after book, game after game?
Rachel Kahn: Ever since I was a child, I've been imagining fantasy worlds. I read a mountain of fantasy and second-world fiction as a kid, and as an adult I got a lot deeper into science fiction, especially pulp-era sword and planet stories. I love books that are at least partially travelogues, and I am just as easily drawn in through amazing places as by characters, intriguing technology, or magic systems.
My most memorable reading experiences are ones where the setting became a character. This might also come out of my love of gaming—whether in a videogame, a boardgame or a tabletop RPG, I'm more likely to remember the experience of exploring different locations than different NPCs, plot twists, or MacGuffins. So I knew that, going into writing my own comics, I was going to spend a lot of time on the setting. And, as fun as outer space is, I'm most interested in the conflict and collaboration of society and nature, and the fuzzy line between animal and person, especially in folklore. So fantasy worlds are my jam, for sure.
© 2015 Rachel Kahn, "Beneath the Waters" from Orin and the Dead Man's Sword
As for what they offer to other people, I think some of their lasting appeal lies in the power of the parable. While SF can be uniquely horrifying in its predictive aspect, fantasy books don't necessarily threaten us with their potential reality. You can tell a fairy tale to a child and, at the end of the day, they know trolls aren't actually coming for them, but manned interplanetary space travel, artificial intelligence, and technological dependence are becoming eerily real. So fantasy/sword and sorcery become genres where we can tell scathing stories about society, or explore really painful aspects of the human experience, or even blur person and monster, without bringing it too close to home. I think their history in fairy tales and pulp fiction also gives authors, artists, and game designers a long leash when it comes to the tone they write in—and that makes them incredibly fun playgrounds for otherwise strict formal conceits, such as the structure of an RPG, with its obsession with props. I have so many thoughts on this and I'm not sure they're coming out sensibly, but hopefully my work communicates some of this, too.
Tory Hoke: You've professed "strong feelings" about the plants, animals, and history of your base city, Toronto. What sort of feelings? And are they seasonal?
Rachel Kahn: As a Canadian in a city with a 60C variance in temperature over the year, I definitely have strong feelings about Toronto's seasons! But, when I know I have a captive audience, what I really like to do is go on long rants about the human, ecological, and geological history of Toronto and the whole Great Lakes region, and especially how they all overlap. For example, there were indigenous people living in the region long before the lakes or the ecosystems around them stabilized into their current forms. There's a human history underneath Toronto that carried with it knowledge of how to live through a dramatically changing watershed and climate, with a large change in what food was available. It was really drastic in some ways! The direction of the flow of the lakes reversed 180 degrees as the ice retreated! This blows my mind.
Additionally, the lakes are very young—they've only appeared since the last ice age, and are really less than 9000 years old. That's such a short amount of time for a huge geological and ecological feature, and that newness is part of why they're so vulnerable to invasive species and human effects. All of this history carries with it a deep regret that we have literally buried so much human history, so many human lives, the lakes' fragile ecological stability, and answers to so many questions underneath our urban metropolis. We've destroyed a lot by coming here and now Toronto and the whole region feels, to me, like a kind of banal modern existence layered on top of millennia of mysteries. The sinister aspect of it lies in how Canada as a country is still pretending a lot of that history never happened, which has only lead to more and more inequality and injustice against our First Nations populations and more destruction of the landscape of our country. I'd love to see that history laid bare, so we can learn from it on so many different levels.
Tory Hoke: What's the meaning behind your handle "portable city"?
Rachel Kahn: I've been aware for a long time that I need community to be creative and happy. When I was choosing a handle for myself as a professional, I felt that the internet was becoming, for me, a kind of portable other home city I could access from anywhere, at any time, and, as someone who is obsessed with setting and world building, it had a nice ring to it of mystery and possibility. I'm not sure, though, that I've been able to live up to that possibility yet. Gotta keep on striving.
Tory Hoke: What other artists inspire or interest you?
Rachel Kahn: Oh my goodness, so many! In the RPG field, I love Wayne Reynolds's work for its action and layered detail, and Tiffany Turrill has been doing some incredible character work recently that I can't get enough of. Jen Zee, from Supergiant Games, does some beautiful videogame setting and character art—her sense of colour and skill with the paintbrush always wows me. Ian McQue's layered settings and vehicles, as well as his caricatured people, are a huge inspiration. Hannah Christenson's colourful art keeps me pushing my own colour use and texture control. Natalie Hall's stylish and sinister animals blow my mind daily. Becky Cloonan's fantasy short story comics, Wolves especially, are the kind of quiet, sinister, mysterious stories I adore, and her drawing is unparalleled. When it comes to the classics I can't get enough Frank Frazetta, Edward Hopper, Ivan Bilibin, Frank Carmichael, John Berkey, John Harris, or John Buscema. And recently there's been an amazing boom of brilliant and unique artists in the indie comics world, with incredible art and storytelling coming out of folks like Emily Carroll, Sfé R. Monster, and Evan Dahm. I spend a lot of time looking at art and having my mind blown, so this is in no way a comprehensive list, but I try and share things I love all the time on my Twitter and Tumblr accounts.
© 2015 Rachel Kahn, "The King of Clubs"
Tory Hoke: What would you like to see more of in contemporary F/SF art?
Rachel Kahn: This is a big question! I'm really excited about the sudden influx of women's voices in the fantasy art field, and there are a few art directors who have helped that by taking the opportunity to encourage women. I think that's a fantastic development. I'm so grateful for everyone who's making it easier to participate in this community. We've got a long way to go to make the field welcoming to everyone, and I'd love to see diversity of more than just gender in our field. The more varied the voices we can bring to tell stories visually, the better the field will be as a whole.
I think the homogeneity of the artists working in fantasy art has also lead to a homogeneity of style. I think this past couple of years I'm finally starting to see some amazing work that's blurring our expectations of traditional fantasy illustration, bringing in ideas from editorial, fine art, and sequential fields. I'm excited to see art that feels individual again—both incredibly individual to the artist who has created it, and individual in the sense that it isn't an illustration of our favourite fantasy tropes, but of individual people, places, and creatures, with their own stories and specifics. This is something I'm continuing to work on in my own art, and a lot of the artists I listed above inspire me for this exact reason: they've clearly brought more than just their brush to their work. Fantasy art is, at its heart, art about story, and I'm excited to see the field bursting with new and myriad ways to tell stories visually.
Tory Hoke: What's your dream project?
Rachel Kahn: Oh, I have so many ideas, how can I order them into a list! I'd love to keep working with short stories and novels in my favourite genres (thank you for keeping that dream alive for me!). I'd love to work with museums and galleries more, using my art to tell the stories behind artifacts and collections. I'd love to work on a team, concepting out a whole world from scratch for a game or movie that many people could experience. I'd love to do some real, honest, licensed Conan art someday. I'd love to design fantasy story music videos for my favourite bands. I'd love to go paint in all of Canada's national parks. But the thing that I think is my biggest dream project, which I am slowly doing already, is telling my own stories, through illustration and comics.
Tory Hoke: What's next for you?
Rachel Kahn: The first thing I'm doing at my desk this week is finishing the next chapter of Wolf Neighbours for Worlds Without Master. As well, I've always got freelance illustration work in the docket, thank goodness, so I'll be freelancing all winter.
My next big personal project is to launch a series of wordless or almost-wordless comics set to my favourite albums. They'll be going up on Weald Comics in the next month or so. Once I have those going, I'm going back to the world of Orin and the Dead Man's Sword to finish up the next chapter, an eight-page story to introduce the other viewpoint character, Adin, and her experiences in human society. And if all goes well, there should be some new comics from me in print next spring for convention season!