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Gaze Into the Personal World of ASHLING LARKIN'S "Estrela d’Oeste"

Comic Book Yeti contributor Andrew welcomes Ashling Larkin into the Yeti Cave for an in depth discussion of Estrela d'Oeste, a comic, born out of grief and loss, about processing, sometimes struggling to process, the complexity of those emotions. They also discuss the process of making the comic and some of the symbolism therein. This is a fantastic interview!


COMIC BOOK YETI: Ashling, thank you for making time to join us today! To start, I know Estrela d’Oeste is an incredibly personal title, and as it commemorates the passing of your mother, I’d first like to express my condolences. I've just lost my uncle in the midst of editing this for publication, so I can, on some level, connect with immediacy to that familial grief. Losing loved ones is always a challenge, but seeing you publish such a beautiful piece of work as part of your grieving process is inspiring. Did this project begin after her passing, or had you been considering this piece of work of reflection before that point?

ASHLING LARKIN: Thank you for your condolences, I appreciate that and your kind words. The project only came to mind after my mum had passed, about a year or so after; I was still deeply struggling with her loss, which was impacting my ability to sleep, when my therapist suggested I write a letter to her. I had so much I wanted to say though, and my thoughts felt so abstract and disjointed that instead of a letter I ended up writing a comic script. It took me another year before I could build up the courage to even start on it, and it was constantly evolving with new thoughts and realisations as I helped my dad go through her stuff; if I hadn’t been on my comics masters course I’m not sure it’d ever evolve into anything beyond the script, since that provided me with dedicated time to work on it as well as giving me a goal for completion. I’m still unearthing new revelations about her, our family, my feelings, and so on, to this day that I’d want to add to the script if the comic were still at that stage.

CBY: Unlike much of the subject matter I’ve covered thus far for Comic Book Yeti, Estrela d’Oeste is an intensely personal title, tied together thematically as opposed to moving forward in the service of a narrative. How did you decide which moments in time to draw upon for your imagery and depiction? Were there other scenes or reflections you wanted to include but omitted for any reason you’d care to share with our readers?

AL: I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’d actively decided to include specific or particular moments in time to draw upon. Throughout the process of making Estrela d’Oeste, I found that parts of it were ever-shifting and evolving, often coincidentally and at times in areas beyond my control. One example of this was towards the end of July, about a month away from when I had to have the comic completed, and I had almost finished inking half of the pages - my aunt commented on a facebook post that I’d made back in 2019 where I’d shared old photos of my mum, including the photo of her as a child standing in front of the church with her grandparents that, at that point, was only briefly referenced once within the script. Through her comment she had informed me, unprompted and without any context as to why she was telling me about it then, about the history of the trees surrounding the church I’d visited in Estrela d’Oeste.

With that new information, I knew I had to rewrite the ending of the comic to include my new reflections on that memory. That was pretty much the process for the whole story, really - the only reason I’d omitted anything would’ve just been because I wasn’t sure how to make it fit within the messages I wanted to get across, or simply just to prevent the comic becoming a huge never-ending behemoth.

In regards to the structure of the comic itself - piecing together those memories and visuals into something that would resonate with anyone other than myself - I knew early on that I wanted it to be non-chronological. I’m strongly drawn to narratives that utilise non-linear storytelling to weave in themes of grief and growth, and during development I was reading philosophical journals and essays about “cyclical time” especially within the context of bereavement - so when it came to developing my own narrative voice that could tie a series of separate feelings, events, memories and so on together in a coherent way, I tried to analyse some of the stories I’ve enjoyed and have helped me in my grief, for example; the novel Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, the film Arrival based on the same book, and the TV series Haunting of Hill House. What I found consistently was that, rather than relying too heavily on the structure of time being used as a plot twist, the structure of time is instead used to provide context to scenes and moments mentioned previously in the stories, meaning the audience actually benefits in revisiting the story repeatedly - not quite foreshadowing, not quite hindsight. So, I considered how I could achieve something similar in a comic by utilising the physical act of page turning (or clicking, or scrolling) and the necessity of the reader's participation in order for them to understand the full extent of the narrative. To do that I highlighted names, repeated phrases throughout the script, and repeated imagery within the visuals, as a means to invite and encourage the reader to go back to an earlier point in the comic once they recognise something familiar a little later on – independently engaging with cyclic time in a way beyond the preexisting, non-chronological format of the comic.

CBY: I've got some Ted Chiang stories in queue on recommendation from a friend whose opinion I trust (now I ought to bump him up on my reading list). While the text of Estrela d’Oeste serves as an exploration of your cultural foundations, can you speak a bit more about your artistic foundations and the choices you’ve made with this title? I see a lot of Art Nouveau design motifs, but I’m also curious to learn what specific visual reference points you tapped throughout the book, both in terms of style and imagery.

AL: Something fun about the comic that I’m particularly proud of, is that there’s symbolism and meaning in pretty much every element of the comic. Even the homage to the Art Nouveau aesthetic - specifically, Alphonse Mucha’s works - was very intentional; Mucha relocated to various different countries throughout his career, but was originally from what we now call The Czech Republic. In his later years he developed a huge multi-painting project named The Slav Epic as a sort of love letter to the culture he was brought up with, which even just conceptually is something I could resonate with in developing Estrela d’Oeste.

Beyond that though, some other examples of visual symbolism include the Lion and the Sabiá-Laranjeira - the national animals of England and Brazil, respectively. The first time those animals show up, the Lion is resting on my mum’s lap while the Sabiá-Laranjeira perches on her shoulder and hands. The Lion is typically symbolic of courage, nobility, and strength, but as an animal we generally understand the Lion to be a dangerous animal. On the flipside, the Sabiá-Laranjeira is a small and unassuming bird, famous in Brazil for its melodic birdsong, contrasted against its appearance which is often regarded as dull or even ‘ugly’. The next time those animals are seen is a few pages later, where the Lion is enraged, the Sabiá-Laranjeiras feathers fluttering around the panels having been consumed by the Lion.

There’s floral symbolism too, consisting of the Ipê-Amarelo (National flower of Brazil), the Clover (National flower of Ireland), Bindweed (a trumpet-shaped flower native to Europe and especially common in England, which in reality is an invasive weed species), and White Lilies (often used for both wedding and funerals, symbolising ‘a rejuvenation of the soul’).

Typically as well, wherever you see decorative stars there will be 27, representing the 27 stars on the Brazilian flag - which in itself represents the 27 Brazilian states, and within the comic, links back to the title which translates to “Star of The West” and my mum’s hometown of the same name, where mosaic stars adorn the path leading up to the church from my mum’s childhood. It’s all connected!

CBY: Thanks for sharing those additional instances of the depth of consideration you've applied - I'm particularly taken with your description of the flora and fauna in the book. A term I don't often get to apply to a comic book is "biodiverse," but the lushness of life is very present in this book. As I went through the rest of the work you’ve provided on your site, from The Enchanted Book, through Homesick and Aonarán, there are pervasive themes of characters feeling forlorn and grappling with loss and grief. How therapeutic an exercise do you find your creative process, and do you find the subject matter is often a challenge to grapple with on the page, or more often a motivator to communicate visually which allows you to more readily discharge an emotional idea or scenario on the page?

AL: I do joke that my comics and stories are all made up of the same rotation of themes - grief, time, and family - but it definitely is therapeutic. I’ve experienced many big, life-altering losses of loved ones, and each time the grieving process has been completely different. There’s just so much to say about it, to the point where right now I have about three more (short) (hopefully) comics in mind to develop that again heavily centre on themes of loss and grief. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made the comforting realisation that I’ll never be wise - every past version of me is naive, and every future version of me is rolling her eyes, forever and ever. So I know that, when it comes to emotional processes as deeply complex and intensely personal as grief, there will always be a new perspective to explore.

In April of 2022, as I was beginning to develop the script for Estrela d’Oeste, my grandmother - on my dad’s side - passed away. So working on the comic was helpful for me not just in processing my mum’s death three years prior, but it helped me process my grandmother’s passing in the moment, also. And, like I mentioned earlier, each of my experiences of grief have all been totally different, so following my Nana’s passing, I’ve begun to flesh out one of my other comic ideas to explore the new feelings that came with this form of grief; that comic is also about family, time and heritage, but explored in a completely different way and from a completely different perspective to Estrela d’Oeste, Aonarán, or any of my previous works. Although it’s still at a fairly conceptual stage, it’s already given me some unexpected reassurance, which I hope it will be able to provide for others too.

In terms of the visuals, I try to be flexible with my art style so the art and story can work symbiotically, rather than one taking precedence over the other. For example, I’d developed Aonarán while my Nana’s health had started deteriorating, so my dad and I were spending a lot of time with her over in Northern Ireland. The house wasn’t connected to the internet, and there was no phone signal in that area, so I ended up spending a lot of time outdoors and just being present with her and my dad in the moment. On days that we could, my dad and I would drive up to Slieve Gullion, a local mountain with beautiful views and is associated with a lot of Irish folklore. It sits right at the border, and at the top you can see views of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at the same time. I was spending so much time there that I ended up using the Slieve Gullion as the setting for Aonarán, which worked both visually and symbolically for the comic. Keeping that kind of mindset towards the visuals is something I really want to continue leaning into, especially after considering it so deeply with Estrela d’Oeste.

CBY: The emotional content of your material is also juxtaposed with your work building the CHIP (Comics Help Inform People) Collective with Catriona Laird. The first two collections align closely with the subject matter discussed in Estrela d’Oeste - coping with the ramifications of seeing those we love afflicted with cancer, and the creative process of working as an artist. Can you elaborate a bit on the process of organizing these collections, working with other artists to create cohesive publications, and what you have planned for forthcoming CHIP Collective publications?

AL: Absolutely! Cat and I had been discussing the idea of a comics collective for a while before my mum’s cancer diagnosis. We both had experience working in Graphic Medicine, so when my mum had received her diagnosis and began going through treatment, I pitched Living With Cancer: Our Stories as an idea to Cat before pitching it to my mum for approval. My mum dedicated her whole working life to helping others, and with the frustrating lack of access to easily-digestible information about the type of cancer she’d been diagnosed with, she saw the value in the concept and was immediately on board with it. Her approval was very important to me; at the time I still felt a sort of discomfort about discussing cancer openly, which I quickly realised was an extremely unproductive mindset, although unfortunately very common. So, some of the many goals of LWC:OS were to de-stigmatise the topic of cancer, to provide helpful information for anyone who might need it, and to provide a message of hope and solidarity to anyone whose life had been affected by cancer in some way, all the while raising money for Cancer Research UK.

All of the stories in LWC:OS are true stories from real people who had wanted to share their experiences for the readers' benefit. Because of the sensitive nature of the subject, it was extremely important to us that the people whose stories we were telling - the ‘storytellers’ - felt their own voices coming across in their comics. To ensure that, we involved the storytellers in every step of the way, from translating their interview to script, to the thumbnails and colour palettes, all the way up to final art - every step had the storyteller's input and approval before moving on to the next stage. Likewise, with the artists we’d brought on to draw the stories and illustrations for the anthology, Cat and I had written out a contract that we’d meticulously checked over to make sure it was, of course, clear in terms of deadlines, payments, and other contractual obligations - but also that it would alleviate pressures for the artists that typically come with freelance work, such as our contractual promise that while deadlines may be pushed back, they would never be brought forward, and if the artists required additional time that would be something we could accommodate for. At the end of the whole production we sent out surveys asking the artists what they thought of the contract and their experiences working with us, what could be improved for next time etc., and thankfully the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Our second anthology, Working in: The Arts came about a fair bit later, starting pre-production during the first year of the pandemic in 2020. There had been a lot of harmful misinformation about and dismissive attitudes towards working in the creative sector around then, with government funding cuts for the arts as well, which was especially insulting to hear during a period where artistic mediums in different forms - games, films, even a breadmaking boom - was one of the few ways people could find respite while being unable to leave homes or see their loved ones. Cat and I decided to channel that frustration into something productive and positive again - an anthology sharing information about working as a professional artist that reflected real peoples experiences, while giving ourselves and our peers the opportunity to collaborate on a large, fun project that they would also be paid for! Similarly to LWC:OS, when approaching the development of the stories from our interviewees we kept the interviewees involved in every step of the way so that they felt their own voices being reflected in their comics, and for the comic artists adapting the stories visually, we wanted to ensure that their contracts would again alleviate any stress or anxiety that can usually comes with freelance work, which was compounded by the overarching global pandemic.

Cat and I have taken another break between anthologies again, but we’re now taking steps towards realising our third anthology, a comic that combines the themes and ideas of our first two anthologies: Working in: STEM.

CBY: Given the grounded weight of much of your subject matter - people can find their spandex-clad punch-fighting elsewhere - it’s no surprise to see you’re completing a Masters degree in Comics & Graphic Novels at University of Dundee. It is a bit surprising to me that such a graduate program is available there (and is now making me reconsider my own previous course of study…) Can you explain a bit about your experience with the program and how it adds value to your creative and professional experience in ways that a self-taught, independent creator may otherwise miss out upon?

AL: Haha - well, a good thing about postgraduate study is that you can pursue it and pick it up whenever suits you! For me that was the case - I’d completed my undergraduate course in Animation back in 2016, and spent a few years working professionally before deciding to go for the Masters course at Dundee in 2021. It was a really interesting experience; I’d definitely advise anyone wanting to pursue a postgraduate course, in any creative area, to have some sort of idea of what you would like to get out of it. Personally, as I’d been burning myself out on contract work for a long time, I wanted dedicated time to create work for myself and to give myself the opportunity to experiment with and develop my artistic skills. Additionally, from the start of 2020 I’d been working at University of Dundee on and off as an Associate Lecturer - I found that teaching is something I’m extremely passionate about and would love to pursue further, so getting a Masters degree would be beneficial for that. Because of that though I’d say my experience on the course was pretty unique; while completing my Masters I was simultaneously teaching at undergraduate level, directing a comics module in the first semester for third year students, and in the second semester covering some animation teaching for General Foundation students.

Before even applying for the course I’d also received an ADHD diagnosis which meant I was able to sign myself up with the Universities disabilities services, which made a WORLD of difference for me and my experience on the course. The disabilities service assigned me an essay support supervisor, as written work is something I’ve always struggled with, and there was a lot more essay writing on the course than I had initially anticipated. Having the essay support supervisor was helpful in that I was able to set myself deadlines to have a certain amount of work done for each time I caught up with her, which meant I was able to manage my workload much easier than I would normally. Additionally, the supervisor I was assigned had no experience in comics whatsoever, so having someone that I had to explain my ideas and concepts to meant that my essays were clear, concise and understandable - and importantly for me, they were also engaging and interesting to someone who wasn’t particularly involved with comics academically, professionally, or recreationally. In the end I actually really enjoyed essay writing, which is a statement I never thought I’d be able to claim!

Thanks to the essay portion of the course I also got to exercise my brain by exploring different, sometimes weird concepts within comics, like “The Absence of ‘Self’ in Autobio Comics”, or “How representation of Brazil’s colonialist history in comics has impacted Brazilian culture”, which led me to looking into some really interesting studies, philosophies, and of course, comics, that I would never have gotten a chance to otherwise. Another piece of advice I have regarding that element of the course though, is to go in having some idea already of what kinds of topics you want to explore in your essays for the different modules. As I already knew what my final project would be - Estrela d’Oeste - much of my surrounding work ended up revolving around that, which directly or indirectly, helped to strengthen that final project in the long run.

CBY: Building upon the subjects you've mentioned being able to cover, with Estrela d’Oeste completed as your dissertation work, did you have to provide any additional writing as a companion piece concerning your methodological approach or dissection of your creative process? How does submitting a comic as academic work differ in your experience from illustration as a solely commercial endeavour?

AL: I did - I had to write an approximate 2,000 word reflective essay to accompany the comic, and writing the essay was really therapeutic as well as drawing the comic itself. It was nice having a sort of space to explain all of the symbolism, my creative choices, and sources of inspiration in a way that didn’t break the immersion of reading the comic. I’m always interested to read and hear about other artists’ processes, so I actually had a lot of fun writing it. It helped me in fleshing Estrela d’Oeste out into what I’d intended it to be, giving it a lot more depth and consideration than what I might have done had I not had the essay accompaniment to write, so I am considering continuing that process for my future works as well. Even if I don’t post those essays anywhere for others to read, it’ll still be useful for me - but I do wonder if people would be interested in reading the reflective essay too!

CBY: That is encouraging, as I am about to undertake a similar exercise for my PhD. dissertation. Estrela d’Oeste is an incredibly personal journey of reflection, and delivers upon conventions often characteristic of memoirs. Have you considered any subsequent titles with an autobiographical foundation that take a more direct narrative approach seen in some of your other work? If not, what else is on your slate that you might be able to share with our readers at this stage?

AL: I have! As of this interview, on ‘hourly comic day’ this year I started developing an autobiographical comic with a bit of a twist. On hourly comic day, you’re supposed to draw your own day hour-by-hour, from when you wake up until when you go to bed. Last year I had a boring day with a bad start, so I turned my comic into a sort of light psychological thriller, exploring the limitations of autobiography and kind of criticising the performance element of it. So for this year’s hourly comics, I’ve done a spiritual successor to that comic, in the format of the ‘mockumentary’. It’s past 'hourly comic day' and as of today I am still working on it, so without spoiling too much, it’s another exploration of how far you can push reality vs fiction in autobio, and blurring the line between what readers might have expected to be real or not. Hopefully by the end that will make sense!

Otherwise though, I don’t have any other autobiographical work on my mind - I think I’m a little autobio’d out, haha. But I do have some non-autobio comics that I’m working on in the background when I’m not at my day job that I will probably be self-publishing; without giving too much away again, their titles are Samhain, To Be Loved, and I’m in the process of zhuzhing up The Enchanted Book, my fantasy-adventure webcomic that I had to put on hold back in 2020.

CBY: I’d asked about visual references and stylistic anchor points for Estrela d’Oeste, but more broadly, what illustrators, writers, and other creators have been formative influences on your work as you’ve developed your portfolio and gone through your studies? What was it that hooked you in prior to starting your undergraduate studies and compelled you to invest your time in a degree in Animation?

AL: As a kid I grew up reading Turma da Mônica, which is essentially the Brazilian equivalent of The Beano in the UK or Peanuts in the US. That’s definitely what pulled me into comics originally, and what drew me into Animation was actually Snow White; I remember watching a behind-the-scenes interview when I was quite young, where they demonstrated the process of traditional animation for Snow White, and it’s been seared into my brain ever since!

Over the years, other formative influences on my work and aesthetics have included a mix of comic artists and animators, such as Arina Tanemura, James Baxter, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Satoshi Kon, and Jen Wang. More recently I’ve been inspired by artists like Maddi Gonzalez, Karen Shangguan, and Theo Stultz.

CBY: Lastly, there’s always the opportunity to provide a referral list of your own for Comic Book Yeti readers - what comics and other media are keeping your attention now that you’d like to make sure the wider world knows about and has the opportunity to enjoy?

AL: Hopefully there’s enough room for these recommendations… For comics, I’d recommend: My Monster Ex-Girlfriends by my good pal Cat Laird, J’arrive! by Mathilde Laillet, and Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves by Marcelo D’Salete. For TV I’d recommend: The Last of Us by Craig Mazin & Neil Druckmann, Abbott Elementary by Quinta Brunson, and Only Murders in The Building by Steve Martin and John Hoffman. And for my misc. recommendations, I have: the Bioshock 2: Minerva’s Den DLC by 2K Games, any youtube video by CJ The X, and Hozier’s 2019 album, Wasteland, Baby!

CBY: Ashling, thank you for your time today, and please feel free to share any and all links to social media and other comic work you’d like our readers to be able to explore further. We look forward to seeing what you come up with next!

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