Portrait Of A Comics Artist As A Young Girl: An Interview With Sasha Matthews
Sasha Matthews lives in a well-ordered, sun-strewn apartment in the Upper West Side, and her room, which doubles as her workspace, is somewhat typical of what you'd expect for a cartoonist with a burgeoning comics publishing house. It's a utilitarian affair; against a far wall is a floor-to-ceiling series of wooden cubbie cubes, which house squared piles of notebooks, the attenuated spines of novels, doorstop-sized reference texts, and an anatomical model of the human body, one half vivisected to show an off-white rib cage and a human brain. A wooden mannequin is paused in a gravity-defying arabesque on a dresser. On her desk are two shoebox-sized containers cradling rows of inking markers, a MacBook, and a spotlight lamp. The room is expected.
That is, except for a princess castle perched on top of the highest row of cubbies. But this makes sense, too – Sasha is only 10 years old.
Matthews' publishing operation Rumble Comics is more in line with a cottage industry than a small traditional press, but her success can still, even at a microcosmic level, be measured against entrepreneurs three times her age. Praise from George O'Connor, author of The Olympians series, and Boing Boing editor Mark Fraunfelder – who proclaimed, "I've seen sample childhood comic book art from great artists (like R. Crumb) and she is better at age 10 than they were" – only aid in upholding similar analogies. As does her prolificness: within less than a year, she's released two historically based titles, Sitting Bull: A Life and Pompeii: Lost and Found, both of which can be found in bookstores spackled across the Upper West Side.
Matthews is definitive when I ask her what she does: "I'm a self-publisher," she proclaims, adjusting her horn-rimmed glasses. She tucks a chin-length lock of hair behind her ear and tilts her head toward her right shoulder.
Matthews has been an avid reader of comics since the age of eight, when her father, freelance photographer and fellow comic fan Scott Matthews, gave her an compilation of X-Men comics ("I think I have five of them, five giant-sized," she added). Her tastes grew to other comics genres, lines that are both humorous and cerebral, like Calvin and Hobbes.
An avid drawer, her interests soon shifted and evolved, and she developed a desire to create her own content, and attended an art class to teach her the basics in plotting, spatial point-of-view, and panelling. Her first comic, titled Plant Girl, was done entirely in pencil and featured a titular protagonist with the ability to control, well, plants.
But Matthews was dissatisfied: she soon realized that historical events provided parameters within which to work; she found discipline and the remnants of the past to be the most freeing.
"Well, Plant Girl was very bad," she acknowledges. "I found it easier to make a comic with historical guidelines than to make a comic with no guidelines."
Sitting Bull, her first professionally realized work, came from school extension work. "It was easy," she says, "it's drawing and writing, and I like to do both."
The idea was well-timed with her coursework, which at the time orbited around the U.S. Civil War and its event-based offshoots. Using reference texts she already owned (her favorite a book titled A Concise History of The World, which she cracks is "definitely not a concise history of the world") and the Internet, Sasha took comprehensive notes to bring a sense of accuracy and contextual intimacy to her work.
After that, Matthews went through a drafting process that could be considered extensive even to a seasoned professional, going through multiple storyboards, figuring, and paneled drafts, with an eventual slog from pencil to colored pen.
It was her grandfather who suggested that they print issues of the comic for her classmates at a professional printers; the leftovers became Matthews' first shipment of stock.
Her first unofficial shop was in the lobby of her apartment building; Sasha sold copies of Sitting Bull, priced at $3 a pop, from behind an old desk the Matthews' had no more use for, accompanied by a sign that read "Comics By Kids For Kids."
Her first customers were friends and neighbors, and some would request four copies or more.
"The first bookstore it ended up in was Bank Street Bookstore," Sasha recalls, located on Broadway between 106th and 107th streets. "We were tentatively trying to get it in ... we didn't really think it would work." But it did – a simple ask directed at one of the clerks lead to the placement of her first batch of comics. Even when Matthews recalls it now, her eyes widen, abashed, in a perpetual recall of first-time incredulity.
Another similar person-to-person request via Sasha's father lead to two more venues, both Manhattan locations for the indie bookseller Book Culture, situated on Columbus Avenue in between W 81st and W 82nd, and West 114th, respectively.
"I had a copy in my backpack," she says. After browsing in the children's section at the store on 114th, Sasha emerged to find her father, only to overhear him commiserating with co-owner Annie Hedrick over a rough customer they had both witnessed. Scott Matthews asked his daughter for her copy of Sitting Bull, and the rest was set in stone. Since then, her work has been featured on Boing Boing, DNAinfo, The Spirit, West Side Rag, and other publications.
Like any businesswoman, Matthews keeps a sales log: to date, she estimates she's sold a few hundred copies. I tell her that's more than I've ever sold of anything of mine in my life, or will.
I ask her what the impetus was for Pompeii: Lost and Found, which follows an ancient Roman family and their harrowing departure from the volcano ravaged, infamous city. Her father chimes in that the reason Matthews picked Pompeii as the subject matter for her second comic is that, in her purview, it is "the most interesting thing to ever happen in history."
"Yeah," Matthews concurs, with a knit, sincere brow, then caps it with a grin that shows off a missing incisor.
It's a perfectly-timed detail, a reminder of her age; it's easy to forget how young she is, given her eloquent speech, her pointed descriptions of her work and ideas. Kids tend to speak in tangential meanderings, which Sasha does as well, but there is a meaning behind it. It always ends in an anecdote or explanation. To wit: she possesses what she does.
Sasha is evasive when asked about what her next comic will be about, but she's quick to tell me that whatever her business earns will be put to good use. It's then that she also informs me that she's sold comics with things other than money – once, with international buyers in Belgium and New Zealand, she exchanged copies of her books for gourmet chocolate.
She leaves the room momentarily, and comes back in with a small cardboard box colored with metallic filligree, no bigger than her palm. Placing it in my hand, she tells me to open it. Inside are about half a dozen pieces of white chocolate, and she urges me to try one.
"You just made your biggest fan," I tell her.
Watch our video interview with Matthews below.
[The video interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
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