What Dreams May Come

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NBM recently released Unholy Kinship, an original tale by young Swedish artist Naomi Nowak. Telling the tale of two sisters whose life has taken a turn for the worse now that their parents have mysteriously disappeared, Nowak has conceived a moody story where reality and dreams intertwine, doing it all while mixing European, Eastern and American influences into her storytelling. All of that at the ripe old age of 22.

BF spoke to Nowak to find out more about her debut graphic novel and how she sees the future.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Unholy Kinship is about the relationship between two sisters who must cope with the mysterious disappearance of their parents. How do they face the cards life has dealt them?

NAOMI NOWAK: By trying to stick together. In a way it is harder on the younger one, Luca, because she has to deal with authorities, take care of her sister and try to have a normal life at the same time. Her sister’s name is Gabriella—which is only mentioned once—other than that she goes by Gae which is a pet form that their mother used.

I wanted to use the short form to show that even though Luca is the younger one she still has to treat Gae like a child most of the time and this hurts her because she remembers what it was like before her sister became unstable.  

BF: The instability has everything to do with their parents’ disappearance, or has Gae never really been able to find her place in the world?

NN: When Gae was younger she was just like any other little girl or teenager, but as their father died and their mother was eventually institutionalized something broke in her. She couldn’t handle the responsibility and maybe she was a frail person from the start, so she gradually started slipping and Luca had to start taking care of her. 

BF: Does Unholy Kinship in any way deal with the sisters’ search for their parents? Or does the story focus on a time in their lives when they’ve already learned to accept it?

NN: As much as someone can accept something like that I think that as the story begins, they have, but then Luca goes through a personal crisis and doubts about what really happened start surfacing. Either way you choose to interpret the story, Luca never had enough information about what happened to them, she just took a lot of stuff for granted. Gae knew more because she is older, but Luca doesn’t know if she can believe her.

BF: How do the sisters see their own place in the world. I assume Luca has a job to sustain Gae and herself, but how does she perceive daily life, and especially, the future?

NN: She works at the local liquor store! She’s also a student. Anyway, I don’t think Gae sees her place in the world at all. Her room and the apartment is her whole existence which is why things like playing cards, stuffed animals and soap operas mean a lot to her. That’s also why it’s so difficult for Luca to live a normal life and even see a normal future for herself. She loves her sister but feels guilty because she can be a burden as well and this conflict is one of the main themes.

Luca is secretly thankful that she always has a perfectly good excuse not to deal with things like dating, parties and relationships, but has a hard time admitting this to herself. She almost always puts her sister first.

BF: Your style is an amalgamation of Eastern, European and American influences. Do you have a specific fondness for one of these types of storytelling?

NN: Almost all of my life European comics have been my favourites, simply because I grew up around them. I had my greatest love for manga when I was a teenage girl, though some of the elements and the way the stories are told definitely still influence me. It was never a conscious decision to create an “amalgamation”—my style just evolved that way.

BF: Which comics did you grow up reading? Asterix and Tintin perhaps?

NN: Definitely Asterix and Tintin! Also Spirou, Gaston (so funny!) and the yellow jungle cat with an extremely long tail, Marsupilami, I loved him. The only Swedish comics I liked were by Jan Lööf (they’re translated to English)—he’s really amazing. My current favourite is Didier Comes; I think Silence and La Belette are some of the best comics I’ve ever read.

BF: Artistically, you really let loose on page composition and coloring—both express a moody, fragmented aura. Do you consider these two facets your forte?

NN: It’s hard to say, but maybe so. I do consider it a good thing that it is perceived that way, and it is one of my favourite parts of comics, creating page layouts and colours to convey a certain mood. There’s so much you can do with the medium.

BF: Was the visual structure of the story more important to you in the sense that it helped direct the writing process?

NN: That’s such a good question! It’s hard to remember the order of the process exactly, what comes first—visual or narrative. They mix with each other but there’s no doubt that many of the things in the story happened as imagery first and text later. I saw them doing things and going places and then I heard the dialogue afterwards.

BF: Considering that Luca’s sister is mentally unstable, I’m sure fragmentation, both of the mind and of interpersonal relationships, is an important motif in the book?

NN: Yes. One of the most important themes in it is how to keep your life and your mind together when you are being pulled in different directions by contradictory facts. Finding a way to trust that you are a good person despite not being able to live up to conventional things expected of you.

BF: Has Unholy Kinship been published in Sweden as well, or is this an original graphic novel for the US market?

NN: It’s for the US market. I would love to see it translated one day of course, perhaps in other European countries.

BF: When did NBM come across your work then?

NN: I sent it to them about two years ago—it was only a couple of pages and a synopsis of the story then. It’s changed a lot since and I’ve learned so much from the whole experience, it’s been great.

BF: Did you pitch it to other publishers as well?

NN: I was planning to but I never really got around to it… I’m happy with NBM!

BF: At only 22 years old, you have an entire career in front of you. Do you see yourself ending up publishing books at different companies basically from all over the world?

NN: Of course, that’s my dream. Painting is as important to me as comics are, so I hope to find a way to do both.

BF: Has Unholy Kinship opened any doors as far as painting work goes?

NN: Unholy Kinship has only been out a month or so—I really don’t know that yet, I guess it’s possible! It’s always good to have your name out there, but I think in general painting and comics are a world apart as far as the industries or businesses go. Personally, though, they’re intimately connected because one draws inspiration from the other.

BF: It is striking that, at such a young age, you’re able to tell a deep, multi-faceted story. How do you feel about the achievement?

NN: Thank you. I feel torn; I love the characters in this comic so much I almost feel bad for what I put them through in the story. Also, I can’t possibly know if it’s deep until people read it and tell me what they felt.

BF: Did you draw from your own experiences or dreams while conceiving the story?

NN: Parts of it. Yes and no!

BF: You’re from Sweden—how big is the comic book industry in your country? And, in terms of publications, does it differ much from the US one?

NN: It’s not a very big industry at all. Only a handful of people support themselves fully as comic artists and the general public doesn’t see comics as a legitimate medium, like novels or films. Instead it’s considered childish and immature. I can’t for the life of me understand this reasoning—comics are so diverse. It differs from the US because more of what is being published is translated stuff—American, European or Japanese—and there are very few independent publishers.

BF: Are you already working on a new project?

NN: Maybe! [Laughs] I’m always working on something, but I’m not saying anything yet.

For more on Naomi Nowak, go to www.naomi.se.

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