While Jenn St-Onge’s heart may belong to the spooky characters, she’s become a go-to artist on such properties as Nancy Drew, Archie, and GLOW. The freelancer who once happened to find her way into comics has built an impressive list of credits with even bigger projects on the horizon.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Comic artist and illustrator of things both grotesque and cute
Your home base: Ottawa, Canada
Other sites where you can be found:
Tip Jar: paypal.com/paypalme/princessjem4
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics over other artforms?
Jenn St-Onge: To start this off sounding incredibly uncool, comics seemed to choose me more than anything! When I was adrift in the uncertain waters of full-time freelancing several years ago, I was pretty much trying anything that people would hire me on for and one of those jobs was for my first comic. I’d made more than one abandoned, clunky comic for myself when I was younger, but this was my first time really having to figure out page layouts, backgrounds, props, as well as hitting deadlines — still a work-in-progress, honestly — so I learned a lot over the half year or so spent on that miniseries. I didn’t do too terribly on the finished product and the experience didn’t totally scare me off, so I wanted to see where I could go with this opportunity now that I had it!
KS: Were there elements specific to comics-making that you enjoyed?
JSO: While I never saw myself going down the animation road, I feel like my approach to comics is pretty sequential in execution and being able to create these entire narratives with a still image is such an amazing process to me. They’re so much work to produce, but the freedom in how you set up a page, how you letter text, how you set up a shot, and then how much each of these elements impact how someone is going to engage with that specific part of story is both very intimidating and very magical.
KS: What were the comics that really hit you as a younger reader?
JSO: Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss series and Charles Burns’ Black Hole.
KS: What were your first encounters with those like? Why were they the right books at the right time for you?
JSO: I read Paradise Kiss when I was about 16 and, while I had been reading various shoujo manga in the years leading up to that, I think that was the first series that I read and just felt like “this is my favorite manga.” It follows a prickly schoolgirl who befriends a group of talented kids attending the local fashion school and tumbles headfirst into an unexpected modeling career. I related a lot to the main character both in personality, as well as because I wanted to get into modeling back then, but just the entire energy of the series is so glamorous and the characters so likeable.
I read Black Hole around the same time and was probably one of the first actual horror comics I came across in my school library. I wasn’t super into scary media at that age, especially movies, but it was a lot different consuming it in a reading format where you control the speed of progress and when you need to take a break. The black-and-white art style really stuck with me and I thought the body horror mixed with a high school drama was a really engaging story, even as it gets more and more bleak. I think about it a lot in my own creepy comic creation.
I still have both of these books on my shelf, Paradise Kiss retained from my school years and Black Hole purchased as an adult just so I could have my own personal copy.
KS: What’s one of the first serious pieces of art you remember creating?
JSO: [T]he first art project that I was really emotionally attached to for a stretch of time was a story started back in late elementary school after I had a weird dream and remembered very specific characters afterwards. It was a sprawling (rambling) adventure story that mostly comprised of characters going from Point A to Point B to Point Z until the conclusion, but I loved writing it. I wrote it out on lined loose-leaf and on every page I’d do a tiny drawing in the margin of something that had happened in that part of the story, finishing each chapter with a slightly bigger drawing because I had empty space at the end of that page to fill. It wasn’t a comic but remembering how much fun I had creating that story and accompanying art as I went might suggest why comics was such a natural thing to fall into once I had the push.
KS: You’ve done a variety of cover work in your career. To flip it around, which elements do you appreciate as a viewer? If you’re looking at a wall of comics, which types of covers draw your attention?
JSO: I tend to gravitate towards covers that have a more illustrative energy to them, like they’re a composition crafted to represent a feeling or theme in a story more so than a “here is a bunch of the cast all doing stuff”-type drawing. I love designs that play with negative space or more natural elements and, of course, if a comic has a drawing of a spooky lady on it, I’m most likely going to at least pick it up. Sadly, the horror sections of comic shops tend to be rather limited, just because not a ton of mainstream publishers are looking to do scary stories, so when I see anything that looks remotely creepy, I am just immediately drawn towards it.
KS: If I ask about a particular cover you love, for whatever reason, what’s one that jumps to mind?
JSO: A few covers that have recently jumped out at me would be examples like Jenn Woodall’s variant for IDW’s Sleeping Beauties series, which totally embody that “spooky lady with natural, but ominous, design elements” thing I really like. Another that comes to mind is both Tyler Crook and Naomi Franquiz’s work for the Harrow County series from Dark Horse — both covers and interiors. I think it goes without saying by now what a horror powerhouse that comic is, and the fact that all the art is done traditionally in watercolor just makes the atmosphere of the story that much more intense.
KS: What does your current workspace or studio setup look like?
JSO: Like most people in the year 2020, I work from home, but was doing it before it was the hip/socially responsible thing to do. I’m fortunate enough to have a room that can be a dedicated office space, which is mostly my desktop work zone just surrounded by neat stuff that I like to occasionally look around at during my day. I haven’t really been able to decorate my home office in our previous living spaces so since this one is more permanent, I’ve been trying to slowly collect items and furniture to add to it; some of the coolest stuff I’ve acquired I got for less than fifty bucks off of like Facebook Marketplace or from the local friperie (Quebecois secondhand shops). I definitely feel like my office looks like “me:” kinda creepy, kinda artsy, constantly in need of reorganizing.
KS: Can you see the influence of other artists in your own work, whether from comics or not?
JSO: Growing up, I had a lot of bystanders remarking “That looks like ‘Disney-slash-anime!’” — much to my chagrin at the time. Because of this, I felt pretty pressured in art college to improve my basics and, by extension, lose the more “cartoon-y” aesthetic in my work. Probably not too surprising, but my time in that program wasn’t the most fun time for me and it took several years post-graduation to really get back to a point where I was creating in a style that I enjoyed.
I affectionately refer to myself as a rat-king of all the artists I’ve come to enjoy over the years but, to be more specific, in no particular order, artists like Sophie Campbell (Jem & the Holograms), Babs Tarr (Batgirl), Paulina Ganucheau (Zodiac Starforce), Gigi G.D. (Cucumber Quest), Natasha Allegri (Adventure Time), and Noelle Stevenson (Nimona) were all creators who made me feel like I could actually find a place in comics back when I was just starting out. In my more recent work — a.k.a. my more horror-flavored stuff — I’d say some of my big influences have been artists like Tyler Crook (Harrow County), Emily Carroll (Through the Woods), Junji Ito (all his books), Nicolette Bocalan Clegg (Stanley Needs a Nest), and Becky Cloonan (The King’s Story), and Lisa Sterle (Long Lost).
KS: One character you’ve illustrated frequently is Nancy Drew for Dynamite. That character has been around for decades and has been portrayed in multiple media formats. How do you find a fresh approach as an artist? Were you given a “blueprint” ahead of time?
JSO: I’m someone who really likes casual fashion and generally [tries] to create characters that feel like they at least approximately live in the present, so that approach is pretty intuitive to me when it comes to character design. Dynamite did give me notes when we were in the concept stage of the series, but they were generally pretty open to hair and clothes ideas from me so I feel that the fashion sense in that story was pretty to my taste. I tend to make inspiration boards of outfit ideas, often for individual characters in a story, because they all have their own fashion sense, of course. That being said, if I were to do that comic now, I would probably tackle the fashion differently because my own preferences have evolved over the years!
KS: Has your perspective on any particular artist or art style changed from your fan days to your pro days?
JSO: My answer to this is a bit of a trick answer just because, from the outside, comics is a medium that seems both simple and intensely complex all at once. While the last five-plus years of doing comic work pretty much every day has certainly improved the parts of my drawing skills that were lacking, there’s a sort of dawning realization that there might not be a shortcut to get there faster or easier and improving your skills won’t change this. I remember that I used to joke about how little was actually on a lot of manga pages and like how many fights took place in a big empty field/flying through the sky/et cetera but now… I get it. In this sense, I have a great appreciation for comic artists who can do less with more and have really nailed a more simplistic layout style.
KS: Hypothetical time: A comics publisher gives you the chance to write and draw one story featuring any major comics character of your choice. Who’s your pick?
JSO: I’m going to go with the obvious answer here and say that I’d still love to do a Sabrina the Teenage Witch comic! I actually pitched a miniseries with someone a couple years back that didn’t end up happening but hope springs eternal for getting to do art for Sabrina. Archie Comics has done quite a few really fun horror series over the last few years, and I would totally be down to do something in that vein with them if the creative winds blew the right direction someday.
KS: To switch gears, please tell us about a passion of yours totally away from the art board.
JSO: Over the summer , I ended up taking some kind of forced time off due to health reasons and had the chance to really just enjoy things around me. I did a lot of hikes with my husband and dog, and did my first portage ever; I find mycology incredibly interesting and just really love walking in forested areas looking at all the small stuff up close, especially after it’s rained. I grew my first vegetable garden this year with mixed results but still had a really great experience of seeing all the plants going through their stages. I like chilling on the couch with my cats while watching a horror movie or a video essay about a horror movie or game, and I’ve managed to get back into reading just for fun.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel from any era that you look at with admiration?
JSO: This almost goes without saying, but I am forever in awe and adoration of Junji Ito. He’s made such a definitive niche in the horror industry and he does what he does so masterfully. There’s kind of a curse surrounding adaptations of his stories and I think it comes down to this really pure love and dedication he has for his art that is hard for an animation studio or live-action movie to properly emulate. Ito has such a wonderful storytelling style; Japanese horror media tends to have different story beats than western horror media does, and it’s very interesting to see those differences come across in his work, while still being really particular to him as a writer.
Also he is a huge cat lover and, as a fellow doting cat parent/gorehound, this hits me on a very spiritual level. If you’ve seen his scary comics but not the comic about him and his wife’s life with their two cats, you are missing out on an integral piece of comics history. Just saying.
KS: Wrapping up, please give readers an idea of what you’re working on now and what to be on the lookout for in 2021.
JSO: Presently, my big project is two middle-grade OGNs with Mags Visaggio and Harper Collins, and I’m currently working on the art for the first book, The Ojja-Wojja. It’s a supernatural/paranormal story about the power of friendship and also the power of releasing an elder chaos god on your enemies. I’ve been drawing it for a bit now and am really excited to finally get it completed and out in the wild as a real-life book. Once work on that is finished, I’m going to start production on its sequel book, which I am also so in love with and can’t wait to do my part on!