Eisner Award. Hugo Award. Lambda Literary Award. Artist on Silk, Black Panther, Star Trek, Jem and the Holograms. This is only a sampling of Tana Ford’s credit list, an artist who used the springboard of her Queer Press Grant-winning debut graphic novel to launch herself into a career with room to explore representation in comics beyond the usual superhero fisticuffs.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What’s the appeal for you of working in the comics artform?
Tana Ford: I’ve always loved storytelling, and I read comics as a kid. It was a natural progression.
KS: I like to try and find the origin point — if possible — where someone decides on a career in the arts. Was this an a-ha moment for you?
TF: Oh no. No ah-ha moment here. I have always made art, built things, been creative. I wanted to see myself — an out lesbian — reflected in the media, especially back in the early aughts when I first came out. There wasn’t a lot of representation for us queer girls then, so I took to the page to tell my own stories about us.
KS: Where did comics fit into that? Were you a casual reader, a serious collector, a little of both?
TF: Casual fan, I suppose. Collecting comics wasn’t on my radar as a kid. I loved my comic books; I read through each issue multiple times, bent the pages, creased the spines. I passed them to my friends between classes. My books were a mess!
KS: Back when you were first able to differentiate among artists, did you have an early favorite?
TF: I loved the X-Men during the Joe Mad(ureira) era — his exaggerated anatomy, animated battle scenes, and the over-the-top villains of that time lit a fire in me, creatively.
KS: We’ve talked a lot in these interviews about the idea of story — did your love for X-Men extend beyond the art, into that area? What comic stories really hit home?
TF: The queer coding in the X-Men definitely played a part in my early enjoyment of comics. The idea that all these people who were different, who were societal outcasts got to live together in a big mansion, protected from the hate in the outside world, certainly appealed to me.
But the first time representation mattered, the first time I actual saw actual on-the-page queerness reflected back at me was in Alison Bechdel’s series, Dykes To Watch Out For. That led me down the vibrant path of the history of queer comics in America, including things like the late Howard Cruse’s Wendel series and his beautiful book, Stuck Rubber Baby.
KS: Those came along at the right time for you?
TF: This was when I was just figuring out I could make comics as a living. So, I looked for stories like my own that were already out there. Except, there were none. DTWOF is lovely, but it was all about middle-aged queer folk: lesbians and trans men and cis het white guys all living together in this life that looked nothing like my own. I was in college sowing my wild oats and there were no stories like that anywhere. No “Young Lesbian Fiction” let’s say. So, I decided to make some.
KS: Jumping ahead for a moment, has the industry changed significantly since then from your vantage point? Would young Tana walking into a comic store now find more books that spoke directly to her?
TF: Absolutely. Young Tana would lose her mind when she found out that we got to draw a multi-racial on-screen kiss between two women who love each other in a Marvel comic book [Silk #19]. I'd be astounded to find the kind of stories I always yearned to read as a young closeted kid. Growing up now — while it is imperfect and still dangerous in places — the world is a substantially better and more accepting place than it was when I was a child.
KS: Would she also be surprised at where you ended up career-wise?
TF: I don’t think so. She’d be proud but not surprised.
KS: What was your first official paid art job?
TF: It was either New Warriors for Marvel, written by Chris Yost with art by me, or, yes! I think it was actually an eight-page short story written by Jody Houser about the Guardians of the Galaxy doing shenanigans in a collection titled Avengers: No More Bullying. That was both Jody and my first work at Marvel, and it was a very sweet project.
KS: Did you and Jody know each other before that?
TF: I think we got paired up by chance, and became friends later as a result of having worked together.
KS: What got you on Marvel’s radar in the first place?
TF: Back when DC Comics still had a NYC office, I got to take a tour of both DC HQ and Marvel HQ, which were across the street from one another. I got to meet lots of editors and shake some hands — there is a picture somewhere of me holding DC's own laminated version of Action Comics #1. Anyway, I got put on Silk sometime just after that I think. The timeline kind of runs together for me, but that seems like a pivotal moment.
KS: Silk is probably the book most fans associate you with. Aside from the spider-action, it included several areas of representation that didn’t used to be a regular part of superhero comics.
TF: When I was the artist… Marvel only had five titles that were headlined by women. Of them, Silk was the only Asian-American superhero, and along with Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan) one of only two non-white protagonists. It was a joy to get to work on a book so important to so many people, many of whom have precious little representation in mainstream comics. I'm incredibly proud of the work we did and the stories we told.
KS: Did you know going in that you’d have a chance to explore certain topics that were important to you, or did that come about as the series unfolded?
TF: Writer Robbie Thompson did a wonderful job of addressing mental health by having Cindy Moon talk openly and honestly with Dr. Sinclair, her therapist. That was baked in during the earliest issues. Then, as we went along, the relationship between Lola and Rafferty, Cindy Moon's two best friends and co-workers discover they love each other, all while supporting Cindy in her secret identity — even going together as a trio into the Negative Zone to ride dragons and wield swords. Comics are so much fun!
KS: Looking back now at your debut graphic novel — 2010’s Duck! — can you talk about your personal motivation at the time? What got you started on the project and ultimately got you across the finish line?
TF: As I touched on earlier, there weren’t any stories about young, brash friend groups of queer women, so I set about making one myself. While it is riddled with all the faux pas that come with creating a first novel, it did win the Queer Press Grant in 2010, which gave me the emotional boost I needed as a young creator to continue making art. Self-publishing taught me a lot about cost, production, and sales. And it also introduced me to the first community I would come to know in comics, which was a godsend.
I was fortunate enough to have a day job that allowed me to pencil and ink at my desk. And I knew that completing a thing is more important than waiting until something is perfect. Publish your book, friends! Tell your story. You can’t wait until it’s perfect or you will never get anything done. Do your best and send your story out into the world.
KS: Thumbs up or down: listening to music or background noise while you work?
TF: Thumbs up! Counting Crows’ “Anna Begins” is on right now behind me.
KS: Since no successful person gets where they are single-handedly, can you shout out someone who was helpful to you anywhere along your journey?
TF: I studied with Sean Murphy for a time back in 2015. He had opened a school in Maine that only lasted one season. But, he showed me the ropes when it came to navigating comic book conventions and meeting people, and then I was off to the races.
KS: What’s a passion of yours from outside the world of art/comics? Something you practice, collect, study…
TF: I love birds. I’ve been trying to get them used to this new bird feeder outside the cottage I’m currently working from, and this morning a Song Sparrow stopped by! That was my first visitor and I’m hoping for more as they get used to me.
When it comes to art, I do all sorts of non-comic things. I sculpt, paint, wood burn, built, carve things, refinish furniture — I’m always doing something.
KS: If art hadn’t worked out, was there a viable Plan B career path in your mind?
TF: I'd like to do something outdoors, I think. But making art is who I am… that's my calling and that's what I'll spend my life doing. So, here's hoping I don't need to come up with a viable Plan B!
KS: To spread some love at the end, what’s a comic or graphic novel from any era that you look at with admiration?
TF: I really enjoyed Locke & Key, and they made an audio drama for it that’s worth checking out. High production value, voice actors did a great job, available as an audiobook — and circling back to our earlier talk about representation, I often find that since I make visual art for a living I leave behind this whole community of seeing-impaired folks.
I’d like to do an audio drama of our Hugo and Eisner Award-winning graphic novel, LaGuardia [from Dark Horse/Berger Books], eventually. But right now writer Nnedi Okorafor and I have so many projects on our plates, an audio drama is not going to happen anytime soon.
KS: Perfect segue to ask about some of those projects on your plate…
TF: I am currently in process on my first all-ages graphic novel called Space Cat, written by Nnedi and drawn by me, which is coming out through First Second Books. You can follow me on twitch.tv/tanaford for some in process videos and check out the cats the book is based on by following Nnedi’s Twitter and Instagram.