Between the Panels: Cartoonist Rachael Smith on Trusting Herself, Questioning Her Characters, and Making Real Life into Art

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

While Rachael Smith had been making art for most of her life by then, 2014’s graphic novel House Party announced the arrival of an exciting “new” talent to watch. Since then, Rachael has pursued a mix of both personal projects and work for major comics publishers, including Titan, Mad Cave, and BOOM!

First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): All of the above!
Your home base: Manchester, UK
Social Media

Facebook: rachaelsmithillustration
Instagram: @flimsy_kitten
Twitter: @rachael_
Any other sites where you’re active:

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What attracts you as a creator specifically to making comics?

Rachael Smith: I’ve always loved drawing, ever since I was old enough to hold a pencil. When I got a little older, I found my love for writing stories. To me, making comics is the perfect marriage of those two things.
KS: To go back to the very beginning of your secret origin, please tell us where you were born and grew up.

RS: I was born and raised in Stockport. What can I say about Stockport? It’s very gray. It’s close to Manchester. It’s got a viaduct, a hat museum, and a football team that do OK sometimes.
KS: Because you’re primarily now a “one-person band” as a creator, did you have a stronger feeling first for either art or writing as the field you were most interested in?

RS: The art came first when I was figuring out a career. I enjoy the writing just as much these days, though. Sometimes more.

KS: Was writing for fun a pastime at all during childhood?

RS: When I got a little older I found my love for writing. The drawing only came first because kids usually learn to do that first! I remember writing quite a lot at home, just for fun, usually stories about animals, I think.

KS: How about when you first discovered comics, or vice versa? What kinds of material did you have access to early on?

RS: I loved Sonic the Comic as a kid. I have vivid memories of my dad buying it for me on the walk home from school. I used to lie on the living room carpet and copy out the pictures into my sketchbook as best I could. After that, I sort of fell out of love with comics for a while. I thought they were just superheroes. Also, my art teachers hated when I drew "cartoony," so I just figured I’d make everyone disappointed if I carried on with it. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s and read Scott Pilgrim that I realized that comics could be about anything, and that I’d probably be quite good at them.
KS: Were there specific elements of Scott Pilgrim that really resonated for you?

RS: I thought comics were just about muscly men lifting up cars and the like. Scott was a character who wasn’t really sure what he was doing in life. I related to that a lot in my 20s!

KS: Many kids pursue arts as a hobby, but pursuing that professionally requires a different level of commitment. Roughly when did the idea of an art career come to you?

RS: Maybe in my early 20s? I've never really been good at anything else, so drawing and making stories was always going to play a big part of my life — career or otherwise!

KS: What were the first concrete steps toward making that dream a reality? Did you choose art as an area of study?

RS: I did art at university, but it wasn't until much later that I realized I wanted to make comics. If I'd have drawn cartoons in my fine art classes I'd have got kicked out!

KS: How about the first time you ever got paid for a piece of your work?

RS: I used to go to Saturday morning art classes as a kid — another arena [where] I was told I shouldn’t draw cartoons — and we had a little exhibition in a local church hall one Christmas. My dad bought a painting I’d done of a vase of flowers for £9. My mum still has it in her bathroom. It’s quite good, I think. I can’t remember what I spent the £9 on. Lion King stickers, probably.

KS: Do you have a dedicated studio space to work in these days?

RS: I do have a dedicated studio space that I am very lucky to have. It’s nice to be able to shut the door on my work for the day, rather than have it in my bedroom as it was for my early days. My partner Rob works at an animation studio in Altrincham full-time, so it’s usually just me and Rufus, my cat, hanging out in the studio all day.

KS: Are there certain work hours you try to hit in a given day, or are you more of a “catch as catch can” creator?

RS: I try to match Rob’s hours, but I’m not the best morning person, so my work day usually starts at 10 and ends at 7ish. I’ll go back to work after tea sometimes if I’ve got a lot on.
KS: Where do you stand on listening to music, or any other background noise, while working? Or does it vary based on which task you’re doing?
RS: I can’t have anything on when I’m writing, but if I’m drawing or coloring I like having podcasts on. I’m a big fan of My Brother, My Brother and Me and My Dad Wrote a Porno. I’ll put music on in the mornings sometimes, though, if I need to wake up a bit. Self Esteem is good for that.
KS: We’re now at the eight-year anniversary of your first graphic novel, House Party. Can you talk about how that book went from an idea to a physical reality? Obviously, the marketplace has changed since then, but please give us the overview of how a particular creator got her debut out into the world.

RS: It’s funny when folks talk about House Party being my debut work. I suppose it was my first graphic novel, but I actually had a few comics under my belt at that point, too, which I still think fondly of.  House Party started as another mini-comic, but ended up being something more long-form as I wrote it. It was a little autobiographical, about feeling unmoored after finishing university and not really knowing where you fit into the world. When I figured out it was going to be a graphic novel, I put a pitch together and it got picked up by Great Beast, an artist publishing company/collective. We raised the money to print the book on Kickstarter, and it was then I learned that I had an actual audience! The book was funded in four days. Great Beast helped me get the book ready for print — something I didn’t really know much about — and then I had 1,000 copies to stack in my bedroom and send out! My room smelled like Waterstones for months.

KS: Looking back at that project now, what’s something you can see as different about the Rachael who made it than the current you?

RS: I’m less nervous about things now. I was so anxious about House Party, mainly about me mucking something up — like putting some of the pages in upside-down or something. I’m better at trusting myself these days. I’m also less of a control freak about things now.
KS: When you sit down to start a new graphic novel, how do you typically find your way “i?n” Would you say it’s more plot or imagery first?

RS: I usually sketch out characters and then ask them questions and learn about them. My work is usually very character-driven, so it makes sense to start with them. Then, it's a lot of writing. I like to have a whole story plotted out before I draw any thumbnails or panels.

KS: One high-profile comic you’ve been involved with is Doctor Who. Did you pursue that project or vice versa?

RS: I was approached at a comic con by an editor at Titan who asked if I’d be open to pitching for some work there. I said yes and it ended up being the Doctor Who gig. They wanted someone to do 2-3 page comics each month for the Tenth Doctor comic series.

KS: Were you a fan of the property already?

RS: At this point I hadn’t seen the show much at all, so I binged a box set for a couple weeks and then put my pitch together. I got the gig! I think I did those comics for three years or so before they moved on to something else. It was a super fun job; I still get to do variant covers sometimes which I really like doing.
KS: I was going to ask about a person who was especially helpful to you somewhere along your professional path…

RS: Andrew James was the editor at Titan that gave me the Doctor Who gig. That opened a lot of doors for me, and I’ll always be so grateful to him. Ricky Miller at Avery Hill has been a constant source of support to me, too. I could fill pages with names, though — the comics scene has been very kind to me.
KS: Please tell us about a hobby of yours totally unrelated to what you do for a living.

RS: That’s so tricky because everything is linked really, especially when you make autobiographical comics like I do! I read a lot, and draw and paint for fun, but maybe they’re too close to writing and drawing for work… I play D&D every Monday with pals, which is really fun. Even that is collaborative storytelling, though, isn’t it? I go for walks every weekend… will that do?
KS: That will do. Finally, can you think of a comic or graphic novel by anyone else that you’d hold up as an example of the craft at its highest form?

RS: The Love Bunglers by Jaime Hernandez is the best graphic novel I’ve ever read. It’s like a stab in the heart. Just read it if you haven’t. And read it again if you have.
KS: As we exit, please let readers know what you have on your plate now and what to be on the lookout for going forward.
RS: I’m just finishing up Isabella & Blodwen, a graphic novel I’ve written and drawn. It’ll be out with Cast Iron Books this summer. Then, I’ll be going straight on to volume 2 of The Queen’s Favorite Witch, drawn by me and written by Ben Dickson, which will be out either late this year or early next year through Papercutz. I have a remastered version of my autobiographical graphic novel, Stand In Your Power, coming out in November with Icon Books, and some other bits and bobs that I can’t really talk about right now!


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