I’ve read My Cage on GoComics off and on, so I was familiar with the names Melissa DeJesus and Ed Power. When the GoComics editors announced that Ed and Melissa’s graphic novel, Santa versus Dracula was going to run a couple pages a week, I was interested to see what was going to unfold. Eventually, I bought the ebook for SvD, and it’s a good read. The idea is that Dracula wants Santa’s ability to enter people’s houses without needing an invitation, so he collects a bunch of other monsters and makes a raid on the North Pole. The artwork is anime-influenced, but there’s a lot of western cultural references, including Twilight, and Teen Wolf. My Cage is more of a gag-a-day strip where humans have been replaced by anthropomorphic animals that are now doing all the office work. Completely different art styles, but both are good in their own ways. Today I’m pleased to be talking with Melissa, the artist side of the duo.
BC: Who are you?
MD: Melissa DeJesus, artist for the My Cage comic strip and the Santa versus Dracula graphic novel.
BC: What personal details do you think are relevant to readers to know about you?
MD: I was born and raised in Queens, New York, and I currently live in Brooklyn. I was always an ambitious child. From early on I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I attended Art and Design High School in Manhattan and the School of Visual Arts for my undergrad and graduate degrees, also in Manhattan.
BC: Is there any relation to anime-influenced artist Robert Dejesus?
MD: None at all.
BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
MD: For as long as I can remember people would ask what I was and it kept changing – artist, cartoonist, comic artist, graphic novelist, animator, illustrator, designer, and educator. I’d like to add writer to that list one day but there are times when I feel more like one than the other. I’ve spent almost two decades doing all these things and I still don’t know what to call myself. It almost feels like an identity crisis for me.
BC: How did you get your start as whatever it is you are?
MD: Artist! I’m going to pick artist. I’ve been drawing since I was 4. I picked up different skills throughout the years through various experiences. Once you learn a new skill, you get work applying those new skill sets. For example, I started comics in high school and animation in college. I did both professionally for years, going back and forth between the two. When I started illustrating for King Features Syndicate, I had to relearn how to tell sequential stories in the newspaper comic strip format. It’s obviously different than comic pages when you first look at it, but the rules are vast and very specific.
BC: What were your tasks before KFS bought the rights to My Cage?
MD: I was working on Sokora Refugees for Tokyopop at the time and other freelance gigs. When the editor approached me, he was already working with Ed on the strips. They were looking for an artist and he reached out to me.
BC: How long have you been artisting, and what do you think your biggest breaks were?
MD: I’m still at it! Learning new things and working my craft. My biggest break was getting my first freelance gig while still in high school. Since I was a minor, 16 I think, my mother had to sign the contract as well. It’s kind of funny when I think back on it, but it was a great learning experience. I think every major point in my career were big breaks but the one in high school was the first.
BC: What led up to your starting My Cage, and do you have any other pokers in the fire right now?
MD: I was contacted by Jay Kennedy back in 2006/2007. He was an editor at King Features Syndicate. He asked if I wanted to illustrate a newly acquired comic strip for newspapers. I said yes without thinking about it. That was a hard industry to get into and a rare opportunity. I jumped right on it. I spent over 3 years drawing My Cage daily for newspapers. I think I have about 1,200 strips accumulated, more now that we continued the series. Do I have any other pokers in the fire now? I always do.
BC: Anything you care to promote right now?
MD: I don’t have anything ready to promote since nothing is finished yet, but I am working on a few short stories, a comic and a game. Eventually, I’ll start posting announcements and updates on my projects at http://www.sketchypair.com/, which I need to be updated as well.
BC: Which of your works are you most happy with, or proud of?
MD: I’m always happy with my work. I learn from each experience and move on. Specifically, the works I’m most proud of were an animated short, Space Chase, I made in college with two of my girlfriends, and a comic strip, Vampire Zombies in Space, that I made for my husband a few years ago. I’m most proud of any original work I do on my own – and finish it.
BC: I know you have collections on the market – where can readers find them?
MD: You can find everything on Amazon. Haha.
BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of paper?
MD: It all starts in the head for me. Whether it’s my own idea or drawing from scripts Ed provides me, I picture it in my head first. Once I visualize it, I sketch it on paper. Easier said than done, right? Hah. You also have to be in the right mind set, too. You need that drive or spark that motivates you into working out that idea or comic, and how you want others to see that vision. Comics I draw for myself come out very differently than other freelance works I have done for various people and companies. It’s how I tell a story versus how the other person tells a story even though I’m the same person drawing it.
BC: Why use an anime-influenced character style? Is there anything that attracts you to that style over others? How do you pick a style to match a project you’re developing?
MD: I was originally attracted to the anime style through video games when I started high school. It was fun and unique and it fit how I wanted to express my art at the time. Over the years I tried to change and develop my style but with animation (at the time), it was a little hard to maintain the same look for hundreds of frames. I think with comics there’s a little more room for artistic development. Eventually your art becomes your signature and people will recognize it’s yours. Sometimes a job will request work based on a specific illustration I did in the past. Like with My Cage, I thought it would be a great opportunity to try something different but the editor specifically wanted an anime style for the strip. We went back and forth with designs and that’s how Norm got his crazy hair. Half bald and half spiky anime hair. When working on my own projects I take into account what format I’m going to work in; the best way to tell my story, whether it be traditional, digital, comics, or animation. I then decide what style will work best; something colorful and cartoony for a younger audience or something more serious drawn in black and white.
BC: Can you talk about the process for working with Ed? How do the two of you go from idea to finished strip, and do you always agree as to what works and what doesn’t? How is this different from doing your own works from scratch?
MD: With Ed, he writes a script. Every once in a while he’ll make a note if the character is doing something specific in a panel. All other times, I have the freedom to illustrate how the panels look. Sometimes I draw the characters doing something in the background or while they talk to each other. I think it helps add my signature to the strip.
BC: What’s the easiest and hardest parts about working on My Cage, and SvD?
MD: The easiest thing about working on My Cage is probably the repetition. Drawing the same characters and locations over and over again becomes easy and takes less time to draw. The hardest thing about My Cage is referencing specific characters or drawing celebrities as anthro characters. That becomes time consuming. SvD is the same. Drawing new characters, even if I designed them, I still need to reference them until I remember every detail. Consistency is important. Oh, and drawing groups of characters, that’s always a pain. Haha.
BC: If you were to go back and start SvD from scratch, is there anything you’d change?
MD: I drew a few pages out of sequence, I wish I could go back and change them a bit, maybe some backgrounds too. But anything else I’d change? No, not really. I might have been more aggressive about getting the word out there but I’m pretty happy with it overall.
BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
MD: For My Cage? Silence.
BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers? Have you met any of them? Got any dirt on them?
MD: I have many favorite artists and writers. My husband is a personal favorite of mine. Yes, I’m being biased but his art has always been a motivation and inspiration for me. When we’re drawing together, I’ll look over and think “Hmm, he drew that better than me. Let me try and draw it better.” Ha ha. In all honesty though, it’s not a competition as much as I like his vision or portrayal of something more than my own. It motivates me to try harder and explore my skills more.
MD: But as an artist you’re always looking for new inspiration, whether it be new talent or old masters. Like anything else, your tastes change over the years and you find new favorites, so I try to find inspiration from everywhere. Yes, I have met and known a few artists and writers, and no, I don’t have dirt on them. I only have nice things to say.
BC: Do you follow any other strips right now?
MD: I don’t follow any comic strips right now. When you’re constantly working it’s hard to follow things. I always come across comics and animations though. When I do, I try to absorb as much as possible before I have to put it down again. I did recently read 6 volumes of Last Man, a French comic, and saw an animated short on youtube called I, Pet Goat II.
BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
MD: Art always catches my attention first, but I do look for good writing and good storytelling. Unique content and subject matter will grab my attention, too. When I have time, I try to give everything a chance. Many times I pass up things I’m not interested in at first glance but end up really liking later.
BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
MD: The storytelling, writing and pacing. Without it, you have pretty pictures that make no sense. I mean, you can have pretty pictures perfectly drawn with no words, but if you can tell a story sequentially without words, then I’m impressed.
BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter?
MD: We used Kickstarter for Santa versus Dracula. It helped a lot at the time. We’re currently using Patreon for the new My Cage comic strips as well.
BC: How do you think they are changing the face of webcartooning?
MD: I love drawing, and I love creating things. I could do it forever but I have bills and debt just like everyone else. We all need money to live and any artist would love to live off their craft. Sometimes an artist’s creative output doesn’t equal the income they need or deserve. Crowdfunding sites are giving creative people a chance to work on their craft and make it available to everyone. I really appreciate the opportunity they provide but I also have to thank the fans that understand this and help support the creative talent out there.
BC: Do you have any projects coming up? Appearances scheduled for conventions?
MD: I don’t have any scheduled appearances at cons at the moment but I will be attending PAX. I’m focusing on a handful of projects right now and they need to be completed before I start showing my face again.
BC: Anything else you want to expound upon?
MD: I find it interesting that fans of Sokora are not necessarily fans of My Cage and fans of My Cage aren’t necessarily fans of Santa versus Dracula. My fans over the years don’t follow every project I do. Either they don’t realize I’ve moved onto something completely different or they’re not interested in it. In the past, I’ve shown my youngest students my various artworks; some children will say one thing is ugly and the other really cute. I keep trying new things all the time and never really settled on anything. It’s hard to keep an audience like that. In the last few years I had to take a step back and really think what I was going to stick with. Hopefully the projects I’m working on now will reflect a little of everything about me and what I can do.
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Melissa DeJesus © 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright © of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)
Poll: Who would win in a fair fight – Santa or Dracula?