Discovering That You’re Russian: Vera Brosgol and Anya’s Ghost


Born in Moscow, and based in Oregon, Vera Brosgol is the artist and writer of the Eisner-nominated Anya’s Ghost from First Second Books. She currently works, draws, writes, bakes, and knits in Portland.

Recently, comics writer Jorge Aguirre and comics artist Rafael Rosado sat down with Vera to talk about her latest release and about digging through her Russian roots.

RAFAEL: Do you see any parallels in storytelling in comic book form and telling stories in storyboards for film/TV? Do you feel like there’s any crossover?

VERA: Yeah! There are totally parallels. You think about a lot of the same things—staging, acting, composition… You’re fleshing out a world in the same way. In boarding usually the dialogue isn’t up to you the way it is in comics (assuming you are writing your own comics) but you get to make a lot of the same decisions. It definitely feels like you’re using the same part of your brain.

RAFAEL: Do you feel the need to make personal animation work outside of the work you do at your daily gig or is comic book work fulfilling that impulse?

VERA: I don’t really have an impulse to make personal animation work, because the part of animation I like best is, oddly enough, storyboarding. I’m a pretty lousy animator and am basically useless in any other part of the process (except cleanup maybe). I do have a desire to do personal storytelling, though, and that’s where comics step in. I work on someone else’s story all day and then I go home and try to figure out one of my own. And you can cover a lot more ground with comics than you can trying to make animation all by yourself! My student film took 8 months for 2 minutes—not super efficient.

RAFAEL: I read in an interview that you said that you don’t feel like you have one particular style, that your style changes as you change to different mediums and learn new tricks.How much of having a changing style is related to doing animation storyboards and constantly having to adapt your style to a different film?

VERA: Haha! The nice thing about feature boarding is, a lot of the time the designs aren’t finalized so no one gets on your case if you’re not “on model”. (I am not the best at “on model”—everyone’s always got bigger eyes than they probably should.) So usually I get to draw more or less however I’m comfortable. It does change with each movie, though—the way I boarded on Coraline is really different from how I boarded on Paranorman. Part of it is what the directors want but part of it is just getting very slowly better at it (I hope!).

I was referring more to my personal work, but that kind of evolves in tandem with the animation stuff. Whenever I find a new Photoshop brush, look out!

RAFAEL/JORGE: We read something to effect of you saying (paraphrasing here) that one reason you ended up in animation is that you wanted to find work that let you draw and have insurance.We both have day jobs for pretty much the same reason.How do you balance having a day job with creating new work, supporting the work that’s already out there, and life? Given the opportunity to do comic books full time would you drop it all and just do that?

VERA: There ain’t no shame in a day job! Day Job usually wins that fight, as well it should because it is paying the mortgage. Also it helps that what I do for a living is really, really fulfilling—I’m so lucky. If I didn’t work at Laika I’d probably be stalking the internet for any news of their next movie and seeing them all twelve times. If all I ever did was boarding I’d be pretty darn happy. But I do have a few hours left in the day and it’s great to be able to spend them telling my own stories—it’s pretty much the one thing I don’t get to do at work that I’d like to do. I’m still trying to work out the balance of all this stuff—I don’t have time to go to lots of comic conventions and promote myself as well as I should, and if I’m really tired after work the last thing I want to do is draw. But it’s really important to me so I’m trying to keep up with it.

I don’t know how well I’d fare doing comics full-time—I like being in a studio full of people very much. And let’s face it, comics don’t pay as well as they should. I love comics a lot but I think I’m too addicted to stability.

RAFAEL/JORGE: We’ve heard that you write and draw at the same time. And we saw inyour 24-Hour comic that you were working on an outline (presumably, and hopefully) for your next graphic novel.ForAnya’s Ghost, did you follow an outline, and then write and draw as you went? What’s your writing process like?

I did a rough outline for Anya—it was just getting the sequence of events down in order so I wouldn’t forget anything. The book is pretty light on talking, but for the scenes that had a lot of back-and-forth dialogue I’d type it up to make sure it sounded right. I just did it in a text file, because I have no idea how to format a script. It was just a few pages long and as soon as I finished thumbnailing it went pretty much out the window.

This time around I’m trying to be a bit more methodical, since the story is more complicated and needs some careful plotting. But I still don’t know how to write a script! So it’s just a very very long detailed text file. I’m using a program called Scrivener that lets you structure your writing by scene and has a digital corkboard and stuff. It’s a bit fancy for my needs but so far I like it.

RAFAEL/JORGE: Can you see yourself writing a graphic novel for someone else to draw or drawing a graphic novel written by someone else? How closely is writing and drawing connected for you?

VERA: I’ve been turning down comics work written by other people, just because I spend 8 hours a day drawing someone else’s story. I am all set on doing that! So I just want to do my own stuff in my off-time. Since it’s not paying the bills I don’t really have to compromise, which is a total luxury. But if someone I super-duper admired wrote something and wanted me to draw it I would absolutely revise this decision. And writing something for someone ELSE to draw is even more of a decadent fantasy. That would be difficult and amazing.

Writing and drawing are pretty connected and kind of come from the same place. Sort of a magical invisible idea-well. But drawing is much much easier for me. Sitting at a keyboard coming up with stuff is always a bit like pulling teeth but drawing is on autopilot. Unless I have to draw a fighter jet or something, then that’s pulling teeth too.

RAFAEL/JORGE: We both found Anya to be a really fascinating character and her Russian culture was so important to her story.Do you have plans to revisit your ethnic roots in your future work? Is your cultural background something you are really interested in exploring more in comics?

VERA: I think my cultural background is fascinating and I look forward to learning more and more about it. But I feel like I’m pretty much done covering it in comics—I don’t want to be the girl who does all the Russian-immigrant books, I think that niche has been satisfied. It’s always really interesting exploring feelings of being different, though—that’s definitely something I’d come back to. So I think my experiences will be filtered through in other ways.

RAFAEL/JORGE: From reading your 24-Hour, we were amazed (and of course, envious) by how much you do in a single day.And in the evening you even managed to play chess, spin some yarn, write, watch some Mad Men,and more.How do you pack so much into one day?

VERA: Haha, that was an unusually eventful day! A happy coincidence. Sometimes it’s just me hiding from my thumbnails all day long, and a lot more Mad Men and a lot less writing. I try to be productive, though. In general.

RAFAEL/JORGE: Thanks, again, Vera for letting us hit you with questions!

Jorge Aguire is a writer and Rafael Rosado is an artist and together they co-created Giants Beware! from First Second Books. Besides graphic novels, Rafael is also an animator and storybook artist based in Columbus, Ohio, and Jorge writes for animated kids shows, and he’s based in New Jersey.


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