Ashanti Fortson, notable creator of several comics like Leaf lace and the next graphic novel Watercress & Petra, talks about their creative process and the inspiration behind their work.
A while ago I put the spotlight on Ashanti Fortson and reviewed their new short comic Leaf lace, a story about mourning and what it means to live. It’s a pleasure to have him here to share the process and inspiration behind his storytelling and art.
The Geek: Thank you very much for taking the time to be here! Let’s start by introducing yourself!
Ashanti Fortson: Hi, thank you very much for having me! I’m Ashanti Fortson, Baltimore-based cartoonist, illustrator, comic book publisher, and illustration teacher. It’s hard to tie a unifying theme within my work, as I’m interested in exploring different topics with each project, but a lot of it is speculative fiction that addresses vulnerability. I enjoy doing thoughtful, lush, tender and emotionally impactful work. I am also a big fan of comedy essays!
TG: Leaf lace is such an emotional journey. Your art evokes the atmosphere and dynamics of the characters so easily. What sparked the idea for this wonderful comic? What inspired him?
Ashanti: Thank you! Leaf lace spent a lot of time marinating before doing so, so there is plenty to do. Part of the inspiration for the comic was my own emotional treatment of love and the loss that comes with it. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about “anticipated grief,” where you mourn a loved one before they actually pass away – maybe even before their death is realistic or achievable.
Anticipated grief, in my mind, has turned out to be a defense mechanism: you don’t want to experience the sheer pain of losing a loved one, so you prepare in advance. It denies an ignorance of death itself, inevitable both in its material reality and in its emotional reality. Ideas of anti-bereavement defense mechanisms and the desperation of trying to “deal” with death and its effects have become the conceptual core of Leaf lace.
There is another facet, however, that manifests itself in the visual. Textile art is a great source of inspiration in my work in general: embroidery, knitting, weaving, etc. Thinking about mourning, I began to understand it through textiles. Lifelong mourning, like knitting or embroidery, is an accumulation. One after another, after another, after another.
A shawl is an accumulation of stitches, resulting in a finished piece. Anticipated grief is an accumulation of suffering, culminating in the harsh reality of death. Likewise, love is an accumulation of memory, culminating in a life worth living. This is what has become Leaf lace.
TG: What is your creative process?
Ashanti: This is a great question! My comic book process is quite multifaceted and tends to be heavy in the front rather than the back. By this I mean I do almost all of the thinking, planning and editing ASAP in the process – I don’t like to lose work so I want to get it right the first time I execute. my ideas ! On a more concrete level, my process is loosely segmented into three stages: conceptualization, writing, and execution.
The conceptualization stage is basically what I talked about regarding the inspiration for Leaf lace! This is the stage where I work on what I want to achieve with the project, what I want to explore or communicate, and how I want to express the ideas I’m working with. Most of the time this step is all in my head, and I try not to share my thoughts with other people throughout this step. If I am talking about a project during this step, I still look very awkward! So I let the vegetables simmer until they are ready for the writing step.
When the ideas are all ready, I begin to describe the story. My outlines are very detailed. This is where I try to put the most work; if possible i want to have the outline rock solid before the script. I describe everything I know about the story, both narratively and visually. I include (and emphasize) emotional rhythms, not just plot rhythms. Then comes the assembly! Whether I am working with an editor or not, I will edit my plan in depth. The more problems I solve in my plan, the less work I have to do later.
The next part of the writing process is scripting, which is the easiest and fastest step. I’m mainly working on the dialogue and the page-to-page rhythm here. I am also including descriptions of images for myself, but everything is preliminary. The next step in writing is creating thumbnails. I consider this to be the most crucial part of writing a comic book. The script provides the measurements for the vignette, which is the foundation and structure of the house. I am also meticulous in my thumbnails; ideally, nothing reaches the pencils unless it is completely solid at the compositional, visual, spatial and narrative levels.
The next part of the writing is the cartoon drawing… which is technically the cartoon drawing! But in comics, to draw is to write. The cartoon drawing is where I deal with the finer parts of the writing: expressions, body language, design, detail. The last part of the writing is the color design, where I lay out all the pages in pencil on a small scale and block in raw color for each page and panel. It allows me to make writing decisions about atmosphere, mood, character relationships, emotions and impact. It also allows me to solve any visual problems in the “color story” of the narrative. (Contrast issues, too bright to print, etc.) These are the last stages where I make major changes; as of now, these are only the last settings.
The third stage is execution, which brings the pencil pages to the final stage. My process for this is an ink / linework and lettering step and then a final coloring step. This step involves the least conceptualization, planning, and editing, but it is by far the longest and most laborious step. So the comic is over! To finish!
TG: What advice would you give to a creative person looking to perfect their art and showcase their work?
Ashanti: If I could give just one piece of advice, it would be to practice thoughtfulness and intentionality in your work. It involves asking yourself lots of questions, questioning your intentions, and self-reflection when it comes to your job. What are your goals for this? What do you want? How do you get there? Thoughtful and intentional practice is a thousand times more effective than “automatic” practice. Always ask yourself questions and determine what your answers are.
You can read more about black creators and their works on The Geekiary here.
Author: Brahidaliz Martinez
Brahidaliz (pronounced Bra-da-leez) graduated in 2019 from the Masters program in Creative Writing at American University. They are Submission Editors for Uncanny Magazine. Their diverse areas of interest include intersectionality in apocalyptic and disaster films, artificial intelligence, writing for animation, YA SFF, and LGBTQ + portrayal in children’s media.
Pronouns: he / they
Location: DC Metropolitan Area
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