Bucking this year’s autobiographical trend, Witchmarked is a historical fiction tale of identity told in a manga style
Irina Richards is a comics/manga artist and educator living in Cambridge. Her first historical graphic novel, Witchmarked is the story of a young girl named Iola, whose life is upturned when she is captured in a Viking raid. She manages to escape and wakes up on an Hebridean island, finding refuge with a group of women.
The dominant theme in this year’s Laydeez Do Comics Prize submissions has been autobiography, which is why it’s refreshing to see a story of Vikings and fierce warriors make it to the final selection. Richards uses the historical setting to tell a modern story of one person’s struggle to find their place in a prejudiced society.
Josh Franks: How did you get into making comics and drawing manga? Have you always been interested in them?
Irina Richards: Absolutely–I have been an anime and manga fan since I was about 12, but even before that, I was an avid reader of comics! Titles such as Archie and ElfQuest have been a major influence on my artistic identity, and I have always relied on the comic/graphic novel as a storytelling medium. Manga has a bit of a stigma attached to it – it is often perceived as something “just for kids/teens” or a bit of light entertainment, but in actual fact there are a huge variety of manga titles covering different themes and suitable for all ages.
JF: A great deal of the submissions for the Laydeez do Comics Prize were autobiographical stories, while Witchmarked is a historical tale that appears to be an allegory for how we still treat outsiders today. When and how did you realise that this was the story you wanted to tell?
IR: I have had this particular story in my mind (and my numerous sketchbooks) for a very long time–since my early teens, in fact! I feel that the story has grown and developed along with me. It weaves together a lot of my influences and interests, such as Britain in the Dark Ages, language, mythology, fantasy and female empowerment. But Witchmarked is, first and foremost, a coming-of-age story of a young person treated differently in a very superstitious and closed-minded society, and her struggle to fit in and find her “tribe”. Despite the story taking place 1,200 years ago, I believe that many modern-age people would find it easy to relate to Witchmarked. It goes to show how little has actually changed since then.
JF: Tell me about your creative process. Do you draw digitally or by hand? Are there any particular techniques you use?
IR: Typically, I draw most of my art and comics entirely digitally, using CLIP Studio Paint and a Cintiq 13HD tablet. I like to do my thumbnails (small, rough page sketches) by hand, usually on a train/bus/while waiting for a train or a bus! Before starting to draw Witchmarked, I did a lot of research, which helped me visualise the environment and the setting of the story. Music is also a major part of my creative process; I create playlists for different parts of the story, and all my original characters have “their” songs.
Read our interviews with the other shortlisted creators of the Laydeez Do Comics prize 2019: