In Rachel Kahn’s autobiographical webcomic By Crom! the artist gets life advice from Conan the Barbarian. First appearing in 2012, the series manages to be both inspirational and absurd, as the battle-hardened warrior tries to bolster up Kahn’s confidence while she struggles against such enemies as the common cold and her own self doubt. Kahn was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss her work, as well as her experiences in the comics field.
JS: By Crom! is such a beautifully executed concept—the juxtaposition of relatable everyday problems with Conan the Barbarian’s no nonsense demeanor is nothing short of comedic gold. Where did the idea spring from?
RK: Thank you for the kind words. The comic premise came to me when, after about six months of obsessively reading as much Conan stuff as I could get my hands on (especially the early Savage Sword comics, oh my Buscema could draw!). I was brainstorming a short bio [for an event] and a good friend suggested I use Conan’s intro from the 1981 movie (“between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and…”) in lieu of my own. I countered with a quote that I didn’t think of myself as Conan, but instead, that Conan was sort of my spiritual guide. It turned out that was a pretty good joke, so I put it on paper, and a few friends told me to keep going with it, and here we are now!
JS: What are some of your artistic influences? Along with visual artists, what authors, musicians, etc. do you feel inspired by?
RK: This is such a big list, honestly. In the field of comics, folks who’ve been blowing my mind include Sfe Monster, Emily Carroll, Becky Cloonan, Evan Dahm, Sloane Leong, Marian Churchland, Jeff Smith, Rumiko Takahashi. I love a lot of fantasy and sci-fi illustrators like John Berkey, Ian McQue, Wayne Reynolds, Frank Frazetta, John Harris, Ivan Billbin, Jen Zee, Natalie Hall, Hannah Christensen. In fine art, I always find myself inspired by Edward Hopper, David Blackwood, Frank Carmichael, Mary Pratt, Georgia O’Keefe. For music, I’m a big metal head and this week I’m listening to a ton of Rainbow, The Sword, Clutch, Opeth, Ghost and Mastodon. Besides metal, I love the Gorillaz, the Beatles, Fiona Apple, Broadway songs, especially from Camelot and other shows with a sense of humor and tragedy.
Music is really important to me to regulate my mood and keep me inspired. Authors I can’t get enough of include Terry Pratchett, William Gibson, Ursula Le Guin, Leigh Brackett, Patricia McKillip. I’m eagerly awaiting Patrick Rothfuss’ next Kvothe book. I’ve also got to credit certain films – I think comic storytelling has a lot of overlap with film, especially re: pacing, and my comics are absolutely influenced by great cartoons like The Last Unicorn, Samurai Jack, and Steven Universe. And, I’d be lying if I tried to hide The Princess Bride or all the Shaw Brothers’ films influences on my work. I recently got to see the original Black Angel short and it blew my mind with how visual and silent its storytelling was. Anyways, wow, that’s a huge list! Hope that offers some inspiration to other folks!
JS: I’m mostly familiar with your work on By Crom!, are there any other personal projects you’re working on at the moment?
RK: Why yes there are! I’m working hard to put more time into my personal comics these days. Right now there’s a new issue of Wolf Neighbours on my drawing tablet (it might be out when you’re reading this, though!) for publication in Worlds Without Master. Wolf Neighbours is set in the same world my sword and sorcery comic Orin and the Dead Man’s Sword. It’s a world of mysterious magic starting to slip through from the ice age wilderness into civilization. Wolf Neighbours follows two farmers as they discover, through no fault of their own, how much their everyday life is getting turned upside down by this new magic. Orin and the Dead Man’s Sword follows two separate characters at the very center of the magic, learning about themselves and the world around them as they unknowingly start to change things. I’m really excited to keep drawing chapters of these two stories and I can’t wait to share them! Orin and the Dead Man’s Sword has one chapter up to read for free on Weald Comics, and Wolf Neighbours is running in Worlds Without Master.
My newest project will be a proper webcomic, focused on linking my passion for music with my passion for comics. Called Resonant Realms, it is a comic that uses specific albums to inspire strange landscapes, and each page will take the reader through a single song. I’ve got a preview issue of stand alone landscapes running right now on Weald Comics, with the first album starting next month.
JS: There are so many webcomics made each and every day. What is the appeal of creating comics for the web? What are some of the difficulties?
RK: I think the biggest appeal is being able to grow organically and potentially reaching a large audience. My experience with putting By Crom! online is that at first, you might not have any eyes on your work, but since your cost of publishing is so incredibly low, if you have the time, you can keep working without any recognition or income while you give your work a chance to find an audience. After a few years of sharing By Crom! online, I still meet new fans every convention, and that’s amazing. Thank goodness for the internet!
The other appeal is potentially also a difficulty, and that is the thin boundary between creator and fan. I get to meet fans through Tumblr and email, which is amazing, and I’ve had some fantastic conversations and met other brilliant creators simply because it’s so easy to reach out and message one another.
The other side of that coin, however, is that fans who want something more from you can reach out and demand it. You can easily trip across comments on your work – or even have things said right into your inbox – that are dismissive, cruel or creepy. It can be really hard to filter things when your work, and yourself, out like that online. It’s a risk all creators take when they share work publicly like you do with webcomics.
Another difficulty is having no boss. Without someone you to task you have to develop a work ethic that keeps you meeting your deadlines and behaving like a professional at all times. Another appeal, however, is that you can scale your work so that you only promise what you can easily achieve.
JS: What are some of the webcomics you enjoy reading?
RK: I’m hooked on Witchy, The Black Bull of Norroway, Skin Horse, Bad Machinery, Eth’s Skin, O Human Star, Rice Boy, Bone, Barbarian Lord, and so many more! Check out the artists I mentioned above, they’ve all made incredible comics I’m excited to be able to read!
JS: As a comics creator how do you feel about mainstream media attention on comics?
RK: I think mainstream media relies on stereotypes and so is just starting to notice the breadth of comics. I’m lucky to live in Toronto, where TCAF[Toronto Comic Arts Festival] takes place, and so we have a local comics culture that knows that comics can be about and for anyone and anything. I look forward to news and TV catching up in that regard.
JS: What do you think of the comic book fandom community? As a woman in the field have you ever felt unwelcome in any way?
RK: I think the fandom as a whole is incredible, diverse and absolutely wonderful. I think there are pockets of it that are super toxic, on a whole array of levels.
As a woman, there has always been a weird disconnect, because when I got into webcomics as a teen, almost every single comic I read online was written, drawn or wholly created by another woman. We were all over the internet, writing crazy fan fiction, huge long-arc fantasy comics, short sitcom joke-a-day comics, humorous mad science epics, and everything in between. When I went to my first comic convention, however, it was clear that women were in the minority. While I was lucky enough not to have anyone target me or actively try to make me uncomfortable, the casual sexism of assuming women were into specific kinds of comics, or there with their boyfriends, or approaching comic con as a sort of power-mad dating game, still wears me down.
I had a fan (a BIG fan, he said) of By Crom! approach me at a festival and tell me who he’d cast for the movie version: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan of course, and for the other character (who, in the comic is me, a woman, because the comic is autobiographical!) he suggested Owen Wilson, for his “every-man charm”. I am confident this fan meant no harm – he bought books, got a sketch, all in all seemed really passionate about the comic – but his anecdote told me that he just assumed that the other character was a man, or would have to be in a film adaptation. That sucked, it took the wind out of me to be told by someone who liked my work that they couldn’t imagine actually seeing me in it; even after I had drawn myself into every single comic. That’s the casual sexism that [the comics industry] still needs to work on.
The solution to feeling down about it all has always been, though, incredibly simple: gather with other women. Share stories. Support, encourage and warn one another about the landscape. A lot of my own good experiences and the lack if really negative ones has been thanks to strong women who fielded some terrible stuff (stalking, harassment, sexual assault) and made sure that, even if they couldn’t get anything official done about it, they still warned other women about who was dangerous. The worst way to navigate being a woman in comics is to do it alone.
JS: There are now comics that are written by women resonating with a wide audience; books like This One Summer, Nimona, and Ms. Marvel. How do you feel about the ever expanding role of women in the field of comics?
RK: Great! I mean, really amazing. I hope we continue to build up speed and knock down as many barriers as possible, especially at the bigger publishing houses, where sexism still limits the number of women artists, writers and lead characters in their libraries.
I’d like to add, as well, that while comics are making progress at becoming more inclusive towards women, they still have a long way to go to be wholly intersectional in their inclusiveness – people of colour, of different sexualities, and trans folk can all become subject to much more insidious bigotry, both casual and aggressive. If a white, cis woman like me start to feel comfortable in comics, then my net job is making sure to open the door for everyone else. You can check out Rachel Kahn’s work at bycrom.tumblr.com, and wealdcomics.com. You can also purchase pdf downloads of the entire By Crom! series at gumroad.com.