Minxi and Namsai on Crafting a Comic About Care

Welcome to our very first Behind the Naratif post! In this new series, we go behind the scenes and examine how our stories are made. To start us off, the creative team behind “Growing Together: A Guide to Collective Care” chat about their experiences with collective care, the process and artistic decisions involved in making a comic, as well as the surprises they encountered along the way.

C: Minxi, could you tell us how you came up with the idea for this comic, and why it’s so important to talk about collective care?

M: The comic was conceived through a collaborative effort between Charis and myself—very much on theme with the concept! During my time at New Naratif, one of my main goals was to create a sustainable and ethical organisational culture. I drew inspiration from radical activist spheres, particularly the disability justice movement, in order to shape this culture. When Charis suggested I put some of the concepts and techniques I’d learned through my work into a comic, I jumped at the chance.

I wanted to focus on collective care because that’s the basis on which all organisational principles at New Naratif are built. As activism becomes more corporatised and neoliberal, it’s easy to forget why we do this work in the first place. It’s because we care about the world we live in, we care for the people around us. And we want to be cared for by others as well.

Style tests for different panels in the comic, by Namsai.

M: Namsai, what are your thoughts on collective care? Do you have experience with collective care practices in your own artistic community? 

N: I’d never heard of the term “collective care” before, but after reading about it, I think I have a community that nurtures similar practices. It is more like a spiritual circle, and it has been my safe space for a long time. So in a way, I could naturally grasp the concept of collective care. 

What I find interesting is the relationship between self-care, collective care and social activism. Reading your writing and materials really gave me insight into how I might express my stance against social injustice and work for causes I believe in, in a way that isn’t self-destructive. I especially loved reading bell hooks’s writing on love that you sent me. It’s something I have been thinking about lately, and it’s surprisingly timely that I got to work on this project. 

As for my own artistic community, I actually started a collective earlier this year. It was primarily for creating something cool together, but at some point it also became a sharing circle. In retrospect, I think it was something close to collective care. Now everything is on hiatus, but hopefully we can come together again.

C: I’m curious: how does it feel, as a writer, to see your text transformed and translated by an artist (and editor)? Was there anything that surprised you about the process? Was there a difference in the way you wrote the text, knowing it would become a comic?

M: I’ve always loved reading comics, and I deeply respect the craft behind the art. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is one of the best craft books I’ve ever read, with a lot to teach regardless of which art form you work in. So being able to collaborate with Namsai on this comic has been a great experience for me!

Something that surprised me—or rather, something I’ve become more attentive to—is the amount of effort that goes into the editing process. As a writer, I took for granted the ease with which I could make adjustments to my end of the piece. But changing details as small as punctuation marks means quite a lot of work for the artist, particularly in the case of Namsai’s art style, which uses watercolours. Having worked with her, I have even more respect now for the dedication, time and energy that goes into creating beautiful visual art.

As for differences in how I wrote the text, I just told myself: it has to be 500 words or less! Otherwise, it’s going to be hard for Charis to edit, and she won’t be happy with me!

C: 🙃

M: Namsai, is this your first time collaborating with a writer on a comic? If so, what was it like compared to working solo on your own projects?

N: Yes, this is my first time working with a writer, which is really exciting! Even though this is a collaborative project, I’m given a lot of artistic freedom, and I can choose the medium I’m comfortable with, so I’m very happy.

It was easy to work with the script. In my personal projects, I start from scratch and have to come up with everything. That takes time because I overthink and doubt my own choices. Working on a collaboration like this is like having a structure, which I only have to decorate. The kind and thoughtful feedback from you and Charis also helped tremendously. 

The more difficult part compared to working solo was the execution. Usually, I work directly from rough sketch to final drawing or painting. I try to keep sketching and just piece the drawings I like together toward the end, sometimes randomly adding things I find interesting. In this project, I felt I needed to be precise, to leave room for feedback and edits, so I penciled everything out and worked more meticulously.

C: How did you translate the text script into visuals?

N: I read Minxi’s writing many times, taking notes and doodling as I did. Minxi also sent me other materials to read, and that helped me understand the script better. When I felt like I could feel the story, I tried to visualise it. The script was written from Minxi’s perspective, so I created a storyline from that point of view and tried my best to tie everything together and find the flow of the story.

Thumbnails for the comic; first sketch, refined pencils, and final art for page 7.

I made tiny thumbnails to gather ideas for myself and figure the specifics out. Then I could draw clear layouts for each page of the comic. After everyone agreed on the final draft, I experimented a little more and made a colour script to be more sure of what the comic would look like in the end.

The colour script.

C: An early draft used the imagery of rain as a form of nourishing collective care, but in the final comic this became rhizomes instead, after a suggestion I made. As an artist, what are your thoughts on the editing and feedback process? 

First sketch of page 3, showing rain; revised sketch of page 3, with rhizome imagery.

N: To me, the concept of rain can represent everything from suffering to healing. So when you and Minxi pointed out that rain could be perceived as something coming from top-down rather than ground-up, I was surprised, but I could understand it right away. In Thai, we have the exact same expression as “grassroots” in English, so I thought the idea of using rhizomes as a metaphor here was perfect.

It’s one of the pros of collaborating with different people on a project. Instead of being stuck in my usual way of thinking and my go-to ideas, I could create something that communicates better. And it was more fun to study and draw new things.

N: Minxi, I actually have the same question as Charis: how do you feel seeing your writing being translated visually? Was there any surprise or struggle during the process?

M: It was super exciting to see you translate the text into your artwork! I’m always so impressed by the creativity and intelligence of comic artists in visually depicting information that, if left alone as a piece of writing, would be quite boring and forgettable. I really love all the choices you made throughout: the colour palette, the visual metaphors, the panel layout. 

And I really respect how you incorporated feedback so quickly and effectively from both Charis and myself. In particular, I notice you took my feedback on incorporating a bit of the green and orange colour scheme into the final two panels on page 2. I love the subtle way you did it. When working with another artist, being able to have a back-and-forth dialogue is so important, and I really felt that you were listening and responding to my feedback.

The last two panels on page 2.

N: For Charis, I’m really curious because you gave me total creative freedom on this. When you come up with a project, do you usually already have some kind of picture of it in mind? How do you balance your expectation of the outcome with how the artist interprets the brief?

C: Creative freedom is something I value as an illustrator myself. There are few things more frustrating than being merely a hired pencil, so to speak. Artists bring their own life experiences and unique perspectives to the table, not just their technical ability.

When we put together a brief and commission an artist and writer, we trust them to do what they do best: tell or translate stories in their chosen medium about a topic they know, experience and care about. In this case, I knew you’d be able to write about this topic clearly, since you’ve organised peer support for our team, on top of all of your other experience with collective care outside New Naratif. And having followed Namsai’s work for over a year, I thought her style would be a good fit: it has all the warmth and texture of hand-painted work without being too specifically naturalistic. It encourages readers to imagine.

Part of the joy of working with a diverse range of artists is seeing how they interpret briefs. 

So beyond certain expectations of the quality, clarity and consistency of the final work—which is a combination of setting the bar for the comics New Naratif publishes, along with my knowledge of an artist’s work from their portfolio and/or interactions with them—I want to be surprised by the outcome. Opening emails with sketches or final art from an artist is like opening a present every time.

M: Why did you feel this explainer would do well as a comic, rather than just an article?

C: A comic helps the emotional undertones of the story come to the foreground. Contrast it to, say, a written list with instructions and steps. Turning the explainer into a comic lets us show how people respond to this topic. The colours and composition of a page convey their despair, joy or hope; the visual metaphor of the rhizome shows the decentralised nature of collective care. The last panel really hammers that point home.

C: To conclude, what’s a common misconception people have about collective care? What do you wish they knew instead?

M: Some people think creating a care culture in an organisation is somehow superfluous or superficial. I think a lot of language around care and wellbeing has been co-opted by capitalist institutions—something I touch on in the comic—and as such, activists can sometimes be sceptical about it. But in my own experience, the most enduring and resilient organisations I’ve encountered in both journalism and activism work are based on mutual care and respect. 

At the same time, it’s important not to confuse care culture for a work culture without boundaries or structure. You see this happen in a lot of NGOs and smaller workplaces in general, where this attitude of “we’re all family that takes care of each other” is followed by “so that means you have to sacrifice your life outside work for this job”. A real culture of care is incompatible with abusive or exploitative labour practices. You can’t claim to care about the people in your team if you’re willing to underpay them or deny them their basic rights as workers.

Have a question or idea for a future Behind the Naratif post? Let us know!

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