Spotlight

Extraordinary Times: A COVID-19 Visual Journal

Maria Photinakis is an illustrator and comic book artist exploring science fiction and autobiographical narratives around alienation, self-discovery, and the diaspora experience. She is the creator of Extraordinary Times: A COVID-19 Visual Journal.

Synopsis: Extraordinary Times is my visual diary of life with a young child during the COVID-19 pandemic and mandated social distancing in Greater Boston, starting in mid-March 2020 and still ongoing. It’s updated twice a week, sometimes more if the situation demands it, or if I feel the need. It’s drawn with pencil and watercolors. This visual journal is my way of recording and coping with these extraordinary times.

Did you go to school for either art or writing? If so, what school?
Yes, I attended UMass Amherst for journalism.

What is the main genre of your comic? What appeals to you about that genre?
Slice-of-life–I like getting the unvarnished truth of life, especially right now when we all feel so isolated, and sometimes like we’re going through this pandemic alone.

Are there any other genres that apply to your comic?
Memoir, parenting, non-fiction.

What was your inspiration for the story?
I saw a Tweet in early March that recommended people keep a journal of what their life is like during the pandemic for future historians to read (this article covers the same reasons: https://time.com/5824341/wwii-diaries-coronavirus/). I had been trying to start a webcomic for years but found it honestly too daunting, but keeping this effort under the guise of a ‘visual journal’ made it a lot less intimidating, and with this pandemic I certainly have a lot of material to write and draw.

Do you have any favorite artists or writers who influenced your style?
I grew up reading a lot of manga by Takahashi Rumiko and Watase Yuu, as well as Sailor Moon by Takeuchi Naoko. For strip-style comics, I obsessively read Peanuts by Charles Schultz… it’s sort of a basic answer but he really was the best of the best. All of these artists are masterful at clear expression and great narratives, and I hope my work can reflect that one day. In terms of my work nowadays, I look to my favorites a lot on Twitter and Instagram: Sarah Glidden, Lucy Knisley, Mari Naomi. They’re always pushing what contemporary comics can do and making incredible work.

How long does it take you to complete one page?
Since this comic is extremely free-form, it doesn’t follow my usual comics-making process–I’m letting it all flow and not worrying about panels or polish. My mistakes are all there, and certainly the art is very rough and fast. So a comic that’s usually 4 or 5 pages might take 2 or 3 hours in total, but this is a lot faster than my more polished work.

What is your process like for creating comic pages from start to finish? What tools do you use?
My creation process right now entirely depends on when I can get a spare hour or two of mostly unbroken art time, which (with a little kid under my care) is very hard to get. Once, maybe twice a week at most I can manage it. When I can, I sit down with my watercolor journal and a pencil and basically write out my thoughts about the past few days, stream-of-consciousness style, because this is a journal. While I’m writing I think about how I want to visualize that concept, and usually make the accompanying drawing in parallel before moving on to the next bit of writing.

I write and draw everything in pencil in a very fast first pass, and then reread it a few times to do light edits and corrections, but not too many because the point of this thing is that it’s supposed to be pretty raw. I just want to make sure it can be read and understood for the most part, but if the drawings aren’t pretty I just have to let it be.

Once I’ve done that step, I take out my watercolor pens and pans and do the coloring step. This is my favorite bit, to be honest. My daughter loves watching this part as well, so often she’s sitting on my lap while I’m doing it.

After the coloring step, I put my sketchbook under something heavy to help the pages dry as flat as possible, as the paper can buckle a lot and be hard to scan if it’s not flat-ish. Later, I take the sketchbook to my scanner, get it digitized and resized for the web. I don’t do any post-processing or corrections on the images, which is also not the norm!

Is your comic a finished work? If not, how long do you think it’s going to be when it’s complete? Is there a definitive ending or will you just keep going for as long as possible?
It’s definitely not finished, but I often wonder what the “end” of it will look like. I certainly don’t want to do this forever, because it’s supposed to just be what life is like during the pandemic–and this pandemic needs to end some day! I had hoped it would end with us all getting a COVID-19 vaccine but it may just be a slow readaptation to life with new guidelines… who knows. We’ll all find out together, I guess!

How long did it take you to plan the comic before even beginning to physically create it?
It was very spur-of-the-moment! I saw the Tweet about creating a record for historians, thought, “Hmm…. that’s a neat idea. Maybe it’ll help me with all the anxiety I’ve got around what’s going on,” and got out the first sketchbook I could find. I tend to be a big over-thinker, but not in this situation.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced during the course of making your comic? If you could go back in time to the point where you just started making it and give yourself a pep talk, what would you say?
Time! It’s always the biggest problem I have. I would say to earlier-me that working on shorter entries is fine. They don’t all have to be 5-7 page mega-entries. Two pages is great if that’s what I can manage.

What is your favorite part about working on your comic?
The process itself has been so rewarding, but unexpectedly this has been one of my most popular works and the feedback from readers has been *so* validating and comforting. Making this comic feels like I’m just screaming into the void sometimes, and knowing that other people are not just reading it but finding common ground and comfort from it is an absolutely unreal feeling. It’s been one of the few things really helping me get through this entire pandemic ordeal.

What is the most difficult part about working on your comic? How do you overcome it?
I have had to get really creative about finding time to work on my comic. Without childcare (I am childcare now!) I don’t have hours of free time to myself to think, plan, create, edit… often I get ten minutes before my kid needs something or wants to do something else so I have to work fast-fast-fast. Initially I tried just making the comic at night or when my husband could watch her on the weekend, but that didn’t really work for me–updates became too infrequent and I had more to say! So I’ve had to adapt, sometimes drawing with a 3-year-old on my lap and making comments and critiques as I put things down on the page. But the more she sees me drawing, the more she wants to draw her own stuff, so now we’re often “working” in parallel, and that gives me more time to create my work.

Do you have a favorite character to write for? If so, why? Tell us more about them!
My daughter is my favorite because she’s such a spitfire and full of fun energy. Us adults are pretty worn down right now, but she’s not concerned with this stuff for the most part.

Which character gives you the most difficulty to write for?
Well, it’s a memoir so that character is me. It’s a challenge to figure out how to reveal enough of what’s in my head that it’s, hopefully, interesting and relatable, but also not too tedious or whiny. I’m not sure if I’ve hit that balance yet. Maybe I never will.

Do you have a favorite character to draw?
I haven’t drawn much of them (and I should incorporate them more) but my cats are grumpy and pretty hilarious. They’re very fluffy and have such distinctive tail-floofs, and you can see so much of them just from their amazing body language.

Which character gives you the most difficulty to draw?
My daughter–kids are hard to draw! After a lifetime of drawing adult-ish sized people your brain wants to do the same, but mini, for a kid… and that’s not correct. I constantly have to correct myself while drawing to get her proportions correct, especially in her face.

Where can we find you?
https://photinakis.com is my official site and store, where you can purchase my comics in print as well as original artworks and prints.
https://photinakis.com/extratimes/ is my Extraordinary Times webcomic on Webtoons.
You can follow me on social media here:
https://instagram.com/mphotinakis
https://twitter.com/photinakis

Anything else you want the people to know about yourself or your comic?
I hope other comics creators can make some kind of visual diary of their life during this pandemic. It’s a really valuable exercise and you would be surprised how much the act of creating this kind of work can help you and others.