Spotlight

Is Valhalla Really Worth It? Thistil Mistil Kistil

Sarah Schanze is an artist and storyteller located in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Since 2009, Sarah has been updating Thistil Mistil Kistil, a webcomic about Vikings and Norse mythology. She is also an avid Washington Capitals fan, and is extremely happy they finally won the Stanley Cup. She is the creator of Thistil Mistil Kistil.

Synopsis: Coal is dead.

He wouldn’t mind it so much if he could get into Valhalla like he’s supposed to. Before Odin will let him in, he must return to the land of the living to complete a quest for the gods.

It’s bad enough he needs the trickster Loki’s help to achieve his goal, but Coal also finds something among the living he should certainly avoid: friends. As his bonds deepen, Coal starts to wonder if Valhalla is worth it, and if Odin’s grip on him is actually beneficial.

Did you go to school for either art or writing? If so, what school?
I did! I went to the Art Institute of Washington, which no longer exists, heh.

What is the main genre of your comic? What appeals to you about that genre?
Definitely fantasy! I’ve always been drawn to fantasy; it tends to be more exciting and more fun. How someone uses magic or explains (or doesn’t explain, which works too, sometimes) the fantastical elements in their work, can make or break a story. In TMK’s case, the magic and fantasy elements come from the fact Norse mythological figures are real and can have certain effects on the world: from making a ship sentient to bringing a dead boy back to life. The main focus of the story is still on the characters and their relationships to each other.

Are there any other genres that apply to your comic?
The historical aspect of TMK is perhaps more prevalent than the fantasy one. I’ve done a lot of research into Vikings, but I also don’t sweat the small stuff. I’m hardly an academic. One thing I aimed to do from the outset, though, was highlight a less whitewashed medieval Europe. Travel and trade weren’t as difficult as some modern people believe, and people from all over could end up just about anywhere. It’s not “forced diversity” if it’s historically accurate. Luckily, I’ve gotten very little pushback to the more diverse characters from readers.

What was your inspiration for the story?
It’s fluctuated over the years, but the actual origin is not very glamorous. A long, long time ago I joined an RPG board that had a fantasy culture similar to Vikings. Coal, the protagonist of TMK, was the character I made for that board. It didn’t last long at all, but that got me started researching Vikings, and something about it caught my attention enough to weave into an original story.

At first it was a simple, fun adventure, but ten years is a long time, and the story has gradually shifted to explore themes of masculinity and relationships. Aspects of Viking culture have been stolen by some very bad people for hateful things, and I’ve been trying to push against some of those negative associations over the last few years.

Do you have any favorite artists or writers who influenced your style?
I started thinking about TMK about the same time “Secret of Kells” came out. That movie blew me away because it was the first time I had seen such a strongly stylized approach for a feature film. I’ve always been drawn to graphic, flat styles like “Samurai Jack”, and I was already looking at illuminated manuscripts for artistic inspiration. “Kells” was basically a combination of them and proved such a stylized approach can still be serious and deal with big issues.

There are a lot of artists and writers I follow now that utilize a range of styles, but some I always look forward to seeing more of include Der-shing Helmer, Yuko Ota and Ananth Hirsh, Rebecca Mock, Meredith McClaren, Sam Bosma, Kali Ciesemier, Jake Wyatt, Claire Hummel, Sam Beck, Celine Loup, Becky Cloonan… oh no, I can’t stop! There are a lot!!

How long does it take you to complete one page?
I’ve actually started timing myself! Pages take an average of 5-6 hours to make, give or take an hour. I think the shortest time for a page was about three hours, and the longest took more than eight. It can vary depending on what’s going on in the page.

What is your process like for creating comic pages from start to finish? What tools do you use?
I’m a digital baby. I do all the thumbnails for a chapter first, then make each page separately. I have four stages: sketch, ink, color, and lines/fx. The sketch takes directly from the thumbnail and only needs to be clean enough to ink over. TMK has colored lines and that can be like re-inking a page, which can be either very quick or very tedious depending on how many characters (and therefore colors) are on a page. I draw thumbnails in Procreate, and make the pages themselves in Photoshop on an XP-Pen 22E Pro.

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 is not finished, but TMK has been roughly outlined from start to finish, and I have a definitive ending in mind. As the years have gone on and the themes have shifted, some edits have been made, but they only made the story stronger. Unfortunately, it will probably be another ten years before I reach that ending! That’s webcomics for you.

How many pages do you have complete at the moment?
I think I’m at about 400 pages right now.

How long did it take you to plan the comic before even beginning to physically create it?
It was about a year of thinking and writing and planning before I started posting pages. I also wanted a buffer, so I had the first chapter done before I started uploading them.

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?
There’s a lot of advice out there about starting with a short comic, and there might be something to that, haha. I’ve been working on TMK for 10 years, and have just as much to still go, but it doesn’t really bother me. The fact I still WANT to work on it after all these years just shows how much it’s come to mean to me. At the same time, that’s the only thing I really have under my belt. Starting small or short means more experimentation and practice and volume. Sometimes I wish I had done that, but I have a hard time thinking of short stories anyway, and my passion for TMK has only increased over the years.

What is your favorite part about working on your comic?
This might sound shallow, but I love seeing reader reactions to pages. I’ve been lucky to have great readers who are supportive and patient, never complain about my speed or when I’ve needed to take a break. I didn’t start TMK for anyone but me, but on those days when it’s hard to focus or find inspiration it helps to know there’s someone else out there who likes your work and wants to see more.

What is the most difficult part about working on your comic? How do you overcome it?
Probably how long it takes to tell the story. There’s not a lot I can do about that without working myself to death. I’m content with a steady, if slow, update schedule, and I’m grateful my readers are too. Sometimes I go through and reread the whole comic and find I actually still like it! Sometimes the art is not as strong as I’d like or the writing could be tighter, but overall I think it’s, dare I say, good.

Do you have a favorite character to write for? If so, why? Tell us more about them!
It might actually be Coal, the main character. He’s been especially fun lately as his personality goes through some big shifts and he starts to realize things about himself. He’s been a typical surly, gruff teenager for a long time, and that’s finally starting to melt away, and it’s refreshing.

Loki is also fun to write, but not because he’s a sly trickster. In TMK he’s also a mentor and father figure to Coal as well as a warm caregiver to everyone else. That’s not an aspect of this character that is often, if ever, explored. Usually Loki is a fun-loving troublemaker or a mysterious figure, and typically the villain in any story he’s in. All those escapades and adventures already happened to him in TMK. He’s just a dad now.

Which character gives you the most difficulty to write for?
This might just be because I’ve been working on the comic for so long, but none of them are particularly difficult to write. Some are trickier or more challenging than others, though. Hedda, a girl who was only recently freed of her thralldom, is proving more complex than I anticipated, and trying to figure out how and why she would react to things has been interesting. When is she meek, or kind? When is she mad, or upset? The answers sometimes surprise me.

There’s also Arne. Arne is, so far, the only character I’ve hired a sensitivity reader for because his situation as a Native American adopted and raised by foreigners is not something I could ever fully understand. Balancing his extremely cheerful personality with the silent ache of knowing he’ll never be truly “home” is challenging, and I’m glad I was able to find a reader to answer questions or offer advice.

Do you have a favorite character to draw?
Hedda is enjoyable to draw because she has so many curves and soft shapes. I love a good long S-curve. If I’m being totally honest, she also has the simplest outfit of the main characters, haha. Though I do plan to change it later. Guess I played myself.

Which character gives you the most difficulty to draw?
At this moment, probably Coal and Arne. My style for Coal has been shifting for a while as I try to make him look like a teenager but also like he could kick a grown man’s ass. In early chapters he looks pretty skinny! I’ve been bulking him up to look like a warrior, but he’s still short. He’s actually the shortest of the main cast except for Arne, but it doesn’t bother him because he knows he can pummel anyone who might make fun of him.

Arne himself can be tricky to draw just because of how I designed him. He has features that have to be arranged just right, or they can look weird. He has very big eyes to convey his strong emotions and enthusiasm, and big ears to convey he has a lot of growing still to do. But even if he might be harder to draw, he’s usually the most fun because of how energetic he is.

Where can we find you?
TMK can be read at www.tmkcomic.com, and people can find more of my art at www.sarahschanze.com. I’ve also got a Patreon (www.patreon.com/depleti) where I upload comic pages as soon as they’re done, so it’s usually 3 or 4 pages ahead of the website.

Anything else you want the people to know about yourself or your comic?
Random Tidbit: the title for the comic, Thistil Mistil Kistil, came from an image stone found in Sweden, the Ledberg Stone, and translates to thistle, mistletoe, and casket respectively. It’s written in a strange way on the stone which makes historians think it might be a kind of magical incantation akin to “abracadabra.” I thought that was so cool, and a perfect title for a fantasy Viking comic, plus each word has some relevance to the story.


Shoutout to ShadowBestie for editing this interview <3