SPX COUNTDOWN: COOKING UP COMICS with Alisa Harris

Cooking Up Comics art
Credit: Alisa Harris

With the Small Press Expo (SPX)taking place this coming weekend, we’re talking to a number of creators featured at the show – from those premiering books to the guest of honor. This time out, we’re cooking up some comics with the creator of…um, Cooking Up Comics.

Alisa Harrisis best-known for such books as Urban Nomad and Counter Attack – small, charming slice-of-life stories about life in the big city and cats. Most recently, she’s been sharing vegetarian recipes weekly at Cooking Up Comics, a combination of cartooning and cookery. We talked to Harris about what to expect at SPX – and cajoled a recipe out of her in the process.

Other work by Harris
Other work by Harris
Credit: Alisa Harris

Newsarama: So Alisa, what do you have coming up for SPX? Will we be seeing some new Counter Attack?

Alisa Harris: Over the past two years I took some time off from my Urban Nomad series to get my vegetarian recipe webcomic Cooking Up Comics off the ground. So I'm excited to say that issue #4 of Urban Nomad will be released at SPX! Urban Nomad collects short stories and observations from my life as a Pennsylvania transplant living in New York City for the past 14 years.

I’ll also have some one page mini comics like Rock On! about some of my favorite shuttered music venues in NYC and tongue-in-cheek Money-Saving Freelance Tips. I will have some sweet prints of Conan the Librarian and dwindling numbers of Cooking Up Comics magnets and back issues of Counter Attack. Unfortunately for now I don't have the funds to reprint the six issues of cat-filled Counter Attack comics. But I have plans to collect them all into one pretty book sometime next year, probably through a Kickstarter campaign.

Nrama: Have you been to SPX before, and if so, what are you looking forward to there? If not, what have you heard about the event?

Harris: This will be my first time exhibiting at SPX and I've heard nothing but good things about the convention. It sounds like a weekend long sleepover surrounded by awesome cartoonists and I've also heard rumors about a chocolate fondue fountain... (drifts into a chocolate daydream...) I’m also looking forward to seeing who walks away with an Ignatz brick, there must have been so many amazing entries this year!

Nrama: How did Cooking Up Comics come about? Between you and Lucy Knisley, it's a good year for foodie comic fans.

Cooking Up Comics art
Cooking Up Comics art
Credit: Alisa Harris

Harris: Cooking Up Comics has been several years in the making. I started some concepts for it around 2010 and played around with the style, format and recipe tested for the first year or two. It debuted on the web in 2012.

I've been a vegetarian since high school and although the market for vegetarian cookbooks has expanded greatly since then, I wanted to share something that would have helped me out when I was learning to cook. I really loved the idea of making a process comic where people can follow along and add their own touches too.

My biggest goal is to empower those who are intimidated by cooking to try it out and to share vegetarian friendly recipes with those who aren't so crazy about vegetables.

Right now it exists on the web at www.cookingupcomics.com, and updates every Wednesday with a new recipe. The grander scheme is to have all of the recipes published as a book at some point.

And yes, there are a bunch of other great food related comics that I’ve linked to on my site and I adore Lucy's book Relish!

Nrama: Tell us a bit about your work in animation. We've been seeing a lot of comic creators also working in that field lately.

Other work by Harris
Other work by Harris
Credit: Alisa Harris

Harris: I initially moved to New York to attend the animation program at the School of Visual Arts. I wanted to be an animator since seeing The Little Mermaid when I was a kid and watching all the Disney "behind the scenes" specials.

I've worked at several studios in New York on a range of projects, mostly for the web with some commercials, feature pitches, music videos and television series sprinkled in. I've had the pleasure of doing character designs for a web series for Nabisco and a recently released web series for Kids Health.

The most recent thing I animated on was Devin Clark's comedic web series Instant Life Lessons. Most of my animation work tends towards educational kids' programming, so it was fun to work on something a bit more irreverent.

Nrama:And among your resume items are a few illustrations for "Hooked on Phonics," which, having grown up with those commercials, I am waaayyyy too curious as to what that was like.

Cooking Up Comics art
Cooking Up Comics art
Credit: Alisa Harris

Harris: Ha ha! I've actually worked on two separate projects for the Hooked on Phonics empire. For the first project I digitally painted a short children's book series drawn by another artist. A few years later I translated some cute watercolored character designs into Flash so they could be animated. It was a small production so I also storyboarded and animated several of the sequences for a direct to DVD Hooked on Phonics package.

The Hooked on Phonics people gave us a lot of leeway on the animated transitions and the creative director had some neat ideas like a Singing in the Rain homage that was fun to research and animate.

Nrama: What have been some of the biggest influences on your style?

Harris: Charles Schultz and Bill Watterson were my earliest influences. I read their comics in the newspaper and bought their book collections. My childhood sketchbooks are full of shabby imitations of their work and the first comic series that I made in 5th grade was basically Calvin and Hobbes but with a pig-tailed girl with an imaginary alien friend.

Thanks to the Internet, I'm discovering new amazing artists every day. I've become enchanted with the work of French cartoonists over the past few years, especially Claire Wendling, Clo, Man Arenas and Boulet. Craig Thompson and animation artist Ronnie Del Carmen's work got me hooked on using brush pens for my sketchbook and journal comics.

Other work by Harris
Other work by Harris
Credit: Alisa Harris

Nrama: And what's some of the fun/challenging things about doing journal comics?

Harris: I think the hardest part of journal comics is editing myself writing-wise. I tend to get long-winded when telling a story, so I've been challenging myself to try to tell more with the image than with the text.

It's also interesting to take a funny moment in time and expand on it to make it visually funnier than it actually may have been. I've been listening to a lot of comedians while I work and definitely am trying to up my game with story and punch lines because of that.

The nice part about taking almost two years off from Urban Nomad is that I had a nice sized pile of thumbnail sketches and notes to choose from so I'm very pleased with the range of stories in issue #4.

Nrama: Also, what's the biggest challenge in doing comics while working in animation, and what makes you want to keep a foot in comic book creation?

Other work by Harris
Other work by Harris
Credit: Alisa Harris

Harris: My biggest challenge is that I don't work full time for any particular studio. So when I get a new animation project, I usually have to drop everything else I'm working on until it is finished. Then once that job is done I have to figure out where the next job will be. It's hard to schedule comics in between but now that I have a work flow for Cooking Up Comics, I'm usually able to keep to my update schedule.

I initially started comics because I was working at the computer all day and missed drawing on paper. Even though Cooking Up Comics is all digital, I keep making comics because I have control over my art and can tell the stories I want to tell. That's something that can be done in animation too, but it is much more convenient and fun for me to work in comic format.

Nrama: We forced this on Lucy Knisley, so you're not getting away either. Do you have a short, easy recipe you'd like to share with our readers?

Harris: I’ve been making sautéed Swiss Chard a lot this summer. This recipe makes about 3 servings:

1 large bunch of Swiss Chard (washed, stems removed, leaves ripped into bite sized pieces and spun dry)

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 clove minced garlic

¼ cup chopped almonds

1 Tbsp Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (you can substitute soy sauce if you don’t have this)

¼ cup raisins (optional)

Warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the chopped almonds and minced garlic and stir them around for about 2 minutes.

Add the Swiss Chard in handfuls until it starts to wilt. Add ½ tablespoon of the Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and mix it into the chard. Keep adding handfuls of chard until it’s all in the pan and add the last ½ tablespoon of Liquid Aminos and raisins if you’re using them.

Cook for another 3 minutes until all of the chard is wilted but still a bright green. Serve warm.

Cooking Up Comics art
Cooking Up Comics art
Credit: Alisa Harris

Nrama: What are some other books/creators you're looking forward to seeing at SPX?

Harris: I really love John Allison's webcomic Bad Machinery, so I'm looking forward to meeting him. I've heard a lot of good things about March by Congressman John Lewis, which is drawn by Nate Powell. I backed Kickstarter/Indiegogo projects by Alison Wilgus (A Stray in the Woods) and Tara Abbamondi (On the Morrow), so I'm excited to see how the print versions turn out

. I'm also looking forward to meeting up with some of my internet friends like Adriana Blake (Fall On Me), Sarah Sobole (Doctor Cat MD), Madeline Flores, Brittney Sabo (All Night Comic), Sara McHenry (Hey Pais)... honestly, my head is spinning a bit just looking at all the talented people who will be at SPX!

Nrama: What's next for you?

Other work by Harris
Other work by Harris
Credit: Alisa Harris

Harris: I'm currently coloring a graphic novel for a major publisher but I don't know if I can talk much about that yet. I'll be updating Cooking Up Comics through the end of the year and will be trying to shop that around more seriously to publishers.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm planning to collect the six issues of Counter Attack (vignettes of Moe and Fidget, my two unruly cats) into a book with at least 30 new pages of content some time in 2014.

Nrama:Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Harris: It is such an exciting time to be involved with comics! So much great self-published and indie published work is out there. I love seeing what new artists and writers are coming up with.

I'm really excited to be a part of SPX this year, thanks for the interview! I’ll be at table W17A along the wall with Alison Wilgus for SPX weekend. My main website is at www.alisaharris.com and you can find me on Twitter @cookingupcomics.

Check out Harris’ comic (and recipes) at cookingupcomics.blogspot.com.

Next: Get ready to hunt down some Capture Creatures with Frank & Becky, find out why Farel Dalrymple is Delusional, get Jeff Smith’s thoughts on returning to SPX as a guest of honor and do battle with Boxers & Saints with Gene Luen Yang! All this and more as our SPX Countdown continues!

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