As comic books reach out to a new female audience through genre fiction, one of the industry's newest female artists will be at the forefront.
Nicole Virella, a young New York artist whose watercolor comics were exhibited this summer next to the work of David Mazzuchelli, gets her first real break into comics this summer on The Mortal Instruments from Th3rd World Studios.
"I was very excited, especially since the story is set in New York City," Virella said of her reaction to getting the job. "Being a fan of the Buffy series, I love creatures of lore, so I couldn’t wait to start creating the look for The Mortal Instruments series."
The comic, which will debut its first chapter on Free Comic Book Day, will adapt The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, the first book in the popular series by Cassandra Clare. The story focuses on a teen girl who finds a secret world of mystical creatures, including warlocks, vampires, werewolves and faeries. The novels are popular among not only teens, but a growing number of adult fans of genre fiction.
"I wasn’t aware of the series beforehand," Virella admitted, "but [Th3rd World publisher] Mike [DeVito] had given me the first book, and I couldn’t wait to read the next in the series."
With this week's announcement that the Twilight graphic novel has an astounding initial print run of 350,000 copies – with the comic already hitting Amazon's bestseller list – it's easy to imagine the audience of loyal genre fiction readers that could be reached through comic book adaptations.
Although books like Twilight and Harry Potter have a fanbase that few other franchises have reached, genre fiction – and specifically genre fiction aimed at a young audience – is the fastest growing segment of book sales. According to a recent report by USA Today, 17 percent of all book sales tracked in 2009 were related to vampires, zombies and the paranormal.
With an August start date for The Mortal Instruments comic, Th3rd World is hoping to tap into that audience, and it appears to be a good starting point. So far, three novels have been released, City of Bones, City of Glass, and City of Ashes, although more novels and planned, and a highly anticipated movie adaptation is in the works. The book is often chosen as a favorite novel by teens, and a quick search on YouTube for "The Mortal Instruments" reveals hundreds of videos proving fans are anxious to see a visual representation of the books.
But Virella said lofty sales goals are less important to the artist than her mission to stay loyal to the source material.
"The most important thing for me was to stay true to what Cassandra had envisioned and translate it into a new medium," she said. "One of the first characters I started working on was Jace, which I think propelled me forward to really get an idea where I wanted to go with each of them."
Virella, who studied illustration and cartooning at the School of Visual Arts, said she wasn't intimidated by the task of drawing the book's beloved characters, because she was really looking forward to doing her own take on them. As she designed them, she listened to the audio book of City of Bones, leaving her hands free so she could "visualize the characters and do preliminary sketches while listening to the story."
Being from New York, Virella said she felt like she had some insight into the series' main female character, Clary.
"Clary is from Brooklyn so she can definitely handle her own," Virella said with a laugh. Seriously though, she isn’t a typical beauty queen and she feels like a real 15-year-old. I would imagine many teen girls could identify themselves with her – minus the demons and creatures of course. It was also new for me to create a female character that physically had to be much more petite than I’m used to, but I was up for the challenge."
Perhaps the most treasured character by fans is Jace, the archetypal Byronic hero with a biting wit. "Jace is a bit of a bad boy so his style and attitude need to convey that," Virella said of her design. "His eyes need to have that hint of sarcasm that show he knows he’s one step ahead of the game.
"Someone said after looking at the character sketch that he looked like a young Han Solo. I can totally picture that too. Imagine Clary says, 'Jace, I love you…' Jace just pauses and then responds, 'I know….," Virella laughed. "Somehow I knew a Star Wars reference was going to come up in this interview."
In the design for Simon Lewis, Clary's best friend, Virella said he was one of those characters that doesn't realize he's attractive. "He hides behind his glasses," she said. "So when designing him, I tried to keep in mind how he would look without them. Also I feel Simon tries to act happy most of time because he attempts to hide his affections for Clary, which can’t be easy for him."
The artist said her design for the main villain of the series, Valentine Morgenstern, had to communicate his stoic presence. "I kind of imagine him as a Japanese businessman, dressed to impress, always wearing suits and looking sharp," she said. "He has that expression of, he knows what he wants and he’ll do anything to get it even if a child would stand in his way."
Besides the main cast, Virella still has a lot of mystical creatures and characters yet to design, although she already finished sketches of the werewolves and the Ravenor demon. Out of everyone yet to do, the artist said she's really looking forward to drawing Abaddon, a Greater Demon.
"One thing that surprised me about each of the characters is their individual styles and how much I could expand on it," she said. "I love Jace’s look and Isabelle is definitely growing on me. I think it’s because I can draw her in anything and she’ll look great. Plus she has that amazing whip!"
Virella will be painting covers for the series, and she's particularly enjoying the chance to draw this secret world among the familiar New York setting.
"Cassandra has woven this very intricate and diverse cosmology much like the city in which it takes place," the artist said. "I think people have a fascination with New York City because it has this romantic notion where it seems almost magical and anything can happen. I think people are interested in coming along for the ride and seeing what becomes of each of the characters and how their lives traverse across the Big Apple."