March 12, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #101: Andrea Tsurumi

Chatting with Andrea Tsurumi felt like talking to a kindred spirit. Her philosophies regarding the fine line between picture books and comics match my own perfectly, and I was thrilled to pick her brain about her newest book Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together. Crab Cake walks all sorts of fine lines (picture book and comic, fiction and nonfiction, funny and serious), so there was a ton for us to dig into. Enjoy our conversation!

About the book:
Under the sea, fish do what fish do: Seahorse hides, Pufferfish puffs up, Parrotfish crunches coral, and Crab . . . bakes cakes?

Scallop swims, Dolphin blows bubbles, and . . . Crab bakes cakes.

And so life goes on, until one night when everything changes with a splash!

In the face of total disaster, can Crab's small, brave act help the community come together and carry on?

Let's talk Andrea Tsurumi!

LTPB: What was the impetus for creating Crab Cake

AT: Two things, some of which I go into more detail about here:

I was drawing this crab baker in my sketchbooks, and I was thinking about disasters––human-made and otherwise––and how people respond to them. At the time, reading Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell: the Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster gave me hope about how communities are actually eager to help each other in the face of staggering problems. I saw this in NYC during Hurricane Sandy. This is something that happens in wide-reaching crises (natural disasters) and intensely private disasters (supporting ill friends and family). People pitch in––they want to help. The sad caveats to that are when higher authorities intervene to control local efforts, or when communities decide to help this group, but not that group. And often, the community responding to an overwhelming disaster is doing so in spite of/in the middle of a mass of society who abandons and/or brutalizes them (eg. during the AIDS crisis, when gay men couldn’t donate blood and were shunned by many medical professionals, lesbian communities stepped up to help them). Our society and laws have been forced to change for the better by the combined and heroically-sustained effort of countless ordinary people. For instance, Georgia Gilmore, who mobilized black women to sell food and raise money to pay for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These women risked their homes, jobs, and safety doing this (Gilmore herself was fired), but they funded the fleets of alternative vehicles that allowed protestors to boycott the segregated buses. Heroism doesn’t require one leader coming in and quickly solving everything for everyone, it takes the determined collaboration of many people. Thinking about all these things reminded me of how hopeless I felt as a kid who didn’t know how to begin to change their community. I mean, this is something other adults and I ask ourselves now. 

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the characters?

AT: Since the story centered around a Crab, the plot had to happen underwater, and since I wanted to point out that what Crab does is slightly unusual, I needed a bunch of “usual” creatures doing usual fish things, which I found with research (although the more you look up marine life activity, the less usual it all seems). I drew a lot of crabs from reference (although clearly not enough, since my Crab has 8 legs and all crabs have 10) to understand how they move, but story Crab is much more of a cartoon than a typical crustacean. Crab is also red to pop out more from the blue/green of their surroundings, something that would probably be a terrible idea for them in the wild, but helped them stick out on the page. 

LTPB: Of course, this book isn’t strictly nonfiction (you just mentioned the crab only has eight legs), but it feels pretty thoroughly researched. What kind of research did you do on marine life?

AT: I looked up the types of marine life that could be found in a Pacific reef, then collected photos from Google image search and screenshots from Netflix and YouTube ocean documentaries. I was particularly interested in how to show light and distant objects underwater because the light acts differently. Next, looking at all this reference, I drew on scrap paper so my brain and hand would get used to how fish bodies are shaped, how a reef looks, how shadows work, etc. Then I taped those drawings up on the wall and would look up at them as reference when translating the rough thumbnails into pencil drawings.

Along the way, I learned a bunch about coral bleaching, microplastic pollution, the great pacific garbage patch, global warming, and Lionfish as an invasive species in the Atlantic. I’m a cartoonist, not a scientist, but … we’re in serious trouble. This is going to be one of the big works of our generation, one that will require widespread dramatic change and action (we’ve had to do it before, we can do it again). One of my friends who’s a climate activist sent me information about student Climate Strikes, a search engine that plants trees, and reconsidering beef and lamb diets.

I also started looking for groups of ordinary people who band together and fight injustice: Immigrant Families Together, Lutheran Social Services for Refugees, March for Our Lives, The National Black and Brown Gun Violence Consortium...there are so many.

LTPB: How did you use to create the illustrations in this book? How does your process change from book to book?

AT: I sometimes get asked if the words or the pictures come first when I’m making a story, and the answer is they both happen at the same time. After playing around with ideas in my sketchbook, I start the story by thumbnailing spreads. After many many many drafts, if they get approved, then I move on to making the final art, with brief anxiety pit stops in between. So to finish:

I printed my rough pencils in light-cyan on Bristol Vellum so I could “ink” the final linework in very dark pencil, then I scanned that to clean and color in Photoshop.

Crab Cake had more involved and layered backgrounds to color than Accident!, so I started by flatting everything before coloring it. Now, I use Clipstudio to speed this up.

I wanted the undersea landscape (both pre-and-post-trash) to have texture, so I played around with making textures to scan: spongeprints, pencil scribbles, fingerprints and footprints, gouache (for the land, cakes, and goopy trash-water) then watercolor (for the clean water scenes).

Then it was a lot of coloring!

Not Your Nest and Kondo and Kezumi Visit Giant Island use the same pencil-line and digital color, just without all those scanned textures. It’s not the only media I use, though: I also draw digitally, or use ink and watercolor or gouache, or colored pencil, depending on the project or on what I’m playing with at the moment.


LTPB: What can you tell us about your cartoon work?

AT: You can find my comics here. I grew up reading picture books and comics and I’ve been making comics as long I’ve been drawing. Basically, I see picture book illustrations and comics as variations of essentially the same thing: combining text and images to tell stories. Before freelancing full-time, I worked in an office and also made self-published comics to share at places like the NY Comics and Picture Story Symposium, SPX, and MoCCA. Not only did that introduce me to a lot of cartoonist friends and peers, it taught me a ton about writing, design, doing promo and sales. My comics have been published in anthologies like Locust Moon’s Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, SpongeBob comics, Believer, and my book Why Would You Do That? (Hic & Hoc). These days, I’m working on a piece for Ink Brick, beginning research for a lengthy new thing, cartooning in my sketchbook, and just generally gonna keep making comics until I die. 

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

AT: I’m currently illustrating a number of books by different authors: Sharko & Hippo (HarperCollins) is a picture book by Elliott Kalan about two funny friends (a shark and a hippo, naturally) on a ludicrous fishing trip. Mr. Watson’s Chickens (Chronicle) by Jarrett Dapier follows a couple with a chicken situation that gets extremely out-of-hand. Also, I’m illustrating an early chapter book series, Kondo & Kezumi (Disney-Hyperion) by David Goodner, and the first book, Kondo and Kezumi Visit Giant Island comes out this September, so I can share the cover with you (above). I love this story about two friends exploring their strange and beautiful world together, and I got to populate it with all kinds of bizarre creatures (hello flock-of-seagulls-haircut-bird).

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

AT: Soooo I could use that as an excuse to hang out with anyone in the universe, huh? I really wish I’d gotten to talk to Tove Jansson. Or Ellen Raskin. Or James Marshall. Or watched Golden Girls with Edward Gorey. Honestly, all four of them would probably be down to watch Golden Girls together. But I’m also curious about the illustrators that are gonna come up in the future... a paragraph in, and I’m already overthinking this.

I’d 100% love for Aphton Corbin to illustrate it. She’s a brilliant storyboard artist at Pixar and a freelance illustrator and I live for the comics she posts on her Tumblr. I love her line, her timing is spot-on, her gestures and expressions are precisely observed, and her work is incredibly funny and expresses such specific feelings of being young or feeling conflicted and frustrated.

my intern

A huge thank you to Andrea for letting me pick her brain about picture books AND comics! Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together published last month from HMH Books for Young Readers!

Special thanks to Andrea and HMH Books for Young Readers for use of these images!

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