INTERVIEW: Zoe Maeve on The Gift

Today, we’re talking Craft in comics with Zoe Maeve. Zoe Maeve is a comics artist and illustrator originally from Tkaronto/Toronto, who is now based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. In 2016, her book July Underwater was the recipient of Best English Comic at the Expozine Awards, and will be reprinted for sale next year. Her new graphic novel The Gift is out now with Conundrum Press.

The Gift explores a fictionalized life of the fourth Romanov princess, Anastasia. After mysteriously receiving a camera on her fifteenth birthday, Anastasia begins to document her world, but the gift carries with it a weight she can’t yet see. A creature moves on the edge of her vision and stalks her dreams. As the revolution unfolds, the confines of Anastasia’s world keep closing in. Something is following her, and it might not be human.

Let’s get into it!

Jenny Mott (POME): Right out of the gate I have to mention that the tagline for this book is “The Shining meets Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette,” which, may I just say: the vibes are absolutely inspired. This interplay of isolation and opulence is fascinating and a little contradictory (because of course opulence is so performative, and what does that performance mean in isolation, with no audience?), but I think it hits at something very human. 

What sparked your interest in this juxtaposition, and how did you think about the way these two forces compliment each other when you were working on The Gift?

Maeve: The combination of opulence and isolation makes me think of something rotting, or of wearing something very very heavy. I think in a lot of ways the book is about being a young person in a world that is falling apart around you—a world which is at once marvellous and excessive and horrible—and a sense of disconnection from that. Which I think is how it felt to me to be a teenager, and it’s probably even more like that if you’re fifteen now. I think that the palace environment I created, although historical, is sort of a heightened version of this.

The Shining meets Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette”

POME: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you’re less interested in this subject matter itself (the Romanovs) than in the online communities dedicated to archiving their lives. And I think we can see some of that in the text through Anastasia’s developing relationship with the mysteriously gifted camera/the haunting creature that comes with it. The drive towards documenting the present for posterity is understandably appreciated by these history-focused communities, and we see Anastasia contributing to that by becoming an avid photographer. 

Historical fiction does necessitate some amount of fudging the facts—even more so when you introduce fantastical/horror elements—what was your decision-making process when balancing between the larger emotional truths and the historical accuracy naturally associated with these archivist communities that you found so inspiring? How did you prioritize?

Maeve: I basically let go of all concerns about the historical accuracy of the storyline, and focused on visual details. I might have been more reluctant to do that if I was working with a lesser known piece of history, but there’s enough Romanov media out there. People can look it up if they like. I paid a lot of attention to smaller details like food, clothes, and objects. So for example, in the scene with her birthday luncheon, that’s based on a real royal menu. I thought a lot about the sensual world of the palace grounds, like the smells of food or fresh snow, and how the fabrics would feel against the skin and tried to evoke that. 

On the subject of the Romanov enthusiasts though, I think that although a lot of them are very interested in historical accuracy, the core of what many of them find compelling about the family is how easy it is to project whatever you like on them, which is really what I was doing in The Gift.

POME: Your work more broadly explores hauntings, archives, ecologies, and other realities, and certainly hauntings and archives are Very evident in The Gift. Can you speak a little to how your previous experiences crafting stories influenced the creation of this story?

Maeve: My first project, July Underwater, I made with no comics experience. I had made a few zines, but hadn’t drawn a comic since I was a kid, so I had no idea what I was doing in terms of craft. I had just realized that the art I wanted to make was better suited to comics than to drawings or paintings in a gallery and I don’t even think I did roughs for a lot of it. Going into The Gift I knew I wanted the book to look more polished than July Underwater and for more of the storytelling to rest on the art. This kind of sabotaged me because my style was quite nebulous and so I kept restarting again and again. I was very lucky to have the support of Conundrum, who were interested in the project early on, (when I absolutely wasn’t ready to execute it, although I thought I was) and who then followed up with me later.

“I didn’t want the logic of the creature to be too legible.”

POME: Horror is such a powerful genre, and it really plays by its own rules. When building out the rules by which horror operates in your narrative world, what were your guiding principles? Did you go into the writing process knowing how you wanted the horror element to function, or did it develop over time? 

Maeve: This is a really interesting question and I’m not sure I remember. The conceptualization of this story happened quite a few years ago. I don’t think I planned out any rules, or thought of it as a horror book. I was just stringing things in my head together. I have been thinking about this a lot since I finished the book though, since I do really enjoy writing horror. I just finished reading two Shirley Jackson books, Dark Tales, which is a collection of short stories, and Hangsaman. In a lot of her horror, things “just happen,” and there is crucially missing information. I suppose that one of the guiding principles I had was that I didn’t want the logic of the creature to be too legible. 

POME: With a more intuition-based style of narrative construction—this stringing things in your head together—was there much trial and error? How did you settle on which scenes to show?

Maeve: There was SO MUCH trial and error. I knew the story I wanted to tell, and most of the scenes were there from the beginning, but I found it very hard to figure out how to tell it. Probably the two turning points for me were when I realized that a very low-text approach was the way to go, and when I let my concerns about historical accuracy go and kind of took ownership of the subject matter. The Gift also made me realize I needed to study writing as its own craft, and now that I’ve learnt more about that I spend almost no time redrawing.

“[W]ith pen and paper you have to commit to and work with a certain amount of mistakes.” It’s both a challenge and part of the beauty of pen & ink.

POME: Comparing this book to your previous title, July Underwater, it’s clear how much your relationship with the conventions of the comics genre has grown! When you sit down to construct a comics page, what are the questions you ask yourself? Any insights/discoveries/challenges re: “how to make decisions about panels” that you’d like to share?

Maeve: I learned a lot about constructing a page making this book and redrew many, many pages. Visually, the biggest thing I learned was how to manipulate scale and angle better. I often do my rough panels on loose paper, then put them on a mini lightbox I have and just trace the drawing into the blank frame. When I draw directly into a panel my drawings often become stiff, with dead space at the edges. A lot of what I learned was how to do the kind of drawing hacks you could do in photoshop but traditionally.

POME: It’s possible that this observation doesn’t hold true beyond my own personal comics sphere, but it seems as though—with an increase in quality and accessibility of tablet drawing programs—more and more comics creators are shifting towards using digital media to a much greater extent than in the past. Of course, both digital and traditional media have their pros and cons. What is it that you enjoy most about working traditionally? And how do you think that manifests in the final product?

Maeve: I work traditionally mostly because I don’t want to spend my day looking at a computer screen, so that is probably my favourite thing about it. I know you can achieve a pretty good version of traditional materials digitally at this point, but for me it’s not a very enjoyable way to work, so the time-saving trade off isn’t really worth it. 

Maybe the biggest difference at this point is that with pen and paper you have to commit to and work with a certain amount of mistakes. I find it fascinating to watch time lapse videos of digital drawing because it’s a completely different process, even when the results are similar.

POME: Closing out, are there any comics you’re hyped about right now?

Maeve: There are many! TCAF, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, just wrapped up and I am eagerly awaiting my package of books from the “booths” (it was all online), which has work from Patrick Allaby, Jenn Woodall, Hartley Lin, Sid Sharp, Stanley Wany, and Sarula Bao, among others.

Zoe Maeve is a comics artist and illustrator originally from Tkaronto/Toronto who is now based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. You can find her at and on instagram @its.zoe.maeve. Her graphic novel The Gift is out now with Conundrum Press.

Jenny Mott

Jenny Mott

Jenny is just a Silly Nerd with a lot of Feelings about Comic Books and Friendship and also This Capitalist Yoke We All Share; she enjoys Dogs and Sleeping and Cartoons. Her three favorite words are: Breakfast All Day.
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