Thursday, March 21, 2019

Meet a Local Cartoonist: A Chat with Deandra "Nika" Tan (updated)

from her Instagram feed
by Mike Rhode

Deandra "Nika" Tan's work is being exhibited in Arlington's Aurora Hills Library for two months, ending next week. Her artist's statement for the small exhibit reads:

Deandra "Nika" Tan is a Virginia-based writer and artist who primarily leverages the medium of comics to tell her stories. Her visual art style combines elements of Japanese manga and vintage art illustrations, which she then further adapts to fit the tone of whatever project she's working on. Initial concept work is done traditionally with a pen and paper, whereupon the comic is drafted and completed on a tablet computer. Recurring themes in her stories explore the tensions between romantic and familial relationships and the desire for societal recognition.

I stopped in to see the exhibit, and upon seeing that she was doing minicomics, I reached out with our usual questions.

What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

I primarily do long-form digital comics. My stories range from slice-of-life to sci-fi/fantasy to mystery and suspense. Right now, I’m engaged with digital publisher Tapas Media to produce “Signals,” a crime comic with a telepathic detective as the heroine, for their mobile app. The eventual goal with most of my stories is to get them into print, however.

How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?

All computer! I have a Wacom tablet computer that I bring with me wherever I go. Sometimes traditional pen and ink are good for combating writer’s block, or sketching out thumbnails for an upcoming chapter, but it’s all finished digitally.

When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

I was born in New York City in the early 1990s. I spent most of my life in the city, moving down to the Washington area only in 2016 when my partner relocated for work.

What neighborhood or area do you live in?

I lived in Arlington for 3 years and just recently moved to Vienna. Still got a whole bunch of boxes left to unpack!

What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

This is a tough one, haha. I’ve taken art classes all my life in school, but they don’t really prepare you for the specific skills that comics require. Studying film in college helped me a lot with the conventions of setting up scenes. Pacing and frame layouts are something that I’m still actively working on.

How did you get your work exhibited in Arlington's Aurora Hills library?

So the Aurora Hills Library was just a few blocks from my first apartment in the Washington DC area. I actually volunteered there for three years, helping them pull books off shelves for circulation. One of the librarians who worked there, Tom, asked me recently if I’d be interested in exhibiting any of my work, and I said yes! It’s really cool bringing that full circle and being able to share my art in a space that I’m familiar with. The final exhibition date is March 28th (next week!). After that, there will be a second run in the Columbia Pike branch from the beginning of June until the end of June.

What would you like to do or work on in the future?

I’ve got a couple ideas for graphic novels I’d like to pitch at some point, but I think in the immediate future, once my current project is complete, I’d like to work on a variety of short stories. I feel like I’m still in the middle of developing my style and voice as a creator, and short stories are a great low-commitment way of doing that. I’ve participated in a few anthologies (1001 Knights, Gothic Tales of Haunted Love, Pros and (Comic) Cons), and I’m toying with the idea of organizing my short stories in a similar thematic way. Or maybe I’ll just indulge whatever inspiration strikes. Who knows!

What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

So I’m fortunate in a sense that I’ve never dealt with writer’s block while in the middle of a webcomic. I just don’t have the luxury. I did, however, have a terrible time committing to a storyline for “Signals” ahead of its launch. Every time I came up with an outline, either a new idea would strike, or something would fall out of place. I found myself in a position where I was just reorganizing the story into different iterations for the sake of it. Finally, I just gave Tapas Media a date to start publication to light a fire under my tail. If not for that, “Signals” would probably still be in development hell.

What do you think will be the future of your field?

I think it’s very positive! More and more people are discovering independent and creator-owned comics, and I feel that recognition of their literary value is growing in schools and libraries. That said, the comics community can still be quite insulated from the mainstream. We haven’t yet gotten to the point where picking up a bestselling comic is as common as reading a bestselling book or going to watch a blockbuster in theaters.

What local cons do you attend? The Small Press Expo, Awesome Con or others? Any comments about attending them?

I regularly go to SPX since a lot of my comic friends use that as an excuse to get together and hang out, even if we’re not planning to sell anything. I’ve also gone to Awesome Con and Otakon, but strictly for business. I’d love to attend one year just for fun and actually attend some events. When you’re there as an artist to sell, you pretty much never leave your table except to eat.

What monument or museum do you like to take visitors to?

Actually, rather than go to any one monument or museum, I just like to walk around the Mall. Nighttime is a great time to go; it’s less crowded, and they do a killer job with the lights. Then afterward maybe grab some unusual ice cream flavors at Pitango Gelato.

Do you have a website or blog?

Yep! You can check out my work at

I forgot to ask - why the penname "Nika"?

I first started publishing the webcomic that would become "Love Debut!" without any clear idea of what I was doing or how long I'd keep it up. At the time, many other creators publishing manga-inspired webcomics had Japanese-derived pseudonyms, so I just went along with that and adapted the name "Nika" from an character I had come up with as a kid. Later, when I returned to comics after graduating college, it made sense to use the name to keep my comics and my "professional" life separate. I might consider retiring it once "Signals" is complete, but hard to say. At this point, the name feels pretty comfortable and familiar.

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