#17. A Conversation with Tara Billinger

JA: So you are only nineteen years old and are already involved in Tokyopop, Slave Labor Graphics, and Dumm Comics; at what age did you start drawing, and also, at what point did you know that you wanted to make a career out of your art?

TB: I first started drawing at about the age of three or four. I distinctly remember my family being visited by my brother's friend, who drew a picture of Bill the Cat for me. Seeing the drawing being formed in front of my eyes fascinated me and I immediately tried to duplicate it—enjoying the process/struggle of transferring what I saw in my mind on to a piece of paper. From that point on in my childhood, I was in constant search of what I call "pencil euphoria" -- always having a pencil and paper in my hand. I knew I wanted to be a professional cartoonist. I spent hours upon hours in the local library, reading everything I could get my hands on that was related to cartooning and art. I always had a sketchbook at hand and I've been stabbed so many times in the legs for keeping pencils and pens in my jean pockets. Watching cartoons gave me the drive to pursue it as a career, I'd sit there and watch them for hours on end not just because I was a kid but because I was so fascinated by them. Thinking "Wow, I want to make something as good as this" or "I want to learn how this works". My mom was always there to support me with my art career and that always helped during hard times. She always had a feeling I would be destined to contribute to this field. I love that I had support to take my art future since a lot of the time people looked down upon the subject as a career. I never got negative feedback about it so I just kept drawing.

JA: At seventeen you were awarded with The First Place Congressional Award for the 35th Annual All-State High Schools of Utah Exhibition for a pencil and computer drawing that was featured in the United States Capitol Building for one year; what was that drawing of, and what was it like to be so widely recognized for your work while still in high school?

TB: The piece was called Moment and it had a passenger grieving in one of the stalls of a public train. I still remember the meaning of that one, my mom was in the hospital at the time who was recovering from being in cardiac arrest, so I felt the same way as the person in the picture. It was a very rough time for me but my mom and I pulled through. The event was an incredible experience, I'll never forget it. Arriving there from across the country and visiting the White house, man, it was such an honor! There was a student from each state at the ceremony, being a part of the best of the US student body for that year was just too much to take in. I was glad I could make my art teacher proud, he's one of my heroes. There were taxis, tours, fine art, lawyers, body guards, more lawyers, and we didn't get to shake hands with the President but they got the next best thing for the occasion....Miley Cyrus. Either way, all of it was just a treat and I couldn't be prouder to know that my work was displayed there. That's something a lot of people can't say in their lifetime. I have a candy dish they gave me from the White House and the portrait hangs in my dining room with all the Washington DC postal stamps. It still feels like a dream.

JA: Let's talk about Adora Gone and the Electric Elephant; where did the idea come from, and how did you get involved with Chris Reilly?

TB: Chris got the idea for Adora Gone by a novel made in the early 1900s called The Electric Elephant. Its such an old book that I think it isn't in print anymore. Adora is about a 16 year old bubbly teen who works two jobs, one raking leaves at a pet cemetery and the other flying around in a huge robotic "Electric Elephant" equipped with technologies that its, long since deceased, creator predicted that the rest of mankind would not catch up with for ten thousand years. The story is really great, trippy and there's lots of twists and turns that unravel at the end. There are some aspects from the original story that intertwine with Adora throughout the novel, sorta concluding what the original book left out. It's really interesting how Chris wrote it and it's really fun to illustrate. I knew Chris for about two or three years before he approached me to work on Adora, mostly by email and comic con meetings. Then his book The Trouble with Igor released in 2007 and I did a little pinup drawing of Igor and posted it somewhere on an interview he did at the time. He found it months later and gave me an email back asking if I'd like to do a comic project with him. I happily agreed, and before Comic Con 2007 we made a ten-page short story pitch for it and shipped it off to Dan (publisher and editor in chief of SLG). At first, we thought Adora got bumped, but then we received a call from him five months later explaining to us that he not only wanted to publish it but he wanted to edit the book himself, which he hasn't done since The Haunted Mansion. Both me and Chris are very honored to have him on board with the novel. I'm excited about the whole endeavor, not only am I the youngest comic artist working at the company since Jhonen Vasquez, but I get to work with such talented people who've been working in the comic industry for more than eleven years. It's quite an experience and I'm very grateful to take part in such a fun project.

JA: You also recently contributed to Dumm Comics with your Dr. Scoops series; how did you become involved with that group, and what has your experience with them been like?

TB: We chatted a bit online but met through a panel for El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera at San Diego comic con a couple years ago, we kept in touch ever since. I just love working with them! Being a part was an experience I feel very lucky and fortunate to have. They're all so extremely talented and inspirational and I have huge amounts of respect for all of them. It feels like I knew them for ages since I've been watching shows and shorts they worked on in the past, and hopefully in the future we can work together in the animation industry. We still keep in touch and Scoops will have another doctors appointment on Dumm real soon.

JA: Do you have an all-time favorite comic?

TB: Oh man, I never have a favorite anything. I can never choose! I actually haven't read too many comics since I started working on Adora, go figure, but at the time I've been into Hellboy, my good friend Ben Roman's book I Luv Halloween, Get the Freebies and of course Dumm Comics. I watch more cartoons than I read comics these days but I try to balance them out. Not doing a very good job though.

JA: You will be attending SVA for college, majoring in Animation; what is your idea of the ultimate dream job after graduation?

TB: My dream job is just one where I can be confident and happy in what I'm doing. Working with amazing people and contributing in something big would be fantastic. I love learning new things to help improve my art, and having fellow employees, friends and artists aiding me in the process would be the best. People have told me I'd end up in character design, storyboarding, or some type of character development for animation. But working in any field in the industry will be an opportunity to learn, grow, and connect for whatever comes next. I'm looking forward to the future and what it holds for me.

JA: Who working now in the industry inspires you as an artist?

TB: That's tough, right now, I'd have to say the people down at a.k.a. Cartoon working on Ed, Edd n Eddy, I've been interacting with them for years now and they've always inspired me. I'm looking forward to the movie! Then there's everyone at El Tigre, Sandra, Jorge, Eric, Shawn, and all the Dumm crew who worked on the show. They have all been wonderful towards me and it feels like I've been a part of the show without even working on it. They put a lot of heart in El Tigre and I really admire that. I just know I wouldn't be where I am today as an artist if it wasn't for those shows. They led me to so many magnificent people and friends. Like one big happy family, how animation should be while working on a show. Jorge and Sandra actually contributed pinups for Adora, I couldn't be more thrilled about that. Other shows I've been keeping an eye on are The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, Mighty B! and SuperJail! Those are all very unique and it keeps me wanting more which is refreshing considering TV has been very very bland for me lately. Other than that anyone who's in the industry inspires me, just because I know how difficult it is to get your foot in the door. Especially how the industry is constructed these days.

JA: I love your first piece for the "Dia De Los Muertos" Halloween collection; tell me about your other pieces for the collection. What do you do at home to celebrate Day of the Dead?

TB: Thanks so much! My other pieces will be focused on things I've done as a kid to celebrate the holiday. It will consist of digital and traditional paintings. Six for the Day of the Dead and a few for Halloween. The Day of the Dead celebrations are very close to Halloween time, October 31st but the customs have different origins, and their attitudes toward death are different. In the typical Halloween festivities, death is something to be feared. But in el día de los muertos, death — or at least the memories of those who have died — is something to be celebrated. So I hope people don't get confused by the pieces I'm doing for both holidays. I love both holidays! My family and I usually throw a family party where we take the time to pause and think of those who have died and to use creativity in putting together an altar or even a shelf with photos, favorite momentos and offerings of flowers or food. My favorite food and craft idea for Day of the Dead is the making of Sugar Skulls. I always love making those as a kid. I celebrated the holiday in Mexico with relatives when I was very young and hope I can do it again someday.

JA: You mentioned that you will be working on some small animated projects in the future, along with coloring and designing backgrounds for an upcoming short; what projects are these that you are involved in?

TB: Most of them will be small animations by me, walk cycles, short motion clips, and interactions between characters and objects. Others will be shorts I have a few in store for the future. One called Does Not Compute which is about a little robot girl who wants to learn how to love but thinks she needs an actual human heart to achieve the experience. She then goes off on a mission to get one only to find a cow heart to take its place. Sometime in November the Production of Zach Bellissimo's short Sunday Night Fun will go under way, then on I'll be coloring and designing backgrounds for the toon along with a voice cameo but the others I can't say too much about.

JA: How would you describe your style using only one word?

TB: I wouldn't! Again, I'm so bad at deciding. I'd probably have to create a word to describe my art.