Last month, I came across the comic Interval of Trust by Romanian artists Maria and Oana Heller on Webtoons. This gorgeously illustrated 24-page fictional comic tells the story of Mara, a high school student whose anger, fueled by an abusive past, has put her into a precarious position. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Mara has survived tremendous physical and sexual violence at home, and she’s fighting stubbornly to have a stable life after running away from her mother and stepfather.
I contacted the artists for more info on how the comic was made, and Maria Heller graciously answered some questions via email. She also agreed to include an excerpt of Interval of Trust in the upcoming Grab Back Comics Anthology.
Your comic Interval of Trust is part of a series called Convergent. Would you please describe the comic and the series?
Heller: Convergent is a series of contemporary, psychological stories. The stories take place in Romania (my home country), and they are centered on complex and uncomfortable themes of social injustice. I and my partner, Oana Heller, are working on all our projects together. The Convergent series is composed of two novels and a comic book so far: the novel First there was the Lie, by Oana Heller, the novel Beneath These Hands, by me, and the comic book Interval of Trust, which was created by us both. The series is still ongoing, and will include at least five more novels. The comic is very much connected with my own novel, Beneath These Hands, so I’ll describe it a bit as well. The novel focuses on two main characters, a girl and a boy, named Mara and Sevan. They are classmates, both around 18 years old. Even though they seem like two ordinary teenagers, they each bear the burden of a difficult childhood. They were both sexually abused as children, and both cope very differently with the trauma. While Mara’s trauma made her predisposed to violent behavior, Sevan struggles in denial, isolating himself from the world and severing all ties with everyone but his abuser, about whom he has very mixed feelings. Mara, the teenage girl, is the main character of the comic book Interval of Trust. There we see snippets of her life which were also described in the novel.
Had you seen other comics about sexual assault before you started writing Interval of Trust? Has the comic connected you with other artists who have written about this topic?
Heller: No, I did all the research on my own and I personally never read a comic on this topic before. I started writing my novel when I was 16 and I worked 7 years on it. Only a year before publishing it I had the idea to make a comic book on this subject as well, focusing on the same characters.
Mara is a very direct and unapologetic kind of person, so it was a challenge to tell her story in a sensitive way, both because of the difficult topic and her frankness.
How did the comics medium impact how you told the story?
Heller: I found it much harder to illustrate the story than to put it in words, as I did in my novel. I realized such a topic can be very triggering in images, if I didn’t handle it well, and I was worried about that. My intention was always to help, but Mara is a very direct and unapologetic kind of person, so it was a challenge to tell her story in a sensitive way, both because of the difficult topic and her frankness. But I received some feedback from victims who had similar traumas in the past and they said that I handled the topic very well, which obviously made me very happy. I hope I did.
Interval of Trust is a coming-of-age story about Mara, a girl with great strength and strong survival instincts. How did you develop the story? Is it inspired by personal stories or current events?
Heller: As I said, I’ve been working on the story for 7 years before publishing it. I honestly don’t remember what made me choose such a topic. The story started with the characters; I first knew them and only later their story. I always felt that I’m discovering my characters instead of inventing them. I feel like I’m gradually discovering their true nature, and that said nature isn’t artificially designed and forged by me, but rather just discovered. I rewrote my novel many times and I finished it for the first time in 2013, but then decided to completely rewrite it again before publishing it in 2015. It’s only then when I decided to add Mara to the story. Until then, all those years, the story was only about Sevan and his trauma. I don’t remember how Mara and her story came to be, as is the case with all my characters, but I decided to add her to the story as a counterbalance to Sevan. I feel like their stories complement each other very well and I wanted to show that the same abuse can affect people very differently, and that victims cope with their traumas in different ways, that there’s no recipe to coping and healing. Sevan is isolated, disconnected from others, quiet and passive, while Mara is strong, aggressive and sometimes violent – their coping mechanisms aren’t stereotypical to their genders. I also wanted to underline that. Mara’s trauma produced anger, but also strength and a willingness to fight, while Sevan’s trauma led to isolation and a kind of surrendering in defeat.
You wrote Interval of Trust in Romanian and recently translated it to English. What was the process of translation like for such an emotionally honest story?
Heller: Oana translated the text to English with my suggestions, but I’m not so happy with the translation. Mara’s personality doesn’t show through the text in English as well as it showed in the original Romanian version because we had to give up on all the regional terms, and slang. We didn’t know how to translate those. Me and Oana live in Transylvania, and we have a very Transylvanian way of speaking Romanian, with lots of regional terms and accents. All those are reflected in our characters as well, since we set the location of our stories in our hometown. But all that was lost in translation, and in the English version Mara appears to speak this very plain, grammatically correct English – which I don’t quite like. Maybe we’ll need the help of a native English speaker at some point.
… we have a very Transylvanian way of speaking Romanian, with lots of regional terms and accents. All those are reflected in our characters as well, since we set the location of our stories in our hometown.
What is the comics scene like in your area? Are there local events where you sell or read your work?
Heller: There simply is no comics scene in my country. There’s also almost no public for comics here either. There are no events I can attend. Most people here don’t even know what comics are, they think they’re just stories for children. I know a few comic artists but they write in French and English and publish mostly abroad.
I was surprised and impressed to read that this is the first comic you have published. Please tell me about your training and experience as an artist and storyteller.
Heller: Yes, Interval of Trust is not only the first comic I published but the first I ever created. I have this habit of taking on huge tasks in fields I have no experience in, and the only way to bring them to life is to push myself until I’m good enough to actually complete the task. It could potentially be an awful trait if I was a less reliable person, but luckily I’m very driven and I always find a way to make it work. I never drew a comic strip before making Interval of Trust, but I did study arts for a long time. Oana and I both studied at an art high school and an art university and we both have a BA in painting. I did exclusively traditional art all my life, mostly life drawing and oil painting, up until 2014, when I bought my first graphic tablet (which I still use). After buying the tablet I taught myself Photoshop and managed to figure out digital art well enough to make the cover of Oana’s novel which was published 3 months later in the same year. Then I made Interval of Trust. I learn fast I guess. As for my experience as a storyteller… I taught myself how to write well by continuously rewriting my first novel for 7 years, and reading lots of books in the meantime.
Facial expressions and body language are so strong in this comic. Did you use photo references for these drawings, or some other magic?
Heller: I did use reference photos and I sometimes posed myself, asked Oana to take photos of me doing certain gestures or poses and I drew after them.
Please describe the materials you used in creating this comic. Were the drawings made on paper before they were digitized?
Heller: I didn’t make sketches or drawings on paper. Everything was made directly in digital form. Being an exclusively traditional artist up until that point I suppose that’s kind of strange. My transition from traditional to digital was very abrupt, but it worked fine in the end.
You and your partner Oana Heller work on these comics together. What roles do you and Oana each have in the creative process?
Heller: I’m the one drawing everything. I learned how to use the graphic tablet and work digitally very fast, in just 3 months, while Oana was busy finishing her own novel. She never managed to catch up on that head start I had. By the time she started playing with the tablet I was already drawing at the level you can see in the comic, while she was struggling to make wiggly lines, so she was discouraged and now leaves all drawing to me. That won’t work in the future though, so I keep pushing her to learn to draw digitally as well because I’ll need her help. We do create the stories together and we write together also.
How did you release Interval of Trust?
Heller: Interval of Trust was published at the same time with my novel, Beneath These Hands. Oana and I had a crowdfunding campaign on the only Romanian crowdfunding platform – which was fairly new at the moment. The campaign took 3 months and was a success. We managed to reach our target and gain the funds needed to print my novel and the comic book. Beneath These Hands and Interval of Trust were printed and published together. Sadly they didn’t sell. I knew the comic book won’t sell because there’s virtually no market and no public for comics in my country. Also, since we self-published we couldn’t send our titles to bookstores, because they only sign contracts with publishing companies, so we were left with selling them online or at book launches. I really don’t like promoting online and Oana doesn’t either so it just didn’t gain visibility. We just couldn’t make it visible and we didn’t know how to reach an audience. We thought that creating it and publishing it is our part of the work and that once it’s published the other things will just fall into place. We were wrong…
Oana and I had a crowdfunding campaign on the only Romanian crowdfunding platform… We thought that creating it and publishing it is our part of the work and that once it’s published the other things will just fall into place. We were wrong…
What has the response to the comic been like?
Heller: As a result of what I said above we had almost no feedback at all because the comic just couldn’t gain visibility and very few people read it. This is why we decided to translate it to English and we’d like to translate the novels one day as well. We got much more feedback since translating it, and people like it. But it’s still hard for us since we just changed our target audience completely by translating it to English. Since then we had Romanians as our target audience for our novels and comics, but that changed and we’re back to square one, trying to gain visibility and to gain a following. Our subjects are also very difficult, and almost impossible to market. What should we say? Come read our sad, sad stories which will make you cry for hours? People are uncomfortable around such topics. This is why there’s all this stigma around sexual abuse: because people don’t want to talk about such unpleasant things, so they avoid the subject and that’s where all the prejudices and myths arise from. These subjects are hard to even be brought up, but I believe it can help other people dealing with the same issues, going through the same struggles, and that it can change people’s prejudices, and open their eyes to the harsh realities that exist all around us but are swept under the rug, ignored and denied. Ignorance towards these unpleasant things only helps the spread of disinformation, prejudices and shame, isolating those suffering from their communities and loved ones.
Our subjects are also very difficult, and almost impossible to market. What should we say? Come read our sad, sad stories which will make you cry for hours?
What are you working on at the moment and what are your future plans?
Heller: We took a break at the moment from the Convergent series, because we’re working on a new project called Solstice: a webcomic written in English. We’re very excited about it and can’t wait to launch it. Solstice is a historical fiction story taking place in 1434. The story starts in Europe, at the court of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, but then moves to the Crescent Isles, a fictional place of our creation. The isles, located in the North Atlantic ocean, are unknown to the rest of the world and the people living there have their own culture, religion, language, and habits, all created by us. The people living on the Crescent Isles have a polytheistic pagan religion which is the subject of The Book of Gods: a web-comic depicting the creation of the world, the creation of humans, and extending to various myths and legends which define their religion. The Book of Gods is like a pagan Bible of this fictional religion we created, and is an introduction to Solstice. All this will be posted on our Patreon so you can follow us there if you’re interested.
We’re also hoping to translate Convergent to English, and re-launch it. We just had the misfortune of self-publishing it with no marketing skills, and to an audience that isn’t interested in comics, and isn’t ready for such difficult topics, but I think these stories really deserve to be known and read. Translating the novels to English is a very big wish of ours and it’s definitely in our future plans, as well as continuing the comic Interval of Trust.
We just had the misfortune of self-publishing it with no marketing skills, and to an audience that isn’t interested in comics, and isn’t ready for such difficult topics, but I think these stories really deserve to be known and read.
What can readers do to support your work and see more of it translated?
Heller: We have a Patreon account and readers can support us there. They can also help by sharing our work, because we are really struggling with gaining visibility. We posted Interval of Trust on Patreon, Tapastic and Webtoons.
Links included in this interview:
Convergent on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/convergent.om.heller/
Solstice on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/solsticebyoanaandmariaheller/
Illustrations & artwork on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/maria.heller.designs/