Interview with Mari Costa for Belle of the Ball

In association with HearOurVoices, I was given the opportunity to interview the adorable Mari Costa for their upcoming graphic novel Belle of the Ball. Special thanks to Mari for their time.

A little bit about Mari: They are a story artist, 2D designer, and cartoonist from Brazil with years of experience in comics and graphic novels. They love the color pink!

The Interview

With a considerably extensive background in visual storytelling, it goes without saying that you’ve been able to develop a charming and unique art style. How long would you say it took you to find your current style? Are there any artists or storytellers who have had a particular influence on you?

Everyone says this, but I’m still finding my style! It´ll be changing and evolving for as long as I keep working, but I do acknowledge that I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve cultivated a distinctly recognizable voice, and I think that happened when I reached maybe 18 or 19 and started taking art seriously as a career option. I started drawing at 13, so let’s call that 6 years of troubleshooting before coming up with something I ended up sticking to!

This is hopefully obvious, but anime and manga have always been the driving source of inspiration for me when I started cartooning. I later fell in love with a lot of French/Belgian BD as well. Studio Ghibli and CLAMP are both huge sources of storytelling inspiration for me. And modern tv animation techniques like storyboarding and shorthand really helped with refining my style. 

Every writer’s approach to storytelling is different. What was your approach to this particular story?

This was my first time ever writing a graphic novel for a publishing house, so it was very different than my usual, uh. Let’s call it “controlled chaos”. It taught me a lot and it definitely helped me be more organized, though! 

Because I had to present every step of the process to my editor, Steve, it meant I had to figure out a lot of the big picture right away and then distill it into a comprehensible outline for him to read through (as opposed to waking up at 2AM and writing stuff down in my notes app like I’ve had a prophetic dream). From there, the work was mostly breaking that same outline down into expanding scenes that had to address each story beat. 

Most of the magic of comics definitely happens in the artwork, though, so I definitely had to ask Steve for a little bit of grace as I was explaining scenes to him that would only really work once I finally got them down into layouts. It definitely meant I was able to still make comics how I love to draw them, with very sparse dialogue and a lot of room for the characters to act and breathe. 

Writers who also illustrate the story have a unique opportunity to approach their work differently than someone who only writes or only illustrates. When taking on both roles, does your process change in any way? (Such as scripting directly on storyboards.) 

I think I’ve only ever written a script out before drawing it into layouts once and the results were absolutely disastrous. It was super bland and involved a lot of talking heads and boring shot-reverse-shots, so I make it a habit to script as I do my thumbnails so the pacing can play itself out in the panels as well as the dialogue. As someone who has recently gotten into prose writing (hopefully exciting news about that will come soon??), writing for comics and prose are two completely different beasts. I’ve actually never tried to just write for comics, so I couldn’t tell you how it differs. It’s impossible for me to separate being an author from being an illustrator when it comes to graphic novels. 

I know this isn’t what you asked, but since I’m being given a platform I’d like to reach out to any writers who want to get into comics and ask them to try and scribble out their own layouts as well! It can be really difficult to pare down actions and scenes into specific panels and I think getting to know the medium would help a lot!

Belle of the Ball subverts the “geek gets the girl” trope in the most adorable and fun way. What was your inspiration for this project?

Oh, that! That what you just said! Not that exact trope, but trope subversion was always the driving force behind the story. Of course, once I started building on the story it took on a lot more heart and personality, but the initial conceit of Belle of the Ball was always for it to turn several commonplace teen drama tropes on their heads (the love triangle, the geek/jock/prep dynamics, heterosexuality in general (lol)). 

With a background that includes animation and illustration, what was it like moving into the medium of graphic novels with this project and your previous works? How does your approach to visual storytelling change between the media?

I’ve been working in comics well before I ever got into animation, so I’d say learning the skill only made me a better cartoonist. I don’t really work in the animation industry, but all the knowledge of solid drawing, posing, shorthand, acting, character design, etc has been completely invaluable to my career in comics. I wouldn’t say my approach changes with each medium so much as they all complement each other and they’re all a part of what (hopefully) makes my style distinct!

The only thing I could say differs is I definitely let myself get a bit more carried away with costume and general visual design when I’m doing a standalone illustration/short comic as opposed to a full graphic novel or animation work, as both the latter involve a LOT of drawing the same thing over and over again and another invaluable lesson I learned in animation school is by the end of my first year a third of the class had wrist injuries (take care of yourselves!). 

Belle of the Ball primarily follows three characters: Chloe, Hawkins, and Regina. Of the three, is there one, in particular, you resonate with?

I am not immune to reading reviews of my own work and I am very aware that she’s very polarising, but it’s gotta be Gina. I’m so sorry. She’s never done anything wrong in her life, is the thing. 

Traditional comics have kept characters’ wardrobes to at least one or two signature outfits, but in recent years artists have begun to incorporate more diverse and ever-changing wardrobes. Chloe, Hawkins, and Regina have a few notable costume changes throughout Belle of the Ball. Which were your favourites? 

Most of what Gina wears was really fun to draw, because it all pulled from Y2K/early 00s fashion that I used to be too young and insecure to be able to wear at the time. As for Chloe and Belle, my heart will always be that of a fantasy writer, so their ren faire costumes hands down. 

Honestly, if I could’ve done this comic all over again the one thing I’d change was I’d spend more time on the costuming. I pared down the costume designs to streamline the process, but fashion is a huge passion of mine and I’d love to give each girl their own distinct style in some kind of little fashion zine or something. 

Character design is essential in comics, as you don’t want a character so complicated that you begin to dread drawing them repeatedly. What was the inspiration behind the character designs used in Belle of the Ball?

I think I definitely wanted them to be instantly recognizable as their “trope” while still being a bit subversive and their own individual characters! Chloe’s was definitely the easiest to accomplish, since she’s a big beefy jock with a winning smile, but I think Belle and Gina break the mold a little bit more. Good character design when you think about them interacting with each other is all about contrast. Usually when I make contrasting characters they’re romantic partners or narrative foils (or both), so there’s only two of them, but I think even subconsciously it was important to me that all three girls contrast each other and have extremely different styles and body types! 

I didn’t do this on purpose (I don’t think a lot of people do), but if you wanna pull up my old character design Uni course and do some basic analysis, Belle of the Ball’s characters fall pretty neatly into the 3 design archetypes. Chloe is the square (solid, reliable), Gina is the circle (bubbly, gregarious) and Belle is a triangle (angular, a little unstable). 

All the girls are built from pretty basic blocks, but I think that’s what’s essential for the genre-subverting part of the narrative to properly succeed.


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