Nilah Magruder is based in Maryland. She is the author of M.F.K., a middle-grade graphic novel, and winner of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity, How to Find a Fox, and Wutaryoo. She has published short stories in Fireside Magazine and the All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages anthology. Nilah has also written for Marvel Comics, illustrated children’s books for Disney-Hyperion, Scholastic, and Penguin, and worked as a writer and storyboard artist in television animation. She is currently working on graphic novels for middle-grade and young-adult readers. When she is not working, Nilah is baking, gardening, and snuggling with her cat, dogs, and turtle.
What was your introduction to working in the field of SF and fantasy art? What were the influences that drew you in?
I think it was when Daniel José Older reached out to me about contributing art to the Long Hidden anthology, published by Crossed Genres. I was still searching for my voice as an artist, but at the time I was watching the works of John Jude Palencar, Jo Chen, Jason Chan, and Jenny Dolfen. I was also a huge fan of Linda Bergkvist; however, I was an animation student and my area of study has always had a cartoonier slant.
Talk about an interesting illustration project. What’s it like to illustrate an author’s work? Does your own experience as a writer influence the process?
Illustrating the new Heroes of Olympus covers for Rick Riordan and Disney-Hyperion was a particular challenge. The original John Rocco covers are so iconic, and I wanted to offer a new perspective that didn’t copy Rocco’s work (which was hard, since Rocco picked such brilliant moments for each cover!). For these covers, I looked for opportunities to place the characters front and center, in the throes of action. I wanted to do right by the fanbase – and not all the fans liked the new covers, which is perfectly natural, but they were a huge challenge for me and I’m proud of how they turned out. With a high-profile series like this, you’re working closely with the author, editor, and designer to fulfill their vision while still preserving your own voice in the art. It’s a lot of negotiation, and some of the illustrations took a number of revisions to reach a place where everyone was satisfied. Some of the final covers are very different from their original sketches! I always read as much of the stories I illustrate as I can, and look for iconic scenes that can serve as a reader’s first window into the story. Those are the moments I illustrate. I suppose the influence my writing has on this process is that I can look at the work from the perspective of both artist and writer, and I can ask myself, ‘‘If I was the author of this book, what would I want out of the cover?’’
Tell us about your favorite art processes! Do you use digital media in your workflow? Is there one tool you can’t live without when it comes to art?
I am a digital artist. It’s really something I fell into, because I preferred traditional media for a long time, but usually the deadlines are too tight for me to experiment with traditional media the way I’d like. My digital workflow is much faster. I work primarily on a Cintiq. I have an iPad Pro as well, for those times when I need to work on the go, but I really prefer my Cintiq and desktop workstation. When it comes to graphic novels, I’m a fan of the inking process, but I also really love painting. My process changes for every painting – sometimes I start entirely with grayscale value and then add color, other times I begin with color and work the values in later.
You’ve storyboarded for Dreamworks and Disney, done comics for Marvel and others, written and illustrated your own children’s book, created graphic novels both for yourself and others, and now have a YA series as a writer. How do you juggle all of these projects and keep the creative juices flowing?
It can be hard! I am always thinking two to three years down the road and trying to plan my jobs so that there’s room for everything. I wouldn’t schedule illustrating two graphic novels at the same time, because that’s a ridiculous amount of work and a recipe for injury and burnout, but writing scripts is much faster, so I can take on one or two writing gigs alongside illustrating a graphic novel. And really, having a diverse slate of projects helps keep me from getting bored. I can bounce around and work different parts of my brain.
Is there upcoming work you’d like to tell our readers about?
I’m writing a YA fantasy duology called Hex and Havoc. It’s a queer romance about two young women falling in love and leading a revolution in a magic-filled society. The artist is Sonia Liao, who is doing amazing work with it. I can’t wait to share the book with readers!
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