What would you say if we told you…
That Conundrum Press is publishing The Gift, a new YA graphic novel by Zoe Maeve, creator of the Expozine Award-winning July Underwater?
Hold your applause…
Because then, what if we told you that Maeve describes it as The Shining meets Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette?
We know. Take a second to collect yourself. It’s very exciting. And it’s going to be just as incredible as it sounds.
The Gift opens on the snow-blanketed grounds of the Alexander Palace in Western Russia where a moth has come to attend the birth of the fourth Romanov princess, Anastasia. She and her siblings grow up in a gilded world, isolated from the society beyond the palace walls despite their dominion over it. After mysteriously receiving a camera on her fifteenth birthday, she begins to document her world, but the gift carries with it a weight she can’t yet see. A creature moves on the edge of her vision and stalks her dreams. As the revolution unfolds, the confines of Anastasia’s world keep closing in. Something is following her, and it might not be human.
5 Questions with Zoe Maeve
1. What is it about Anastasia that made you want to write about her life? How did you hear of her story?
When I started working on The Gift, it was because I’d gotten obsessed not so much with the Romanovs, but with this network of websites and forums about them. It’s a corner of the internet where people are meticulously going through the family photos and matching them to the rooms in the palaces, digitizing menus from royal meals, that kind of thing. There’s one post that sticks with me where they were tracing the movement of a specific white chair across different photographs. It’s like this archival project where they’re collectively creating an imagined world that feels almost hyper-real and intensely saturated. I became very interested in this, more than I was interested in the real historical figures of the family, or Anastasia herself.
The thing is that when you start reading about the family, it’s very boring and ordinary and they led very sheltered lives, especially the children. My past work has had a lot to do with scrutinizing records, especially personal ones. I’m often looking at a life for something vital and ultimately unseeable because you’re looking so closely you can only skirt around it. I played pretty fast and loose with historical dates in the book, but what I really wanted to bring to life was the world inside the palace.
2. There is an element of horror in The Gift. What influenced this?
I’ve always been really interested in the aesthetics of horror movies. The horror I tend to be drawn to is about the supernatural and hauntings and it usually creeps into my work. One of my favourite movies is Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, where what’s driving the haunting is this ghost’s incredible, forceful need, which doesn’t really become clear until the end. Another touchstone for me is Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer, where the way that the entity is operating is so far beyond the human, even though some of its manifestations seem to be more conventional.
So I think I was very interested in hauntings that are entangled with us but also indifferent to human events. In The Gift, these big historical events are taking place in the background, but the creature Anastasia sees isn’t an expression of them, and it becomes more like a private haunting she can’t really understand, and which is ultimately interrupted at the end of the book.
3. What is the gift in the book? Seems to be a camera but it also represents the gift of second sight. Are these concepts connected for you?
There’s the literal gift of the camera, which we don’t know who sent, but for me the gift in the title has more to do with what I talked about earlier. It’s this indescribable private thing, or haunting, that’s at the centre of being a person and that feels like both a gift and something burdensome. I think a lot of being a young person is trying to describe that, and ultimately accepting that you probably can’t, which Anastasia is never able to do. A lot of why the setting was so compelling to me was the way it resonates with this idea — being in this very opulent, heavy, isolated world.
4. You have been active in the indie comics scene in Toronto and Montreal for a while now. How did you find making the jump to a graphic novel?
I’ve actually had a much harder time making the leap to doing short comics! My first comic, July Underwater, which I initially printed myself with a grant from the Fine Arts Reading Room at Concordia was about 80 pages long, which is shorter than a lot of projects but long for a first effort. Somehow this always seems to be the most comfortable length to me and I like to chew on a bunch of ideas for a long time, usually a few years before I turn them into something. I often feel as though I should be turning out a higher volume of short things, or making merch since I love those things when other artists do them but I think I’m settling into how I work best, which is to say slowly!
On the other hand, making a comic that I knew was going to be professionally published, and having a longer timeline to do it was a very different experience. With July Underwater, I was literally trying to figure out how panels worked, how to put the elements together cohesively. I had to finish it in about four months to get the funding so I wasn’t able to redraw and rework things like I would have otherwise. When the deadline got close I was like “oh, maybe I’ll just keep fiddling with it and pay to print it myself” and everyone around me was like “are you nuts? just hand it in!”
This time I had a much longer timeline, and was able to do a lot more reworking. Both times I was really lucky to have essentially total freedom with the final product which I’m very grateful for.
5. There have been many young women who’ve entered the comics field in the last few years to counterbalance the boys club vibe. What drew you to comics? (pardon the pun) And who are you inspired by in the comics community?
When I began my undergrad degree I was mostly doing oil painting. I loved a lot about it, working in the studio and the smell of the paints, but I didn’t like creating these big, bulky, expensive pieces that piled up in my apartment. I didn’t know what to do with them — I don’t like looking at my own art on a wall, and just the cost of the materials was more than my friends who wanted to buy them could afford. Comics was appealing to me because it was reproducible and cheap but laborious, which I unfortunately love!
I started tabling at Expozine, the first year just with a single zine, and I immediately connected better with the people I met there than the community I was meeting at fine arts openings. I find there’s an earnestness to the comics scene, especially when people are working at a small scale — there’s a lot of enthusiasm for other people’s work and a want to engage with it.
My absolutely original inspiration that made me want to make comics is Jillian Tamaki’s Skim. In the last few years I stopped drawing for a while and really fell in love with Lynda Barry’s What It Is as I started again. I’m also always inspired by my friends Graeme Shorten-Adams and Isabelle Nguyen who I like to hang out and draw with!