Gwen: Who is Sarah Ellerton? Tell us a little about yourself and your work :)
Sarah: I live on the North-East coast of Australia, twenty minutes inland in a tiny rural town with a population of a few hundred. I started a career in Graphic / Web Design, but quickly decided it wasn’t for me. I’m now a Systems Engineer at CQUniversity, which involves maintenance of the backend servers, email systems, and undertaking infrastructure projects.
I’ve been writing light-hearted short stories ever since I was young, but only started drawing seriously after I left high school. I mostly dabbled in fanart, but webcomics have become my best outlet for my creativity and to improve myself as both an artist and a storyteller.
Gwen: While I'm a faithful reader of your current project, The Phoenix Requiem, I'm sure that some of our readers haven't come across it before. What is the story about?
Sarah: Unfortunately it’s difficult to concisely explain what the story is about in a few lines. There is a world, very much like ours, where magic once existed but is now consigned to the history books. Ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural creatures begin to reappear however, with quite an interest in the central character.
It’s very much a story about faith and religion, with more than a little bit of a preoccupation with madness and death. I wouldn’t call it a typical fantasy – it’s certainly not swords & sorcery – and in fact would have been alternate-historical fiction if not for the fact that a fictional dominant religion plays too great a part.
Gwen: Your website has recently undergone an overhaul and the new layout is gorgeous. How did you come up with its design? How important do you feel site layout is to your webcomic?
Sarah: This current design was very spontaneous. I had spent a day working on a new design – I’m fond of revamping the site after every volume – and then as I was slicing it all up and coding the html, I suddenly just hated it. I had already decided I was going to launch the new design a day from then, so there wasn’t much time to work on something new – so I jumped back into Photoshop, found a new colour scheme, then quickly put together what you see now. Thankfully, I still love it!
I worked as a web designer for several years so I know the importance of site design, especially as far as being eye-catching, making things stand out, and generating instant interest in the comic.
Gwen: Having both a strong storytelling ability and artistic talent has given you the ability to create compelling stories. How is it that you ended up creating webcomics?
Sarah: The first comic I created actually began its life as a home-made 2D point-and-click adventure game, but somewhere during the planning stages that idea was abandoned and I wrote a full comic script instead. I was introduced to webcomics by a friend, and realized it would be the perfect direction to take my art. I had never done sequential art before, or even written a long story, so it was a brand new challenge. I had no idea what I was getting myself in to, or even if I would be able to finish so large an undertaking. But six years later, I’m still drawing, and there’s no sign yet of me tiring of it.
Gwen: What do you enjoy the most about creating The Phoenix Requiem?
Sarah: The design aspect. The great thing about setting a story in one town, rather than having characters embarking on an epic journey, is that I can create a large wardrobe of clothing for the characters to wear. Every day that goes by in story-time gives me the chance to design something new. Fashion plates and paintings from Victorian-Era England inspire all of the clothing, and there is certainly plenty of excellent historical reference to draw from.
Gwen: What is the most difficult part of maintaining a webcomic?
Sarah: I’m sure people will hate me for saying this, but I’ve never found any part particularly difficult. I’ve ensured that the story is well planned out and pre-written to avoid writer’s blocks, I have a large buffer of pages so updates are never missed (unless I’m out of town), and I delegate management of the forum to admins and moderators so I don’t need to stress about it. In fact, I think my webcomic is the most organized part of my life!
One difficulty I can think of comes from trying to bring in and keep readers. I’m not much of a marketer, so I’m often lost about how best to promote my work. Overall, it’s like a novel or a movie, and not everyone understands that it’s not a fast-paced comic of short story arcs. I’m never sure how to get that across without sounding like I’m pleading for people to stay.
Gwen: Partway through the first volume of The Phoenix Requiem you switched from cell shading to a softer shading technique – what's the difference between working in these styles? What inspired the changeover?
Sarah: As far as my actual Photoshop techniques and steps go, there wasn’t much of a difference to my old methodical manner. It’s a little more time consuming, but I still go about things much the same way.
There were several reasons for the switch. I had considered beginning the comic in a softer style, but it was met with opposition from my old readers who were adverse to change. But I was beginning to tire of the cartoony harsh-lit look, I didn’t feel like I was improving at it any more, and I was unhappy with the style’s inherit inability to properly convey the true shape of an object.
I think what finally prompted me to make the change was the realisation that a lot of my critics were still dismissing my comic as ‘anime’ and not talking my work seriously. I’m trying to shift to a more realistic look, and the simplistic cartoon shading style was no longer cutting it. I’m writing a darker story targeted at older teens and adults, and I think the art really should reflect that.
Gwen: Would you ever consider working in concert with another writer or artist (for example, if you were the writer but someone else illustrated the story)?
Sarah: Hard to say. I think it would be difficult for me to have the same emotional investment in somebody else’s story, investment that I really need in order to have the drive to keep working on these pages. I imagine I might find the rigidity too constricting; even though I draw from completed scripts, I still tend to freely interpret them and make last-minute changes that another writer might not appreciate me doing.
Vice Versa? I tend to write in a loose film-format, without many stage directions. I see a lot of the script play out in my head, and it doesn’t end up on paper. I think if an artist saw my script, they’d be completely confused as to what they should draw!
Gwen: What inspired the setting of the Phoenix Requiem?
Sarah: The setting is mostly inspired by Victorian-era England, with some Russian influence. I was looking for a particular level of scientific/medical advancement and knowledge, and this is the era to which my research took me. Stereotypical high-fantasy is generally set in something akin to Earth’s medieval period; this was a time of magic in my own story chronology, but of course my events are set seven hundred years later when technology and industry are dominant and magic not possible.
Gwen: The characters in the Phoenix Requiem have excellent hats – do you enjoy hats, and if so, what kind?
Sarah: The Victorian era was full of wonderful hats; I think today we don’t see nearly enough (except, it seems, at horse racing carnivals). As far as the real world goes, I would like to see much more variety given to men for fashionable head-wear. When are top hats coming back in style? :)
My two personal favourite hats are a beret from Vienna, and a grey page-boy hat much like Petria’s.
Sarah's work can be found here!