“i feel like i’m flying” — kristyna baczynskiBack
Kristyna Baczynski would like us to visit her again in fifty years, and we’re already looking forward to it. We hope to see her before then, too, but we’re glad we’ve got that time ahead.
Time for Kristyna to draw more of the comics we love. “I love drawing comics, but I find them a real challenge, and I think that’s why I keep doing them,” she told us. “Because I feel like I’m not very good at it.”
And time for us to try, and maybe eventually be able, to adequately explain everything that we see in Vessel, the recent not-that-good comic that we love, but can’t describe, because it says more in twenty pages and 123 words than we could say about it with fifty years and shelves of dictionaries.
‘But these are the contours of adventure and understanding’, is the caption for the last frame of the book, before the distinctive overjoy of the endpaper; and Vessel, at the start of these fifty years of thinking about it, has already added two furrowed contours to our own brow, one for the adventure and one for the understanding. They match the contours that, by the last page, have added to the face of the character we met on the first page; then bushy in the hair and antenna’d in the ears, enormous pupils in massive eyes ready to take everything in; by the end, ‘Weathered and worn, lumpy and fragile’. We think the contours are something to treasure, but we don’t quite know.
Fifty years in a Kristyna Baczynski comic is a minimum. Time and space are infinite, and in her home studio in Leeds, Kristyna out of everyone we know is best placed to appreciate that and to draw it.
Another book, Hand Me Down, begins with the birth of a placid, three-eyed, one-horned dinosaur; then after the creature’s death the horn becomes the hero of a survival epic across millennia; bejewelled and entombed with a pharaoh, dejewelled and carved for a mantelpiece; lost to and recovered from the sea; before and after an alien invasion, war, and peace.
“YOU CAN BE SAD ABOUT SOMETHING BEING LOST, BUT IT WILL GET FOUND AGAIN”
“I went to Whitby a few weeks ago, and there are tonnes of fossils around there,” Kristyna tells us. “I bought an ammonite necklace and I’ve been thinking about that book. That ammonite is 150 million years old, and I’m just like – it’s beautiful, so I’ll wear it as a necklace.
“It’s crazy that something prehistoric and ancient can be turned into something that is completely unexpected. Ammonites didn’t know that in 150 million years somebody would take a box of them, slice some of them in half, set them in silver, and make a bunch of necklaces. So what, in 150 million years, are people going to be doing with us? And I kind of love that.
“It’s reassuring that, yes, there are insignificant aspects to your role on this planet in this time, and in the relatively short lifespan that we have as humans; but one small action can still ripple onwards. Things that lose meaning can regain meaning. You can be sad about something being lost, but it will get found again by somebody else and that changes the way it exists. Everything has a heritage, and I like that, that things carry a story around with them.”
Kristyna Baczynski describes herself and her heritage as ‘Yorkshire tongue and Ukrainian blood’, and the arcs of her stories across places and times reflect a simultaneous immersion in and distance from the folklore brought to Yorkshire with her grandparents, and the expansive realities they left behind when they were displaced by the Second World War.
“Western Ukraine is a place that has had a lot of hardship,” says Kristyna. “In the last hundred years I think it has been a free country overall for about thirty, and at the moment it’s at war with Russia; that isn’t in the news here much, but everybody my age, and young teenage boys, are being drafted into the pro-Ukrainian army right now. So there is a whole generation of people that is disappearing and it’s heartbreaking.
“My grandparents went in the eighties, but in the year I was born the Chernobyl disaster happened in the very north of Ukraine, so there aren’t many people my age there because a lot of young children died. It also meant that for a long time it was not an option to visit. My mum and I eventually went when I was twenty. We were going to go again last summer but after a long time of not being able to contact the family, because phone lines were down and letters weren’t getting through, we eventually heard back: ‘Just don’t come. It’s not safe.'”
When the expanses of hardship are so great, the glimmers and gems of happiness are valued; and in Ukraine, those glimmers are found in passed-along stories in which an alternate reality can always exist. In Ukraine, when they can, they rename a city after a beloved, favourite author; when they can, they send a message to Kristyna:
“‘Yes! Happy days! Come and see us!’ When they get the chance they’re really positive people, and the attitude to culture is contagious. I’ve inherited it from my grandparents and my mother, and I think that’s why those influences appear in my work so much.”
Those influences were the objects Kristyna’s grandparents brought back from trips; the books of folklore and tales about painted foxes, birds of fire, giant swans that swoop across the sky, and Babayaga, who terrified her brother, but captivated Kristyna.
“It’s the feeling, that’s what I engage with,” she says. “Reading something and it being visually mesmerising; a narrative that is enchanting or bewitching or transporting or emotionally persuasive. That kind of connection is what I’m after, however it might happen.
“So folklore is a big influence, but also fiction in the broader sense; I really like science fiction, I love J. G. Ballard and post-apocalyptic stuff, and mingling that with fake histories. Folklore has a heritage that feels like Chinese whispers passed down, and sci-fi is set in the future so it feels like folklore projected forwards. I like those two things being out of time and seeing if they can coexist.”
They’re the two things we can’t know – the past and the future – and the two things that influence who we are right now, the past passing down what makes us who we are now, the future pressing upon us to be what we can. The place to discover places and times beyond our experience is in Kristyna Baczynski’s comics, although she says their epic scope is a warm up to the stories rooted in Ukraine that she still wants, soon, to tell.
“When we went, we stayed in the house where my grandfather and his brothers were born in the 1920s, and it’s still very much as it was. You can feel that connection to the past, and an authenticity in those old stories, because you’re in the place where people made them up. Being second generation English, in my head growing up my heritage only went back two generations – it was literally severed and moved to this country, so I only had what my grandparents and my mum told me.
“So when we actually went back to Ukraine my brain expanded to know that my grandfather had his whole life here, and this is where his parents are buried, these are his brothers’ sons and daughters. This whole world, this sense of things going back further than I had thought, it was so exciting.”
Kristyna has plans; “But it’s at that delicate stage of writing when you’re not quite sure what it’s going to be yet. It feels taboo to talk about, because it might change, and I want to put the time in to make it as good as it needs to be. It’s scary to take on something like that because I want to do it justice; there’s a weight and a truth to it, and it’s a family thing, so I want to serve it well.
“But I’m all about upping my game: got to get better, got to get bigger. I feel like I’ve known that I want to do something bigger on this topic for a while, so maybe that has led the stories I’ve been doing in the meantime to have those elements – try this out, because you might have to do it again! I always feel like I’m in Olympic training. When it was the Olympics I was getting my daily page counts up and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, four pages a day, I’m Olympic ready.’ I feel like Rocky, training and drawing, except I just sit and get a bit pudgy instead of actually exercising.”
“SO MUCH WORK GOES INTO BEING ABLE TO DO ONE GOOD THING”
The creative process for Kristyna is mentally and physically intensive, a process of endurance, like a prehistoric fossil can endure, until the day when a jeweller sets it in silver, or a new book goes to the printers.
“Experimentation is a big part of it,” says Kristyna. “Being able to just draw and draw exhaustively. I need to convince myself that the characters that I’m drawing, or the world I’m getting into, that the colours that I’ve chosen, that they’re all right; I have to take it almost too far and then bring it back. If I draw it and change it and draw another and do a riff and lots of iterations and combine this one with that one, I will come across what it actually needs to be. Then I can move forward with confidence.
“For a detailed comic, I can do about four full pages a day; I can pencil three or four and then ink two or three. But when I’ve got all my pencils done, I just absolutely love it. It’s addictive. Being able to sit at my lightbox and just draw, there’s nothing like it. I feel like I’m flying. It’s so good, because all I’m doing is putting ink to paper and I just get so into it.
“There’s nothing else to think about, so I put on podcasts or music and just drift off. And then it’s like, ‘Woah, it’s eight o’clock, I’d better eat something.’ I’ll try to watch TV but I’ll be thinking, ‘I just want to go back… yeah, I’m just going to draw until midnight.’ I go to sleep and then when I wake up my mind is racing and I just want to draw again. I love being immersed in those long format projects.”
Immersion is strenuous, and also requires resistance to all the aspects of being an illustrator and graphic designer that can prevent immersion in a long-running, long format project; self-employed, Kristyna has to work to earn the money to buy the time from herself to devote to those book-length projects.
“Being your own boss is hard, so dedication, that’s almost as important as the skill; it’s the driving force that keeps you doing it. Doing your taxes and quoting for work and building a website and having an online shop and all the rest, staying up until midnight on a Saturday when you can hear people having a great time, and you’re just drawing. When you’re an illustrator, or whatever creative practice you do, to say that that is solely what you do, I think it undermines what it actually takes to do it. I’m not into business or anything like it, but I had to learn how to be a businessperson to facilitate being able to do the things that I actually want to do.” Kristyna grins, and adds, “And I graft so hard, I need to get paid.”
Graft is a word Kristyna uses a lot to describe what she does; not craft with a C, graft with a G. When we spoke to top comic artist Tula Lotay last year we asked her who her own favourite independent comic book artists were, and the first she named was Kristyna Baczynski; and in a way, it’s reassuring that Kristyna finds being one of the best artists in the UK such hard work. Spending hours hunched over a lightbox — Kristyna’s is homemade, ten years old, and gets really hot, “Which is really amazing in winter, because it keeps me warm” – isn’t easy, so it shouldn’t look like it is.
“There is so much work that goes into being able to do one good thing, and it’s all about crazy training and, I don’t know, pen gymnastics. It’s really physical and labour intensive; I work twelve hour days when I’m in the throes of doing a comic, and I always get sick afterwards. When it’s finished and off at the printers – doof. My body just gives up.”
That’s why Kristyna wants us to go and see her again in fifty years – to see what’s left.
“I’ve got really strong fingers,” she says. “But the rest of me will wither away. I feel like in fifty years you’ll come and talk to me again and I will just be an arm, and some eyes, and the rest will be withered away because they’re non-essential items.
“Sorry. That’s an awful image I’ve put into your mind – a withered body, overdeveloped eye sockets and a hand. But that’s the fate I just glimpsed for me in the crystal ball.”
What we’ll actually find, according to our crystal ball, is someone who is fifty years better than she is now; and if she’s fifty years ahead of our ability to explain her work now, she’ll be exponential aeons ahead of our understanding by then; but still communicating enough for us to feel what we feel but can’t explain about a Kristyna Baczynski comic book.
“I’m hard on myself all the time,” she says. “I have crises all the time about my work. It’s not good enough, or I’ve got to level up, or my writing has got to get better or my drawings have got to get better. But it drives you forward. Being your own editor; it’s so hard to flip from being into the work you’re making and enthusiastic about the idea you have, to being critical of it and deciding whether it’s good enough and makes the cut. But that facilitates the work you actually do; it’s absolutely essential.
“But I love it. And once I’ve done all those pages, the treat at the end of it is to do the single image cover and the endpapers. I love doing the endpapers after I’ve finished a comic, because it has been so grafting. I like having that as a treat; I’ve been so constrained and then it’s a pure joy to make something aesthetically pleasing to just be pretty on those endpapers.
“I think they transmit that joy. If that beam of joy hits you when you open the book then it has done its job. And it comes from a real place.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 26