Talking with Master Storyteller Tania del Rio

Talking with Master Storyteller Tania del Rio

Tania del Rio is a virtuoso writer and artist of comic books, an author, a webcomicker, and a really neat lady. Many fans adore her years guiding Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but now Tania has a new graphic novel out from Archie Comics, and a new prose novel, and and and…

Tania, can you remember the very first things that you ever wrote or drew yourself? Were they for school, or kicks?

I remember drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil, around 3 years old. I always drew for fun – but I also enjoyed getting to draw for school projects. I remember making a series of little comic books when I was about six years old – I still have them somewhere. One of them was about my parakeet, who died. Another one was about a firefly. I loved animals and Sesame Street and Disney cartoons, so a lot of my early drawings were of things relating to those!tania del rio

As so much of your work is more manga-influenced than Western, what were some of the manga and/or anime that really really captured your attention and your imagination, as a young fan?

My first anime influence was probably Mysterious Cities of Gold which aired on Nickelodeon in the mid-80s. My Neighbor Totoro also made a huge impact on me, as well as ElfQuest, which has some of its own manga/anime influences. And, of course, there were all the video games that I played on my Super Nintendo that were mostly Japanese. The art styles of those, particularly the role playing games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, influenced me a lot as well. The first manga I really got into was Sailor Moon and Ranma 1/2 which were among the earliest titles to be translated into English.

I identify with all of that- and I loved Ranma 1/2 especially! It was so offbeat. It was one of the first manga I tried to hunt down, even though I felt like a late-bloomer insofar as “knowing” what the medium had to offer. My intro, as well as for many Americans, was really through the translations and repackaging provided by the late, great Toren Smith and Studio Proteus. But being a child of the 80s/90s, what was it about these properties and their styles that really lured you in? Did American comics do anything for you back then?

I think I was initially attracted to the the purely visual aspect of manga and anime: the bright colors, the energy, the big eyes, and crazy hair. I thought the character designs were all so interesting and unique. But, ultimately, it was the stories that drew me in and kept me as a fan, because they seemed so much more complex than most American properties – the characters were more nuanced and they seemed to grow and change over time. In American cartoons of that same era, characters hardly ever seem to change as a result of their experiences. But I still enjoyed American shows and comics – particularly X-Men. I also was a huge fan of the Sonic the Hedgehog comic from issue #1. And, like I mentioned, I loved ElfQuest.

Wendy and Richard Pini can do no wrong in my eyes. Was there a singular time where you saw in yourself the ability and/or inclination in jump-starting from “fangirl” status to trying for full-on professional mode? When did your creativity become consciously a career choice?

That’s funny… I actually never looked at myself as a fangirl – even though I totally was – I always assumed, even from a very young age that I would be working professionally in the arts. All my fangirling was just an outlet until I could make it my career. My focus was animation initially, although I did dream about becoming a comic artist. It just seemed to me that animation was a more reliable career path. I was pretty obsessed with the idea of being a Disney animator, since I grew up during the Renaissance of Disney animated films like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. But by the time I studied animation in school and graduated, Disney had shut down their 2-D animation department, which was a huge bummer. So I’m lucky I had comics as a secondary path.

Was it daunting to have your first published work in a title branded “Rising Stars of Manga”, or was it more gratifying just to have your work in print?

Initially, it was purely exciting and gratifying. But when I saw the caliber of art that ran alongside mine, it was certainly a bit daunting. Even so, I felt honored to have been included amongst so much great talent. Some of those artists went on to become friends of mine. But the prevailing feeling was “Yes! Finally published!”mangaka america

I think you sort of went full circle later with your Mangaka America book. With the TOKYOPOP anthology the manga world opened for you, but in your book you really helped open the manga world for even more western readers. Have you done much teaching yourself?

I’ve done a little teaching. I’ve taught a couple manga workshops for college students, and taught one semester of an online manga class. I’ve also taught single day workshops for kids at schools and libraries. I’ve enjoyed the experiences I’ve had, although I’ve always felt that I’m a bit too introverted to be a teacher. Tutorial books are a good way to teach without having to stand in front of room full of people. I’m actually working on another manga tutorial book right now about character design for Focal Press!

Which work gives you more pride- the classes and tutorials, or the purer creative efforts, like the looong run you had on Sabrina for Archie?

That’s a tough one – both are satisfying in different ways. But I think I’d have to say my run on Sabrina gives me the most pride of my career so far since it was always my dream to be published. Sometimes I look at my older work and cringe a little, but I still feel good when I see old Sabrina pages, and I think the story still holds up after all these years!

I honestly stole my sister’s copies of most of the run, and I don’t think I could pick a single favorite. But what really struck me was that as original as your visual style is, the stories still felt like the Archie universe. I know Archie has branched out even more in the time since as far as how much artists can deviate from the house style, but did you consciously do anything different with your approach in the look of Sabrina and her world? Were there any battles along the way?

Right from the start they gave me the freedom to do what I wanted, as long as I stayed within the Archie spirit – obviously, no blood and gore, and stuff like that. As for my drawing style, I didn’t force anything, I just drew in my own hybrid style which happened to gel with what Archie was looking for, (which is probably why they sought me out in the first place!). Story-wise, I was pretty much able to re-imagine Sabrina from the ground up, though I did refer to past incarnations of her character for some of my story’s background.

There were surprisingly few battles, if any. In fact, the only thing I can recall is that, in the very beginning, they wanted me to keep each issue completely standalone, which was challenging since I wanted to be able to expand on the story and the characters more. The first four issues of my run, in particular, are evidence of me trying to create fully standalone stories. But after that, they let me go more the route of the Sonic comics, which relies heavily on continuity. And I’m grateful they did, because the series wouldn’t be what it is without the overall story arc!Sabrina100

Do you ever get the itch to return to the character, or is it more interesting now to see what other voices do with her?

I do miss working on Sabrina sometimes. I remember when the series ended, I almost mourned her like I would the loss of a friend… I felt like I was saying goodbye to these characters I had grown to know and love, and I felt like there was still more story I could tell. But, even if I were to return to Sabrina one day, I think I’d like to start over and take her in a new and completely different direction. I think the appeal of Sabrina is that she’s undergone so many interesting incarnations over the last 40-some-odd years, and she’s much more malleable than the rest of the Archie cast. So it’s actually a lot of fun for me to see what other creative teams do with her. Right now, I’m really digging the horror direction that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack are taking her this October.

You’ve worked with many other characters for the Archie line beyond Sabrina, but right now you actually have a pretty hefty volume out, Diary of a Girl Next Door: Betty. While it reads more like illustrated prose than traditional comics, was it challenging for you, writing something so long-form for another artist to illustrate?

It wasn’t challenging, just different. In fact, I really loved writing Diary because one of my longtime goals is to be a novelist for YA and Middle Grade readers, and this was a definite step in that direction. Creatively speaking, I actually feel most comfortable when writing longer prose. I think even my comic writing tends to be a bit on the wordy side. So Diary was right up my alley and I had a really fun time with it.

Something that really hit me early on, was that in many stories dealing with Archie and his classmates, the readers do not really get much in the way of interior monologues. Even while being incredibly inventive, many of the plots are reactionary, often focused on whatever gag or setup, as opposed to internalized logistics. But in the Betty book, you really flesh out her thought-processes and emotions, as the story literally consists of her own journal entries. As iconic as she is, was this a tough job for you, or was it just a matter of channeling your inner high school freshman?

That’s a really interesting observation, and quite spot-on. I do enjoy getting into my character’s heads and writing their interior monologues (which is another reason I prefer novels to screenplays). Like you said, Betty is such an iconic character, so it was a bit intimidating to give her SO much of an inner voice. In the comics she’s portrayed as very cool, sensible, and confident. Basically, she’s really got it together. In Diary, I wanted to show a new side of her – a younger, sillier, even less secure side of her. She still has a good heart, she’s still smart and extremely motivated, but she hasn’t yet had a chance to grow into the girl she is in most Archie stories where she’s portrayed as a bit older and more mature. I have heard some people comment on how the Betty in Diary isn’t the same Betty they know and recognize. And they’re right. But If I wrote the story from the point of view of a girl entering high school who was already very mature, who was calm and collected, and who was already popular and well-liked by everyone, there just wouldn’t be much of a story to tell!

The best stories thrive on conflict, and so I did my best to explore Betty’s inner conflicts as she enters the scary new world of high school. As for myself, I’ve always considered myself more of a Betty than a Veronica, so getting into her head was easy. I did pull from my own freshman experiences when writing Diary, especially in how I reacted to situations that weren’t probably as big of deals as I thought they were at the time. Writing Diary really brought me back to when I was that age and was keeping my own diaries of my experiences!diary-of-a-girl-next-door

I remember reading an interview somewhere with the veteran television producer Aaron Spelling, who was asked why he made so many shows about teenagers and young adults. He answered that teens can live and die a thousand times in any and every given day. That always stuck with me, and I think you expressed that really well in the Betty book. But how was the collaboration with artist Bill Galvan? Did you write the full story up front, or was there some back and forth?

That’s a great quote! I’ve never heard that one, but it totally resonates with me. As for my collaboration with Bill, it didn’t really occur until after the book was completely written. Once he came on board, we did have some back and forth over email about some of the illustrations, but for the most part I wanted to let him do his own thing, since I appreciate it when writers trust me, as an artist, to do my job without being overly nit-picky about how they want each scene to look. However, Bill’s such a great artist that he intuitively knew exactly what I was envisioning when I wrote the story, so mostly it was him checking in with me saying “Is this okay?” and me saying “Yes! Exactly!”. I’m so thrilled I got to work with him because I was already a fan of his regular Archie stuff, but his doodle style art was perfect for the book. It just jumped off the page – I think you can tell he had as fun much drawing the story as I did writing it!

I think it is very very evident that you have a lot of fun with the work you do. Nowadays creatives come and go from the various publishers, but your having a distinct niche at Archie for several years now- your stories there have so much infectious charisma about them. There’s always the big debate that comics aren’t for kids anymore, that new readers are not being appealed to. But your efforts contradict all of that. Of all of your public appearances, what has been the sweetest feedback you’ve received for your work at Archie?

I’m not sure I can pick just one piece of feedback. Of course, I always love it when parents tell me how much their kids enjoy my work, but it’s also awesome when people who don’t fit within the target demographic tell me they’re fans. A lot of times, especially at conventions, I’ll meet middle-aged guys who sort of shyly admit how much they liked my Sabrina run after getting their nieces or daughters shared it with them. And then there’s the fans who read my Sabrina run when they were kids, and emailed me to tell me how excited they were that it was finally being released as trades years later, even though they’re now 18 or 19 years old. I feel like my work is sometimes under the radar compared to other stuff that’s out there, so any time I receive a message from a fan, it means a lot.

And with Winter Wilder, you seem ready to tackle something completely new all over again. Where did the basic idea for the book start for you?

I am an avid reader of YA novels and for a long time I’ve wanted to be a YA novelist as well. I just really enjoy the teen voice so much and it’s very easy for me to get into that headspace when writing. As for Winter Wilder, I started working on it about 4 years ago. Back then, paranormal YA was very popular (thanks in part to Twilight), but I felt that so many of the heroines of the paranormal novels that were out at the time were a bit passive. So many of them were unwitting (and sometimes, unwilling) players in a strange world filled with magic. Many of the plots involved the heroines falling in love with a vampire, faerie, werewolf, or whatever, and there being some epic battles fought amongst these otherworldly creatures with the girl caught in the middle. I wanted to try my hand at a paranormal novel where the girl WAS the paranormal creature. And I wanted the story to focus less on end-of-world scenarios and giant battles, and more on the complexity of family dynamics, and fitting in. And while romance is an element in my novel, it’s not the focus, nor the endgame.

Winter Wilder is really about my protagonist coming of age and learning to accept herself and her “monstrosities”, which is, perhaps, a fitting metaphor for what it feels like to go through puberty!winterwildercovernew-678x1024

The premise certainly sounds more mature. Did you do any particularly crazy research for the book, or were the details already floating around in your cranium, stored for just the right rainy day?

I didn’t need to do much research for the setting of my story, since I used to live there (Valhalla, NY) , but I did do a bit of research into wolf behavior, as well as Norse mythology, and runes, all of which figure into my plot. In general, I’ve always loved reading old folktales from around the world, so learning more about Viking mythology and getting to integrate that in my story was especially fun.

I like the insinuation of Fenris there- it all sounds really fun. And while we haven’t even gotten into your webcomics, or your work with the Husbands web-series with Jane Espenson (who rocks socks), I worry I might be keeping you from bringing the world more awesomeness. Tania, it has been a complete pleasure. Every project you take on is guaranteed to please, and how you find the time for so many neat gigs is beyond me. You have big fans here at CCN especially.

Thanks so much for the kinds words and thoughtful questions! If people are ever curious as to what I’m up to, twitter is usually where I share things first. In fact, I’ll be announcing a new project there very soon that I’m super excited about, so follow me @taniadelrio to hear more about it!Tania at con


And for more Tania, check out her DeviantART profile, follow her Tumblr, and bookmark both her official website and her Winter Wilder portal.

All images copyright and/or trademark their respective copyright and/or trademark holders.

The Lottery Party is © 2014 Richard Caldwell. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “Talking with Master Storyteller Tania del Rio”

  1. die-yng says:

    Great interview and a very interesting lady.
    I have zero interest in anything related to Archie comics and usually don’t like YA novels very much. I never quite understood why you would need YA novels at all.
    Especially regarding the rules like no swearing, no honest depiction of sexuality, when that is a topic certainly important for the intended readership.

    Might be the European in me, but to me those restrictions are moronic.

    Having said that, there are exceptions to the rules, like Neil Gaiman and others, so I will try to dig a bit deeper with Winter Wilder and see if it could be something for me.

    Anyway, good work, RIchard, as usual.

    • Thank you Dieter. And while agreed 10,000%, I think YA presents buzzwords right now, which is helping get some younger readers into the practice of reading. But I do think that as with “all-ages” it is a label which in the long run might keep certain older readers from even thinking of checking out the works. In a perfected world, we would have no need for labels, and the general populace would be intelligent to sort things out for themselves. Cheers!

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