I found The Carpet Merchant Of Konstantiniyya when I was searching round the internet for new comics to read. I was interested it because of the way it drew on islamic art for the panels rather than relying on the American or Japanese styles that tend to dominate main street comics. It’s creator Reimena Yee very kindly agreed to talk to me about the book, her artistic style and publishing comics.
Luke: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself and your background.
Reimena: I’m a Malaysian artist and writer, based in Melbourne, Australia. I’m mostly an illustrator but I spend a lot of my time working on my own stories, which is why I’m interested in comics (as a medium) in the first place.
Luke: For people who haven’t read your comics yet can you tell me a little bit about The Carpet Merchant Of Konstantiniyya?
Reimena: The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya is a historical fantasy comic/graphic novel about a carpet merchant, Zeynel, in Ottoman Istanbul. It tells his life story, starting with the acquaintance of his future wife, Ayse, his career change from prospective imam to carpet merchant, and most importantly, his transformation into a vampire after an unfortunate incident. It’s this transformation that starts this whole narrative exploration of love, fate, and the meaning of home.
Luke: What made you want to write about the Ottoman time period and what made you want to write a vampire story?
Reimena: So I had this carpet merchant character, Zeynel, since I was fourteen. He was a side character in another comic of mine called The World in Deeper Inspection. That comic has its own timeline with chapters or backstories I planned to write about. After a few years of introducing the main characters, I finally got to the point when I had to tell Zeynel’s backstory for the following chapters to make sense.
So when I got there, I looked at him and I was like “Ok, I already have this guy. He is Turkish for some reason. He is also a vampire for some reason. What do I do with that?” I could either change his character completely to make it easier, or I could just own it, do the work and the research to tell his story with the respect it deserved. That’s how The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya began. After a few months of research, it transformed into something that could exist outside of The World In Deeper Inspection completely, and now it’s its own thing.
Luke: Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process? When you write a comic book do you first think about the art you want to do or the story you want to tell?
Reimena: For me, lots of things like the research, the plotting and the art development happen together. There is no process that has a clear beginning or ending. But usually I start with a general idea of what I want. It mostly includes, what is the visual look I want to achieve? How do I do it? I usually go through this research phase where I type in key-words and pick up reference images, put it into a collection and look back on them. It is the same with writing. These two things go hand in hand because with comics, it’s a marriage between images and words. So I’ve to keep these two things happening simultaneously.
Luke: When you do your research, what kind of sources do you get your inspiration from?
Reimena: At the time of writing The Carpet Merchant I had institutional access to a database of academic journals, I was studying in uni, so I would pick research materials from places like Oxford, Cambridge and JSTOR. Plenty of visual research came from the MET museum’s digital archives. I also picked up some books, like Bettany Hughes’ Istanbul, which lays out the history of Istanbul from its very beginnings, and Sophia Rose Arjana’s Muslims in the Western Imagination. It explores the portrayal of Muslim men as monsters in Western Christian civilisation, particularly Ottoman Muslims at the height of the Ottoman empire.
Luke: You get quite a lot of paranoid writing about that time about how the Turk was going to come and overrun the Christian world.
Reimena: Yeah, basically, and it’s very much reflected in the idea of the literary vampire. The vampire represents a foreign entity coming into your quote unquote familiar culture, threatening it with an infection of foreignness. That’s interesting to me, and I wanted to unpack that idea in the comic.
Luke: Of course, because that’s exactly what Bram Stokers Dracula does. Do you have a similar research process for the visual side? Where did you get your visuals for that?
Reimena: Usually from the same places. A lot of it is from the MET. A lot of scattered sources. It is actually weirdly hard to find visual references for Ottoman culture available online in comparison with European culture. For example, if you want to look up a specific kind of furniture, you’d be able to find it quite easily and quite specifically if you’re looking for a European item. But if you want a Malaysian or Turkish one, you will have a really hard time. It goes beyond furniture into clothing rules, mannerisms, all that, which reflects how we value the preservation of certain cultures over others, either by accident of history, or lingerings of postcolonialism.
Luke: Reading your comic, I was amazed by just how many different art styles you managed to incorporate in your panels. You managed to bring in islamic architecture, geometric art. I even noticed that there was some paper marbling and water painting and later on you get some Byzantine mosaics and ottoman puppet styles. What made you want to draw in all those different styles?
Reimena: It is part of the story. Because of the nature of comics, art is as much a part of the story as the words. All these styles and visuals mean something to the narrative. Maybe even more so in The Carpet Merchant.
For example, the puppet style in Volume II is an homage to Hacivat and Karagoz, the traditional Ottoman puppet play. The entire sequence, which is an original take on the typical Hacivat and Karagoz story, is actually a thematic summary of Volume II. Zeynel, who is represented as Hacivat, has to deal with the erratic and chaotic behaviour of his friend, Karagoz, the vampire who originally turned Zeynel. Both of them encounter a problem: there are djinns causing concern in their town. Karagoz takes the disbelieving Hacivat to the house where the djinns are partying, and, this is where the style slightly shifts, they see that the djinns are actually Western, 3-dimensional wooden marionettes.
Luke: Oh yeah. I remember that.
Reimena: So the whole point of that sequence is to turn the tables on the idea of the monster, and who is given the power to call something monstrous. For once, I wanted the Westerners to be seen as foreign and frightening. The art, and the shifts in art styles, make this point possible. Immersing The Carpet Merchant fully into its Turkish artistic roots enables the Turkish characters and settings to become familiar, working as well to expose and educate readers about the wealth of Turkish/Muslim art. It really highlights the foreignness of Western art when the reader encounters it 400 pages later, which opens the way of allowing us to go on this journey together unpacking the Western way of interacting and seeing other people.
This is why I love working in comics. The art adds so many layers to a written work without having to expand for another hundred pages or contrive an exposition. Both things can happen simultaneously and independently of each other. It makes the story rich.
Luke: So one of the things I've loved reading your panel composition. I’ve been reading comics my entire life, but I’ve never seen such a diverse layout. It seems like on every page you are trying to do something interesting with. The layout of your panels. Could you tell me how you design your layouts?
Luke: it’s quite a big question sorry about that.
Reimena: Yeah it is. Going back to the earlier question about visual research, I knew that I wanted to do this comic in the Ottoman miniature style. When I was researching I realised how much the miniatures look like comic panels. So the more I thought about it, the more excited I was to see how this style would translate into the language of comics. Like, how would everything read if it was all done in this style? So that was a very strong idea from early on.
How I create these layouts is basically just doing a lot of studies, making plenty of notes about what the Ottoman miniature style is, and then doing my own take on it.
So I write the story first, then break each scene down into pages. Then once I get the splits down, I will draw thumbnails [very small compositional sketches] of the layout, how I want the dialogue to flow, and the shape of the panels. Once I’ve got the sketches down, I flesh it out some more. It is during that stage of sketching and inking and putting down the colours that I finalise the look of a particular page. I let it grow organically between processes. And that’s only possible because I do the research first, then let stuff happen.
Luke: I’m amazed you say that. I’m looking at some of the earlier panels now and there is not a single inch of wasted page. I’m looking at page now where he is selling a carpet to a sheik. The sheik is inside a piece of architecture. You’ve got two carpets another dome over the top. It’s gorgeous.
Reimena: Thank you. I think my experience doing illustration helps a lot. Illustration tends to focus on telling a complete story in a single image. Whereas in comics it is a sequence of images in just one composition. I still mostly think more like an illustrator than a comic artist. Now I think the comic is more balance as I have gotten more experience drawing.
Luke: What kind of comics do you read?
Reimena: Wow, it’s a lot. I don’t usually focus on one artist. Usually, it’s a mix of stuff. But I like reading from French comics because they are quite artsy and ambitious with their storytelling in both the visuals and writing. One that influenced The Carpet Merchant is Beauty by Kerascoët. There is another one, from an Australian graphic novelist Shaun Tan. His book The Arrival is quite influential for me in general because it’s an entirely silent comic, with no words at all. It’s amazing how he can tell this complex story about immigration and loneliness and finding your place without using any words at all. It’s really effective and universal. It’s what I would like to do with my comics as well.
Luke: That is the great thing about comics because it is on that line between fine art and literature where you can do story telling with relying on description and dialog.
Ok. I want to change direction and talk about publishing. I’ve got a book coming out this and it has been difficult. I found your work on Unbound. Unbound is quite an ambitious project. How have you found it?
Reimena: It’s been pretty interesting so far because it’s my first crowdfunding project. Originally I wanted to do it via Kickstarter, but there were a few logistical issues. Something to do with my citizenship and me not having a permanent space to keep those comics if they ever get published. Distribution is one hell of a thing to figure out, then there are taxes and all that. I didn’t want to go near that at all. So I was very interested in Unbound, a Penguin Random House imprint, and their model. They are something like a three quater publisher. The three quaters are for things like editorial, publishing, marketing, distribution. The remaining one quarter is the crowdfunding. So I was very attracted to that idea because for one thing, I didn’t have to handle anything. Somebody else was doing it. I was like, great, thank God.
Luke: Even working with a traditional publisher can be difficult sometimes.
Reimena: I’m ok with traditional publishers. The fact is that The Carpet Merchant is a difficult comic to pitch for.
Luke: I can see that.
Reimena: Before the Eisner Award nomination it was really difficult to pitch. It’s a 300 paged, full colour comic about an uncommon historical era about vampires, marketed towards mostly adults. It isn’t a young adult, or a middle grade, and it has a Muslim main character in it. I was like, “oh god who will want to publish this?”.
Luke: It is hardly the kind of thing you can see DC picking up is it?
Unbound is an interesting model because it has the best of both traditional publishing and crowdfunding.
Reimena: Yea, the thing about unbound is that it is a new platform. It doesn’t have the same kind of reach or trust that kickstarter has. So it has taken quite a while for the comic to fund and it is a lot of work to do the promotion and the marketing for it. I don't think a lot of people can handle the pressures and the stress of doing that.
Luke: I’m little curious how that worked? So was there a submissions process?
Reimena: They have a submissions process. You submit your pitch to a team of editors and they will pick the one they are most interested in and once they pick up your comic, they do the maths for you. How much does it cost to print a book like this. It includes the publishing costs, the editorial fees and lots of other stuff. You see the amount that is set as a goal for the crowd funding. Once that goal is achieved they will start publishing the book as soon as possible.
Luke: I can see how that is pretty stressful getting up to the required amount.
Luke: I think that is everything I wanted to ask you. I do have one question that I usually ask people I talk to. What are you reading at the moment.
Reimena: I am picking up where I left of in Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
Luke: Are you enjoying it?
Reimena: It’s the kind of book I like. Some people say it is boring because it goes on and on, but I actually like stuff like that so it is all good.
Luke: Thank you so much for taking to me.
Reimena: Thank you for reaching out. It was really nice.