Tesslyn Bergin is an artist and writer dedicated to complex fantasy and sci-fi stories, touching on themes like trauma, grief, fear or love from futurist perspectives and with a special dedication to character design and worldbuilding. You can read her webcomic Facing The Sun here (updating every week), support her and win access to exclusive content at her Patreon, buy her digital comics and fanzines at her Gumroad, follow her art at her Instagram and check other webcomics and writing at her tapas.io. We had the pleasure to talk with her for a deep exploration into her inspirations, art process and different ways of sharing art with the world, and here’s the result.
Comic Watch: Hi Tesslyn, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us at Comic Watch. First of all, what are you working on recently? What’s in your desk that you are excited about?
Tesslyn Bergin: My webcomic Facing the Sun is basically my full-time job. I have a couple of contract projects on the side, but Facing the Sun is definitely what I spend most of my time on. I intend for it to be a long-term project.
CW: In Facing the Sun, you explore abuse, trauma, grief, codependency, and other mental health issues in a fictional futurist world. What inspires you to bring so close to heart themes to such a fictional environment? What are your influences, your inspirations and your experiences that shaped this comic?
TB: While this is a fictional environment, I think it’s important to note that it’s also my vision of our collective future. Not one that I hope for, but one that I expect, environmentally and societally speaking. And in this future, there will be people who are disabled, who are damaged, who have been neglected or have traumas that have gone unresolved, just as there are in our world today, and those factors will be exacerbated by the dangers and stresses of this future. The environment and the emotions of the narrative are not separate entities. The environment plays a huge role in who all of these people are.
Inspirations and experiences go hand in hand in the same way. I’m inspired by my fears of the future, of climate change, of my own traumas turning me into a worse person than I would want to be. ‘Facing the Sun’ is my way of making these feelings tangible, to show them to other people and say, “Maybe you feel like this, too. It’s okay. Let me show you a story where our feelings can be resolved.” Resolutions almost never come easy, however. This is a long-haul story; there will be many ups and downs, just as there are in life.
As for more physical inspirations, I do look at modern technologies and interpret them in my own way. The walking plant ‘Little Sisters’ are inspired by HEXA robots. The design of the facility where Aarya and Liza live took some inspiration from “La Seine Musicale” in France, Tesla’s Gigafactories, the supertrees of “Gardens By the Bay” in Singapore, among others. I built this environment to be the natural conclusion of our current world, so technologies we are starting to have now will be expanded upon in the future.
CW: Why are you interested in the themes of artificial intelligence (and love within that setting)? It’s a major theme in sci-fi that attracts a lot of people in different ways, but I’m interested in your particular perspective.
TB: Consciousness within an AI is a concept that has always interested me. The perspective would be so divorced from my own, from any human; analyzing the types of problems and ways of thinking and observing that a newly conscious robot would is a puzzle I would like to explore.
Examining how emotions dictate actions and behaviors is really what I want to explore overall, and the idea that a person must engage with their feelings in order for recovery to happen. People are not logical actors, so how would a true logical actor deal with an introduction to the nebulous realm of emotions? How would one learn to differentiate between primal fear and logical fear? Between being ‘good’ or being ‘bad’? And how would the complications of love and its many forms be handled when the situation could never, ever be fully understood from a logical standpoint alone? Robots would inhabit this unique space of knowing what it is to only exist. The emptiness of being nothing, of feeling nothing, of being just a shell with no wants or urges, no instincts. In this perspective I can show a process of becoming that I’m not sure is possible in any other way. We get to watch Liza grow from an object into a realized person, different from a human but deserving of self. It’s a long and messy journey.
CW: In Facing the Sun, everything seems visually fitting to the emotional narrative of the writing, and telling a story with images as much as with words. How is your process designing these characters, their clothes, scenarios, movements, etc?
TB: Designing characters always goes back to worldbuilding for me. I’ve got hundreds of pages of writing that’s just dedicated to figuring the characters out, stuff that no one but me is ever going to see.
Everything that these characters are in the writing goes into their design. Aarya is tired, she’s always slouching, she’s very unconfident and hateful to her identity. She wears white around her mother, as to disappear and chameleon into her color palette. She carries her guilt in a very physical way. Liza, on the other hand, starts the story with the ‘confidence’ of a machine. She’s built quite big, to accommodate her complicated tech, but she doesn’t carry herself in a way that makes her look ‘heavy’. Her one outfit is practical, as of now, but as she becomes more realized she starts making decisions as to what she wears. Maryann carries herself with spiteful confidence, L-14 with weight and deliberation. L-14’s design is my most purposeful; she’s gigantic, a black and white totem the towers over Maryann, a constant reminder of her past and of waning ambitions for a better future. There’s meaning in every aspect; that’s an important quality to me.
Everyone is designed with parallels and symbols and color palettes. Some characters have palettes that easily overwhelm or are overwhelmed; I’ve got charts for that sort of thing. Aarya and Liza, Maryann and L-14, and later other characters, too. Everything is in a tight weave with everything else.
In terms of scenes, I design them with emotion in mind first. A scene that can show more than tell will always hit harder. I have sequences of characters’ faces changing slowly, of tiny movements being emphasized. It’s a pain in the ass to draw, but it feels very important to me to do so. Pacing is my pride and joy; unfortunately for me, that means a lot of drawing.
CW: You encourage in Facing the Sun for people to do fanart that you lately publish on the webcomic itself. I think that’s a beautiful way of making fans (who also are other artists) be part of the experience. Plus, you have a parallel webcomic (Moments Before Sunrise) that is basically character work so people know these characters more, and you do specials mini-episodes for Facing The Sun as well. What drives you to approach Facing The Sun in such an engaging way with the fans? Do you have any more ideas or advice in this engagement in fan-artist two-way interactions?
TB: I just like to see people be passionate, in general. It’s not really done with engagement or business in mind; I just want to know that I’ve reached people with my work, enough that they feel compelled to create something with me in mind. I want to acknowledge that; every piece of art is incredibly meaningful. And I want the person who made it to know that. I always reply, I just want them to know that it’s acknowledged and that I love it. I’ve never thought about it from any other perspective. The feature is my way of pointing at fanart and going “Look at this! This person made it! Isn’t it beautiful?”
I guess my advice would be that fans aren’t numbers. They’re people, who you can reach, who are passionate about what you’re doing. If you engage like a person, with passion and understanding, you’ll be more real, too. I’ve been a fan! There’s a good feeling associated with being acknowledged by the thing that you love. I want to offer that to people, even if I’m just a small creator. Moments Before Sunrise was the first step of Facing the Sun. That was me experimenting with who I wanted these characters to be. Everyone changed a lot; Aarya and Maryann especially. I was afraid of jumping in with both feet; Moments Before Sunrise was me dipping my toes in. Now the mini-comics are just for moments that I don’t feel like would fit in the story, but they’re still in character. They add some levity; there’s very little of that in the main comic. I know that can get tiring to read.
CW: Your first writing project, Mora and Stima Apei, based around traditional tales of Romania, included a story about connection in a fictional world with an (also) disabled character and an exploration of mental health and trauma. And your Overwatch fancomic GHOST focuses on Widowmaker, a character with a condition caused by people experimenting on her. How do you approach writing disabled characters from various perspectives, fantasy, sci-fi, already established characters? And what drove you to launch these two projects?
TB: The real world has a strong influence on what I tend to focus on. My mom is disabled and worked in the medical field, saving people’s lives. Despite her contributions, I watched her fight the world for accommodations for my whole life. She’s a really strong lady and she’s been through a lot; I admire her endlessly. To her, being disabled has never been her identity. It’s a struggle, it’s hardship, sometimes it’s overwhelming, but there is an entire person within that. I’ve always been frustrated that the disabled people around me were frequently defined by the outside world as nothing BUT disabled. Either ‘too disabled’, or ‘not disabled enough’, or any convenient combination of the two. That isn’t true, it isn’t reality. It’s a factor, but it’s not the whole deal. That isn’t fair, to the person or to their perspective. It happens a lot in fiction, too. Too much.
So I guess there’s some part of me that’s frustrated seeing a character go underdeveloped or neglected because some insular part of them has been made their whole identity. No one is a passing trope in my work.
Mora and Stima Apei was a project I did with the help of my partner Francesca, who is Romanian and who knows all of these stories and folklore that I found really interesting. We talked about it during my last year of college, then I graduated and started it right away. It was my first try at a webcomic; I burnt myself out pretty fast. But it did teach me a lot about the format itself. It’s a project both of us would like to return to one day.
GHOST is a weird thing. It’s been going on for so long, relative to how long I’ve been working or even how long I was interested in Overwatch. Honestly, it was born out of frustration. The ‘sexy killer woman with no autonomy’ is, in my opinion, a bad trope. Without acknowledgment, it’s kind of repulsive. It could be a good trope, if it was explored with honesty and focus, but it rarely is. I could go on forever about this, but basically I took a thing I didn’t like and I cracked it open. Nothing about GHOST is ‘sexy’, including Widowmaker. I wanted to do this character, and that trope, justice. I saw potential. People liked it. It was my first big Patreon project and it’s still going now, even with me having moved completely away from Overwatch and fandom in general. It feels completely divorced from the property.
CW: As someone who does fanzines too, I know there’s different feels to it: Some people feel like it’s an art form in itself and holds something precious, and some people do them cause it’s a cheaper and easier way to edit their art, and then everything in between. In that between, where do you fall? how do you feel about fanzines and, specifically, the zines you have crafted (like the Widowmaker one)?
TB: I participated in fanzines kind of just for fun and to meet other artists in the community. I think I was in 8 or 9. I had a couple of bad experiences and decided not to do them anymore. I’ve only ever personally printed a Widowmaker zine, which was specifically for my first convention table, mostly just to learn the process of making them. I had plenty of art to fill it, so I thought, why not? I knew I wanted to make and print comics in the future, especially not knowing if I’d ever have a publisher to help me with it. It was a fun experience. I’d definitely consider it an art form.
CW: You did a physical edition of Facing The Sun‘s Chapter 1, that is now sold out. Are you gonna keep publishing it in that format? How was that experience?
TB: It was a short run, again for my convention table. I sold the leftovers until I had no more; it wasn’t intended to be any kind of official release. I just wanted to see if I could do it. I’d like to do it again in the future, for sure. Facing the Sun is designed to be printed eventually; it’s really just up to funding it.
CW: Finally, I want to ask in this especially weird situation we’re living in if you want to give any advice for people who like independent art like yours, on how to support struggling artists right now and help turning them, hopefully, into thriving artists. And again, thank you so much for your time.
TB: If an artist you really like has a Patreon, join it. If they have a store, buy something. Help them eat, help them create. If you can’t, then spread the word about them. Show your friends. Make art for them if you’re inclined. Show them the love you feel. It’s easy to forget that there’s a person on the other end of that thing you like.
It’s an uphill battle for 99% of artists. Every bit of support you give makes it a little easier.
Turning Trauma and Fears Into Healing Art: An Interview with Tesslyn Bergin
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