Svetlana Chmakova has a career many creators dream of: her YA graphic novel Awkward, published in 2015 by Yen Press, sold over 250,000 copies, and her new book, Brave, which came out in May, had an first printing of 150,000.
She’s no overnight sensation, though. Chmakova’s journey from self-published webcomics to best-selling graphic novels has taken 15 years. For the past 10 of those, she has been published by Yen Press, working closely with her editor, deputy publisher JuYoun Lee, on three very different properties: the original graphic novel trilogy Nightschool; a three-volume adaptation of James Patterson’s Witch & Wizard series; and most recently, the middle-grade graphic novels Awkward and Brave.
“If Yen has a strong point, it’s that our goal is to nurture talent,” Lee said. “It’s not to have a formula of ‘This is how we are going to make a bestseller.’ We are going to make sure the talent shines the most. If you ask how Svet became big, it’s because I always thought it was inside of her.”
Chmakova grew up in Russia and got hooked on comics when she found Wendy and Richard Pini’s ElfQuest on a Moscow book stand. After moving to Canada at the age of 16, she earned a degree in animation at Sheridan College and started making webcomics. Her first taste of professional work was the webcomic Chasing Rainbows, which ran on the Girlamatic webcomics site. “Even though I was creating and publishing it one page at a time, online publication really gave me a taste of how relentless comics-creating has to be, and just how much work and planning goes into producing a good story,” she said.
Next she developed Dramacon, her first graphic novel series, for Tokyopop. Working on a tight deadline, Chmakova had to learn how to coordinate the work flow with her editor and format her work for print.
Around the time Chmakova was finishing up Dramacon, Yen Press was getting up and running; it launched in 2006. While the company’s initial focus was on manga, nurturing non-Japanese artists was part of the plan from the beginning—and when she saw Dramacon, Lee knew she wanted to work with Chmakova.
“After reading her previous series, we were eager to work with Svet on her next project,” Lee said. “Nightschool was a story she had been wanting to tell for a very long time, and we thought it was a perfect fit for Yen Plus, the monthly magazine we were publishing at the time, which also served to give her exposure alongside some of the most popular manga creators in the market.”
Things did not go smoothly at first, however; Lee was still living in Korea when Chmakova began working on Nightschool, so much of the initial editing was done by phone. They persisted, however, and the first two volumes won Joe Shuster Awards (a Canadian award for comics creators) and were included in the ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association’s lists of Top Graphic Novels for Teens.
Lee proposed Chmakova’s next project, a graphic adaptation of James Patterson’s Witch & Wizard YA novels. “I thought it might be a good change of pace for her not to have to worry about the story so much, just focus on the art and layouts,” Lee said. For her part, Chmakova welcomed the opportunity to learn more by dissecting Patterson’s work. “I loved the page-turning quality of the storytelling and how the content of the books really pushed me past my comfort zone as an artist,” Chmakova said.
“Part of the strategy was driven by Svet’s diverse interests and our desire to expand her readership, particularly with younger audiences,” Lee said. “Witch & Wizard was a perfect project in that regard as it gave her exposure beyond the core manga and graphic novels readership by pairing her with a very successful YA novel series, but it also geared her in the direction of middle grade readers. That was something we were all very attracted to, particularly given the stylistic approach she brought to a particular short story she did for the Flight anthology series ‘On the Importance of Space Travel.’ ”
That short story, about a girl who spins a tale for her class about being the Princess of Pluto, was published in 2008. Lee suggested Chmakova try something in a similar vein, and they started brainstorming. “[In school], I was in science club, and my friends were in art club,” Lee said. “Svet was in art club and the newspaper club. We were talking about our experiences back then, and that’s where the whole concept of Awkward came from.”
Once the idea was sketched out, Chmakova ran with it. “Creating the characters was all her,” Lee said. “When it comes to character development, I seldom even have critiques.” Instead, she sees her job as helping Chmakova stay focused on telling her story clearly. “Svet has a very unique voice both as an artist and a storyteller,” Lee said, adding that Chmakova’s “work speaks to her readers through her humor and sincerity. As the middle grade market is embracing graphic novels, Svet’s abilities really shine with the work she’s done on Awkward and Brave, and in that respect, she’s only getting started at a quarter of a million copies.”