The People Behind the Puppets: Heidi Arnhold

As an editor, I’ve visited art schools and spoken to students nationwide. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, in part because they’re so eager and excited to get out there and prove themselves in their field. The problem is that art students usually need some time before they’re ready to draw comics professionally, so while it’s fun and no doubt instructional to the students to visit art schools, it rarely results in any new talent. (At least, not right away!)

However, Heidi Arnhold was an exception. I first met her when she came to see me for a portfolio review at Savannah College of Art and Design’s Editor’s Day event. Her work had a level of intricacy and detail that wasn’t there in the other work I had seen – something that would go on to become a hallmark of her style. She also seemed to gravitate towards fantasy, something that is generally underrepresented in comics. I took Heidi’s card and samples of her work back with me to LA, intending to pair her up with a writer I’d been talking to about a fairy tale project. However, that plan got tossed out the window when our Legends of The Dark Crystal artist abandoned the only recently underway project. All of a sudden I needed an artist that could draw that world, in a style not unsimilar to the previous artist’s and who was available now.

That artist, of course, was Heidi. If you’ve picked up either volume of Legends of The Dark Crystal, you know that she not only did a spectacular job taking over the art duties for that series, but she transcended her position as a simple artist and wound up playing a pivotal role in bringing the world of The Dark Crystal back into the public eye. And that was only the beginning…

Hey there, Heidi. You and I go back quite a ways don’t we? In fact, when I first met you, you were still in school. I was a guest at your school (SCAD) for Editor’s Day. What made you decide to come talk to me?

We do go back a long ways! I was a senior then, right on the cusp of graduating. You were at the top of my must-see list because I felt that Tokyopop might be the publisher most receptive to my style. My art had a mixture of many influences, but it wasn’t a good enough fit for editors seeking artists to work at Marvel or DC.

I remember being impressed with a lot of the talent I saw there that day, but you still stood out. Most of the samples you showed me were from a fantasy comic. Have you always been drawn to fantasy?

Ha ha. “Drawn to fantasy.” I see what you did there. Yes, I’ve always felt a strong connection with anything fantasy-oriented. I’m very much a daydreamer, and as a kid I opted for the land of make-believe over everything else (you know…like you do). I used whatever means I had around me to express myself and make the worlds in my head come to life. My mother still tells people that I used to turn leaves from her plants into characters and creatures, and I’d spend hours playing with them. I don’t use the leaf “medium” anymore, but I find the fantasy genre to be the perfect niche that lets my imagination run wild.

A page from Heidi's Fraggle Rock story, "The Meaning of Life."

What made you want to become a comic artist in the first place? And how did you end up at SCAD?

Without a doubt, it was Archie Comics’ Sonic the Hedgehog series. As a grade-schooler, I was obsessed with the blue blur, and when I discovered that Sonic comics existed in middle school my head just about exploded. I devoured every issue, rereading each of them until they were practically falling apart. In seventh grade, a light bulb went off in my head and I realized that drawing a Sonic comic book would be the coolest thing I could ever do with my life. I went to work right away and assembled a professional sequential portfolio: a fan comic drawn on notebook paper. I was so proud of myself. I mailed that sucker off to Archie, and almost a year later I received a letter from them thanking me for my interest, but there weren’t any job openings available. Thinking about it now still makes me laugh; it was sweet that they were at least willing to indulge my youthful career aspirations by responding that way.

Ahem… Anyway, I forgot about drawing comics after that for a while, but it came to the forefront of my mind towards the end of high school. I knew I didn’t want to be an animator. I didn’t have the patience or the stamina. Comics seemed like the perfect compromise, and my academic advisor recommended SCAD to me. It was the only school I knew of that had a sequential art program. After visiting the college, that was it for me. I didn’t even apply to another school.

Shortly after you graduated, I hired you to draw Legends of The Dark Crystal, a prequel graphic novel series based on the classic Jim Henson film. If memory serves, you hadn’t even seen it when I first approached you about it, had you?

Aaaaaah, Tim! You just have to put me on the spot, don’t you? I should explain… A couple years ago, I was being interviewed about Legends, and I was asked if I was a big fan of the original movie. I panicked, because for some stupid reason I thought that if I hadn’t seen it when I was younger (like many I knew had), the fans would kill me. You might remember this, because I contacted you immediately freaking out over what to say. At that point, I chose to lie and said that I’d seen it as a kid, but didn’t remember it well. I guess the cat’s out of the bag now, huh? (Sorry, Park Cooper!)

So no, when you first approached me, I hadn’t seen it. However, my fondness for it grew rapidly as I became familiar with the story, characters and environments. Now I can say with certainty that if I had watched it as a kid, I would have loved it. I also most likely would have been really, really scared. I mean, all those glowing Garthim eyes surrounding Jen in the dark?? Sheesh, talk about a nightmare factory.

An untoned page from the second volume of Legends of The Dark Crystal -- the Skeksis in the center is the Collector, a new character that Heidi designed for the series.

How did you prepare yourself for drawing a comic based on a film with such an avid fan base when you weren’t familiar with the source material?

The moment it dawned on me that I might be able to work on the project, I borrowed the Dark Crystal DVD from a friend, and eventually you sent me my own copy to refer to along with Brian Froud’s concept art book (thanks again, by the way!). From the get-go, I was pretty scared that if I didn’t do the original movie justice, it would upset the fans, so I did a lot of research. I sketched scenes from the movie. I printed out reference material to keep in a notebook. I also drew the Chamberlain over and over and over again. There was something about Skeksis anatomy that was difficult for me to grasp at first. I redrew him so many times I had dreams about drawing him while I slept. Needless to say, that part of the process was a little frustrating! Eventually I just had take the plunge and put all my prep work to good use in the comic itself. After penciling and inking pages and pages of Skeksis, I’m not intimidated by them anymore. 😀

It was a challenging project because you actually replaced another artist and we wanted the transition to be as unnoticeable as possible. How difficult was that for you to achieve?

It was pretty daunting for me at first. I never anticipated having to adjust my personal approach to someone else’s on top of learning the source material. I was still fresh out of college, and it didn’t occur to me that I might have to do something like that, especially not for my first job! Even when I tried to imitate Max Kim’s style, it didn’t really click in the test pages I sent you back then. What helped me was inking his pencils for chapter two and working from his thumbnails for chapter three. The inking process aided me with my muscle memory, and referencing his thumbs as I penciled the next chapter kept my work somewhat similar to his. What’s funny is that as I continued working on the series afterward, I could see my own style start to emerge again, but it was more subtle.

A gentler page from Legends of The Dark Crystal, this one featuring the Monk, another new character.

After Dark Crystal, you moved on to Star Trek and now most recently, Fraggle Rock. All three properties are fairly iconic, and yet all three are entirely different. Has it been difficult moving from one to the other?

The transition between Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock wasn’t too difficult! If anything, it was a breeze drawing Fraggles after all the elaborate costumes and environments in Dark Crystal. There were also many underground environments between the two properties, so I felt pretty comfortable with that. Star Trek was a different beast altogether. I love Star Trek and science fiction in general, but I’ve never felt terribly inclined to draw anything sci-fi related. I wanted a chance to force myself to think outside of my little fantasy box and try something new, and at times it was like pulling teeth. Finding accurate reference material for the Enterprise’s interior wasn’t easy. I struggled with the crew’s likenesses and my figures were stiff. Designing the alien world for our short story was the only time I had a chance to breathe out, but it didn’t help much. All in all, it was a learning experience I’m glad I had. I’m open to taking another crack at that genre again someday, because my first attempt was lacking in some ways.

The thing that amazed me about your art on Dark Crystal, and what I believe made everyone involved with that project such a huge fan of yours, is that you really add a lot of detail to your art. The texture and depth you give every project you work on is phenomenal. In fact, I’d say it’s unfortunate that Dark Crystal and the Star Trek manga you illustrated were printed at such a small trim since much of that detail was lost. Do you feel that a high level detail is part of your artistic style?

At least partially, yes! One of my favorite artists in middle school was Patrick Spaziante (he did work for Sonic, surprise, surprise). At the time he was known for these amazingly detailed backgrounds, and I was mesmerized by that particular aspect of his work. I admired him so much that I wanted to emulate him in every way possible, and while I may not draw Sonic and his pals often anymore, the detail-oriented tendencies stuck. I enjoy little details…almost to a fault. When I first started to work on the comic, it was a struggle for me; the world of The Dark Crystal is so pretty and I wanted to show every facet of it. It was almost as if the first volume of Legends was acting as an enabler and brought out the negative side of my detail obsession. I went overboard a number of times, and there are numerous panels that ended up looking too busy. Thankfully, I found more of a balance as I continued to churn out pages.

Heidi's Fraggle Rock story finds our characters returning to The Singing Cave, an ethereal cavern first introduced in the TV series.

One problem that I know you’ve run into is that people seem to recognize your talent, but dismiss you essentially because you don’t draw superheroes. I’ve also heard people label you a “manga artist” since you’ve done a lot of work for Tokyopop, but I’ve never felt your art was particularly manga-influenced. How frustrating is that for you, and do you feel it’s starting to change as you get more work out there?

I actually never knew that anyone labeled me as a “manga artist” before. I guess it makes sense, given the circumstances. There is a manga influence in my work, which primarily manifests itself in the characters’ facial characteristics and expressions at times. It doesn’t help that the properties I worked on required a manga-esque look to them. I have enjoyed manga for a long time, but in college I broadened my horizons to the different styles and approaches in sequential art, including superhero comics. I feel like various traits from all those influences have worked their way into my own style.

Is it frustrating to be dismissed for that? Sure, a little. It’s not something I hear very often firsthand, however. What encourages me is knowing that I’m not done growing, and I’ll learn something new with every project I have the privilege to work on.

How would you define yourself as an artist?

I define myself as an artist through… drawing stuff. This is why I’m not a writer, haha. I draw, and my artistry is, literally and figuratively, defined there.

…I guess if I were to seriously think about it, I would say it all hinges on self-expression with me. Normal communication isn’t a strong suit of mine. For instance, when I try to tell friends a funny story, it typically falls flat somehow. I get nervous and my delivery isn’t that great. But if I were to tell the same story in a sequential art format, everything comes together so much better. I don’t have to verbally describe someone’s expression or reaction; it’s right there on the page. People take what they want from it, and the pressure is no longer on my shoulders to “perform” right there on the spot. When I was growing up, I often would draw how I felt instead of writing it in a journal. Many of my old high school sketchbooks told stories of their own. I still draw how I feel sometimes, though it’s typically more in a comical sense. (No more teenage angst.) I suppose this is a roundabout way of saying that art is the best avenue I have to be myself.

While much of her work has been all-ages and family friend, Heidi has a penchant for drawing monsters, such as the "Soul Sucker" above.

You’re known for drawing pretty amazing monsters. How exactly did you get that reputation, and what makes a monster particularly terrifying to you?

Hahaha… Am I known for that? I don’t know how I got that reputation, unless you’ve been telling folks about it! C; Monsters are fantastic, because when you create them, they can be anything you want them to be. There aren’t any specific anatomical requirements or ability limitations. You can go nuts and create something as menacing or silly as you like, and that’s the best. Drawing monsters really helps me relax and have fun artistically. Oddly enough, a really scary monster in my mind is one I know very little about. Seeing a hint of it in the darkness (glowing eyes, claws or a hulking silhouette) is a pretty terrifying concept to me. Especially if it’s creeping up behind me while I have my back turned. Not that I’ve ever fled in horror upstairs from the monster wolves in my basement or anything…

Okay, time to put the kids to bed because I have to ask you about cocktopus. Seriously, is your family proud of how many phallic octopuses you’ve drawn over the years? Do you think you’ll ever draw a cocktopus comic?

My mom has always been good natured, and she laughed when I first told her about the gag that led to the creation of such happy, inappropriately shaped drawings and plushies. I used to think I’d draw a comic filled with Cocktopus’s many misadventures, but now I’d say that’s pretty unlikely. There are too many other things I want to draw that are going to take priority. It is a sad day for phallic squids everywhere.

Some Cocktopus plushies. Probably not for the kids.

So what’s next for you this year? Do you have your next project lined up?

Nothing’s set in stone yet! I’ve teamed up with a writer (someone you know!) to assemble a pitch that shows a lot of promise. I’m very excited to see where that goes this year! Aside from that, I’m just gonna keep flying by the seat of my pants. It seems to be working out okay for me so far.

And finally, let’s get serious for a moment and ask you something extremely important. If you were cursed by an angry gypsy who gave you a choice of either having perpetual bad breath, having everything you eat taste like anchovies or having your clothes randomly burst open manga-style every time you’re on a first date, which would you choose?

It’s a toss-up between perpetual bad breath and my clothes popping open on a first date. I would never EVER sacrifice my relationship with food… I love it too much. I’m going to opt for the first date wardrobe malfunction, because as it stands I’ll never have to go on a first date again! Haha! I cheated the system!

For more information on Heidi’s projects, be sure to visit her website:

And for a glimpse at some of her most recent comic pages and illustrations, be sure to visit her DeviantArt gallery:

We’re almost done with our series of Fraggle Rock creator interviews, but not quite. Check back soon for our final one!

The People Behind the Puppets: Joanna Estep

Whether they admit it or not, every editor has a stable of artists and writers that they tend to work with more than others. This team of talent is unique to each editor and very rarely is it shaped entirely by the skill of the individuals on it. Usually, the creators who find themselves at the top of an editor’s personal roster possess a perfect combination of talent, dependability and personality. They’re people that the editor knows can get the job done on time with no headaches, even under the most difficult of circumstances, and produce amazing results.

Joanna Estep has long been one of those artists for me. She’s professional, dependable and one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. She’s also one of the most original and unique talents working in comics today. With projects that range from colorful, all-ages comics like Fraggle Rock to dark, gritty shorts aimed squarely at the over-18 set, Joanna’s portfolio is as eclectic and compelling as the artist herself.

It’s no coincidence that she’s worked on Fraggle Rock four different times!

Joanna, you’re another artist that I know through Tokyopop, but it occurred to me that I don’t really know much about your life before that. How long have you been drawing? When did you decide you wanted to draw comics?

Well, I’ve been actively drawing comics since I was in high school…toward the end of which I started to print out more of my work and distribute it at comic conventions, or try to get it published in indie anthologies. My interest in comics initially began as an interest in animation, but the more I learned about animation, the more I realized that it was actually comics that could provide the creative control I really wanted. It seemed like the ideal way for me to tell stories with art.

How did you get involved with Tokyopop? Did you have interest in manga at the time?

In taking my portfolio and my comics around with me at comic conventions, I eventually crossed paths with Mark Wheatley of Insight Studios. Mark put me in touch with writer Allan Gross, and the two of us started putting pitches together. As a reader I loved manga, but as an artist, I was indifferent to it. I didn’t feel like it was really my style. However, when Tokyopop took an interest in one of the pitches that Al and I put together, I altered my style to be more manga-esque, and to more closely resemble the sort of material that they were interested in publishing.

That series was called Roadsong and was one of the few OEL (Original English Language) projects they published that actually reached its conclusion. How do you feel about Roadsong now?

I have a lot of mixed feelings about Roadsong, actually. As my first major publication, and my first experience with a publisher, I can’t help but look back on it and wish that I had done some things differently, or been more savvy about it. But by the same token, it was those experiences that helped shape me into the artist and businessperson that I am now. As a whole, it was a very important learning experience. Roadsong really opened a lot of doors for me, and I’m proud to have seen it through to completion.

A page from Roadsong, one of the few Tokyopop OEL titles to run a full three volumes.

What were some of your other projects prior to Roadsong?

A lot of comics paved the way for Roadsong. Many of them were minor things I did for fun and were never intended to be published or seen outside my circle of friends. But the pre-Roadsong project that I’m most fond of would have to be my short comic “Jungle Love,” which was initially printed in the anthology “Fractured Kisses #3” and published by Strawberry Comics. It was a story told entirely in pictures and contained no dialogue, but it drew attention to my visual storytelling skills and led to more paying work. I still sell reprints of it at conventions.

One of the things that I really love about you as an artist — something that becomes instantly clear to anyone who visits your website — is that you seem capable of readily changing your style. The comics in your portfolio look pretty different from each other. Is this deliberate? Do you like pushing yourself in different directions?

It’s definitely deliberate to the point of being problematic for me. I can’t help wanting to try new styles and new media, and while I feel that this tendency helps me to grow as an artist and learn very quickly, I also worry that I’m lacking a signature style. People tell me that there are defining characteristics of my work that shine through in everything that I do, but I worry that having such a varied body of work is a poor marketing strategy in the long run. But I am what I am, and I’ve discovered that it’s usually pointless and/or harmful to fight against my own artistic tendencies.

In light of what you just said, if you could define your style, how would you?

All over the place. No, really. But whatever tools or tricks I’m using, I think that the common factor that shines through is a kind of welcoming sensuality. My love for stories is often very character-driven, so I instinctively draw my characters in a very personal way. I want them to look like someone that everyone can recognize, and to feel like someone you’d want to get to know, based solely on their appearance and what emotions you can see in their facial expressions and body language. The “acting” of my figures is the most important aspect of my style.

Much of your work has been in black and white, even though I personally think you’re a phenomenal colorist. Is there a reason for this? Do you prefer black and white comics over color ones?

As a reader, I don’t really have a preference regarding color or black and white comics. But as an artist, I’ve definitely tailored my work to look its best in black and white. I find it a welcome challenge to get the same sort of emotional response out of a black and white image as can be achieved with a colored image. However, I think that this approach has led me to view the addition of color to my own work as tedious and unnecessary.

Of the work you’ve done since Roadsong, one of the comics that really stands out to me is Happy Birthday, Michael Mitchell, which is a short standalone webcomic that you wrote and illustrated for Tor. How did that project come about?

I have to lay the blame for Happy Birthday on another friend and Tokyopop alum, C. Lijewski. Despite the fact that I’m often tapped to illustrate a lot of light-hearted work and children’s media, I have a dark streak that needs expression too. Lijewski understands that about me, and we’d discussed putting together a darkly-themed anthology, and to just let our imaginations run wild without deferring to the rules and regulations of any publisher. However, the anthology had been seeing a lot of delays, so I submitted Happy Birthday to Tor in the interim, and was able to bring it to completion for their website.

The VERY un-Fraggle-like Happy Birthday, Michael Mitchell -- a dark, Twilight Zone-like short both written and drawn by Joanna.

It’s drawn in a really gritty style that looks like something that you might see in a Vertigo crime comic. How difficult was that style for you?

It was certainly a big change for me, considering the work I’d done previously. But I’d drawn a fair amount of illustrations in a similar style, and wanted to make the jump to drawing comics in that style as well. Tor had me re-ink a lot of the pages, but I learned a lot and have since gained confidence and acclaim as a writer and illustrator of drama and horror; two genres I absolutely love.

Happy Birthday, Michael Mitchell is also one of the few comics you’ve published that you wrote yourself. As a writer, are you typically drawn to those sort of dark, twisty stories?

Most definitely. I like stories that give me chills, make me think… or ultimately rip my heart out and stomp on it. I love stories that really make me feel something, and those are the sorts of stories I want to share with others in my writing.

The opening page from "Where Have all the Doozers Gone?" -- one of two Fraggle Rock stories that Joanna illustrated for our anthology.

You’ve drawn two Fraggle Rock stories and colored a third one, making you one of the most frequent contributors to the comic. Now, I know you weren’t all that familiar with Fraggle Rock before we started. Do you consider yourself a fan now?

Don’t forget the cover illustration that I did as well! And yes, I do consider myself a fan now. It’s hard to spend so many hours drawing characters and working to bring them to life and not get a little attached. I’m glad that my introduction to the world of Fraggle Rock has been such a unique one.

Were you a fan of Jim Henson’s other work?

Oh, certainly. Specifically things like The Storyteller and The Dark Crystal…though The Muppets also charm me on an entirely different level. Jim Henson’s work has always been a big inspiration to me.

Joanna was also the first artist in our comic to bring Uncle Travelling Matt to the page in the short story "Different Tastes," which was written by Adrianne Ambrose.

This was the first brand-licensed comic book you’d worked on. Was it a challenge working with a licensor? Would you like to do more work-for-hire projects, or do you prefer to stick to projects that you create or co-create yourself?

It was a challenge, yes… but I welcome most challenges. In fact, it’s been very rewarding to work on a brand-licensed project, because I finally have something on my resume that my non-comics-reading parents can recognize, understand and brag about. It’s surprising what a relief that can be.

I’ve noticed that in addition to your comic book and illustration work, you’re also a very active blogger. Do you feel blogging helps you build awareness as an artist?

See, I’m laughing to myself right now, because I can already see that this interview is going to make me look like a serious blogger, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. I use livejournal as a blogging client, and at first it was an ideal way to network with other comics professionals, but many artists have moved on to other clients for their “serious blogs” in recent years. I’m a big stick-in-the-mud, so I still keep my livejournal to post art, and various grievances about art. I also use it to to behave nerd-ily and to express my inner fangirl, so I end up posting as many internet memes as I do actual content. I view it as more of a personal outlet than a professional one… but I still meet and connect meaningfully with a lot of artists through my blog and that’s important to me. If I ever start a more “serious” blog with the intent of raising awareness about my work, I’ll be sure to let you know.

One of the covers from Joanna's upcoming fantasy series The Hunt, which is one of many pieces of art to initially debut in her blog.

One of the great things about your blog is that it really illustrates the ups and downs of being a freelance artist. You post new art and blog about new projects, but you also blog about your lack of health insurance, your challenges finding an agent and your frustration with the slow pace of publishing and your occasional lack of new work. It shows the exciting side of drawing comics for a living along with the totally unsexy side. Does being so open help you build a stronger relationship with your fans? Are any of your followers hopeful artists themselves?

I think that the vast majority of the folk who read my blog are hopeful artists, or are artists working in the field already. As I said, my blog has been a valuable networking tool, and helps me to feel that I don’t have “fans” so much as “friends.” I sometimes worry that my openness isn’t doing anything good for me business-wise, but I was an artist first, and it’s been my lifelong struggle to always express myself as best I can. I realize that being so open about my feelings and experiences might not make me look very cool or savvy, but it’s important to me that everyone know that I’m a person, and not just a robot who makes comics appear effortlessly out of nowhere.

So what are you working on now? What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m working on several projects, my favorite being a fantasy miniseries called The Hunt that I’m developing with writer Jared Koon. I was wary about taking on the project at first, but I can never resist a new challenge, and Jared is great to work with. He really cares about the look and feel of the stories and characters he writes, and his attention to detail gives me a lot of confidence. I feel like he’s always got my back, in that regard. Jared and I intend to distribute The Hunt digitally, and it should be available very soon.

And finally, what’s the oddest thing you’ve ever drawn? I’ve seen Carl Sagan fanart from you and have heard rumors of boys love fanart based around Star Trek and The Prestige, among others.

This has got to be my favorite question out of everything you’ve asked, since before I was a creator, I was a fan. It’s true, I make a lot of fanart and subvert a lot of canon…for fun, not profit. The strangest things I’ve ever drawn have all been on dares from other fans, I expect. It might be a tie between the time I drew Eomer from The Lord of the Rings trilogy in drag, or the time that I irreverently illustrated characters from both The Dark Tower series and the Twilight series as blood-covered vampire-spider babies playing in a sandbox together. For kicks, I even made an animated gif out of that second one. Vampire-spider babies should sparkle in real time, after all.

And yes, I’m guilty of being not just a trekkie, but one of THOSE trekkies who think Kirk and Spock are madly in love and need to get married, like, yesterday.

For more information on Joanna and her projects, be sure to visit her website:

And for some great geeky art and other such loveliness, check out her blog:

We have more Fraggle Rock creator interviews on the way, so keep checking back!