Interviews with readers and creators


Oct 2014

Creator Spotlight: Karen “Kez” Howard

Posted by / in Spotlight Interviews / 4 comments

This week’s Wednesday Spotlight interview is with Karen “Kez” Howard, creator of another post-apocalyptic webcomic I enjoy reading, What it Takes, and fellow MD/PhD student.

D:  Alright, Kez.  Tell us a bit about yourself :)

K: I go by Kez online, but offline I’m known as Karen. Of the Howard. I like to reference cult classics way too often in every day conversation, and get so disappointed when no one I hang out with even gets a “fly ball” Conan the Barbarian quote. I’m in school right now, an MD/PhD program (as you are well aware, hurr), and am entering my 4th year. For those unaware, the program combines both a medical degree (MD) with a research doctorate (PhD), to produce clinicians with translational research training. My program (like most) has two years of medical school, 3ish years of research, and the final two years of medical school. So I’m entering my second year of research. My project examines the process of aseptic loosening, the number one cause of long term failure of total joint replacements. Other than that, I maintain a side business of illustration (both personal and scientific) under the name of Winged Wolf Studio, I’m really into martial arts and have been for 15 some odd years, I have once gone full Avatar mode as part of a Bald for Bucks (for cancer research) campaign, and I have an awesome dog named Indy. Yes, we named the dog Indiana!

D: Tell us a bit about your creative projects.


Oh where to begin? As I mentioned earlier, I’ve got a side-business going under the name of Winged Wolf Studio. I’ve done a fair bit of scientific illustration, quite a large bit of fantasy/role-playing work, and some various graphic design work. But, that’s work. My real passion are the stories I’m working on: The War of Winds, and What it Takes. I started writing The War of Winds in highschool (the horror!), and finished the first draft of the novel in college. After half a dozen rewrites, it finally turned into something I’m pretty proud of. It’s a an epic fantasy story about a young man who steals an artifact that heals all his wounds, but kills him little by little by doing so. Not only that, but the artifact is under the protection of mythical race of half-human, half-animals called the Ayenroki–and they’re none too fond of the young thief.

I decided to start illustrating that novel as a comic as part of my high school art portfolio project—mistaaaaake. Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing experience. Ten years invested, a few hundred pages, and if no one minds my saying so, amazing growth in my art. But it was too large for a first comic project. The difference in quality between the beginning and ending pages, it was killing me to see what it all could have looked like if I started with what I know now. And despite all the time invested, I didn’t get through more than a third of the story. So I decided to end it in late 2013, and focus solely on editing the novel. I hope to someday see it published. You can even see a jacket cover mock up I made here!

Before I ended The War of Winds, but just as the nagging feeling that I should stop working on it was beginning to take hold, I had the idea for a new story I wanted to work on. I took all that I learned, and used that experience to jumpstart my second story, What it Takes. Where The War of Winds was an epic fantasy, What it Takes was a gritty, post-apocalyptic adventure. The War of Winds was a full-color graphic novel I would spend 8-16 hours on each page, and What it Takes is a monotone strip that takes a measly 3 hours each. It’s faster, more popular, and easier to make that The War of Winds ever was. The comic features Colbey, a kick-ass young lady surviving in world scoured by the elements, with little working technology, and ruled by merciless Affiliations of survivors. But there’s hope: A City in a Place, a secluded vestige of civilization, remains–but is it all it’s cracked up to be? Obviously, if I’m posing the question, there’s a pretty big catch.

D: With your love of comics and illustration, what made you decide to devote ~13 years to earning an MD/PhD and becoming a doctor?

K: I get asked this question a lot, mainly by people who have decided not to pursue art/music/some other creative hobby as a career. I think had I chosen the other route and tried to become a professional artist, instead I’d get the question, “why the heck wouldn’t you get an MD/PhD?” Or perhaps, “If you were smart enough to get into an MD/PhD program, why oh why would you choose to become an artist instead?” I think there’s the romantic idea out there about what it means to be an artist. Like, loving what you do suddenly makes 80 hour work weeks and squat pay acceptable. Professional artists I know are always scrambling to make ends meet. They sacrifice more time with their families to get work done than doctors ever do. They can suffer from debilitating use-associated diseases such as carpal tunnel, which then jeopardize their own career. They can’t afford much in the way of luxury, including but not limited to health insurance. They almost never have free time. They are forced to work on commissions of work they have no interest in rather than doing the work they want to do–their own vision, not someone’s birthday gift for their dolphin-loving niece (I jest, it’s usually horses). The bottom line is, I chose what I considered to the be the smart path: it’s possible to pursue an MD/PhD and associated career interests while still doing professional-level art on the side; it is not possible to be a professional artist and do professional-level medicine/research on the side.

I realize that’s a horrifically jaded answer. But, I would never choose to drop this degree or a career in medicine unless I could pursue my own art (comics and stories) without having to supplement income by working on other people’s requests. At least in medicine and research I get to mostly choose what I want to do, y’know?

D: What types of ninja martial arts do you know? What type would you recommend I enroll my son in (once he gets a little bigger), mostly for confidence and the occasional bully bashing?

K: Well, I got to take one Ninjutsu class with my sister in Pittsburgh, but that’s the extent of my experience in the ninja arts specifically! I’ve taken around 8 years of Goshin Jutsu Karate, 6 years of Seven Star Mantis Kung Fu, 2-3 years of Pekiti Tirsia, and 3 years of Inosanto Kali. I fought San Shou competitively, with a 2-0-1 record before I decided that I really could reconcile hurting my opponent for the sake of competition. So, that’s kind of the full gamut of Asian martial arts widely available in the US: Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino/Indonesian. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Korean and Thai arts, the former of which I’ve had no personal personal experience in, and the latter only indirectly, but are also very cool, widely popular, and effective systems. Yes, there are also tons more I have not mentioned (referring to country of origin), but good luck finding them outside of Los Angeles and New York City

Having seen and experienced all of those, what I’d recommend for a child would really be more for what the parent is interested in the child learning, or if the child is old enough, what he/she wants to learn. As an adult, I can say honestly that Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) are among the most realistic, streetwise, dirty, and war-tested styles out there. For me, there’s no going back to Chinese or Japanese styles outside of the occasional, specific seminar. However, since most FMA schools start out with a primarily weapons-based curriculum, it may not be the best for some kids. It also may be the MOST AWESOME option for other kids.

But so much really depends on the instructor and the class structure–and those have little to nothing in common with styles. I guess what I’ve seen in most schools is that martial arts for kids under 10 is really just glorified day care. They teach basics like “stranger danger,” how to get out a grab, etc. These are worthwhile things, but it’s different than learning how to throw a solid punch, how to break a collarbone, or how to dismantle an opponent’s nervous system. You can’t really even teach the latter in 1-2 hours per week. So as a parent, you probably should pick somewhere where you think you’re child should 1) learn something useful, but mostly 2) have a really great time. When your child is old enough, you can start considering the applicability of what’s being taught.

No matter which style you/the child chooses, the school should provide a positive outlet for energy or aggression. For bullying specifically, it’s really important to find a school that emphasizes camaraderie, not competition between students. Your child should learn that he is part of a bigger whole, and become confident through the completion of tasks/rank. Confidence will often make a bigger difference in bullying than street-knowledge will–that was my personal experience at least. You will want to find a class that’s small enough your kid will receive individual attention, and lots and lots of encouragement. For bully-BASHING–nothing beats FMA. If you want your kid in juvenile detention… (but seriously, ANY martial arts school should ram good judgement, consequences and standing up for friends down kids’ throats or they are not doing their job).

So, in conclusion, I love FMA. But I don’t think it’s for everyone. I’ve found that karate schools are among the most successful because people enjoy the regimented curriculum. I can’t stand regimented/rank-focused curriculum, so it’s not for me. And for kids, who’s teaching and how they teach is probably more important than what style is being taught.

D: I think that a lot of us have started writing or imagining a story in junior high or high school. Many kudos to you for sticking to it! What was your inspiration for TWoW?

K: Thanks! But my inspiration is lost in the void that is high school, so I really can’t even recall. I guess the best answer to your question would really be what I was really invested in reading/watching back then: Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), Terry Brooks (Sword of Shannara), anything by David Eddings, Raymond Feist (The Magician), anything Tara K Harper, most things Anne McCaffrey, Gargoyles, Star Trek, and Stargate SG-1. Because I loved fantasy and sci-fi equally, I always felt the need to try and explain fantasy in sci-fi terms, The War of Winds starts out entirely from a fantasy perspective before unabashedly leaping into the sci-fi.

D: So WiT is about a ninja lady… based on you at all? ;)

K: I think I’m really more like Peter than Colbey. Colbey isn’t mired down like Peter is. She’s thinks freely, acts on instinct, and isn’t crippled by having to have all the information before she makes a choice. Everything she does is about now, or occasionally, a few days in the future (shelter, water, food). Peter’s too stuck on what was or what should be to be of any real use in a post-apocalyptic world. The last WiT fan to meet me in person at a convention was shocked to see I looked nothing like Colbey, nor did I act like her. Luckily, they still bought a book! :D I think our only striking similarity is a love of martial arts. Write what you know, right?

D: Why did you pick a post-apocalyptic story?

K: Two reasons: I really like the genre, the zombie-free version at least. As a kid, I was obsessed with My Side of the Mountain and the outdoors. I wanted to take a story more in that direction–how someone would survive in a world with few resources. That’s why I adore comics like The Wandering Ones, by a guy far more knowledgeable about the subject than me. I think I also love “what if” scenarios that the genre lends itself to. In such stories, global infrastructure may have been destroyed, but maybe cities are still standing. Maybe there’s no nuclear wasteland. What are people doing? How are they moving on? Could a population of survivors manage to 1) have enough knowledge of basic technology/engineering to continue a post-industrial lifestyle and 2) implement such a lifestyle in the face of aggressors? How would law/order be affected? Would anyone step up and try to salvage society? How would you go about rebuilding the world? There’s just so much potential there, and I love thinking about it.

The second reason was because I was really sick of how heroines were being treated in the genre–either as accessories, things to be rescued/protected, or things to be raped in order to elicit an emotional response. It starts to grate on a girl after awhile. Colbey is capable, dangerous, and does the rescuing. Well, tries. She really ought to start trying to think a tiny bit more before she just dives into the fray, jeez.

D: What do you plan on doing when you’re a practicing doctor? Will you tell your patients about your stories? Will you sign your novels with an MD/PhD at the end?

K: I still have no real clue what I’d like to practice yet. It’s a lot easier for me to pick things I don’t want to do. I’m leaning toward Emergency Medicine, with a nice bent toward Wilderness Medicine, because that stuff is awesome. But my research is in Orthopedics, so, not sure. I would not tell my patients about my comics because I prefer that barrier between professional life and home life, but I have no problem sharing with co-workers. There’s actually a doc in the ER here who created a lovely set of toxidrome flash cards, all illustrated in a caricature format. I kinda want to be like that dude. And I typically sign my stuff as either KEZ, or as a symbol that’s an overlay of all 3 letters. Likely no MD/PhD will be appended after heh.

D: What are some lessons you’ve learned from working on these stories?

K: The biggest one I learned was working on tWoW, and that’s the translation of a novel to a script to a visual story. You pretty much can’t just expect a graphic novel to perfectly follow a novel. There is essential translation between the mediums, because some story elements just work better. Because of this, I no longer get pissed off when I read a book and see a movie only to find the movie differs in many regards from the book. I get it. That doesn’t mean I don’t get pissy at the dwarf-elf thing they’ve got going on in the Hobbit grrr. There’s a difference between interpretation and flat-out unnecessary addition.

Also, the benefit of diligence. If you want to improve at anything, work work work. You will improve. Talent is practiced interest. Practice makes confident.

And lastly, to no matter what, be proud of the work you’ve done. No artist, no matter the medium, thinks their work is perfect. That doesn’t mean an artist shouldn’t be proud of each work. If you stop encouraging yourself with your own work, what’s the point?

D: General advice for readers or creators of webcomics?

K: -Find and associate with like-minded creators. Make friends. Make connections. They’ll be what keeps you going in the long-run.
-Draw every day if you’re an artist. If you’re a writer, write every day. If you don’t make time for it regularly, you will first stop improving, and second, eventually stop.
-If you’re thinking about starting your first comic project, start small and contained. I started out with a 500 page novel I wanted to illustrate, and it will always frustrate me that I’m never going to finish it. I wish I’d started with a smaller story I could have finished.
-Learn to use [and not be overwhelmed by] social media. It’s a thing that’s not going away.
-Learn to create and stand by barriers you create between you and what discourages you. Fans leaving comments that make you never want to make a comic ever again? Turn off comments. Friends dissing you because you make comics? Find friends that encourage you. No one except yourself can choose to stop listening to discouragement.


Thanks so much, Kez for the interview!  E’erbody, you should really check out some of the links she shared, read What it Takes (I’ll probably do a “Why I Read” for it one of these days), and maybe even like her stories on Facebook or something :)

  • NickDA

    ROFL… FMA for kids… totally gonna put my son into that… “dismantle his nervous system!”

  • Well, Kez, guess what I’ve been binging for the past two days…Wandering Ones! So good! Just finished :D AND I got the creator lined up for an interview :D

    • KEZ

      SWEET! Can’t recommend Clint’s stuff enough!

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