Five questions for Claudia Dávila

Claudia Dávila’s Luz: Girl of the Knowing is a cheerful webcomic about an ominus situation: the coming oil shortage. Spurred by the simple fact that world oil production has peaked and will decline from here on in, Dávila decided to use the medium of comics to teach some simple lessons about the coming crisis and ways to cope with it. Luz, the title character, copes with blackouts, thinks about what she may have to do without someday, and learns about gardening by watching her neighbor, Mrs. de Souza.

Despite her gloomy topic, Dávila emphasizes the positive and the practical. In one episode, Luz watches Mrs. de Souza harvest and preserve her tomatoes, and Dávila includes a link to a page explaining how to dry your own food. Blackouts inspire an impromptu barbecue. And when Luz visits the farmer’s market in January, she learns that she can have local food even in the dead of winter. While Luz can get a little earnest at times, as when she gives a presentation on peak oil to her class, her friend Robert, an internet addict with a thing for stuffed bunnies, helps keep it real.

Cover art for Luz

Digital Strips: Where did you get the inspiration for Luz?

Claudia Dávila: I had a few peak-oil blogs going [Our Pueblo and The Post Oil Survival Guide For City Dwelling] when I realized that I wasn’t getting very many visitors. Maybe there were too many opinion blogs out there about the end of petroleum, or my survival guide was too technical, but it was starting to feel like I was in my own little world. I wanted to get the word out there to the masses: how to transform our neighbourhoods bit by bit to become self-sufficient and sustainable once oil (gas, electricity) finally runs out. The previous summer I had put out my very first comic, Spoiled, and thoroughly enjoyed the comic as a storytelling medium, and as it was well received I thought I’d go the same route with this. But, instead of making a print comic, I really wanted to put it online as a free weekly strip. This way I’d schedule myself to produce a strip every week (discipline!), and by having it online it would reach the greatest audience.

Although I had a storyline, I didn’t have a character or setting. But there were a few things I definitely wanted to do: have a latina protagonist; base the setting on my Toronto neighbourhood; be positive in tone as opposed to create an apocalyptic Mad Max-style future of doom; have very practical how-to’s featured for learning survival skills for independence from petroleum; and be accessible for all ages. And so Luz, the latina girl, was created. But I do admit that Mad Max (as my favourite post-oil apocalypse movie) was indeed inspiration for the subtitle, “Girl of The Knowing”.

DS: Luz is a comic that both educates and entertains. How do you balance those two aims?

CD: This is a tricky balance for me, because generally I’m not a very entertaining person. Conversations with me tend to gravitate towards downer topics! My nature is an educational one — I like to educate myself constantly about various things, and find myself enthusiastically sharing what little knowledge I have. So the educational bit comes naturally for me, especially since the main purpose of Luz is to spread knowledge and awareness of a future with no oil (and everything that entails). To keep it entertaining, I refer to follies I myself have experienced (like realizing my future may have no avocadoes!), or incorporate Luz’s best friend Robert, who in some ways is modelled after my husband Michael Cho, who is supremely entertaining.

DS: Luz seems cheerful, but there are some ominous hints about the future. Blackouts are already happening, and the characters are talking about what they will do when oil is scarce. Can you give us an idea of what lies in Luz’s future?

Luz eats weeds!CD: One reason I named our protagonist “Luz” is because it means “light” in Spanish — so I wanted her to be a bright, positive and cheerful character, perhaps even a shining light in a potentially dark future. Over the course of the months (and years?), we will see a decline in energy sources in Luz’s neighbourhood, and rising prices for oil, transportation, food and commodities. We may never get to a full-blown post-oil world in the comic, but as crises become regular occurrences, Luz and her neighbours will be applying their survival knowledge and demonstrate a way of living that can be local, sustainable and communal. And this in fact has been done in communities and cities around the world in the past and the present, and so is a real possibility. We just need foresight, planning and new skills (hopefully Luz is contributing to this in the grand scheme!).

DS: You get comments from people all over the world, espousing a variety of viewpoints. How have your readers surprised you?

CD: My biggest surprise is that there are more than 17 people who read Luz! The fact that I have a pretty consistent readership is really quite thrilling, so all the comments and reactions I’ve received have been pleasant surprises for me. If I were to break down the viewpoints into two camps, they would be the “I love Luz” readers and the critics. Some of the critics love Luz too and are critical because the want the best for the strip (like a big brother), and others have no patience for the storyline, tone or content and make their mark by saying so. I think all these reactions are great indications of where people are at with the topic, and help me see Luz through readers’ eyes. The avid supporters of Luz always put a smile on my face, I’m always so amazed and pleased that something I’m doing actually reaches people and connects with them! Perhaps what is most surprising is how the comic has reached non-comic readers (who are environmentalists/interested in peak oil) as well as non-peak-oil readers (who are interested in webcomics in general)—two polar opposite groups who are getting something new coming together in reading Luz. That’s pretty cool to me.

Luz has also prompted new connections where organizations have contacted me requesting the strip be featured in some alternative media, which I never would have expected! Right now it’s syndicated in a progressive magazine from Saskatchewan called The Briarpatch, and every few weeks I get an email from out of the blue with similar interests. It blows my mind.

The voice of dissent

DS: You were an art director for Chirp, Chickadee, and Owl, and you have done a lot of illustration as well. How long have you been drawing comics, and what is the biggest challenge of creating sequential art as opposed to book and magazine illustrations?

CD: I’ve been drawing my whole life, and illustrating commercially for 15 years. But sequential art is quite a new field for me. I’ve been commissioned to illustrate 1-page comics here and there for children’s books and environmental magazines over the last three or four years, but in hindsight they were pretty rocky attempts! I feel like I finally got into the swing of it with my first comic, Spoiled. There are so many elements to consider in drawing (and writing!) a comic as opposed to commercial illustration, which makes it much trickier to pull together but also a more rewarding form of storytelling. For instance, pacing and flow and speech need to be considered in comics but not in illustration. Also, variety in points of view, perspective, size and focus, balance of text and art, all have to feel natural and pleasing to read. But although challenging, all of these elements also make sequential art more exciting to produce than static illustration. If I had to pick the biggest challenge, it would be the writing! Having experience as an art director has really helped me compose both illustration and comic art, in essence art directing myself. I know what works and doesn’t work when assigning art to other illustrators, and can apply that to my own work, too. Once I learned some fundamentals in drawing comics (again thanks to my husband who is a comic artist himself), it’s become more a matter of making each strip fun and fresh while drawing from inspiration. However, my aim is to constantly grow and learn and get better at it, so that ultimately I can create engaging stories with great art.

Post-oil cookout

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