Sofia Szamosi’s debut graphic novel, Unretouchable (from Lerner Publishing Group), is an insightful foray into the world of art and the fashion industry, and a cautionary tale of how one survives in the field while still maintaining a distinct sense of self.
We got a chance to speak to Szamosi on the eve of her graphic novel debut and learned all about her process and challenges in creating her first graphic novel, and the inspiration behind Unretouchable in this exclusive interview.
What was the initial inspiration for Unretouchable?
Sofia Szamosi: started out as a zine I made in 2016 about an internship I did with a photo retoucher. The zine was my illustrated musings about the creation of unrealistic beauty standards, the power of images and advertising, quitting social media and the importance of “unretouchable” art and experiences. When I shared the zine with my agent, Jennifer Weltz, she saw the potential for it to evolve into a graphic novel.
Why does your story work best in the graphic novel medium?
Szamosi: I think this story could work in many different mediums, but as a lover of graphic novels and an artist who loves telling stories with pictures and words together, this medium felt natural. I like the challenge of paring down a scene to its most essential elements and then trying to draw that. The pictures can bring a revealing humor or get at the emotional dynamics, which allows the words to stay simple.
How would you describe your protagonist Olive?
Szamosi: Olive is a recent high-school graduate who loves making art with her hands, long city walks with her dog Toast, and her best friend Toni. She dreams of being an artist like her grandpa, but isn’t quite sure how to get there, let alone how to get through her summer internship or pick her fall classes.
In terms of creating your first graphic novel, what were some of the biggest challenges? Best and worst advice you received?
Szamosi: Creating Unretouchable was truly so much fun! But the biggest challenge was probably figuring out how to fictionalize my story. This was my first experience writing a work of fiction and it did not always come easily to me. I tried to weave in as much of my own experience as possible so I felt like I knew what I was talking about.
As for good advice – one piece of integral advice that I carried with me through the creation of this book is “it’s complicated.” I actually incorporated this into the book as a message to Olive from her grandpa. Some of what Olive is grappling with in Unretouchable like body image, beauty standards, and authenticity online and off are all big and complicated issues… Instead of trying to solve, reduce or flatten them, I wanted to leave room for complexity, nuance and difference, which I think can lead to deeper understanding.
How much of the graphic novel is informed by your own experiences in the world of the graphic novel?
Szamosi: A lot of Olive’s experiences and feelings are inspired by my own – we are both from New York City, both grew up with single moms, both love making art, going on long city walks, and hanging out with our best friends. And we both did internships with photo retouchers and decided to quit social media (at least temporarily). But, Unretouchable is a work of fiction and there are also a lot of differences in our experiences. Olive is about ten years younger than I was when we did our internships, so we are in very different phases of life. Olive landed the internship through her mom, an executive at a magazine. That was pure fiction. I got the internship through a friend, whose boyfriend was a photo retoucher. I did my best to weave my own experiences and insights into Olive’s story to make her feel authentic, while also crafting a story that would make sense for a YA audience.
What advice would you give to young women entering into the arts and, in a larger sense, how to survive in an image conscious world?
Szamosi: Well, I’m just trying to figure this stuff out like everyone else, but I can share some of my experience! In my creative practice, I try to only make what I am genuinely excited about. So if I’m not feeling something, I don’t force myself to work on it. Obviously with something like a graphic novel that takes a long time to finish, there are days I have to work on it when I might not feel excited about it. So on those days I will just do what I can, and if it’s only 5 minutes of work then so be it. Then on days I’m inspired, I make sure to ride that wave and get a lot of work done. It may seem counterintuitive at times, but I really believe that making what I love – even if no one else loves it – is important and will pay off in some way, even if not immediately or monetarily. I hope one day the work I love will pay the bills, but until then I make sure to always carve out time for it everyday. For me that means waking up early before everyone else is awake, so I know I always have time to write in my journal and work on my projects.
As for surviving in such an image conscious world – this is the heart of what Olive is struggling with in Unretouchable and I don’t think there is an easy answer. For some people, abstaining from social media and screen time and selfies might be the right answer. For others, it might be just being more mindful and conscious of their image creation and consumption. And for others still, today’s super saturation of images and information might be a source of excitement and inspiration… The overemphasis on appearance and intense pressure to look a certain way is so toxic for young women especially, because of sexism. Trying to protect myself from these toxic influences requires keeping a critical eye, questioning the images I’m bombarded with – especially in advertisements, big media and social media. To maintain some serenity I try to limit my screen time, pay attention to how I’m feeling, talk about it with the important people in my life, and transmute as much of it as possible into art.
Szamosi: I am very excited about my second YA graphic novel – a memoir about my adolescence, which I’m hard at work on as we speak. But that’s all I can share about it for now! You can stay tuned for more by following me on my website, www.sofiaszamosi.net, and on Instagram at @sofiaszamosi, and on twitter at @sofia_szamosi.
Sofia Szamosi’s Unretouchable is currently available in finer book stores and comic shops everywhere.