For as long as they can remember, Steenz Stewart says they always had a fascination with art. They recall their mother telling them their response was ‘becoming an artist’ whenever people asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Since art is a broad field, Stewart wasn’t sure which medium made the most sense for them and their artistry. Their indecisiveness remained until they graduated college in 2011.
They developed an interest in illustration and started working with a local comic book store to expand their skills. They also collaborated with other creators.
After leaving the bookstore to work at a library, they formed a friendship with comic writer Ivy Noelle Weir. The two published a collaborative book titled “Archival Quality,” illustrating the adventure of Celeste “Cel” Walden, a librarian working at a surreptitious museum. She analyzes how she can shield herself from an abnormal event that occurs inside the ancient building.
Subsequently, the two submitted the book to Portland-based Oni Press, which jumpstarted Stewart’s career.
Stewart’s love for character development and telling stories has positioned them as one of many at the helm of “Heart of the City,” a nationally syndicated comic strip created by Mark Tatulli in 1998. They have been designing the comic since April 2020. The pictorial follows a precocious young girl living in Philadelphia that aspires to be a worldwide superstar.
“It’s a cool opportunity to take the original characters and make them into something more similar to my art rather than mimic Tatulli’s style,” Stewart said.
With Andrews McMeel Syndication owning “Heart of the City’s” s IP, different artists have the authority to take over its reins. Stewart, a nonbinary Black artist, represents a slim percentage of that demographic.
Considering the years the comic industry has been around, Stewart thinks it’s essential for there to be more which starts with the people in charge that make it accessible.
“I want everyone to have an opportunity to get through the door,” Stewart said. “Editors and employees at the top-level of publications need to widen their horizons for who they pick when hiring people to do comics.”
The best advice they give youth interested in following in their footsteps is to start creating work now instead of waiting until they think they’re ready.
“If you want until you think you’re ready, I don’t think you’ll ever be ready for it,” Stewart said. “You have to put it out there, put your heart behind it, and just do it cause the time is of the essence.”
Focusing on building a community rather than just networking is another valuable lesson Stewart said youth could learn.
“You should cultivate your own community because we’re all trying to get to the same goal,” they said. “I have a group of peers who always create comics and graphic novels. We’re all trying to get better at our craft, and we help each other because we want each other to get better at our craft.
“It’s nice to have that assistance if you need help with something like, ‘I’m putting out a pitch. I’m not exactly sure how this sounds; can you look at it for me?’ Or, if someone recommends someone for a job, all of that happens because you have built a community around you to facilitate those types of events. I think it’s good for creators to understand that those communities should be built, and they start with us.”
Their book “Heart Takes the Stage: A Heart of the City Collection (Volume 1)” releases on May 3 at Barnes and Noble, Target, and Amazon. It will also sell at Betty’s Books in Webster Groves, where Stewart will have a 6 p.m. book signing on release day.
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