UK comic artist Rachael Smith on her Prague residency and the benefits of keeping diary comics 

'Quarantine Comix'

 Rachael Smith is a young, comic artist from the UK, who has just undertaken a three-week residency programme in Prague, organised by the Czech Literary Centre in cooperation with the International Lakes Comic Art Festival. During her stay she recorded her life in the Czech capital through short comic strips, which she immediately shared with her fans online.

I met with Racheal on the last day of her residency to discuss her work and her impressions from the Czech Republic, but I started by asking what brought her here in the first place:

“It was actually the Lakes festival that suggested me as a resident here to the Czech Literary Centre [a section of the Moravian Library], and luckily for me, they accepted me, so here I am.”

What did you work on during your stay in Prague?

“I am mainly known for my auto-bio comics, or my diary comics, so I thought while I was here, I would just make diary comics about my experiences here, about soaking up the culture and learning about how people live.

“I think comics is just a really lovely way to communicate ideas, especially when you are talking about mental health.”

“So I have just been making comics every day about my experiences. And it was important for me that I could make the comics and upload them online so that my fans could come on the journey with me, in a sense. So that’s what I wanted to do!”

I believe this was your first visit to Prague. What was your impression of the city and what was it like working in a completely different environment? Did you find it inspiring?

“Yes, I have never been to the Czech Republic before. It is so beautiful and I have really loved it here. It’s been very different working here. There was a lot of restrictions and I don’t have all the materials I am used to having. But that was good, in a sense.

“I think having restrictions on how you can work sometimes force you to be more creative with what you are saying in your work. And, as I said, it is just breathtakingly beautiful here. So I hope I have done it justice in my drawings!”

What did you like about Prague? Did you have time to visit places?

Autoportrait | Source: archive of Rachael Smith

“The apartment I am staying in is quite close to Vyšehrad, which is really beautiful and I have been there several times already. Otherwise, I just love walking around the centre. I love all the squares and I love how Prague has a lot of green spaces. I guess London has that a little bit, but it seems Prague really considers it important to have green spaces.”

I know that you also tried to learn some Czech….

“Yes, I can say hello, and thank you, and ask for a glass of red wine. But otherwise, I struggle.”

You recently published a comic collection called Quarantine Comix, written and drawn every day during the 2020 lockdown. What inspired you to start doing these comics? Was it a sort of therapy, a way to overcome your loneliness?

“During the lockdown I was trapped away from my partner and I couldn’t see him for a long time, so I went into a bit of a depression.

“My friend Heather suggested that if I am good at anything, it is making people feel less alone through my comics. So I started documenting what I did every day, which made me do things every day and it was actually very cathartic.

“I started putting the comics online and a lot of people told me that they were helping them, that they made them feel less alone. So I just carried on and they ended up being put in this lovely book.”

'Quarantine Comix' | Source: archive of Rachael Smith

Do you record your life regularly, or does it only happen in unusual moments, such as the lockdown?

“I have done in the past. One of my most famous books is called Wired up Wrong, which is a black diary comics about my experiences with mental health and my issues with depression and anxiety, talking about my coping mechanism with that.

“I have another one called Stand in Your Power, which is a very similar book about going through a break-up and relationship issues. I made them sound very bleak, but they are actually very funny!

“So I am known for my diary comics and it felt very natural that that would be what I would do on my residency in Prague.”

What has drawn you to the genre of diary comics in the first place? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this genre?

“It was ten years ago, when my therapist suggested that I start drawing, because I told her it was something I loved to do. She suggested that I draw something every day that was good that happened to me, to try to be more positive about life.

“Prague is just breathtakingly beautiful, so I hope I have done it justice in my drawings!”

“So I started doing that and I started putting them online and I called the project One Good Thing. And I just found that really helpful and cathartic to get it out there.  Also, the added benefit that I wasn’t expecting was that it actually helped other people. This has helped me think more positively about life.

“So at that point I thought: this is actually quite important, I should continue doing things like this. So then I wrote Wired up Wrong, and from there, it kind of snowballed.

“I don’t do diary comics every day, but when I do, it’s very rewarding. It’s a kind of instant gratification putting them online and having people immediately come back and say: Oh this is great.”

“So I put my comics on my Twitter and my Facebook and my Instagram and people comment on them and talk about them.”

'Quarantine Comix' | Source: archive of Rachael Smith

Apart from your diary comics, what are you working on at the moment?

“A book is coming out called The Queen’s Favourite Witch, which was written by Ben Dickson and illustrated by me. That’s based on Elizabethan England and has some magic in there. I am working on volume two at the moment.

“I am also working on a book that I have written that I am illustrating called Isabella and Blodwen, which is coming out next summer through Cast Iron Books. That’s also got a witch in it but it is very different from The Queen’s Favourite Witch.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

Source: archive of Rachael Smith

“So Isabella is this very precocious young girl who is going to Oxford University. She is very clever but she is not very good at social cues and she is not very friendly.

She ends up meeting this witch, who is based on a real item, a bottle, in the Pitt Rivers Museum, which says on the description that you should never open it.

“In the story, the bottle gets opened and this witch starts haunting Isabella. But I don’t want to say much more, because I might spoil it. It is definitely very surreal and very strange!”

Who is it intended for?

“I would say young adults.  It was inspired by the #MeeToo movement and there is some feminist stuff in there. It’s my most ambitious project to date, so I am very proud of it.”

'Quarantine Comix' | Source: archive of Rachael Smith

Why do you think comics is so popular these days, not only among your readers but adults as well?

“I think comics is just a really lovely way to communicate ideas, especially when you are talking about mental health. A lot of writing about mental health is in these big textbooks, which can sometimes be overwhelming.

“So if I put these little snippets of my experience in comics, it’s so much easier for people to engage with. For young readers, or reluctant readers, comics are a great way to communicate and get them read just a little bit. Well, it’s definitely the way I like to communicate.”

'Quarantine Comix' | Source: archive of Rachael Smith

Finally, what are you plans for the future?

“Telling stories, I guess. I would also like to continue with my mental health diary comics to make people feel less alone with their problems. I guess it’s like giving bits of myself to other people through my diary comics and I would like to continue helping people that way.”

Do you plan to return to Prague in the near future?

“I would love to. My partner actually came to stay with me for a few days, which was really nice. I think we would like to come back for a normal holiday and do a lot more touristy things. So I would very much like to come back.”



Twitter: @rachael_

Instagram: @flimsy_kitten