Drawing Inspiration from Songs: A Conversation with Comic Book Artist, Nikki Umans

Today’s digital music technology enables everybody to create the playlists they need on a daily basis. A simple playlist can help a busy person get through the most tedious of tasks; enable an athlete to complete another rigorous workout; or nurture an artist’s creativity.

Nikki Umans is an SVA alumni and currently working on her first comic book

Dominique Lee Umans, or Nikki as I’ve come to call her, is a graduate from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and a comic book artist. She recently talked to me about how some of her favorite music helps her in creating Diamond Bright Delirium, her first original comic. It is my pleasure to interview her right here on Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen in my first full-length aspiring artist feature.  

The Story of Two Brothers

Nikki explains, “This horror fantasy series takes place in an alternate and mythical universe, one where there is a world in the sky, another world below the earth, and one in between the two. The series is mostly set in the world between the two.” It is in this world the story begins.

Sketch of Teliau*

“The story starts when one of the supporting characters, Dr. Rivières loses his son, Teliau. Dr. Rivières refuses to accept the fate of his son, and tirelessly looks for ways to bring him back from the dead. Meanwhile, an angel, Ciel, accidentally falls from the world above, and Dr. Rivières takes him in as one of his own. Soon though, Dr. Riviera discovers that he can use Ciel’s genes to resurrect Teliau.”

Ciel and Teliau are the protagonists in Diamond Bright Delirium. Throughout the series, these brothers grow close and eventually fight battles together side-by-side.

“These brothers grow up knowing only each other and their father.

“Dr. Rivières isolates himself and his sons to avoid stirring any suspicion of what he has done, especially since it puts him in legal danger. In addition, both these sons are ridiculed by the people in their town because of their physical deformities. The effects of Dr. Rivières’s procedure on Teliau, left him looking like a monster. Meanwhile, Ciel still has wings from when he was an angel.

“These two brothers come from very different backgrounds and become very close as a result of their isolation. Throughout the series, the brothers rely on one another as they fight their way through every upsetting circumstance and perilous situations; most of which are caused by the female crime-lord and their boss, Evangeline.

Sketch of Ciel*

“Evangeline gives Ciel and Teliau work that involves racketeering, bounty hunting, procuring business deals with rival groups, and dealing with her own family whom she cannot stand.

“She doesn’t assign these jobs to the brothers because she’s confident in their skill. Instead, she assigns them these jobs in hopes that they will fail. If they fail, she will kill their father. If they don’t, she will continue to abuse her power and take full advantage of Ciel and Teliau.

Siren: Mythical villain that appears in the series*

“Her spiteful behavior towards the Rivières brothers stem from the pain she experienced in her past and her inability to move on from that pain. Creating upsetting circumstances for Ciel and Teliau is how she deals with it, but, she still remains unhappy.”

This type of hypocrisy is an overarching theme in Diamond Bright Delirium. Evangeline is one such character who is a hypocrite to the extreme. Her inner suffering increases in every episode, no matter how much trouble she single-handedly creates for the Rivières brothers. Later in the series, Nikki makes this “seemingly all-knowing mob-boss fight her hypocrisies.”

She also adds, “One of my goals for Diamond Bright Delirium, is to incorporate more characters and their backgrounds into the story and not make it only about Ciel and Teliau.”

Nuckelavees, Scottish water fairies, in Diamond Bright Delirium*

So what fuels Nikki’s tireless energy for simultaneously creating dramatic and bizarre situations for these heroes and supporting characters? She responds, “Aside from my favorite comics, which exude elements of black cinema, horror movies, and gangster movies, like Richard Sala’s The Chuckling Whats It and Mad Night; music is one of my other major influences.”

Gathering inspiration for Diamond Bright Delirium from songs by the Circus Contraption

Songs by the band and traveling circus, Circus Contraption, help Nikki visualize settings that inspire her, like urban America during the Victorian period and the 1920’s.

“Whenever I listen to one of their [Circus Contraption’s] songs, I start to visualize things that symbolize the settings of these time periods like old smoke stacks, battleships pulling into harbors, the turning of wheels.

“Also, every song by Circus Contraption is a story, and in every concert, they re-enact these scenes on stage; and the settings of their performances are also inspired by the Victorian period and vaudeville. Their songs lyrically focus on taboos that were shocking during those times.”

I then wondered how Nikki draws inspiration from a song by Circus Contraption and then incorporates that into her work, Diamond Bright Delirium. She talks to me about one episode, “The Carnival,” which is directly inspired by a song from Circus Contraption.

“In this episode,” Nikki explains, “Ciel and Teliau are sent to deal with the manager of a mechanical traveling circus Mr. Jynx, who Evangeline believes might have stolen some of her money.

“Once the brothers arrive to the premise, one of circus members is mysteriously murdered. Mr. Jynx believes it was a scheme by Evangeline, and suspects the brothers have some knowledge about this. Now, the brothers have to investigate whether the crime was committed by anybody from within the circus.”

“By listening to the emotions expressed… I can pick out what could be the next proceeding scene”

Although songs by Circus Contraption and other musical groups help Nikki in the creative process, she doesn’t take songs from these artists and simply turn them into visual stories using her own characters. Instead, these songs help inspire plot developments.

“If I ever come to an episode and I have trouble with plot development, I go to a song in my playlist that I feel fits the current scene I am working on. I can pick out elements from this song that I believe can be incorporated into the plot and hopefully further my story.

“By listening to the emotions expressed within the music, I can pick out what could be the next proceeding scene.

“On this note, I design playlists that are consistent in theme, tone and style, and I always revise my playlists to make sure they flow well. Listening to these playlists also helps me battle writer’s block.”

Playlists: “This helps me stay consistent in my writing process.”

In our conversation, I learned that writer’s block is more than a creative wall; it can trigger damaging setbacks for even the most successful artists.

“I have observed other writers who have attracted a strong following or fan base, and then experienced writer’s block, which caused them to stop updating their comics. This is detrimental; a stymie in their work disrupts the relationship,” between the artist and his or her audiences, “and disappoints readers. They often feel betrayed.”

Nikki takes the threat of writer’s block very seriously, which is why she is setting all of her ducks in a row.  At the moment, she plans to finish writing all 12 seasons of Diamond Bright Delirium by the end of this year. With 148 episodes under her belt, she hopes to have a total of 228 stories completed within the next year. This will enable her to have a whole storyline ready so that she can concentrate on drawing the scenes. She hopes to start drawing the comics by 2014, and finally publish the series that same year.

Consistency is very important for Nikki, and music is one of the many resources that will help her continue working towards fully publishing Diamond Bright Delirium.

“I feel writer’s block is the worst excuse I could have for disrupting my work. So I go through my playlists and find songs that I can easily connect to the scenes I am currently working on, and try to create an episode without pictures. This helps me stay consistent in my writing process.”

“I want readers to get lost in the story”

By the time Nikki’s comic hits the web, the end product of her creative process will come in the form of refined and colorful caricature sketches and boxed scenes that tell the story of two brave brothers. As a result, Nikki hopes her readers to take away the following from her series:

Driffiks: mythical woodland creatures*

“I want readers to go to this comic after a hard day’s work and really get lost in the story. People consistently deal with hardships, whether it’s a recent death in the family; not having enough money; or dealing with a physical ailment. I hope readers come to this comic to find something cathartic about these two main characters.”

“I hope my comics help readers re-examine their points of views about themselves and others”

While the characters in her series mimic and reflect the character flaws we exhibit in everyday life, like hypocrisy, Nikki wants readers to first and foremost have fun reading Diamond Bright Delirium. She explains:

“There are times I go to read some of my favorite web comics when I feel stressed. Afterward, I am happy to see that somebody out there can see the world from a point of view different from mine, and express it through their creative work.

“I hope that I can accomplish something like this with Diamond Bright Delirium help readers notice the flaws they observe in themselves and others in everyday life and hopefully view the world with fresh eyes.”

*All pictures are patented and published with permission by the artist and rights holder*


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