ONI HARTSTEIN often has hard-won advice for her fellow comics creators.
“I always tell cartoonists to focus on how far they've come,” Hartstein tells Comic Riffs, “and to not compare themselves to other artists, probably because of my experiences.”
Those experiences, she emphasizes, started bleak from the get-go. Hartstein says she was abandoned by her birth parents in 1980, when she was just several weeks old. She was left with a financially strapped grandmother, and sometimes went hungry, she recalls, with nowhere to go but up. Her ticket out, and up, was ultimately art.
"Art, and the geek community, has been there for me my entire life," says Hartstein, 33, who strengthened her resolve after encouraging words from a mentor.
"It inspired me to pay my way through college and create a much better life for myself today,” continues Hartstein, who studied art at Carnegie Mellon University and Rutgers University, and worked for the Disney Channel while in school.
Hartstein, who is creator of the Lovecraftian webcomic Stupid & Insane Defenders Against Chaos, decided to start a convention to foster DIY cartoonists and other artists. So five years ago, she and partner James Harknell launched Intervention in suburban Washington.
“Intervention,” Hartstein tells Comic Riffs, "is my way of giving back to the community that was there for me."
(Partly because she trained as a mixed martial-arts fighter for five years, she says, starting such “a big event didn't scare me as much as it probably should have.”)
Over the weekend, the fourth annual Intervention was held in Rockville, Md., and over three days, congoers could lap up panel sessions that ranged from the technical (website design) to the aesthetic (special guest Pete Abrams, creator of the webcomic Sluggy Freelance ), from the musical (Paul Sabourin) to the historical (husband-wife team Andrew Farago and Shaenon Garrity led a very engaging century-spanning comics primer).
Comic Riffs caught up with Hartstein to talk about the role of art in her life, the rise of Intervention — and her commitment to fostering creative communities:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on Intervention's growth, Oni. What do you think especially resonates with congoers about this event?
ONI HARTSTEIN: Everyone is here to help each other become better at what they do creatively. All of our staff and guest speakers believe strongly in this and it shows. We are not about big Hollywood actors signing autographs and pushing you aside. We only work with people who want to interact with their fans in a positive way.
Our atmosphere is unlike any other event I have ever been to. People leave us inspired and come back the next year to show off the project that they were able to start at the last event. The best part? Then they can present what they have learned and also take part in helping people. Can you imagine a really fun conference for what we do, plus gaming and quirky late-night performances? That's us.
MC: Do your goals for the event change year to year, as you've expanded and established yourself?
OH: Our goals are mostly the same: great customer service from our staff, positive attitudes, and reaching out to help in any way we can. The programming and guest speakers do evolve based on what our attendees want to see and what might be an important topic for that year.
MC: So what’s Intervention's origin story — how did you [and Harknell] birth this great baby of a convention?
OH: When I was touring in support of my webcomic, Stupid and Insane Defenders Against Chaos, I would get so many people approaching me and asking me for help. I started to hear from children and adults who had been heavily impacted by the time I took to speak with them. They made positive changes in their lives. One of the worst was a little girl who had been abused. She told me that I was the only person to ever care about her. Because of what I said to her, [she said] she was going to pursue comics and go to college. This hit way too close to home.
When I was little I had given up on my art. I had been in a bad situation and everyone around me kept telling me that comics were dumb. Julie Bell took the time to sit with me and look over my portfolio. She told me that I should keep making art. Because of that conversation, I kept making art.
Art and the geek community has been there for me for my entire life. It inspired me to pay my way through college and create a much better life for myself today. Intervention is my way of giving back to the community that was there for me.
It became obvious that I was now meeting people who reminded me of myself years ago. It was right there in 2004 that Harknell and I decided that we had to make a convention to give back to the community that helped us so much. In 2010, we were finally able to take the leap.
MC: So you've got ties to New York and New Jersey — how … did you guys decide on Rockville as the site to set your convention? What made it appeal?
OH: New York is very expensive, and New Jersey is pretty tough for small businesses. Most of the people whom I knew I could trust to staff Intervention lived in the Maryland/Virginia area. Also, my fan base for my webcomic is more concentrated [here] because of the number of conventions in [the] area who would invite me as a guest speaker.
MC: How would you size up D.C., and this part of Maryland, as communities for comic creators and other artists? Receptive? Passionate? A scene needing of much nourishment?
OH: I think this area has a lot of great creators and some good public transportation options that make it easier for people who are not local to come in to events. People are very social and mobile.
MC: The DIY ethos really seems to drive this event. Can you speak [more] to your passion for helping creators and other artists follow and develop their indie dreams?
OH: When I was younger, there used to be programs dedicated to art that were low-cost. It wasn't as hard to get education and exist in a community. Today, a lot of these programs are the first to go when money is tight. The government certainly doesn't fund as much in the arts as they used to. The arts have really suffered. I think that the only way it's ever going to come back is if private businesses bring it back. So we brought it back.
MC: Any guests this year whom you were especially thrilled to get?
OH: Ex-Disney animator and animation podcaster Raul Aguirre Jr., Mark Frauenfelder of MAKE Magazine and Boing Boing, Pete Abrams of Sluggy Freelance, Mookie and Garth Graham of Star Power , Greg Benge and PJ Simmers of Slackjaw Comic , Paul Sabourin of Paul and Storm.
MC: Can you share a little bit about [how you] and James work together?
OH: James is the Roy Disney to my Walt Disney. He's the quiet guy who handles the left-brain activities that I don't have the time to do. He's also the author of several Wordpress plugins to help creators get their work out, which he hosts at awsom,org. He's from Lakewood, N.J., and currently works as an IT Manager at Rutgers University.
He's not an artist, but he drew a stick figure once when I was sick and couldn't make a comic on that day.