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Linda Mah
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KPS Grads in Action: Simon Kalil Borst

Artist Known for Nonfiction Comics, Dense Style

Simon Kalil Borst was that kid … the one who was always doodling.

Those doodles have turned into a career in graphic design and making a name for himself with several visible comics projects in Kalamazoo.

Borst, who graduated from Loy Norrix High School in 2007, is the talent behind “The Kalamazoo Coloring Book,” which was commissioned by and is sold at Bookbug book store. He also created a series of graphic promotions for the City of Kalamazoo, which included a holiday shopping bag several years ago; a reelection campaign card for Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell, which was later turned into a poster fundraiser for Pretty Lake Vacation Camp; and several long-form comics for Second Wave Media, including one on the Kalamazoo Promise.

Among the many teachers he had in Kalamazoo Public Schools, three stand out as being particularly influential in his life. They are his three art teachers from Loy Norrix: Nancy Mollhagen, Sue Lyons, and Cindy VanLieu.

“I identified Simon when he was a freshman as an exciting emerging artist,” Van Lieu said. “I spoke to his parents and we made sure he got as many art classes as he needed. Later I taught him in advanced studio art for three years. He went on to the Stamps School of Art at University of Michigan (where he earned his bachelor of fine arts in 2011), where he was again recognized for his outstanding creativity.”

Borst attended Lincoln International Studies School and Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts (when it as still called South Junior High). He grew up in the Oakwood neighborhood, where his parents Ruth and John Borst still live. His brother Julian Borst recently competed in the Special Olympics and is slated to run in the Boston Marathon in the spring.

Simon Borst talked to Excelsior about his career thus far.

Excelsior: How did you get into drawing comics?

Borst: I was drawing since I was a little kid, then I took a really strong interest in comics at the same time I was learning to read. I never grew out of that. I like how expressive they can be, and the idea of combining words and pictures is something with infinite potential. I like this idea of taking everything that visual art can be and combining it with everything that writing is, both of which are immense. It’s really intriguing to me.

Excelsior: What were some of your early comics like?

Borst: When I was in high school, I was in Miss Lyons, two cartoon classes. I drew two comics. One was a secret agent, “Agent 2165” or something like that. It was kind of influenced by the video games I was playing at the time and the character of Jason Bourne from “The Bourne Identity.” The other one was a western. At the time, I don’t know that I ever voiced this, but the western was like a political allegory. The plot was about how these townspeople were being tricked by the propaganda of the mayor of the town. The mayor was actually this criminal who had escaped from another town, but he’d been elected and was now spreading public lies to feed his agenda.

Excelsior: What were some of your main influences?

Borst: Some of the early stuff I was reading included Calvin and Hobbes and early Marvel comics like from the 1960s and 70s. The nonfiction stuff comes from a general community interest and works that I had read in college by artists like Joe Sacco and Chris Ware.

Excelsior: Can you tell us a little more about your interest in nonfiction comics?

Borst: Before and after doing the coloring book, I was doing a lot of nonfiction and journalistic comics. I worked at the People’s Food Co-op for five years (after college), and pretty early on they let me do comics for their quarterly newsletter, the Co-op Scoop. I’d do these one-page comics that were profiles of farmers or other partnerships or people we wanted to highlight in the community. We did a number of longer comics and that caught the attention of Kathy Jennings at Second Wave Media. She commissioned me for some longer-form comics. I ended up doing four articles for Second Wave, the most notable of which was one on the Kalamazoo Promise. I got a grant from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo to continue doing that work. As a result of that, I made two more comics. One was a personal story about working on a farm, and the other was about biking in Kalamazoo, which I did shortly after the crash that killed the five cyclists.

Excelsior: How would you describe your visual style?

Borst: I’ve always enjoyed detail and seeing how much you can pack on a page. My preferred style now is pretty dense and has a lot of cross-hatching and shading. I went to art school after high school and had a lot of formal training there, but I’m still drawing with an ink pen. Lately, I’ve been drawing big, oversized portraits of people that I know. I’m using eight different photographs of a single person, and collectively picking out parts that I like. It’s not quite Picasso-esque, but I like when you can amplify the features of someone. Again, I’m using that same ink pen that I use for comics.

Excelsior: What are you focusing on now?

Borst: I’m in my third year working as a full-time graphic designer. My two main clients are Brakeman Design and Boiling Pot Media. For Boiling Pot, I’m a web designer. I also take commission jobs. I haven’t done any comics in a little while, but I’m gearing up to start some of that work again. I think about comics all of the time. I think it’s inevitable that I’ll get back into it at some point in time.

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