Alumni Stories – Kara Ballenger | South Hills School of Business & Technology
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Alumni Stories – Kara Ballenger

This photo shows South Hills Alumna Kara Ballenger and Mads Cherluck

South Hills alumna Kara Ballenger (left) and Mads Cherluck have co-authored and co-illustrated a graphic novel. Fire Sphere Volume I – The Fire Starter debuted in 2018. Volume II is set to come out in 2019.

“The teachers were always willing to take time to just sit down with you and give you individual attention, even after-hours. They always seemed so happy to help you, and they wanted you to succeed.”

About Kara

Q: Why did you choose South Hills and the Graphic Arts program?

Kara Ballenger: I’d been interested in art and design since childhood, and I wanted to find a way to take my drawing and fine art skills and turn them into a career as a graphic designer. I started my post-secondary education at another school, and that didn’t work for me for a variety of reasons. My mom encouraged me to take a look at South Hills because she was familiar with the school and many of the instructors and it ended up being a good match for me.

Q: Talk about your experience at South Hills.

Kara: I appreciate the teachers for giving me all this knowledge and the skills to do what I'm doing now in my career. Because without them, I wouldn't have learned Adobe Photoshop®, InDesign®, and Illustrator® in such a short amount of time. The teachers were always willing to take time to just sit down with you and give you individual attention, even after-hours. They always seemed so happy to help you, and they wanted you to succeed. The teachers also wanted you to keep getting better, so they gave you critiques to help you understand where you could improve.

Q: All of the Specialized Associate Degree Programs at South Hills include internships. Where did you do your South Hills internship and what kinds of things did you do as an intern?

Kara: I did my internship at QWiKRock, a radio station in State College, Magnum Broadcasting. I worked on their website, created their logo and other logos for special events. I designed some t-shirts, created posters for events and a couple of parades. I also did some graphic design for other promotional materials and got to interact with their on-air DJs, and that was fun.

Q: What happened with your career after you graduated from South Hills?

Kara: I started working at Penn State in the Pattee and Paterno Library in the Digitization and Preservation Department, and I developed my photo editing skills by touching up special collections. The work was really fun. I love taking an old scratched and cracked photo and bringing it back to life. One of my favorite things was restoring a drawing of St. Mary's Coal Mine that had a lot of water damage. I used Photoshop® to restore the photo and also did some hand-drawing to fill in part of the image that was missing. In the end, the photo looked like there was never any damage. I love it when they do those, it’s really fun, and it gives me a sense of accomplishment. Nobody realizes how much effort goes into the process.

I also designed special exhibits including creating large format display posters, including an exhibit that featured documents that Abraham Lincoln signed. I digitized books and helped to preserve and restore many documents. I designed holiday cards for the department and did a lot of document scanning and formatting.

I was at the library position for several years, and I built up a portfolio that included many examples of my work which helped me land my current position at Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant. I work in the print room and work with blueprint drawings of the different buildings on campus. I have converted printed or physical blueprints to electronic format. My South Hills skills have come in handy because sometimes the blueprints need to be updated using AutoCAD or Photoshop. I ended up being the department’s Photoshop expert and training others how to use it to make updates to drawings. I also use document cameras and scanners in my job.

Q: How have your South Hills skills helped you as an author and illustrator?

Kara: I’ve used the graphic design and digital painting skills from South Hills in many ways. I designed the cover for Volume I of my book series, Fire Sphere and all of the promotional materials like business cards, t-shirts, mugs, and promotional items. All of the artwork in the book is made using Photoshop and Illustrator. Also, we travel and do shows like Comic Conventions. I’ve done most of the design work for the tradeshow booth and have collaborated on all the illustrations inside the book.

Alumni Stories – Kara Ballenger

About the Book Series

  • Target audience is aged 16–35, all genders.
  • The stories are set in mythological realms, and the themes woven throughout the books include: overcoming life’s struggles; how to be forgiving, kind, and open; the philosophy of taking the “high road;” and battling evil forces.
  • Volume I – The Fire Starter debuted in 2018, and Volume II is set to come out in 2019.
  • Q: Discuss how the book series got started.

    Kara: I've always sketched and drawn, ever since I was little. So, after watching TV shows and specifically cartoons and movies, I was always drawing and creating my own characters. When I transferred schools and started going to a different middle school, I decided to create a story with characters loosely based on my new friends and my main character Gabby (Gabrielle) was based in part on me. I’d always thought of myself as a wimp, and I was not as strong as I wanted to be, but I’ve always been drawn to strong characters - the ones that are totally opposite from me. Gabby is a strong character, and she has really special powers, but she also has some of my traits.

    At that point in my life, I had drawing ability, but I was young, and I just needed to expand my skills. I could picture things in my head; however, I wasn’t always able to translate those ideas into drawings. I started out using Crayola markers and lined paper in composition books, and that’s how I started laying out my early book pages and panels.

    Q: Did your early story ideas all come from the challenges of being in middle school?

    Kara: They did for a while, but the characters all had unique powers, too, based on elements like fire and water and other aspects like shadow and light. And Specter, the main villain, he is based on many bad things that have happened in the past. While in high school, I started to get a better idea of a storyline and I began to develop stories based on a world with mythological characters, creatures, and deities. As I grew up, the main character, Gabby, did too and many of the storylines I wrote during that part of my life were set in high school and college.

  • Illustrations from Fire Sphere Volume I – The Fire Starter
  • Illustrations from Fire Sphere Volume I – The Fire Starter
  • Illustrations from Fire Sphere Volume I – The Fire Starter
  • Illustrations from Fire Sphere Volume I – The Fire Starter
  • Illustrations from Fire Sphere Volume I – The Fire Starter
  • Illustrations from Fire Sphere Volume I – The Fire Starter

About the Collaboration

Q: Describe how your co-author, Mads Cherluck, came into the picture.

Kara: I shared some of my artwork with other artists on social media and eventually shared some of my David Bowie sketches with fellow Bowie-fan, artist, writer, and freelance website designer, Mads Cherluck. We immediately noticed how similar our artistic styles were and we hit it off because we had a lot of common interests. Eventually, we arranged to meet in New York when I was attending a Comic-Con. We found that our skills complemented one another and when I shared my ideas about my book project, we decided to become partners.

We started out using Post-its and stick figures and mapped out the story. We wrote content, developed characters, and began rough-sketching the artwork. We conducted extensive research related to the cultures, history, religions, and mythology included in the book. For example, we included elements from Norse, Celtic, African, Native American, and Egyptian cultures and mythology. We read all the books we could get our hands on so we could reflect things accurately and not offend anyone. I even consulted with friends and coworkers who were part of the Hindu and Muslim cultures to ensure the content was right. For example, if we include a symbol in a drawing, we want to truly understand the meaning behind the symbol and not just use it as a design element. We want to be culturally-sensitive and inclusive in all that we do.

We shared the writing, editing, and design work, passing pieces back and forth between us until we liked the outcome. I typically sketch out the concept drawings, then do the line drawings, and then Mads does the flat coloring. We got advice from editors, solicited feedback from friends and family, and continued working our “day jobs” the entire time. Mads added, “That's the hardest question to answer when we're at Comic Cons, when people ask, "Who did what?" And we reply that we both are involved with every page.”

Alumni Stories – Kara Ballenger

About the Characters

Q: The book includes a fascinating and diverse cast of characters each with unique personalities and their own strengths and flaws. Some of them have special powers, and many have personal challenges to overcome. Talk about character development and what you want readers to know about them.

Kara: One of our main goals for the entire series was to normalize a lot of things that are not seen as normal. We’re hoping every single person in any minority finds a character they can connect with and that makes them feel less alone than they are right now. It can be very isolating to be in any kind of minority.

Mads Cherluck: We put the characters in scenes and situations that are sometimes uncomfortable, and that force them to choose how they’re going to respond. For example when dealing with difficult people, sometimes they have to determine, “Am I going to be BETTER THAN those people (who are behaving badly) and take the high road or will I decide to be LIKE those people?” We try to show things like "It pays to be kind" (because it does) and sometimes we have to deal with difficult topics, like suicide, because they are part of life.

Editor’s Note: As is the case with many graphic novels, the books include mature themes and sensitive topics that could be “trigger” issues and may not be appropriate for children and young teens.

Alumni Stories – Kara Ballenger

Promoting the Book

Q: Describe how you promoted your book since it’s release in 2018.

Kara: First of all, Fire Sphere is self-published on and it’s available on Amazon. We promoted a lot at Comic-Conventions. We had a booth with a table and postcards, buttons, and other merchandise. We put pictures of the characters out on the table. We have our banners and signs. We started out at Steel City Con, one of Pennsylvania’s largest Comic Conventions, and added other conventions like the Lehigh Valley Comic Convention and SciFi Valley Con to our circuit. We definitely have a small fan base now. We were also excited when Rob Paulsen, a voice actor from the 90s cartoons, “Pinky and the Brain” and “Animaniacs,” picked up a copy of our book at one of the conventions. And…Rob is friends with filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, so we’re hoping Rob shares his copy with him. ☺

Mads: At the conventions, we need to stand out, so I’ve dressed as one of the characters to attract attention to the booth. People would just come up to me and ask, “What's this all about?" And that's when we have our opportunity to say "I'm glad you asked!" When you’re promoting a book series, you have to become fearless and just put it all out there. You don’t want to be too nervous and allow fear to hold you back.

Kara: And of course, we have a website ( that includes lots of artwork from the book, a promotional video, and a detailed description of the characters. We’ve advertised on Instagram and Facebook and stuff. We have sold the books locally at places like Webster’s Bookstore and Café in State College and Jake’s Cards and Games Shop in Bellefonte. We’ve donated a copy to the Centre County Library, too, and participated in their Novel-Con event. Some of the artwork from the book appears in the South Hills virtual art gallery, the Kari Schlegel Memorial Gallery, too. We’re working on the next book in the Fire Sphere series and will start promoting that in 2019.

Alumni Stories – Kara Ballenger



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