Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lucy Knisley: Food and Cats and Comics

Laughing out loud is such a great feeling. One of the best, maybe. Combine the pureness of feeling entertained with an out-of-control sense of breathlessness, and you get something literature professors would call "euphoria." But man do labels smother a feeling, sometimes; it's so much better to just feel the thing (and I could rant for hours about people who say, actually say "LOL").

Artist Lucy Knisley (pronounced "Nigh-Zlee) has made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion, and this, combined with her unique (there's a lable, whoops) art style, created a fan in me since I read the comic about her adventures on Vicodin.

Along with being awesome enough to do this interview, Lucy illustrated the very first title card for this blog, based around the concept of Hideous Energy! Thanks again, Lucy!

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Hideous Energy: Do You remember when you first thought, "I want to work in comics," and if so, what was the impetus behind the thought?

Lucy Knisley: "My mom is an artist and my dad is a literature and writing professor. When I was a kid and they were divorcing, I got really into reading comics, I think due partly to the merging of the written word and image in comics that allowed me to feel connected to both of my parents at once. I loved writing and drawing, and didn't want to sacrifice either endeavor to the other, so comics became my perfect solution, but still I didn't think of it as an aspiration, but more of a hobby. Through most of my life I'd stubbornly thought that I'd still have to choose either writing or drawing as "a profession." The thought of "Working in comics" didn't really occur to me until I was in my freshman year at art school, where I'd gone to study painting. I realized that painting didn't fulfill me as much as did the comics I'd been drawing since childhood, that I'd begun to absently publish in the school newspaper. They were spotted by then senior student, Hope Larson, who contacted me to connect with another girl comic artist at the school. It was her support and introduction to the world of "working" as a comic artist that really cemented the idea in my head."

HE: So was your childhood and adolescence filled with comics (both drawn and read)?

LK: "Oh yes. I was lucky enough that my parents encouraged it. I had every Tintin and Asterix and Calvin and Hobbes book I could lay hands on, and a stack of banker's boxes of Archies that would insulate my apartment. At my mom's house in the country, we had a pond, and I would float myself out into the middle on a raft with a box of comics, so I could read them undisturbed until it got too dark to see. As a kid, I didn't get carsick if I read, so I had a headlamp that allowed me to read comics in the backseat when my parents drove me the 2 hours between Dad's house in Manhattan and Mom's in upstate New York."

HE: I'm happy I'm not the only person who wore a headlamp. I think reading in situations like that has a different effect. Almost like you feel even more involved in the work; more alone, somehow.

LK: "Definitely! To be ensconced in your little cone of light, the only illuminated object: a page of panels -- it probably does something terribly permanent to our brains."

HE: What (or whom) within comics would you say was the biggest influence on you creatively, either in leading to making comics for a living, or stylistically?

LK: "I went to four different high schools in three years. It was a bit of a rough time for me. I skipped from various prep and public schools, tried boarding, and ended up at a tiny little progressive school that focused on the arts. We would pick majors, essentially, and spend most of the week on what we chose as a core study. It was the first time I'd been encouraged, let alone allowed, to draw comics or paint or screenprint or take photos as a classtime activity. The art teacher, Wayne, allowed me and my soft, squinting brethren to shelter in the basement art room, away from the PE or Physics classes, and make art. He got me focusing on art, why I made it and how and later, even with my spotty high school transcript, he helped me get into a great art school. There, I met Hope Larson, who I credit for introducing me to the world of professional independent comic artistry. And my parents, who didn't totally approve of Archie comics but still bought them for me anyway, were important factors in getting me into it. Early loves, like Maira Kalman's work or William Steig's or Herge's built the foundation, but it wouldn't have occurred to me if I hadn't had such great people pointing the way."

HE: Do you remember what they objected to, regarding the Archies? Also, were those the only comics they begrudgingly bought for you?

LK: "I remember exactly -- My dad considered them to be non-literature, poorly written with repetitive gags. My mother thought they were sexist -- the whole Archie/Betty/Veronica thing. They were right, in a way, about both those elements, but because I loved the comic I had to look at the work critically and seek out reasons to defend my love of them to my parents. I'd learn a new word and rush to my dad to tell him that I picked it up from a story about Archie's "dilapidated" jalopy. Or Betty and Veronica would toss the hapless Archie into a fountain, and I'd run to tell my mother about how they banded together in the spirit of girl solidarity. If Mom and Dad hadn't been at least slightly against the comics, I may never have learned to look at comics past the surface. The rest -- the Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or For Worse they sort of indulged with shrugs, but Archies were the only ones they seemed to actively dislike.

HE: Did your love of comics lead you directly to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)?

LK: "Absolutely not. SAIC doesn't really have a comics program, though they're building one now. I went for painting and drawing, and didn't find my way to comics until halfway through my first year there. I'm glad I went. They have an amazing writing and art criticism program, where I took a lot of my classes, and I think that was important for me in shaping my comics. I'd always loved writing, but I'd chafed in high school in confining english classes. It was a great chance to explore writing outside of a writing-focused program, but still get a great education. The foundations of design, color, materials and the enormous focus on drawing-from-observation in the painting and drawing department of the school helped out with the visual side of things, from a perspective that some comic artists don't get, as they learn comics from comics, rather than from the background of fine arts. I think it gives my work a new perspective."

HE: Were there any classes at the Art Institute that felt stifling? I've experienced classes that are dedicated to the arts, yet somehow make them seem stodgy or boring, and I always end up avoiding the work somehow.

LK: Oh yeah! When I got to art school, I'd already spent two years in an intensive arts program in high school, so the baby-steps of foundation year really pissed me off. It was the same at CCS, where I'd had all the art school foundations for the past four years-- art writing and life drawing and art history-- and I felt irritated that I had to sit in classes with the same material, in order to get everyone at CCS up to the same level. It wasn't the fault of the classes, just the result of my being a bit of a know-it-all, I think. It's good to be bored, sometimes, because it lets you be a rebel and push yourself to prove that you can do better than what they're forcing you into. I didn't feel that way in high school, unfortunately, where I thought that boredom in class meant that I didn't have to do the work when I didn't feel like it."

HE: You obtained your Masters of Fine Arts in June of 2009 from the Center for Cartoon Studies. What was your master's thesis?

LK: "My master's thesis was a self-published collection of my journal comics, compiled throughout the year (Pretty Little Book), along with a handful of minis about my experiences putting out French Milk with a major publisher, and a collection of small illustration and comics projects I'd completed during my thesis year. Most students put out graphic novels or a collection of issues of a comic serial. I'd originally intended to complete [my current project] "Relish" as my thesis, but it turned out to be a project a little longer in the development. Classes at CCS focused on a broad range of comics, writing, comics history, and art. Our instructors pointed us towards what interested them, so I think that helped the variety. From Steve Bissette, we'd read great Jack Kirby stuff, Stan Lee and Joe Schuster books. Jason Lutes seemed to prefer slightly more modern stuff, like Seth and Nick Bertozzi and Spiegelman. It depended on the focus of the class (Bissette taught Comics HIstory, Lutes tought Drawing Comics), but we were constantly inundated with more comics material than we could keep up with! And for a class of students obsessed with comics, that's saying a lot. We also read a lot of prose, nonfiction and even some poetry in our writing classes, where we'd discuss the transition of writing for comics vs. writing for straight text. All in all, the school had more of an emphasis on independent comics, encouraging us to make zines and minis to sell at indie conventions, and filling our inboxes with hard-to-find gems from the alternative comics industry. Cool stuff."

HE: What types of prose were assigned? Also, what do you read for enjoyment?

LK: "A lot of classic American Lit stuff, short stories from a big collection -- the kind of thing you have in most first-year college writing classes. We'd do essays, writeups for the reading assignments, and translation of short stories into comic scripts. Most of the time, Sarah, our teacher, let us read what interested us, and discuss it or write about it. I'm a terrible re-reader. I'd rather re-read an old favorite than try something new, most days (drives my dad CRAZY). So I'd bring in "The Catcher in the Rye," which I keep by my bed and read a few pages every night (finishing and flipping back to the beginning again, like a crazy person), or Oscar Wilde or David Sedaris. I love C.D. Payne, the author of "Youth In Revolt," and Mark Helprin ("Winter's Tale") and Chuck Palahniuk (everything except his most recent two) and Michael Cunningham and Stephen Fry. Huh -- interesting that most of my prose preferences are by and about men or boys. I guess I like to get in their heads! I also adore trashy books of almost any kind, as long as I can justify them with cheapness or necessity (like at an airport bookstore, with no reading for the flight ahead). I've re-read this hilarious and great fantasy series by Robin Hobb (The Royal Assassin Series) about a hundred times since I was 12. And I love, of course, Margaret Atwood. She fuels my nightmares completely with her books-- likely because I'm pretty gullible when it comes to post-apocalypse stories (and most things)."

HE: What types of music do you listen to?

LK: "Well, I used to think that what I liked was so wide-ranging that it couldn't be summed up neatly to people who asked, until the TV show Glee, which combines radio pop hits, broadway musical numbers, the occasional indie favorite, and classic rock stuff that I love. If it was on that show, it's on my iTunes. It's become my litmus for whether I'm going to like something. Truthfully, though, I'm easy to please. I stumble upon embarrassing pop songs on the radio at the gym, and torture my friends with these songs until they wrestle me into headphones. I hear something on a commercial and have to have it. I think that when it comes to music, I'm really sensitive to repetition and sales, so I end up being this collector of the collective consciousness. It's kinda ridiculous, but if I'm going to have this profession where I'm ruining my back making cartoons for grownups, with fiddly little inks and papers, I get to be a teenybopper radio junkie in my musical life!"

HE: Do you have interest in mainstream, "big two," published books? Or even books published by places like Dark Horse or Image?

LK: "Not really, though it's not like I hate them. Before all was eclipsed by Terry Moore's "Strangers in Paradise," I read "Lucifer," from DC/Vertigo, religiously (no pun). But the one time I ever got really into a traditional superhero-type series was when I was 12 or so and bought and read the entire "Harbinger" series, from Valiant, so I can't even claim that I read superhero comics from "The big two." It was a lot like X-Men, maybe a little darker. I think I liked the chubby girl character (Zeppelin. No comment.) -- you didn't see a lot of chubby superhero girls.

HE: Your journal/travel comic "French Milk" was published in 2008, detailing a trip to France with your mother; was it always in your head that what you wrote/drew would be published eventually? Were there any thoughts to maybe censor yourself?

LK: "When I wrote French Milk, I'd only ever made mini-comics and internet pieces-- nothing that long-form. It was a time in my life when I recognized that things were shifting and changing for me. I set out to chronicle the trip because I sensed that it would be an important event in my life, during a time I wanted to remember. I had no real idea that it would eventually be published. As a result, it's pretty unedited. I don't skimp on whining or self-pity, I don't try to make myself look good-- it's a straight up journal. When I got home, I realized that there was a story there, something that could be shared with readers who might empathize with me, but I didn't really know how to go about getting it to people. It was too long to take to Kinkos, and I didn't think it was something that would be easily read online, so I turned to self-publishing, then later, it was picked up by a publisher. It was cleaned up a bit when it was big-time published, the incorrect french was fixed, and the parts where my handwriting got a little illegible, but almost nothing was removed from the final manuscript."

HE: You post regular comics on your website, for free; do you think a strong digital presence is important in today's publishing climate?
LK: "I suppose it helps for creators to have a digital presence, but I post free comics because I'm one of those people who makes things impulsively. I'm plodding through my book, and it's hard work -- a long road ahead. I need to be able to make work that I can finish in a few hours and share with readers, in order to remind me of why I make comics at all. If it's just me, scribbling away in vacuum, I'd never get anything done, oppressed by my own inability to see why anyone would want to read this stuff, nor to know how I might feel good once it's all finished, a million gazillion years from now. It helps, too, to know that I'm not being forgotten by people who have connected to my work. With regular posts, they can be reminded of my presence, and can see my development and be familiar with me and my work. I make comics so I can reach out and connect to people, and with a two-year break in that connection while I work on a book, it's harder to maintain."

HE: Do you think digital comics will eventually render print comics obsolete?

LK: "No. Print comics are too portable, friendly, beautiful and necessary in the interchange and reading of independent comics. I hope never to have to choose, of course -- digital comics have allowed me to read WAY more comics than I would ever have been able without the digital format, so it's impossible for me to be afraid or upset by them and what they mean to print comics. Print comics remain beloved items on my shelf, but as a reader and not a collector, the more comics I get to read, the better, no matter how they're getting to me. What I hope is that more artists will build up their work in digital format before transitioning to print, sparing the paper from very rough, five-page undeveloped mini-comics, and only going to print with work that is finished and complete. I love a beautiful, well-written comic in print form, but it makes me nervous to see giant stacks of paper comics depicting someone's rough sketches or other work that might be better received on a blog or website. What I hope the digital predominance will do to print comics is improve their standards, reserving print for finished work and allowing earlier, rougher work to be viewed digitally, so as to make it easier to examine, critique and improve through the viewer's input, getting it up to a higher standard for print."

HE: You're sort of an "indy" artist, your comics focusing on your life, or "slice of life" moments. What comics do you read regularly, if any?

LK: "I feel like I read a lot more prose than comics, but that's probably because I tend to read a lot of comics by keeping up with comics work by my colleagues and friends, and it doesn't feel as much like consumerism as it is friendship and voyeurism! I'll read anything by Jess Fink, Erika Moen, Hope Larson, Maris Wicks and Ming Doyle, all great pals for years who's work I adore. Once a week, I try to get together with a group of Chicago comic artist pals, like Jeremy Tinder, Grant Reynolds, Laura Park, Corinne Mucha and Bernie McGovern, where we can exchange work and doodle together, so I get to read their wonderful work as they make it. Faves like Lynda Barry, Kate Williamson and Maira Kalman are always on my radar, and I'll scoop up anything they do or touch. Hm, I seem to have a pretty lady-heavy reading list! And they say there are no women in comics."

HE: I previously posted on here about women in comics, but my list was nowhere near as long as yours. Do you still see it as a battle for female creators, or would you say it's nearing equilibrium between the sexes now?

LK: "I hope I'll never see it as a battle! It's a hard line to trod, because girls seem to make GREAT comics, but the ones I love are great without benefit of being "by women." It's not as if I like them because they're by women artists, it's just that I think these women are making better comics than most other artists. Maybe they're doing so out of adversity -- some will to prove themselves in the industry -- but I think it just has more to do with having great voices, and wonderful stories to tell. I think current comics readers are also recognizing those voices as being great, women or men, and responding in kind. What I think is happening is that the comics world is expanding to include so much great stuff, and it's making it all bigger and better. For example: At CCS, I was one of four women in my class of fifteen, but at art school, it was about 60% women to 40% men, and I know girls like Hope Larson and Lilli Carre who emerged from that school into the comics world and totally rocked it from new perspectives from the traditional "comics are this" conventions."

HE: Currently you're working on your next book, "Relish." What exactly is it about?

LK: Relish is a collection of stories about growing up, framed in the context of food -- because that's what matters to me and to my family. We have more family photographs of food than pictures of actual people. My mother is a professional chef and caterer, and most of her side of the family is involved in food in one way or another. I have all these stories from being a kid and helping my mom cater crazy events, or working for her at the farmer's market where we sold local artisanal cheeses, or her teaching me how to make amazing meals from food grown in her garden. Interspersed with family recipes and made-up ones, funny stories about traveling mishaps and edible atrocities, it's mainly a collection of autobiographical stories with an emphasis on food, nourishment, and the connection between eating and memory. It's still got a long way to go -- it'll be close to 200 pages, in full color (First Second is determined to make this a really gorgeous book -- I am beyond thrilled to work with them). The pages are looking good -- it's hard not to share them as they're drawn, but it'll be interesting to see how people receive such a massive pile of my work, when it's eventually finished. Until then, it lets me experiment with recipes, draw pictures of food (my favorite!), and get distracted drawing journal comics to post online."

HE: So will it be a sort of illustrated cookbook? I know you posted an online pickle-recipe-comic; can we expect content such as this in "Relish?"

LK: "It'll be a collection of short drawn stories, sprinkled with recipes -- Kind of like chef David Leibowitz's "The Sweet Life in Paris," which I recently read and loved -- if you're into paris and food, I highly recommend it. He tells stories about living in France, then follows each story up with recipes that somehow reflect the story you just read. It's not a strict cookbook, just a little something extra for people who love to read about food. The recipes in Relish are part of the stories, rather than an itemized list you'd find in a cookbook. If you've seen my comic recipes online, it'll be a lot like that -- informal and meandering. You could make the stuff I describe, according to the book, but it's more about reading the words and thinking about the food, because I've found that reading recipes can add to the sensory experience of reading a book, especially one about food."

HE: Your LiveJournal account is loaded with pictures of your cat, Linney. Have you ever thought of doing a zine, minicomic, or book about her?

LK: "It's hard not to think about making more comics about Linney when her butt is covering the page I'm trying to draw. She's all up in my face! I joke around that to please my readers, I have but to draw a picture of my cat, a comic about Twilight, or a comic about Harry Potter (which I've done, all, and they were totally fun). Linney's got such a personality, she practically writes her own stories. I have Jeffrey Brown's cat comic in a place of honor on my shelves, and I asked him about it once when he and I were at a book launch in Chicago. I think the success of that book was a little bewildering -- his personal stories and painstaking journals eclipsed by six panels about a cat finding its way out of a bag. I worry that making a long-form Linney book would be too much like what Jeffrey's already done with his cat book, and I'd get jealous of the attention Linney'd get. But man, it would be so fuuuun."

Thanks again to Lucy for the interview and the picture! Check out her website, her book "French Milk," and keep your eyes open for "Relish."

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