Liana Finck's cartoons appear regularly in The New Yorker. Her first graphic novel, A Bintel Brief, was published by Ecco Press in 2014. She posts cartoons on Instagram @lianafinck .
Amy Kurzweil’s graphic memoir Flying Couch (Catapult/Black Balloon 2016) debuted this month. Her cartoons appear in the The New Yorker and other places, and her short stories have been published in The Toast, Washington Square Review, Shenandoah and elsewhere. She teaches writing and comics at Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology.
MariNaomi has been making comics since the nineties, and has so far penned the graphic memoirs Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume Ages 0 to 22, Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories, Turning Japanese , and I Thought YOU Hated ME. When she's not making comics, essays and videos, she and her husband manage the Cartoonists of Color and Queer Cartoonists databases.
(The following roundtable discussion was conducted via email and edited for clarity and length.)
Hi Mari, Amy, Liana! Thank you all so much for agreeing to be part of this conversation about comics and graphic memoir and novels. How did each of you end up choosing this particular storytelling format, and what do you like best about it?
Liana Finck: I’ve been drawing since I was a baby. I didn’t know any other kids who were good at drawing growing up, so while I always knew I’d like to spend my adulthood drawing, I didn’t know how, specifically. I had always loved kids’ books (Maira Kalman, Maurice Sendak, William Steig) and fell in love with The New Yorker at fourteen or so (my favorite artists were Roz Chast, Saul Steinberg, and Art Spiegelman), and I met and kind of dated an indie comics nerd when I was fifteen who turned me onto Dan Clowes before he dumped me for an unspeakably weird reason. I decided to go to art school at Cooper Union because it was (WAS) free. I brought in a portfolio of cartoons and comics, and the Portfolio Day professor wouldn’t even look at it—she said, “We only take FINE art.” So I became a fine artist.
When I realized I wasn’t cut out for craft- and scheme-heavy conceptual art and couldn’t become a two-hundred-year-old French man, I went back to comics. It's been a tortuous path. I find most comics too literal; my mind doesn’t work that way. It just occurred to me that I dislike looking at words and pictures at the same time the same way I dislike looking at people’s faces while listening to them talk. I’m a better gag cartoonist than comics artist. But it’s fun and meaningful to have something to learn.
Amy Kurzweil: The first thing I want to say is that I love Liana’s analogy: Processing words and images together is like looking at a person’s face while listening to them speak. Amazing! This makes me think about how reading comics is like living in the world; there are multiple modes of processing required of us. There’s so much information being communicated in a person’s face when they speak. But sometimes the person’s face communicates information that, juxtaposed with what they are saying, changes the meaning. Like when my mom and I say “Hate you” instead of “Love you,” there’s a certain facial expression that goes with the words that makes “Hate you” = “Love you.” I guess I’ve always liked modes of communication that are less direct than they appear. This is at the heart of what I love about comics, something I noticed most dramatically in books like Fun Home : Narrative and image don’t repeat each other, but they work together to deliver a new message.
So I came to writing graphic memoir through reading graphic memoir. I did not draw very “well” as a younger person, and most of my doodles happened in margins. I’m envious of people like Liana who seem to think through image-making; I still feel like I think and plan in words. I studied Creative Writing in undergrad and got my MFA in Fiction Writing. I’ve always loved comics, but writing (with words) was always the thing I did and thought I’d do. After I read Maus in college, I was inspired to write/draw a very short comic about my grandmother, also a survivor. The comic inspired a longer thesis project, which eventually became my book, and it was harder than I thought it would be, but I learned two things about drawing that have more or less wedded me to this amazing form (for now):
1. Drawing, being quite a physical act (you use your whole arm), communicates emotions more directly than words. Likewise, drawing often becomes a kind of empathetic act. When I draw a person frowning, I can ’ t not frown. For my book, an attempt to understand my grandmother’s history, this kind of physical empathy seemed apt.
2. Drawing is like handwriting; everybody has their own style, and this style is like a person’s own unique aesthetic voice. If you draw enough, your unique style will naturally refine itself. (I think they say it takes one thousand pages or something. But don’t quote me, I didn't go to art school.)
MariNaomi: When I was a kid, I was convinced that I’d grow up to be a novelist. I had a tremendous curiosity about other people, how they communicate and live their lives, how they behave in relationships and why they make the choices they do. Also, I’m obsessed with stories and wordplay, so being a writer seemed like an obvious career goal to me.
When I was barely an adult, I completed some novels, and tried getting into the publishing world. But it was so disparaging! My second book got into the hands of a publisher who basically told me, “Why would anyone ever want to read something like this? It’s too dark.” That was when I discovered that I have a thin skin for rejection, and I pretty much gave up on my dream of being a novelist. Around that time, I started doing other things, including making comics. (Looking back on it now, it’s obvious that I needed to channel my creative energy elsewhere, somewhere that wasn’t tainted with broken dreams, but at the time it seemed unrelated.) I’d always enjoyed making art, although I wouldn’t say drawing came naturally to me, and I’d recently come across the work of cartoonists like Mary Fleener and Ariel Bordeaux—these strong, punk women telling their stories in comics form. I still wanted to tell stories, and this was a fun new medium. And I got to tell my own stories, which was something that never occurred to me to do in prose.
From I Thought YOU Hated ME, by MariNaomi (Retrofit Comics, 2016).
Over the years I’ve enjoyed many creative mediums, sometimes in professional capacities, sometimes just for fun: painting, collage, writing (fiction, essays, video games, screenplays), photography, film making (acting, directing, editing), and on and on. Each medium has its benefits and challenges, and I enjoy them all in different capacities. Making comics in particular appeals to me for so many reasons: It’s cheap to do, I can do it alone or with others, it’s instantly gratifying, it’s such a flexible form of art. My favorite thing about it, though, is that it’s one of the few art forms that has barely been explored. So much has never been done with comics that it’s not difficult to forge new paths as a creator, to be The First to try something. It’s exciting!
How did you all figure out your own drawing style?
Liana Finck: I found part of my style when I found my pen, and part when I found my audience.
What I’ve always been good at is expressing emotions and ideas in drawings. It took me a long time to find the right venue for doing that in the real world. There was a very big gap (fifteen years?) between the time when I was perfectly satisfied just to doodle things on my homework, and the time when I found mediums and a style I was comfortable working in, as well as an audience. In between, I made a lot of things that didn’t feel like they came from me. Such as all the realistic stuff (naked people, salt shakers, shoes) we had to draw in college.
MariNaomi: My drawing style was created by trial and error. I drew my first comic in 1997, and it was maybe a year and a half later that I drew the first comic that at all resembles what I'm doing now. But I feel like my style and methods are always changing, hopefully for the better. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to be a better storyteller using the comics medium. I'm a work in progress.
Amy Kurzweil: Art Spiegelman said something really smart that feels relevant: He said there are two ways to be an artist. There’s the artist who has their own recognizable style, like a kind of persona; if they were an actor, they’d always play the same character (think Woody Allen). And then there’s another kind of artist, someone who sort of disappears into their content, whose style changes depending on what story they are telling. Spiegelman said he thought he was maybe more like the second. The tools he uses and the approach he takes depends on the project. I do think I also aspire to be like the second, but I also suspect that it's not really possible.
I drew my book twice, which is why it took seven years (!) and the style did evolve a lot. It refined. My lines became more confident, for lack of a better word. I draw in museums, copying details from paintings I gravitate towards (love Picasso). I used to draw people on the subway (not creepily, I hope). I loved school—but it is ironic to me that the one thing I didn't learn in school (drawing) is the thing I now do most.
Could you all share some titles that mean a lot to you? What are the ones you always recommend to people, especially if they are kinda new to this genre?
MariNaomi: The book that made me want to draw comics was an anthology called Twisted Sisters (the follow-up, Twisted Sisters 2 , is equally as wonderful). Specifically, it was Mary Fleener’s story “The Jelly” that made me think, “I want to do this, too!” I don’t remember the first graphic novel I read, but my first recommendations vary from person to person, depending on their interests. Usually a bestseller like Fun Home, Blankets , or Maus is a safe bet. If the reader is arty, I might go in a more obscure direction, such as Christopher Adams’ Strong Eye Contact (2dcloud), which is the book that gave me faith that I should keep making comics when my morale was low. I also created this list for readers who want to find new books to read, and these lists for people who want to diversify their reading pile.
Liana Finck: My main comics influences are still Roz Chast and Saul Steinberg. I LOVE Jules Feiffer’s new graphic novels (I can’t believe how he’s remade himself). I love Gabrielle Bell, and at the same time am afraid to read her because I find I try to imitate her too much. I love some French guys named Ruppert and Mulot (they ’ re republished in America by Rebus). I adore Ed Steed’s work, more on the gag cartoon continuum. And then there is Keren Katz. And Josh Bayer’s book, Theth .
From A Bintel Brief, by Liana Finck (Ecco Press, 2014).
Amy Kurzweil: The “ classics ” were what originally turned me into this genre. Much has been written about Maus and Fun Home and Persepolis , but I don’t know if you can really ever say too much about books like those. Perhaps those writers’ other works aren't as known or talked about, like Art Spiegelman's stuff in Raw Magazine or Breakdowns . There's this one comic about Art giving his son a “ family heirloom, ” which is a fire-eating Hitler dragon. That kind of irreverent (and yet somehow still tender) touch in his work really struck me. I feel like it gave me a lot of permission in my work. And most of Dykes to Watch Out For is on Bechdel's website.
Another huge influence of mine is Lynda Barry, especially her book One! Hundred! Demons! I really like how on basically the first page her character asks the reader: “ Is it still autobiography if I make stuff up? ” Her work has such literal texture; it’s often collage. She’s so playful and profound. I took a class with her two summers and ago and could hardly contain myself the whole time. Also, Ariel Schrag’s books: she wrote four comic diaries, one for every year of high school, and each one gets longer and more complex and formally playful. Chris Ware doesn’t write memoir, but I sort of feel like he does; his page layouts and how they relate to his ideas about memory inspired me quite a bit. (I sometimes wonder if comics blur the line between fiction and nonfiction more than prose, somehow.) Phoebe Gloeckner’s first collection, A Child’ s Life , is riveting. I have to say that reading Hilary Chute’s Graphic Women (a book of comics criticism focusing on the work of many of the female graphic novelists I’ve mentioned above) made me think writing graphic memoir was akin to being some kind of goddess-hero. Same goes for Tahneer Oksman’s book How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses (featuring Liana!). The next graphic book I will read is Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future . And I’m also excited to read more work by Sophia Foster Dimino. It’s so, so beautiful.
Liana Finck: Are we going to talk about process? Here is mine: I draw a two-inch-by-two-inch grid of dots on slightly higher-end printer paper with a .38 gel pen and a clear, flimsy L-shaped ruler (I hope to find an even better ruler one day . . .). I draw the grid in by hand. My next book is three boxes across by four boxes down, but I think I’ll work smaller in the future, for easier viewing on smaller screens—and for simplicity. I sketch a story into the boxes and redraw it a billion times, with more and more detail and care, as it takes shape. And periodically I’ll scan in a draft (600 dpi, grayscale) and fix things with my Wacom Cintiq in Photoshop. I save old drafts as PDFs and refer back to them on my phone as I work on new drafts. I work sometimes in cafes and sometimes at home. But I come up with ideas for New Yorker cartoons on trains.
MariNaomi: I don’t want to repeat myself with my long, involved process , but I do most of my work between noon and seven p.m. on weekdays unless I’m super motivated and/or behind on a deadline, in which case I work around the clock. Lately I’ve been doing much of my drawing at the dining room table, since it’s big and I can spread out all my notes. I have a nice drawing desk that I’ve lately just been storing stuff on. Once I start the inking phase I’ll be at that desk a lot, though.
I get most of my ideas and epiphanies when I go on road trips. So I try to go on lots of road trips!
Amy Kurzweil: My process for Flying Couch : 8.5x11 blue-lined graph paper, blue pencils, ink right on the page, discard color info in Photoshop, print, grey marker on the print-out for shading, touch-ups in Photoshop. And I did lots of writing beforehand: many essays, short stories, etc. to explore the themes, and then many typed scripts, outlines, rough sketches of what became this book. For other projects, like gag cartoons, I pencil on mixed-media paper and then ink right over it, and use a watered-down wash over that. Erase the pencil (which fills my room and all the crevices of my clothing with eraser shavings. It’s a problem. I find them in my bed).
I work mostly at a tilted artist desk (located, incidentally, very close to my bed). I would like a studio! But alas. I'm resolved to be better about taking breaks. I used to spend a lot of my life dancing and performing, and it recently occurred to me that, as a dancer, I would never repeat the same arm movement for hours on end without stopping. Breaks are important, but somehow hard to enforce.
I also have lots of ideas on road trips! Something about the calm of motion, I think.
Do you have any advice for writers and artists who might be interested in exploring this form of storytelling?
Liana Finck: Go to things. Comics is a really welcoming and interesting world, and you need to feel that warmth to counteract some of the mathy uptightness of the genre. I like the Comics Symposium in New York—there’s a weekly lecture. Also author events, drawing gatherings, parties. But be careful, too; you don't have to treat socializing as a job.
Amy Kurzweil: If you want to tell true stories about real things that happened, be charitable to your characters. That includes yourself. I think stories motivated by desire for insight tend to resonate and endure. In the end, seek understanding versus, say, exposure, or getting things off your chest. But anger or sadness or exuberance or whatever strong emotion runs through you are often good starting points. Read Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir , which I am basically paraphrasing. Read a lot, period.
Events I like: Comics Symposium, Tuesday evenings at the New School; MoCCA fest and comic-con; Carousel reading series. There are so many readings and panels. Google “comics events” and I think you will find much! And I think most creators, if you read their work and are a fan, really appreciate you approaching them at readings to say hi and beyond.
From Flying Couch, by Amy Kurzweil (Catapult/Black Balloon, 2016).
MariNaomi: Yeah, the comics community is pretty great! If you can’t make it to events, there’s always a bustling community of cartoonists and comics readers online. You should definitely put your work online, and link to it on your Twitter bio and stuff.
My artistic advice to someone just getting started is: Don’t worry what other people are doing, or what they think you should do; just have fun. Practice. Experiment. If you haven’t found your personal style yet, don’t worry, it will come to you. You need to make a lot of shit before you start making gold, and even when it’s gold, it’ll probably still look like shit to you sometimes. Also: Don’t expect comics to make you rich, or even make you a living. Not saying it can’t happen, but it’s about as likely as winning the lottery.
Oh! Another great piece of advice to young cartoonists is to take figure drawing classes! Once I got a better grasp of human anatomy on the page, my drawing process sped up a lot.
Liana Finck: (;
MariNaomi: I draw really slow, so the practice was helpful for me. Also, I enjoy getting to draw people without being embarrassed if I’m caught doing it. Also they’re naked. But I get that it’s not for everybody!
Liana Finck: I’ll try life drawing again. There is room for a lot of different reactions to art history and artists, and I change my mind all the time. I still love Matisse.
I only draw when I’m bursting to say something. Hard to imagine feeling this way while faithfully drawing something that’s been put in front of me. Matisse did it with nude models and still lifes . . . but he lived in a different time. I prefer just to look and not draw when I have nothing to say.
Amy Kurzweil: The idea that we draw when we’re bursting to say something resonates with me. I also don’t consider myself a fine artist. Fine art is, I think ultimately, about seeing. Representing beauty (sometimes) or visual perception. Fine art contains ideas, but they are usually aesthetic ideas (contemporary art is different, but I think this is why it seems like contemporary art in museums is rarely paintings anymore). Fine Art is hard to talk about because it is there to be looked at. So a fine art education wouldn’t resonate with someone who wants to communicate narrative or ideas more directly.
I think we are probably more writers than artists. I don’t know if Mari would agree, but maybe Liana would?
MariNaomi: I find myself in the same boat: I only want to draw when I want to tell a story (and truly, I’m a writer before I'm a visual artist—although the more time goes by, the more intertwined these identities get). I have a bunch of insanely talented friends who doodle all the time, and it’s frustrating to think how much better of an artist I’d be if I practiced all the time like they do. But I’m just not a doodler; I find drawing for the sake of drawing boring. I don’t really keep a sketchbook, aside from ones I take with me when I travel, just in case I have to write an idea down.
That’s why I think figure drawing helped me so much. It wasn’t boring, because I often brought friends with me, plus it was interesting staring at the human body like that. I mean, figure drawing is HARD. Nobody leaves a class feeling like a rockstar, because it’s so frustrating. But on the upside, if you do it a lot, you can see tangible evidence of your skills getting better each time you do it. Which is why I think it's something most artists (and everybody!) should try. Watching yourself become better over the course of a figure drawing sketchbook really helps with the crippling self-doubt we all invariably feel. And also, who doesn't want to get better at the craft?
Before we wrap, I’d be interested in talking a little about publishing, and what sorts of things we’ve experienced when making the leap from drawing/writing comics as a hobby to having thousands of eyes on our work. I never intended for my comics to be seen by a zillion people, and when I found my first publisher I had to make myself not think about what would happen when my book (about sex) got into the hands of my parents, or my exes’ parents, or people I work with. I still kind of try not to think about it.
Later, when I started making webcomics, the reality of that many more eyeballs on it hit home, as there’d be instant reactions to my work. I thought that would be horrible, but really it was kind of amazing, and stoked my creative fire all the more. When I’m in the process of writing a comic, though, I have to pretend that nobody else is ever going to read it, or else I’ll choke up. I haven’t gotten used to complete strangers knowing my business yet. It’s surreal, but I don’ t hate it. If anything, I find it beautiful when someone thinks they know me because they know my work, and deem to share intimate parts of their life with me as a result.
Liana Finck: I draw because I couldn ’ t communicate in the usual ways growing up. I was too shy, or weird, or something. Drawing has never been private for me; it was always the only non-private thing. I never made comics as a hobby; I chose the medium consciously, as an adult, when my parents and teachers and classmates stopped being the right audience for my drawings, and I needed an audience and a more concrete medium I could plug into. I wouldn’t write a story I didn't want to share.
I’m pretty guileless and try very hard not to hurt people I care about. If I do, I’m always sorry, but it’s emphatically never my intent. I only write consciously mean things about the few people I think deserve it. And I have no secrets. I am a private person in that I don’t like to talk about my life in person, but I don’t understand privacy in art, really. Art is a safe space.
It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to say the things I want to say in this complex, premade medium. I’m still learning. Sometimes I say something that doesn't come from me, and sometimes I get confused and can’t open my mouth (metaphorically speaking) at all. But it’s getting easier. I’m learning just to sit still and figure out what I want to say. And I’m learning to be more direct.
Amy Kurzweil: I admire Mari’s attitude about getting accustomed to strangers knowing her “business.” I said earlier that I write to understand. It’s quite grounding to feel that you have, in fact, understood something about yourself and those around you. The “those around me” part is harder. My book has only been out a couple of weeks, so I’m new to this, but the best feeling I’ve had so far is when someone in my family tells me my book feels “accurate,” or when my mother, a private person, told me that she believes the stories and messages in my book are “important” for a wider audience to learn from.
I’m actually not of the opinion that we should publicize every story we want to tell. Writing is different than publicizing. Write everything, but you don’t have to sell everything. Selling is where it gets most complicated for me. We are not products. Writing and selling are two completely different tasks that have nothing to do with each other. But today’s storytellers create in a world where publicizing your work is necessary and expected.
Mari is so right. However you got there, it really is beautiful when someone is inspired by the intimacy of your work to share something of themselves with you or someone else. That’s starting to happen for me a little bit, and that’s the job of literature, right there. We just have to deal with the weirdness of it.