My second interview at New York Comic-Con this past weekend was with the marvelously talented and sharp-tongued Lucy Knisley, who has recently released her memoir graphic novel contextualizing moments and developments in her life around her love of food, titled Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. We discussed her life in comics, future projects, and her views on the relationship between public and private that her work explores—all while cussing a decent amount.
Zachary Clemente for Amazing Stories: Congratulations of your engagement, reading it online was a really interesting experience, especially the way you address the readers, not as strangers, but as readers. I find it very cool that you recognize the connection between the creator’s work and the audience. I’m curious how you feel about taking typically very private experiences and painstakingly turn them into very public works.
Lucy Knisley: Well, everything is edited obviously. I don’t share things that I feel are uncomfortable to be shared. I think it’s actually really funny, that relationship, because something I get a lot when I’m at a convention like this [New York Comic-Con] is people come up to me and they’re like “Oh, I know that name of your cat, isn’t that weird?” And I’m like “No, let’s talk about my cat for the next half hour, this is awesome.” I’m not uncomfortable with people knowing these things about my life, I put them on my comic and I share them with the world, so it makes me feel really flattered that people read them and remember them and have this connection to me. But, I look a people, friends of mine, like Erika Moen has shared stuff about her vagina pretty often and that seems like something I wouldn’t generally put into my comics, so I think everybody has different levels of personal stuff that they would share in public and I choose mine very carefully and I feel comfortable sharing it. And my work centers on this […] relationship between myself and the reader and that is what hinges my works. That’s the success of my work, I think, is that connection there and you can’t really have that without being honest and sort of revealing your personal self.
ASM: You feature close friends and family often, not always in the most flattering of lights, sometimes it’s a little “bluntly honest.” My favorite, I think, was about your friend in Mexico buying all the porn. Have you ever had a family or friend read something you’ve made about them and had a very different reaction than you expected?
LK: I’m really lucky for the most part. My fiancée loves when I put him in comics, you know, we have a clause that I won’t draw his dick into the comic. We’ll probably put it in our marriage vows, you know, whatever. I’m really lucky with my parents, I’m an only child so I can do whatever the hell I want, which is great. So, I’m really lucky for my immediate family and friends, they’re all pretty into it, but I made a comic a long time ago. It was this one-off journal comic, I was in school, about going to visit my grandmother in Florida. […] My grandmother has some odd eccentricities, she does interesting things and I put them in a little, one-page comic and it made it into a collection that I have, Radiator Days, which is self-published, pretty rough around the edges kind of work, it’s stuff I did in school: drugs, sex, queerness, violence…you know, various things that I generally wouldn’t give to my grandmother, in this book. So, I didn’t give this particular book to her, no big deal, but she had this busybody neighbor who bought the book. I don’t know how they even found it, they live in Florida in an old-person condo and they found this book online and they gave her a copy going [lowers her voice] “Gloria, you need to read this comic…by your granddaughter.” And she reads this comic and there’s drug use, and sex, and all this different stuff. There’s porn comics in there that I was experimenting with and she doesn’t care about any of that other stuff, but this one comic in which she’s depicted doing things that she actually did—she got really upset. I’m totally out of the will, she called my mother, crying “Why does Lucy hate me?” And to put this in perspective, my grandmother, in this comic, did the following things: One, she had a photograph of George W. Bush and family inside of her dish cabinets, so when you opened it to get dishes, there was the whole W family. The second thing was that she and my mother and I were out to dinner […] and the waiter came over, telling us the specials—after goes away, I go “Oh, he’s cute, I like him!” And my grandmother turns to me and she says “If you marry a black, I will come back and haunt you.”
So that’s what the comic depicted, she gets really upset with me, calls me going “Oh, why do you hate me?” And I apologize, meaning no offense but suggest that she should consider what she says around her granddaughter who makes comic books about her life for a living…and maybe just consider what she say’s in general. It’s really funny now, because every time I come out with a new book or something she goes “Oh…another one.” And she doesn’t read it anymore, which is great. I don’t feel confined anymore, by my grandmother’s judgements.
ASM: Was that the only problem you’ve ever had?
LK: That’s the only major problem I’ve ever had, I’ve gotten lucky. So far, so good. It’s how I weed them [friends] out.
ASM: In your online work Stop Paying Attention, you seem to describe a very pivotal moment in your life where you realize that comics are the communication medium of choice for you. Is that based off a very specific experience or a culmination of hanging out with your friend when you were a kid?
LK: The Vanishing Into My Own Head comic is probably what you’re talking about. That is specifically explaining my thought process as a kid coming into making art and communicating though comics. I didn’t actually come into being a comic book artist until I was in college though, because I always thought I would have to choose between art and writing. My dad is an English professor, my mother’s a chef and an artist and I sort of had that from both sides and always thought I would have to make that choice. I went to all these different high schools when I was growing up and I thought “no good writing program will take me, I should get into art” and wound up at a fine arts school and that’s where it really clicked for me because as soon as they were like [drops voice] “this is all about the ‘image,'” I thought “but I want to tell a story with the image…” and I started making comics for the newspaper and it became this way for me to sort of get beyond the shyness that I had at the beginning of college where I felt like I couldn’t connect with anybody. I was living in this new, big city and it was this sudden realization that I was unable to communicate and making comics became my form of communication that I think had been brewing since my childhood when I made that connection—where I can tell what’s in my head and then somebody can know what it’s like to be me by looking at this drawing or by understanding what I’m trying to tell them.
ASM: I know it’s touched on in Relish a decent amount, but I always find it interesting hearing what jobs creators had done until the reached the point where they could basically just create 24/7 to make enough to not starve. What else have you worked?
LK: Oh man, what have I not done? I worked as a waitress for a long time and I worked at farmer’s markets, like in the booth, for a really long time. I didn’t like it that much because I had to get up really early, but I did it for my entire life. I mostly worked for my mom in her catering business for a long time. When I was in Chicago, I taught in an after-school program for two, two and a half years, which was fun. So it’s sort of been cobbled together through the food industry and education industry. I still do a lot of illustration work and commission work and…anything that comes across my plate.
ASM: I would say in the past five years, the general eye on comics has become bigger—more people paying attention, bigger news sources, everybody is paying more attention to comics. Would you say that has affected your career at all?
LK: Definitely. My timing is great—I graduated from art school right around the big graphic novel boom. I think that’s why my first graphic novel got published. I was published by Simon & Schuster who were like [lowers voice] “we need to in on this graphic novel thing, even though we have no idea how to sell them!” and so they bought up all these books and said “these books do terribly because we don’t know how to sell them!” And bless their hearts, they know now what a great industry this is but this was sort of at the beginning—but hey, I still got a publishing contract out of it. Now I’m with First Second and I’m doing my third book with them as well and it’s awesome. Yeah, it’s really interesting the ways that it’s crept into our society. Part of me really loves it, sort of the business-person part of me loves that it’s such a major industry and now there’s the really huge, great, supportive culture and part of me is kind of horrified to see comics on Good Morning, America with people being “Pow! Zap! Not your grandfather’s comic books” and I’m going “Still, you guys? Still? C’mon,” it’s [New York Comic-Con] the most well attended event at the Javits Center, but you can’t remember any point in your life when you read a comic and stopped treating it like an alien thing? It’s ridiculous—it’s frustrating.
ASM: Your work is mostly memoir-based, much of which discusses adult in life, have you ever considered working on a book that is all ages? Not necessarily a kids book, but something “backwards appropriate” for children?
LK: Well, my next book is YA (Young Adult) and it’s hopefully going to be good for that age range: for middle school and up.
ASM: Awesome. First Second, as a publisher, has been killing it with all ages content as of late. With a more critical eye being placed on the industry as a whole, do you see more disparities, not only in depictions [of characters], but creators being more acknowledged? A lot of times artists get really shafted, or colorists don’t get credited.
LK: That’s why I do everything—so they don’t have the opportunity to fuck me. Except they manage to because they’re like [gestures with hands] “oh, you’re ‘all one’?”
ASM: As a creator, have you noticed problems being more acknowledge. For instance – in the movie industry, the VFX artists had this huge solidarity push because of how shitty their situation is. Would you say this kind of thing is happening for comics creators?
LK: Definitely, there are […] factions that are involved—queer comic artists, women comic artist, comic artists of color—all starting to gain more visibility and working for that visibility. You look around at a convention like this [gestures at the mass of people outside the First Second booth] and I think, having been here five years ago, even now it’s so much more diverse and there’s so many more women, people of color, and presently people who are queer, and it’s so awesome to see. […] I taught a workshop the other day for a college-level comics class and they were all women and I was like [slowly pumps fist] “yessssss, this is awesome.” Which is especially great for me because when I went to the Center for Cartoon Studies—I was one of two women in my class.
ASM: Would you say the depiction of characters, in how people are seeing who they can relate to in comics is also changing?
LK: Definitely. The new, slightly younger generation of people that are all online and really involved in the, sort of, “equal rights for all” movements are really changing the way the industry is. It feels like they’re shaping the industry—everybody wants to see more positive female characters, positive characters of color and I think that that’s changing things. I was talking to Tony [Cliff] who does Delilah Dirk [and the Turkish Lieutenant] and he gets asked “why is your character a woman if you’re a man?” and he was like “why would you ask me that question?” That’s a ridiculous question. I just think that’s really awesome—because the more books like that are being published and less and less that’s questioned—fewer and fewer [people] asking “Women In Comics panels, what’s that about?” So hopefully, that’s getting better all the time.
ASM: I think a great example of that is Image’s Saga. If you think about the character ratio, it’s like two men to 10 women. And almost none of them are really depicted as “white” unless they’re like ghostly pale and there are aliens having sex with each other – it’s all over the place and no one talks about that part—they’re all talking about awesome the story is.
LK: Exactly! It’s not even of interest. Although there are still things—especially at a really big convention like a lot of video game representation. I remember, last year I was on a Women In Comics panel and sometimes we’ll have these panels and people will be like “who do we need to talk about this?” and I remember sitting there thinking about how I would answer that question if someone asked it and I was looking across the floor and there was this HUGE billboard for this comic called “Whore.” […] The “R” was a gun, and there was guy in a suit sitting on a throne of naked bitches—just made of naked bitches! One was on her hands and knees, he was sitting on her and they were cupping his arms and he was holding a gun right where his [gestures vaguely downwards] wiener is. I was just “that.” That comic is why we need to have this panel still. Like…that comic is hilarious! It’s like a parody of itself.
ASM: Though there’s a point where even if it’s a parody, it’s still detrimental.
LK: Right, and it wasn’t. I was very serious.
ASM: I want to vom.
LK: Right? […] I talk about that comic a lot—I’ve probably publicized that comic too much because it’s just fascinated me. We were at this thing and I sitting there kind of quietly and was suddenly saying “does anybody see the ‘Whore‘ thing?” and everybody just groaned.
ASM: It seems that there’s a trend of indie creators such as yourself getting picked up here and there by the mainstream companies. Is there anything in the works or any stories you’d love to tell with their properties?
LK: Oh yeah—I want to make a million comics, all the time, forever. […] Sometime in the next year or so I have a couple travelogues coming out, sort of in the vein of my first book French Milk. These are full color—I watercolored them, like super-badass, just like PEW.
ASM: That’s going to be hard to describe: “PEW!”
LK: [Laughs] I went to Europe for work—or a convention thing and then I ended up having a crazy love-affair and went traveling with him. My friend works in the wine country in France and I crashed on her couch for a while, so one of them is about that. The other one is about taking my 94 and 95-year-old grandparents on an elderly-persons cruise. […] They’re very different books but they’re kind of connected in that way—one of them is about being young and unconnected, and doing whatever I want. And the other one is about responsibility and age and thinking about the future—family connections and stuff. So these two books are coming out, hopefully from Fantagraphics, I’m in talks with them—they want them but their publisher died and it’s all kind of upset over there.
And then the book that I signed with these guys [gestures at the folks working the First Second booth] I just finished the script for two weeks ago is called “New Kid” and it’s sort of a follow-up to Relish about my experiences in high school and how an artist kid kind of can struggle in that environment and how teachers can save a struggling kid in high school. It’s my tribute to art, and arts educations, and good educators—so that’ll be the next book.
ASM: I know who that will be a gift for. I had an Art History teacher in high school who really taught me how to love art, it’s a shame it took me until my senior year.
LK: It look me a really long time too—I went to four different high schools.
ASM: Are there any DC or Marvel characters who you have a story for?
LK: Um, so Valiant has this series called Harbinger and they’ve re-launched it and I read it when I was kid. It was like my big break—I loved it, it was my superhero comic that I really liked because I really liked Zephyr, she was my favorite. I read all of the new Valiant Harbinger stuff recently which I thought was really good. It was really interesting, kind of falling back on some traditional “rape-victim” woman tropes, but Zephyr was really cool again and I felt validated that I liked this character then and I like her now.
So, I would totally work on that series, but I don’t think Im quite right for the gritty feel of the new re-launch. I mean, I kind of get my fantasy—I get to work on Adventure Time every once in a while, which is awesome.
ASM: Have you met Pendleton Ward yet?
LK: Yes! He’s really nice. […] I’ve met him a bunch of times and then I think he’ll probably not remember me, so every time I do see him I’m always [drops voice] lingering with love, loving glances in his direction. He’s the nicest guy.
Lucy Knisley is moving from New York City back to her hometown of Chicago and creates comics. Her notable releases are: Radiator Days, French Milk, and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen.