Rob Clough for YCE: How old were you when you started reading comics? What were you reading?
Whit Taylor: I started reading comics in 2nd grade. My mother took me to our local comic shop, thinking that getting into comics might get me into reading prose more (I loved non-fiction books, but had trouble focusing on novels...hasn’t changed). My mother was an Archie Comics fan as a child and passed that love along to me. My first comics were Archie’s, particularly Betty and Veronica comics. I was also into some Marvel comics, particularly Generation X.
RC: Did you grow up reading comics with others, like friends or your brother? Did you grow up drawing with anyone else?
WT: I grew up reading comics with my brother, who is three years younger than me. We also collected the Marvel trading cards and watched the animated show, so that added to the fun of getting to know the characters and being invested in their relationships.
I drew regularly with my brother as well as one of my elementary school friends who I had a comic series with called “Debbie’s Diner”. It was about...a diner. I’m from New Jersey, haha.
RC: Were you encouraged to draw or play music as a child or teen?
WT: I was encouraged to draw by my parents as a kid, but at a certain point academics overtook that. I was a kid who had varied interests. One minute I wanted to be a fashion designer and the next an astronaut or biomedical engineer. My parents worked in health care, so I think my Dad, in particular, got my interest in science and encouraged that.
I played instruments and sang too. Choir for years. I played cello for about 6 years and dabbled in bass guitar for a few years. I wouldn’t say they’re passions or talents really though!
RC: What was your childhood like? In what ways does it inform your work now?
WT: My childhood was both great and challenging. I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs and spent a lot of time outdoors around nature and made lots of art at home. NYC was a place to make day trips to, and I would enjoy going to black art shows there, because my Mom has always been a collector of black art. We also made regular visits to my grandparents in Long Island and annual ones to New Orleans (really until Katrina). My maternal grandparents had a small farm in Mississippi and spending time there are some of my fondest memories.
I went to an academically rigorous elementary school where I was doing 6 hours of homework every night starting from like 4th grade. I wouldn’t say I naturally had an easy time in school but had to discipline myself to get “good” at it. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t had that much pressure, but at the time, my parents felt it was the best option. I switched to public school for high school, which I liked.
I was always a very anxious kid: generalized, social, and OCD for a period. At times it was debilitating. I was bullied for being the tallest kid, for my weight, for my hair, for being black. I struggled to feel like I belonged as a multiracial black kid. I think that’s why I became a daydreamer who was always coming up with stories. I found comfort in reading about other cultures and countries, nature, outer space, science stuff. And, of course, storytelling.
RC: Did you study art in high school or college?
WT: I was considered “artistic” in elementary school. And I remember one day these folks came to our school to assess for artistic ability. I took some sort of “drawing test” and they concluded that I had no technical ability but was good as a freehand drawer. Being judged that early stuck with me and probably charted much of the course of my art career. I took an art class in high school and didn’t continue because I didn’t like my art teacher (she wasn’t particularly nice). I pretty much stopped drawing in high school and focused my attention on stage crew/musicals, sports, and playing music.
When I got to college, I took a studio foundation course at Brown, as well as screenwriting and some film classes. At the time, I wanted to make socio-cultural documentaries. I wanted to get into RISD courses because my school had an arrangement with them, but those classes were almost impossible to get into, so I never took any. During my studio foundation course though, we were required to go to a talk at RISD, where I saw Roz Chast speak. That was a game changer for me. Harvey Pekar also came to visit Brown to talk about the American Splendor movie. I met him and talked with him a bit too and he encouraged me to make comics. After those experiences, I started drawing again.
RC: What did you think of Pekar's comics when you finally got your hands on them? Did you find them to be an influence later on?
WT: I was inspired by the frankness in Pekar’s storytelling. Memoir/autobio is always curated and shaped by our own self-perceptions and limitations. I like how Pekar was never scared to get uncomfortable or even ugly in his work. It was brave and refreshing storytelling to me. So yes, I would say he’s an influence!
RC: When you started drawing as an adult, was there any style in particular you were emulating?
WT: When I started drawing in college, I wouldn’t say I was trying to emulate a style in particular, but more of an overall feel? I was still influenced heavily by Archie (which I feel had a hand in Madtown High happening) but was reading graphic novels from the early/mid-00s: Alex Robinson, Jeffrey Brown, Jessica Abel, Craig Thompson, Charles Burns. I wouldn’t say my work really looks like any of theirs, but I instantly was attracted to DIY/rough looking art and production. I’ve never really been drawn to slick looking work. It’s never been a goal of mine to emulate others but to try to do the best version of what I do and to keep trying to improve and push myself towards whatever that is.
RC: It's interesting that you list Charles Burns as someone you like since his work is incredibly slick. Were you more drawn into the teen dynamics of Black Hole than the art?
WT: I mean, I have an appreciation for slick, beautiful art! It’s just not what I see for myself. But how can you not love Charles Burns’ art? It’s fantastic. The story was very appealing too for the reason you mentioned.
RC: Do you consider yourself to be an artist who writes, a writer who draws, or something else?
WT: I would say I lean towards being a writer who draws. I lead with my writing because it’s what usually inspires me to make a comic. You know, a personal experience, a concept, something I want to learn more about or I think is important for others to understand.
RC: Do you enjoy the simple act of drawing apart from working on your own comics?
WT: I do. There are certain things I am drawn to drawing, such as flora and faces. I don’t draw apart from making comics these days as much as I’d like and as much as I used to, but I do keep a sketchbook and recently got an iPad, which I’m having fun playing around on.
RC: Is drawing in general a therapeutic activity for you?
WT: Drawing has been a therapeutic activity for me, as well as a challenge. Right after I moved to LA in 2007 I injured my right thumb and ended up having to get surgery to make it fully functional. I was in a cast for a while. Once I was further healed, I started drawing a lot and I truly believe that it helped me regain more function. So literally therapeutic.
But as being a cartoonist has shifted from a hobby to a job, my relationship with making comics and drawing has changed a bit. To me, it’s like any other relationship. It goes through shifts. Sometimes it’s great, and other times I don’t enjoy it as much. Sometimes I feel inspired, and other times I grasp for a spark. I’m committed to it, but it’s not always easy.
RC: A common theme, especially in your early autobio comics, is that of personal identity. You express a lot of confusion about it, and being multiracial is only the tip of it. You describe yourself as both a nerd and a jock. You're an academic and scientist as well as an artist. Do you feel like your identity has coalesced as you've grown older and gotten married, or do you still feel this struggle?
WT: I’ve always been a bit all over the place, interest-wise. I like ideas! I don’t REALLY believe in astrology, but I am a Gemini, haha. I wouldn’t say I’m a jock, even though I played sports. I was strong but uncoordinated. But a nerd, yes.
Understanding my multiracial identity is lifelong for me. I’m not biracial, but both of my parents are from multiracial black families. I was raised in a predominantly white NJ suburb, and have extended family all over the country. So identity and culture wise, I always feel like I’ve lived in a space where I’ve never fully belonged or felt understood. Now that I’m living closer to my parents again, I am trying to learn more about family history and to gain a better understanding of where I came from. I’m sure that’ll show up in my comics down the line.
I have always felt a pull between science and art, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the potential of combining the two. That’s why I like the growing Graphic Medicine movement. It allows me to use my background in Public Health and to take academic and often dry stuff and try to make it appealing and understandable in graphic form. It also makes me feel like getting a Masters in Public Health wasn’t a waste, haha.
I wouldn’t say that getting married changed any of those internal struggles that much. I don’t expect my partner to solve those issues for me. But my husband is my best friend who accepts me for who I am and appreciates my unquiet mind. So that’s nice!
I think the biggest challenge for me is day to day. When I worked as a teacher and health educator, I felt satisfied in the sense that I was directly helping people. All I ever really wanted was to be in a helping profession, similar to my parents. Now as a freelancer, I spend lots of time alone, which can be hard. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m helping people or contributing anything meaningful to the world. But I truly believe in what comics can do to educate, inspire, and entertain.
RC: You mentioned Graphic Medicine. What do you see that movement accomplishing now, and what do you see as its future potential?
WT: Graphic Medicine is interdisciplinary, which I believe is vital to its utility. Comics and the academic world can be so insular at times, which is a turn-off considering the richness they both have to offer to the greater world. The annual Comics and Medicine Conferences bring together medical professionals, artists, patients, etc. and use the medium of comics to improve communication, educate, and humanize health conditions. So many amazing things are coming out of Graphic Medicine right now.
RC: What has being a part of the small-press community been like for you, both at the beginning of your career and now? Do you enjoy going to shows like SPX?
WT: I didn’t go to art school, so I never had an art community until I got into comics. I also entered indie comics around 2009 (that was my first show year), which is a pretty different environment from now. I didn’t really have any mentors but quickly found people and publishers who inspired me. I remember picking up Lisa Hanawalt’s I Want You minicomics at APE, for instance, and falling in love with them. I befriended folks such as Jeremy Whitley, who was just getting started with Princeless. I loved everything Sparkplug Comics was doing and eventually became friendly with Dylan Williams. He was supportive of me from the beginning and encouraged me to keep making comics. I was pen pals with Jeffrey Brown, who I would send my minis to. He always had nice and offered helpful feedback.
It was different back then because there were so few black creators at indie shows and we pretty much all knew each other. Things are different now. A few years ago a dramatic shift took place. Creators of color, as well as those from other marginalized identities, have always been here, but now our content is welcome, desirable, and often a marketing “asset”. All of a sudden people WANTED me to make work about race. That’s great, but also feels limiting at times. I’m tired of being on diversity panels. I want to be a cartoonist who writes about race among other things but isn’t defined by it.
That all being said, I love the indie comics community. They are passionate, caring, talented, weird, the best. Some of my best friends are in this community and it’s something that’s given me purpose and a sense of belonging over the years.
RC: I've always enjoyed the fact that your website was called "Whimsical Nobody" because you really do have a whimsical sense of humor that seems to revel in the random, the weird, and even the trashy at times. At the same time, you're a scientist and a keen observer of any number of difficult topics. How have you balanced this divide throughout your life, and how do you balance it today?
WT: I’m glad you get my love of trashy pop culture, haha!
When I was in college I worked at a video store during the summers and the term “Whimsical Nobody” came from my former coworker. We would have these brief, friendly interactions with customers, where awkward pleasantries were exchanged. My coworker referred to us all as “Whimsical Nobodies” because life is full of short funny encounters with strangers who you never know or see again. I felt that the term applied to making and sharing my comics with readers too.
I am an observer at heart. You learn to be when you’re shy or not someone who fits in easily. And you have to be if you tell stories. I don’t know how I balance the difficult and superfluous. I think both are parts of life. I have had plenty of challenging stuff to deal with in my life and have also been fortunate. Life is unpredictable, so you have to enjoy and delight in the random, weird, funny stuff. I don’t know, my friends say I have a very specific sense of humor. It’s probably why I love Tim and Eric so much.
RC: So you're into aggressively absurdist humor. You made a Space Ghost: Coast-To-Coast reference in Fizzle; were you a fan of that show and others of its ilk in Adult Swim?
WT: One of my good friends was really into Space Ghost, so it’s a nod to him. But yeah, I was into Adult Swim. And I love watching stand-up comedy and sketch comedies as well. Also, unintentionally bad sitcoms and reality television. It’s not a secret that I am sort of obsessed with The Bachelor franchise.
RC: You've taken classes at CCS and did the Santoro course. What did you learn as an artist from these experiences? What techniques and lessons have continued to stick over time?
WT: I didn’t take the Santoro course but did participate in the contest one year, which was a valuable learning experience. You know, learning to work within certain constraints, structure and time wise. I took a CCS course one summer [Carolyn Nowak was in my class! I knew she was going to be a rockstar]. Going to CCS exposed me to a variety of techniques as well as made me realize that I needed to thumbnail to improve my pacing and visual layouts. As a writer, I had thought of drawing and writing as so separate but this really enforced that art is a form of storytelling and that I needed to be more thoughtful in my visual choices.
In the second part of the interview, I ask Taylor about various comics she's made: