Family and Background
November Garcia: I was born and raised in a little suburb in Manila, Philippines. We call them “villages” here. They’re just suburbs, not like huts or anything like that. My elementary school and high school were in that same village, and all my friends lived in that same village. So I never had a reason to leave the village.
I’m now 41 and am proud to say that many moons ago I escaped the village to a magical city 6,963 miles away for 13 years. I have since moved back… to a different village.
RC: Did you grow up reading comics? Did you have friends with whom you read comics?
NG: As a child, I grew up reading Archie, Garfield, and Peanuts. The usual hits, because that’s all we could get over here. I found a photo where I was reading Woody Woodpecker and am proud of that. Every kid growing up in the ‘80s here pretty much read the same comics.
In my teens, I would buy comics from Tower Records when my family went on holiday in the US. That’s when I got into Sandman and Tank Girl. Yeah, yeah, I know, quit laughing.
RC: Did you grow up drawing? Did you draw with others, like siblings and friends?
NG: I always drew. I’d make up stories in my head and just draw them out nonsensically. My dad was the president of an ad agency, and his desk always had a stack of newsprint and a cup of sharpened pencils––that was my favorite place in the world to draw. At home, I’d whine: “Mom, I’m booooored! Can I have a pencil and paper?”.
I actually made a lot of teen drama comics with dogs as the characters (maybe an Archie influence). I recently unearthed some “ads” I drew as inserts, like dogs selling toilet paper. I really loved dogs.
My two sisters were more into ballet, piano, Barbies, and drawing fashion dresses. I’m the son that my dad never had.
RC: What was your childhood like? In what ways does it inform your work now?
NG: Honestly, I was a spoiled brat, being the baby of the family. (I was a... er... surprise/blessing having been born 6 years after my second sister). I rebelled a lot in my teens and beyond—and coming from a decent family, I couldn’t understand what my problem was. Today, after living on my own in a major American city, I realize that it was the repression and the monotony and the “sheep mentality” all around me. I was itching for more but didn’t know what, exactly.
RC: Your mom is one of your go-to characters in Malarkey. She even contacts you with complaints after reading some of your strips. What does she think of you putting her in your strips in general? Has she been supportive of your career as a cartoonist?
NG: She only gets mad when I write about Jesus, drinking, or drugs. Otherwise, she’s fine with it (although sometimes she’ll say the quintessential “Don’t make a comic about this!”). My parents have always supported my creative endeavors. Being a creative person himself, my dad always said, “Thank God none of you girls became boring doctors or lawyers!”. He probably regrets that now, though.
The mom comics actually began as a Christmas gift to my dad. I did a dad book full of strips about him and had it printed professionally. He loved it, so the next year, I made him a mom book. There are a lot of gems in that one which I wished I had put in Malarkey but they all live somewhere in the Tumblr and on my dad’s coffee table.
RC: Do you plan to do strips about your dad in the future? He's conspicuous by his absence in your current work.
NG: I would if he did something funny –– my mom just keeps stealing the show. There are definitely memories worth making strips about. Maybe I’ll look through that dad book I made to see if there’s something there.
RC: Did you study art in high school or college?
NG: Our high school here is like elementary school in the sense that you don’t get to choose subjects. And you’re in the same damn classroom all day. So I just had the generic art classes in high school where you make a dumb collage or something.
I was kind of a burnout, so I didn’t get into the best (and only) art college here. They had a talent test where, if you passed, it would supersede your failure of what is the equivalent of the SATs in the States. I also failed the talent test, so I guess I was a really bad artist. I ended up going to my “back-up” college, which I’d previously vowed that I would never attend — but my mom forced me to take the entrance exam anyway: “In case you end up with no school!”. When I needed to declare a major, I checked the box for “advertising” only because my cousin did.
As I mentioned earlier, I grew up privileged, and, after college, I convinced my dad to send me to art school in San Francisco. I chose the school solely on the location and turned down his offer to send me to London or New York. I dropped out after one year because I eloped with a guy I met at that art school. Poor dad.
But I returned in my late 20s with a vengeance, determined to finish what I started. I switched to a program that had Graphic Design classes, which saved my life and got me out of the pet care industry.
NG: I was going through my psychedelic phase, so they were these awful comics with a character named Bean who had misadventures in an incense and peppermints world. It had no words and was pure “eye candy” with swirls, heavy stippling, wild patterns, and bendy trees.
I was so delusional that when I bought my first Frank comic by Jim Woodring, I proclaimed “Great! Now the world will think I’m copying this guy!”
I only ever submitted my comics to ONE publisher: Fantagraphics. Haha! And when they sent their rejection letter, I had the gall to email Peter Bagge for his opinion as to why. I asked, “Is it the art or the writing?” and he said “Both”.
Yes, I had huge balls and nothing resembling a clue back then.
RC: You've listed Peter Bagge as one of your earliest influences. What other cartoonists were formative for your work?
NG: Robert Crumb, Jim Woodring, Roberta Gregory. I only discovered them when I got to San Francisco. My ex was into comics too (he got me into Crumb) and tried to get me into Angry Youth Comix and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac but those didn’t stick.
RC: You note Bagge as an influence, yet your recent work is autobiographical. Have you ever considered doing humorous fiction?
NG: I guess I cite him as a huge influence because I’m so invested in his characters, especially the HATE series and The Bradleys. I can’t even count how many times I’ve re-read that series. I know my work looks nothing like his, like I’m horrible at feathering, which he does a lot of. But I love his art and writing.
I wish I could do humorous fiction but I don’t think my writing skills are good enough. I stick with the “write what you know” approach, and even then, it’s a struggle. The material comes easily, but autobio can be so self-serving ... I constantly have to find ways to avoid navel-gazing. The question “Why should anyone give a shit?” always helps.
RC: Did you quit comics for any period of time after that? If so, for how long? What led to your quitting?
NG: As I entered my late 20s, I didn’t exactly quit — I just did it more sporadically. I got a corporate job and spent most of my spare time feeding my “tattoo artist” phase. Roy was friends with a bunch of tattooers. He bought all this tattoo equipment and we’d practice on pigskin. I thought this would be my new “out”... just waltz into a shop and say “Hey dudes, check out my awesome portfolio.” I call it “Fantagraphics Submission Delusion: Part Two”.
I actually enjoyed making the designs but all that machinery and hullabaloo was just not in the cards for me.
During this time, I did make a comic series called “Catholic Girls” about my high school experiences and it went viral in Manila. There were heated debates in the comments section of my blog. My drawing was horrible and I used computer lettering so just don’t google it. (But I bet you will! Argh)
RC: You know that I had to. It reads like a more labored version of what you do now, with lots more cross-hatching and such, but it's still the same voice. Have you thought about revisiting and revising this material?
NG: Perhaps. I touched a bit on it in my PEN America comic but I’m open to doing some vignettes. It’s just hard for me to remember a lot of things from that time and I rely a lot on my friends’ memories from high school. I probably blocked out a lot of it from trauma.
RC: How old were you when you moved from the Philippines to the US? What was that transition like?
NG: I didn’t graduate with an art degree so I couldn’t apply for a Masters. I got a second degree instead, so at 23, I was the oldest person in my dorm.
I arrived in San Francisco with too much confidence ... I thought I was so cool because I was one of the “edgiest” people in my village, haha! There was definitely a learning curve, culturally. Simple things like having to walk up and talk to strangers to make friends (people aren’t as forward in Manila). I also did a lot of naive things because I was used to being in a safe bubble where you couldn’t get into any serious trouble. My ignorance literally almost landed me in prison (a possible future comic and also, sorry mom and dad), mugged, sexually harassed, or beat up. I’m a fast learner though, so I assimilated quickly.
RC: That sounds like an entire book's worth of experiences. Any plans to write about that soon?
NG: I always wanted to do a strip about the close call with ending up in jail, but it’s so heavy and loaded with dark events. I have to figure out how to do it in my writing style, keeping it light. The same goes for the sexual harassment ... I just don’t see any way of writing about that without being heavy. I wrote about some of the other stuff in Foggy Notions, like being held at gunpoint, the black eye, etc. so I probably won’t do another book of San Francisco-specific experiences.
"Everlast" may be about a homeless person she and Roy saw all the time, but it's also a walking tour of San Francisco that sets the stage for documenting a city that was about to be forever altered by gentrification. Here we see Garcia's difficulty with backgrounds inhibiting the story a bit because it doesn't give the reader enough of the unique aspects of the city. However, her cartooning with regard to people is excellent, especially with regard to facial expressions, body language and figures interacting in space.
RC: Foggy Notions was your first comic released by a publisher, correct? Other than Malarkey, did you self-publish any comics before this?
NG: No, in fact, Malarkey just came into existence because my publisher asked me if I had anything lying around that he could give away at SPX. So I compiled a bunch of comics from my Tumblr into a zine and mailed them to him. That’s the first comic you ever read from me too!
RC: Matt Moses handed it to me and talked you up, but it was remarkably assured work considering it was your first go. How long you had been doing comics on Tumblr at that time?
NG: I was posting comics here and there on my blog for years but was only posting on Tumblr for a few months. They weren’t very good, but after Matt took me under his wing he gave me good advice [about cartoonists to emulate.] That really helped me approach comics in a more mature way going forward and I also made them more frequently. Those are the strips that went into that first Malarkey.
RC: How did you come to work with Matt Moses of Hic andHoc?
NG: In 2015, my website was down so I started a Tumblr account and posted a bunch of comics on there. I saw Hic and Hoc in my network and they had a submissions button, so I sent two awful strips which were rejected. I had just gotten over the blighted ovum incident and the comics were very dark. Thankfully, this at least got me on Matt’s radar and he must have seen some potential in other stuff I posted after that. Eventually, he contacted me about trying something out.
RC: Foggy Notions is different from most of your self-published work. While it's funny, the stories are longer and are all set during your time living in San Francisco. Was this part of your pitch, or was this something that Matt wanted?
NG: Matt wanted something cohesive so I pitched a couple of themes and we settled on the San Francisco stories. I really enjoy longer narrative writing and Malarkey is more of my “release” from that ... just stuff for laughs and fun in between the serious work. I’ve been meaning to do more narrative stuff like Rookie Moves. My comics on PEN America and Popula that came out recently are reflective of what I want to do next.
RC: How long was it after you left San Francisco that you wrote these comics? Were you aware that you were documenting a city that no longer exists?
NG: I had just moved back to the Philippines when I started writing those, probably 3 years in. I always knew I had some stories to tell and that things were changing, especially after I moved. I just didn’t know the extent and the quickness of how the city was changing during the period that I was writing the comics from here.
RC: "Everlast" is a story whose central gag relies on a homeless man wearing an Everlast jacket. It also serves as a walking tour of San Francisco. Was it important for you to give the reader a strong sense of the city's flavor during the course of the comic?
NG: I didn’t really overthink it. It was just another part of my life living there and a running joke between me and Roy (other people in the neighborhood knew him too, like the guy who does my tattoos and Roy’s friend who owns a vintage clothing store).
It was the first story I pitched to Matt because it was the most mundane storyline, and I wanted to prove that I could write beyond pure spectacle. Today, I do regret not having shown more of my neighborhood for that comic, but my skills back then were very limited.
RC: Do you feel that writing about the "pure spectacle" aspects of your life is somehow cheating as a creator, like it's an easy shortcut?
NG: If the story of spectacle is one hell of a story, then I’m all for writing about it. I only think it’s cheating if you rely on spectacle alone to write all your stories. Gabrielle Bell is a master storyteller in my opinion because she could literally be watching paint dry and write an amazing story about that.
RC: As an author, you have an interesting relationship with the excesses of your own behavior. You seem to walk a line between worried about it and playing it up for laughs. Are there past stories that you read and cringe at, or is it all just fodder for good storytelling?
NG: I definitely cringe at past stories, especially from Malarkey #2 when I was going through a tough time. I try to avoid whiney autobio. But that’s where I was at at the time so that’s what I wrote about. In Malarkey #3, there are practically no substance abuse stories (not that I’m saying they didn’t happen, yuk! yuk!).
I’ve always had an impulsive and addictive personality, which is not a good combination, but at the same time I’m reasonable enough to remain a “functioning adult”. So there’s that conundrum of not really having a serious problem — by cutting it off right at the limit.
Let’s change the subject, haha!
RC: Okay. How did you develop your lettering style? Your letter size is bigger than most cartoonists, and you use interesting loops in places.
NG: I’ve always had horrible handwriting, so I have no idea where that came from. I do remember that in school, my friends would crack up at how neat my handwriting was when I had to write out visual presentations.
As they say, “Lettering is Drawing” so that probably explains that. I do hate that my lettering is so huge and I’ve been trying to adjust it, but it’s really hard for me.