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:
Field Guide to Official State Haircuts (2010)
WT: I came into comics as a humorist. One of my first comics, Reality Televisionary (2007) was literally about sitting in my parent’s attic with my friends, watching reality TV, getting stoned, and eating chips. Those were the type of comics I wanted to make! Fun, silly stuff about everyday life. State Haircuts was just a light thing I did one summer because I found the concept to be funny. I also LOVE field guides and read them at night to help me fall asleep.
WT: I loved this period of making comics. The stakes were so low, and it was so fresh and new! No one was really reading my comics back then, but my drive was super strong. At the time I was living in Los Angeles, teaching, being a confused 20-something, and missing my friends back in NJ. So I wrote about our fun times together. I remember that a friend from my teaching program found a discarded fish tank on the road in Crenshaw, near where we student taught and gifted it to me. I kept my minis in there and was so proud of them.
I drew them on computer paper with Microns and then posted them on my blogspot. Then I’d print them up at Kinko’s for shows. Onesies was eventually distributed by Domino Books, which was a really big deal to me. I had written to Sparkplug and Austin English, who was working for them at the time, took an interest in some of my work and decided to distro that and Watermelon when he started Domino Books.
WT: Good question. I think it was a case by case basis for those. Sometimes I would have the theme beforehand, but usually it was just the latest strips I’d made and I’d find a name that worked for it. But yes, the Attic had been a social space for me since high school and a place that generated lots of stories.
RC: Even though much of this was serious, it felt like getting all of this in print felt like a blast, like you had wanted to talk about it for a long time. Is this so? What kind of reaction has this mini received?
WT: Yes! I wrote this comic in 2011 and I felt like I was ready to go beyond my Madtown minis and make something a bit longer and more focused. I wanted to strike a tone between humorous and serious because the topic of race can be tricky for a “general audience”. I had so much to say that I had bottled up. At the time, I got positive feedback mostly from black folks and other people of color, as well as mixed-race couples who used it to start conversations in their family. In the larger indie comics world at the time though, I didn’t feel there was much interest in the comic.
Random aside: Once a woman picked it up at a show, paged through it, and was like, “You’re too young to have experienced racism”. My eyes almost popped out of my head.
RC: Part of your project as an artist seems to be coming from a place of being uncertain about a number of things and trying to figure it out on paper. What is it about that simultaneous urge to ask tough questions but refuse to rashly declare you have the answers that's such an inherent part of your make-up as a thinker and artist?
WT: I like to challenge myself to learn things and for people to see how I do that. I like the process of figuring things out on the page. Sometimes I wish I could be more fearless like I was earlier on, but after years of being told that I couldn’t draw or my work looked amateur, I started struggling with who I wanted to be and felt like I fell into this no-man's land between “good” art and “bad” art. As a creator, editor, and consumer of comics, I often wonder: Why do some folks get to make “art comics” while others don’t? Why do we gravitate towards some autobio versus others? What role does intention play in the art making process and how the work is received? Personally, I’ve struggled with insecurity as someone who didn’t go to art school and is largely self-taught, but I’ve always felt intentional in my cartooning.
RC: Is this related to your training in academia or is it part of your personality to combine that sense of wonder, open-mindedness and willingness to confront uneasy topics and concepts?
WT: I think it’s both!
WT: So, my comics like Onesies, Attic, Crocus, Adult Time, I would collectively call the Madtown Minis. I made like 10 of them or so over the course of a few years. Crocus was a return to that series after a bit of time away. I was in grad school, which made it hard to consistently make comics, and I was trying to return to that format. My drive and enthusiasm to make comics superseded my ability to draw them. As a result, I think you can see that raw, unpolished energy in those comics.
Adult Time (2012)
WT: I do miss making stuff like this. Nowadays it’s harder for many reasons. Now that I’m in my mid-30s, my social life is different. I am still friends with most of the people featured in those comics, but most are married, many have kids, and I feel more protective of all of our stories and moments. It’s harder for me to make light autobio, even though I occasionally post short ones on my Instagram. When I was in my 20s everything felt worthy of writing about. Everything felt new and unique and I had to relate it to the world and to try to connect to others with it. Now I feel boring and at times jaded. I feel like the details of my life are not particularly unique or interesting.
WT: I drew this comic after a holiday trip to the Museum of Natural History with my ex. My childhood cat had just died, I was having the winter blues, and dealing with some hard family stuff. I had a few weeks off from school where I could put my time into this wholeheartedly, so that’s what I did. That is my favorite museum and such a source of inspiration. The Teddy Roosevelt quotes seemed like a good way to provide structure and context to the story as well.
RC: You've alternated between autobio, fiction and commentary as your career has progressed. What's been the impetus to choose one or the other at a given moment?
WT: I like all of these forms of storytelling. Fiction is the most challenging for me, but I am moving more towards it because, in some ways, it frees me up to be more open. Like I said, as I move to protect more of my privacy and details of my life become less interesting to me, it just makes more sense. And non-fiction, comics journalism, is something that can be motivated by personal interests and experiences, but it’s largely removed and ideally objective. I love making these sorts of comics and am glad there is a place for it in my career and with readers.
RC: A through-line in your comics is finding ways to get outside yourself, either in comparison to the rest of humanity or the universe itself, or else reaching out to others. How important is it to you to remind yourself that we are not alone in our struggles or feelings?
WT: It’s super important to feel connected to the greater world and to others. I have always been a sensitive person. And a person with “high functioning” anxiety and depression. It’s easy to lose perspective when you feel like crap often. So I have to think larger than myself. We are quickly becoming a less empathetic society and having a connection to others and to our environment is crucial to surviving in this world.
RC: How does the above play out in you wishing our society did a better job in establishing a place to mourn?
WT: There is little place to grieve and mourn in this society, and as a result those things come out in strange and unhealthy ways in our culture. I like writing about hard stuff sometimes because life can be hard and I don’t see the point in running away from that.
RC: You've said that you love drawing flowers, and this comic saw you take on a huge number of things in the museum. Do you feel a kinship with artists like John Porcellino, who specializes in drawing nature?
WT: John is the best and I have always been inspired by his work. His line is simple, yet complex. His work is contemplative and poetic. Comics culture often equates detail, technical ability, slickness, etc. with quality, but I often find the work that impresses me the most is often the opposite of that.
I don’t know what it is about flowers, but I just love drawing them. I love how it feels to draw plants. Spending time outside, in the forest or in a garden is important to me. I also have always had an interest in plant identification, biology, and ethnobotany.
Madtown High 1-5 (2013)
RC: How much of this high school flashback story is true, and how much is exaggerated? Are you still in touch with some of these high school friends?
WT: It’s mostly true! My friends were pretty accurately portrayed. When I was publishing the stories online weekly, even other folks from my high school got into following it. My high school friends are still some of my best friends, which is kind of rare. We were all sort of weird and different, but our chemistry as a group made sense from the beginning.
RC: The one character I wish I knew more about in the series was Old Man Copper, whose appearance and demeanor really did make it seem like he was an old guy instead of a student. It's also a testament to the group's dynamics in that he fit in because he didn't really fit in anywhere--much like this group of friends. How did you decide which characters to give the tightest focus to?
WT: Haha, Old Man Copper...Yeah, his portrayal was pretty accurate. Side note: Old Man Copper had the largest pet cat that I’ve ever seen in my life to date. But yeah, none of us really fit in anywhere else. We also grew up in a largely red town and most of our parents were liberal, so maybe that was part of it too. I think I focused on the folks I spent the most time with on a daily basis.
RC: There's a level of enthusiasm in this comic that shines through, as if you couldn't wait to tell these stories and had figured out how. Was that something you felt at the time?
WT: Yes! At the time, this was the most ambitious project I had done. I set strict parameters: a story a week. And I think I finished it in under a year. I produced about 150 pages. I was so excited to work on this. It was a welcome reprieve, as I was working a desk job I hated at the time and I could come home and do this (I wrote the script at work though…). It’s evident too, that my drawing improved over the course of the story. The character design and line work get tighter and the hatching a bit less sloppy. But I do miss part of that rawness.
I wish more people had seen these stories because I’m still proud of them and I think they are relatable to the old millennial/xennial set. We are the only micro-generation that came of age at the advent of the internet. We have a foot in both worlds. After the Ignatz nomination, the book got some distro through small press distros, but no interest was expressed in collecting it. Maybe one day, in which case I would certainly re-letter!
Stethoscope Microphone (2013)
RC: This comic, done in a "Behind the Music" style, is a funny departure for you. How would you describe your own relationship with music, and to 70s and 80s funk in particular? What were your particular inspirations for the Doctors? What was it about Betsy Ross that inspired you to include her namesake as a hilariously powerful muse?
WT: I wrote this as I was going through a breakup. It was a much welcome diversion, to be honest. But yeah, honestly this is the most fun I’ve ever had working on a comic. It was so different from what I had previously done. In high school, a friend and I had a fake band called “The Doctors” which was based around the gimmick of wearing stethoscopes and dressing in drag. I had recently learned about Tony Clifton, Andy Kaufman's alter ego, and was obsessed! We’d just show up to places around my sleepy conservative town and dance around. Another friend came up with Betsy Ross, randomly when we would make these silly improv videos. Also, at the time, my brother, who is a musician, was really into funk, especially Parliament-Funkadelic. He eventually started a band with Bernie Worrell (P-funk/Talking Heads), who is also from Jersey. Their band was called the Bernie Worrell Orchestra and they practiced at my parent’s house. Bernie was the kindest soul and a huge mentor to my brother. They toured for years, so I was around that stuff for a while.
RC: This encounter between the Jersey Devil and a down-on-his-luck investment banker draws in a number of your favored themes, including New Jersey, loneliness and isolation, and tremendous empathy for your characters, no matter what their background. Was the Jersey Devil something you thought about a lot as a kid? What led you to use it as a metaphor for isolation?
WT: I made this comic over a week during my CCS workshop! I’ve always had an affinity for the Jersey Devil and especially so after I went camping in the Pinelands (Pine Barrens) in South Jersey. That area has a unique ecology and history. The “Pineys,” the colloquial term for folks who live in this isolated area, have a localized culture and the Jersey Devil is part of the lore there. I wanted to challenge myself while there to do something that was not auto-bio. But yes, some of the themes are the same!
The Anthropologists (2014)
RC: This seemed to be the peak of a certain kind of comic that you did, where your own lack of certainty regarding your place in the world coincided with a genuine curiosity and emotional and intellectual openness with regard to others. In the comic, your counterpart Wren is open to experiencing aboriginal culture and actually engaging with others in a way that Miriam, the other student with you is not. How much of this is a comment on anthropology as a discipline, and how much of it was a commentary on her being less an anthropologist and more a foreign experience tourist/collector? How much of this experience is exaggerated and how much was based on real experiences?
WT: Most of this story is based on the actual experience I had. I was an anthropology major in college and was very interested in Native American history. I studied abroad at the University of Western Australia in Perth, which had an Aboriginal Studies program. Given that I was one of the few anthropology study abroad students, I was given the chance to go up into the Kimberley Desert for a week with another student to go visit some aboriginal settlements. The story portrays where I was at the time: in college, questioning my identity and my major. I wanted to study and learn about culture because I felt disconnected from my own ancestral cultures. I found anthropology to be both fascinating (like learning about different kinship patterns or cultural relativism) but also very colonialist and imperialist. The “us” versus “them” thing became more evident during the trip, as well as my connection the multiracial diasporas that exist around the world. Also, the three of us on the trips were all misfits with backstories unknown to each other. I wanted to capture that.
I’m glad that Virginia Paine at Sparkplug gave me the freedom to do this story and put her trust in me. Although Dylan was no longer with us by this time, I feel fortunate that I could contribute to the legacy of this publishing house that was formative to my cartooning.
RC: This is the first anthology you edited. What led you to put this together? Did you approach Dan Mazur of 9th Art, or did he approach you?
WT: I was living in Boston at the time and had become friends with some of the Boston Comics Roundtable/MICE folks, including Dan. My first published comic was in one of BCR’s anthologies that Dan edited. It was about a beaver who became friends with Frank Lloyd Wright. Anyhow, Dan asked if I wanted to edit the next anthology, and subcultures was the idea I came up with.
RC: You note in the introduction that as someone with a degree in anthropology, you were always interested in subcultures. What about them drew you in? Was this related to feeling like you were part of several subcultures yourself?
WT: I thought that subcultures would be the ideal anthology theme because it would allow folks to write memoir or other non-fiction pieces. They could write the familiar or research something obscure. And of course, comics is a subculture too, so we all had that sort of sensibility already.
RC: Your own story is a hilarious yet ultimately sympathetic account of one man and his Real Doll. What drew you to tell this story in particular?
WT: I saw this BBC documentary called “Guys and Dolls” back then, about men who had relationships with Real Dolls. I mean, it was funny and outlandish in many ways, but I was interested in what needs were getting met by these men and how they functioned (or didn’t) in society. I wanted to take the chance and write a character that I did not particularly identify with (other than being somewhat lonely at the time). It was challenging, but I always attempt to challenge myself in some way with each project.
RC: What were your favorite entries in this book? What did you learn editing the anthology that you brought to bear on later projects?
WT: I’m glad for everyone who was able to contribute! It’s hard to say what my favorite was, but I was so happy to have Alex Robinson contribute his Star Wars piece. I learned so much from pieces such as E.J. Barnes comic on Ham Radio Operators or Melinda Tracy Boyce’s comic on the Herero Tribe. It was apparent to me what a talent Hazel Newlevant was by their piece on homeschooling. It was cool to see Andrew Greenstone go on to cover more subcultures for The Nib. And to see Dan Mazur’s piece resonate with lots of folks in the Esperanto community.
I learned a lot doing that anthology. I made some mistakes and did some things inefficiently. But overall, I was happy with the end result. It made me want to keep getting better and to figure out what my editorial style is. I want to do more anthologies in the future, but they are a lot of work!
Updown Clown (2014)
RC: I saw this as a big breakthrough, in your sensitive and accurate depiction of Gabe Scallop, a clown who happens to suffer from bipolar disorder. Like in many of your comics, there's an overwhelming feeling of sympathy that comes through for his character without giving him easy answers or letting him off the hook for his actions. What inspired this character, beyond the struggles of those close to you?
WT: In college, when I was taking a screenwriting course, I wrote the first version of Updown Clown. It was mostly a slow, very 00s, slice-of-life love story about a shy, socially awkward birthday clown who falls in love with a “normal” person. I came back to it years later, after finishing Madtown High, but wanted to add another dimension to it.
I struggle with depression/anxiety, but this was mostly based around having empathy for both those with mental illness and their loved ones/caretakers, who we usually forget about. When I was in grad school, I took a mental healthcare class and did a paper on the lack of support for family members of those with severe/persistent mental illness. I wanted to show empathy for all involved.
RC: This comic appears to have been particularly well-thought-out with regard to page design, with unusual panel configurations and a focus on facial-close-ups. Did you feel that you were more carefully constructing the pacing of this comic more than others you had done in the past?
WT: I did. With this comic, I intentionally tried to simplify my linework and eliminate any extra hatching. I wanted to give it more of a slow, melancholy feel.
RC: This is the most personal and powerful work of art that you've published to date. Did you have any trepidation in writing it, first of all, and publishing it, second of all?
WT: I struggled with cartooning for months before making this. Something that helped was abandoning panels with a short-lived series I did on Tumblr called Saturn Return (2014) and switching up some tools, a suggestion my buddy Rob Kirby made when I was feeling stuck. I consider this the beginning of an artistic shift. It was different in that I didn’t have a cohesive script to work with, but just let it happen, not knowing where it would lead fully. I was scared to publish it, but it was my life at that time. Even when it was re-published by Rosarium, it took me a while to agree to go forward with it, because part of me wanted to just move on. Bill Campbell (Rosarium), thought it was important work and encouraged me to collect it with some other short stories.
RC: The concept is actually quite light-hearted, almost whimsical, as you are slated to meet your idols. Was the progression (Charles Darwin, Joseph Campbell, your past self) the plan all along, or were their earlier versions where you met Marilyn Monroe?
WT: The earlier version included Marilyn Monroe and Captain Beefheart, but I couldn’t make it work. I didn’t plan to put myself in there until it just happened. Then I was like, “Oh, this makes sense.”
RC: Each idol you encounter is personally important to you because he helped you make sense of the world and your current journey in it: Darwin and the whole phylogeny/ontogeny thing, Campbell with the hero's journey really being about staying present in the moment; and your past self and asserting your own humanity after trauma. Were their other examples you thought about using instead for these themes, or different examples for slightly different themes?
WT: I might have had a list of other potential people, but I can’t remember. The “Sweet Williams” bit with the older woman was a story I wrote in the hospital, which I refer to at the end of Ghost. Like I said, I felt really scared and somewhat aimless making it at first, but then it just fell into place and I made it pretty quickly.
“Gestures”: a collaboration with Simon Reinhardt, for Dog City Issue 4
WT: This was a fun project! Simon and I tried a few different stories and formats but ultimately settled on this one. I was a bit challenging at first because we were unsure, but once we decided on the “gestures” part, we felt freed up and finished it pretty quickly.
RC: Originally published by accident at a small size, it turned out nicely. Did you mean for this to have the look and feel of a children's book?
WT: The summer I wrote that I was at a day job that was exhausting because my commute was 1.5 hours long each way. I wanted to draw something fun and soothing. I like drawing patterns and using markers, so I built the story around the art, which was a first for me, really. I also wanted to do a story without drawing people; just evoking them. It does look like a kids book! But I honestly get that with most of my art. Most of my shows involve me telling parents that my books are not for kids.
RC: This is a story about the kinds of details that children find significant but adults might not understand, coalescing in a narrative about a grandmother's failing health. Was this story driven by the images that were so bright and powerful initially, or did you have a narrative in mind ahead of time?
Was this also a commentary on the way children often appreciate things for their aesthetic, rather than practical, value?
WT: I wanted to focus on the power of “flash-bulb” memory. Those intense visual memories that stick with you. My childhood home was a starting point and I used memories from my youth that were connected to specific visuals. Some were actual patterns, like wallpaper, and others were found patterns, like toppings on a pizza.
Passing #1 (2015)
RC: While the details are somewhat cryptic, this is clearly a story about a young woman trying to find out answers about her mother. In particular, she's trying to make a connection between her mom and a white woman from her mom's past, who was apparently a friend.
Given your own multiracial background, how personal was this story for you? As a historian as well, were you inspired by particular events in writing this story, or is it just an aggregation of familiar details?
WT: This story was based on a screenplay I wrote years ago, that I adapted for the comic format. And yes, it was inspired by real life, personal events. There is so much I’d love to talk about in regards to this story, but my plan is to re-approach it and make it into a longer work down the line, so I don’t want to go into too much detail yet!
Comics For Choice (2017)
RC: What was the genesis of his project? What was it like co-editing it, and how did your previous experience in editing an anthology come into play here?
WT: After Trump was elected, I think that many of us in the comics community wanted to use our skills to do something to affect positive change. Hazel approached me about the possibility of co-editing a comics anthology with O.K. Fox, that would have proceeds go to a healthcare cause of some sort. We settled on abortion rights, given the persistent threat to accessible, safe and affordable abortions. Around that time, I was working as a clinical health educator and doing options counseling with women, after giving them the results of their pregnancy tests. I saw how hard it was and how many barriers were in place, even in a place like New York state.
I think that my previous editing experience came in handy, but I certainly learned a lot from Hazel as well, who is a brilliant editor/publisher. The three of us made some of the decisions together (such as what ultimately made it into the book/editing stories), but also split up and focused on different aspects of the process.
The Nib (2016-19)
WT: I think I may have reached out years back, but didn’t work with them until 2015 when Eleri Harris reached out to me about doing a comic for International Women’s Day. I’ve known Eleri through indie comics for years and she is now the editor that I work with the most.
RC: Your work for The Nib really seems to hit your academic sweet spots: politics, culture, science, epidemiology, race, and cultural history. How has writing for them different from your other projects? Are you at a point where you can pitch them an idea and they'll likely accept it?
WT: I love making work for The Nib. Making comics for them felt like a turning point for me, because it allowed me to work in a format that felt very natural and intellectually satisfying, and it helped me grow a much larger audience for my work. Making educational comics really helped me feel more confident and focused as a cartoonist. At this point, I generally pitch to them when I have an idea. Not all of my ideas get accepted, but they are generally pretty open and receptive to them!
RC: Which of your pieces stands out the most to you from a personal level? Which do you think turned out the best?
WT: Personally, The Fabric of Appropriation felt like an artistic leap for me. It helped me solidify the type of format that I generally work with for The Nib. What is Race was the hardest to do given the topic and tone I aimed to strike and was really rewarding. I think I am proudest of that one and the Pandemic comic because I’ve been wanting to write about that topic for ages and it took a great deal of time to communicate those ideas clearly. I’ve also teamed up with other artists recently to do public health history comics, which has been fun.
Fizzle 1-2 (2017-18)
RC: Your latest nonfiction series about retail hell seems excruciatingly well-sourced. This is also your funniest work, with withering takes on boutique retail, twentysomething ennui, and rich-kid stoners. It seems to be about fighting through that process to claim something, anything for yourself creatively. What were the particular inspirations for this series? Is it easier to write about twentysomethings now that you're a little bit older? What was your process like in drawing his particular series, as you seem to have come into your own personal style nicely here?
WT: Thanks! The main inspiration for this is from different parts of my twenties, especially living in Los Angeles, but it is definitely not autobiographical. I also had childhood friends who got a deal on Shark Tank and it made me think, how does one do that? What does product successful entrepreneurship involve? I look at the main character Claire and identify with her in many ways, but it is nice to have a bit of emotional distance. I don’t want to give away too many details because there’s still much to come (Radiator will be publishing it), but I hope that it continues to be subtle, wacky, and brutally honest.
RC: The final story in your Ghost Stories collection (which also includes Ghosts and Wallpaper, published by Rosarium) is more akin to Fizzle than your other comics. It's about the slow breakdown of a friendship after high school, one that seemed incredibly strong. The character of Hope is a memorable one, as she's portrayed as being unloved by her biological family and turned to Tessa and others as a family-of-choice, only to abandon them to a co-op in college. It also tackles another favored subject: how to maintain a life as an artist while trying to eke out a living. How has your approach changed now that you're doing more fiction, and how have you incorporated the experiences of yourself and others into these comics?
WT: Makers was based on a true story and one that was painful. We all have “friend breakups” and sometimes we don’t know why these relationships dissolve. This story was presented from one-side and did not give greater context about Tessa. That was intentional. I wanted to show the seemingly linear, stories we run through our heads about why something does or doesn’t work out; the ones with no answer that you just have to accept.
RC: Apart from Fizzle, what else are you working on?
WT: I’m still doing short form webcomics, which I hope to always do! I recently finished writing a YA graphic novel on Harriet Tubman, for the CCS series, which will be published by Disney/Hyperion. I am also working on a long-form story right now which is fictional but loosely based on real-life events. I am leaning more into intentionally crafting characters and scenarios while protecting the details of my own story. Fizzle has helped me with this. I freelance edit too, which I like. I enjoy helping people make the books they want to make. I just want to put good comics out into the world. That’s it, really.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential, tcj.com,
sequart.com, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (highlowcomics.blogspot.com).