A page from MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese
It’s not unusual for men to be treated as serious professionals early in their comics careers, even if they’ve only published a handful of work—to be profiled in the media or discussed alongside other, more well-known authors. It’s rare, however, to hear about young female creators before they’ve received some kind of stamp of approval: best emerging talent award, second graphic novel published at age 20, webcomic that’s suddenly everywhere. (And it’s not like they have a lot to look forward to later, if you hadn’t noticed the amazing disappearing woman writer exiting the room).
Bias in publishing comes as little surprise. The bias female novelists have found is certainly present in comics. A 2011 Ladydrawers study found that although women were submitting work to comics publishers at the same rate as men, men were much more likely to be published.
The all-male panel doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon in any field. I wanted to initiate a discussion series that pairs an emerging creator with a mid-career author, situating both on equal footing, to draw attention to new creators, give critical weight to their voices, and create a mutually beneficial dialogue on comics and work. MariNaomi, Kendra Yee, and I met online to discuss comics, publishing, journalling and autobiography.
Laura Kenins: What have you been working on today?
Kendra Yee: I have a deadline for working on a piece for Rookie. I’m putting together kind of a scrapbook of images of paintings that I’ve been working on over the last couple months. I’m at OCAD. We have our reading week so it’s a nice breather, but I have lots of ongoing projects. I’m going to New York for the MoCCA Comic Arts Festival in April, so it’s preparation mode for printing.
MariNaomi: Most of my time lately has been answering emails, setting up my book tour. My book’s going to be debuting at TCAF. It’s not for another four months, but I feel like I’m just constantly emailing. When I’m not answering emails, I’ve been trying to work on a new book about this woman, who used to be my friend. I’ve been ramping up to do this book for years but I feel like I’m finally ready. Right now I’m just going through old journals and reading all her old letters.
LK: Is that about the breakdown of the friendship?
MN: Yeah. Usually, when I’m writing memoir about people, I can ask them questions and check in with them, but this person and I are not friendly any more at all, so I can’t go to her. So I’m going through all my journals and all my agendas looking at how many times she’s mentioned and how many letters she’s sent.
KY: When you’re writing in journals it’s so in-the-moment, but to go back and have the full context of everything, it must be kind of an unusual experience.
MN: I’m still trying to figure it out. In a nutshell, she and I were friends for like 15 years and then suddenly she stopped being my friend, and I found out like 10 years later that the reason she stopped being my friend was not the original reason that ‘she didn’t think I was a very good friend.’ It turns out she was sleeping with my fiancé at the time behind my back. It’s strange, because I have a really good memory when it comes to old friends, but for some reason, I mentioned her 62 times in my journal in 1990 but I don’t have any solid memories of her at all. I know that’s probably some kind of defence mechanism, so I’ve been trying to bring back the memories. It’s fascinating, it’s weird.
LK: You’ve been posting a lot of journal excerpts on Tumblr recently, is that where that’s coming from, or is it a regular thing to go back through journals?
MN: I used to revisit journals all the time before I started doing memoir comics, but I think this is the first time I’ve gone back in a very, very long time and just read everything straight through—and wow, I was such a mess. The 20s, even the 30s … I don’t know how I survived this long.
LK: Kendra, what about you?
KY: I’ve never been a big journal person, I’ve always had scrap/sketchbooks, but never really wanted to record a lot of my thoughts just because I was never really good with writing words and sentences, so only recently I’ve come to a place of kind of recording my experiences through comics, and then I had a bit of a period where I was like ‘oh, nobody wants to hear all these tedious thoughts, why does there need to be a short story all about me,’ but I’ve kind of moved on from that. Write about what you know about, right?
LK: How did you move on?
KY: Just building confidence and seeing all these other young women who’ve been producing a lot, which is super inspiring. It’s good too, because I’m studying illustration and it’s kind of a boys’ club, so the alternative comics world is a larger voice of expression. If [artists] don’t have publishers, they can just put out whatever content they’re interested in doing.
MN: That is one of the great things—comics are still such a marginalized art form that we can just do whatever the hell we want. There’s a certain amount of freedom with that.
MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese
KY: It’s also a smaller supportive community and there’s more room for collaboration. And when you don’t see what’s being represented, you know you can put it into a quick booklet and distribute it, and those kind of smaller projects turn into larger-scale things. Recently I’ve tried to collaborate with a whole bunch of people from my school and people I’ve met online, and we’re working together to create this short publication of young women’s experiences and it’s really nice that you can just connect to people over email, in a collective vision.
MN: That’s cool, I remember doing that over letters, in the mail. It took a lot longer to get things done back then.
KY: This is just the first start-up run of it, so I really have no idea what the project’s going to turn out to be, but I’m excited to see what’s going to happen with it.
MN: Anthologies—I feel like they’re not huge moneymakers, but they’re so important for readers to find new people and just for the community in general.
KY: It’s a nice inspiration for seeing what people are out there. I find that there are a lot of separate platforms that people are using, but it’s nice to see a collection of works and overlapping similarities between all the different voices. And it’s always nice to pick up the print version of a book instead of scrolling through quickly online.
MN: I agree. I love holding books in my hands. I have no attention span when it comes to reading anything on the internet. Whenever I’m in a print-only anthology, there’s always this part of me thinking,‘I’m not getting a lot of eyes on this,’ but online, they’re not necessarily quality eyes, they’re on their phone, they’re in the middle of doing five other things, they’re in the bathroom.
KY: It’s a time you have to yourself, you can sit down and read through this.
LK: MariNaomi, you mentioned connecting with people through letters when you were getting started—could you talk a bit more about community then?
MN: I started making comics in 1997 and I would go to conventions and meet people there, but I didn’t really make a lot of friends, it didn’t even really occur to me that there was a community. I first started being really involved and knowing other cartoonists probably in 2005. I was aware of a community, because at the end of each comic there would be a letters page and you could see them talking to each other. I thought that was really cool. But it’s kind of like watching John Steinbeck and Kurt Vonnegut have a conversation. I wasn’t a part of it but it felt really cool to peek into that.
I didn’t really feel like I was a part of something until much later. Once I was, I had so much fun curating art shows and readings and anthologies, which was really fun but it was sooo much work, so I sort of backed away from that. I still run some databases: the Cartoonists of Color database and the LGBTQ Comics database. I’m not really involved with the community, but I feel like I’m helping the community.
KY: It’s nice to go through waves too—sometimes you’re really thirsty to focus on your own projects and be absorbed, but other times you want to see what other communities there are, to connect with other people.
LK: You were taking your work to conventions and participating but didn’t feel like you were a part of a community?
MN: I don’t really feel that way now but it took a long time to shake that feeling, the Imposter Syndrome, that I’m just sort of hitching along with all these people, but these guys are the real cartoonists, I’m just drawing.
I still feel it sometimes, when I give lectures sometimes, when I’m driving to the lecture, I’m always thinking in my head, who the hell are you to sit there and talk about yourself for two hours? I was talking to Trina Robbins, she’s a comics historian and she’s been doing this forever, since the ’70s. Years ago we had a joint lecture and I told her that I felt that way, and she said, ‘Oh yeah, that doesn’t go away.’ So if Trina feels that way, it’s okay for me to feel that way.
LK: Kendra, you were pretty young when you started doing comics for Rookie, right?
KY: Yeah—it’s kind of funny, because I met Tavi [Gevinson, Rookie editor] at a Toronto launch party, so I went down and I gave her this little portfolio. I started working for them when I was 16 or 17, so it’s really weird to look back at some of the older pieces that I’ve done. Which is good—I actually don’t mind older work. It’s a weird stage where I don’t mind seeing older works, but if it’s recent older works, I can’t look at it as much. If it’s last year—I just want to throw them all out, but four or five years ago …
MN: That must be reassuring, then, because you know that in several years, you’ll hate other work and you’ll be happy about this.
KY: It’s weird to me, because I’m a third-year student and there’s kind of an expectation that you have to have a definitive body of work by the time that you graduate.
MN: Yeah, I had a whole existential crisis when I turned 21 or 22 and I was not yet a bestselling novelist; I was so disappointed with myself. And I feel like that was kind of good because I got that out of the way. I’ll be 43 this year and I don’t give a shit.
KY: I feel like recently I have not spoken to any really confident 20-year-old, I was chatting with my friends last night and there was this conversation that came up, what is the point of producing all of this? And we were like, you’ve just got to do it, see what happens—maybe we’re entering this phase of the existential crisis.
MN: Power through it, it’s going to be okay!
KY: That’s reassuring to hear. I don’t even think about that, though, like some of my friends are getting published and I don’t even know what I want to get published, I can’t think of anything that I could commit to a longer narrative or a longer body of work. That’s why I feel like self-publishing is less of a risk in a weird way. It’s all your own doing and your own production. I guess it could be more of a risk because there’s no financial benefit, necessarily, but there’s more room for experimentation.
MN: It’s a really different experience. I have my third book coming out and a fourth one in the midst and I have two more that haven’t found homes, but I still self-publish because it’s a completely different experience; you don’t have to wait for years for your book to be in print. This book that’s coming out in May, I finished drawing it in 2013, but it just took so long for the whole process, and that can be really frustrating, because you know as soon as you finish your comic that you want to get it out there that second. I do, I want to say, “Hey, everybody, look at this!”
But in publishing, unless you’re self-publishing, you have to wait until they’re ready to cycle it in. I love the instant gratification of self-publishing, I’ll always do that to a degree, even though I don’t like so many aspects about it, but I really like being able to hold it in my hand and hand it to someone and say ,“Hey, look, I just did this.”
Publishing obviously has its good side: I really love having an editor when I need one, I love having other people say ‘this is good,’ because there’s always this self-doubt in my head, thinking ‘oh, I’m making this comic about me, who cares about this.’
KY: And it’s just another eye, because you get so involved with your own process sometimes, like I have situations where I’m just redrawing the same thing over and over again, this line isn’t right!, and it’s nice to have somebody who just wants the quality of your work to be the best that it can possibly be, it must be nice to have around.
MN: Before I had editors, I had my friends who had similar interests. None of them were cartoonists but they were writers, they could tell me if something was confusing or not. That’s always my biggest fear.
LK: How was the experience different with writers critiquing your work (as opposed to cartoonists)?
MN: I don’t get a lot of critiques from cartoonists. Recently, I started doing this thing—when I finish the pencils of a comic, I’ll ask people on the internet, people who follow me, not my friends: who has a couple hours tonight and wants to look this over? The last time, I had 12 or 13 people and that was so freaking helpful, because I felt like they had no emotional investment in making me feel good about myself, they had no financial investment, they were just going to tell me what they thought. What I was really looking for was a common thread. Previously, I did a five-page comic, it was pretty short, but I was paid a lot and I was really nervous about it. I showed it to my husband, and he said, “Oh, this is great,” and that’s not good feedback, so I showed it to a friend, and they said, “This is great,” and I said no, no, no, I know it’s not great, but I can’t figure out why.
So I went to the internet, I said, hey, does anyone have a couple minutes, could you just read through this and tell me if it works or not. People all got back to me with various things, however, there was one common thread, and they all had a problem with the third panel. And each person had a different problem with the third panel, so I basically ignored all that and said, okay, what’s wrong with this third panel, and I fixed it, and it’s a much better comic. But I highly recommend doing that if you can; it’s like having an editor, except with an editor, you have to do what they say. It’s better when you don’t have to do what they say.
LK: It sounds a bit overwhelming, having 13 editors!
MN: But you don’t have to listen to them! Especially if they all say different things—that just means it’s a very subjective thing. But if everyone has a problem with a panel, that’s such good feedback.
KY: I have this friend who does a lot of writing and poetry. We’ve collaborated on a couple narratives before and it’s so interesting to work with another person who sees in writing and words rather than visually. I found some of my best stories with her because it’s such a different process visualizing things together and also having somebody else to step back and know that we both appreciate our different strengths but also are able to critique that ability—the writing, the visuals—in order to have the best final vision. It’s such a different way of working, talking it through and coming together with somebody else to problem-solve.
Courtesy of Kendra Yee
MN: Kendra, when you work with Rookie, do they give you a lot of edits, or do they just let you do your own thing?
KY: Usually they’re pretty good with whatever content I put out. A lot of my narratives aren’t as dense or as long, more like shorter excerpts, so usually it’s finalized in one round of editing. But we’ve had longer pieces that go through longer rounds of rewording and finding out how you can make sure that the concept is still linear to the narrative.
LK: MariNaomi, talking about autobiography, you were saying that when you were younger you didn’t have as many stories and that you weren’t comfortable sharing them then.
MY: It’s not that I wasn’t comfortable with sharing them yet, it’s that I didn’t know how, formally. I didn’t have the skills to articulate them. This book that’s coming out this May, this is an event that happened in the late ’90s. It’s funny, because at the time I wanted to be a novelist; I wanted to write fiction novels; memoir was not even on my radar. It’s about working at Japanese hostess bars in California and Japan. I was excited about the opportunity to get this job, and there was a big part of me that said, well, if it turns out bad, at least I’ll have something to write about later.
By the time I was actually working at these bars and having these experiences, I was so bored with the experiences, like: these people are terrible, it’s really disappointing, my culture sucks. That was my attitude then. The actual story was really boring to me. It wasn’t until 2010 or 2009 that I found myself sketching the clothes that I was wearing in the ’90s and looking at old pictures and thinking, maybe I will write about this eventually. But it took a long time for me to get that nasty taste out of my mouth. So many good stories are not fun stories to live.
LK: Kendra, you’re working with autobiographical work too, so what specifically are you interested in retelling as comics?
KY: I started off with different characters and I would think, they’re so abstract, they don’t really have any relationship to my life, and a couple weeks later, I would reread them and realize I know exactly what this moment was referencing. So it was taking that distance, in a way, out of yourself and putting you back into your own projects.
I’m working with the idea that it’s okay to represent yourself as your own protagonist because that’s what you know, rather than inventing these characters to separate yourself from these experiences. It’s nice to really represent yourself. I’m at a point where it’s just documenting little day-to-day stories of relationships I’ve had with my peers and with my friends, journalesque story lines, and seeing where that will eventually lead. The smaller story lines might branch off into something larger, but right now I want to document every thought that comes into my head and hopefully save it for later.
LK: You said you’ve started doing more journal-like work, too?
KY: Yeah. I used to do a lot of sketchbook work because that kind of demanded imagery, but recently I’ve been trying to have a whole binder full of scrap drawings and scrap thumbnails of different narratives and seeing if I can kind of put those together into a larger booklet.
MN: My first book that came out, Kiss and Tell, was originally just a little story here, a little story there. My very first comic that I did in February of 1997 was about this guy I had a crush on, and it’s so funny, because when I started doing comics, I thought it’d be really cool to have my own comic, published by Fantagraphics or something, and that was my original fantasy. People kept telling me, if you want that, you have to come up with a theme, and I couldn’t come up with a theme. I had years and years of not coming up with a theme, and all of those years, I was just writing about the same damn thing. Then one day it just occurred to me, “Oh, I should just do a comic about all of those people that I crushed on.”
I mean, it was there all along, and I just didn’t realize it, but it’s good that I didn’t for so long, because all those years were really just me practicing. I think it’s good to just practice for a long time.
I know so many cartoonists who are known for being so honest! and so crazy! but when you actually know the people, they’re still holding back so much shit. Yeah, myself included.
KY: Do you think it’s better sometimes to have secret narratives just for yourself?
Courtesy of MariNaomi (Turning Japanese)
MN: I mean, I don’t think that everything is worthy of documentation, especially after going back through all of my journals and agendas. But I feel like certain things that are a little more scandalous are why people read books, not to be titillated or scandalized, but to see the worst thing that they’ve done reflected in other people and see, oh, I’m not a total asshole or a freak.
KY: I guess it’s also about taking that risk, because sometimes you don’t think that a story’s worth telling or distributing to a larger audience. I did this short comic about having a learning difference and processing information differently and it being a challenge in school. I didn’t even know if it’s a relatable topic, and it was really refreshing to hear a lot of comments saying yeah, this is a thing that’s not really discussed, so it’s nice to have a larger platform to talk about these issues and again, to have a relatable experience.
MN: That’s really cool. Even really unrelatable experiences—we as creators can make it relatable. We read for several reasons: one of them is to relate, and another is to have new experiences. Those two can go hand-in-hand, because as creators, we have the power to make something unrelatable relatable; to make you sympathize with the protagonist, yet also see the world through their eyes. So many people say, ‘Oh, I don’t think it’s relatable,’ and I’m like: Why? You want to see yourself in everything? Get outside of your box a little! I love reading about stuff that I haven’t experienced, because it makes me maybe not relate, but understand more about people around me.
KY: Even if it’s new experiences, or a relatable experience presented in a new way—that’s another interesting perspective to hear.
MN: I think nothing should be off-limits as far as what we can make art about. You can tell when someone’s making art about something they think is just going to get a lot of clicks that week. It feels phoned in, it’s really boring, but when people are really passionate about telling a story, you can really feel that. Even if they’re not telling it very well, you can feel the passion through the book and that’s really exciting.
Laura Kenins is a comic artist, writer and The Town Crier’s February guest editor. Find her other posts here, here, and here.
MariNaomi is a Los Angeles-based comic artist who has been making comics since 1997, working mainly with autobiography. She runs the online Cartoonists of Color and LGBTQ Comics databases. She is a featured guest at TCAF this May, where her third book, Turning Japanese.
Kendra Yee is an artist and illustrator from Toronto who draws comics for Rookie Magazine. She works with both personal and fictional narratives. She studies illustration at OCAD University and will also be exhibiting at TCAF this May.