MariNaomi, a Los Angeles-based cartoonist, has made a name for herself as memoirist of sorts. She found acclaim with her graphic novel Kiss and Tell: A Romantic Resume Ages 0-22 (Harper Perennial, 2011) and continues to self-publish as well. Her work can be found through many online venues and anthologies (too many to list in fact!). Her latest book Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories will be released by publisher 2D Cloud shortly. I was able to read her work and was very excited to have the opportunity to catch up with her about her new book, her thoughts on autobiographical cartooning, and her creation process.
Whit: How did you come up with the idea for Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories?
MariNaomi: Shortly after my first book, Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22, came out, I was in a lost place, in between projects. A friend shared a link to the Dear Sugar advice column (by Cheryl Strayed) on the Rumpus, the one where Sugar gives advice to a writer who is blocked. I immediately dropped everything and spent the next couple days reading all the Dear Sugar columns. I was taken not only by Sugar, but the entire Rumpus community. This wasn’t like other websites, where you want to avoid the comments. The comments were kind of where the magic happened, in fact, and I knew I wanted to be a part of this. So I contacted the comics editor, Paul Madonna, who asked me what kind of stories I had in mind. I wrote two dozen pitches for short memoir comics and he chose which ones I should start with. The stories he picked were more serious and emotional, and that set me down my path. Those became the series “Smoke In Your Eyes,” which is what the majority of Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories is composed of.
Whit: How did you end up working with 2D Cloud?
MariNaomi: 2D Cloud approached me to do a story for their anthology supporting marriage equality, Little Heart. It’s something I felt strongly about, they were respectful (in that they offered a modest page rate), and I was glad to do it. When I saw the final product I was super impressed. They had done an excellent job curating the book, and the printing was beautiful.
They later approached me for another anthology, Every/Body Zine, and sometime later, after an impassioned Facebook chat about video games with Raighne Hogan, I realized how much I liked and respected them. At the time my agent (Gordon Warnock of Foreword Literary) was beginning to pitch my book Turning Japanese, and I asked if he’d pitched 2D Cloud. He hadn’t, but it wasn’t long before we were giddily putting a contract together. (Turning Japanese will also be published by 2D Cloud, in 2015.)
Whit: What has the experience been like?
MariNaomi: I’ve only worked with a couple of other publishers, the last one being Harper Perennial. I got a lot out of it (for example, I was working with a brilliant editor), but I was eager to see what it would be like working with a smaller press. So far the experience has been like a dream! They’ve put so much care and love into my projects. I went from feeling like a tiny pet project for a mega-corporation to feeling Truly Special with these guys.
Also, both 2DC and my agent are younger than I am, with fresher ideas. I’m kind of a curmudgeon when it comes to comics—I like reading them on paper, I can’t stand when artists don’t hand-letter—so it’s good for me to have a forward-thinking team to take me where I wouldn’t otherwise consider going.
Whit: You mention in the earlier parts of Dragon's Breath that you were a writer initially. How did you transition from writer to cartoonist?
MariNaomi: I wrote two terrible novels before I fell in love with comics, and after a few years I thought, “Why not?” and started drawing my own as a hobby. The urge to write prose is still there, although I haven’t written fiction in years. Lately I’ve started writing essays, and that’s been incredibly rewarding. I’m not sure I’m that great at it though, as I’ve grown rusty at using just words. I’m used to heavily leaning on the visual element.
Whit: You write that you were mostly self-taught after dropping out of high school. Does this mean artistically as well? How did this affect your development as both a writer and artist?
MariNaomi: I stopped attending high school mid-sophomore year. I just wasn’t getting anything out of it, despite my good grades. So I quit school, got a job, and started self-educating. I started by reading a ton of books and making sure I wrote and drew every day. When I reached college age, I gave it another go and enrolled in a couple of classes at the community college. But I found the whole sitting-in-a-chair-being-taught-stuff experience frustrating. My Psych 101 professor, for example, was a child psychologist, which meant, in his case, he taught the class straight from a text book, but focused on child psychology whenever he could. I didn’t give a shit about child psychology.
The problem with general education for me was that I didn’t want to be told what I should know, I wanted to focus on the knowledge that I found interesting. Which is exactly what I ended up doing. Now I know a ton about brush pens, paper weight, the Chicago Manual of Style and internet marketing, whereas I know next to nothing about statistics, Home Ec and the Spanish American War.
This all helped me build up the skills that I want while not wasting brain power on stuff I find irrelevant.
Mind you, I don’t look down on education as a whole. I think it’s very important for so many people. It just didn’t work for me.
Whit: What was your experience like writing about your childhood? Did you find it easier or more challenging than writing about your later life?
MariNaomi: I am so far removed from my childhood and adolescence, writing about those times doesn’t feel very personal. Which is great—I can mold those memories into any kind of story that I want! It gets trickier with more recent stories. I’ve had less time to process and draw conclusions about them. Plus I remember too many details, so it’s easy to get bogged down in irrelevant chatter.
Whit: One of the themes throughout your book is relationships, particularly dysfunctional ones (struggles concerning control, violence, conflict resolution, trust, monogamy, and commitment). Why do you find yourself returning to this theme?
MariNaomi: I spent most of my teens and twenties hopping from relationship to relationship. By the time I reached my thirties, I wasn’t sure how much of my personality was me, and how much of it was composed of my relationship selves. Which seems silly to me now—all of it was me! But I was only able to figure that out once I spent some time as a single person.
To answer your question, I can’t say for sure why some subjects grab me and others don’t, but I suspect all that time I spent working on failed relationships has something to do with it.
Whit: Throughout your various experiences, what’s one of the best relationship lessons that you’ve come away with?
MariNaomi: Being alone is not only valuable, it’s awesome.
Also, when relationship gurus say you’ve got to compromise to have a successful relationship, that doesn’t mean you have to compromise your happiness. Compromising is for little stuff, like doing the dishes when you don’t feel like it. You should always be happy.
Whit: Another theme is that of mental health and emotional stability. Again, why did you choose to focus many of your stories on this?
MariNaomi: For the longest time, my biggest fear was of going crazy. I think it’s the loss of control thing—I was a huge control freak when it came to myself. I’m not as concerned with it these days, maybe because I know some amazing nut jobs.
Even so, I’m fascinated by mental health and what it does for (and against) people. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had a lot of exposure to homeless folks who had mental problems but couldn’t get the help they needed. It was incredibly sad, and it’s a problem that needs to be fixed. I have no idea how to do this, but telling stories that reveal that hey, these guys are as human as you and me... Well, I’m hoping to at least draw attention to the problem.
Whit: What purpose does autobio serve for you?
MariNaomi: Its purpose has changed a lot over the years. It used to be cathartic, a way to process stuff that happened. Nowadays, I’m more focused on telling a good story than using it for my own selfish needs. This makes for a better story, but it also makes the process harder, especially when I’m writing about something painful. When I’m spending weeks writing and drawing something traumatic, it’s like I’m living it all over again.
Whit: Do you think that being an autobio cartoonist/writing candidly about your life makes people treat or view you and your work differently?
MariNaomi: Absolutely. For one thing, when many people review memoir, they tend to review the author’s life rather than the story and how it’s told. A lot of judgment gets placed on my lifestyle, whereas if I’d given it a fictional guise, I wouldn’t get the same criticism. I’ve talked to a lot of writers who do both memoir and fiction, and they all say the same thing. They could write about smoking a joint in a bathroom as a teenager and get a bunch of flack about it, but if their fictionalized teen character shoots heroin, no one bats an eye.
Whit: What’s the biggest misconception that the comics world has about autobiographical comics and cartoonists?
MariNaomi: That we’re telling the whole story! Which is impossible to do, first of all. That’s the hardest thing for me when I’m writing about an event in my life, figuring out what to leave out. When it’s you, every detail seems relevant and somehow interconnected. But a reader isn’t going to see it that way. For example, I left a lot of stuff out of Kiss & Tell, including stories about my first girl kiss and my first girl crush. The former would have derailed the entire book, as it was so complicated, and the latter didn’t really add to the story. (You can find the latter in Northwest Press’s anthology, Anything That Loves, which came out at the end of 2013.)
Autobio fans are often fooled into thinking they know you from what you write, but that’s not the case at all. They know what you show them. People reading Dragon’s Breath might get the impression I’m a serious, morbid person, whereas in reality I’m all about fart jokes and cute animals.
It’s like judging a person from their Facebook feed—you get the edited version, all good hair days, vacation photos and fancy meals. They don’t post about yelling at their kids or all the time they’re wasting looking at internet porn. People are all basically the same: we’re all really boring.
Whit: Can you talk a little about using restraint/judgment/privacy when doing autobio comics?
MariNaomi: My golden rule is to tell my own secrets, not other people’s. I’m also careful not to disclose too much identifying information. I don’t personally care much about privacy, but my mom does, so I’m respecting her wishes. It’s why I use a pseudonym.
Whit: Have you ever made misjudgments concerning what to disclose?
MariNaomi: Yes, unfortunately that happened a couple of times. For example, I once made a comic about a friend who got duped by a fake dating profile. I didn’t think it would be a problem—I disguised his identity, plus I had no idea that he was embarrassed by the story. Looking back on it now, it’s obvious that I crossed a line. Even though I played a small part in the story as his dating advisor, it wasn’t my story to tell.
When he got upset about the comic, that’s when I created my golden rule.
Whit: Do you think you have a storytelling style or rhythm? And if so, how would you characterize it?
MariNaomi: My friend, mentor and hero, Rob Kirby, once called me a “master of minimalism,” and that made me very happy.
Whit: How has your art evolved over the years? Was this a conscious choice to simplify your line? You tend to use either streamlined backgrounds or none at all. Can you talk a bit more about your decision to mainly focus on people?
MariNaomi: The minimalism was born out of necessity. Drawing has always been a time-consuming process for me, so when I started making biweekly comics for the Rumpus, I had to speed up my process by a lot. I figured out techniques to cut some corners. But more importantly, I learned to cut out what wasn’t necessary. I believe that paring-down process improved my work significantly. Cutting the crap is an important part of keeping a reader’s attention.
Whit: Do you read comics? If so, can you name a few artists whose work you admire?
MariNaomi: Oh there are so many! The first indie comic that won me over was Scott Russo’s Jizz, published by Fantagraphics. The comic that made me want to make my own comics was Mary Fleener’s Slutburger, in particular her story “The Jelly,” which is a tale about her promiscuous roommate. I thought, “Hey, I have stories like that!” I’m also a huge fan of so many: Phoebe Gloeckner (who I had the great pleasure of getting to know at an artist retreat last summer), Rob Kirby (whose autobio Curbside strips I followed religiously, in the days before I drew comics myself), Carol Tyler (whose recent You’ll Never Know trilogy is my favorite graphic anything of all time). I could write a list of hundreds of excellent comics, but I’ll spare you.
Whit: Any words of wisdom for aspiring cartoonists?
MariNaomi: Have patience. Developing your own style and storytelling skills takes time and a lot of effort. Take figure drawing classes. Try not to copy others’ styles, just draw what you see.
When you start out, chances are that you’ll feel invisible at first. Keep putting your work out there, using every platform you’ve got available. Eventually people will notice.
Whit: What's one thing you want the world to know about you that is completely unnecessary to share?
MariNaomi: I have one stinky armpit, but the other one doesn’t smell at all. What’s up with that?
Whit: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!