March 17, 2014

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Rob Kirby Interviews Kelly Froh

I first became aware of the minicomics of Kelly Froh a few years ago and pretty much became an instant fan. On his Spit and a Half website, John Porcellino describes her comics as "sweet-natured but merciless," which is about as apt a description of Froh’s work as one could find. In sparely-drawn, straight-talking autobiographical vignettes Froh limns her triumphs and travails, ranging from childhood experiences to college life, moving on through employment and unemployment woes, disastrous dates, her wacky (and often appallingly cheap) relatives, as well as chance encounters with everyday nutjobs. 

She also offers up detours into less-traveled auto-bio territory, such as The Greatest, a zine composed of affectionate portraits of some of the elderly residents in an assisted living home where she works, and Samson, an illustrated history of the titular figure, namely a famous gorilla who resided at the Milwaukee Zoo for many decades. You just never know just what will flow out of her pen next, which is one of the reasons I so look forward to new issues of her multifarious comics and zines. Froh, involved in a longtime relationship with talented cartoonist Max Clotfelter, is also one of the co-founders of the increasingly popular annual Short Run comics festival in Seattle. I caught up with her recently via email to discuss her work, Short Run, and Max. Here's what she had to say. 

Rob Kirby: When and where did you get started in comics? Did you plan a comics career (or sub-career) or was this a more spontaneous evolution?

Kelly Froh: I started drawing comics in 1999 or so? I had always drawn, and loved telling stories, but I did not put the two together until I was in my twenties. A boyfriend at the time helped me make my first mini-comic and I fell in love with the format. My friends Betsy & Trent DeBoer were putting out issues of “Shovel Bum” which was a comic-zine about archaeology adventures, and they encouraged me to send my mini-comics out for review. That kind of started it all for me, as I started trading with others and making friends through mini-comics. I never imagined that comics would become such a big part of my life, it was always just a hobby for me. I am happy for it though, because what else am I going to do when I get home from work, watch TV and go to bed? It means a lot to me that I have something else to care about. 

Kirby: Who and/or what do you claim as influences? Do you see yourself as a part of any particular group or school of cartoonists?

Froh: My biggest influence has been Lynda Barry in drawing and writing styles. The lessons I learned from “What It Is” and the workshop I took with her have changed my life. Her techniques for recalling details really work! Others would be Julie Doucet, Debbie Drechsler, John Porcellino, and the dozens of pen pals I have traded comics and zines with over the years, mostly auto-bio cartoonists. 

My friend and co-organizer of Short Run Eroyn Franklin is also a huge influence on me because she helps me solve problems, is always open to discussing my work, and helps to make it better. Her level of perfection and craft is an inspiration - I won’t ever make work like hers, but she pushes me to go further than I normally would on my own. I’m not part of any school really, but I’d love to be included if there is a report on the resurgence of indie comix in Seattle in the 2000’s! 

Kirby: One of my single favorite stories of yours is from your zine Slither, where you recount a miserable date you had with someone whom you'd hit it off with online, long distance, only to find that he had completely misrepresented himself and made zero effort on the date itself. Did you have any qualms about revealing such a personal and depressing experience? Or are these sorts of situations cathartic for you to relate?  


Froh: I should clarify that I think we both misrepresented ourselves a little bit. Although I sent him photos of me, real full body photos, and all he ever sent to me was one with half his face cut out of the shot, with like an orange filter so you could barely see him, and then a tiny band photo where I couldn’t even tell which one was him. I told him that the daughter of a friend of mine said I looked like Kate Winslet, and I think he held on to that with all his might. So I didn’t really have a chance at all. 

I felt drawing that comic was a way to beat a lesson into me - I mean, I spent hundreds of hours on the phone with guy who I never met, had phone sex a dozen times, and even developed “loving” feelings and the minute we saw each other, it all meant nothing. I was really embarrassed by the whole thing. I wanted to share that embarrassment with other people. I wanted others to know that’s real life.  

Kirby: Do you have a personal favorite among your many zine titles?

Froh: “The Greatest” has meant the most to me, because it contains portraits of seniors I have known and loved. Also, I worked on that book with my best friend from college Manfred Naescher, who now lives in Berlin. I was excited to work with him on something even though we were so far away from each other. It’s also my most accessible book as far as palatable content, and the one that I spent the most time and effort on as far as drawing the best I could! 


Kirby: Tell me how Short Run came about. What were your primary reasons for co-creating it?

Froh: I was in the right place at the right time. I was at the first meeting of a drawing night with a few new women friends when it was discussed that we should start our own small press festival here in Seattle. We felt that the work we were making, and the work we were fans of, was not being represented at the larger “cons”, and that self-published, handmade, and underground comics, zines, and art books needed their own day. It’s funny when you make a decision to do something, all you think about it the end result and how awesome it will be. We certainly did not know how much work it would be, or how we’d grow the festival every year, or how far we would take it. 

Kirby: Where do you hope to see the festival going in the next few years?

Froh: Every year we are faced with the challenge of “what next?" This year we are inviting international artists to attend, creating site-specific performances, and growing the festival by a few more tables than last year. We have some other things in the works that I can’t speak about yet, too! You can expect that every festival will be a little different, always with quality work, but the themes, performances, satellite events, will always be something new and exciting. 

Kirby: I think of you and your partner, Max Clotfelter, as a sort of new millennium R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb - no seriously. What is it like being in a relationship with another cartoonist? Are there ever any rivalries, jealousies or conflicts? 

Froh: (Laughs!) One of my pals Sean Christensen said recently that he could never be in a relationship with one of the “normals” because he wanted to be with someone always creating something, always working on something, and that that person would understand what it’s like to struggle with the creative process. I think that’s true for Max and I too - it means so much to have your partner give you that space and that time when you are sitting at your desk staring forward at nothing, or when you are freaking out when you smeared ink or something. 

We both have our own ways of working though, and there is frustration there when we see each other do things that we wouldn’t do ourselves. I am sometimes more upset with his procrastination than my own! There is no jealousy though. Our styles are so different, that we are going to be given different opportunities as a result. What it comes down to is, we really want to see each succeed, whatever that means in this stupid world of indie comix. 

Kirby: Here’s a totally random stupid question: How many of the 50 states have you visited? Remember: Airports don’t count.

Froh: Ha! Hmm...it looks like only 17. [Editor's note: Piker. I'm at 24! -RobM]

Kirby: To wrap up, tell me what you are working on now. 

Froh: I am writing a follow-up to “The Cheapest S.O.B.s ” and “Debbie’s Story” called “Nasty Day,” it’s about my grandma’s funeral (it’s going to be HI-larious!). I’m also developing a performance about the 3 issue series where I tell the story of this particular set of grandparents. One of the aims of the performance is to get the audience to actually think I’ve gone too far in making fun of them, and then I’m going to unleash a splash of truth that will hopefully bring them back to my side. 

Also, Short Run is already in the process of grant writing and correspondence with international artists we are interested in helping travel here for our festival. It turns out you have to book venues 11 months in advance in this town, so we are doing that too, along with lots of other behind the scenes planning. Short Run is my year-round, never-ending art project! 

Kirby: We really look forward to all that, Kelly. You can check out all of Kelly’s latest happenings online at: www.cargocollective.com/kefroh and on her blog: www.kellyfroh.blogspot.com