August 25, 2014

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SPX Spotlight 2014: Liz Prince Part 1-The Interview

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Today, Panel Patter is extremely pleased to be double-spotlighting autobiographical cartoonist/zinester, Liz Prince, starting with this extensive interview and also including a review of her new graphic memoir from Zest Books, Tomboy. 

Liz Prince has been creating autobiographical cartoons for decades and is well established as one of the best in the genre, with her openness and honesty ensuring that readers are seeing how Liz actually feels presented on the printed page, not some fictionalized version of herself. As a tail-end Gen X-er, Ms. Prince presents experiences that resonate strongly for those of us who grew up at the same time as her, especially those of us who deal with some of the same feelings, emotions, and struggles of Liz herself. At the same time, however, she is able to write in such a way that anyone who struggles with perceptions, love, and acceptance, no matter if they are 15 or 50, will be able to relate to her story--and maybe find hope for themselves, too.

That last point is a big part of what went into making Tomboy, the story of Liz's struggle with being a girl who didn't want to fall into accepted gender roles. Liz and I took some time over email to discuss Tomboy, the connection between zines and her work, and what it's like to write autobiographical comics.

As a fan of Liz Prince from my first days reading mini-comics/zines, I am extremely honored to have had a chance to conduct this interview. (That's especially true for me because I had a very personal reaction and connection to Tomboy.) Please read and enjoy, then stop back for Whit Taylor's review of Tomboy, and finally get ready to pick up the book for its September 2nd release.

Rob McMonigal: For those who may not be familiar with you or your work, tell us a little bit about yourself and your comics.

Liz Prince: Hello, my name is Liz Prince, and I'm a comics lifer.  I've been drawing comics since I was in elementary school, and when I discovered autobio comics in high school (through the work of artists like Ariel Schrag and Evan Dorkin), I started drawing comics about my own life.  I'm an avid self-publisher and I feel most at home in zine/small press world. My first book, Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed?, was published by Top Shelf in 2005, and I've been doing some books with them on and off since.

McMonigal: You're probably best known for your relationship-related comics. What steered you in that direction as a creator?

Prince: I don't think that I ever set out to draw "relationship" comics, but it is a big aspect of my life, and it's where I see a lot of humor and conflict and challenge coming from.  Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed? was a very singular book, in that it focussed solely on a relationship, and it focussed only on the good parts of that relationship, so it's interesting to me that that book is still the most well-known of mine., because I really thrive in telling emotional stories and the only real emotion in that book is "WHHHEEEEEEEE!" and it's a little unlike me.

I have been self publishing a series about breaking up with the boy from WYSLM called I Swallowed the Key To My Heart, and that kind of storytelling is more what I'm endeared to; it's not snippets but an actual narrative with highs and lows.  And Alone Forever, which I consider a sequel to WYSLM came out in February of this year [from Top Shelf as well], and it's a collection of comics about being single, so it felt like a nice bookend to the "relationship" series (although I am probably not at all done drawing about relationships or being single).

McMonigal: Who are some of the other creators working in autobiographical comics that you read? What draws you to their work? Have any of them been inspirations or influences?

Prince: I read so many autobio cartoonists, I just love the genre.  I will read Craig Thompson's Blankets with the same relish that I read some horrible, repetitive, uninsightful journal comic that I got traded at a zine fest. I'll try to focus on some people who I recently discovered.

I'm really into this guy Kevin Budnik's comics.  Yeti Press put out a book of his called Our Ever Improving Living Room with is a daily comic that he did in 2010-2011.  He's currently do a series of short, diary-like comics about having an eating disorder that are really interesting.

Whenever Kelly Froh puts out a new mini comic, I'm always excited.

I actually finally got the Roz Chast memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant, out of the library after being 1 of 300 holds on it, and I don't know if it's sign of growing older, but I really like her comics now, whereas when I was a 23 year old reading them in the New Yorker, they always had this cringe-worthy "Hey you kids, get off my lawn!" quality.  I don't know if that means she's evolved or I've evolved.

  • From Tomboy
McMonigal: Let's move onto Tomboy for a bit. This is, I believe, your first long-form comic, right? Your Top Shelf books are more thematic collections. What made you decide it was time to extend your thoughts across a full-length book?

Prince: Tomboy is my first long-form comic, at least the first one that I've followed-through with.  The Top Shelf books are all collections of things that I've self-published before, so although it's exciting when I have new book out from them, it's really familiar comics with some new content.  Tomboy is the first book I've ever drawn that made it past 100 pages, and it's the first book I've ever drawn that nobody had read any of before.

I've always wanted to draw graphic novels, or graphic memoirs, or whatever the term people are using for them these days, but in my previous attempts I'd get stuck at some part that was either hard to transition, or just not fun to draw (because a lot of writing a longer book is connecting the dots between the interesting bits and that part is tedious), and in trying to figure it out, I'd just leave it and forget about it or come back and decide it was all bad to begin with.  I didn't have that luxury with Tomboy, because when I signed the contract, it had to be done in 9 months, and so whenever something didn't work, I would just plow through it, and some of that stuff got fixed and some of that stuff is still there and bothers me.  But I learned a really valuable lesson, which is that I CAN'T draw a book that is perfect to ME, but that stuff that I don't like, will likely be invisible to someone else.  It was a real "just do it" project.

McMonigal: That makes sense. Sometimes it's best just to move on, rather than trying to tinker. You obviously aren't shy about talking about parts of your life. What made you decide now was the time to share your experiences growing up as a person whose own identity, while entirely heterosexual, fell outside the expected norms of being a girl?

Prince: I started reading a lot more articles about young trans men and women: people in junior high or high school who were already transitioning, and it got me thinking about how different my life would be if this information had been readily available when I was that age.  I am not trans because I never felt like I didn't belong in my body, I just felt like my body came with all these preconceived rules that didn't fit with me, and that in turn made dislike what a female body implied.  But if I was given a choice in 6th grade to start the course that would eventually make me a man, I probably would have chosen that, but my whole thing was really a cultural bias, and not a biological thing.  If nobody had ever had a problem with the way I was, I don't know if I would have disliked being a girl, I probably would have been waving a GIRL POWER flag waaaayyyyy before high school.

It was realizing that gender has played such a big role in my life, and that I don't see many books about it, at least not from the perspective of cis-female who just doesn't agree with the ways females are expected to perform.  I wanted to tell my Tomboy history.

From Tomboy
McMonigal: Speaking of history: You're very unflinching in your portrayals. Do you ever worry about backlash from the people you grew up with? Do you ever get comments from family/friends/former friends about your stories, especially those in Tomboy? Also, are the events in Tomboy things you recalled clearly, or did you reference your journals/comics/etc. from the time? Did you ever ask for help to clarify things from others?

Prince: Tomboy is entirely written in my voice, as I feel a lot of memoirs probably are. Even little kid Liz talks like adult Liz, and all the other characters talk in my voice too; that's one of the trappings of mining from your own memory.  All of the things in Tomboy happened, but not necessarily when, and with the characters in the story, because in order to write a book that spans a whole 17 years of my life, I really had to avoid too many character introductions, and too many scene changes, and too many quirky asides: I had to really be ALL BUSINESS.

That means that sometimes the timeline gets fudged, and a lot of characters are actually amalgamations of several people I was friends with,for the sake of not having to introduce a character to just show up and say one line and then walk away.  I actually can't find any of my journals, which is really disconcerting to me, but I had them, for sure (I can remember what they look like, too), so the journal entries were "faked," in that I had to just try to recall what kind of stuff I was writing, and usually it was just a conversational recap of whatever had happened that day or week or whatever.

The only person I asked for help with was my mom, because a lot of the things that happened pre-third grade were really fuzzy to me, but a lot of Tomboy was written not from succinct memories, but from memories of feelings.  Like, "oh, I remember so-and-so used to make me feel this way, why would that be?" and it would go from there.

McMonigal: There's one thing that I think you might need to clarify in the book. Help out the people who aren't as old as we are: What's a Popple? (NOTE: I owned multiple Popples, and I know my father and his family HATED that I did. I have no idea how I managed that one.)

Prince: This is a Popple:

This is THE Popple from Tomboy, I am 32 years old and it is still one of my top 3 things to save in case of a fire.  Popples were a toy and a tv show in the 80's: they were plush creatures that had a pouch on their backs, which they could be folded into to form a ball.  I actually have no recollection of the tv show, and I might not have even watched it (it was probably too girly for me), but I was obsessed with having a toy Popple.  So obsessed that for my 4th birthday, I got 5 of them as gifts, and I instantly was emotionally attached to the one, and the rest I gave to my mom, dad, and brother. Also kind of interesting in a gender binary way that the Popple I became attached to was pink, when I had my choice between a green, blue, and yellow one also, but I think that's indicative or the fact that colors don't mean shit, and are a cultural invention.

I know that the characters had names on the show, but I never knew who mine was, and I never gave mine a name, which thinking back is really weird for me, because I used to name EVERYTHING.  But Popple was always Popple, and still is just Popple.  And it's on my bed right now because I sleep with it.

McMonigal: And just for good measure, here's the theme song. Oh, the 80s:



McMonigal: Alright, back to the serious stuff. There are several visual themes that reoccur across the pages, like the friend profiles, the male/female symbols,and the diary pages. How did you select which concepts you wanted to return to, and how do they relate to the larger theme of the book?

Prince: The friend profiles and the diary pages were really more of a device to consolidate the narrative.  If I can introduce the important players, and give some fun or important information about them, without having to develop it in the story, then I've saved the reader a lot of pages.  It was important to try to keep this book concise, especially because it could have easily been 500 pages long. The diary pages were a way to phase myself out as a narrator who physically shows up in the story, and they show up when I'm in 6th grade, which is around when I can remember myself actually having a consciousness about what my bullying was really about.  The bathroom symbols are probably the most recognizable visual symbol for man and woman, so it made sense that I would use those when writing a comic about gender; when you see them it's just a man and just a woman, there's no clothes to identify them further, like "oh, that's a jock boy" or "that's a punk girl", so I used them when I just wanted it to be a blank person.

McMonigal: That's a good point I hadn't considered when I was reading! A lot of your work, at least that I've read, has been about Adult Liz. I know personally I don't like to talk much about my childhood, because there are plenty of things that are hurtful to me. It's only recently that I've revisited some of these things, and even then, I tend to only do it in zines, where it's on paper. Was it hard for you to go back over the times you were taunted, left out, or made to feel like you didn't belong? How did you deal with the emotions from going back over these events?

Prince: I cried a lot while making this book; sometimes because of the ways I was treated, sometimes because of the ways I treated others, and sometimes just because it's cathartic to write about yourself.  A lot of times I was astonished at how much bullying I put up with, and marveled at the fact that I am and was still myself in spite of it, and at those times I was saddened at the thought that there are so many more people who have changed who they are on the outside to fit into the pegs provided to them.  I can't imagine what that must feel like, but I know from the few times when I was forced into wearing a dress, that it really doesn't feel good.

McMonigal: You mentioned loving sports growing up, and it was heartbreaking seeing you rejected just because of your gender. Did you hear about Mo'ne Davis and her shutout? Do you think we're seeing a change in terms of gender roles, or is this just a happy exception?

Prince: Yeah, I read about Mo'ne Davis, and there was a post going around tumblr shortly afterwards, about a woman named Jackie Mitchell, who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in succession, when her farm league team played an exhibition game against the Yankees.  Apparently shortly after that game it was deemed that women are "unfit" to play baseball, and I imagine that is because players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were embarrassed to have been struck out by a woman.  The wikipedia entry is here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackie_Mitchell

I'd never heard of her before, but reading into that entry, there was also a woman named Carey Schueler who was actually drafted onto the White Sox in 1993 (which is around the time that I stopped playing baseball).  I'd never heard of Carey either.  So, given that, I'm not sure if gender roles are changing, or even being challenged MORE than before. I think that sometimes we just don't hear about these things for whatever reason.

McMonigal: What do you hope your identity story will do for others? 

Prince: Entertain them and inspire them: if you're someone who doesn't feel aligned with their gender, I hope you will find a way to be yourself within that, even that means changing your gender.  If you're someone who has made it a habit to other those people, I hope you'll change your mind about teasing or excluding them.

McMonigal: Looking at your career in general: You've been drawing comics from a very early age. Do you still have any from your childhood kicking around?

Prince: Yes, my mom has just about all of them.  A lot of them were comics that I drew with characters that already existed, like Donald Duck, and some newspaper-esque gag strips that probably aren't funny to anyone who is older than 10, or maybe were never funny.  The first mini comic I made was in 2001, and I used that as my portfolio to get into art school; a lot of them were republished in my zine I Was A Teenage Comic Nerd, and that's really as far back as I'm willing to let people see.

McMonigal: I re-read that fairly recently, actually. It's great that you were willing to share. You mention in Tomboy discovering zines and how they helped you see that you weren't alone. What were the zines that influenced you, both personally and creatively?

Prince: It was less about specific zines, and more about the idea of zines.  Since I was really more interested in comics, I tended to gravitate towards those, but I still didn't see too many self published things, outside of that zine library at Warehouse 21.  In the book I talk about Ariel Schrag's high school books that was really the big one: the thing that makes you go "Holy shit this is so amazing!" and "I can do that!" both at the same time.  I hope that is how people feel when they read my comics.

McMonigal: Do you still read zines now? If so, which are your favorites?

Prince: Yeah, still more on the comics end of the spectrum, I like Ramsey Beyer's Everydaypants collections, and whenever there is a new issue of the Clutch/Invincible Summer split by Clutch McBastard and Nicole Georges I'm happy.  Carrie McNinch's You Don't Get There From Here should have been mentioned earlier when you asked about autobio comics; it's always a good day when I find a new issue of that in my mailbox.  I just read a book by a long time zinester named Sarah Sawyers-Lovett called Everybody Else's Girl, which is a memoir of her childhood, and her history of abuse. It's very gripping and there are a lot of trigger warnings, but it almost glazes over the fact that so many awful things happened to her, as if they are normal, which I guess is kind of the point; when you are subjected to that kind of behavior, it becomes normal.

McMonigal: I was very late to zine culture, but I think in some ways, it's the best way to communicate very intimate feelings that maybe just talking about them doesn't express. Even with social media, blogs, and a culture where sharing is more accepted than when we were growing up, it's still zines that give me the closest personal connection with others, both as a reader and a writer. Do you agree? If so, why do you think that is?

Prince: I totally agree and I think it's because there is nothing "marketable" about zines.  Like, you know when someone makes a zine that they are just speaking from the heart and that nobody told them what they could or couldn't include in their book.  There is something much more personal about reading something on paper, as opposed to a screen, at least to me there is.  There was an article online recently about how my generation is the last generation that will remember growing up without the internet, and I wonder if that contributes to my love of paper objects.  The computer still seems like this cheap imitation of real life to me.  I'd much rather get a letter in my mailbox than an email.

McMonigal: Given the fact that there is so much online communication these days, is there still a place for zines?

Prince: For me there will always be a place for zines.  I don't read blogs or online news sites with any real consistency; it's more like if I see a post that seems relevant to my interests I'll check it out, but I don't have websites that I just visit for content, I mean, except for Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LiveJournal, and all of that is as close to zine culture as you'll get on the internet, since it's just your friends making posts.  I mean, I think we can all agree the LiveJournal is the equivalent of an online zine.

Process Page of Tomboy.
McMonigal: Yup, and it's something I sorely miss from when it was at its peak. Seems like no one is there anymore. *frown* Let's look at how you create your comics. Do you do thumbnails, or work straight to the page? What tools do you work with, and how has that changed over time?

Prince: For Tomboy, I wrote the whole thing as thumbnails on regular copy paper, but my thumbnails are pretty detailed/end up looking pretty close to what my inks ended up being.  I actually repenciled every page on bristol, and since I was working at the same size it was printed, I drew 2 pages per sheet of bristol.  You can see an example of a thumbnail version and a finished version of the same page.

I draw on 9x12 bristol with a 2h pencil and I ink with pilot precise v5 and v7 roller ball pens. Not fancy at all.

McMonigal: Was there a different approach for Tomboy vs doing a shorter comic for an anthology?

Prince: Oh, yeah, definitely.  I had to the think about making sure the story was consistent and fluid.  I had to pick and choose between which anecdotes I would include.  I had to make sure that characters remained consistent over 200-some-odd pages.  An anthology piece is usually only about 4 pages long, and while the challenge in that kind of writing is to get everything you want to say into a short amount of space, I'm just more used to having that kind of limit.  Obviously, given the space, I will talk and talk and talk forever. Sorry if these are the longest interview answers ever.

McMonigal: Oh not at all! This has been a pleasure to have you share so much with me and our readers. It's been amazing! Finishing off, besides Tomboy, which all readers should pick up right away when it's released on September 2nd, where else can readers find your work? And what's next for Liz Prince?

Prince: The best place to keep up with me is my website, which has links to web of social media accounts.  I haven't been posting as many comics to my website in the last 2 years, since I was working on this longer story, and when I got done with that in April, I was immediately doing some freelance for Adventure Time and some different websites.  I am working on a pitch for another book, because now I've got the graphic novel bug.  More info on that when and if it develops will be on my website for sure!

McMonigal: Thank you soooo much for doing this Liz, it was great! I can't wait to see what's next for you, both in short and long form comics! 

Tomboy will be in stores September 2nd, 2014, and is published by Zest Books. To learn more, stick around shortly for Whit Taylor's review of Tomboy.