SPX Spotlight 2014: Rob Kirby interviews Sophie Yanow

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.

Sophie Yanow is a twentysomething cartoonist who hails from north of San Francisco and currently lives in Montreal, though she will be soon heading to Vermont, as she has been chosen as the 2014-15 Fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. Yanow has emerged in recent years as a sharp, talented comics autobiographer, whose work looks beyond individual experience to political and social concerns. 

A case in point is her new graphic novel from Uncivilized Books, War of Streets and Houses, which has been nominated for the 2014 Ignatz award for Outstanding Graphic Novel. The book springboards from her observance of and involvement in the 2012 student strikes on the streets of Montreal, and fierce response by the police, which triggers an examination of urban planning and its secret connection to military strategies (eye-opening and unsettling, to say the least). It's a unique, edifying work that is as much of an amalgam as Yanow is as an artist. I email-interviewed her this summer to find out a little more about her approach to art, comics, queerness, and categorization, among other things.

Rob Kirby: Your new book, War of Streets and Houses encompasses several different literary categories: memoir, politics, urban planning, etc. If up to you, where specifically would you have librarians shelve it, and why? 

Sophie Yanow: That's tough. Ultimately the narrative thread, the thing that holds the hard facts together, is memoir. However, I'm very happy if folks like urban planning students read it and get something out of it, and so shelving it in urban studies might be "useful" to that end. I guess I'm lucky that libraries use multiple categories for their books.

Kirby: Yeah, the book is unique in that way, it’s a sort of hybrid. Did this concern you at all? What about the queer angle? (Although it’s not a huge part of the narrative, your queerness is mentioned at a couple of points).
Yanow: I went into the project thinking it was going to be about a certain subject (very heavily focused on urban planning), but it didn't turn out that way. I want to have fun and also ask questions when I'm making work. Things didn't stick comfortably into one container, but I'm afraid if I don't follow my own style of making things, the work will be lifeless. I'd rather make work that is hard to categorize than start a project with my marketing angle in mind. Maybe this is because my first job out of high school was doing graphic design for a boutique marketing firm. I want to keep that stuff as far from my mind as possible when I'm working on a project. 
As for queerness, yes, I'm queer, it's mentioned in the book, I think it's an important part of my work because my work tends to be autobiographical, and I do not attempt to take an "objective" standpoint (because I think that's impossible). So it's coming from a "queer" point of view. And I guess that adds one more category and makes it even harder to define. That's a part of queerness itself though, defying and redefining categories. So maybe that's the ultimate container category! I was really happy when Lambda Literary reviewed the book; I'm glad that I can make work that doesn't actually have a queer romance in it and still have it recognized as part of modern queer cultural production.

Kirby: Amen to all the above! I'm really intrigued by the growing number of cartoonists out there who don't shy from the Queer label but also don't seem to fit the "orthodox" Queer Cartoonist label either. Where do you see yourself in the cartooning world? Are you a hybrid of sorts as well? Is the Queer Cartoonist moniker a hindrance in any way?
Yanow: I don't see "Queer Cartoonist" as a hindrance in any way. Some people are very adamant about being a cartoonist, artist, whatever above all else and don't want to have anything to do with identity politics. Starting out, I didn't seek out queer cartoonists above other cartoonists, but happily I do have a bunch of queer cartoonist friends. I think I've actually had a lot more exposure to queer contemporary art and music than queer comics (or gay comics). So many older gay/queer comix seem to be more influenced by the superhero vein of American comics, and aesthetically I'm pretty uninterested in that. I enjoyed folks like Alison Bechdel and Ariel Schrag, in terms of queer content and aesthetics that I could relate to.

In terms of cartooning, I'm drawn to folks like Herriman, or Joost Swarte, and a lot of European cartoonists, Franco-Belgian, ligne claire stuff; I'd put Gabrielle Bell's work in the ligne claire camp, and she's the best. Sloppier stuff like Gipi. Tintin is pretty far from queer but aesthetically it's what I like (although I'm sure folks have done queer readings of Hergé, given that there are practically zero female characters in his series). So I guess I'm a hybrid in that way. I make queer work, but I'm drawing on different traditions.
Kirby: A well-known cartoonist once remarked that she always most appreciates comics by people who are artists first and cartoonists second. If you had to describe yourself as an artist first or cartoonist first what would you instinctively choose? Why?

Yanow: I guess I would describe myself as an artist first, although we all contain multitudes beyond that. The thing that led me to study art in university was not so much drawing, but probably a photography course I took in high school with Jeff Martz. I had been a year ahead in math, but then I had a really sexist teacher who made me very uncomfortable (and it was also the same semester that I came out; a stressful time), and I failed the math class. So the next semester I had a free period and I filled it with photography, which I totally fell in love with. Actually I had a conversation with Mr. Martz upon graduating high school where I said I would probably study art history instead of studio art, and he thought it was a good idea. He said, "That's good. They can't teach you anything about making art anyway." I don't think he was talking about me in particular, I just think he meant "the institution." 

My college transcript reflects my waffling because I changed my declared major like ten times before classes even started. It jumps back and forth between language studies, art history, and art. Even once I'd settled on studying studio art, I was still always like, "I should be making outdoor art installations! Why am I doing printmaking?" and jumping around disciplines. But drawing is the one thing that I've done consistently since I was a little kid, and I have loved comics for a very long time, so I sort of made a decision that it would be the place where I focused my energy.

Kirby: How much do you agree with Mr. Martz, that “they can't teach you anything about making art anyway?" What do you think of all of these cartooning classes and people getting degrees in comics art? Have you taught comics? Would you?
Yanow: I can't say I really agree. I believe that practice gets results. I'm not sure I believe in talent, or I really only think it gets you so far. I think school can teach you how to finish things, which is a big part of art-making, or at least a career in art-making. As for cartooning classes, I think they're great. I love school. I come from a line of teachers on my mom's side and I always just assumed that one day I'd "give in" and become a teacher. When I was younger that seemed like a concession, but now it seems like a lot of fun. I like interacting with people, I like editing when my friends ask it of me and I have time. I've taught comics making workshops at a couple of Anarchist Bookfairs and it's been really fun. 
I often undervalue my knowledge of comics-making (probably because it is undervalued generally as a skill), but when I teach, or explain something to somebody, it's so fun, and I remember that hey, I know something about this stuff! Despite my love of school, and the recent proliferation of comics programs, I figured out a lot of comics stuff on my own after getting my BA, for a combination of economic reasons and simply a desire to be DIY and follow some of my weird francophone influences to Montreal, and have a little bit of a solo gestation period. But I would love to teach in a larger capacity than workshops here and there; a big part of why I'm excited to be the Fellow at CCS this year is that I get to watch a bunch of very experienced comics teachers work their magic!
Kirby: Did your style start out as stripped down and angular as it is now? Has it has evolved a lot since you started making comics? 
Yanow: It definitely didn't start out this way. My first attempts as an adult at comics-making were full color watercolor at 11x17. Then I moved to flat colors on a computer, but still nothing like the way I draw these days. Now I usually draw at 8.5x11 (War of Streets and Houses was even smaller, not much larger than 1:1 of the print size) and as I trace my pages on a lightbox, I tend towards more angular gestures, now. Drawing small means I have to draw simply. I like that. I like a certain amount of efficiency in my comics.
Kirby: I get the sense that you have been somewhat nomadic, at least in the past few years (especially from reading your Sleepy Details zine). How has your living situation and traveling affected your art?
Yanow: I've just gotten smaller and smaller. Last year I built a letter sized LED lightbox that fits in a small backpack and weighs nothing! But I was already going smaller before I was traveling so much, perhaps in preparation. I've always traveled a lot, to a certain degree. My parents value travel above most things; they passed on the bug. Many long car trips in my childhood. My mom was a whitewater rafting captain for a while, my dad used to rock climb, he drove his motorcycle once to Alaska... my parents met up in Nepal once before I was born (I think my dad was living there) and trekked in the Himalayas together. I grew up on these stories. 
I like being in new situations with new people, totally out of my own context. I can't fall back on old habits, and I get a chance to reassess how I engage with people on an individual level. I try to say yes to things. I did a comic for the Irene anthology last year about walking around with a guy from the Ivory Coast, the night I had arrived in Paris for a residency. He asked me if I wanted to walk around and smoke some hash with him. There's a part of my brain that goes, "You shouldn't do this, you're a woman, this is a random person." I told him I needed to eat something and to meet me at the kebab place after he met his hash guy. We walked around for two hours! He was effectively homeless, crashing on friends' couches, and he had a job cooking in a restaurant. 
Would I have taken two hours out of my day to talk to this person if I hadn't been traveling? Probably not. But we kept each other company and learned about each other, and that was cool! He didn't ask for my phone number, nothing happened that people would probably have "warned me about." We parted ways with no assumptions that we would ever meet again. Traveling gives me the freedom of spontaneity. I try to remember that in my day to day life. I need constant reminders.

Kirby: That's inspiring! Tell us about your next project. 
Yanow: I'm actually working on something about my first long distance hitchhiking trip, when I was 20. Youthful romanticism. Shame and holier-than-thou attitudes amongst ideological radicals. Being enamored.

Kirby: It’s time for the totally random stupid question! Sophie Yanow, what is your favorite word?

Yanow: I'm going to go with "awry," because I didn't know how to pronounce it for the longest time. I still almost skip a beat when I say it, like a person's name I'm not certain I remember. I guess I'd read it in many books, and at my first job out of high school I told my boss that something in my design file was all "aw-ree" (kind of like "ornery") and received a blank stare, followed by laughter. That word is now a symbol of overcoming adversity! Or of being a bookworm who didn't employ a wide vocabulary during oral interaction.

Kirby: Final thoughts? Anything else you would like readers to know, or look for?

Yanow: If you don't hear from me on the Internet for quite some time this winter, it probably means I'm trapped in the Vermont woods somewhere. Please send help.
For more information, more everything from Sophie, go here: http://sophieyanow.com/

Images from up top: The artist herself (“Tell me if it’s too unprofessional” she says – I say no it isn’t!); all else culled from War of Streets and Houses by Sophie Yanow, © 2014 by the artist and Uncivilized Books