Interview with Rachel Dukes

At SPX this year, I had a pretty awesome opportunity to sit down and talk with a few of my favorite creators. Now you, yes you, get to share in our exciting conversations about stuff and things.

Rachel Dukes is the creator of Frankie Comics and a frequent contributor to a variety of anthologies and zines. She self publishes her own work, as well as the work of her friends, and may or may not be working on a graphic novel due sometime in 2015. Her work is often about cats, normally her own cat, and her comics tend to have an autobiographical ring to them. I was able to talk to Rachel about her inspirations, animation, cats, and art as catharsis.

Possible Trigger Warning: This conversation very briefly touches on the topic of sexual abuse.

Guy Thomas: Why do you make comics?
Rachel Dukes: It’s something I’ve always done. I’ve been drawing since I was really little. I was four when The Little Mermaid came out and I thought I wanted to be an animator. Almost immediately, I decided that was too difficult and that I should be a cartoonist.

I create comics as a way to process emotions and understand the world. Sad stories are almost always written for me to process my own feelings of loss or detachment (though the content is rarely directly autobiographical). I write cat stories/gags (like Frankie ComicsFrankie’s Busy Day and Coffee Cats) to entertain myself, for fun. I use anthologies (like Beyond or Subcultures) to create work with my friends.

Thomas: How do you think that animation influenced your comics?
Dukes: It’s hard for me to say. I watched so much children’s media growing up. I still watch a lot of television and movies made for children. It's a genre I've never grown tired of.

I recently realized that I hold children’s media to a higher standard than most things. I get really angry when I feel like a studio has fumbled messages in children's films. I do think people are getting closer to a better standard of morals and storytelling geared toward children, but it could definitely be better.

Thomas: Miyazaki would talk a lot about how he would make movies that make him happy – he’s an incredibly depressed man. Do you think that when you make media for children and young adults, you use that as a way to make yourself feel happy, and to show people how to help themselves be happy too?

Dukes: 100% yes. I get significantly more enjoyment out of the creation process on my all-ages work than I do from the projects I’m creating specifically for adults or young adults. Especially the cat stuff. That’s what makes me laugh.

Thomas: What do you think was most influential on what you do, besides The Little Mermaid?

Dukes: With regard to children’s media?

Thomas: With regard to what you create, and how you create what you create.

Dukes: If you look at how I draw cats, it’s obvious that I was obsessed with Sailor Moon as a teenager.

Thomas: Weren’t we all?

Dukes: We all were. Most people don’t draw cats exactly like that, though.
I didn’t realize I did that until recently, either. A couple of weeks ago I was getting ready for a Sailor Moon gallery show in LA. I was drawing my piece for it and I thought "I gotta look up how to draw Luna for this show. I have to figure out how to draw this cat. ... OH! It’s exactly how I draw every cat ever."

But to answer your question about influences: other cartoonists that influenced me would be Terry Moore, Brandon Graham, Yuko Ota, Liz Suburbia... plenty of other modern peers who are still creating comics today.

Thomas: When you look at your own work, and you look at what you do with it: what you think it does for other people? What do you think about that?

Dukes: It’s hard for me to look at my own work objectively. By the time I’m done creating anything I generally hate it because I’ve looked at it for too long. (At least temporarily.) So it’s really hard for me to look at my work and see what the reader gets out of it. But, you know, reading comics and watching movies is a subjective experience. Everyone will get something different out of the same piece.

Thomas: Why do you think comics are important? Both to yourself and to society.

Dukes: For myself, creating comics is definitely the thing that saved my life. Comics gave me a sense of self at a time in my life where I had none. They helped me gain a sense of self-reflection and overcome crippling depression and anxiety as a teenager.

As a medium, it’s important for society for many reasons. At a basic level, they’re a good tool for children's reading comprehension. They’re good for strengthening learning through visual storytelling (the visual comprehension component, not just language comprehension).

You can do a lot of things in comics that you can’t do with other media, in regards to storytelling. They’re an outlet for creators, they’re an escape for readers. There are a lot of different ways that comics are important for people.

Thomas: What are you working on now?

Dukes: I’m drawing Frankie Comics #3 and a ten page back up story for Garfield. I'm writing a pitch for an Adventure Time back up story. I just started thumbnailing my first graphic novel for Abrams, which I’m supposed to turn in in January... So, fingers crossed.

Thomas: Can you talk about the graphic novel?

Dukes: I can't say much yet. The book is centered around a young woman's recovery from sexual assault. But it's less about the instance itself and more about inner strength and recovery as a process.

Thomas: I’ve noticed that in this particular community there are a lot of people who have had some sort of traumatic experience, sexually or otherwise. Do you think there is a reason why people who have had bad things happen to them find themselves pulled toward comics and cartooning?
Dukes: In my personal experience, the people close to me: most of survivors are strong, autonomous people who don't ask for help in general - even small, normal things. They don't want to burden others, right? They've always been that way, independent of their traumatic experiences. And so, when something like this happens, they have to process it in some other way.

And, you know, it's hard to talk about the bad stuff in life. Even in the safest of spaces. At some point you just get tired of talking about it. So it's only natural to find some other outlet for those emotions, or that ongoing narrative in your head, or whatever it is. You have to put that somewhere. For those of us that are artistically inclined, you’re going to create work about it. Whether it’s poetry, or drawing, or journaling; whether it’s directly, very expressly about that traumatic event, or you write about other content themes just to process your emotions... You write it down, you draw it out.

Thomas: That got dark for a minute. Bringing it back. So, you really like cats.

Dukes: I do.

Thomas: Cats are nice.

Dukes: Yeah. (Laughs)

Thomas: Do you just really like cats, and is that why you write a bunch of comics about cats, or is there a thing? Is there a particular reason for that?

Dukes: I have always really really liked cats. Since I was a toddler I had wanted to have a cat. I was, I am still, actually dreadfully allergic to cats. Asthma attacks, swollen and watery face, the works! I am very, very allergic to cats. So I never got to have one, growing up, to quell that need.

In my early 20s, a cat walked into my apartment and sat down with me. As though we had known each other all our lives! Amazingly, I didn’t have an allergic reaction to her. So, after convincing my partner the cat wouldn't kill me, and some "hide the cat from the landlord" hijinks: I got to keep her. And that is Frankie.

So now, through my 20s, I finally got to fill this lifelong void and feel the enjoyment of being around a cat all the time. Frankies such a huge part of my day to day process that it was inevitable that I would start creating comics about her. Frankie Comics started as a practice exercise during my senior year at CCS. I did them to entertain myself but the internet found them relatable as well. I enjoy making them so I figured it was something to keep doing.

I've created other cat related comics that were not specifically Frankie. There was an assignment at CCS called The Ed Emberly Project where you had to draw a six-page comic in the style of Ed Emberly. I drew a story about a cat who loses his teapot, and he has to go on an adventure to get his teapot back. I drew a relationship comic, Stay With Me, that was about a cat and a wolf...

I wrote and drew a children’s book about Frankie at CCS as well, where Frankie is a stand-in for the child character. It’s a story about moving and being confused about what moving day is. She wants to hang out and do normal stuff but my partner, Mike, and I are awake and moving boxes around. She’s like “I’ll go eat some food!” and we pick up her food and take it and away... she’s like “I’ll go play on my cat tree!” and I pick up the cat tree and take it away... that sort of thing. It’s about transition, confusion, and how cats don't like change.

Clearly, I enjoy cats. Once I started making comings about Frankie, it was clear I couldn't avoid my destiny any longer.

Thomas: Do you think you’re going to combine your enjoyment of making books for children and your enjoyment of making books about cats?

Dukes: I've talked to a children's book agent about the Frankie/moving day book. I was told that if I redrew it in a traditional children’s book fashion and cut the text down (so that it was a new readers book), he might consider pitching it.

I'd like to take some time this fall to redo a couple of pages from it and put together a pitch packet. I have so much other, pressing work on my slate in the immediate future though. I’m not sure when I’m going to get around to it.

Thomas: If you were going to tell someone to read one book, what would it be?

Dukes: The thirty dollars on Blankets is still the best thirty dollars I’ve ever spent.

Thomas: What advice would you give to aspiring cartoonists?

Dukes: Draw comics. Don’t wait till you get "good enough." You'll get "good enough," as you go. Do it now.

Thomas: What’s your favorite dinosaur?

Dukes: Probably apatosaurus? They eat tree stars, right?

You can find Rachel at her website, her Tumblr, and her Twitter.