SPX Spotlight 2017: An Interview with Rachel Dukes

It's another entry in Panel Patter's not Patented SPX Spotlight feature! We're ready to provide you with some great pre-show coverage for one of the best comic shows in the United States! In a show with nearly 700 exhibitors, we'll help you find some of the best! You can read all our SPX Spotlights from 2017 and prior shows here.

We at Panel Patter love Rachel Dukes, the prolific anthology contributor and creator of Frankie Comics. Rachel's style works great for telling the story of Frankie, her stray cat, with its ability to capture emotion in a few lines. At the same time, she can use that same emotion to explain the dangers of the American health system or a loving couple tied to a space program that's using them both. She's graciously agreed to many an interview over the past few years, and I had a chance to ask her a few questions in advance of the Small Press Expo about re-starting Frankie Comics, her varying comics projects, and why politics and comics are so intricately linked.

Rachel Dukes and Fankie, in her own lines.

Rob McMonigal: Though you're very busy contributing to various comic anthologies and outlets (more on that in a moment), the biggest thing you're known for is cats; specifically Frankie Comics, the adventures of your own feline. How did Frankie Comics get its start?
Rachel Dukes: Frankie showed up with a pack of strays outside my partner’s and my first apartment back in 2009. While the other strays were mostly feral and scattered within a few days, Frankie stayed around the apartment complex, going door-to-door looking for food and attention. She started sleeping overnight with us pretty quickly before we decided to keep her inside full time. She made her comic debut way back in journal comics I was creating at the time.

Frankie Comics, as it’s own series, began in 2013 when I was in grad school at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. My partner had moved back to California for work during my second year, so I spent most of my time alone in my apartment with Frankie working on my thesis; so it was only natural for me to draw comics about our hijinks together. I was posting my work on Tumblr and the very first strip Frankie strip I posted (Life with/out a Cat) went viral almost immediately (after it was shared on 9Gag without attribution). Some of the people who read the strip found their way back to my Tumblr and I’ve had a small loyal fanbase for Frankie ever since.

A Sample Frankie Strip

Rob: Lots of comic folks write stories about their cats. What do you do to make Frankie stand out from the crowd?

Rachel: Most classic cat comics focus on cats being aloof, sarcastic jerks who enjoy destroying furniture. (And, yes, of course they can be!) But Frankie isn’t really like that by and large - she’s very lovey and involved in what I’m doing throughout the day - so the series is almost a flip of the traditional cat comic; it’s about companionship, teamwork, sweetness, and the inquisitive nature which causes the inevitable destruction of personal belongings.

Rob: I've seen your name show up in so many different places of late, including The Nib (one of my favorite sites), Taneka and Sfe's Beyond, the Bottom's Up anthology from Birdcage Bottom Books (available at SPX) to working with one of comics' great indie publishers, Spike Trotman (Tim'rous Beastie). How do you stay so active in the anthology scene? How do you approach such varied projects?
Rachel: I find anthologies can be a wealth of opportunity in a creative sense. They’re a good way for cartoonists to gain visibility and practice working (either writing or drawing) in genres that they might not consider within their wheelhouse. They’re also a great excuse to collaborate on comics if that’s not something you do normally. Comic anthologies were my first foray into being published during my teen years, so they’re something I’m sort-of-unintentionally always on the look out for; just because they’re part of my early-comics DNA.

My regular involvement in anthologies now is a combination of attentiveness and luck. I follow thousands of cartoonists, publishers, and zinesters across social media so I see a good cross-section of new projects being announced. I pitch for things when I have ideas, and I ask around if I like a genre but don’t have an idea of my own. For instance, with Beyond, I wasn’t well-versed in sci-fi (aside from X-Files) and was afraid to write something to pitch. I asked around looking for writers and got lucky: Nicasio Silang also wanted to submit but needed an artist. And we were lucky again in that our pitch was accepted!

(If you don’t want to worry about following all the cartoonists and publishers you know simply to keep an eye out for anthology announcements, I’d recommend following Comic Ops on Tumblr. Sarah W. Searle posts anthology and freelance opportunities there fairly regularly.)

For anthology work I do my best to approach each story with it’s own needs in mind first. What is the story about? What art style serves that best? Then follow-up with “what do the writer and I personally find engaging about this and how much of that can play up throughout these pages?”

Rob: What can people pick up from you at SPX this year?

Rachel: I'll have plush Frankie dolls, shirts, posters, original art, and a SPX-exclusive 80-page Frankie Comics collection of issues 1-4 (provided they arrive from the printer on time). I'll also have limited quantities of the Oath (queer superhero) anthology by Mary's Monster, the Bottom's Up anthology by Birdcage Bottom Books, Care Bears: Puzzling Path by Roar Comics, and Not So Secret Society: Tale of the Gummy by KaBOOM.

The adorable Frankie Plush

Rob: What's coming up for you after SPX in terms of conventions or creative projects?

Rachel: My big project for the next six months is completing a 120-page Frankie Comics collection. I’m currently drawing Frankie Comics #5, which will start updating online at frankiecomics.com and Go Comics (every other week) starting in mid-October. While those are running, I’m going to redraw Frankie Comics issue #1, update the artwork for all five issues, and recolouring the series so that it’s in glorious full-colour. (I’ll likely also end up drawing comics that will be exclusive to the book.) After a few years of prioritizing freelance over Frankie, I’m pretty excited to put this all together. I’m posting the new Frankie Comics strips online early for Patreon subscribers, and it’s been a treat to be able to interact with readers again (and share cat pics!) after the long gap between issues. (Issue #4 came out in April 2017.)

SPX is my last confirmed convention for 2017. Frankie Comics #1-4 (the mini-comics) and many of the anthologies I’ve contributed to are out of print, which gives me an opportunity to take a break from conventions and use that time to make new comics. I had several projects I had to back-burner for the past two years while I completed previous obligations and acclimated to living with a chronic autoimmune disorder. I have a series of comics business tips, tutorials, and resources I’ve been wanting to launch as a book and website that I’m looking forward to finally dedicating some time to; alongside smaller personal comic essays on gender and women’s healthcare in the US.

In a similar vein, there’s a local (Los Angeles) true-crime story from September 2000 that has been weighing on me for a few years: a man was killed because California laws (surrounding hospitalization and mental health care) impeded police from assisting a woman who repeatedly asked for their help in the weeks leading up to a psychotic break. Seeing the rise (in publication) of incidents where police mishandle calls reporting mental-health disturbances, it feels relevant to reexamine the 17-year-old case and see if we’ve made any real progress since then.

I know the latter is a significant shift away from silly sweet cat comics. While I’ll never quit cat comics all-together --they take up too much space in my brain and my heart-- I’m greatly looking forward to peppering other new genres in there come 2018. I hope readers will stick with me for whatever the next adventure brings.

Rob: Lots of people involved in comics are active politically, especially on the Left. How can comics help the causes we care about in America's current political climate?

Rachel: There’s been an ongoing discussion about representation in comics over the last few years; how representation of different cultures, ethnicities, and marginalized groups benefits readers and creators (both from inside and outside those communities)... It’s important stuff and I feel like I have friends that are better educated to speak on it (look up work by cartoonists Mady G. and Ben Passmore) but I’ll touch on my own experience for a sec because you asked.

I was brought up in a very sheltered way, urged to blend in for my own protection. When my family found out I was queer: my mother made a point that, while I was free to build a life with whomever I wanted, she felt that it was in my best interested to not be “loud” about it -- that my life would much harder if being queer was a visible part of my personal branding; she worried that people would find me offputting if I continued to yell about LGBT+ issues, etc. And I mulled over that for a long time into my mid-twenties, trying to find a balance between being honest with people and being polite... and I learned a lesson in how silence only aids ignorance and misunderstanding.

If you’re a white able-bodied person hanging out with primarily white able-bodied people, you’re not going to be intimately aware of the issues that people of colour face, or what people living with disabilities or invisible illness face. It’s easy to make false equivalencies when you’re truly unaware of what other people are going through. You’re not going to know about ADA laws until you’re with someone who needs them. You’re not going to know the legal and social hurdles of gender transition until someone you know goes through it, until someone says something, or until you’re introduced to media that covers those topics.

My family was completely unaware about trans issues until Caitlyn Jenner. Despite Jenner being a far-less-than typical representation of the community she opened the door for my family to have some Trans 101 conversations. We started talking about gender as a social construct, my grandfather saved me the National Geographic issue that was about gender identity, that sort of thing... Hamilton allowed us to have conversations about immigration and government. My younger sister learned all about the Holocaust from Netflix and Maus because she somehow missed that history lesson between her two elementary and middle schools... Media is the opportunity to bridge gaps of interpersonal and historical understanding, to create exposure for people and causes that we may not be aware of otherwise. Comics are a part of that. Great recent examples include March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell; The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui; and Comics for Choice edited by Hazel Newlevant, Whit Taylor and Ø.K. Fox.

Visibility - being visible and creating media that help people and causes become more visible - can only lead to greater awareness and help us understand each other better, help each other better, and to grow as individuals, a nation, and as human gosh-dang beings. So we have an opportunity as creators to help lift each other up by promoting and creating comics and media  that can help bridge those gaps and make change.

Rob: That's a really thoughtful answer. Thanks for taking the time to do this, Rachel! Hope to see you at another show soon.