Lucy Knisley is a woman of wonder. Her comics are an ongoing reflection on the rockiness of one’s twenties, food, and the life of being a comic artist. Born in New York and currently living in Chicago (not for too much longer as she’s headed back to her birthplace), Knisley captures the smallest details that are intricately woven into our everyday lives, whether it be the anxiety of letting go of one’s possessions, fangirl culture or the general confusion that goes along with growing into the person one is. A graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies, she was awarded the 2007 Diamond in the Rough scholarship for her CCS application comic, Heart Seed Snow Circuit. Her French-inspired travel journal, French Milk, was published by Simon & Schuster in October 2008 and she has gone on to self-publish great works like Make Yourself Happy (2010) and Radiator Days (2008). She is currently working on a family and foodie inspired book called Relish, which chronicles her relationship with her mother and food and the influence it has held over her life. Please welcome the talented and ever so wonderful comic-illustrator-author, Lucy Knisley.
Persephone Magazine: How did you get started making comics? Has it always been something you knew you wanted to do? What changed the game for you in doing it professionally?
Lucy Knisley: My mother studied painting and art before becoming a chef. She’s always been very creative and talented. My father is an English and writing professor, and major bibliophile. I was an introverted kid who spent all my time reading or drawing and watching cartoons. I think making comics was the inevitable career I was being inadvertently groomed for. When I was around 7 and they divorced, I became OBSESSED with Archie comics. I think it was party due to my recognition of comics as a combination of art and the written word, or the balance of my inherited passions for both. Ironically, my parents didn’t really understand my love of comics; my father thought they weren’t real books and my mother worried about female role models in comics and wanted me to read things with fewer Veronica Lodges or barely-clothed super-heroines.
Up through college I still thought I’d have to choose between art and writing in my career. I chose art, but as soon as I got to art school, I started making comics nonstop, like the writing parts were just leaking out through my artwork. The comics world was changing, and even my parents had begun to recognize the artistic and literary merits in the comics industry. There were amazing books coming out, tons of great comic artist role models and peers making work and sharing ideas and techniques online. It was a good time to discover that what I really wanted to do was to make comics.
PM: Your comics are mostly autobiographical, spanning from the mundane to the heartbreaking. What are the benefits of documenting your personal life? The fallbacks?
LK: The main reason I’m so invested in sharing my life this way is that it builds this direct connection between myself and the reader. Honesty creates empathy– I try to write about the things that other people have also experienced or noticed, in some way. It allows people to feel less alone in that connection, and it certainly makes me feel that way, too.
The fallout of the popularity of auto-bio comics has resulted in critics writing them off as navel-gazing or trivial. The important thing to remember is that every comic– no matter the subject matter– should have good writing, art and storytelling. If one of these three falls a little short, the other two have to be stronger. I like to differentiate between autobiographical comics and “journal comics.” The latter being guiltier of the navel-gazing criticisms made against the whole genre, they tend to document the everyday in a way that sacrifices storytelling for honesty and immediacy.
Personally, I’ve found making comics about my thoughts and experiences to be a great way to organize my feelings or opinions. But it’s hard to live up to any character based on yourself; readers have a relationship to that character that is me, while at the same time, it’s really them, and not me at all. It can get a little confusing.
PM: How do you gather your material? Do you take a lot of inspiration from other comic artists or do you take more from your everyday world around you?
LK: I get a lot out of conversations I have with my friends. I usually think about something for a long time, talk it out with someone I think will have a smart or interesting opinion about it, and then write it out and try to organize the ideas we discussed. Comic artists I admire tend to have a stronger influence over the way I try to make images.
PM: How does a strip come to be? What is your process like?
LK: It depends on the project. For things like French Milk or Salvaged Parts, I drew and wrote as I went, because they were experiences that I wanted to capture in the moment. For Stop Paying Attention or Relish, I script the comics and lay them out more carefully, because I want to be as clear and concise as possible. Over the years, I’ve gotten better about sticking to a schedule and consistently making work. It was much more volatile when I was younger, and I would torture myself when I couldn’t make myself create at the level or rate that I aimed for. I learned the importance of taking time and allowing myself to progress at a comfortable pace, and just like with physical strength, it got easier. It helps to have a schedule to stick to, and people to be accountable to, like an editor or readers.
PM: One of my favorite things I ever heard Lynda Barry say was, 1. You have to learn to fail well and 2. You have to learn how to ride the baby to the bank. How do either of these principles apply to your work?
LK: The “Ride The Baby” Barryism is one of my absolute favorites. She came to visit my grad program, right when I was feeling pretty crummy about comics. The Center for Cartoon Studies is a tiny and intensive little school in the middle of Vermont. My class consisted of 19 men and 3 women, all aspiring comic artists who were there to learn about the intricacies and business of this field. It was a good program, but strange, and there’s the potential in all focused curriculums to burn out. I was frustrated and overexposed to comics and comic artists and the business of comics, and the last thing I wanted to do was talk about, make or read comics. Lynda came to give a workshop, and one of the (many) things she said that really blew my mind was “Ride the Baby.” It compares your art to a baby that you birth, and how then you are immidiately expected to take this beautiful baby that is small and fragile and new, and climb aboard its back, commanding it to take you places (specifically, the bank). It’s a perfect metaphor for the professional artist. What I took away from this Barryism was the importance of caring for and feeding the baby, so that it’ll eventually be strong enough to maybe carry your weight. I realized that I was harming my creativity and the part of myself that made comics by pushing it too hard to be different or faster or a certain way. If I relaxed and rode the wave a little more– not kicking myself over periods of low-creativity, or trying to be Alison Bechdel or Lynda Barry or Terry Moore or David B, but rather giving in to my own impulses and following my own ideas– I was nurturing my work, which meant I’d make more and better work in the long run. Now I tend to make things that won’t make money, or even might be a little silly, but that make me happy or are good practice, so that the work I do that DOES make money or earns me kudos in the job, come easier. This is, what I think, Barry means about failing well. To own your failures, or to see them as something other than failures– impulses or practice or just experiments that maybe didn’t pan out– in order not to wallow in the negativity that you experience as an artist that can harm your art-making muscles.
PM: It’s been a year of huge changes from you, from ending a long-term relationship, which you brilliantly documented, to your soon-to-be move from Chicago to New York? How does this factor into your work? Do you write and draw, then process, or vice versa?
LK: Making comics is part of how I process things! That was why it was so important for me to work through my breakup with Salvaged Parts. I suppose there’s usually a lot of changes going on in my life. I’ve spent the last couple of years making comics while also working on a graphic novel, moving around, splitting up with my ex, forming a shared studio space, and then sort-of semi-dissolving that partnership in this move to New York. I suppose it doesn’t leave a ton of room for relaxed reflection, so I have to squeeze out my processing on the lemon-squeezer of comics– does that make any sense?
PM: You are currently working on another book about growing up with your mother and the role of food in your lives, a similar but different connection to your adventures with your mom in Paris, as chronicled by French Milk. Can you talk about the importance of food in your life and in your work?
LK: I had the idea for this book while I was on a plane, coming home from a trip to Vancouver with my father. We hadn’t been on vacation together since I was 12, so it was a big deal for us. We spent the entire time in Vancouver eating amazing food, but on the way home we talked about my mother’s cooking, and how much it’s influenced our lives and relationships to eating. My family has more photos of meals than people, and it’s always been the norm for me, but I was learning that wasn’t so for everyone. Mom was involved with the food revolution of the late seventies, when farmer’s markets were cropping up in American cities. She’s worked in these incredible restaurants and food shops in New York City, and I would be sitting on the floor of Bouley restaurant with my coloring book being like, “I GUESS I’ll eat some leftover chocolate mousse. You don’t have any of that cassis sorbet, do you?” Relish is about how good food is this amazing gift and celebration, and that being around the food industry can spoil you forever by exposing you to incredible things, even when you’re not rich or fancy-pants. It’s basically just a collection of my memories of growing up in that industry, and how cool it was to be around all that amazing food.
PM: Do you ever struggle with the terminology of your occupation (as a comic artist)? Do you feel like this term doesn’t or does justice? How do people react when you tell them that, yea, this is what I do for a living.
LK: It’s actually great! The reactions people have are all over the place. Some people think it means I’m a comedian, or at least I must be really funny in person. I frequently spend a lot more time listening than talking, so they seem surprised. Older generations tend to think it means I make a strip for newspapers. People unfamiliar with the breadth of comics automatically go to “superheroes.” A lot of people ask if I’ve read Maus. And almost everyone wants to know “So… you make a living on that?”
I don’t generally correct peoples’ assumptions, because it’s like a little field trip to their fantasy of what it means to be a cartoonist or comic artist, but this last one bugs me. There’s a perception that to be an artist, you have to be “struggling,” or worse, “STARVING.” There’s a lot of damage done by the romanticization of the “starving artist.” Mainly that it allows people to think it’s okay for artists to be underpaid or undervalued. That art isn’t a valuable consumer product/commodity or worthy of financial support. Worse, it makes some artists think that making money means that they’re selling out, or that they’re not “true artists.” I like to point out to people who romanticize “starving artists” that Andy Warhol, the prototypical American Artist, worked as an decent-waged illustrator for years before his pop art caught on and people started working for him for free, and paying him tons for his prints. He did cat portraits, advertising mockups, story boarding, and whatever else it took to be a paid artist. I’m not saying, “Make art to make money,” I’m saying “Make art, respect art, pay for art.”
PM: What great work can we look forward from you in the not-too-distant future?
LK: I’ll be continuing my monthy/2x monthly comic essay updates of Stop Paying Attention, and will hopefully finish up Relish this fall/early winter. There’ll be a lot of editing and publicizing for the book before it’s released, though, so look for it in 2012 (From First Second Publishing). I’ve really enjoyed making short, 30-40 page pieces that I release in digital format online, like Salvaged Parts and Here at Hogwarts, so I’ll likely do one or two more of those in the coming year. I’m making plans for my next big book project. I have a few things simmering, so I’ll have to see where they’ll lead. The move to New York, back to where I started as the kid on the kitchen floor, is sure to lead in interesting places with my work. And I’m looking forward to the food.