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“A Fair Bit of Alchemy”: A Q&A with Luke Howard

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Luke Howard is a 33-year-old cartoonist and faculty instructor at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT, where he received his MFA. I first became aware of his comics in 2014, when I read his Ignatz-nominated mini, Trevor, in which he displayed his skill with playful, reality-bending narratives. This spring, AdHouse Books published Luke’s first graphic novel, Talk Dirty to Me, a quirkily funny, melancholy character study about a young woman at a crossroads (my TCJ review is here). This fall his newest comic, Our Mother, was published by Retrofit, and it’s his best work yet: a formally inventive, unique blend of bracingly honest autobiography and fanciful science fiction, imparted with equal doses of humor and sorrow. Spoiler: Our Mother has already made my Best of 2016 list. I interviewed Luke via email in late October and I’m very much looking forward to what he comes up with next.

Kirby: Can you tell me what roads eventually brought you to the Center for Cartoon Studies? (Basically, I’m looking for your cartoonist origin story.) 

Howard: Just like every human being on the planet, I was a cartoonist until I was about 10 years old. I truly believe that cartooning is an inevitable stage of childhood. But somewhere along the way we get too self-conscious and for most of us the cartooning stops. Lynda Barry wrote a whole book about that, right? Well, I was one of the unlucky kids who stopped. I wanted to be either Bill Watterson or Gary Larson when I grew up, and when I was around ten I asked my parents for a real cartooning desk with real cartooning tools. I figured as soon as I got the tools the professionals used I would become a professional and draw like one. So Christmas of 1993, my parents pull out all the stops and get me the real deal: a serious cartooning setup. The desk even angled the way I knew cartoonists desks were supposed to. I was all set to embark on my new career as a professional comics-making machine. But when I sat down for the first time to use it, I was devastated by the fact that my drawings didn’t look as good as Calvin & Hobbes. Somewhere in my stupid, ten year-old mind, I thought having the right tools would mean my artwork would instantly be on par with that level of cartooning. I couldn’t figure out why my drawings still looked awful; my brain neglected to see that I would have to actually practice to get better. So I came to the conclusion that I must not be destined to be a cartoonist and never touched the desk again.

In school I avoided any opportunity to make art and felt completely ashamed about my perceived lack of innate talent. Instead, I focused my creative impulses on film. Filmmaking became my passion and it was what I pursued all the way through college and into the working world. I made short films, I did commercial work, I edited, and I ran cameras. I was making a comfortable living in the film industry when the 2010 flash crash went down, which resulted in the demise of the company I was working for. Suddenly I was unemployed and having a hell of a time finding work. Somewhere in that depression of job-hunting and being creatively impotent my wife Abigail suggested that we try doing a comic-a-day project; she grew up loving manga and wanted to try her hand at it. I agreed to go along, making shitty gag comics each day. At first it was unbelievably painful, I was instantly 10 again and hating what was coming out of my pen. But I pushed through and after a month found myself actually enjoying some of the things I was making, even being proud of them. Here I was, 27 years-old, and I couldn’t get enough of drawing comics; I was neglecting to hunt for a new job because I was so fixated on making my daily comic. I realized this was an impulse I should be listening to. Then I heard about the Center for Cartoon Studies. Three months later we were moving our entire lives up to Vermont so I could attend the school. Man, it still sounds insane when I lay it all out like that. What a ridiculously irresponsible life choice. But it couldn’t be helped.

I have to say that reminds me quite a bit of your protagonist Emma’s struggles to figure out her life path in your book, Talk Dirty to Me. Was that meant to be autobiographical? 

That’s interesting. I never really thought about it in those terms before. I guess in the end it’s impossible for our comics not to be autobiographical to some degree – we’re always drawing from our own emotional experiences in one way or another. If there’s something autobiographical about Emma’s journey in that book it’s probably the fact that she’s so held back by a lack of confidence. Even as a young kid she has a lot of shame and self-doubt that keeps her from being the kind of person she imagines she could be. That resonates with me, even today. And whether that’s me feeling shamed by my shortcomings as a young artist, or Emma feeling shamed by her inability to blossom into somebody who is more secure, it certainly boils down to this idea that often we have a difficult time seeing value in ourselves. So when these liminal situations present themselves, that struggle is definitely what’s at the heart of things. Can you dig deep and find enough value in yourself to push forward? Is your confidence going to be what carries you over that hurdle, or is it ultimately going to be the thing that keeps you down?

Unlike Emma, whose future is still unclear by the end of Talk Dirty to Me, you seem to have found your niche. How is teaching at CCS for you? How does it aid or influence your own comics? Or does it hamper your process? 

It hampers my process in the way any full-time job hampers comics-making. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and a big chunk of energy and time is being eaten up by something that isn’t comics. So what’s the solution? Either make less comics, or work two full-time jobs – your day job and your comics job. For the time being I’ve gone down that second route. It’s rough, maybe not even sustainable in the long run. But there are things about my job at CCS that really keep the fire lit. My two years as a CCS student were the hardest and most productive work years of my life. As a faculty member, being around a tribe of young cartoonists that are going through the same things—pushing themselves to be stronger cartoonists with every assignment, and the constant flow of self-improvement—can be an incredible boon to my own productivity. And I think especially since I’m still relatively wet behind the ears when it comes to comics, being at the epicenter of an education system keeps me hungry for furthering my own education. Heading into my third year as a faculty member, I feel like I’ve almost been through four years as a student, if that makes sense. It’s funny, though, you mentioning that it seems like I’ve found my niche. That doesn’t feel all that true from my perspective. Not to say I haven’t been lucky to have the opportunity to make books with both AdHouse and Retrofit—maybe that is a niche of sorts. From my side of things it all still feels very precarious, like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like maybe the next time I sit down to make a comic it’ll be like I’m 10 years old again, and what comes out on the page will feel unacceptable—the spell will be broken. I still feel a lot like Emma does at the end of that story, the future is unclear.

Man, how depressing was that answer? Maybe you can tell confidence isn’t my strong suit. But I’m really trying to work on that. As a teacher I get down on my students about being self-deprecating. I give them guff when they’re not being better champions for themselves. Sounds like someone’s not practicing what he preaches. Get it together, Howard.

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A scene from Talk Dirty To Me (AdHouse Books)

Well, maybe now you can direct your students to this interview! Since you mentioned it, let’s talk about your new comic with Retrofit, Our Mother. I was very impressed with your humorous approach to the material. It really heightened the heartrending reality of your mother’s situation. Can you tell me about your process for writing & drawing it? 

I knew I wanted to do a humorous comic about what it felt like growing up with a mother that had an anxiety disorder. It had a big impact on me as a kid and having inherited the disorder from her later in life, I’d hoped that maybe unpacking that a little might be therapeutic. But I also wasn’t sure I would be able to tackle it in autobiographical form – I’ve always found autobio to be especially challenging—I enjoy the emotional barrier fiction allows. I also knew I wanted to tackle this story through disjointed narrative. I’m really interested in the power of nonlinear storytelling. Authors like Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, and Kurt Vonnegut have always drawn me in with that kind of writing. Something about the abrupt jumping from one thing to the next feels challenging and rewarding. I think it also does a good job of mimicking what life and memory feel like. I mean, whose life actually feels like a three act structure?

I’ve never been really good at sitting down and writing out a whole comic ahead of time. My comics feel more successful (or maybe just more honest?) when I’m doing a lot of the writing as I’m drawing. I tried to come up with some humorous vignettes that weren’t literally a depiction of anxiety, but instead just really felt like that anxiety. What does it feel like to have an anxiety disorder? Maybe it feels a little like being trapped in a giant robot with a guy named Kevin that just won’t shut up and refuses to die. What does it feel like to be going through the stressful process of finding the right medication? Maybe a little like experimenting on a caged animal. What does it feel like to inherit a familial disorder like this? Maybe a little like your family has put a hit out on you. This was how I boiled down the ideas. And after I had the vignettes that I felt best served as a skeleton for the story, I was able to start roughing out my pages and playing around with things as I went along. There’s a fair bit of alchemy in the process for me—like the story starts telling itself as I dig into it. There are a lot of half-penciled pages that get tossed when a certain direction leads to a dead end, and a fair bit of improvisation and unexpected pivots as well.

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I like to pencil on crappy typing paper so that things don’t get too precious. For this project I was working relatively large – I think each page was about 19″ x 28″ or something close to that. I try to pencil through the whole story before I move on to inking. I don’t thumbnail, so the pencil stage is the most difficult link in the chain (and the longest). Sometimes I’ll find that a page I’ve penciled later in the story will require me to go back and re-pencil some previous page. I’m always carving out room in the process for that – it’s almost like a rewriting stage that happens along with drawing. I try to have the entire story locked down in pencil before I move on. I pencil really tight so my pencils usually look fairly close to how the final inks will look. To ink I’ll tape a piece of Bristol paper over my typing paper and use a lightbox to let the pencils shine through. With this particular project I wanted to try inking with radiographs (I’m usually using some kind of nib) and I was happy with the quality of the line.

Finally, I do all my color work in Photoshop. But really, more important than anything else in the process is making sure the story is feeling true and honest. I’d find myself stopping along the way and asking myself “does this feel true? Does this feel honest?” And whenever I could answer “yes” to that question, I knew I was taking the story in a good direction. Anytime I felt unsure or knew the answer was “no” was when I would start throwing away pages. All-in-all this ended up being a really rough story to tell. I mean, it seemed to come out of me relatively easy, but the emotional fallout of having to immerse myself in what these feelings actually feel like made for a very stressful spring. But in the end I found the process to be rewarding because of that. It actually forced me to deal with some deeper things I was doing a good job of avoiding.

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Do you think that it’s harder/more time-consuming to work in this more instinctual way? Does your work with your students include honing their individual work processes? 

Like anything, I think different approaches work for different people. But, yeah, I do think there is something about the approach that you and I are talking about that transfers some of the heavy lifting to further along in the process. I may be getting into the drawing more quickly, but I think it also means I’m more subject to having to edit or even redo pages. Theoretically, fine-tuning a script and really nailing the thumbnails should protect you from as much editing later. But it just doesn’t feel like the right approach for me. I seem to need that spontaneity and surprise to last a little longer. I have trouble slogging through the drawing if I feel like I’m just copying all the decisions I’ve made in an earlier stage – I’d start to feel like a studio assistant to myself. And then I’d get mad at how little I’m paying myself—suddenly I’m going on strike, it’d be a mess.

As far as working with my students to hone their individual work processes? I’d like to work more with them on this sort of thing. Currently I co-teach a course called “Publication Workshop” with Cartoonist Jon Chad, which focuses on the more technical aspects of comics, things like Photoshop, InDesign, bookbinding, cover design, etc. So our class is really about learning all the tools that assist our stories, rather than the writing or drawing of those stories themselves. That said, I like to think the way we structure our class—with some of the philosophies of design and composition—ends up having an effect on how they approach their pages. Since design and narrative are intrinsically linked in comics you end up thinking about all of those things in tandem.

Speaking of design and narrative, I wanted to ask about the section of Our Mother in which you incorporate old family photos instead of drawings. Did going all fumetti come as a sudden inspiration as you were working, or had you planned it ahead of time? It’s one of my favorite sequences in the book. 

 

That is one of the sequences I am most proud of. Originally I had planned to have some sort of scene where a mother character and a child character have a more matter-of-fact conversation about everything that’s going on. Much of the book is more obscure or metaphorical, and I liked the idea of hitting this section and suddenly laying it all out there more directly—I liked how jarring and uncomfortable that could feel. But there was no intention originally to place myself or my own mother into the scene. After all, this was meant to be self-exploration behind the veneer of fiction, right? But just like how it happens in the story, I really did hit a wall when I was trying to conjure up how to end this story. I really did have this conversation with my mother, and I recorded it hoping that maybe some idea might shake out as we were talking. After that conversation I was struck with the strong feeling that I needed to break the fourth wall somehow. It felt like the right choice in that moment.

Throughout the making of this comic I had been spilling over old photographs from my childhood, texting family members, just trying to put myself back there. Now that I was faced with this strange decision to suddenly break out into non-fiction for two pages, it made complete sense to me that the photography would serve as the best indicator that not only is this something different from the rest of the book, but that it is closer to reality than the rest of the book. I also think there is something about old photographs that can be incredibly disarming. Maybe it’s that nostalgia is like the cousin of melancholy. I can’t help but feel a little emotionally exposed when I’m looking at old photos or old home movies. I feel lucky that I was able to stumble onto what this sequence ended up becoming. I mean, without getting too philosophical, it does seem like these things are sometimes given to you from the universe as much as you yourself are conjuring them up (he said, oh so ostentatiously…).

You said earlier that working on the book forced you to deal with things you’d been avoiding. Do you mean it was therapeutic?

Maybe not initially. Initially it was a bit devastating to work on. I don’t even think I realized how much stuff it was going to bring to the surface. After I handed in the final book, I hit a kind of emotional low point. Part of that may have just been the post-project blues, but a lot of it was spending so much time thinking about and digging up the past. My brain wasn’t going to let me turn that off when I was done with the comic – I couldn’t just put the genie back in the bottle. It was clear that I needed to start dealing more with some of the things that I was uncovering. So that’s when I started trying to see a therapist more regularly for a while – as much as I could afford, anyway. Maybe the book itself wasn’t therapeutic while I was making it. But it certainly was the catalyst for something therapeutic. I think making that comic lead to some really important personal growth. It’s funny to admit that a story with giant robots, a talking ape, and a farting hot dog had such a significant role in improving my mental health. But then again, maybe it’s fitting that way.

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So what’s your followup, got anything on the horizon yet?

I have a few small things that I’m working on for the spring – shorter comics in the 24- to 48-page range. There is a longer project that I’ve been tossing around for a bit that I hope to start drawing this winter. It’s got a loosely sci-fi bent and it tackles a lot of the issues that I started getting at with Our Mother. I’m not done exploring mental health in my comics yet.

I also hope in the years to come to tackle a memoir about my childhood, growing up with a father who was in the Air Force and then ejected from the military when he came to terms with being gay. The impact of that situation on my parent’s marriage, the difficulties my father faced as he was forced to abandon his dream of becoming an astronaut because he couldn’t hide who he was anymore, and the trauma that was leveled on my mother as this all started to come out—our inability to accept homosexuality for so long in this society has ruined and/or messed with so many lives. At the same time, if my father hadn’t had to repress his homosexuality for so long, my parents wouldn’t have ever married, and this chubby ginger would never have been born. Anyway, as you can see, there’s a lot to unpack about my familial history. I’m just waiting for the right time.

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