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“A Shared Universe, with the Camera Slowly Panning Outwards”: An Interview with Eric Kostiuk Williams

Eric Kostiuk Williams is a 26-year-old Canadian artist, originally hailing from Ottawa, who now calls Toronto home. He has received acclaim for the three issues of his self-published Hungry Bottom Comics (2012-2014), including being nominated for the prestigious Doug Wright Spotlight Award in 2013. In recent months Eric has amped up his productivity, releasing three new titles with three different, well-regarded comics presses, including his first graphic novel, Condo Heartbreak Disco (Koyama Press). Condo is a strikingly original work examining the devastating effects of urban renewal on working class and artist neighborhoods in Toronto, as seen through the eyes of two immortal, super-fabulous entities known as Komio and the Braid. Though Condo veers wildly away from the autobiographical terrain of Hungry Bottom into all-new realms in terms of subject matter and scope, it still feels like a logical expansion of Eric’s earlier work. I’ve maintained all along that Eric is a major, visionary talent in both the queer comics scene and larger alternative comics world, and he is certainly living up to that estimation.

Full disclosure: I’ve had a friendly working relationship with Eric for several years now. He has contributed original comics to a couple of my anthologies, and I wrote the introduction to his Collected Hungry Bottom Comics (2013), and blurbed for Condo Heartbreak Disco. I’d originally planned to conduct this entire interview with Eric in person at the second Queers & Comics conference in San Francisco that just wrapped in mid-April, but we both agreed that might prove difficult and distracting to pull off (true), so a big portion was done via email.

Rob Kirby: I wanted to give readers the full Eric Kostiuk Williams experience, so would you kindly give us a brief summary of Hungry Bottom Comics? You know, your impetus in starting it, the autobiographical aspects, etc. 

Eric Kostiuk Williams: Hungry Bottom Comics was my means of processing the experience of coming into my own as a young gay guy in Toronto. The prospect of moving to a big city with a vibrant gay community felt like some utopian happy-place I’d been working towards — a place I deserved, having put up with so much shit as a fey, sissy kid.

I quickly realized, however, that the sissy disposition didn’t fare much better in the gay world than in the straight world — especially in the late 2000s, when hookup apps were on the rise, along with their encouragement of a straight-acting “masc4masc” criteria. I was briefly dating a guy, and when we were getting ready to go out somewhere, he noticed I was applying eyeliner. He said, in the most derogatory tone, “Wow…you are a hungry bottom.” The cumulative impact of internally-homophobic, body-fascist dudes made me want to take a big step back, reflect, vent, and figure out why we were in this place as a culture… and comics presented themselves as the perfect means for that.

I’d made a ton of comics growing up (mostly weird superhero stories, cribbing off X-Men and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as a means of escape. So it felt very intense and potent coming back to comics, but for kind of the opposite purpose. I thought about the “hungry bottom” jibe and seized on the power of reclaiming it for my own purposes. There’s a real magic in taking something hurtful, and twisting it into something subversive, funny, and without shame. You take away its power… you invert it for yourself.

As I got going, a few comic strips turned into a few pages, which eventually turned into three whole issues. While the series was technically autobio, each issue also incorporated elements of fantasy and cultural criticism. Man, they were hella fun, and healing, to work on. And as I self-published each issue and they made their way around Toronto, I was really happy to hear that the comics were healing for other folks, and that they could see themselves in the stories — even if they were straight, or not male-identifying.

So where do you see yourself on the masculine/feminine spectrum? Do you identify any particular way?

I see myself as carrying a bit of both, and I think it’d do folks a world of good to realize most people do.

Sometimes I cringe at the prospect of identifying as male, because in our time we’re becoming subject to the most brittle, poisonous mutations of masculinity, whether it’s misogynistic “men’s rights activists” on campuses, or politicians whose tiny hands are within horrifying proximity to nuclear buttons.

I was just on a panel about masculinity at the Queers & Comics Conference in San Francisco, and when asked for my definition of masculinity, I half-joked that it’s something I’ve always failed at. But even though I’m failing at certain standards, I’m still in there, if that makes sense. Ultimately, I think it’s our responsibility to live by example, to show that being male-identified can mean so many different things.

I’m curious about the genesis of Condo Heartbreak Disco, and wondered if you might tell me how it all came about, how it evolved?

In a pivotal scene from my Hungry Bottom Comics, lil’ illustrated, autobiographical-me was visited by a mythological, curvaceous braid creature…A spirit guide, of sorts— saucy, but wise—who helped put me on a path to self-acceptance, and self-love. She didn’t solve all my problems, per se, but she did give me the right tools to start (it really happened that way! Fact!). I wrapped up that comic series a few years ago, but I felt there was more to be explored with the Braid herself. Had she helped others through their growing pains? How long had she been around? How would she fare when faced with farther-reaching problems, larger than any one person?

From there, the pieces started coming together for Condo Heartbreak Disco. I made the Braid a resident of my home turf—Toronto’s west end—along with her sardonic, vengeance-driven, andro-queer partner, Komio. I forced the two of them to contend with the struggles of living and making it in a big city, and dealt them the ultimate blow, in the form of the dreaded eviction notice, which would lead them onto something even more sinister, and apocalyptic.

It seems like all my comics exist in something like a shared universe, with the camera slowly panning outwards. My earlier stuff was concerned with gay culture at that moment, and its relationship to technology, masculinity, and shame—as well as my own coming-of-age as I was moving to Toronto. Now that I’ve been here for almost a decade, and have spent pretty much all my time here, it feels impossible not to create work engaging with the ways in which the city is changing. I see it happening monthly, even weekly: beloved businesses and venues shutting down, friends suffering insane rent-hikes and having to relocate, new condo skyscrapers mutating the city skyline at an exponential pace.

Gentrification is an issue facing most cities, but in Toronto, it has an especially unregulated, Wild West vibe. There’s a huge concentration of corporate influence here, and since Toronto doesn’t really have the same regard for its own cultural heritage as other big cities do, these corporate entities get free reign to shape the city’s landscape and identity to their own liking. It’s happened periodically over time, only now it feels especially accelerated and surreal.

When I started working on this book, my first thought was, “Yes! Fiction! My big step away from autobiographical work!” Of course, it ended up being as autobiographical as anything I’ve done, as it often goes. Komio and the Braid have the witty sensibility of the gay subcultures I’ve participated in during my twenties, fantastical abilities straight out of the superhero comics I grew up on, and the dilemmas all of us face, living through late capitalism. I kept trying to make the version of Toronto they live in extra-exaggerated and cartoonishly sinister, but in the end, it could never outdo how fucking weird real life is, at this moment.

 

Do you think of the book as mainly political in thrust then? Was that your major motivation in creating it? In some ways it seems like such a departure from Hungry Bottom Comics, but your thoughtful-yet-funky-and-fabulous vibe is still very evident. I know several cartoonists & artists who have gotten edged out of their apartments who I hope will read this book.

I definitely started with a political focus. I wanted to look more outwards, and think bigger, working through frustrations about the state of the city, and The State of Things more broadly, through the feats and struggles of these loopy, Leigh Bowery-tinted goddess-heroes.

I never fully script things out when I’m working on comics. I prefer to leave possibilities open, and to have new elements reveal themselves as I go. So, Condo Heartbreak Disco became a whole lot more intimate and multi-layered as I continued working away. While on a mission to get to the bottom of the condopocalypse conspiracy, I also had the Braid and Komio struggle with their relationship to each other, and the existential dread of being two immortals in an era where things really could come to an end.

They’re ageless and cosmic, but also kind of detached and naive about the real nature of the world, because they’ve thought of themselves as being above it all. It’s like when you’re in your early twenties, and you think you’re this invincible badass who’s got it all figured out. And then you start figuring out how the world really works, you start seeing that life trajectories aren’t linear, you stumble more, and you realize that the whole setup of things is really corrupt, merciless, and unfair (not to be too glum, or anything!). So, in a way, Condo Heartbreak Disco really is as much of a coming-of-age story as Hungry Bottom Comics was.

It got me thinking about a conversation I had a few years ago with Steve MacIsaac, where I was feeling intimidated at the prospect of writing fiction, and he basically said I shouldn’t think of things as so separate — there’s fiction in autobiographical work, and autobiography in fictional work. Seems like an obvious statement now, but at the time, it was really helpful and revelatory.

Eric (at right) with Steve MacIsaac on the Redefining Masculinity Through Queer Comics panel at the Queers & Comics conference at CCA, 4/14/17. Photo © by Rob Kirby

(The following portion was recorded during the Queers & Comics Conference at the California College of Arts on April 14th, 2017)

What hopes do you have for the book specifically in Toronto—do you think about the impact it might have with audiences there?

It’s trippy, as I finished the book a couple of years ago. I worried, as things have changed so quickly in the city, that the story would somehow be less relevant in this moment, but it seems more so than ever. Things have changed rapidly in the last few months, with Mirvish village–this historical block that had The Beguiling and Honest Ed’s and a bunch of other stores–all being shut down to be turned into condos and new housing. Everyone’s talking about it amongst themselves, the state of things. On my way to work I’ll usually hear at least a couple of conversations. It’s on everyone’s minds but nothing has crystallized yet to truly capture the moment. I don’t expect Condo Heartbreak Disco to be a definitive narrative on the subject…

Well, it is so fantastical in nature, you know: magical realism.

 

Yeah. And it’s an issue that touches people in many different ways. I wouldn’t expect anyone to see me as the authoritative voice on what’s happening.

So are these condos that are to go up going to be high rises, and be half-empty (or even worse)?

Well, it’s possible. There’s this gorgeous historic theatre down on King Street called the Princess of Wales Theater. They’re going to keep the façade but they’re going to build a 50-story building on top of it. In Mirvish Village there might be some zoning laws that’ll keep things in check but there will certainly be a different, sort of glassy vibe there. I doubt I’ll be going down there anymore: my reasons for doing so will be gone or moved.

Do you think non-Toronto residents will understand the situation described in the comic? Or do you think that it is all-too understandable?

I talked with Annie (Koyama) about this. The book is very specific to the city, with references to cherished neighborhood institutions and whatnot, but I think that it raises housing and livability issues that anyone living in a big city faces, especially in places like New York and here in San Francisco. This stuff is evident in a lot of places and to a lot of people.

Do you see Komio and the Braid having further adventures down the ride? They seem to be part of a sort of self-mythology for you.

 

I would love to do more with them, to explore their history, where they’ve been throughout time, and to get into their relationship more. With the way I work, I spend a lot of time on the technical aspects of pages, and having them be quite detailed. As a result, I compressed a lot into a 50-page narrative; if I were to do more with them I would like to pace things out a bit more, take some time to get into it. I would love to do a sequel someday that’s even further into an exaggerated future, and having them now…well, ugh, I don’t want to give away the ending! But maybe see about them repairing their relationship, if possible.

They seem sort of superhero-y to me. You said earlier on your panel that you used to read superheroes.

Yeah, they are a weird convergence of a few things that I love: like, they have the superhero spirit and the drag queen spirit and the Leigh Bowery spirit. It’s just kind of–I’ve always just been kind of obsessed with people transforming themselves or becoming something higher. I think of the transformation of scenes in Sailor Moon.

Komio & The Braid, in the flesh (so to speak). Photo © by Greg Wong, used w/ permission by Broken Pencil Magazine

To me this comic is also about transforming your own body of work into something different. It’s downright transmogrifying.

[Laughs] I could see that. I think the next thing I do will go even further along in that way: maybe even weirder, or more abstract. Yeah, I don’t know…

Do you have anything else that you are working on right now?

It’s been a bit of a marathon the past year and a half: when I finished Condo Heartbreak Disco I was so nervous about that slump, you know, that post-project ennui, so I said, “I’m going to do two more projects, right after!” [Laughs] So, I jumped right into Babybel Wax Bodysuit with Retrofit, which is a remedy from working on a longer book; it’s a collection of short comics that really jump around in terms of style and content, kind of like dessert or something; me shaking it off and trying different things.
After I finished that I did this short comic for Czap Books and Grindstone’s Ley Lines series, “How Does It Feel in My Arms?”. All my books have been fun, but this is fun in a different way. I wanted it to be purely joyful. All three books can be read as thematic sisters, and the Ley Lines book is kind of like the happy antidote to the cynicism and heartbreak throughout Condo Heartbreak Disco. It’s really dreamlike and the panel layouts are very simple, but as a result what’s in the panels is extra crazy and weird. It’s lyrical: it’s taking a lot from Kylie Minogue’s musical catalog and applying that to utopian dreams—kind of a blissful state and sensation. I applied those lyrics to this early Russian anarchist philosopher, Peter Kropotkin–a lot of his work went against ideas of selfishness as being an innate human feature. He actually believed that people are inherently altruistic and want to cooperate, much the way animals and plants do. He was saying that it is actually societal constructs that have pitted us against each other and made for the negative aspects that we see in humanity. So, I always joke with friends: “If everyone listened to five Kylie Minogue songs everyday, there would be no war.” (Laughter)

So you’re pro-humanity then?

Trying to be! I thought I should give it a shot because there are so many reasons not to be. It felt like the most radical thing for me was to make something positive. Like, I started working on it in the fall, right after the elections. I was dreading it at first: “I don’t want to want to do this, I’m fucking miserable!!” But doing it felt good in the end. The book is funny; it’s in a different tone than a lot of the things I’ve done. So I’m curious to see what people will think.

Eric Kostiuk Williams as Komio–photo © by Giles Monette

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