“Being Alone Is a Nice Thing for Me”: A Leslie Stein Interview

An effervescent, slightly eccentric young woman, her talking, alcoholic guitar, and other anthropomorphic musical instruments smoke pot, hang with friends, check out antique shops, and deal with difficult family members. When Leslie Stein’s Eye of the Majestic Creature is summarized, it sounds too precious and odd for human consumption, like some horrible blend of Ziggy and Zippy.

That’s far from the case, however. The first four issues of Eye, now collected in book form by Fantagraphics, never tip over into cutesy treacle or become mired in faux hipsterism. Far from it—there’s a sense of melancholy and awareness that, while never overwhelming the book, grounds it in a recognizable reality. Adopting a simple, rubbery style, Stein manages to create both a likeable, sympathetic main character and maintain a tone of reflected grace. It’s a surprisingly strong and self-assured comic for such a relatively young creator.

I talked to Stein over email over the past few weeks about the new collection and its inception.

TCJ: Talking guitars aside, a number of the details in Eye of the Majestic Creature seem drawn from real-life observation. How much of the book is drawn from your own personal life? To what degree is the character of Larrybear based on yourself?

The first two issues of the four that were compiled into the book are mostly fiction, although the character is based on myself. The second two are largely autobiographical. Most of the other characters are based on my friends and family. I play up certain aspects of myself, and downplay others, but Larry is basically me.

Without getting too personal, can you delve into that a little more? What aspects of yourself do you exaggerate or downplay and why? Are these conscious decisions on your part or did they just happen organically?

STEIN: They just happened organically. Larry is a bit more childlike than I am, and more easygoing. She's more fun to be with over the course of the book because of that, I think.

You said the last two chapters are largely autobiographical. What made you decide to make that switch from fiction to autobiography (or at least semi-autobiography)?

It wasn't really a conscious decision. I just realized early on that she was a version of myself, and I suppose I like to share my stories with people. I view it as a form of communication with the world.

Where did the character of Larrybear come from? How long have you been drawing her?

I drew the first two panels of Eye of the Majestic Creature on a whim, so the first panel was the first time I drew Larry. I never really intended it to go on the way it did, but I'm happy that these characters took a hold of my imagination.

I know a lot of cartoonists spend considerable time doing character studies, but for some reason I don't have the patience. I don't even do thumbnails, which is probably dumb.

Segueing from that last question, how do you plot your stories out? Do you write your dialogue ahead of time or do you improvise as you go along?

It's a little of both. I write out the dialogue like a script before I draw it, and then I figure out the gestures and pacing (how many lines to fit in a panel etc) as I go along. I used to make up EVERYTHING as I went along, with some idea of an ending, and obviously it was hit or miss that way.

You said you drew the first two panels of Majestic Creature on a whim. What was the whim and what propelled you to keep going?

I had been working with construction paper to make comics for a couple of years before I started EOTMC. I tend to be inspired by materials I find shopping around the art store. Yeah, It Is!, for example, only came to be after I found a "multicultural" construction paper set. All those browns are skin tones.

So, I went to the art store and saw Blue Line Pro art boards, and decided I wanted to try and draw something more classic looking. I drew a splash page that is in the first issue (I didn't include it in the Fantagraphics book) after I had gotten really stoned and went to a cafe. It was just a bunch of words and my 8-track player and some flowers and a version of me smoking. Hippie stuff. Actually I have a very clear memory of sitting in that café drawing and feeling like I was getting away with doing something bad, what I don't know. I was having the best time with alternating moments of paranoia.

I drew the first two panels the next day and was happy with the way the characters looked, so I kept going. [Larrybear’s friend] Seashell is based on my friend Kirsten—she was living in San Francisco at the time and I pretty much just imagined what it'd be like to hang out with her and told that story. I made up that I was living in the middle of nowhere with magical alcoholic guitar.

TCJ: How has your approach to comics and storytelling changed since the first issue of Eye came out?

STEIN: I published the first issue with the now defunct Small Publishers Co-op, on newsprint. Man those guys ruled, you sent them actual color separations for the covers and they shot the plates and put it together for you. That was 2004.

I don't smoke pot anymore when I draw, I haven't since issue 2, and that's helped a lot! Also I was 22 years old when I put out that first issue so life experience has helped. Practicing drawing helps too!

What inspired you to make comics using construction paper anyway? Do you still do that?

STEIN: I was playing around with construction paper to make a card for my grandfather, back when I was living in San Francisco, and made some rabbit characters out of the stuff I had left over. I never did anything with those, but I remember thinking it'd be cool to make a comic out of construction paper one day. I completed a 130-page graphic novel out of that stuff about four years ago. I haven't worked with it since.
TCJ: Were you able to take anything away from the making of Yeah, It Is! that helped you when making Eye? What skills did you feel you honed or developed with that first book that you were able to apply to the second?

STEIN: The construction paper really allowed me to learn about composition of aspects within the panel. I could make a character and movie it around against the background until I found out where it needed to go. That way I wasn't constantly erasing and having to start from scratch.

TCJ: How did the idea of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects like the guitar, etc. come about?

I have no idea. I've always drawn characters like that. When I was in elementary school I used to draw fruit with faces a lot. It's fun.

One of the themes of the book seems to be dealing with isolation or feeling separate from other people. Larrybear frequently describes herself as weird and in the beginning lives far away in the country, from the rest of humanity. Many of her attempts to connect, either with family or friends, tend to fizzle out, though she remains an essentially upbeat person. How conscious were you in exploring these issues while you were making the comic?

I don't think Larry frequently describes herself as weird. Does she? In the third issue she says, "I was just as confused as any other adolescent, only I was a bit weirder." Comic characters shouldn't describe themselves because they are drawn and their actions and movements should speak for themselves, so if I did that I made a mistake. She can only describe the Larry of the past because she is no longer that person.

I guess I wasn't completely conscious of that being an ongoing theme. I remember reading a review of the second issue and the writer brought that up, and I was like "Whoa! He really GOT it!" So I guess it's very obvious. I'm too close to it. Do people really hang out with each other all the time and it's easy and fun and they aren't turned off or bored by or let down by everyone? I can't even imagine. To me that's totally normal. She's not too upset by things because she really doesn't expect too much.

You're right that Larry doesn't constantly refer to herself as weird. That was my bad. Still, her attitude and demeanor seems to suggest that she sees herself as a step apart from the world around her, including her family. Like I said though, this doesn't seem to defeat her. While I can easily imagine a sad-sack comic leaving his main character in the dumps yet again because someone was a jerk, Larrybear remains pretty philosophical and upbeat. Do you see yourself in some way offering a corrective to the "woe is me" alt-comic cliche?

I don't really think about it in those terms. I'm going on my own experiences, and I think despite any hardships I've had in my life, that I'm a very lucky person. I'm well-fed, I like myself, and so being alone is a nice thing for me. The third issue, where Larry is having difficulties with her family, is based on an actual dinner I had in Chicago. It was really trying, but then, the next day I was on a plane back to New York and it was just over and done. I just thought, "Thank god I don't have to deal with that every night!"

I'll share a word of wisdom I got from my friend Bruno (see Boris, EOTMC). We were on our way to play a show, and I had never really sung in front of anyone before. I was so nervous that it was almost unbearable. I turned to him in the cab and said (he had previously been touring all over the country with a band only months earlier), "How can you stand this? What can you possibly do to feel any better?" and he said, "I just remind myself that it will all be over soon enough."

So I'm guessing the BeDazzled job is based on your actual experience. Did you have an allergic reaction to the glue like Larrybear does in the book?

STEIN: Yes. I'm also fairly certain I stopped at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square after seeing the doctor to use the product samples he gave me. That store is gone now, but everyone I know would always use it to go to the bathroom when they got off the train. I wanted to immortalize it in comic form.

TCJ: I read that you're a big Foxtrot fan (and you slide a reference to the strip in Eye). What is it about the strip that appeals to you? Do you think it's been an influence on your own comics?

I really liked that strip when I was little. Probably the way it shaped my drawing style relates to how I took in the super clean lines that Bill Amend draws. I was having a chat with Alex Fellows, a Canadian cartoonist, about it and he seemed repulsed by my fascination with it, he said, "It looks like it was drawn by a machine!" That is why I thought it was good, as if the human hand shouldn't be present in the drawings.

Also, I think it's funny to claim that strip as an influence just because it's so different than what I do. His work is so bright and family oriented, but as you pointed out, I do like to maintain a sense of upbeat humor within my work as well.

What are your other influences? Who else do you consciously draw upon when making comics?

So many things. I'd say a huge inspiration for Eye was a comic I found in a dollar bin many, many years ago called Eternal Comics by Susan Morris. Last Gasp published it in 1973. It's a psychedelic nightmare of a comic with tons of weird patterns, stippling and textures.

I try not to consciously draw upon any artist or movement in the creation of my work, I do not want to be derivative of anyone or thing in particular. I'm influenced by almost everything, though. I love music and film and literature and art. I take it all in and try to forget about it, knowing that some of it will come out unconsciously.

TCJ: Do you plan to continue telling more stories about Larrybear or is Eye the end of her adventures for the foreseeable future?

STEIN: I'm already two-thirds done with the next EOTMC book. The first story is about my time working at a dress shop in the east village. I pulled quotes from the Theodore Dreiser book Sister Carrie to use in contrast to my own story for that issue. So in relation to your last question, yes, that is someone that I chose to consciously draw upon. Although, I wouldn't say I drew upon it, I more meditated on his words, if that makes any sense.

Right now I'm almost done with a series of short stories about Larry as a child. I like writing dialogue for children, it's totally fun.


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