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“I Did It The Other Way Around”: An Interview With Joan Steacy

Joan Steacy has been working as an artist, a teacher, a sculptor for decades, and though she was married to a cartoonist, the medium didn’t interest her much. Making the book So, That’s That! about her father’s life for his 100th birthday was a turning point for her. Not quite a comic, the book consisted of images and stories, but it got her thinking about narrative and telling her own story. The result is Aurora Borealice. The book begins as Alice is finishing high school, where she’s considered dumb, and goes off to art school in Toronto where she finds her voice, before ending in the present, where she currently teaches at Camosun College in British Columbia.

The book details her long friendship with Eric McLuhan and the influence of his ideas on her life, her encounters with Harlan Ellison, Jack Kirby and other comics figures, but it’s also a striking and thoughtful portrait of someone who didn’t initially know what they wanted to do in life, but who came to find herself and her place in the world. It is a portrait of an artist with a happy ending and I was pleased to talk with Joan about the book, her journey, and the comics she wants to make next.

How do you describe Aurora Borealice?

My friend, mentor and teacher Eric McLuhan after reading my first book referred to it as Alice's Odyssey, and encouraged me to do more, which I did and that became my three chapter graphic novel. It’s my educational journey, with some major obstacles along the way. There are always setbacks and you have to push ahead. I’m very tenacious and persistent and I stick to things even if they take a long time – and this book did. But once I got it started, I had to tell the whole story. It’s a coming of age story, getting my voice, I guess.

So it’s the story of your life, you just call yourself Alice.

Alice is my first given name and Joan my middle name. I didn't like the name as a child but now I do – so I decided to use Alice. This graphic novel is my life but the focus is on a certain part of my life. I didn’t really know much about comics until I met Ken [Ken Steacy, Joan's husband] and even then I wasn’t really interested in mainstream comics, I could appreciate them, but I wasn’t the audience, until graphic novels came along. I could relate to them and I thought the drawing styles were really interesting and not formulaic. Those personal stories really spoke to me. I had my own story in mind, of getting my voice and meeting Marshall McLuhan after he had a stroke that left him unable to speak after his whole life was about communication. That sparked an idea. I needed a vehicle to tell my story and the graphic novel medium was it! Fortunately I had an amazing art director, comic artist and editor at my doorstep – so when I found myself stuck I could ask Ken for advice. He was an enormous resource, he also helped me remember things I thought I forgot.  

Was there anything in the book that you fictionalized?

Most of the events in the story happened, but I had to make it into a sequential narrative. You have to fictionalize certain bits of it, but the truth is there. Knowing what to put in and what to leave out was the biggest challenge. I made a list of what I absolutely wanted in the story and left out things that didn't move the narrative along. When I thought I had finished my book and I was ready to show it to Andy [Andy Brown, Steacy's editor at Conundrum Press], he was very helpful in  giving me some editorial suggestions. I worked on those but  there were a few questions his assistants asked me towards the end. She asked me one was there anything I left out that I wanted to put in but didn't? I was so tired at this point, I didn’t want to draw anymore pages, but I did. It was the scene of Douglas Coupland and Eric McLuhan meeting. It just seemed right. There were also a few other little things I knew I had to do, that Andy mentioned. So last summer I did thirteen more pages and inserted them in to make it flow a little better. It wasn’t easy. The whole thing wasn’t easy. [laughs]

You cover so much ground, being asked is there anything else, it’s the story of your life so you could just keep drawing.

Right. You have to stop. Originally the ending was not the ending that you saw. I changed that. I had problems in school and then I became a teacher at a college, which was a really big deal for me. I wanted to mention that at the end. If you really want something bad enough, you keep at it and pursue it. You have to have persistence, perseverance and passion, to get things done.

You touch on this in the final chapter, but at what point did you start thinking about telling your own story and in this way?

Over ten years ago. That connection with McLuhan was the spark. I wasn’t sure about all the rest, but you have to start with a spark and then you fan the flames and look for patterns. McLuhan, technology and communication. I devoured all his books and influences. I knew I could communicate through drawing but I also wanted to write my story. Writing for me was a painful process for a long time, but I worked at it over the years. In the story I reject television and thought it was evil, possibly one of the reasons for illiteracy but in the end I really embraced computer and that helped me with my writing. When you’re in school and you don’t know how to spell they make fun of you and you don’t want to go through that so you avoid writing. Thank you spell checker...! I learned enough in school to be able to read and write not to be totally illiterate but functionally illiterate. Once I forced myself to read more, I only wanted to read the important books, or what I thought were important, because I didn’t want to waste time. I read Henrik Ibsen, Shaw, Shakespeare. That spoke to me. I thought, okay, there’s dialogue. You’re just putting the words in people’s mouths. I thought, I could do that. Comics have word balloons and that’s the same thing. Also my dad’s 100th birthday was coming up, so I drew and wrote him a picture book a biography, with all the stories he told me over the years. 

You talk about how you were an artist but it wasn’t until you made that book about your father that you started thinking about narrative.

After my dad's book I thought about doing my own biography. Ken really encouraged me to do it as a comic. So, I committed to it and started the process, starting with a script form, then adapting that into comic page and panel breakdown, thumbnails layouts, to final 11” x 17” comic pages.

For years you were an artist and you were around comics, but they didn’t really appeal to you. I feel like that’s common, though hopefully less now than it used to be.

The style of drawing or the content of it either appeals to you or doesn’t. One of my big influences was Raymond Briggs’ Ethel and Ernest. Blankets by Craig Thompson. Michel Rabagliati. Seth. Jeff Lemire. All those people were big influences. Once I started reading graphic novels, I was able to appreciate the power of them.

You mentioned Michel whose Paul books are amazing and Craig who has talked about how there was a lot that left out of Blankets. Not that anything was untrue but he simplified the story. Were those two examples of how they told their own stories helpful to you?

Yes. It’s kind of rendering a bunch of incidents in your life down to its essence. Like how Madame Curie had all this dirt (pitch blend) that had to be rendered down to get radium. It’s really hard to focus and edit your life, down to it's essentials. I think by doing my dad’s book I had to synthesizing one hundred years of his life, how I was going to do that? I had a year to complete it, so that pressure helped me to grab the things that were important. I used pattern recognition, with my dad’s book. I thought okay, wheels, recycling, cycle of life. Those were the patterns that I was looking for, that helped me to simplify it.

Eric McLuhan was an enormous influence on my thinking, in seeing patterns. He respected who I was as person and listened to what I had to say. He asked me for advice with his projects and I'd ask for advice on my projects. When I was first going out with Ken, I was a bit of a wallflower. I was intimidated by all these amazing people that I met through Ken. When I met Jack Kirby, I didn’t know how important he was at the time, he seemed nice – like somebody’s uncle. But when I met Harlan Ellison – yikes! He opens the door half shaved and rather abrupt [laughs] I surprised myself by what I said in response to him, “how the f**k are you.” He was not used to that. Something inside me stepped out and gave it to him. After that he respected me. [laughs] It was very weird. We used to have a ground line and [Harlan] would call Ken and if he was out I would talk to him. We would have great conversations, but now with cell phones, Ken and I both have a phone and so the conversations stopped. The power of technology. 

As you were starting to write this and think about it, there are all these metaphors like the CN Tower going up as you’re coming into yourself and these other moments which you didn’t invent but that are so perfect.

That’s what’s magic about it. Once you commit to something, all things come to you somehow in very odd ways. You think, how am I going to remember this, but they just come to you. And those metaphors; there’s a lot in the book that were very obvious. When I graduated from high school I didn’t really know the meaning of metaphor. It’s hard to imagine. I felt ripped off in the educational system that failed me. It wasn’t until the last year of art college when I took Eric’s class – it was like a vitamin for my brain. Why did it take so long to find a real education?

I kept thinking about this as I reread the book, but your father was an unconventional person–

Very!

I may be putting that too delicately, but I was not surprised but saddened that he just accepted that you were dumb because that’s what the school said – because he didn’t trust institutions and what they said. He just thought in an almost matter of fact way that you’re dumb.

It hurt at the time, but my but my father didn't intend it in a mean way. He also didn’t do well in school, but he couldn't defend me for some reason. He had respect for people who were educated like Ken's dad but at the same time maybe he had an inferiority complex that was covered up by his ways, I don't know. My dad was educated in a different way. I definitely connected with him on many levels, he was fascinating to talk to. My whole upbringing was unconventional. Growing up in a junk yard. [laughs] It’s rare. I belong to a very small group of people who grew up in scrap yards. [laughs] The thing is, my brother still lives in the house that I grew up in. I go out every summer and visit. I’m really inspired by people from that area that I grew up in, salt of the earth people. Even though I live on the west coast now, I’m still drawn back to Ontario, my roots. It’s a part of me.

You mentioned that the ending took time. Was you being a teacher always part of the ending and you were just figuring out how to get there or what?

The original ending was the scene of our kids on the couch with their friends playing video games and Ken and I are in the background at our computer, looking at them and how we couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I ended it there because I was a bit lazy. [laughs] Ken encouraged me to bring it to the present day. I thought, oh god, that’s more work. Diana Schutz, who we’ve known for years, said something that spurred me on too. She mentioned, the aurora borealis doesn’t come up again after a certain point. So, I decided to include the borealis at the end of the book, to say, here it is Diana!

That’s true. You talk about it early but only draw it at the very end.

It becomes a giant mobius strip, bringing the story full circle, and wraps it up better than the other ending I petered out at. I’m just really glad it’s done. [laughs]

Beyond just drawing 200 something pages, the act of putting your life on the page like this is exhausting.

It’s very revealing. Most of my life I’ve hidden my vulnerabilities, and here I am putting them out there. I’m a stronger person now and fine with it, so hopefully some people can relate to it. We all have insecurities, anxieties and obstacles to overcome, life can be hard at times. Eric’s response to my first book, which is now the first chapter. I wasn’t sure what he'd think  because he plays a big role in it. I got this letter back and he really liked it but one of the things he said that surprised me was "What you don't realize is that I too--and still, largely, am. I have always been debilitatingly shy and unable to relate to people" To me, I couldn't believe it because I easily related to him and found him so easy to talk to. Sadly, I lost Eric last year and he never got to see the completed version. The strength he gave me over the years was such a valuable education. 

Your husband Ken has made a lot of comics over the years and I have some and his work and it’s very different from yours in terms of style and he often works with writers. I would imagine he’s an incredibly helpful resource in many ways but has a very different approach and sensibility.

He’s definitely coming at it from a different perspective than I am. I kind of know what I want, but I’m not exactly sure sometimes. I just want to know, what's the best way to write or draw it. I wanted to express something in very few lines without words and that was difficult. I spent a lot of time on this one panel of Harlan Ellison. [laughs] That page had about an inch of whiteout on it because I just couldn’t leave it alone. I couldn’t get it right. I never did get it right. I hate that face. [laughs] I can usually get somebody in a few lines but that was the hardest panel for me to draw.

Ken gave me a editorial advice throughout my book but sometimes I didn't always agree. Like the page with the ketchup bottle when I was obviously very upset that day, he was making light of me, it just ticked me off and I let loose – I picked up the ketchup bottle and smashed it! It was like Carrie in our kitchen. Anyway, for the dialogue I wanted to write “Clean – this – up!” but Ken said, you should write “and clean this up.” I said, no. Well it went back and forth and turned into an argument but I finally convinced him, I WAS RIGHT! Good thing there wasn't a ketchup bottle around! That’s a little example but there are so many times he was helpful with feedback.

Are you still sculpting?

No, but I’m teaching it. The students sculpt  three dimensional character designs – they do an amazing job. It’s fun to transfer that knowledge to them.

Having done sculpture for so long and then making a comic, you’re thinking about design and space but in very different ways. Was it helpful to have spent years doing that?

Oh yeah. The reason I got into sculpting was that I felt my drawings were too flat and I wanted to make them look more three dimensional. So, I grabbed some clay and started sculpting  and I liked that a lot more than drawing at the time. Sculpting helped my drawings more in spatial way. In sculpting clay there’s an additive process and a subtractive process. With stone you can’t go back, there’s no multiple undos. You go forward, It works or it doesn’t – or it breaks and you start all over with another rock. That was an interesting challenge. Whereas clay is very forgiving, a bit easier. I learned a lot from stone in ways that probably are still in my psyche now.

You mentioned that Andy Brown was helpful in terms of making suggestions and tying book together, and I’ve heard from other people published by Conundrum that he’s good at that. How did Aurora Borealice end up there?

Years ago when I had the first installment of my book I approached him. He was more interested in seeing the completed finished version. Conundrum was my first choice in publishers because I liked what Andy published. I felt my book would be a good fit. There was another publisher interested, but I really wanted to go with Andy right from the get go. He was very helpful once things got rolling. I needed somebody from outside, who could be objective with my work Andy has years of experience in editing and publishing. The feedback I got from him was enough to keep me going. Some suggestions I didn’t agree with and he was very good at listening and wasn’t pushy about it. It was very nice to have somebody like that with such a keen eye. He found a lot of typos, too.

I always ask people after making first book, especially after so many years, do you want to make another one or oh god, never again. I feel like those are the only two responses I’ve ever gotten.

[laughs] I think that most people start out with a short comic, 30 pages or 50 pages, they do several of these and work up to a longer comic. I did it the other way around and now I want to make smaller books. Definitely. But I’m glad I did this because it showed me what I can do if I put my mind to it.

I’ve always been interested in people’s behaviors and ordinary people – but they’re not so ordinary in many ways. In my own family and the people I grew up with, there are lots of stories to keep me going for a long time. I have a few things that I want to get out. Now that this big book is finished I can pick away at something else for a while.

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