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“I’m Definitely Not Trying To Subvert”: The Alabaster Pizzo Interview

Alabaster Pizzo has been publishing comics for about a decade now. Her first major work, the surprisingly cute and brutal comic Talamaroo, established her as an artist who enjoyed subverting reader expectations and creating a clash between word and text. It followed a lumpy character frolicking in a forest, her adventures narrated by birds. At certain surprising points, she gunned down birds, had wild sex, and otherwise engaged in behavior unlike what one might expect from Pizzo's style. 

Pizzo (who usually goes just by "Alabaster" on her comics) has made a career out of juxtaposing cute images and a thin line with adult, surprising, and/or upsetting imagery. Her most recent and most ambitious project, Mimi And The Wolves, is about halfway through and was recently reprinted by the UK's Avery Hill Publishing. This is a fantasy story based on some deeply personal experiences, as it discusses abusive relationships, toxic power structures, and the ways in which women are often cajoled into handing over their own personal agency. In this interview, Pizzo talks about her life-long relationship with drawing, her transition into animation, working as an illustrator, and describing what she gets out of collaborating with others.

Rob Clough: Did you grow up reading comics? Did you have friends whom you read comics with?

Alabaster Pizzo: A little bit. Certainly Peanuts and Archie. And my parents made sure we had quality picture books, like by Maurice Sendak, H.A. Rey, Dr. Suess, Maira Kalman, and Jon Scieszka/Lane Smith. I never really got into what the general population thinks of when they hear the word comics, though.

Did you grow up drawing? Did you draw with others, like siblings or friends?

All I’ve ever done is draw. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to do anything else on the side like a sport, or any other skill, lol. I’m trying to figure out how to make space in my life now to do all the other things I never had an interest in (like exercise at all!) but it’s hard for me to even wrap my head around. However, I like to draw by myself. Socializing is separate.

Given that you've always drawn by yourself, what's it like working in a collaborative field like animation?

Easier than I thought it would be. I’m still left to my own devices a lot. I like that I’m handed an outline for an episode and trusted to come up with the best dialog/ staging/ sight gags, etc, and, as long as nothing is confusing or deemed inappropriate for 8 year olds, it gets passed along to the next stage that way. I work with a partner but we divide the work in half. I was worried I would be collaborating on every tiny decision and it’s not like that. I like presenting my episode and getting feedback from my directors, I don’t take notes personally. I was under stricter directions when I was doing backgrounds, but still able to add my own touch or hide little jokes in there.

Did your parents support you in your endeavors related to art growing up?

Yes! My dad is an editorial illustrator and my mom was too before me and my sisters were born. Illustration was a bit more lucrative in the 80s and 90s, back when most things were analog and a publication wouldn’t dare offer a measly couple hundred dollars for a color cover. I struggled financially in my 20s but at least I didn’t have to deal with parents pressuring me to completely change gears and do something that would make me more money.

What publications did your parents work for?

Mostly business/financial oriented magazines and newspapers, but not exclusively.

What was your childhood like? In what ways does it inform your work now?

Pretty normal I guess? Until I was ten we lived right outside of New York City, but then we moved to Connecticut, which felt like an adventure at first but then I grew to dislike [it]. I moved into the city proper as soon as I could. The concept of cities is very important to me and I think is present in most of the work I do. My family is also very conservative and I had a lot of unlearning and relearning to do in my early 20s. Now I’m passionate about a lot of things that are probably considered far-left, sustainability and climate change being at the forefront. 

What was your experience at SVA like? Did you have any favorite teachers?

I didn’t love being at SVA, but I also don’t love being in a school environment in general. Teachers who were really supportive/ taught me useful things were Matt Madden, Nick Bertozzi, Tom Hart, David Sandlin, and Gary Panter. I sometimes say I wish I had just paid each one to have lunch with me a couple times instead of the $XX,XXX i paid the school, but what can ya do about it now. This whole country needs to work out how to do college in a realistic, ethical way so I only partly blame SVA.

When did drawing comics become a serious thing for you?

I feel like I’ve done them forever and it’s become incrementally more serious in tiny, steady ways since I was 14. I never had a singular big break (or else I’m still waiting for it!!!). I’ve just become a little better and a little better known every day. That seems like a pretty good deal. 

What cartoonists' work did you look at before starting your own, if any?

I’ve always been looking at and making art, so there’s not really a beginning for either for me.

Do you consider yourself to be an artist who writes, a writer who draws, or something else?

Exactly equally both.

Do you enjoy the simple act of drawing apart from working on your own comics?

Yes, but I don’t really keep a sketchbook or try to draw for myself in a structured way. I enjoy drawing from photographs, especially architectural or city-environment kind of stuff.

What has being a part of the small-press community been like for you, both at the beginning of your career and now? Do you enjoy going to shows like SPX? 

It’s been crucial. I’ve taken a little time off from doing the circuit of shows I love, since I moved and have been working full time (I also somehow forgot to apply to CALA like a dum-dum), but they were formative for me. Tumblr was my gateway into the scene, but the first time i did MoCCA and BCGF (now CAB) and SPX felt so energizing and inspiring. I’m not sure what my relationship with the small press shows will be going forward, because I’m trying to move away from being in charge of my own comics distribution (because i suck a lot at it), as well as making small merch items to sell (part of my effort to create less material objects in a world piled high with them).

What were your earliest comics like? Did you have a sense of where you wanted your career to go when you were at SVA?

 In 1st grade, I was obsessed with dinosaurs so I started writing an illustrated “chapter book” called Dinoland that I don’t think I ever finished (running joke in my family for 2.5 decades). In 6th grade, I drew an ongoing comic in the margins of my science notebook called “Particals [sic] of Matter” about three microscopic blobs that find out about science facts- the hard way! As a tween, I got way into Sailor Moon so I made a bunch of Sailor Moon rip-offs about magic fairies, if these still exist somewhere I might die if they ever resurface. In 8th grade, I serialized a story set in Ancient Egypt via email to my friends, a chapter at a time, and one day at a school event one of their dads took me aside and told me he loved it. This is gonna sound so arrogant but I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was very young and I’ve been doing it since and I’m still doing it. Even the transition from comics to animation design and storyboarding doesn’t feel that abrupt, except in terms of like, my personal life changing.

The first thing I read of yours was your collection of Talamaroo comics. It was not what I was expecting, especially given its initial, cute veneer. You've noted that Moomin comics and Sailor Moon were visual influences on this comic, but there's an undercurrent of sex and violence that bursts to the fore. Was this comic meant to be satirical, therapeutic, just plain fun, or something else entirely?

Haha, I really don’t know what to say for Talamaroo. It was like a stream of consciousness that came out all at once right after I finished college because I was determined to start making my own mini-comics right away. I think it’s a very simple story, just content that could fill up enough pages to print a few small books. I had 0 following then and I wasn’t certain it would ever see the light of day, even after I printed about 75-100 of each (I didn’t even think to allow for mistakes so I wound up with a random amount of each mini-book!) I was delighted when people started telling me all the different things it meant to them, but I was definitely surprised.

My favorite part of the book was the Greek chorus of birds who initially serve as narrators, and then push Talamaroo to do horrible things before she kills them. What inspired this funny narrative device? Were you looking to shock or surprise the audience when Talamaroo whips out a machine gun to kill them, or was this more of a Bugs Bunny-style over-the-top bit of violence?

Because Talamaroo doesn’t speak, they fill us in a little on whats going on. I’m sure I was going for a shock gag.

You've noted that this isn't a project that you like much now. Where does it fall short for you in your eyes at the moment?

I don’t dislike it, but it is something I did a long time ago and without a lot of planning. I’ve settled on an art style I like more now, I’m more intentional with narrative. Also, my mindset at that age was a lot of “everything is stupid, caring about anything is stupid,” and I’m a lot smarter than that now. I had to start somewhere!

Your story “Gin” is another example of you doing a story with appealing character designs and attractive decorative details with a story that deals with emotionally raw and painful subjects. Is juxtaposing beautiful clear lines and cute character designs with pain, misery, fear, and violence part of your overall project? Why does this juxtaposition hold meaning for you?

I don’t know if the juxtaposition is the point. I think I just like to draw that way, but I also want to write stories about complicated feelings and relationships.

You've noted that you asked to draw Kaeleigh Forsyth's journals because you thought they were hilarious, and you were stuck on your own writing. What does drawing someone else's writing unlock in you as an artist?

It lets me off the hook to come up with my own story for the art. Working commercially in illustration and animation is all about drawing an interpretation of someone else’s words so I have a lot of practice. The first piece I did with her, a three page comic for The Lifted Brow, indeed was a collaboration born of me having writer’s block. I wrote a couple of very short comics and hated them all before I finally just asked her to text me a screenshot of the last list she had made for herself. Working with a constraint is a great way to kickstart creativity.

What I liked best about these comics were the sections where you interpreted fairly basic descriptions, in a funny way, like when Forsyth embarks on the "Self-Esteem Improvement Plan.” One of the items denoted as "First find out: do I have an STD" is illustrated by you with Forsyth holding a hand mirror and putting one leg on the toilet. Did you find drawing this book creatively fulfilling because you were able to improvise like this?

Hahaha its funny that you mention that panel cause that was the singular drawing in the book she took some issue with. We did a reading of this part of the book at its release party and we omitted it, because her mom was there. I tried to get her to be cool with handing off the text to me to interpret at will, so that each one of us was giving and receiving a surprise, and she was for the most part, which was great. I enjoyed making her an “unreliable narrator” or working a B-story into the images.

Your sense of humor, at least in terms of comics, seems quite different from hers. Did that provide any difficulties for you as an illustrator, or was it comfortable sliding right into another person's sensibility?

I think in my private life I have a very cruel sense of humor which I don’t always show in my work (and certainly [not] now that I work in children’s TV) so it was fun to indulge in that with that project. 

Was this comic closer to your career as an illustrator in nature than your own comics, even if the assignment given to you here was from yourself?

Yes, the difference being we weren’t trying to sell or promote anything so we didn’t have to reign it in.

You've mentioned enjoying constraints, but is it ever frustrating for you to reign things in when working as an illustrator?

What frustrates me the most is art directors or whoever is contacting me from the company I’m working for is being so into whatever their company is selling that they lose sight of reality, lol, and give me vague directions about its merits. What do you mean this product promotes wellness? What is that? How do I draw it? Or, I’ll send a bunch of ideas and the AD picks the most boring, literal version, or one I find problematic (using stereotypes to get a point across). Also, I find myself doing work for friends of friends or acquaintances of acquaintances who I can tell are only hiring me because someone they know said “I know an artist,” and aren’t interested in my personal style and maybe know little about hiring creative talent at all. I have to push back a lot and say things like “I don’t do art without lines around it,” “I’m not a graphic designer,” “you can’t let someone else make changes to my work.” Boy, writing this all out made me so relieved I don’t rely on this kind of work anymore!

You've noted that you were drawn to the frequently absurd reviews in your Ruler Comics precisely because leaving reviews is something you don't like to do. Is this another case of doing comics that let you get outside of your own head and experiences?

I don’t remember what I said about this but I bet it was something along the lines of misunderstanding the wider population’s intense need to write detailed reviews of every experience they’ve had. I’ve been to plenty of awful restaurants, bought plenty of items that were junk, stayed at many Airbnb’s that varied a lot from their descriptions, but my dissatisfaction has never motivated me to write a bad review. I just can’t be bothered. I’ve lived in and have mostly traveled to giant cities since I was 18, I’ll just go to a different bar if I didn’t like the one I chose last time. The comics probably highlight the ridiculousness of leaving reviews, especially for a 12-inch ruler that costs less than a $1, but it’s for items like these that you find the funniest materials. I should mention it was Kaeleigh who collected these reviews.

This is your purest humor/slice of life comic. Is any of this autobiographical, or simply catching the general experience of being youngish and underemployed?

The latter, I think. I know I’m not breaking any new ground with these but they’re fun to write and draw. I think I’ve always been more influenced by cartoons than comics so this was me taking a stab at writing short, dense stories that wrap up neatly, like an 11 minute TV episode. I wanted it to star a long term couple that’s nice to each other. A lot of classic sitcom humor comes from animosity between people who are supposed to be best friends or in love. I think in general we are moving past that trope.

What cartoons have had the biggest influence on you over the years?

Looney Tunes, Early 90s Nicktoons, esp by Klasky Csupo (Rugrats, etc), later 90s Cartoon Network originals (Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Lab etc), Spongebob Squarepants, Home Movies, I did get heavily into Sailor Moon but I never really watched any other anime. I kinda stole Ralphie’s design from the Russian cartoon Nu, Pogodi!

One of the sources of humor in your strip is that your characters are just a little too old to still be living the crustpunk lifestyle. Is this something you see in people around you? What has your own transition been like in going from a career in comics and illustration and now moving into animation?

Ahaha, I love this question. When I started posting these on Vice, I decided the $200 a week I was getting for them was good enough to live off, and I quit my last food service job. Somehow, I survived for two years with no steady work (I only did these weekly comics for 3 months). I was 28, and oscillating hard between owning the bare bones, aimless lifestyle I was living, and feeling like I really need to get my shit together somehow. I knew I could get work in animation, but I resisted it, mostly because I knew it would mean a major move (from New York to Los Angeles), but also because being a barely employed cartoonist who ate my friends’ leftovers and lived in a crumbling apartment and never had to be anywhere at a certain time was a big part of my identity. I’m glad I decided to try a change. I turned 30 two weeks before I moved to start design work on Tuca and Bertie. I love working in animation. It’s so much fun, I’m learning so much and becoming a better artist and writer, and the pay is amazing. I’m in a union! 

What have you learned the most so far as an animator? How does it inform your other work and make you better?

Storyboarding has to follow the rules of filmmaking otherwise the final product gets confusing. But these techniques help comic-making too. I will probably always break the 180 rule in my comics, though. Sorry. And doing background design work helped me better understand laying out a scene, why it's important to be aware of tangents, how changing a horizon line or color palette changes the mood of a scene.

What appeals to you about each of the main characters in Ralphie and Jeanie?

They’re all pretty nice to each other, they give each other room to be who they are. Jeanie is kind of frantic and delusional sometimes but Ralphie never gets angry at her. Lupie is more materialistic and fashion-oriented than Jeanie, but they get along and indulge each other’s personality differences without being resentful or judgmental. Maybe this is the kind of friend I’d like to be! The landlady is exactly my old landlady, of previously mentioned crumbling apartment.

Mimi And The Wolves is your most ambitious work to date, and you've noted that it's also your most directly autobiographical. The first three volumes were published between 2014 and 2016 before you took a break. Was all of this work in the same vein regarding it being personal, or did it shift from volume to volume?

Yes, it’s all more or less based on my life over the course of one year, about mid-2010 to mid-2011. I laid the basic arc out before I started and it’s just been a matter of chipping away at it. It’s abstract enough that the characters and individual events stand on their own, apart from the memoir aspect, especially as time goes on and I get further away from that time.

Your “cute” art style is in full effect here, but you once again very quickly subvert it when you show Mimi and Bobo taking off their clothes and going to bed. Why does working in this style appeal to you? What is your goal in then subverting expectations with regard to using this kind of style?

I really don’t know!! Haha. I like to draw a certain way, and cute folky Moomin creatures just appeal to me. I don’t think this is an issue until a 7-year-old picks up my books at a comics show and I have to explain. I’m definitely not trying to subvert; even if that’s the result, it’s not my intent.

Vivid dreams and nightmares drive the mystical aspects of the strip, as well as providing a crucial aspect of Mimi's personality. Have recurring dreams or nightmares been something that's driven your creative process?

The dream is more or less a device to keep the plot going. I myself do not have recurring nightmares, although I’m constantly aware of time moving forward and feeling like I’m not getting enough done.

One of the running themes in the book is having the freedom to find one's true self and the various people in Mimi's life who seem to be both aiding and hindering this. She lived a pleasant life with Bobo but never told him about her dreams. When she did, he tried to control her. Ergot the wolf strikes a similarly paternalistic pose with both her and Ivy, lavishing them with praise and attention but also demanding loyalty. Nero is exciting but dangerous. All of these forms of control are abusive in their own way. Would you consider this to be a story of a young woman trying to find her own identity but constantly attaching herself to men in different ways?

Yes!! At its core, I’d say this is a story about relationships (romantic and otherwise) and how they can become unhealthy. This can happen slowly and people often don’t notice it until they feel stuck in something awful. Mimi is so happy to find someone like Ergot, who has knowledge to share with her and treats her like a gift from heaven, but this quickly becomes complicated. Ergot and Ivy seem ok sometimes, but really codependent. Ivy does the majority of the food procurement, even pretending to have already eaten when she only manages to bring home one rabbit so that Ergot can eat. Ivy is friendly with Copper, Opal, and Cobalt, but their friendship is a little formal and you can tell they gain by having her around. Ceres and Cato are clearly not in a good spot, but also Ceres' relationship with her biggest (only?) client, Saffron, is a little dependent. They’re supposed to be business associates but because they’re friends, Saffron pays Ceres out for more than her harvest is worth, essentially supporting the failing farm. I’m being careful not to cast anyone as a definite antagonist in this. And Mimi herself has selfish motives behind her relationships.

That said, many of the women in the story are put-upon by lazy, demanding, or unimaginative mates, but Mimi is the only character who actually does something about it. Will we see the other female characters, like Ceres, similarly strike out on their own?

Perhaps!

Given what we find out in Act III, that the dream vision Venus and the malignant Severine seem to be in league, is this a statement against the concept of fate or destiny?

By this, I think you mean, is the grand prophecy that Mimi thinks she’s been privy to actually a trap? Hmmm, you might have to wait and see.

Kiko is an interesting character in that he seems almost suspiciously carefree and innocent. We learn that he's someone who is also running from his past and does it in a more definitive way than Mimi. Is he ultimately a tragic character because of what he has to give up, or is he a selfish one for constantly leaving others behind?

Kiko is a character who enters the story as carefree, polite, and kind foil to Ceres, Mimi, and Cato. Maybe I should mention that Kiko is nonbinary. I’ve been alternating between characters using he and she, partly because nobody yet has made it their business to ask about Kiko directly about themself or their past (which might not be as carefree as everyone assumes) and partly because Kiko is based on a friend who’s used different pronouns. I admit that when I started this project, I wasn’t that familiar with the singular “they” (just 6 or 7 years ago) so I didn’t opt to use it, but I also asked my friend how I should go about it and I don’t think we ever settled on an answer. Additionally, no one in the story really knows. For me, this harkens back a bit to the Haruka/ Sailor Uranus character in Sailor Moon

Could you provide more detail on the Haruka/Sailor Uranus character and how it relates to your story?

 Oh haha. [I] just assumed every cartoon oriented person age 25-40 know this. I’m NOT talking about the 90s cartoon dub where skittish North American producers turned this character into the 100% female cousin of Neptune, her partner. In the comic, at least to start, I think Haruka is male in civilian form and female in Sailor scout form, although as the story progresses I don’t think it stays this rigid. I don’t know what the creator has to say about this but maybe this was an attempt to create a non-binary character before there was a common language for it. Or maybe in Japan, it’s not such a big deal. Haruka and their partner arrive in the story as mysterious outsiders. The other characters make their own assumptions about them. In one scene (in the comic), the main character Usagi and Haruka almost kiss, and Usagi asks, “Are you a guy or a girl?” And Haruka answers, “Is that so important?” I might mirror this scene in an upcoming chapter of Mimi (not to give too much away)

Another running theme in the book seems to be rituals, in how they serve to protect us, affirm us, empower us, but also sometimes trap us. Mimi's creative rituals nourish her until they don't, for example, and Ceres' own farm rituals stop working in part because her husband isn't willing to do more. More pointedly, the wolves' rituals are directly empowering, but at a great price. As an artist, what is your own relationship with rituals, creative, spiritual and otherwise?

From age 19 to 27 I worked at the same cafe. It was a messy, tough, busy environment, paid about as poorly as you’d assume, and working there may have taken years of my life. But I also met a lot of lifelong friends there, it paid me in cash and let me take as much time off as I needed to complete projects, and we ate for free there for years. It worked for me until it didn’t, so my opinion of it now is neither good or bad. The same can go for friendships, relationships, lifestyles, homes, and locations. My cheap apartment with the negligent landlord, rotating cast of roommates, and broken everything was just what I needed for the years I was making less than $1,000 a month. I’m not the kind of person who regrets anything, partly because you can’t change the past, and partly because even the big mistakes I’ve made have been a part of my life, and I like my life. I don't think changing something for the better means we need to declare whole sections of our lives as bad or as waste.

How long do you anticipate Mimi being? Do you see the story dramatically changing, given that you've spent some time away from it?

I’m halfway through. Well, a little more than that since I am working on part 4 right now. On one hand I really wish I powered through and got it done in a more timely manner, but on the other hand, I’m glad I’ve given it time to germinate and myself time to improve. I’m bowled over and so grateful that people are still so interested in it. 

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