Leah Wishnia is a reminder that being a lynchpin requires labor. As the founder, editor, and publisher of Happiness — the increasingly diverse, ambitious, and influential anthology of comics and attendant art forms, now on its fourth issue — the 26-year-old New York City resident and RISD graduate has harvested a biannual bumper crop of idiosyncratic young alternative cartoonists. Recent issues have wedded them to fine art, criticism, rock gig flyers, and a disc full of music, much of it by the comics contributors. Yet she discusses the project less as a celebration of a scene than as a process of constant reflection and refinement, bringing each issue closer to an ever-evolving ideal. For Wishnia, the “alternative” in “alternative comics” must be a meaningful descriptor, a countervailing weight of empathy, community, and catharsis in a world with its finger on the scales. One gets the sense the effort she puts into ensuring this is every bit as demanding and time-consuming as the logistics of production and distribution.
Which is not to say the resulting work feels like doing your homework. Happiness is an exciting read above all else, its blend of styles and media a bracing outlier among contemporary alt anthologies. Meanwhile, Wishnia’s own comics, collected in last year’s Gut Feelings, use a jagged line — perfect for distorted faces and wild crowd scenes — to tell tales of raw, abject emotional distress. As The Beat’s Jessica Lee aptly put it, they treat the public display of intimate and unpleasant emotion as a political act. Wishnia, a life-long Long Islander aside from a year or two spent with family in Ecuador, is an astute, articulate, unsparing chronicler of her own process; her revealing editors’ notes in Happiness are must-reads. Yet her work as both cartoonist and editor/publisher remains unpredictable and thrilling nevertheless.
SEAN T. COLLINS: You've been quite forthcoming about the process that animates Happiness in the editors' letters that appear in the most recent issues. In #4, you say that the mission behind the book is an explicitly evangelical one, with the goal of spreading the word about comics in general and up-and-coming practitioners in particular. How does that manifest itself in the specific production and curation choices you make as the editor?
LEAH WISHNIA: I'm interested in publishing work that I find intelligent and challenging rather than uninformed or lazy, but that's kind of a given. I'll try to include a fair mix of new talent with more established artists, but most decisions are somewhat subjective. I choose work that I like and want to share with others, and I try to make decisions that will better benefit contributors and readers. It's not something I do so much for financial or personal gain as it is a way for me to help contribute and interact with the DIY-spirited community and other like-minded artists and individuals. Since the most widely-available news and entertainment surrounding us these days is complete shit, I feel like any quality alternative outlet or platform for creative thought and expression can't really hurt. Maybe there is something fundamentally evangelical in wanting to put out a publication that values creative integrity and community over trendiness and personal gain, but I don't think that's a goal unique to Happiness in particular; it basically just describes the spirit of most DIY publications.
The early issues, besides being shorter and more exclusively comics-focused, are also angrier, it seems to me. There's more "adult" material, more taboo-breaking, and a sense of... I dunno, fury to it. "Underground comix in the time of crushing student-loan debt" is how I've described it.
The earlier issues might seem crazier and kinda lawless because I had no idea what I was doing. They're not angrier, just clunky. In learning from my mistakes, becoming more mature and better-informed, some of that "unbridled, youthful rage" of the first two issues basically just transformed itself into a productive, useful rage, a rage led by compassion and critical thought, not hatred or ignorance. And for me, that's way more radical.
When the anthology expanded to a perfect-bound format, the increased number of contributors was a loss for tonal consistency, but it gained something you don't see from a lot of comics anthologies—a sense that this is an honest-to-god magazine, in which your interest in a particular thing inside the magazine, like comics, will bring you into contact with material that may be less familiar to you, like fine art, music, or critical essays. You discuss your desire to do this very directly, but were there any publications that influenced how you went about it?
Not really… I’ve cited Action Girl and Short Order Comix as having been an influence for the first and second issues of Happiness, but for issues three and four I may have been striving to create something that didn't really exist yet.
That said, I grew up loving both fine art and comics. As a child, I might have cherished a painting that I saw at the MoMA as much as the $1 comic I got at the grocery store. I liked to paint and to draw comics, but somehow I always felt discouraged that I had to choose one or the other and never both. Thus, I've always felt excited and inspired by any efforts attempting to link underground comics with other art forms, such as with abstract painting, sculpture, installation, performance, or video. As it is, something like the "Wunderground" exhibit at the RISD Museum a few years ago probably had a way more profound effect on me than any publication or magazine I've stumbled across.
Cheaper paper, higher print runs, an all-ages content policy, drafting in other art forms—the work here may not be "accessible" in the traditional sense of that word, but accessibility is a goal of the Happiness project itself, right?
Well, yeah, I don't want to prevent people from obtaining Happiness because they can't afford it or because it's impossible to find. Additionally, I don't feel that it's written or presented in a way that's impenetrable for the average reader, and in that way, the content is "accessible." As for an all-ages content policy, there actually isn't one. Although I did attempt to make #3 "all ages,” by which I meant "a really mature 9+," the brief policy was enforced mainly to dissuade content that relied too heavily on crass humor, vulgarity, or shock value as a crutch over content with any kind of meaningful context or narrative. Not to say that crass humor and vulgarity can't add to an already strong work—just refer to Maren Karlson's comic in the new issue, which ends with three women driving into the sunset singing "Pussy, Money, Weed". I guess I was just traumatized by some of the kinds of submissions I had been receiving up until then, and hoped to make it clear that I wasn't interested in receiving people's jingoistic-rape-fantasy-gag-comics-and-such anymore.
Ha, yeah, I realized after I asked that by the fourth issue the all-ages idea had already fallen by the wayside. But the mature material in it feels, you know, genuinely mature, not like anyone’s pushing buttons just to push them.
Fortunately I've learned over time what kind of artists and personalities to seek out and work with, and which ones to avoid. In putting together issue #4, I didn't really have to worry about anyone submitting work that was less than phenomenal; only occasional suggestions for spelling/grammar fixes and file quality adjustments were needed. Currently, #4 is without an "all ages" or "mature readers" tag because I didn't feel like labeling it as one or the other. Although I personally think that Happiness #4 could be appropriate for a mature 12 or 13 year old, you know, parental discretion is advised.
There's also a distinct communitarian impulse behind it, it seems to me. You're trying to make connections between contributors, between art forms. The interviews in #4 are almost entirely with artists whose praxis exists to further "scenes," whether musical or visual. There's a huge section of punk-show flyers, where drawing large numbers of people to the same place to see a whole bunch of bands perform is the whole point. Was this a response to an absence of this kind of thinking within comics, or was it simply something that you found valuable irrespective of that context?
I'm not sure that I know what all of comics is thinking, so I guess the latter. I realize I said something about "creating something that didn't exist yet" in one of my previous responses, but I'd prefer to think of Happiness as being more of celebration of all these different art forms and ideas intermixing than as a thing I created to prove a point. I like to discover and experience new music, comics, art, and go to punk shows, performances, and installations as much as the next subcultural urbanite, and to be able to document and share all that quality cultural ephemera and amazing emerging talent and energy with others is a thing that just feels good to do.
To actively engage with the local community, to bond with like-minded individuals, to hear and promote new voices, raise people's spirits, share ideas, address frustrations, think critically as a group, to do something, anything, that might have some kind of positive impact on the local community, even if just igniting a small flicker of hope, it is a way to take back a tiny bit of control from a world in which one might otherwise feel powerless, a way to feel OK.
The cheaper paper really stuck out to me, too. I think that probably since Jordan Crane's NON in the early '00s, the main model for alternative/underground comics anthologies has been to become an objet d'art, culminating in projects like Kramers Ergot 7 and Mould Map 3. Happiness has way more in common with a magazine or a zine than a deluxe production like those.
I enjoyed both Kramers Ergot 7 and Mould Map 3, and I think there's a decent amount of overlap with the type of content featured in Happiness and those two publications. But yeah, I guess I've always intended Happiness to function more as the kind of publication one could feel comfortable putting beside the toilet as their bathroom-reading-material than as a precious art object to be put on display behind glass and coveted.
[Laughs] What kind of comics do you like, personally? Are there specific qualities to which you respond more than others? Are they evident in your own work, if so? This is as good a time as any to discuss influences as well.
Every comic featured in the newest Happiness is something I like personally. I don't feel like there's a particular aesthetic that I respond to more strongly than others, nor a specific type of narrative, concept, or theme that has to exist for me to appreciate a work. With the comics I like and publish, there's usually an underlying basis of artistic knowledge and skill involved, but more importantly, I'm interested in unique work that is passionate, expressive, and perceptive.
I suppose I've always been drawn to comic work with a more twisted outlook or sense of humor, even as a kid I preferred things with a darker, slightly morbid sensibility. Some of my earliest favorites, from when I first learned to read, were Roger Rabbit and Ren & Stimpy comics, as well as older French titles like Gaston LaGaffe and Astérix, which my father read out loud and translated for me. Although these titles were a bit more lighthearted in nature, I liked how crazy and out-of-control a lot of the characters featured in them were, and I drew my first comic at age six trying imitate that. Matt Groening's Life in Hell series and Mad magazine were other staples of my childhood, as was Sarah Dyer's Action Girl anthology a bit later.
I think the comics that have had the most significant effect on the development of my own work though, were those that I discovered and loved as a teenager—Dirty Plotte by Julie Doucet, Hate by Peter Bagge, Diary of a Teenage Girl and A Child's Life by Phoebe Gloeckner, Amy & Jordan by Mark Beyer, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and Epileptic by David B. are still some of my all-time favorites.
When we were planning this interview, I suggested asking you first about your own comics, many of which are collected in your book Gut Feelings, and then branching out into a discussion of the anthology you edit, Happiness. I was both surprised and intrigued by your insistence that the anthology is the main event for you and should be for the interview as well. Why is that?
It's because Happiness is what I've spent all of my energy on in the last year and half, not my own comics. I started putting together issue #4 in the spring of 2013. Between working full-time and taking on various freelance commissions on the side, it took me over 12 months to complete issue #4. Even in the months after its official release, I'm still putting a lot of energy into its promotion and distribution. I've only done two comics since July 2013 -- "Just a Weed in the Wind, Man,” in Smoke Signal #17, and "Space Teens of the Future,” in Happiness #4. Not that I'm not interested in discussing my own comics artwork; I still primarily identify as an artist and cartoonist, not as a publisher, editor, or curator. I am excited to begin work on a few long-term art and comics projects of my own again. But while those personal projects are still in gestation, I'd prefer to focus on discussing the newest issue of Happiness.
What are you working on now? Has that focus shifted yet?
I've recently taken a break from most personal projects, including temporarily limiting the promotion and distribution of Happiness, in order to focus on rebuilding my health and strength, which has unfortunately taken a great toll on my productivity in the last few months. I have, however, started making more music during this time, experimenting with various borrowed instruments and electronics while also brainstorming videos and animations that could potentially correspond with it. During this self-imposed break from comics-making, I've also been trying to read a lot more non-fiction in an attempt to better educate myself, explore new interests, and spark new ideas for future comics narratives. I expect to get back into the full swing of things by January or February, though, so not to worry!
What is the gestation process for your own work like? Are you taking notes, drawing thumbnails, just thinking things through?
For shorter comic narratives, I usually visualize everything first in my head, playing out the potential story with all its fundamental characters and major or minor plot points, as if it were a live-action movie. Then I might sketch out the exact order of events within the larger story arc, ultimately determining the appropriate page count for the story, and then figuring out what event or plot point should occur on each page. I then just kind of dive in and draw/ink each page as I progress, often using a lightbox to get the inks I want. I adopted this approach in part because I'm an overly anxious person who tends to overthink or dwell too much on ideas before taking any action on a project, sometimes thwarting initial progress. Once I have a clear vision in my head as to what I want to address in my comic narrative, though, I tend to plow right through it. My process for other types of art-making, such as with music, painting, or ceramics, tends to be much more immediate than pre-meditated. I'm not as interested in telling complex narratives in those mediums, so I instead focus on basic mark-making, color, composition, physical process, and overall aesthetic approach.
You've recently written about having a dream life so consistent from dream to dream, and so easily remembered in your waking life, that it effectively functions as an entirely separate, parallel life for you. Does the labor of your unconscious mind make it easier for you when it comes time to write and draw, like it's laying the groundwork? Or do you have to think up entirely new ideas not represented in that dream life just to get around the cataloging and contrasting of events and ideas that your dreams have taken care of for you?
My own mindset, surroundings, and observations in my dream world are fairly connected to my waking life, so rather than presenting entirely foreign concepts or attitudes to me, my dreams tend to reinforce familiar ones. There aren’t really any “A-ha!” moments. While I have been surprised and fascinated by some of the things my subconscious mind has fabricated on its own accord, often with great detail, I can’t say that my dream life has a greater impact on my work than my everyday reality, as the two states of consciousness are really one and the same for me.
When I think about your comics, the phrases that pop into my head are "muscular" and "draws like a demon." They're drawn loudly, is the best way I can put it. In many cases they work with the verbal and visual language of melodrama, in the theatrical sense -- distraught people dealing with infidelity, lost love, that kind of thing. They're very direct in their emotional content, but there's an element of self-awareness in how they're processed into this high-pitched sturm und drang. The way in which you approach your comic work seems to me to put you at odds with a lot of current strains of alternative comics art — emotional, yes, but more impressionistic than expressionistic, quieter, done in more muted tones; Frank Santoro’s work, say, or the comics that won his Comics Workbook competition. But it lines right up with much of the work you're collecting in Happiness.
I honestly don't really think too much about how my own comic work fits into the over-arching canon of alternative comics and such. I'm just trying to do work that I enjoy and that others might appreciate as well. Although I like to think of my own comics style and vision as being unique, I don't feel that it's necessarily at odds with other alternative comics that are being produced and distributed right now—in fact, there's quite a few contemporary cartoonists whose output of work I totally “get,” work that seems rooted in a similar place as my own.
Indeed, though, many of my comics have featured characters that act and react quite dramatically, a kind of exaggeration of some negative attributes I see in both myself and in others. I think there's a lot of chaos and pain and greed present in our culture right now that often goes unnoticed or unaddressed, so I like to take those negative things and amplify them until they reach absurd proportions, beating people over the head with it all until someone takes notice.