The Memorist’s Dilemma: Telling The Parents
RC: You painted a very loving portrait of your parents in the introduction to Kiss & Tell, but from your narrative it’s obvious that your relationship with them has been rocky. Have they been supportive of your career as an artist? Have they seen Kiss & yet, and are they still talking to you, as you hoped they would in your dedication?
MN: My parents and I had a tumultuous relationship until I moved out of the house, and then suddenly we were great friends. Our personalities clash in confined spaces, but we seem to have no problem appreciating each other’s finer qualities from afar, or in short bursts. They’re good-hearted, intelligent people who have the ability to drive me crazy. You know. Parents.
As for the book. Oh gosh, that’s been hard. The very first advance copy I got, I sent it to my dad that day and told him to use his discretion and only show Mom the parts that wouldn’t freak her out. She’s an extremely private person, plus very chaste, so I knew there was dangerous potential there. Well, I didn’t hear anything about it, and I never asked, but I took it as a good sign when I caught him posting on Facebook that I got a blurb from Armistead Maupin.
I ended up visiting them in Japan at the beginning of this month (February), and it turns out my dad had been reading the book very slowly. He said it’s pretty difficult material for a parent to read, and I totally get it. It turned out he was only at the part where I lose my virginity, though, and when he told me that, I got nervous about it all over again. Ohhh, there was so much more to come! I also found out that he gave the book to my mom, who read, like, five pages, then put it down for good. Really, it’s better this way.
After I got home, my dad got inspired and read a whole lot at once. He was really bummed out about the abortion, but still wrote me a supportive, sweet email. Our relationship has changed a lot over the years.
RC: Speaking of your parents, you critiqued gender roles through your observations of their behavior (dominant father, submissive mother) as a teenager. How do you see their relationship now as an adult, especially as a person who is now married yourself?
MN: Well, my mom has become more dominant over the years, and my dad has mellowed out a lot. Still, their relationship is completely unlike any relationship I’ve ever had, including the present one with my husband.
RC: Looking back on your teenage years, do you sympathize with their point of view on discipline (especially with regard to your burgeoning sexuality), or do you feel that their discipline in part was responsible for your acting out?
MN: I’ve grown up to be pretty strict, like with my puppy dog. But it’s one thing to try to control a dog, and another thing to try to control a teenager. The militaristic attitude towards discipline (namely, “Do this because I say so”) that my dad had when I was a kid definitely pushed me to rebel even more.
RC: It takes a great deal of courage to simply walk away from one’s home as a teenager. Did it ever become a scary situation?
MN: To be honest, no, it never got scary. Even at the time I realized how charmed my situation was, as I befriended some lovely people that summer and just had a great time, with the exception of a bad LSD trip. (I portrayed that bad trip in a single comical panel in my book, but it was really terrifying and turned me off to LSD for a long time.)
With that said, I feel very lucky that nothing awful happened to me during that time. I felt pretty invincible when I was a teenager.
RC: What other cultural influences have had an impact on your art? Was the Japanese culture of your mother emphasized in the house as you grew up? Is this something you see as an influence now, both as an artist and a person in general?
MN: My mom really downplayed being Japanese when I was growing up. My dad was (and is) really into Japanese culture, so I was exposed to it, but I also viewed it through his eyes—as something foreign and interesting and strange. My peers growing up were mostly Caucasian, and I didn’t meet a lot of non-related-to-me Asian people until I was an adult. It’s something I’m still exploring. In fact, the next book I’m working on is all about me exploring my Japanese roots when I was a young twenty-something.
RC: What’s your relationship with your sister like? In the book, she’s a cypher of sorts because she’s so much younger than you, and it sounds like there weren’t a lot of shared experiences.
MN: I adore my sister. She lives in San Francisco too, and is the main reason I never ran off to live in Portland or with a band of gypsies. We’re different in some ways (she’s in the medical profession, I’m terrified of needles; she runs marathons and is part of a dance troupe, I sit around and draw all day), but we both have artistic streaks, we talk about completely inappropriate things at the dinner table (my parents do this too) and we have the same crazy laugh. I didn’t appreciate her when I was young, but after I hit my teens, she became my favorite person in the whole world.
The Roots of Kiss & Tell
RC: You listed Scott Russo’s zine Jizz as a primary influence. What was it about his comic that inspired you?
MN: I loved that his zine didn’t follow any of the rules I was used to, as far as telling a story or even drawing a person. And of course his irreverent humor slayed me, as did his unabashed hatred towards sleazy politicians. I’d never seen anything like it and I was completely charmed.
RC: What other cartoonists, past and present, have inspired you? Your comics remind me a little of the sort of thing that Phoebe Gloeckner does, for example.
MN: I recently read Phoebe’s Diary of a Teenage Girl and I was super impressed. It was so powerful!
As far as cartoonists who were an influence (in storytelling, honesty, and sometimes style), Mary Fleener is a big one, as well as R. Crumb, Rob Kirby, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, and Roberta Gregory. I’m not aware of a lot of current influences on what I do besides the sheer inspiration of reading a good story or appreciating fine artistry, though I do occasionally notice certain unintentional homages. For example, in one of the panels in Kiss & Tell, my dad looks suspiciously like a character from a Joey Sayers comic! And another panel in my book looks very reminiscent of Trevor Alixopoulis’s work.
RC: Given that some of R.Crumb’s imagery is not exactly friendly toward women (especially his early ’70s work), have you felt conflicted when reading his most id-centered, violent stories?
MN: I enjoy the absurdity of R. Crumb’s comics (I’m mostly entertained by stories about the girls who didn’t like him), but I don’t think I’d want to know him in person. Or get anywhere near him. Assuming, of course, that his comics persona is anything like his real-life personality, which I wonder about. I guess part of me doesn’t really take his over-the-top misogyny seriously, so I don’t find it offensive. Maybe a little creepy, but not offensive. This goes for Joe Matt, as well.
That said, I’m not sure I’ve read any of Crumb’s violent comics. I tend to stay away from violence in my entertainment. I’m really affected by it.
RC: How so? Do you consider yourself to be unusually empathetic, or just sensitive? Has this always been true of you?
MN: I used to not be! When I was young I thought gratuitous violence was hilarious. The opening scene of Wild at Heart, where one guy beats another guy to a bloody pulp, was my favorite opener ever. But when I was in my mid-twenties, I got really sick with a bout of salmonella that almost killed me. I mean, I could literally feel myself dying, and it was terrifying. I was no longer invincible, and for awhile after, everything scared me. It was during that time I started taking mortality personally, even if it was fake, like on TV. I couldn’t watch a guy get fake-shot on TV without freaking out. I’m tougher now, but certain things still get to me, such as sexual violence, which I never liked to begin with. I avoid watching violent movies because of this, but sometimes I’ll read a news article and they’ll mention something awful and I’ll just start crying. I hate being such a pussy, but then again, I think it makes me a more responsible artist. (Wow, that sounds so lame. But it’s true.)
RC: Your earliest efforts, published in places like Sarah Dyer’s old Action Girl anthology, are quite different from your current output. What inspired the change from using techniques like stippling and heavy cross-hatching to instead employing a simplified line and heavy use of blacks?
MN: I still like to use crosshatching, especially while sketching, but when I employ that technique in comics, it takes so much longer for me to get a page done. It’s the difference between taking a week to ink a page and taking a day. It wasn’t a deliberate thing, though. It happened very slowly and organically, possibly as a result of trying to get pages out faster.
RC: What prompted the title change from Ex-Factor: A Romantic Résumé to Kiss & Tell?
MN: Damien Jay came up with the title Kiss & Tell, I think while we were at a cartoonists’ meet-up in Berkeley, after someone said I’d get sued if I used Ex-Factor. I don’t remember who I was worried about getting sued by. The X-Men? Either way, Kiss & Tell is a much better name. Thanks, Damien!
RC: What inspired the initial idea to catalog your entire history of sexual encounters, from the earliest childhood pecks on the cheek to some emotionally intense engagements?
MN: In high school I started a list of guys I’d fooled around with. I didn’t want to forget anything, so I listed details, such as if we’d used tongue while kissing, that sort of thing. Two decades later, my list had turned into an Excel spreadsheet (yes, I’m that dorky).
I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to turn each person into a comic, but I do remember that week. It was in 2003 and I was trying to decide whether or not I should use real names in the stories. I even considered using numbers instead of names, to play on the notch-on-the-bedpost theme. Well, I was discussing this with a friend of mine, and he told me, “You can use my real name.” I blinked at him and then remembered that we’d sort of dated a couple years before this. He then proceeded to make a pass at me, even though he had just moved in with his girlfriend, which effectively ruined our friendship from that point forward. At the time I was angry after having just kicked him out of my house for being such a lech, and I swore I’d use his real name while telling his girlfriend the story of what had just happened. (No, I never did, but they didn’t last long so I guess it didn’t matter.)
RC: Were you aware of David Heatley’s “My Sexual History” when you started Kiss & Tell?
MN: No, though I’ve heard the comparison a number of times. I was bummed when I found out my idea wasn’t as original as I’d thought.
RC: One similarity between your work and his is that while you both focus and sex and sexuality, neither work is overtly erotic. Was that a deliberate choice? Was that why you chose to simplify your line?
MN: The story isn’t really about sex—that’s more the lure that I use to pull people in. (Insert evil laughter here.) It’s really about relationships.
As for simplifying the lines, I can’t imagine drawing myself in detail, being sexy. How embarrassing! In fact, at the end of the book there’s a non-sexual drawing of me, naked and spread-eagled. At the time I thought it was tasteful, but every time someone looks at that page in my vicinity, I wince. I mean, there I am. There’s my crotch. I’m naked, they’re not. Awkward!
RC: Given how bold you are in talking about your sexual past, why is it awkward and embarrassing to draw yourself in a realistic fashion?
MN: Ha! That’s a good point. Why would I be embarrassed? I think there’s a disconnect between theory and practice. Like, I felt perfectly confident about the idea of drawing my naked body and exposing it to the world. That was the point, that I was exposed. I didn’t get embarrassed until my gorgeous, thin editor was flipping through Kiss & Tell while we discussed edits. She landed on that page, and there was me in all my not-so-flattering nakedness. At the time, we were referring to the Mari in my book in third-person, but it suddenly felt very first-person. It’s like I’d forgotten that that was supposed to be me.
I’ve talked about this kind of thing with other people who write about their personal lives, and it’s funny how private we can be about some things, while being completely open about others.
For the record, sometimes I feel awkward just being in the vicinity of someone reading my work. Not because I’m ashamed of the stories I tell, more because I have no idea how they’re reacting to what I’m sharing. When you tell someone a story out loud, you get used to the visual and audible responses at the appropriate times. But when someone’s just sitting there reading something, they may laugh or furrow their brow, and I’m always tempted to ask them which part they’re at and how it makes them feel. Yeah, I’m really annoying to be around if you’re reading my book.
RC: What I’m getting at is that this story is a form of exhibitionism–would you say it’s more a kind of emotional exhibitionism?
MN: I don’t know about the term “emotional exhibitionism” (although my husband totally agrees with you on that term). I’m more of an over-sharer, not because I want to be watched, but because I want to connect with other people. I love hearing other people’s stories, and I love it when I tell my own and people relate. That’s what it’s all about for me.
RC: When depicting sexuality with regard to young children, you sometimes go even simpler with your line—dots for eyes, for example. On the rare instances you actually depict sex, it’s done either in stick-figure fashion or (cleverly) in an iconic manner—as when male and female symbols stand in for human forms. How did you develop these techniques to keep your story from drifting into erotica?
MN: Ha ha! I’m not likely to drift into erotica. If anything, I drift into potty humor and puns, and have to rein myself in that way.
RC: How did you choose the tone and focus for your pieces? You seem to have a talent for drawing humor out of what could have been related as weird or dark stories.
MN: Thanks! That was the trickiest part out of all this, because for each story I tell, there are so many other stories that are being ignored. I tried to capture what I got out of each relationship, or what was unique about each experience, and focus on that. A lot of editing was involved, with the help of some writer friends, to keep me on track. It also helped to have feedback throughout the process, since I never know what other people might find interesting.
RC: How were you able to provide so much detail from each relationship? Do you have an exceptional memory, or keep journals?
MN: I have a really bad memory, but for some reason certain details stick with me. I did reference journals for some of the stories, and for others I hunted down others who were there to help jog my memory. For one of the stories, I couldn’t remember how the affair had ended, so I hunted down the guy involved and asked him outright. Thank you, Facebook!
RC: Did the intimate nature of your stories inspire you to take up a nom-de-plume?
MN: No! It was actually while I was focusing on painting. I was having a really bad night. I was doing this live painting thing outdoors. It was summer, but in typical San Francisco fashion, it was also really cold. Unfortunately, I was wearing short sleeves, so the gallery I was doing this for started feeding me whiskey shots to keep warm. Before long, I was hammered, and I pretty much made an ass out of myself. So I get a ride home with a car full of people and I was in the backseat, practically crushing some poor woman, and feeling really bad about myself. I mean, did I really just tell that art buyer that his question was stupid? So embarrassing! And this woman I’m sitting on top of hears someone say my name and suddenly she understands that I’m the artist she had come there to see. Next thing I know, she’s making a big deal about the fact that I’m “THAT Mari.” That moment was simultaneously flattering and terrifying. I felt very exposed, and realized I needed to have a secret identity to hide behind.
But with the comics, I didn’t think that many people would ever read them, so it wasn’t an issue. Good thing I changed my name, huh?
RC: You’ve noted that when you were going through some of your crazier experiences as a younger person, you had it in the back of your mind that it would be fodder for future writing. Were you subconsciously engaging in this behavior in part to have a great story to tell later?
MN: Many times I’ve made the excuse of “being a writer someday” to try some pretty crazy stuff. But I like to think I?d have done it all anyway.