Like a comedic collaboration between Zoroaster and Freud, the comics of Meghan Turbitt portray the eternal forces of id and superego locked in never-ending battle, using spit-takes and dick jokes as weapons, with nary a negotiated ego in sight. There's a deceptive crudeness to the art of the 31-year-old Rhode Island native, currently living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, though it's a crudeness comes with a great deal of grotesque comedic power packed in. But if you stop your analysis there, you miss the sophistication of her page layouts, which often eschew traditional grids in favor of using background environments to delineate discrete moments of embarrassing human interaction, or simply present a riot of physical and emotional information splayed out on the page. This, really, is Turbitt's project: chronicling her mind and body's input and output alike, in a way that views them both as fundamentally uncontrollable.
Like many cartoonists of the just-turned-thirty generation, Turbitt pursued fine art in college before discovering comics as a preferable outlet for her talents and interests as an artist. Today she is a fixture in the alternative-comics scene of the American Northeast, a status cemented by her star-making project #foodporn, described by the author as "a comic book about hot dudes serving food." It's here where many of her obsessions find their truest expression: merciless caricature, exhibitionist self-effacement, deft depiction of specific city scenes, climactic final images, and most importantly, in its conflation of lust and gluttony, a sense that the erotic and the grotesque are linked in a way that's both impossible to separate and very funny to talk about. Her other self-published zines include gag-comic collections like 2013's Bruise Face; Conan, an autobio/fantasy porn comic about having sex with the late-night talk show host to whom she bears a passing resemblance borne out of red-haired, fair-skinned Irish genes; and the Lady Turbo books, which cast her in larger-than-life adventures stemming from the cultural/religious trauma unique to lapsed Catholics, a background she and I share. In interviewing Turbitt for this column, I found her willing to share pretty much anything.
Sean T. Collins: Meghan, I feel some innate kinship with you due to our mutual Irish-Catholic upbringing. What has growing up as a member of this mongrel race and a follower of its idolatrous cult meant to you?
Meghan Turbitt: I also feel an innate kinship with you because of our similar Irish-Catholic upbringing, and I really appreciate your accurate description of it as a mongrel race and idolatrous cult. You really took the words right out of my mouth. Especially since I recently made you cry just by telling you a story about me crying to the song “Danny Boy”.
This is true.
I hope you include this sentence in the interview, of course.
I was telling you a story about how I cried uncontrollably during a children’s choir singing “Danny Boy” during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, and you started crying. The song wasn't even on—I was just telling you a story about it. Are you crying now just talking about this?
Dry-eyed, but point taken.
I usually get along great with people who have similar senses of humor as me, and that’s typically people who grew up in Irish-Catholic families where you “show love” by making jabs and cruel jokes about each other rather than saying “I love you” or hugging each other or showing real emotions. I think you have some of that in you too, right?
Oh, for sure. My family's a bit different from the stereotype in that we've always been very openly, directly affectionate, but we were also very avoidant toward serious problems, which led almost all of us right into them later in life.
Gee, let me guess. Could any of those problems possibly be alcoholism or stress-related illnesses?
Mmmmaybe. So what exactly was your family situation? Where did you grow up, and where did you go to school?
Ha, I'm relieved we are starting off with these kinds of questions rather than, like, “Which Jack Kirby panel is most inspiring to you”? I grew up in Warwick, Rhode Island with my mom and dad and my brother Matt, who is four years younger than me. My mom is one of fourteen children and the majority of them still live in the vicinity of where she grew up, so I was sort of raised by an assortment of aunts and uncles and surrounded by cousins. My mom owned a restaurant, a little diner called The Family Restaurant where she worked seven days a week without a break for ten years. My father, fourteen years older than my mother, was a bartender, and was chronically ill. He had polio as a kid, and that led to him having several heart attacks when I was a child, which was terrifying. It really shaped a lot of my life. My mother struggled with her health as well, and I was constantly afraid they were going to die. But typical of Irish-Catholic families, no one ever tells the kids the truth, so I was constantly confused and anxious about what was really going on. My family life now is that I’m single and childless and in a studio apartment by myself, which I love.
I graduated high school in a class of about 300. The girls that were my best friends in first grade were my best friends when I graduated high school in 2001, with the exception of my friend Holly [Resendes], whom I met in middle school. She lives in the building next door to me in Brooklyn. We are still super close and often collaborate -- she designed the cover of #foodporn.
I went to the New England School of Art and Design at Suffolk University in Boston and graduated in 2005 with a BFA in painting. It was here where I feel like I met real, cultured people for the first time in my life. I met a Jewish person, a gay person, and a Republican for the first time. I was like, “Wow, there are people in the world who exist who aren’t exactly like my parents and the kids I grew up with?" Almost everything I know about making art I learned during this time. The faculty there were so knowledgeable and supportive and treated me as an equal rather than a student. Previous to this, no one had ever really been supportive or interested in me making or pursuing art before. It was an incredibly good experience for me, even though I was acting out and depressed most of the time.
You were doing fine art back then.
I was doing large-scale oil paintings of geishas incorporated with Catholic imagery—prayer cards and rosaries. I was also using the image of the Virgin Mary and other female saints as inspiration for making large-scale geisha prayer card portraits. I also painted directly onto Catholic prayer cards, turning the saints into geishas. I became obsessed and made over one hundred of them. I incorporated Japanese culture into my work. In school I also became interested in Jenna Jameson, started listening to Howard Stern, and really was exploring my sexuality. I painted myself as Jenna Jameson and did collages of myself using porno mags and birth control pills. Lol.
What was the connection you saw between the saints and geishas? Did the cultural familiarity of saints give you an entry point into a less familiar culture?
I was rejecting my upbringing and culture, and wishing I was anything else -- and, probably, being a bit disrespectful. I think I even told my mother and grandmother that I wished I was Japanese at one point, which is something a ten-year-old would do. I remember being intrigued by the fact that the geishas and the female saints were wearing very similar outfits, even though they were such different ladies.
And now that you're making comics rather than fine art, have your underlying ideas about this changed along with your medium of choice?
In Lady Turbo and the Terrible Cox Sucker, my sidekick is a geisha named Brent, a friend in real life, so I guess I'm still using geisha imagery now. I'm just more interested in making work that's funny and a commentary on how ridiculous my life is right now, and I think I'm less angry at my family, so I'm making work that's less an "F U" to them.
Like I said a bit in the previous question, I grew up in a way where I felt like everyone in the world was exactly like me and exactly the same. I thought we were all working-class Irish Catholic. I was super into being Catholic as a kid, I loved making my first Communion and all that. I felt like it was super adult and special. But I feel like religion can often be a crutch as a way to punish children. This is a very harmful way to grow up. Instead of pushing the lovely things about Catholicism -- forgiveness, being of service to the world, community, helping others in need -- it’s you are dooooooooomed if you do something wrong, and you’re fucked unless you go to church on Sunday, where you’ll be forgiven -- hopefully? -- if you say a bunch of these prayers. Which is a complete contradiction, and also confusing for children. It’s dangerous and harmful. My mom didn’t even let me have a goddamn ouija board! Everything I’ve learned about spirituality or God in this world has not been from the Catholic Church, it’s been from my own spiritual seeking... escapades, let’s call it that.
Now, I used to be super angry about all of this. In my early twenties, when I was painting a lot of Catholic imagery and working on this Lady Turbo comic, I was angry at my mom for putting me through this way of life for most of my life. But since then -- years of therapy and other means of help -- I’ve come to accept and forgive her. She was doing the best she could with what she had. My father couldn't have cared less. But something I struggle with and often think about is how else do you teach kids right from wrong or about God? I think about this constantly.
To backtrack for a second, why did you make the transition to comics, and when? Why do you feel your work needs to be a comic instead of some other thing?
Now this is a great question. Why the hell was it so easy for me to just stop painting? Something I had been doing for eight years, and I just stopped doing it! That's crazy!
I found the New York art scene to be very different from Boston, and very boring. in the fine-art community it was as though you had to be a white male cookie-cutter schmoozer to get anywhere. Fine art is not the place for funny people. It's marking a moment vs. comedically and graphically telling a story. And it took six months to finish a painting vs. making comics. You can complete a piece and feel good and accomplished faster. Working on comics is portable.
I started teaching comics to kids at the 92nd street Y in 2008 with Lauren Weinstein, and I was watching kids and teenagers make comics and I was super inspired by it. I remember watching kids make comics and thinking ,"Wow, I wish I could do this. I bet I would be good at this." Lauren convinced me that I should take her adult class at the Y, because when you were teaching there you could take adult classes for free. It was a great. When teaching kids, I realized that I needed to be really good at drawing in order to explain things to them. Once I got good at it, if someone asked me to draw anything in the world, I could draw it. For example, I lost a pair of shoes at the cobbler a few weeks ago and drew them a picture of the sandal, and they found it immediately. And I'm not even that good, actually!
So am I correct in saying that you've pretty much abandoned explicitly Catholic imagery in your comics? Why is that? I've long felt that Catholic imagery, or sacramental Christian imagery in general, is dull and inert in narrative art simply due to overuse. I'm bored anytime a character in a Marvel comic or a prestige cable drama goes to confession, you know? Are you?
I mean, I'm bored just hearing the word "confession." I included a lot of Catholic imagery and reference some of my old paintings in the first part of the sequel to Lady Turbo and the Terrible Cox Sucker, called Lady Turbo's The Biggest Loser Part 1, which I debuted at SPX last year. I'm working on part two, which will debut at CAB or MoCCA. I'm obsessed with the Eucharist and crucifixes, they're always there. I guess I'd just rather draw my big-ass mug rather than those things at the moment. I will try and make Lady Turbo stories to take a break from drawing myself and reality whenever I can. Hopefully I will do much more of that in the next year, when hopefully my life is less intense and interesting.
I'm particularly interested in the idea advanced in Sophia Wiedeman's piece on you and Katie Skelly for The Rumpus that your work is driven in part by Catholic guilt. Certainly your comics seem to revel in a rejection of Catholic mores, but more than that, they don't smooth out the rough edges to make the violation more palatable, you know? The sex is, frankly, gross, and so is the food component, once that's introduced in #foodporn. There's not an attempt to play respectability politics with it.
Everything I make, every particle of my being, is based on how I grew up. Everything I make will of course be influenced by that. But to be honest, the reason I made #foodporn is because I had a crush on an ugly guy who made pizza at my local pizza joint. He is not attractive. When he was making the pizza I was attracted to him, though? I didn’t understand it and I couldn't stop thinking about it. I thought the concept of him getting hotter and hotter as he made the pizza was just hilarious. Hence the premise of the book.
Oh, just an interesting piece of side trivia – I finally did end up having sex with him, two days after #foodporn was released at MoCCA. I've stopped eating pizza since.
Typically when comics creators talk about essentially willing something from one of their comics into existence, it's, like, Grant Morrison talking about tripping in Nepal or whatever and discovering the true nature of space-time. This is somewhat more relatable. But if it put you off pizza, then I wonder if in retrospect you'd have preferred it to have remained a fantasy.
Very interesting to me that you use the word "fantasy." In March, I got out of an eight-year relationship. We had broken up and I moved out in 2012, but we ended up getting back together very quickly. But over the last year I had several crushes on people, especially this pizza guy, and I ended up making the comic about him. Things were just not working out with my ex, even though I loved him very much and he was family to me. I spent a lot of time fantasizing about "what life would be like" with certain other people, and this pizza guy was first in line. However, I didn't make any moves about ending the relationship for almost a year after making the comic about him. My therapist had a real woman-to-woman conversation with me, knocked some sense into me, and suggested to me that my life might actually be greater on the other side of ending things with my ex, so I did it. For some reason at that moment it hit me that my life might be better with my ex not in it, which seemed almost unfathomable to me. She was right. So I guess one could say, therapist Sean, that maybe I avoided one of those painful Irish-Catholic illnesses or avoidance-of-feelings situations here? Perhaps history did not repeat itself, hmmm?
Luckily, things with this pizza guy fell into place -- I got drunk at the pizza place and propositioned him -- and we saw each other for a little while. It certainly served a purpose and helped me get through my breakup. I suddenly felt sexy again. He knew about my comic about him, and about #foodporn. He was aware I was doing some podcast interviews and being reviewed, and the comic about him was mentioned a few times. One night, in the midst of all this, he told me that he had gone to my website and looked at my comics, and told me, "Wow, I thought you were going to be much more famous than just this." He also referenced my Conan comic, in which there is a long sex scene between me and Conan O'Brien, while we were having sex one night, which I thought was hysterical, and which I am currently making a comic about now.
Anyway, this pizza guy was into Phish, and if anyone knows me they know I'm not into jam bands, so it just wasn't meant to be -- even though I continued to draw him and make comics about him while we were seeing each other. I guess I was just looking for anyone who wasn't my ex and was fascinated by that. A few months after we started seeing each other, my friend Holly caught him arm in arm with another chick around the corner from my house. She went into the pizza place, which we frequented regularly, the next day and called him out in front of all of his coworkers. Needless to say, we haven't really been back there since. So my ultimate curse is that I live half a block away from a pizza place that I love and can't go to. So fantasy, shame on me I guess. All around, it's been a fascinating chain of events for me to witness go down. And now I'll have #foodporn to document it for the rest of my life, so "LOL," I guess.
In talking about your work with Julia Gfrörer, she seized on the "guilt" idea as well, insofar as #foodporn deals heavily in what she termed the two primary sources of guilt for women, food and sex. Would you say that's accurate, first of all?
Yes, I agree. I think women's bodies are extremely important to them. It's very different for men and women. I think a man is compartmentalized: a brain, a mouth, a foot, a penis, etc. A woman is one whole body. It's the whole thing, in a constant state of "What do I want?" "What am I putting in my body?" I remember that when I first started going to therapy again since moving here from Boston in 2005, one of the first things I mentioned to my new therapist was that I was having trouble eating a bagel for breakfast in the morning because I felt like it was the unhealthy choice and the wrong decision. I don't even have food or body issues! And I live in New York City, where's it's almost impossible to not get a bagel for breakfast. If I have one too many calories, sleep one too many extra minutes late, spend one too many dollars, drink one too many beers, I have a hard time functioning properly. There's a tipping point of enjoyment that I have a hard time with due to my Catholic upbringing, which I think is just guilt. Be good all the time, or else.
That is certainly drilled into you about sex too. It's like, first of all don't do it at all, and then if you do, you certainly shouldn't enjoy it! My parents never gave me a sex talk and left me to my own devices to figure it all out, which I had no problem doing when I decided I was ready to. I never felt guilty about it because I always felt like I was just doing what my body told me was right. But I never had anyone to talk to about my sex.
Moreover, pop culture has seen something of a boomlet in famous, attractive women being profiled in such a way as to make their conspicuous consumption of rich, unhealthy, or even just normal food a "humanizing" factor. The New York Times had a piece on the phenomenon. But I feel that in #foodporn, the consumption of fast food or junk food eschews that "I'm just a good-time gal" thing and becomes something primal -- like, it's being reclaimed for the self instead of being used, or at least portrayed, as a PR tactic.
Who cares? People need to eat and have sex to survive. It's that simple. People need to eat and people need to have sex. It's not a necessity to eat a fantastic cheeseburger and post a pic of it on Instagram, or fuck a guy with a hot hairless body. Gluttony is where the line is drawn, be it in porn, eating, sex, advertising, social media, etc. Gisele being a regular girl who eats a cheeseburger and fries "just like us girls" is not only untrue, it's boring. Who cares.
Do you think this insistence that the body's physical needs be heeded, and this willingness to be open about those needs, has something to do with how you processed your father's secretive yet traumatizing health problems during your childhood?
I'm open about everything and I've always been this way. In high school, I was the friend you called when you lost your virginity. I continue to be the friend you call when something embarrassing happens, like you shit your pants on the street or something. People know I'm terribly honest. I've tried to get better about it, and some people find it off-putting. I do believe I use it as a coping mechanism at times, and maybe this is what you are referring to about my father's illnesses. I think that if I'm super aggressive and honest then I'm in control of everything around me, which is a complete lie and false way to live. I try and live in the moment and enjoy the present like all of the douchebag memes on Tumblr tell me to do, so....
Keep calm and YOLO, or something.
You're a woman who makes comics about sex, and they're funny to boot. Does that shape how people in the field have interacted with you and your work?
Ahhhh, let's see... I have to say, mostly everyone has been very respectful and kind to me. I think the reason for that is because of my persona on social media. I'm not afraid to mix it up on social media, I guess, so maybe that will intimidate people. Also, I'm great at pretending I have thick skin. Teflon Turbitt, I guess.
I'm glad you immediately specified that people had been respectful to you, because that was what I was getting at -- whether your gender had caused people with whom you interact regarding your comics to treat those comics as a sort of come-on. Having spoken with a lot of people who make sexually explicit comics, I know that creators of all genders will get a lot of excited readers who assume they'll be interested to hear about just about any form of pornography and erotica -- Julia, Michael DeForge, and Jonny Negron have all told me this, I think -- but women cartoonists are more likely to get this in a way where it's openly flirtatious, or intrusive.
I've never had sex with Julia or Michael or Jonny! Where did you hear those rumors, comics TMZ? No, only one person has asked me if I accurately drew my body in my Conan comic, and even that didn't bother me. I thought it was an interesting question. But I was in a long-term relationship until recently, and then I made a comic where I allude to having sex with people who give me food, so things could change quite rapidly, I presume.
Who are your artistic influences as a cartoonist? Depending on the angle I hold your stuff at I can see Lisa Hanawalt, Rory Hayes, Diane Noomin, but I honestly have no idea if I'm just making that up.
No one has had a bigger influence on me than Lauren Weinstein. She basically told me that I should be doing it after a day of teaching with her. So I did. A lot of people tell me that my comedic rhythm is like hers. I asked her for a list of shit to read. She said the Hernandez brothers, who were recommended also by Tom Hart. She also suggested I read Rory Hayes and Osamu Tezuka. Huge fan. I own a lot of his work.
Katie Skelly has been a great friend and really taken me under her wing. As far as being a successful female in this business, Skelly has really taught me how to be a workhorse, how to promote myself and show up for myself and career.
I'm very influenced by Ariel Schrag's Awkward, Potential, and Likewise – loved her honesty, could not put her books down. Really related to her story, though I'm not gay, and her drawing style. It was around that time I started making my gag comics.
Lizz Hickey, Sam Gascan, Katie Skelly, Josh Bayer, Holly Resendes -- contemporaries, friends and peers who are working artists, funny people who open up to me and include me in this weird world and make me feel like my world is ok because their world is ok. When I find the weirdest thing out there I am just so happy and inspired. Like, I feel like the Hernandez brothers is the more polished version of this world. I feel like I'm living in Luba’s world.
Finally, you draw ugly, if you don't mind my saying, which I think is a bold choice. Mechanisms like Tumblr, of which I'm something of an evangelist, nevertheless tend to reward slick, surface-level-appealing work. I wonder... I think of you as someone who makes print comics before I think of you as a person who puts stuff on the web, and I'm wondering if you feel the aesthetic you've embraced shapes the path you've taken to publish.
I consider my work to be more printworthy as well. However, I really enjoy Tumblr. I think getting twenty notes on a post on Tumblr is a lot. Lol, I drew Ed Piskor as a weightlifter and got sixty notes and it was just unbelievable to me. Of all people! I also really like using Tumblr as a way to see what cool teens are up to, actually.
I am never questioning whether my work is good-looking or not. My main concern is that it is funny. I don’t care about perspective. I believe if Ed Piskor or Tom Scioli came to my house to watch me pencil a page they would be disgusted. It is certainly not done in a classical way. My dream in life is that some day, far off in the future, my comics will be found, and people will think a legit crazy person made them.