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The Comics Journal #305: Excerpt from the Rebecca Kirby and HTML Flowers Conversation

From The Comics Journal #305

A panel from Kirby's Sick Day, 2019

ILLNESS-WORK BALANCE

RJ CASEY: Rebecca, you once wrote, “There’s a dangerously fine line between staying on top of things and pushing myself to a physical breaking point.”

REBECCA KIRBY: [Laughs.] Yeah!

Is it difficult to manage the overall pressures of art-making — putting out new material, getting social media posts up, selling your work — and staying healthy at the same time?

KIRBY: Oh, my God, yeah. You can’t do all of them together. Right now, there’s a shitload going on in my personal life and I took on too many jobs because I can’t say no to anything ever. I know what’s coming, you know? It’s going to be bad, and I’m going to shit blood and it’s going to be disgusting. But I’ll have slightly more money and maybe that’s good. [HTML Flowers laughs.] You get obsessive. It feels good to finish things. If I had my choice, I’d just be working all the time. But when symptoms get bad … You can’t see this, but I’m sitting like a frog. I can’t sit like a normal person. But I can’t draw like this either. One thing will eventually give way for the other thing. Either I can push myself really hard and get something done and feel good about that, but then I’ll be very sick for an indeterminable amount of time. Or I can take really good care of myself physically and never get any art done and feel like a worthless piece of shit. So, I work really weird hours and try to drink my juice and that’s what happens, but a lot of time I fail. One of the two things just doesn’t happen.

Your juice?

KIRBY: My juice is literally apple juice. I drink it because I’m not allowed to drink anything but water. I’m so bored. Now I drink juice all the time. It’s probably not good, but I do it. It’s my beautiful juice.

HTML FLOWERS: The juice-drinker has logged on. [Laughter.]

KIRBY: It’s me!

Do you make work when you’re in the hospital?

HTML FLOWERS: Yes, I probably work harder in the hospital than outside. I don’t like to have visitors — No Visitors. Because there are people helping me in the hospital, and people will come by like, “Hey, it’s time to do your physio,” and most of the time I’m like, “Nice. Let’s get it,” unless I’m depressed and then I’m like, “Get the fuck out of here. How dare you!” [Kirby laughs.] No, I try to be nice to the physios.

KIRBY: Good to clarify.

HTML FLOWERS: Because of the isolation aspect and because of how minimal the environment is — like you were saying earlier, it’s drab, it’s gray, it’s restrictive — it’s actually the best place to write in. I have no distractions. The only thing that distracts you are the cries of pain from the other patients. 

KIRBY: “Stop it! Shut the fuck up!” [Laughter.]

HTML FLOWERS: It doesn’t hurt that the stuff I write about is very much about the experience that I’m having currently. So, I kind of get more work done in the hospital because when I’m out, similarly to what Kirby was talking about, it’s really hard to stay on top of my treatments and my work. It’s been shit because up until 2015 or 2016, I had a pretty decent run with my health. I was sicker than your average person, but I was able to go for long periods without hospitalization and the repercussions wouldn’t be that bad. That’s changed drastically. Now I get fucked up very easily and have to go to the hospital. I’ve had to seriously dial back how much I work, which is a shame because I didn’t really find my purpose until I started making comics about illness. I have a book in mind and I’m really working on it, but … I look at it as the most important thing I’ve worked on. It’s just such a fucking shame that I only started to commit to it once my health [fart noise] was declining.

An HTML Flowers sequence from No Visitors #3, 2018.

KIRBY: Are those related?

HTML FLOWERS: Probably.

KIRBY: Is it just a coincidence?

HTML FLOWERS: I was thinking about it before then. It just took a long time. Like I said, I just didn’t feel like I was ready to do it and had enough chops at drawing comics. If you read the early No Visitors, like the first one, there isn’t a narrative comic in it really. There are a couple of scraps. There’s the first comic with Little in it in there. It’s like a one-page comic. In issue #2, there’s some scrappy comics. Some of the stuff in there is really good. There’s this other comic about Little getting fucked by his therapist. It’s such a weird comic. I look back at it and I am like, “Why did I print that?” Simon was like, “You gotta do it. It’s hilarious.” Little got a haircut. He looks completely different in issue #3 and #4.

Little's haircut: from HTML Flowers' No Visitors #1, 2015.

No more bowl cut.

HTML FLOWERS: I approached those issues like, “It’s time to build this. Let’s do some fucking work.” But it took me ages to get those out because I was sick. In a day, if I do the treatments that I’m supposed to do, I never have the energy to draw. If I draw for too many days without doing treatments, I get really sick and the hospital starts to become a potential. So, I have to stop drawing and do the treatments, you know? It’s a pendulum of bullshit, bro! [Burps, Kirby laughs.]

Is the frequent use of humor in your comics a way to lessen the weight of these heavy topics?

KIRBY: No, it’s just factually funny.

HTML FLOWERS: It’s such a funny lifestyle. 

KIRBY: It just is funny. I know it’s all “very tragic” or whatever, but half the reason any media that exists that centers on or acknowledges a chronically ill person, their story either has to be super tragic — it’s so bad and it keeps getting worse — and we feel really bad for them and that’s our only emotional connection. Or they are fighting against the odds and fighting against their illness. They’re overcoming that with the help of an able-bodied person or just through their own moxie. They achieve something greater than any average person could because they overcame the circumstance of their illness. It’s really a two-dimensional and fucking insulting depiction. How fucking stupid is it to think anybody with a shitty circumstance is going to be a flat, unhappy sack of shit that has no personality? Their only personality is that they got a tube up their rectum yesterday. It’s two-dimensional and stupid. Our comics are funny because we’re both funny and because our circumstances are funny.

There is an absurdity to it all.

KIRBY: Yeah. Things can be two things at once, you know? Our circumstances can be both really upsetting and also very funny. Some things, maybe a year or two later, after it’s less fucked. [HTML Flowers laughs.] I was telling Grant about some of the tests that I’ve had done. If I were to tell you verbally what it was, first of all, you wouldn’t believe me. Second of all, it sounds like a build-up to a joke. It’s fucking ridiculous. I had two doctors insert a balloon into my butthole and then inflate the butthole balloon. Then they gave me a test to figure out the strength of my butthole, apparently, where I had to set a timer and see how long it would take for me to eject said balloon from my butthole. And that is an actual test I had to take. You’re welcome. If that’s not funny —

See, I don’t know if I’m supposed to laugh at that or not though. 

KIRBY: Please laugh! It’s funny. [Laughter.] It’s fucked and invasive and disgusting and unnecessary. It did not accomplish anything. And also, it is funny. It can be two things. Most of the things that are really funny are usually not just that on their face. Tons of comedy is based off the expense of someone’s dignity. It also extends to this experience.

From a Sick Day comic by Rebecca Kirby, 2019.

HTML FLOWERS: I basically agree with what Kirby is saying. It just is funny shit. Even when I was in school, I was the “funny one,” or whatever. I mean, obviously, I was the “hot one,” too. [Laughter.] I was a chubby, little fuckwit and the way I got by was by telling jokes.

I could befriend anyone if I was funny enough. It’s how I would stop myself from getting beaten up or disliked. Just tell jokes. When I met Simon, I really started to think that I was a comedy person. “Maybe I should just write comedy now.” We started making these comedy comics and I was like, “This is the best shit. I love this so much. It’s so much fun.” How degrading and absurd your circumstances are when you’re sick, that’s just genuinely funny. I’m so tired of stories like Breaking Bad. I mean, I love Breaking Bad, it’s one of my favorite TV shows. It’s so well made, but that story is insane. I think everyone who’s had cancer has thought, “Maybe I should sell these drugs,” you know? How insane that story got! Suddenly, he’s blowing up houses and having people assassinated all because he got cancer and never felt important in his life. [Laughs.] At the time I was watching that, I was dealing drugs.

KIRBY: Yeah! [Laughs.]

HTML FLOWERS: I was already dealing drugs. I was like, “It’s really not like this. I’m not better at dealing drugs because I’m sick.” If anything, I was much weaker and needed to make friends with competitors so they wouldn’t beat me up and take my shit. [Laughter.] Maybe if I was a genius chemist! The things I want to write about are the things you never get to see. I hate that it doesn’t exist. Like the disabled or sick person who does drugs and doesn’t care about their life. The person heading towards death and not really doing anything about it. The person secretly feeling very conflicted because they would never tell this to that fucking narc social worker. I want to write about a useless disabled. You never get to see a useless disabled.

KIRBY: Exactly!

HTML FLOWERS: There’s always some special mission they’re on. Most of the people I know are useless disableds. They have drug habits because life sucks and they can’t actually do any of the shit they want to do and they’ll probably kill themselves at some point. [Laughs.] I think there’s a huge push at the moment in the sick and disabled community to be more positive about living, which is cool, but it doesn’t suit me. They’re like, “It’s not a death sentence.”

KIRBY: But it fucking is! I hate this idea.

HTML FLOWERS: It annoys me. Can we just have some stories about how shitty it is first? From the people who experience it, rather than from the point of view from the family members or something. “Aww, Julia has cancer.” “It must be so hard for you. How’s the business going?” Then you put on a different show.

KIRBY: Barefoot Contessa.

HTML FLOWERS: Yeah, Barefoot Contessa. [Laughter.]

Grant, you once wrote that you like to remind people of death. Is that along the same lines?

HTML FLOWERS: I’m just passing on the favor because I’m constantly reminded of it. If you are ill or disabled, you are like a walking avatar for death. The people around you, many of them never really acknowledge it. I can tell when someone’s uncomfortable when I’m talking about health or illness or something. I want to shove it down the world’s throat.

Speaking of being slightly uncomfortable here, there’s a panel that stuck out when I was reading Rebecca’s work —

KIRBY: Oooh, me.

And this has been weighing on me a bit. You wrote, “Am I causing harm by selling my comics about medical and emotional trauma? Am I contributing to the capitalist exploitation of sick people?” And after reading that and preparing for this interview, I was like, “Am I contributing to this exploitation by making this magazine and interviewing both of you?”

HTML FLOWERS: You work for Big Pharma, RJ? I fucking knew it! [Laughter.]

KIRBY: It is something that I think about. Obviously, the root of this, if I’m getting real deep, is capitalism and commodified health care. I do try to make as much of my chronic illness comics available for free. Also, I make no money because I’m fucking sick constantly. I had to leave a normal job two years ago and my only source of income is this. I worked retail forever and that was the only option until I couldn’t even do that anymore. It’s a really weird line to toe and a weird thing to think about philosophically, but … First of all, no. You’re doing good. Thank you. No one ever wants to hear about my vomit and all of that good stuff. Finally, people will hear about all my vomits. I get concerned about how it could be potentially damaging to me. In making confessional comics, I’m also essentially commodifying what could be really private parts of my life. I don’t feel bad about doing that, but it feels weird to … The whole practice of what I do —

HTML FLOWERS: That weed’s hitting you hard, bro. [Laughter.] Kirby accidentally smoked some strong weed before the interview. 

KIRBY: I thought maybe I’d need a little bit.

HTML FLOWERS: She was like, “I usually buy bad stuff off of a 12-year-old in a parking lot, but this is really good shit.” [Laughter.] But I know what you mean.

KIRBY: Obviously, I’m not going to blame myself for being a sickly person and I’m not going to blame myself for being someone who talks about it or makes work about it. None of that is anything I take issue with. I take issue with the fact that the people who want to buy my stuff are probably also fucking disabled and in America. They don’t have any money and can’t have jobs, because they’re like me. That’s the problem. It’s this weird relationship I have with making this work and then relying on it to be able to go back to the doctor. It’s definitely a relationship that I question a lot, but also, I don’t have a whole lot of choices at the moment. I’m just going to fucking do it.

HTML FLOWERS: I don’t question it. It’s so low on the list of my priorities or shit I get worried about. I absolutely know that I can identify with the concept that Kirby’s talking about, but I don’t know. I was born sick and I’ve grown up in hospitals my whole life. Any part of my sense of privacy, any kind of thing that is intimate — my shitting habits, how much blood I’m coughing up, whether or not I’m growing right, if my dick size is normal — has always been a talking point for at least 10 people, plus my mom.

From No Visitors #2 by HTML Flowers, 2016.

Privacy has never been your concern because you’ve had no choice.

HTML FLOWERS: I never had it. I don’t give a shit about that aspect of my comics. I learned that something people really enjoyed about my work was how intimate I was willing to get. The commodification thing — I just don’t give a fuck. If anyone ever tries to criticize me for trying to make rent, they just vanish before my eyes. They become a non-person to me.

KIRBY: Oh, my God.

HTML FLOWERS: I have “no-bullshit vision.” They just disappear. Have you tried to live in the world lately? “You work at Safeway? Oh, I guess you’re happy with all their farming practices that they engage in.” There’s no ethical consumption, my guy. What am I going to do? I have to make money, fuckers. I set up a Patreon where I charge $3 a month for subscription. I hope that most of my fans that are on the poorer side can afford that. I put excerpts from my art and published comics up there for free too, just so my more unwell fans can read them and have access to them. That’s about the best I can do. I can’t be going around mailing out free comics and shit. Postage is a bitch. I do my part to try to make my work accessible to the sick and poor parts of my audience. That’s the best I can do. Otherwise, I feel no conflict whatsoever about selling my work. I expect there’s a good deal of people who read my work because they’re “inspiration porn” fans.

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