Less than 24 hours after she won the 2013 Ignatz Award for “Best Graphic Novel” (defeating a particularly strong group of all female nominees, including Carol Tyler and Rutu Modan), I found myself on a train back to NYC with Ulli Lust. Her graphic novel, Today Is The Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, had just debuted in English a few months earlier and the two of us had only met a day ago while sitting together at the Fantagraphics booth at SPX. For both of us it had been an incredible weekend (for her, it was her first time in the United States, and for me, The Love & Rockets Companion also debuted at that show), and we were both simultaneously elated and exhausted. Rushing through the concourse at DC Metro, we barely caught our train, yet once we settled in, we had four hours together to chat. Normally I tend to over-prepare for interviews, but this time I just turned on the recorder and we started talking. The resulting conversation was more about getting to know Ulli, the person, than an exploration of her amazing graphic novel, which I hadn’t even read yet, but in hindsight, our meandering dialogue will certainly deepen the appreciation for her unforgettable memoir.
-Marc Sobel, December 15, 2013
“I was the one with the fantasy”
MARC SOBEL: So, you’re from Berlin?
ULLI LUST: No, I’m from Austria, but I’ve lived in Berlin since ’95. I came to Berlin to study art, illustration actually, because in Austria, they didn’t allow me to study. They said my drawings are so “narrative” and they have a strict non-narrative policy at the Art Academy. If you do storytelling with pictures, they don’t take you. They won’t even admit you in the school, that’s their official policy. I didn’t know it back then, but I was talking to a teacher later and he told me that. And it was somehow a relief (laughs) because before I thought it was because of me. In Berlin you can study illustration.
SOBEL: Are comics just not socially respected?
LUST: In Austria? No, not at all. There is a very nice comic strip by Nicholas Mahler, who is at Fantagraphics, too. He applied to the art school when he was like twenty-five, and he also showed some comics and the professor said, “These are interesting drawings… but you are working in a genre… hmm, you use narrative sequences…” and Nicholas said, “you can call it comics” and then he said, "I didn’t want to offend you.” (laughs)
SOBEL: So then how did you come to comics? What’s your background with the medium?
LUST: I was doing children’s books for my son because I had him very early, and I was always drawing. Then he grew up and I was publishing children’s books. I did three books and I was sort of successful, it was ok, but I always felt bad because I never studied. I was never able to study in an art school and I really felt handicapped. I wanted to study.
The idea to study came up very spontaneously one night because of an accident. In the catalog of my children’s book publisher, they wrote in my biography that I had studied in Berlin, which I never did. I was so ashamed about it because I was also ashamed of not studying, so the next morning I decided that I had to go to Berlin for one semester, because I knew there was an illustration class. I went there and it was so wonderful to study! (laughs) I was just a guest at first, but then I applied and they even gave me one year as a present. They said you can start in the second year because you are good enough. I didn’t have to do the first year. I just jumped right into the second.
There I was doing narrative drawings but not for children anymore. For adults, but it looked a little bit like picture books at first, like one page per image. No panels.
There were some guys in my school who were totally into comics, and we asked our professor, “why can’t we do comics journalism as a subject in the class?” She agreed, so we did a lot of that stuff, like for two years we were only doing comics reportage. We were inspired by Joe Sacco, by his kind of stuff. So we formed a group in the University and we went to festivals together. There were six of us and we made books and printed them in school because we had the print machines there, silkscreen and offset printing. So we did a lot of books and sold them in book shops. My boyfriend was part of the group, too, and he’s really a huge comics fan. He grew up near a city in Germany where there was a very good comic shop, so he got all this alternative stuff which I had never seen before. It was not the school, but my classmates who really brought me inside comics, and showed me how to divide stories into panels.
SOBEL: So, if you didn’t study when you were doing your children’s books, how did you learn to draw?
LUST: I went to a school for textile design when I was fifteen.
SOBEL: Textile design?
LUST: Yes, like drawing fashion and patterns. What I learned there was to develop an idea. You sketch something out of the blue, and then you try to form it to a pattern which you can repeat. It’s a technique for developing an idea, and that I learned at school. I became very disciplined when I was in my twenties. I was always thinking, “ok, the drawing I do now is not the final one, I can do a next one.” I would do two, three, four, five versions and choose the best one in the end.
So I was able to translate that into doing the children’s books. I developed a special drawing technique and did fantastic, surrealism stuff, little fairy tales. I don’t show these around anymore. They were not that bad, but it’s just totally different. But I think the main key was that I learned how to develop something, how to make something big out of an idea by repeating and trying new versions and techniques.
SOBEL: Did you draw as a kid?
LUST: Yes. Of course I drew. I have two sisters and a brother and everybody has a certain quality. One is the busy one, the other is the pretty one… I was the one with the fantasy (laughs). The one with the crazy ideas, who was always dreaming and not paying attention to what you say because my head was somewhere in the clouds. I was the one with the good ideas. I had two girlfriends, one was very clever and the other was sporty, but they always had to ask me, “what do we play, we’re bored, come on, have an idea.” (laughs) So I was always drawing and writing stories. I could imagine even at that time that I could be a writer someday.
SOBEL: Are you the oldest?
LUST: No, I was the middle one.
SOBEL: Were your parents supportive?
LUST: No. They were from the countryside and there you don’t do art. That’s a hobby. You can do it in your free time. That point was a bit sensitive in my family, that I didn’t have proper work. (laughs)
SOBEL: So they discouraged you from drawing, or they just didn’t care?
LUST: They were just happy that I was somehow stable and not a drug addict or whatever. I mean they… you will read the book and understand that they were just happy to have me back alive. (laughs)
My parents are very, very nice and gentle people and they supported me very much. They did hope that I would get a proper job and they were always saying, “didn’t you find a job? Why didn’t you find one?” It was a constant thing, but they were not angry or aggressive. They were just, “oh my god, what will you do later? You have to think about your future.” You know, like that. Practical. But there was no pressure.
And they were also raising my son.
SOBEL: What is your son’s name?
SOBEL: And your parents helped raise him?
LUST: Yes. He lived with them and I came on the weekends. I’m a weekend mother.
SOBEL: Why is that?
LUST: Because I was 18 when he was born. I had to go to Vienna to find work and he stayed with my parents … it is a small village where they live, only 315 inhabitants, there’s no work.
SOBEL: Where is his father? Do you have any relationship with him?
LUST: No. I don’t have any contact with him.
SOBEL: How did you meet him?
LUST: There will be a story in the comic anthology called Dadsville, and you can read about that if you want to. I sent the pages to them last week. I don’t know who is publishing it, but it’s a funny idea to do an anthology about fathers.
SOBEL: And Philipp’s 27?
LUST: Yes, and his girlfriend is American.
SOBEL: Ah. What does he do?
LUST: He is working with computers.
SOBEL: Does he live in the US?
LUST: No, no, no. He lives in Vienna, and she’s in Vienna, too. But she grew up in America.
SOBEL: So I assume the book includes him as part of the story?
LUST: No, he’s not part of the story. He was born twelve months later, so it has to do a little bit with the story, but it’s not part of the book anymore. I was thinking about it a little bit, but there was no good reason and I preferred to keep him out.
SOBEL: How does he feel about your book?
LUST: It took him a long time to read it because I worked on it for four years, and I was always saying, “oh my god, Philipp, I am so ashamed that you will read this story. It’s so terrible that you will read it.” So when the book was finally out, I sent it to him, because he lives in Vienna and I am in Berlin, and it lied on his shelf for weeks. He was worried to read it because he wondered, “what is inside,” you know? (laughs) He knows that I’m a bit crazy. And then he read it and he wrote me an email and said “oh my god, this book is so incredible! Never, ever will a comic touch me like that. I love it!” And he’s such a big fan now.
SOBEL: Wow. That must have been great to hear.
LUST: Oh yes, that was a huge relief. It was really a relief.
SOBEL: What about your parents?
LUST: My parents, I didn’t give it to them. I told them, “look, this is not a story that you want to read about your daughter.” But I showed them the pages where they are in and I said, “here, this is you.” I showed them mostly from the back some very short scenes. My parents don’t read comics because they are sixty and they are not used to comics. So it was easy to say, “ah, you don’t want to read it. It’s not really such a good story for parents.” And my mother said, “yes, you are right. I had it one time, that's enough.”
But then over the years, a lot of the neighbors and cousins in their little village where I lived, all of them read the book, which is crazy because they never read comics. But it was so much in the media there, you know? I was on the TV, so it was a story. And then my mother got curious (laughs). So, two years after it was released, she took it from my son’s shelf in his apartment, and Philipp wrote me, “oh my god, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, but mama, she picked it up and I couldn’t do anything. (laughs) I couldn’t stop her.”
SOBEL: What did she say about it?
LUST: She said, “[sighs heavily] It’s good that it’s over.” That’s all. I don’t really want to know what she was thinking about a lot of the stuff. It’s not a book for parents, I tell you. When you read it, you will think, if this was your daughter, you would die from fear, because I have put myself in a lot of dangerous situations.
SOBEL: Did your father read it?
LUST: No. I think my mother told him about the story, but he cannot read comics.
SOBEL: Do you think he just doesn’t want to read about his daughter?
LUST: No, I think she told him the stories, and she showed him the pictures, but I think he didn’t read it. He didn’t say anything.
SOBEL: So who was the other woman in the story?
LUST: My friend [Edi].
SOBEL: How does she feel about this book?
LUST: She doesn’t know it. She never read it, because I don’t know where she is. I didn’t even look for her because, you will see, at the end of the story, she doesn’t play a good role.
SOBEL: So you have no contact with her now?
LUST: No. I could find her maybe because I have her parent’s address, but I’m not interested because I think she’s a bit stupid and I don’t know how she would react to the book. She could be easily offended by how I drew her. Maybe not, I don’t know, but in the year since I published it, there was a case in Germany where an author wrote a story about his relationship, and even though he changed all the names, when the book was published, the woman read it and she recognized herself in the character. They went to court and she won. Then all the books had to be taken from the market. I don’t want to risk that so I’m not going to inform her myself. (laughs)
SOBEL: Do you worry she might find it on her own?
LUST: Until now she hasn’t. She would have written me an email. Some people wrote me who found themselves in the book and they were very happy, but this girl ... Maybe she doesn’t read comics.
SOBEL: What would you do if you heard from her?
LUST: I would be interested in how she lives now, and how she looks now, but it would be more curiosity, not real empathy. (laughs) I mean, I liked her at that time. There was part of her personality which I really liked, but she made a big, big mistake in the end which I cannot forgive. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t work. (laughs)
SOBEL: Well, at least she gave you the story.
LUST: Yes, of course.
“I was not taught to make myself smaller than the man.”
SOBEL: When was Today first published in Germany?
LUST: In 2009.
SOBEL: So you started working on it in 2004?
SOBEL: What was it like working on a book for five years?
LUST: Very good. The only depressing thing was that I didn’t know if I would find a publisher. But I liked working on it very much because, after all these short stories which I had done in school, I was thinking I need to do a longer story. I had this very strong impression that the short form is not mine. I’m more of a long-distance runner, you know? I want to have the space to develop the characters. I’m socialized with literature and with big books. Comics are always too short for my taste, I’m sorry. The format with 58 pages, it’s too short. I prefer the big graphic novels.
Before the book, I was drawing comic reports. I was also doing a long comic about a house in Berlin, and about this circus in Berlin which was founded in 1860. I had to do a lot of research. That book was never finished. The publisher didn’t like it, so I stopped after one and a half years at page 150. (laughs)
SOBEL: When was this?
SOBEL: So you abandoned this project in 2003?
LUST: Yes. I said it doesn’t make sense if nobody wants to publish it. It was for my diploma in school, so I had a reason to make it, and I got a good note, you know, a good degree.
How old was I then? Thirty-something… thirty-five, thirty-six. So I was old. I had a diploma for graphic design but I was too old for advertisement agencies, and illustration doesn’t really work for me because my drawings are not so cute. So the only option I had was to draw comics because this is what I like and I think I’m good at it.
SOBEL: So what made you decide to share your story?
LUST: One night I was telling this story about Italy to a friend, and we were talking about it, and my boyfriend was listening and later he said “this is the story you have to do.” But in the beginning, I was not happy with it because that was a period of my life which I always try to hide, because I wanted to act serious, you know? (laughs) But then I thought about it and there are so many aspects which are really interesting nowadays, like the clash of cultures, and the way the girls acted. It was so different to what you see in movies.
I get so angry when I see how these girls act because they always make themselves so small, you know? If a guy shouts, they act like “oh, yes, of course you are right.” You know? That’s not how I experienced women. I was not taught to make myself smaller than the man. I did not grow up shy. My father was a very nice and gentle person, and I grew up with two sisters. So I never had the feeling that a woman has to be shy or frightened or all that stuff.
So I thought, “ok, it’s good. I have a political reason to talk about myself.” Then I started drawing and it was so easy. If you do stories about other people, you have to be careful that you don’t offend them. Now I didn’t have to ask anybody. I could do all the research in my brain, and I remember that story very well because I was seventeen then, and my brain worked very good. Also, later, when I was pregnant, I had so much time to think about it, so it was really burned in my brain.
And the life choreography was perfect, too. You know, it’s a trip from A to B and it is like a train that starts slow and gets faster and faster and faster all the time, and in the end comes the crash. In the beginning you think, ah it’s a funny journey, it’s a bit crazy how these girls are, and then it gets more and more dangerous and thrilling.
Also, the two girls, they were very opposite. One is slim and has a very good figure but a bad face, and the other was fat but with a sweet face. Like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, you have these contrasts in the protagonists. So they were very strong characters to draw and the more I drew, the more I discovered how juicy this story was. (laughs) So I really enjoyed it.
SOBEL: What kind of research did you do, if any, for the visual aspects of the story? Did you return to Italy at all?
LUST: I was in North Italy very often, and for the research I traveled to Rome, Naples and Palermo to take some photos. There was also a guy in Palermo who made digital photos from everyday life there (busses, beach etc.) and sent it to me via CD.
“I redrew the first 80 pages.”
SOBEL: Did you plot the story out from the beginning, or did you write it as you were going?
LUST: I brainstormed from the beginning to the end. I wrote down everything that I remembered in a book, but I didn’t do a storyboard for the whole book because that would have bored me. A lot of ideas come during the drawing.
SOBEL: I’ve heard a lot of artists say that the best drawing is the first drawing.
LUST: No, not with me. I always start with something simple, you know, the first idea which comes to my mind, and most times that idea is ok. Then I start re-doing it and it gets better and better all the time. (laughs)
SOBEL: So was that your typical process as you were drawing it?
LUST: I’d do the sketches in the evening, in bed… like little sketches just for the next scene.
SOBEL: You did it in sequential order?
LUST: Yes. That’s very important, it was in chronological order. That’s a very important point. Maybe if you do a storyboard, you don’t need that, but without storyboards, it’s extremely important because of the flow, you know? Also to build the tension and make it stronger and stronger. I think it’s very important to be in the timeline.
So I’d draw the sequence in the scene, and then I’d read it, and then I’d redraw it, and then I rearranged stuff, and then finally, when I liked it, I would make the final drawings. Sometimes I also redrew the scene but not too often.
SOBEL: What tools did you use?
LUST: With this book, I started with a brush and ink, but at the same time I was drawing another comic with pencil, and then, I don’t know, I felt so much better with the pencil so I redrew the first 80 pages.
SOBEL: 80 pages?
LUST: Yes. But I won’t do that anymore. (laughs)
SOBEL: That’s a lot of extra work!
LUST: I don’t care about the amount, you know? I’m not afraid of mountains of pages. I don’t really care about that. I’m very patient.
SOBEL: Who published the book initially and how did you get involved with them?
LUST: In Germany there were three publishing houses which were doing some alternative comics, but not so many. They printed very few books a year. One of them said, “no, I don’t want to do it.” He read the first chapter and said he “didn’t come into it,” you know? It didn’t drag him inside. That was very depressing (laughs). But that was also a big motivation to redraw the first 80 pages.
But that first chapter which this publishing house didn’t want to print, it was printed by Fantagraphics as a little bonus…
SOBEL: A mini-comic?
LUST: Yes. A little one on A5 paper. If you are a subscriber at Fantagraphics you get it as a present. Maybe you can ask them for one because then you will see, it’s so different from the stuff which was finally printed in the book. I think it was not that bad, but he didn’t like it. He said, “sorry, I don’t want to make it.”
After three years I finally found a publisher. It was crazy. But, you know, I had no other choice. I was thinking, “ok, I will finish it and then we will see…” What else could I do? I mean, I had to finish it, you know? You have to do the work before you can find a publisher. I started getting afraid to show the book to publishers and uploaded chapters at Electrocomics instead, and there my final publisher read it.
SOBEL: What was the initial response to the book when it was published in Germany?
LUST: There was a journalist from a very big newspaper who was somehow interested in my work, I don’t know why. Maybe he liked something… I told him about the story. I was a bit known for the comic reports, so they knew that I am not stupid and that I have some interesting ideas. So he came to my house and made a big portrait of my work, and of this book, and it appeared in one of the very high profile German newspapers. It was even in the Sunday pages where they never write about comics and I had one and a half pages. That was before the book was even published. That was really sensational.
So when the book was released at the Frankfurt Book Fair for the first time, everybody was totally curious because of this article. So it started with a lot of hype. But my publisher before, he didn’t even realize that the article was out already and he said, “oh, maybe I should push it back to the Spring. I don’t have much money at the moment.” I could have kicked his ass! (laughs) Really, because he was always like, “mm, I’m not sure,” you know?
SOBEL: Did he not believe in it?
LUST: No, he didn’t believe in it. He likes beautiful drawings. He likes people like Igort, and those Italian and French guys who do these amazing drawings which look like paintings. He loves that kind of stuff. His publishing house is very small and young. He founded it in 2000 I think.
SOBEL: What’s it called?
LUST: Avant Verlag. But somehow he printed it. He did print it. And he did it with two colors which was very important.
SOBEL: Did you color it yourself?
LUST: Yes. I did everything on the computer with a second layer. I added it in Photoshop and then I cleaned the art up a little bit.
But he didn’t do anything for the production, you know? He just sent it to the printing company. He didn’t even pay me money before…
SOBEL: No advance?
LUST: No advance, nothing! I was just happy that someone would print it. Then, when he saw that it was successful, he said, “hmm, maybe we should make a contract.” (laughs)
“I would never like a Hollywood movie production.”
SOBEL: Is a movie in the works?
LUST: I get offers. From America I’ve gotten four now, from Plan B for example. In Europe there were also four to six, maybe more. The plot seems to be very attractive to imagine as a movie, but it’s difficult to make a screenplay out of it because of the length. You have to cut so much.
I was thinking that I would want an Austrian director. The Austrian film scene is very good. I mean, you might not know… do you know Michael Haneke?
LUST: Even that one you don’t know? He’s so famous. He won a lot of awards in Cannes, in France. We have a very good movie culture in Austria. I don’t want it to be a German production because Germans don’t have the same humor, you know? Humor is an important part of the book. And I would never like a Hollywood movie production out of it. Maybe if the Americans want to make an alternative movie out of it, they can still do it. I mean, they can make a remake of it or whatever.
There is an Austrian company that is working on the screenplay now.
SOBEL: Are you involved?
LUST: Yes. They always ask me stuff. They sent me the last script… I don’t want to write it with them, they will write it, but they sent me the script and I told them, “this is shit, they wouldn’t have done this” you know? They changed the character a little bit. So now they have to change it again. (laughs)
SOBEL: So you have the authority to tell them…
LUST: Yes, yes, yes. They are young and very ambitious. We’ll see in the end. I’m not sure about this movie. I think it cannot be better than the comic. (laughs) It can be only worse.
SOBEL: Well the comic is your original vision.
LUST: Yeah. But I hope I will like the movie version somehow.
SOBEL: How did you get involved with Fantagraphics?
LUST: In Stockholm, a Swedish institution invited American publishers because they wanted them to print Swedish comics, so they invited Chris Staros, Eric Reynolds, Alvin Buenaventura and also… I don’t know who else. Sparkplug, they came, too.
LUST: Yes. (laughs)
SOBEL: What year was this?
LUST: I don’t remember. They did it for two or three years. Every year there was a new American publisher at the Swedish comic festival. So I gave the book to Eric Reynolds, and he gave it to Kim Thompson since Kim could read German. After one week, I got an email from Kim that he wanted to publish it.
SOBEL: One week?
LUST: Yes, he was so fast! He read it and he knew that he wanted it. His reaction was very, very fast.
SOBEL: Kim translated it himself?
LUST: Yes, and then right after the book was finished came this terrible email that he was sick. It was really very short. I think it might have been his last book.
SOBEL: I think so.
LUST: It’s so surreal because of the title.
SOBEL: That’s true! So you never met Kim in person?
LUST: No, but we emailed a lot. And it was the first translation which I was able to control because I speak some English. It was the only one where I could say, ‘oh, you made a mistake here. You didn’t understand that right.’ You know a German word can have two meanings and he’d choose the wrong meaning. Stuff like that. Though there were very few misunderstandings.
SOBEL: So he was easy to work with?
LUST: Yeah. Totally. He’d say, ‘ah, yes. That’s interesting.’ He was very picky and we had some strange technique problems.
SOBEL: What do you mean?
LUST: Oh, with the color. With the second color. I don’t remember what it was… It was about the printing format, nothing special. They work differently than we work in Europe. But his work was extremely obsessive with details. I like that.
SOBEL: In what respect?
LUST: Like I saw that he was really caring for every detail. He said, ‘oh there is this little thing here, we have to change that, and… you know, it’s a 460 page book. (laughs) If you are obsessive with details, whoa. But, I mean, I like that very much. I had to be obsessive with details too when I did the book.
“[Crumb] is the opposite of what I find attractive.”
SOBEL: Is this your first visit to the U.S.?
SOBEL: How have you found it so far, and what kind of reaction have you received from Americans?
LUST: Ah, I love this wonderful, enthusiastic mode of the Americans. I was not aware of the fact that my own work is so inspired by American alternative comics. But now I can see that the Americans, they can get into the storytelling very fast and I think it has to do with the fact, that I feel more familiar with American comics than with French comics.
LUST: Yes, because French comics are more aesthetic, you know? They care more for the beautiful lines, but here in America I think you have another culture for visual storytelling. You have these fetishists for the beautiful lines, too, of course, but there’s another… I mean somebody like Chester Brown, for example, he’s very well recommended here, but you wouldn’t say that his lines are so beautiful. In Germany, it would be very difficult for Chester. Or in France. (laughs)
SOBEL: Do you read many American alternative comics?
LUST: Yes, of course.
SOBEL: What have you read?
LUST: Of course I have Palomar at home. The big one.
SOBEL: I know it well.
LUST: Yeah. And also the other one.
LUST: Yes, Locas. And Chester Brown, who I love very much. And Joe Matt, I love very much. I love these honest storytellers, you know?
SOBEL: Peep Show.
LUST: Yes, I really like that. Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel… I like Vanessa Davis and Gabrielle Bell is really great. And who else? Gary Panter. I don’t read his stuff, I just look at it. I cannot read Crumb so much.
SOBEL: Why not?
LUST: I don’t know. It doesn’t attract me. I would like to like it because I saw the movie and I love him, but I don’t get into his comics. Maybe because my English is not so good, I don’t know. Or maybe I find it disgusting that this guy wants to jump on the back of these big girls. It’s the opposite of what I find attractive. (laughs) But I like him as a person. He’s very, very funny. I like crazy people so I’m surprised that I cannot read his comics.
Also, From Hell is one of my greatest inspirations, although it’s not American. It’s British, but I think it looks very alternative. It’s not so overwhelming. It doesn’t want to impress you totally. I like that it’s so silent… And that’s what alternative comics are in America, too. Not over-expressive. They don’t want to overwhelm you. It’s a more relaxed way of storytelling. I think it makes it stronger.
“I enjoyed drawing the bad stuff...”
SOBEL: So are you happy with the book now that it’s finished? That’s kind of a silly question, but…
LUST: No, it’s ok. But you know if you ask any artist, they would always want to redraw some stuff. When I see it printed out somewhere, I’m always ashamed. I think, ‘oh my god!’ (laughs) But it has the energy, that’s the most important point, so I’m ok with it.
SOBEL: When we were at the Society of Illustrators in NYC, a young woman came up to you and said your book had literally “changed her life.” Are you surprised when you get reactions like that, and how do you feel when this happens?
LUST: That was amazing! I meet enthusiastic readers sometimes, but that was special. It makes me feel like I am doing something useful. You remember, I told you, art wasn't highly recommended in my family. “You can't eat art,” but when art can change someone’s perspective in life, that's as precious as food.
SOBEL: Have you heard any negative reactions to the book?
LUST: One person who was doing a radio show said, and he was a colleague, a comic artist himself, and he said on the air, ‘this book is so boring. Why did she use 460 pages? She could have told this story in 30 pages.” But that was the only bad response. (laughs) That was weird. All the others were very enthusiastic.
SOBEL: How much of the story is true?
LUST: It’s all true, I didn’t invent anything. Well, I mean you have to invent some stuff because you can’t tell 24 hours, so sometimes you have to invent pieces to glue some scenes together, but that’s not really inventing. It’s more like… I skipped three days and I glued together things where there was something else in between but I tried to stick with the reality even if it was very uncomfortable and a repetitional risk for me, because I think that’s the better story. If I start drawing myself better than I am in real life, it would have worsened the story. It’s that simple. I also like this very honest style of narration in literature. I like Siri Hustvedt, for example, the wife of Paul Auster. Do you know her?
SOBEL: I know Paul Auster.
LUST: His wife is a great author, too. She’s really good. She has a very sensible view on a lot of details.
SOBEL: So it’s an honest portrait of your life?
LUST: Yes, I tried because I don’t trust myself with fiction. (laughs)
People always ask me, “did you work out your trauma by working on this story?” but the traumatic aspect was not an issue anymore, because I am twenty years older and mentally healthy, so I was over it. I enjoyed drawing the bad stuff because it was a good story.
“Sex is always part of the story”
SOBEL: So what are you going to do next? Do you have a new project?
LUST: In the last two years I was working on an adaptation of a German novel which was set in the Third Reich about this scientist who was doing the sound technology for the Nazis. This is a fiction, and the second perspective in the book is the daughter of Joseph Goebbels, who was the Propaganda Minister of the Third Reich. This girl had five siblings and they were all murdered by their mother in the bunker with Adolf Hitler. It’s a very famous story in Germany. So the oldest girl is one of the narrators in the book and the sound scientist is the other. It’s a very dark and very sad story, but also a very big challenge.
SOBEL: How did this project come about?
LUST: There was a big publishing house in Germany, a literature publisher, which recently started to do graphic novels. They were the ones who published the important literature in Germany after the Second World War. They did the good books. So the fact that they’re starting to do comics now is a real paradigm change. It’s a big revolution in Germany, a total cultural shift, because they would never, ever have thought about doing comics before if the stories hadn’t changed, you know, if comics hadn’t broadened their subjects and their art.
They asked several comics artists if they wanted to do adaptations from their novels, and I could choose the story myself. They have a huge program, with all these big names like Brecht, Becket, Hesse, very high profile. So I wanted to do a book which is very artsy…
SOBEL: In what sense?
LUST: I was experimenting with the drawings, with the pens. I mean I could have done that before, too. Nobody would have stopped me, but here I said, it’s necessary, let me play around. That was also a good exercise so that I’m not only known as an autobiographical comic artist, you know? (laughs) But the next book will be autobiography again.
SOBEL: So you’ve got two books planned?
LUST: Well, now I have two books out. The adaptation is finished. It’s out. I gave it to Jacq [Cohen, Fantagraphics Publicist] to read, and it will come out in France next year.
SOBEL: What’s the name of it?
LUST: It’s called Flughunde, there is an English version of the novel which is called The Karnau Tapes.
SOBEL: So Fantagraphics is going to publish the English version?
LUST: Jacq mentioned that she wants to make it. I showed it to her and told her the story, and… I mean, the reviews are excellent, but it’s very depressing. (laughs)
SOBEL: Has it done well in Germany?
LUST: I asked the publishing house, “how are the sales?” and they said “oh, not so good,” and I said, “how much?” and they said, “3,000,” and I said, “wow! That’s good.” (laughs) But it’s a big publishing house for literature so now I have the feeling that it’s bad. But 3,000 in half a year, that’s pretty good. They shouldn’t complain.
SOBEL: So tell me about your next autobiography.
LUST: Actually it’s a trilogy.
SOBEL: Three graphic novels?
SOBEL: That’s ambitious!
LUST: Yes, but I have the stories. What I’m interested in is female perspective, female life. There’s still a need in literature for the female perspective. Too many books are written by men, even if they tell about women, they are still… inventions, you know?
The story is taken from my life, but I’m not so interested in a diary, so this story is about a 22 to 28 year old woman and her relationships with two men… they’re not secret relationships, it was very official, it’s like polygamy versus monogamy (laughs) and like in every relationship, there were problems coming up. It’s also about female sexuality. That’s the bad thing because my name is very pornographic… (laughs)
SOBEL: Do you get called Lust [rhymes with must] rather than Lust [rhymes with juiced]?
LUST: Yes, it’s terrible! In German it also has a little bit of that meaning, but lust has a lot of other meanings like joy, pleasure, happiness, you know? So it’s a positive name in Germany, but in America it’s only porno, so it’s a bit strange that I also do stories about sex. That’s a bit too simple. (laughs) But what can I do? (laughs) I wouldn’t change my subject now just because of my name. So what can I do?
SOBEL: In some ways, though, it helps.
LUST: Yeah, yeah, it’s a good consequence. Maybe it is fate or something like that. It’s the name of my mother. Lust is the family name of my mother.
SOBEL: So you took your mother’s name, not your father’s?
LUST: Yes, my father is called Schneider, which is boring. Once I was thinking, ‘oh, if my mother wouldn’t have married, I would be called Ulli Lust which sounds very nice. So when I was illustrating for newspapers, I always wrote, “illustration by Ulli Lust.”
SOBEL: It’s alliterative.
LUST: Yes, and it was only later that I started with the sex stuff. Ah, I’m damned! (laughs) But what can I do?
The trilogy is about the life of a seventeen-year-old girl, then at around twenty-five, and then at forty. Sex is always part of the story. The seventeen year old girl is too young. She likes kissing and she likes boys very much, and it was during the punk movement so she was very liberal, you know, where you sleep with people like you eat. She has sex because it’s what you do. She likes the boys, and they want to fuck, so let’s fuck. Ok. But she enjoys kissing, holding hands, the romantic stuff. And I think that’s… I mean, maybe I was a late bloomer with seventeen, but I still think it might be normal. Nowadays, the girls grow up earlier than before because of the hormones in the water, or whatever, they mature earlier, but still I think very often the body is ready but the brain is not. So that is one interesting point in the book. (laughs)
In the second volume, when the girl is twenty-five, she has needs, you know? There’s also a very good lover involved. The two guys, one is more the lover and the other is more the husband type. This relationship worked out very well until a certain point when problems started. And when she’s forty, I won’t tell you what happens. (laughs)
SOBEL: It sounds like polyamory.
LUST: Yes, exactly. That’s what book number three will be about. You can read a small excerpt in the anthology, The Big Feminist But. It’s an American anthology. The organizers have also been at the [SPX] festival.
SOBEL: Have you started these books? How far into it are you?
LUST: Only about thirty pages. So I have the start, and now comes the turning point. I think it will take me ten more years to draw it, so I will be very old when the last part finally comes out.
SOBEL: So you’ve done Today, the children’s books, you’re working on the new books we talked about…
LUST: And The Flughunde, it’s out now. It’s 360 pages, too. I was very fast.
SOBEL: 360 pages!
LUST: Yes. And I have some books in Germany which were not so successful.
SOBEL: Oh really? What else have you published?
LUST: There is a book with short journalistic reports about life in Berlin which was published. I like to make everyday observations, so I went to a shopping center and I did a report about it. I went there for one month. I wrote a lot and I talked to the people, and it was like an article a journalist would write.
I also had a column in the newspaper where I did one picture of something that I observed that was strange, or a strip with four panels, this kind of stuff. There is this website called Overheard in New York. It’s a bit like that, but I’d show the scene. I’d hear some stuff, note it down, and then I drew it. So, not reports about something specific, but more about everyday life in Berlin.
And there is another book in Belgium, called “Air Pussy,” which is an erotic story.
SOBEL: Air Pussy?
LUST: Yes. It sold very badly. (laughs)
SOBEL: That’s a great title.
LUST: Yes, but it’s not really a good book. I had a serial going on which I published every spring, and it was about a goddess who sleeps in winter. It was inspired by these ancient fertility rites in the Stone Age, or Bronze Age. There is this mythology of the goddess who sleeps all winter and in the spring she awakens and meets her lover, who was the priest in the ancient times. The goddess in Air Pussy has a very special ability; if she touches herself, like if she masturbates, then she can fly. Oooo! (laughs)
I liked the idea of making a little erotic book every spring, like a ritual, you know? I did it five times, and the last one was published in Belgium. But it’s not the best story I ever did. It’s very improvised. It’s more like a little dance.
You will find it with a few others on Electrocomics, too. One is called “Wildbahn.” Not surprisingly, “Air Pussy” is the most downloaded comic on this website (laughs) but the printed edition sold very badly. I think it might have to do with the Belgian distribution because I don’t understand how a book can sell badly with that title. (laughs)
SOBEL: How long ago did you do these?
LUST: The last one was in 2005, and I stopped it because first, I had no attention for it anymore, and second, I was printing the books myself. At the art school, we had these wonderful printing machines and a whole print shop, you know, but later it was difficult to print on my own. And I also concentrated on the big book.
It’s a bit sad because the series was quite nice, maybe one day I will continue it, I don’t know. It was a good exercise in drawing sex. I like erotic drawings in comics. I think it’s a good medium for the erotic stories.
SOBEL: Do you have any favorites?
LUST: Guido Crepax. There are also some French artists who are good, too, but I don’t know their names.
SOBEL: What about [Milo] Manara?
LUST: No, I don’t like him. Manara is really stupid. I get angry when I see it. The girls are so stereotyped. They always look the same, and they always have these stupid faces with the open mouths, and his stories got more and more stupid the older he got. For example, he draws the story of three girls climbing mountains and the whole time they’re climbing on this very high wall, their asses are sticking out and their legs are spread. It’s so stupid. I can’t stand it! It’s really a man’s projection. Stupid fantasy. (laughs)
The erotic comic is a very special thing because if you draw a little bit too ugly, it’s gone. This is the only genre in comics where I would say aesthetic is important. It’s a boring act to draw sex, but to draw it as it feels is a big challenge. One funny thing is, male or female cartoonists drawing erotic comics, both of them are drawing the girls.
SOBEL: That’s interesting.
LUST: Yeah, there’s always this camera focused on the woman’s body. And the funny thing is you would think if women are drawing erotic comics, they would put the focus on the man’s body because that’s their objective desire, but it’s not. They want to think about the girls as themselves. They want to be the object of desire and that’s what they draw. So both put the female body in the spotlight. The only erotic comics where the men are really very sexy objects are gay comics.
SOBEL: So I guess you probably hate Heavy Metal then?
LUST: I didn’t really read it. I know it, and I think I liked it in the ‘80s. I like Richard Corben, he’s great.
SOBEL: So you like the stuff from the late ‘70s, like Moebius?
LUST: Yes, of course. I think I read it sometimes when I found it, but I didn’t read it regularly. But maybe I wouldn’t have been such a big fan of it, that’s possible.
SOBEL: It’s a very specific kind of erotic fantasy. It’s like science-fiction, robot, alien erotica…
LUST: Yeah. That’s ok, though. I think I would have liked it. I like everything that has to do with eroticism in comics, or most stuff, even if it’s very brutal. Only if the drawings are ugly then it doesn’t work. (laughs)
“My body’s far ahead of my brain”
SOBEL: So what does it mean to you to have won the Ignatz Award [for Outstanding Graphic Novel]?
LUST: Actually, I was just enthusiastic for the book to be published at Fantagraphics. That was such a big award for me.
SOBEL: I can relate to that.
LUST: I couldn’t believe that I was nominated because there are so many great artists, they feed the children here in America with comics. And there’s all these talents, like Michael Deforge, for example, these people who can draw such great stuff, and they’re also good at storytelling… And then they nominate me! (laughs) You know? That’s amazing! That’s really incredible. It’s so surreal.
That I won? I… I have no more words for it. You know, it’s so… surprising. It’s just, ok, I won, wow! (laughs) Actually I’m totally happy, it’s great, but I wouldn’t have been less happy if I would have not won, you know? Because to be nominated and to be here, that’s really… wow, that’s huge! (laughs) Because, as I said before, I started doing comics when I was 30. I was just happy that somebody printed the book.
SOBEL: You started this book when you were 30?
LUST: No, I started drawing comics at 30. The works before were often narrative sequences, but with only one image per page. Today is the Last Day I started when I was 38. So I didn’t expect suddenly to be the big shot. (laughs) I mean, I like it. (laughs)
But to be honest, you cannot survive with comics if you are not super successful. If you do a good book and it has good reviews, but it’s just good, you know, it can vanish very fast. It’s such a small business that you need to be extremely successful just to survive, or make a modest living from it. I was lucky to make a living from comics these last five years, but still I agreed to this teaching job because I do not think comics will pay my rent for the next twenty years. And retirement money, never, ever would I have any from just doing comics, but now I will get some.
SOBEL: You’re a teacher, right?
LUST: Yes, and since last month I have a lifelong professorship in Germany.
SOBEL: Life long?
LUST: Yes, it’s crazy. I have a job which they cannot fire me. They cannot kick me out.
LUST: Yes, it’s really crazy!
SOBEL: What do you teach?
LUST: I’m an illustration and comics teacher at the University of Hannover. It’s a city near Berlin.
SOBEL: Do you like teaching?
LUST: Yes, I think I’m good at teaching. I prefer sitting at home and drawing, though. I don’t like to be in the university machine, you know? You have these courses every Wednesday and Thursday from this to this time and I have to deal with all this bureaucracy. I don’t like that… Now I can’t draw for longer periods anymore, I'll be dragged away every week. It will take more time to draw the new book.
SOBEL: So is this a new job?
LUST: Well, it’s not new for me. Since I did children’s books, I was always doing workshops. Workshops or lectures are a good way to earn money. For a long time, I was doing workshops for children, or for amateurs, but starting five or six years ago, I only do workshops for professional art students. If you work with children, you are more or less a social worker. I prefer to work with future professionals, because with them you can also be strict.
It turned out, the art students like me because I am not the cozy type. (laughs) Students like a passionate teacher who has a very clear way of describing what is good in their work and what they can make better. In fine arts it would be more difficult to define corrections, but with comics it’s easy. You can say ok, this works, this does not work.
SOBEL: Certain conventions that have to be there.
SOBEL: Are you happy with your drawing skills?
LUST: I’m getting better now. In the last few years, I’m feeling confident. Sometimes my mind is still in that desperate state from when I was 25 and I was convinced that I was not good enough, you know? But now I’m totally surprised of what I’m capable of. (laughs) I really learned a lot in the last few years.
SOBEL: From Today?
LUST: Yes. With that book, I really got into it around page 100. (laughs) After 100 pages, I really had the feeling of how the story flows. That’s normal. If you draw stories, it takes a long time to really get this fluency. In art I always have this draggy feeling of ‘how can I do it?’ and ‘ah, in my head it looks so wonderful but if I draw it then suddenly my hand is handicapped.’ One day comes the point where it really turns, where you suddenly get relaxed and then you have it, like a sportsman, your muscles are full, you know? I’m at this point now, it’s great.
So I’m angry that I have to teach because I want to use these skills. It took me so long to get them and now when I have them finally, they want me to teach? Come on! Shit! (laughs) But I think I have to figure out a new working system where I can still do my books, because I need retirement money. In twenty years, I will need it. I am 46 now, and the next twenty years will pass much faster. (laughs)
SOBEL: That’s the thing about comics. They take so long to make.
LUST: Yes, yes, yes. I think that the new book will take me three years. Then maybe another four until I will start the last one in the trilogy. Maybe longer.
SOBEL: That could be ten year’s worth of work.
LUST: At a minimum, yes.
SOBEL: But you’re definitely committed to doing it?
LUST: I think so. I would be surprised if I don’t. If I don’t, you are allowed to beat me. (laughs)
SOBEL: I will! (laughs) I’m coming to Germany. (laughs)