Once upon a time (at least as I remember it), it was considered déclassé in alt-comics circles to indulge in certain "low" genres like science fiction and fantasy. Comics had a bad enough reputation as it was, no sense in encouraging people's pre-conceived prejudices if we wanted to be taken seriously.
That's certainly not the case anymore. Consider for instance the cartoonist Katie Skelly who indulged in her fondness for pop sci-fi psychedelia with the trippy but emotionally grounded Nurse Nurse, a comic that established Skelly as an artist worth watching.
For her second graphic novel, Skelly has delved into another cult genre, the girls-on-the-run/biker chic film. In Operation Margarine, runaway debutante Margarine and the unlucky-in-love tough girl Bon-Bon fend off unwanted suitors, vengeful biker gangs and more while traversing the southwestern desert, where, in Bon-Bon's words, "there's nowhere to hide."
I chatted with Skelly over email about the new book, her influences, and the shift in storytelling from Nurse Nurse to Margarine and beyond.
CHRIS MAUTNER: First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself. Other than the brief bio you have on your website, I realize I don’t know anything about your background and how you decided to become a cartoonist. Have you always lived in New York? How did you become interested in making comics?
KATIE SKELLY: I was born in 1985 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I went to Syracuse University and got a B.A. in Art History, moved to New York and then did some graduate coursework in the same subject at City College. I’m currently working at an arts and cultural institution here, and I live in Queens.
My dad’s side of the family runs a newsstand in Bethlehem and he’d bring comics home for me to read when I was little, and I loved reading them so I tried to draw my own. I kept drawing through high school and college, and after I’d graduated I started making Nurse Nurse. Right around that time I was getting into the Barbarella comics after seeing the film, and that Richard Prince series of nurse paintings was everywhere, and those two things sort of melded in my mind and I wanted to try exploring making comics in a new way.
What exactly do you mean by "new way?" Can you go into a bit more detail? What sort of approach exactly? How did Barbarella influence that approach?
I meant in a new way for me - before Nurse Nurse I was trying out some autobio comics, some short stories, but nothing that was really sticking. What struck me about the Barbarella universe was the juxtaposition of environment and story. In one arc Barbarella is landed on a snowy planet and being tormented by these bad Victorian children with evil dolls that bite her. Later she drives a sled that’s being pulled by giant roosters. It’s like, all right, we’ve gone to the future and the latest and greatest way of getting around is being pulled by giant chickens through the snow. I mean, you could have drawn anything there. I was fascinated by those sorts of decisions.
So what I gathered from that was that you don’t necessarily have to create alien spaces in science fiction; you can just take absurd elements and put those together and it creates this sense of an “otherly” environment just by virtue of it being so strange. I’d been so intimidated by science fiction before that point, and so with Nurse Nurse I tried bypassing a hard science fiction backstory in lieu of taking more familiar elements and putting them together to create an otherly space.
Operation Margarine plays heavily on the “bad girls on the run”/biker film genre. The most obvious antecedent I suppose would be Thelma and Louise, but I was thinking of more drive-in fare. Is this a particular genre or subgenre that you have an affinity for or interest in?
I watched a few films like The Mini-Skirt Mob, Blonde in Black Leather and The Girl on a Motorcycle before and during the process of making Operation Margarine. I enjoyed them but I didn’t really study them super closely, I was more interested in seeing how the subject of bad girls on the run (on motorcycles) was treated in different times, countries, and languages. What I thought was interesting was that Girl on a Motorcycle was really the only one about a girl “getting away” just because she was bored with her life. It’s literally like, Marianne Faithfull’s husband is boring because he has a job, and that is so passé for some reason it leads her to just ride around and narrate ideas about sex and poetry in a leather jumpsuit. It’s like the anti-Easy Rider, and it’s great. I still haven’t returned it to Netflix.
There are a few Godard titles that I’d point to as bigger influences than the motorcycle films I watched; Made in USA, Pierrot le Fou, Weekend (Margarine’s outfit was partially inspired by the Corinne character’s in Weekend). There's a sense of pervasive anarchy to those films that I really appreciated. I'm not sure if that quite made its way into Margarine though.
There seems to be a bit of a storytelling shift from Nurse Nurse to Operation in that the latter is more pared down and simplified in structure than the former. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
The story I had in mind when I started working on Margarine was a lot more convoluted than how it actually turned out. It may have even been denser than Nurse Nurse. Then when I started drawing it I began to parse out all of those details and decided to just focus on the two characters, Bon-Bon and Margarine, because I loved drawing them so much. I think Nurse Nurse was really a chance for me to throw as many ideas as I could into a comic, and once I’d gotten that impulse out of my system I could concentrate more on fine-tuning the storytelling.
I found it interesting how, even though we get flashbacks, you don’t provide too much detail into the history of Bon Bon or Margarine. We don’t know, for instance, why Margarine ended up in a hospital or why Bon Bon keeps ending up in bad relationships. Again, was that a conscious decision on your part, to reveal only so much back story and force the reader to fill in the gaps?
I wanted to see how much I could get away with in terms of revealing some things and dimming others. I really don’t like effusive text, I don’t like “character studies,” I don’t like when a writer or artist or director doesn’t trust their audience enough, so my aim was to leave some spaces more open than others. Generally I tend to gravitate towards art that’s more detached and interested in looking at systems than art that’s interested in exploring emotion, precise continuity, etc.
And I think, in reference to the specific examples you brought up, leaving those particular questions a little bit more open-ended added to the strangeness of the story, but also possibly opened up some spaces for the readers to place their own experiences. So I’ll be interested to see how that goes over.
Speaking of flashbacks, I was intrigued by the one you have that — more or less — takes up the bulk of the book. What made you decide to structure the comic in this fashion?
One thing I didn’t really have a chance to explore in Nurse Nurse was playing around with time, so I wanted to give that a shot with the new story.
You serialized both Margarine and Nurse Nurse as mini-comics before collecting them. Why? How does this shape your approach to your art? Do you use the feedback you get from the minis to alter or change things for the final edition?
I really like mini-comics, I collect them, and they might be my favorite way to read comics. They just feel like a natural extension of a project for me; I don’t like to be holed up working without showing people what I’m doing, but I’m also not very interested in publishing my work online in its entirety either. I don’t tend to get a lot of feedback on the minis at this point. Either people like them or they don’t. And I’m happier just doing my own thing anyway and seeing what happens.
Were there a lot of changes from the mini to the collected edition?
There weren’t very many changes. We ([AdHouse publisher] Chris Pitzer and I) got rid of one page deemed not essential. And I had a few continuity things to fix. And the book of course has the ending, which I didn’t release as a mini.
How did you hook up with AdHouse for this book?
Chris Pitzer knew my work and he’d liked Nurse Nurse, and I wanted to work with AdHouse because I loved Afrodisiac by Jim Rugg and American Barbarian by Tom Scioli, so I asked Chris if he’d be interested in putting out my next project, and he was. I started working on Margarine about six months after Nurse Nurse came out.
I’m always intrigued by how you draw eyes in your comics, which I assume is a manga influence. It’s especially notable here with the book’s villain, who seems to have two differently shaped eyes. What was the thinking behind that?
There was more differentiation between the characters in Nurse Nurse as I was just drawing what they were: pirates, panda-women hybrids, Martian girls, nurses. To draw the “realer” characters in Margarine I needed to have subtler things that separated their designs, so a decision like making one of Billy’s eyes black was a 1) in order to make her more distinguishable and 2) to sort of indicate a myopic vision for that character. Lucian in Nurse Nurse also has one bad eye. I sort of like that as a trope. Maybe in the next comic a good character will have one bad eye to sort of play with that idea.
To what extent, if at all, is Operation Margarine an examination of society’s (or pop culture’s) attitudes towards women? I thought it interesting that a group of nuns, an certain ideal of “the good woman” show up halfway through the book, but are quickly dismissed by the “bad girls” (who really aren’t THAT bad). There’s also the idea of the girls wanting to shake off their identities and be “new people.”
What I found in the motorcycle films I’d mentioned earlier was that none of those girls were really “that bad” either; their experiences were just sensationalized to a point that pushed the stories into camp territory. So with that in mind, I wanted to experiment with throwing out parameters for the characters on the very first page to see if I could replicate that camp, and then try to subvert it throughout the story. I think Margarine gains more agency throughout the story, and I think Bon-Bon shows some sensitivity that might not have been really expected. And yes, I think the storyline of having them move into the desert is their attempt at shaking off the labels that got them to that point, but they face a different kind of role enforcer there, too. Gender politics in text are a particular interest of mine and I tried to leave the story open for interpretation in that area.
Both in Nurse Nurse but especially in Operation Margarine you’re drawing to a large degree on a certain kind of pulp comics and cinema that trade heavily on sex and exploitation. Despite its influences, Margarine avoids any overt sexualization of its characters, for romantic purposes or otherwise. Is that simply because you felt that element didn’t fit within the structure of the book or was there a more considered, deliberate or even political reason?
I think to this point I’ve tended to compartmentalize sex in my work; like, if I’m going to have sex in a comic, I just want to do a sex comic, even then it tends to stay on the cheekier side of X-rated (for instance the comic “Breeding Season” in Thickness #1 and the Agent 8 series I’m doing for slutist.com). I haven’t really found a way to work sex into my longer stories that feels natural yet, you know? There’s a little vignette where Gemma is post-coital in Nurse Nurse, but I think having sex removed from the equation in Margarine adds to the sense of detachment in that story. I mean sure, I took inspiration from Russ Meyer, but more the spirit than the letter. I think the character Margarine is so detached from her body that sex wouldn’t really enter her universe right then, and it’s implied that Bon-Bon gets used as a side piece, but it doesn’t do very much for her. I saw someone on tumblr say they thought there was room for romance between Margarine and Bon-Bon in the story, which I thought was an interesting way to read it.
You mentioned in an interview over at Bitch Magazine that you were getting help for an eating disorder while working on Margarine. How did going through that process and getting healthy inform your approach to making the comic, if at all? Was there an aspect of the comic that was changed or brought in based on what you were going through at the time? Did the act of drawing prove to be therapeutic in any way?
This blurs into my last answer a bit; I’d been so detached and numb for so long trying to come out ahead of the disorder and failing every time, so when I was finally getting help I had to square up more honestly with having to feel real emotions. So now that I’m back on, like, the planet of the living I’m starting to see more of my experiences bleed into the stories.
I think Nurse Nurse was ultimately about isolation, and Margarine is about escape. But now that I’m on the other side of treatment I’m feeling like I want to work harder and grosser and draw uglier; one thing drawing used to do for me was help me feel like I was contributing beauty to the world because I felt so ugly. But now I feel like, fuck that, ugly is good.
What are you working on now? Do you have a follow-up in mind?
I’m writing something new at the moment. To me the scariest thing about where I’m at now is not knowing the extent of damage I’ve done to my body, and I’m worried about those years coming home to roost and my body starting to come apart because of it. So, I’m trying to redirect that fear into writing a body horror comic. It’s still abstract, but writing it makes me feel very uncomfortable, which makes me feel like it’s the next right move.