Keiler Roberts quickly gained attention for her autobiographical mini-comic Powdered Milk, which explores her life with her family from right around the time her daughter Xia was born into the present, when she’s both a professor and cartoonist. With her bone-dry sense of humor and highly expressive, loose line Roberts pulls no punches in her short vignettes. While Roberts has the instincts of a humorist and structures her comics in that form, it’s her willingness to frankly address issues regarding the postpartum depression she experienced as well as her ongoing issues with bipolar disorder that give her comics power and authenticity. Roberts establishes herself as an irascible protagonist whose interactions with her daughter reveal an important truth about parenting: children are often as terrible as they are wonderful, and often at the same time. Xia functions as an unending source of funny malapropisms, to be sure, but she also reminds Roberts of her responsibilities. Roberts’ artist husband Scott functions as a kind of witty straight man, a source of calm and strength as Roberts goes about her day as best she can.
Roberts is also a keen observer of character dynamics and the humor of awkwardness, as a hilarious strip about a trip to a day spa that involves comparing bodies with a friend demonstrates. Roberts writes a lot about social anxiety and the ways in which she copes with the world, but her strong storytelling and character focus prevents it from being didactic. Her stories are little bursts of truth that trust the reader to make connections, and even the most emotionally wrought situations are tapped for their humor. She won an Ignatz award for Outstanding Series at SPX 2016, a couple of years after she drew strips in which she discussed her dread in potentially attending the show. She addressed all of these topics and many more in this interview, which we collaborated on together in a shared document. I edited it for format and made some minor corrections, as well as reordering some of the questions for clarity and flow.
Robert Clough: Where were you born and raised? How old are you, if I may ask?
Keiler Roberts: I was born in Milwaukee and grew up in Sun Prairie (which is just outside of Madison) Wisconsin. I’m 38.
RC: Did you grow up reading comics? Did you have friends whom you read comics with?
KR: No, I read the Sunday comics and a few things my brothers had lying around – Mad Magazine and Groo the Wanderer. I never read superhero comics.
RC: Did you grow up drawing? Did you draw with others, like siblings or friends?
KR: My three older siblings were all much better at drawing than I was. I drew slightly more than the average kid, but not a lot until middle school. I made dolls and doll clothes. I was too cool doing that to bother reading comics or drawing.
RC: Did your parents support you in your endeavors related to art growing up?
KR: My parents always supported me in whatever I was interested in. They never questioned me about what I wanted to do. They weren’t fanatics though. They didn’t come to every event. I never felt like they were hovering. They also allowed me to quit things without question.
RC: What was your childhood like? In what ways does it inform your work now?
KR: I had a loving family, and we still all get along well. My childhood was full of the stresses that most kids face, though. I had all kinds of insecurities. Kids are cruel, especially girls. When I was around eleven, I think my depression started, as did my body issues. We had a ton of pets, which I loved. I don’t remember my parents ever yelling at me. I was always obedient, though. I wanted to please everyone. My mom is a much better mom than I am. Xia’s probably a happier kid though.
RC: Your mom makes frequent appearances in your comics. What does she think of you putting her on the page, and does she like this version of yourself that you portray for her?
KR: My mom has never said that she likes being a character, but she doesn’t complain about it. She’s a great sport. She says I make her look like an idiot, but I think I’m just making her a likable character. I think people can really relate to her character, but in person she can be very intimidating.
RC: How so?
KR: My mom is very direct and honest. She says what’s on her mind. She has a natural sense of authority. I don’t know if it comes from her voice, eyes, height, or personality, but she makes an impression. She’s really gentle and funny, but I don’t think it’s the first thing you see.
RC: Did you study art in high school or college?
KR: Yes, I took as many art classes in high school as I could. I went to UW-Madison Wisconsin for a B.F.A. and Northwestern for an M.F.A. I studied painting. When I started college I planned to get a teaching certificate so I could teach high school art. I switched my major when I got involved with the advanced painting class at UW.
Starting In Comics
RC: Was Powdered Milk the first work you self-published?
KR: No, I illustrated a children’s book that Steve Fiffer wrote called Arctic Bears Chase.
RC: You’ve said that you got into doing comics by taking a class with Aaron Renier. What motivated you to take that class in the first place, and what was it about the class that was so inspiring?
KR: I was working on a blog that had some autobio components. I wanted to work with images and writing in some way, but I knew nothing about indie comics. My husband told me to try comics. He’s the head of Animation at DePaul University. He hired Aaron to teach the comics course and then scheduled it to fit with my teaching schedule. It was the greatest gift he’s ever given me. I was also teaching full time at DePaul at the time and was in Aaron’s class with some of my own students. It was humbling.
Aaron knows everyone in comics. He brought all kinds of work in to show us along with his own pages that he was working on. The assignments had a beautiful structure. They really prepared us for the final project, which was a full minicomic. I made Powdered Milk vol.1. I felt like I was beginning a new life. I had even changed my last name a few months before. I knew then that Scott was right – comics were my replacement for painting, which I’d been struggling with for ten years.
RC: What was it about comics that replaced painting? Why were you struggling with painting? What was it you were trying to express that wasn’t coming through?
KR: I was trying to create a picture of life from my point of view. Painting has so many layers of interpretation based on its history and contemporary art. It’s pretty inaccessible to most people. You have to be trained to “read” a painting. I always felt the need to explain what I was doing but resented having to say anything at all about it. I don’t feel like I have to explain my comics. People understand them, and if they don’t like them it’s probably because their tastes are just too different from mine. I don’t feel the need to defend anything. The physical accessibility is also extremely important to me. I want everyone who wants them to have my comics. If they can’t afford a book, they can read a lot of it online for free, or go to a library.
This is what I think the reasons were, but really I just kept getting depressed from painting. Even when things were going well for me professionally, I didn’t want to be involved with the art world. Since I started making comics, every aspect of it – drawing, writing, reading, meeting people in the field, facebooking, and teaching – continues to open up in exciting ways. I always wanted to make some kind of book with words and pictures and figured it would be a children’s book, but after I did that I knew I really wanted to make something for adults.
RC: Why was it important for you to do something for adults in particular? Was writing for children alone too limiting, not allowing you to express what you wanted to express? Or was it simply the urge to express yourself autobiographically not really fitting into kids lit?
KR: If I had an idea that I really liked now for a children’s book I would do it, both the writing and the illustrating. I assumed, based on the children’s books I’d read, that I would be very limited in terms of content. Some parents have told me that their children, who are Xia’s age and older, love to read my books. Maybe I could do something for kids with the same structure, style, and content as my books, with smaller changes. It’s actually been on the back of my mind for a while. I wanted to write for adults because I’m the audience I aim to please. I would have to feel the same way about writing for children – that my personal taste guided the project and I wasn’t working to please kids or publishers. I’d have to trust that kids would like what I like.
RC: Why draw comics about yourself, as opposed to other subjects?
KR: Why draw comics about anything else? I’m really interested in what’s true – real life experiences. I only have full access to myself. It’s not because I think I’m especially interesting. I would do autobio from your point of view if I could.
RC: Do you like having a sort of established “cast of characters”, each with their own roles in your story?
KR: I do, but I would like to include more people. I just haven’t found a natural way to do it. I have close friends that have never been in a comic.
RC: How do your husband and daughter feel about being characters in your work? Have you ever had to self-censor something because you realized it was too personal for them?
KR: They generally feel good about it. Xia laughs her head off when I read her parts to her. I do hold back on their behalf. I don’t write about Scott in ways that would make him look very bad or would reveal too much. He proofreads all my rough drafts if he’s in them. I won’t put anything in about Xia that I think might embarrass her. It’s hard to know exactly what that’ll be with kids though.
RC: Do you ever collaborate with your husband Scott? Are there unique challenges or benefits to living in a two-artist/cartoonist household? Do either of you ever seek out the advice of the other in helping to solve particular difficulties you might be having with what you’re working on?
KR: No. I hate working with him on almost anything. He wanted us to make a birthday card for Xia together and I scowled at him, drew a bunch of stuff very quickly, and said, “You finish it. I’m going to bed.” Of course when I woke up there was this gorgeously ornate card on the counter. He’d somehow covered everything I did in this lace pattern. I just want to get it done. He wants to take forever and consider all the options and then be elaborate. It’s not just him though, I don’t want to collaborate with anyone.
KR: I’m too paranoid about pleasing the other person. I can’t trust my instincts.
We rarely ask each other for advice. It’s great having an artist partner because we can go to things together and we understand a lot about each other, but we work pretty separately. We share a studio but we’re on different schedules.
RC: Does being an autobio cartoonist in any way impact the way you live your day-to-day life? Do you find yourself “acting” in order to get a good “scene” for later?
KR: I don’t think so. I guess I go into certain situations with an open mind, thinking it might make good material (like King Spa), but I’d never say I’m acting. I’ve always been turned off by people who seem to be performing in life. They aren’t usually autobio cartoonists.
RC: The King Spa story is one of your most memorable. Do you remember any awkwardness in the actual moment, because what sets the story apart is the actual ease I sensed in the way you depicted it. Also, when your friend said, “Now we’re really friends”, did you know then and there you had the ideal punchline?
KR: I know there wasn’t ever any awkwardness among my friends who went there together. I don’t remember if I knew at that point that I would use that conversation. I’m generally forgetful about the process that lead to any comic. I’ve always recorded good conversations in my journal – long before making comics, so I may have just written it down to preserve it.
RC: You’ve alluded to dealing with body image issues. Do you find that drawing yourself nude is in any way therapeutic? Do you find it easy or difficult to do so?
KR: Yes, it probably is. I love bodies. One of my favorite things to do is go to the beach to stare at everyone – the more variety the better. I can’t articulate what it is that I love – why I care that some women carry their fat in their hips and others their thighs. My own body issues stemmed from not feeling sexy. I thought if I got thin enough then I would be “dateable.” It’s not hard to see where this perspective came from. My weight yoyo-ed significantly in high school. In grad school I watched a friend of mine flirt, and it dawned on me that personality is sexy. That should’ve made me feel better, but instead I started to worry more about my personality. Anyway, if I think about myself – my body or my personality – in a way that’s separate from sex appeal, I am ok with it all. That’s the way I felt at the spa with my friends. I have this funny body, like almost everyone else, and it’s super fun to draw. I don’t look at myself when I draw by the way. There’s even more nudity in [Roberts’ upcoming book] Sunburning. Scott just shakes his head. I don’t think it would be therapeutic to draw my body from observation. When I imagine things – anything – my body, a memory of an event, a place – I don’t judge it like I do in life. It becomes warmer and more acceptable.
RC: What cartoonists’ work did you look at before starting your own, if any?
KR: I learned of Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, and Vanessa Davis in Aaron Renier’s class. I loved them all immediately and they are still at the top of my list of favorites.
RC: John Porcellino was an early champion of your work, selling it through his Spit And A Half distro and generally talking you up. Did it feel immediately validating to have someone you admired support you right off the bat?
KR: I was shocked and deeply flattered. I still am. John is amazing in so many ways. I owe him so much.
RC: How did you settle on your current style, which is both naturalistic and minimalist?
KR: I try to draw without thinking about style at all. Like, if someone said to you, “Draw a little picture of your house so I can see what it looks like, and I’m leaving in five minutes.” I put in all the details that help to tell the story, and I use them to make a good composition, and that’s it.
RC: What cartoonists do you draw inspiration from now?
KR: I don’t know if there’s anything specific that I’m borrowing from their work, but some of the cartoonists I’m enjoying right now are Noah Van Sciver, Lisa Hanawalt, Simon Hanselmann, Carol Tyler, Roz Chast, Leela Corman, and Tom Hart.
RC: Do you consider yourself to be an artist who writes, a writer who draws, or something else?
KR: I think of myself as an artist because that’s my whole background, but I enjoy the writing part more. It’s easier for me.
RC: Do you enjoy the simple act of drawing apart from working on your own comics?
KR: Yes. I enjoy figure drawing the most, but only short poses.
RC: What’s the experience of teaching like? Do you teach cartooning, drawing or something else?
KR: I get Sunday night dread before my Monday classes, but I always enjoy working. I teach Indie Comics at the School of the Art Institute and Beginning Drawing and Figure Drawing at DePaul. I’ve taught all kinds of other classes, but this had been the routine for the last few years. The best part of teaching is getting to know the students. The more diverse the class, the better. I’ve learned that my first impressions cannot be trusted and many of the students who immediately irritate me become my favorites.
RC: How much of your own work do you show your students? How do they react to it?
KR: I usually show them a few stories in the beginning. It’s really awkward if I show them something funny and no one laughs. Sometimes it goes really well though.
RC: Is teaching satisfying on a creative level for you?
KR: I can be as creative as I want to be with teaching. No one tells me what to do at either school. It is satisfying, but I have to make something physical/visual in order to be satisfied in general.
RC: What’s your Indie Comics class like? Do you teach them cartooning, character and storytelling techniques? What texts do you use, if any? What comics do you have them read?
KC: The students do a few short assignments, then make a 24 page mini comic that they print for everyone in the class. I choose different readings every year. This year it was Best American Comics 2015, My Hot Date by Noah Van Sciver, Scab County by Carlos Gonzales, Sec by Sarah Ferrick, and we had two visiting guests – Nate Beaty and Whit Taylor. My husband is coming as a bonus to talk about Risograph printing. I also bring books every week to pass around. I try to select cartoonists that make really different work from each other. I talk with them a lot one on one while they’re developing their final comic. I don’t teach them cartooning, but we talk a lot about content, storytelling, composition, drawing, incorporating the text with the image, etc.
RC: Has Xia shown any artistic inclinations thus far? Is that a path that you’d enjoy seeing her pursue?
KR: Xia is drawing and making things constantly. It’s incredibly exciting to see what she comes up with. She’s more creative and talented than I was at that age, by far. I don’t think I’m hoping for her to become an artist, but I would feel really sad if she didn’t love making art throughout her childhood. It’s wonderful to have that in common. She shows a lot of interest in medical things – passionately playing doctor or vet. And she’s not squeamish like I always was. She’ll probably be a mover though, because she has always loved carrying big, heavy, awkward things around.
RC: Are you in any way motivated by the idea of talking about motherhood in an honest way in terms of detailing both positives and negatives? In other words, is breaking through the societal ideas of what mothers should be like and feel part of your mission as a cartoonist?
KR: I hope to write with honesty about all things, about life. There are positives and negatives and there is no movement in the direction of an answer. I’m annoyed by the depiction of mother characters in picture books. They’re always nice and caring, but rarely funny.They’re almost never a dynamic person/mouse/rabbit/bear with a true personality. I doubt I’ll ever write a children’s book with a fascinating mother character though, because I don’t have a specific mission as a cartoonist. I don’t have a message.
RC: Was a general dearth (at the time) of comics about the experience of being a mother in any way a motivator to write so much about Xia?
KR: No, but I’m always at the edge of a trend, right after a few people become famous for it but before everyone’s doing it. I did a huge sewing project at the beginning of Project Runway, I had a blog right before Julie & Julia was made into a movie, when I still had to explain to some people what a blog was, and then I was diagnosed bipolar when Homeland aired. I have a sixth sense for these things. Now everyone has a comic about motherhood.
RC: Have you read Carol Tyler’s first collection, Late Bloomer? She had postpartum psychosis and goes into a lot of detail about how difficult it was for her as a mother–and this was all in the 80s. As far as I can tell, it’s the first sustained comics narrative about motherhood. It was like another 20 years before I saw more of these sorts of stories.
KR: Yes I did. That story knocked me out, it was so sad. I love the way she told it and the color she used. I’m reading Soldier’s Heart now. I nominated it for the Ignatz knowing it would be great. I wanted to save it so I could read it very slowly and enjoy it after the frenzy of jury reading.
RC: Did any particular writing (comics or otherwise) influence your approach to talking about being a mother, or was this intuitive? I’m thinking of not only showing all of the ways children are horrible, but finely honing your instincts as a humorist in crafting great gags.
KR: I love the way Louie C.K. talks about parenting. Not that many of my favorite writers/comics/cartoonists write about parenting. Lauren Weinstein, Glynnis Fawkes, and Summer Pierre are great. I’d say my approach to most aspects of comics is intuitive. I don’t go in with a plan. It all evolves while I work.
RC: You tackle a lot of powerful emotions in your strips and don’t pull punches, but there’s always a certain sense of restraint, even detachment in your comics at times. You have a dry wit, for example, but you also never play up even the most intense emotional scenes. They have the same structure and tone as any other scene, like for example strips where you’re crying, or even strips where you’re angry at Xia. Is this a deliberate strategy or a function of your personality manifesting in your work?
KR: I’d say it’s mostly my personality, but it’s deliberate too in the sense that I’m aware of it and I don’t try to change what’s natural. I think a little detachment can let people in by allowing them to react in their own way. I’m not totally controlling the way it’s read. Some writers over-explain and I’d rather under-explain and risk being misunderstood. Each event is reduced to a small piece that represents the whole.
For example, one page that people respond to in different ways is the one where I’m in the bathroom while naked Xia sits on the toilet. She says “This house is getting naughtier and naughtier.” You can figure out that she’s done something wrong, and maybe I did too. She ends the short conversation with “Don’t hurt me mommy, I’m just a little girl.” Clearly, there’s a lot of context that was left out. Some people laugh at that last line and probably see it as Xia exaggerating. When it happened, it broke my heart. Was she really afraid of me? I probably had forgotten that she was just a little girl and was treating her like a monster. I thought the conversation would have more power out of context, because the context makes it too specific. Many parents probably have a similar moment with their kid, and I wanted it to be relatable.
I use vignettes and unrelated stories that are like snapshots instead of continuous stories. I never lead the reader from one scene to the next. I use isolated scenes because the stuff in between is cumbersome and boring to write. Also, I think in fragments and they seem related to me, often thematically, not in terms of time and sequence. I’m not trying to build towards a conclusion, so when I think of structure, I’m aware of varying the mood as I go.
RC: How have you changed your approach in depicting Xia as she’s grown older, and how do you anticipate changing that approach again as she grows older?
KR: I address this with a couple stories in Sunburning. I don’t feel that it’s ok to draw bathroom scenes anymore, unless it’s done very differently. I’m trying not to embarrass her. She can read now, so all the content in my books is in her hands. I’m concerned about her reading scenes about me that don’t involve her. I don’t want to alter the way she perceives me.
RC: Do you intend to keep writing autobio focused on motherhood in short bursts, or is there a longer narrative you want to tackle at some point?
KR: Yes, I plan to continue using the same structure for now. I did write a rough draft of a memoir very recently but decided it wasn’t right for me. I’m pulling some of the stories out and separating everything. Having one theme that connected everything was not the way I wanted to think about that time. I’d rather experience my memories as vignettes. I don’t think in a linear way. There’s also never a resolution in my books, which is something that kind of defines memoir.
RC: You openly talk about having bipolar disorder (BPD) in your comics, though in the past you were reluctant to discuss it much because you weren’t sure you readers were interested. How do you feel about this now?
KR: After I wrote that page a few people (including you) encouraged me to write about it more. I’ve found a few more ways to go about it, but I’m still wary about making what amounts to a list of symptoms. It’s hard to make moods visual rather than verbal. Actually, it’s hard to verbalize them too. If I can find more interesting ways of communicating these things, I will.
RC: Did having post-partum depression (PPD) influence your later decision to talk more openly about being bipolar?
KR: Yes, definitely. The post-partum depression led directly to my bipolar diagnosis. I had a depression every year or so leading up to this, but I never felt as out of control or desperate as I did at that time. I couldn’t be honest about my life anymore if I left out that overwhelming factor of my life.
It was harder to tell people in person than it was to put it out there in writing. There was something about the specific label “bipolar” that I really debated. At first I was just writing about depression, anxiety, and irritability which is all in the normal range for people. Once it’s labelled it often means lithium, psychiatrists, maybe hospitals and delusions. I guess I wanted people to know that it’s not just some bad moods. I do have to work on it every day and my life is more unpredictable because of it.
RC: Was drawing your strips about PPD at all therapeutic, or did you find it to be grueling?
KR: I think it was therapeutic to be honest and to not have to carry this big, awful secret around. I wrote a few details about it, but I know I didn’t delve into the really dark parts. I can’t stand to think about what it was actually like. I don’t think that would be therapeutic and I imagine people would think I was being too dramatic. One of my biggest sources of shame is my stronger reaction to stress than typical people. I was traumatized by my miscarriage and other people suffer through 5-7 miscarriages or stillbirths before having a baby. There are always those stupid comparisons in my head, making me feel weak. When I had Xia I was very sleep-deprived, which is another major trigger for me. I felt totally crazy, trapped, and alone and I hated myself and desperately wanted to fast-forward or rewind a couple years. I knew I didn’t want to kill myself, but I didn’t want to be alive in that life either. So, it is therapeutic to write about these things in my indirect way, but I don’t want to vividly imagine myself going through those times again.
RC: Is drawing in general a therapeutic activity for you?
KR: Yes. I love to draw, even though it’s really exhausting. I can feel something good happening in my brain that doesn’t happen otherwise. It’s the best way for me to meditate. I feel happy for a moment when I hear the word “draw.”
RC: For someone with social anxiety, you seem to engage in a lot of “opposite action” techniques. You teach art, you go to conventions and you’re social and you seem to have a lot of friends. Is all of this a concerted effort on your part to combat that anxiety, or it just an intuitive reaction on how to deal with depression & anxiety?
KR: I do engage in opposite action techniques every day. I’ve had cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. I know my anxiety will get worse if I constantly pick the more comfortable option.I think bipolar has its own perverse system of opposite action built in though. If you’re feeling really depressed, it’ll launch you into something else, like rage. There! Now you’re not depressed anymore. How do you feel?
I married Scott because I knew he would make me go to things with him. It’s what I’ve hated about him many times, but some of it is good for me. I knew I would never stop being an artist if I were with him. I love him too of course, which I’m sure really comes through in my comics.
RC: It’s the most subtle part of your comic, your relationship with him. One gets a tremendous sense of ease with each other, no matter what.
KR: No one’s ever said that! That’s wonderful to hear. I was being sarcastic because my depiction of Scott is so unsentimental, but we are certainly at ease with each other.
RC: What reactions have you received from other mothers and/or other people with BPD who’ve read your work?
KR: Some moms have said I helped them feel better about what a terrible job they’re doing. That’s a backhanded compliment, but I’ll take it. Many parents have said I’m recording their lives. I have received feedback from three other people with BPD. It’s a pretty small section of the population and a lot of people aren’t open about it.
RC: Obvious question: have you read Ellen Forney’s comic memoir Marbles? It’s all about her BPD, and her take on the experience is different than yours.
KR: Yes, I have. I think her book is a great introduction to what bipolar is. It would be helpful to parents whose kids were just diagnosed. It’s autobiographical, but I still didn’t feel like I knew much about her personally. It’s very focused on the topic.
RC: What was this year’s Small Press Expo (SPX) like for you? You were pretty active in giving out free copies of your latest issue of Powdered Milk and really engaging people. Was this energizing or draining, or some combo thereof? Now that you’ve had time to reflect on it, what was the experience like of winning an Ignatz? I’m especially interested because of past strips you’ve done about SPX in particular that talk about how anxiety-inducing these shows are for you.
KR: SPX was amazing. I was a judge for the Ignatz this year, so for months leading up to it I had been reading as much as I could. This was the first time I had a table there and was nominated. I made 500 copies of my comic and handed them out on Saturday. I felt very awkward about that, but people were nice and happy to get a free comic. Other than that, all the socializing at SPX was fun and energizing for me this year.
Winning the Ignatz was one of the most shocking experiences in my life. The whole time I was giving out my comics I wasn’t even thinking about winning. I was just using the nomination as an opportunity to publicize my work. I can’t believe I didn’t cry when Gina [Wynbrandt] announced I had won. My senses kind of shut down. I didn’t have anything planned to say and I forgot to thank anyone. The happiness kicked in after the ceremony and I felt pretty high for days following. My brick was taken from me at the airport, but I was too happy for that to even bother me much. When I wrote the comic about not wanting to go to SPX three years ago, I didn’t know nearly as many people in the comics world. Expos were really awkward because it was constant newness and nothing familiar. Now they feel more like reunions. I still don’t like to travel, but the destination is worthwhile.