A Conversation with Andrea Leigh Shockling about Subjective Line Weight

Subjective Line Weight is an ongoing project from cartoonist Andrea Leigh Shockling about how women and femmes think about their bodies and move them through space and over time. It’s about expressing thoughts and feelings and concerns that are often unsaid. The project has tackled stories of gender transition and pregnancy, weight and growing up mixed race, postpartum depression and eating disorders and more. After reading the entire series in the course of a day to prepare for our conversation, while I was impressed by her artistic skills, how she finds a different style and approach for each story, the ways she manages to adapt and find new ways to convey these interior and often abstract thoughts, the radical empathy of the project is what stayed with me most.

In addition to Subjective Line Weight, she’s just launched a related project, Gradient Scale, has drawn a pitch for a graphic novel, and makes a weekly comic for the Pittsburgh Current newspaper. She also draws the ongoing project Mom Privilege. In the midst of all that, she was kind enough to talk to me and answer a few questions about her project.

I’m curious, what’s your background? Because I know that you make a lot of different kinds of art beyond just comics.

I’m a scenic designer by training. I went to Carnegie Mellon School of Drama for scenic design about a hundred years ago. I happen to believe that comics and theater have a tremendous amount in common. Obviously the temporal factor is different but when you talk about stage pictures, it’s very similar to when you’re organizing the page layout. The ways that the panels of a comic move to me are very similar to the way the staging of a show moves throughout the story. Collaborative storytelling has been my focus for twenty years. I don’t do a tremendous amount of theater anymore. I went from doing theater to teaching theater and art and then I got away from that about four years now. In that time I got back into storytelling myself. The genesis of something like Subjective Line Weight and all of my other comics projects really has its roots in the way that I have always been interested in telling stories and using visual storytelling to be more compelling and more successful than just words.

People have written about the similarities between the comics panel and the proscenium arch, and I think that in comics and theater there’s a pseudo-realism that is the default.

It’s also inherently collaborative. Even in some of my autobio stuff that is about me and in which I am the primary creator, there is the relationship with the audience that is inherently part of the creation. To me, that is what even a singularly produced comic has in common with theater. I’m creating comics with the intention of them being shared and read and so the relationship with the audience is part of the collaboration.

You made an autobiographical introduction to Subjective Line Weight, but where did this idea of soliciting ideas from others around this idea come from?

In some of my other autobio stuff I’ve talked about my relationship with my body. It’s fraught with disaster and it’s not a particularly positive relationship. It’s something that I really really struggle with and have for most of my life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel poorly about my body. I look back at my teenage self and I just want to give her a big hug because I was adorable and I had no comprehension of that. I had no ability to see that in myself. Over the years as I’ve gained more weight and lost touch with who I now recognize was the “cute” version of myself, I can’t help but wonder who I would have been without that dominating my life and my worldview. I realized that I’m not alone in that sentiment. Subjective Line Weight started as an opportunity for me to talk with other women about their bodies and the realization that we all have really complicated conflicting feelings about ourselves. Even somebody who I might project onto them beauty and confidence and all of the things I aspire to and I wish that I had, deep down inside they are just as fucked up as I am. We’re all struggling with the way that we feel about our bodies and our bodies moving through society. I started having more and more of these conversations with people. I have a closed private group on Facebook of friends and acquaintances talking about this sort of thing. I believe that the more that we normalize these stories about our bodies, the better we feel. It doesn’t solve the problem that is women’s bodies are not our own. We can’t master that problem just by sharing our stories, but it’s cathartic and also very validating to recognize yourself in somebody else’s experience.

So it began with this open call to friends of mine, none of whom were creators in their own right. I’m not talking about reaching out to other comics writers or artists. It’s not collaborative in that nature. It started out, hey, if you have a story about your body that you want to share, hit me up and we can do this together. The first several chapters of Subjective Line Weight were exactly that. They were stream of consciousness, poignant, not always positive, and not always resolved stories. Many times they end up being almost poetic, as opposed to prose. They’ve come to me as conversations, text messages, e-mails. They’ve come to me as very formal documents that somebody has obviously spent a lot of time on. In every situation it’s a woman who has recognized that in sharing her story there is some shared strength to draw from that can help her and then help somebody else. The stories have covered weight gain and primarily been about moving your overweight body through a society that is absolutely uninterested in having a fat person around. The subject matter has grown to include transition stories, stories that talk about race and the relationship between our bodies and our racial identity, the intersectional complication of being a young black woman with an eating disorder. I’ve had women talk about how their weight has influenced their medical diagnosis or lack thereof. I’ve had women talk about how their desire to be the second half to somebody else has been influenced by their weight and the relationship with their body first and foremost colors their desire to just feel wanted and loved. How difficult it is to find that when you don’t love yourself.

So people send you all sorts of things from lengthy text messages to longer and more formal pieces. After you get that, what’s the process of adapting it into comics?

There’s a quick process of reading over it and sitting with it. That’s about my initial response, the initial visualization of the story that is being told. In some cases there’s a visual language that particularly works for the story. I had a young woman, Selene, talk about her battle with anorexia as a dancer. That chapter was done in the style of Edgar Degas and that seemed like a no-brainer because it was this very unfortunately typical story of an overbearing instructor within the ballet community that resulted in a lifelong eating disorder. The beauty of what we experience through dance and then the reality of somebody who is afraid to eat fried food as a 35 year old woman. In other cases the stories are much more metaphorical and the images become more fantastical. I think that’s been the result more recently and that probably speaks to how the project has grown over the past couple of years. The opportunity that I have to share these stories in the medium of comics is exciting to me and so that initial time of sitting with the story and my process has been, how do I translate that into a comic. I say the stories are written by the contributors because I’m using their words, but I’m adapting those words and then drawing them, so they’re written by the contributor but they’re edited, adapted, and drawn by me.

I assume that initial reading for you is about thinking about how to tell the story and identifying what jumps out at you in the text.

I tend to work really fast in terms of setting up the layout and blocking it out. The flow of the words is really important to me. Once that relatively fast breakdown occurs, then I can go and spend time on the imagery. I don’t think about things like line weight or color at the beginning. Well, in some cases I do because in some cases it’s inherent to the story, but it might be more about my quick impression of the way that the story is going to move on the page. Just like I would be doing quick thumbnails if I were breaking down scenes in a play.

Once you have that text and then the breakdowns, I would imagine there’s a lot of variation as far as how much of the text you use.

Starving Away the Black was the longest chapter that I’ve done and I broke it into three parts. That was a story written by a friend of mine, Susan, and I felt like it was incredibly important for that story to be complete and in her exact words from beginning to end. It was her experience as a young black woman with an eating disorder and the disconnect between her experience with anorexia and the media’s portrayal of skinny white girls who are suffering from eating disorders. That is probably the most literal of all of the chapters of Subjective Line Weight. There’s not as much of the metaphorical imagery that I got into later because it’s a pretty straightforward and really raw story that stands on its own two legs. Susan and I went to undergrad together and I felt like her awareness of the way that the story needed to be presented was something that I had to be really respectful and really aware of. In other cases I’ve done some editing. I never add to the story. I’ve played around with different methods of communicating that these are other people’s words but ultimately I don’t think it matters because there’s such a breadth of stories now that it’s clear that these are not all mine. In some cases people are interested in being anonymous. In other cases they really think that the ownership of the story is important for their own sense of self. The way that they’re telling their own story is primarily first person on the page and I try to be as clear with that as possible.

Starving Away the Black was the most literal I think of all the stories and I think Casey Gilly’s story about postpartum depression is as abstract as you’ve gotten.

Both of Casey’s stories were beautifully written, so the challenge for me was to really make sure that what I was drawing was as lovely as what she was saying. She’s a professional writer and has experience with comics so it was a very different process for the two of us. She was much more involved than most of the other contributors have been, just because she and I enjoy working with one another. But you’re right. She wrote one about her pregnancy body and she wrote another one about her battle with postpartum depression and the detachment from her body that she was feeling. It was tragically beautifully and there was something about the need for it to be as unrealistic as possible. Because it was a reality in her head that she was communicating. It was something that she alone was experiencing and that was challenging but ultimately I think really successful because we didn’t try to do anything that was as literal as some of the other stories.

I’ve actually been revisiting some of the older ones and redrawing them for a printed collection. I think the evolution in my approach is really striking because my own abilities have improved and my own feelings about my role in this project have evolved. I take this very seriously. It’s such a great honor to be entrusted with somebody’s deepest feelings about their body and the way that their body intersects with society’s expectations for our bodies. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how this needs to be the best thing that I can do for this person’s story. I have an obligation to the writer of the story, who owns this experience, to be as true to that as possible.

As you were describing Casey’s writing as visual, but it was also abstract, and those two elements suggest a theatrical approach.

It does. I have a couple more stories in the docket I’m getting ready to start working on, so I’m always thinking about the next approach or the next kind of story. What kind of story is missing? What needs to be told next? I don’t always have control over that. I can’t necessarily say, does anybody have a fat story? I guess I could but that’s not as authentic as what I’m going for here. It’s more about finding that person who really needs to share and working with them to come up with something that is a product of their experience.

There may be a couple people in your life that you might feel comfortable revealing your deepest thoughts about your body to, but it’s just not enough. There should be more opportunity to address these things that are much more commonly felt than I think we all realize. It’s a stigma thing. If you can reduce the stigma of pushing back and talking about the way that society just beats you down about your body, then ultimately it makes it better for all of us.

Do you show the writers what you’re working on at different stages of the process? Are you going back and forth with them?

With Casey Gilly we went back and forth because it was a unique and fun experience for us to be able to do that. Most of the people I have had stories from are not professional writers, and have no experience with comics. An example that goes against that is I worked with Lilah Sturges on a transition story and the way that her relationship to her body and the way that the influence of societal expectations on women’s bodies influenced her perception of her own body, both before and after her transition. It was really important to me that I capture that in a way that she felt was authentic and accurate. I went back and forth a lot with her. For the most part I share as I go.

The story that I published recently with Daria Brashear was a transition story. I shared with zir each of the chapters within zir story. I would send zir a bundle at a time and then zie would send feedback. Mostly it was, that looks great. It’s not the same as making comics with a creator/collaborator just because the stakes are different, the roles are different. It’s collaborative like a playwright in a new works festival. There’s so much giving on the side of the contributor. The women who have written their stories are so generous with their words and the trust is so significant. I have the opportunity to do whatever I want with it and I have this body of work that speaks to how I’m going to be kind and tell their story with intention. I’m going to be respectful and we’re going to do this together, but it’s still my project.

Using the example of you’re the cast and crew working with a playwright, you’re trying to be true to their words and intentions, and you’re not giving them veto power over anything, but you want them to say, actually, this here is wrong.

Absolutely. I always show it to them before it’s published and I ask if there’s any objections that they have. I worked with a woman, Lorenda, whose story was about growing up mixed race. The first drawing that I did of her when she was younger, she said, you have me looking awfully Caucasian there. She was kidding but she was not kidding. She was absolutely one hundred per cent correct. We went back and forth. She sent me a couple pictures of her when she was younger. I hardly ever do likenesses. That’s not the intention of the comic, but in her case it was. Because the whole story was about how she was standing in between these various cultures and various cultural experiences, it was of utmost importance that I capture that visually. I made the adjustments and she was awesome about making sure that I was accountable for that visual representation of her story. It was important to capture that conflicted feeling of her body not being one or the other, and how that reflected in her appearance not be whitewashed.

You mentioned that you were redrawing early chapters and you have your eye on collecting them.

I would love to talk with publishers who are interested in collecting and distributing them because obviously what I can do online and at comics shows is limited. The response is always incredibly positive at shows but the scale of what I can do on my own, self-publishing and distributing, is limited. I’ve done one small collection and I’m doing another for this year’s shows, but I would just like to be able to do more of this kind of work. Some of the older ones it’s just a matter of cleaning up my artwork. There’s nothing different in the way that I want to tell the story, I just want it to look better. [laughs]

I’m looking towards the future with another project called Gradient Scale. If Subjective Line Weight is stories from women and femmes sharing about their bodies, Gradient Scale is stories from men and masc folks talking about their bodies. This is in response to so many men and masc individuals who have come to me and said, how does my story fit in to this? Well, it doesn’t fit into Subjective Line Weight because that was – and will continue to be – a safe space for women. This is another recognition of the fact that all of our bodies are subjected to the same kind of influence from society and many, many people – not just women – have been caught up in that. The first Gradient Scale story is about my son’s eating disorder. I have more contributors lined up for that and I’m sharing their stories about the ways that as men the expectations of what their bodies should be don’t necessarily line up with how they are either.

You posted on twitter the other day that you were also working on a graphic novel.

I’m drawing a graphic novel called Swallowing the Moon, written by Rae Epstein. We’ve been working on that since last August or September. It’s an adult fairy tale and it has all the of the fantastical elements that you would expect and the drama and the romance and it’s very queer and it’s just a wonderful, wonderful story. The initial pitch is ready and we’re going to see what happens with it.

You’re not doing much else, so it’s a good start to launch a new project.

Ha! The pitch is finished, colored by Nechama Frier and lettered by Aditya Bidikar. I’m not actively working on it until we see where things land. We’ll see where it goes and how much more of it I get to work on. In the meantime I’m just chugging away at Subjective Line Weight. I also do a weekly comic for the Pittsburgh Current newspaper. Some of them are available online on my site, but not all of them.

What kind of comics are you drawing for the weekly?

They’re observational or autobio. They’re not funny ha-ha; they’re wry, observational humor. It’s what you would expect from an alt weekly paper. [laughs] But sometimes they are very Subjective Line Weight-ish. The autobio drive in me is strong and so I tend to be as candid about certain struggles in my comics as I can be. [laughs]

In work like The Best Year of My Life, you come off as very unafraid to share and be open and honest.

That was sort of the point. But again, done with an audience in mind. I try really hard for it to not be just naval gazing. Which is why something like the development of Subjective Line Weight and the growth into Gradient Scale is really appealing to me, because here was my starting point and here’s where we are and here’s where we’re expanding to. That feels like a very natural progression as opposed to looking back or staying stagnant. The realization that there wasn’t a space within what I was already doing to accommodate this, so I needed to make a new space for it. That there was a need that I could humbly attempt to meet, but I had to make that space

One of the things that really drew me into reading all of Subjective Line Weight and your other work once I found it, is that with fiction I’m very sympathetic to the author if the story doesn’t quite come together, but with autobio I’m much harsher because I feel like if you’re not being brutally honest, then you’re wasting both my time and yours.

Exactly. If you haven’t done the work to admit all of the terrible things you’ve done, good luck, because we’re still waiting for you to do that. [laughs]

And the thing I learned from going to therapy is that coming to that understanding is work.

So much work. Speaking of collecting projects, the longest thing that I’ve been working on is Mom Privilege. That is my response to my mom’s death. There are things about her that I only learned after her death. It has absolutely influenced my grieving process and my relationship to my mom and my feelings as a mother. I am as transparent as possible with my son. I am as open about all of this stuff as I can be because I grew up with the opposite. I grew up with my mom telling me everything is fine, just move on. We had these moments of trauma in my life that were never unpacked. They were never dealt with. We just said it was fine and then we moved on. I look back on my life and therapy is a lot of work, but not going to therapy is a lot more work. Hiding from your problems doesn’t actually make them go away. It just kills you in the end because they all pile up and then you’re only left with the really difficult stuff that really gets to you. It comes back to you in the end. To me there is such an obvious connection to the types of comics that I create now. The fact that I had this traumatic experience of losing my mom and losing my long-term relationship at the same time and moving across the country and having to work on myself and do the work in therapy and who I am now and who I want to be – talking about that is very much part of my process. If I’m not honest about the struggle of being who I want to be and putting that down on paper, then what am I even doing?

If we’re not honest about the trauma we experienced and the work of getting through it, then we aren’t be honest about being happy. It’s all connected.

My feelings about all of this stuff are pretty much out there, and my process of working through those feelings is pretty much all out there. My reliance on the audience is a selfish part of my process, but I am open about that. I am transparent about the fact that I’m putting this out there for you because I need to share it and then we can talk about it. I think that is something that is very true with my relationships, my friendships, my relationships with therapists. It’s not enough to share, we’ve got to share and talk about it afterwards. I’m looking for the resolution. I’m looking for something to come of this shared pain. I guess that’s true with Subjective Line Weight, too. Something to come from this shared experience. This recognition that I’m not alone. I’m not the only person who hates their body. Fuck being blindly body positive, I’m just trying to get through the day. All of that stuff is very real to me and I’m doing a disservice to the people I’m working with if I’m not honest about it myself.