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“A Good Metaphor Will Last You Your Whole Life, and Longer”: An Interview with Madeleine Jubilee Saito

Madeleine Jubilee Saito describes her own work better than I could. “I'm interested in a lot of things,” she writes on her website, “including friendship, formal experimentation, medieval sacred comics, the built environment, Love big & small, imagined communities, the feeling of home, climate justice, the psalms, the material world, and the sacred.”

All of these interests come through in the work she has published online and in a series of minicomics over the past several years. Madeleine’s comics somehow manage to be empathic and soothing without ever becoming maudlin or saccharine, an especially impressive feat given that she often works within the confines of just four panels.

Madeleine and I co-edited the anthology Warmer: A Collection of Comics About Climate Change for the Fearful & Hopeful together in 2017, and she has become one of my closest friends in comics, so consider the entirety of what follows a Conflict of Interest Reservoir. But Madeleine is also a deeply thoughtful cartoonist, a leading modern practitioner of the classic four-panel strip format, and past due for what I believe is her first longform interview.

Andrew White: You grew up in the Midwest, which might be guessed from the flat landscapes and rolling hills that often appear in your comics. How do you think your background and biography affects your work?

Madeleine Jubilee Saito: That's hard! There's definitely the landscape, like you said. I grew up in northern Illinois, between super small towns outside Freeport and later in Rockford as a teenager. There's a lot of post-industrial grimness, a lot of chain stores and ugliness, but when you're driving in the really rural areas between places there's just this big gorgeous flatness and giant sky with a few little moments of trees.

I think that's where I learned to love the feeling of a big empty space with a small, poignant moment in it. And as an adult that's one of my favorite visual rhythms.

Otherwise, I'm not sure. I've had people tell me my work feels warm, or earnest. I think that's something I'd associate with the White Midwestern culture I grew up in. There's probably other things too—maybe a quietness?

Do you see Midwestern-ness in my work?

I wouldn’t know, I guess! I’ve never visited the Midwest, let alone spent significant time there. But I do see similarities between your work and that of other notable Midwestern cartoonists like Frank King and Kevin Huizenga - the rolling hills, of course, as well as the quietness you mentioned.

Okay, after the pandemic is over we can do a Midwestern comics road trip and I’ll show you all the gas stations and grain silos and extremely flat horizons with bits of trees.

And wow. That notable Midwestern cartoonists article that you linked is incredible. I hadn’t seen that. I was deeply shaped by some of the artists mentioned: Kevin Huizenga and Chris Ware, in particular. I spent a few years in college just copying Chris Ware. I still think about him whenever I draw snow. And I’ve always been drawn to the things that Spiegelman names as Midwestern—the quietness, the sparseness, the interest in the mundane.

I also feel like whenever we’re talking about “Midwestern-ness” it’s important to be clear that what we’re talking about, usually, is White people in the Midwest (including me, and all the cartoonists mentioned in the article, if I’m not mistaken). And most of what’s named as “Midwestern-ness” is really Midwestern Whiteness.

I think a lot about the Midwest, and White Midwestern culture in particular. It’s where I’m from, and in a lot of ways I grew up in reaction to it. I always felt intensely out of place there. There’s lots of gifts it gave me—warmth and earnestness, for starters.

But in my experience, that insistent ordinariness, the quietness—it’s very related to White resentment. There’s a deep defensiveness and fragility. Something about being descended from people who committed atrocities against Native people in order to move onto their homeland in the mid-1800s.

I’m probably too close to see all this in my own work, but I hope I channel some of the good bits, the beauty. And I’d like my comics to oppose and dismantle the racist, colonizing bits.

None of this is particularly new, I don’t think—a piece I enjoyed from 2017 that touches on a lot of this is On being Midwestern.

You've told me before that, unlike many cartoonists, you didn't spend your childhood and adolescence completely enveloped in the world of comics. What was your relationship with comics growing up? When did you decide to start seriously making them?

Hm—I think I remember this conversation, and I think we were specifically talking about manga. That unlike you, my work doesn't come from a manga lineage. But I did read comics growing up—I was big into newspaper comics as a kid, especially Calvin & Hobbes. I also read a lot of Marvel, especially X-men. And then I was in high school during that amazing time in webcomics around 2009. I got really into Dinosaur Comics, Kate Beaton, A Softer World, Pictures for Sad Children.

I started making comics in high school. I think my first serious attempts might've been for hourly comics day. I loved Kate Beaton's autobio comics, and it was very fun to borrow her tone to make comics about whatever I did in a day in high school. I did a lot of autobio comics, as a way of looking at myself, coming to understand myself. A lot of them were just imitating Kate Beaton and Alison Bechdel, who I loved. I think that was my entrance.

I've always liked how comics are so irresistible. More than any other medium. Telling your friend about riding the school bus? Very boring. But when you make a little autobio comic about riding the school bus and looking out the window? It's suddenly this very special, memorable event, full of meaning and beauty.

All of your work is available on your website, but some of your earliest pieces are missing. How do you think back on that early work now? Do you remember when you started making comics that felt mature, or complete, or like you were saying what you wanted to say?

I think I don't have my super early stuff up on my website because it's not where I wanted it to be in terms of drawing. Or pacing, or tone.

My first piece that feels complete is the earliest piece on my site, You Will Return To Places, from 2016. It was one of the first times I tried a combination of things that I do a lot now—using the four-panel format and writing very earnestly in a personal symbolic language to someone I love. I think that was one of the first times I was able to break through this barrier of trying to say something smart or important, and into saying something that felt True.

Some of your earlier work was journalistic - do you ever think about returning to that mode?

I’d love to make more journalistic work! I think when done well, comics journalism can be so incredibly compelling. A few weeks ago I was reading Meg O’Shea’s recent work on international adoption, and it made me want to do longer essays like that again. I think she’s kind of a virtuoso. Plus the way she uses color is so good. I want to do that!

Do you see a line from that type of work to your recent comics focused on climate change, even if the latter isn’t specifically intended to inform?

That’s such an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about that. My more journalistic comics and my poetic comics feel very different, but I guess they both come from this compulsion to tell people things, to draw others’ attention.

(Kind of like what I mentioned earlier—the irresistibility of comics.)

I think I first saw your work when you participated in an early iteration of 30 Days of Comics, an idea originated by the cartoonist and writer Derik Badman where you make one comic a day for the month of November. You still do this every year, and sometimes it's your biggest public body of work for the year. What do you like about this exercise? Where does your 30 Days work sit for you on the spectrum between 'serious work' and experimentation?

I'm pretty anxious-avoidant about making work. Like plenty of people. I have a fruitful inner life and lots of ideas, but it's relatively rare for any of them to come into existence because making things is very scary. With a few exceptions—there have been pieces I've made that have been so easy and fun, from beginning to end. But for the most part, I find it terrifying to start. The main way I've found to make work, for me, is to set up a system where not-making-work is scarier than making-work. That's the main reason I like 30dayscomics so much. It's not that I love daily practice in particular—but just that it's one of a few practices that consistently helps me actually make work.

What were those easy and fun pieces? Do you think there are ways to recreate those conditions, beyond scaring yourself into working?

I made a comic for my now-husband when we first met, and that was the easiest thing I ever made. And some of my comics for friends over the years. Whenever I’m working from a place of clear and overflowing affection—that’s when it’s easiest. Other emotions are harder.

I’d love to find a way to recreate those conditions. But I haven’t yet. I’ll let you know when I do.

On a related note, you sometimes seem comfortable--or at least willing--to go for months without making any finished comics. As we've talked about many times, this is crazy to me! Are you thinking about comics in these periods? Are you drawing? How do you know you're ready to return to making finished work?

Hah! This is one of the things that I most admire about you—the way that you are so unafraid of Making Things. Or maybe you are afraid, but you do it anyway? I wish I was making stuff with the consistency that you do.

Like I said, I think it's a matter of a pretty mundane case of being scared of making things. Because if I make something, it might be bad.

I’m more afraid of not making things! Making comics, when it’s going well, is when I feel most centered and focused and like myself. So I chase that feeling, which overpowers the fear of making something bad - though of course I relate to that as well. But on the other hand I really envy your slower pace sometimes. Even the way that, as shown in some of your recent Instagram posts recording your drawing process, you can draw and redraw the same panel to get it just right. I just don’t have the patience for that, although I’m trying to improve on that front.

That’s so interesting to hear about your process. Everyone is scared! I’m glad that you’re able to feel centered and focused and Andrew-like when you’re working. That makes sense to me.

Also, you know, part of it for me is the constraints of working a fulltime job under capitalism and also trying to be a good friend and housemate and partner. There's not always much time for anything else for me. I don't know if I'm comfortable going months without making anything—99% of the time I wish I had a work rhythm that was more like yours!–but I'm trying to give myself grace for the fact that this is how things are.

I'm always thinking about comics, even when I'm not making anything. I don't draw a lot for fun. But I do think I'm storing up things, pondering them in my heart, in the dry periods between making comics. Visual things, color palettes, snippets of poetry, ideas. I have to tell myself that periods without making work are an important part of whatever I'm doing.

You've been making exclusively four panel comics for several years now. How did you first come to that format? What's your relationship with it now? Would you still make four panel comics if Instagram allowed rectangular images?

I started using the four-panel format in 2014—I think I just printed out a bunch of pieces of computer paper with four squares on them and drew on those for a while. Four panels always feels like a good rhythm—more space than a two-panel comic, but not too much. And I've always loved the way they allow radial symmetry.

I'm not sure how I came to that format! I probably saw someone else doing it and thought it was cool and copied them, though I forget who that might've been. I think Alyssa Berg has been making four-panel poetry comics as early as 2012—it's very likely that I saw some of her stuff on Comics Workbook, and I've always been super inspired by her work. So it could've been her.

And I would definitely still make four-panel comics if Instagram changed its format—I think it's such a fruitful constraint for me. It forces me to be extremely concise, and I can make a finished piece in a few hours. And there's so much wonderful potential for overlapping things, balancing things across from each other, bringing things together at the center or keeping them apart at the edges.

There's also some spiritual / symbolic meaning for me in the four-panel structure…  I'm going to talk about some Christian stuff now, if that's okay.

So, I use the form of a cross to delineate my four-panel comics. And that's in part because it expresses a core assumption of my work: that regardless of what is happening—whether it's a joyful comic or a despairing comic or a raging comic—it's always underlaid and defined by the cross. "All things were created through Christ, and for him; he is before all things, and in him all things hold together" is a sustaining text for me. And I guess I understand that to mean, in part, that the center of everything is a deep and generative love that is at once hidden and visible. The whole material world was made in that love, and all things are held together in that love, and someday everything is going to be healed in that love.

It still feels like a fresh metaphor, and I don't see myself moving away from it anytime soon.

I think most of my readers don't read the cross in my work as a religious symbol, which is fine—it's actually important to me that non-Christian people can read my work and see themselves in it.

And back to Instagram—I actually really don't like instagram for my four-panel comics. It's a bit too small, and always feels a little restrictive. I feel like things get hard to read, unless you write really big. I feel like instagram actually works best with one-panel-per-slide comics. Chanel Miller (@chanel_miller) and Simon Hanselmann (@simon.hanselmann) come to mind as people who have been making Instagram comics in 2020 that I feel are perfectly suited to Instagram's constraints.

I'd really like to make longer scrolling comics again sometime soon! I still think all the time about Sophia Foster-Dimino's panel layouts. How she uses the page. I love her experimental panel setups and her long scrolling pieces. Everything she makes rules. I'd like to stretch out vertically a little more!

Let’s talk a little more about Christian stuff! You’re fairly open in your online presence, and similarly open in person, about the fact that religion is important to you and often a key topic in your work. But as you say, it’s also important to you that your work be accessible to anyone regardless of their own religiosity. Can you say more about the place of religion in your comics, and about maintaining that balance where the work is still approachable for anyone?

That’s such a good question.

I think my Christianity is such a core part of who I am—what I think is beautiful and interesting and worthy of attention, what I’m drawn to, what I’m mad about, what I hope for… it’s all part of it. I guess to me, my comics are just 100% religion. And so’s my life.

Though like I said, I want people who aren’t religious to be with me in my work. In the same way that I want to share my life with people I love who aren’t religious.

But the balance of wanting my work to be approachable to everyone, with what I just said… Obviously, that is something that I want, and I hope that’s the case. But also, who knows! When I try too hard to anticipate how everyone will receive something, I just get flustered. Most of the time I think I just trust my intuition and hope for the best.

When I do occasionally share stuff that is specifically church-work—like I made an immersive set of stations of the cross this past Spring, with obviously Christian iconography—I want to make sure that I’m sharing things in a way that’s mindful of people’s trauma with those sorts of images. Though I’m sure I get it wrong sometimes.

Speaking of stations of the cross—I guess another way that I see comics & Christianity intersecting for me is that I place myself in a lineage of Christian sacred cartoonists. I think lots of pre-modern Christian sacred images are comics—like scenes from the life of Christ, and multi-panel altarpieces, and some of Hildegard of Bingen’s illustrated visions. So much of Christian sacred art is sequential. And it feels good to place myself as part of that lineage.

 

I thought we could talk a bit about some specific comics that I think are notable in your bibliography. First, "You Will Return to Places" (2016) is an early example of something that I think continues to be a part of your practice: making comics that are for a specific person in your life. Can you describe that process, and how you came to that approach?

Yes! I've found that when I try really hard to say something super Deep and True And Universal it comes out flat and cloying. But when I try to just locate one specific intense feeling for someone? Then it comes out True. I've found that the more specific I can be—with the person and the feeling—the stronger the work feels to me, in the end.

My process has changed over time, but usually it's something like this: I'll sit down, put on a specific playlist that makes me feel grounded and expansive. And I'll try to search internally for any strong feelings of affection I have. If there's something I want to gift to someone, or something I want to say to them. Once I have a feeling, I'll search for any images or metaphors that resonate with that, any personal symbols I share with that person. And then I'll write out a bunch of text, not editing, just trying to get that feeling.

Once I have a bunch of images and text I'll arrange them onto the four-panel format, building out the rhythm, the suspension and release.

I made You Will Return to Places out of very strong love for my friend. It was right after we graduated college, and I wanted to tell them that I loved them and wanted to live near them, but also convey this overpowering feeling I had that they would be enveloped by love and grace wherever they lived, even if it was far away from me.

I actually haven't made work with this process in a few months—I've spent a lot of 2020 feeling kind of numb, and it's been harder to access the part of myself I need for this kind of work.

Do you struggle in this practice with the issues that cartoonists often face with more explicitly narrative autobio work? For example, getting consent from the subject of the comic to make work about them, or feeling comfortable sharing personal details about yourself?

I think using personal symbols is a way of circumventing those issues for me. I can be making work about very personal things, but the specifics aren’t accessible to most readers. They’re immediately accessible to the person they’re for. And the feeling is accessible to most readers. But the names, the specifics, aren’t.

I would call "Housefires" (2017) your first longform narrative. Do you agree? I know you've been ruminating over the past few years about making a longer, even book-length piece -- what are your thoughts on that now?

Interesting! Why do you think it's a narrative? I guess "Housefires" has a first-person voice, which I don't always use. This one was also made for a particular friend. But instead of talking to her, I was assuming her perspective—a kind of exercise in empathy, maybe. Instead of wanting to gift her something, I was just trying to inhabit her feelings with her.

I'd love to make a book-length comic, or publish a solo anthology of stuff I've made in the last few years. I think it's just felt a little too much to handle on top of everything else this year. But I think about it a lot.

I don't know what it would feel like to make a coherent book-length piece—I think if I published something book-length, I'd probably want it to be a collection of short pieces. Like a collection of poetry, where there's a consistent theme, but you can jump around and read bits on their own too.

I guess I mean narrative in the sense that it was by far your longest piece at the time, and it uses repeated visual and textual motifs in a way that feels coherent and builds towards a particular tone and feeling - I remember thinking that it was a big step forward for you.

Interesting! It’s definitely the first (and only?) time I tried to make a longer coherent poem. It was much tougher than doing short pieces. I think I prefer the pacing of shorter poems—maybe I’m just most familiar with them. And the limitation helps me to be precise.

"What The Body Is For" (2018) features prominent and proficient uses of some of your favorite visual motifs: plant life, windows at night, bodies of water...how do you think about reusing these images either within a single piece or across your work? Do you ever worry about repeating yourself?

This is such a good question. Honestly, I have this deep curiosity about what would happen if I ran out of images. I think about it a lot. Like what happens if one day I just realize that I've used them all up?

But when I come close to that point in my work—when I feel like I've drawn literally everything and there are no more images—often, those are the times that I break into something new.

I also believe that the best metaphors are infinitely flexible. Like a good metaphor will last you your whole life, and longer. Rivers and oceans and the sun and moon, palm trees and pomegranates—I genuinely believe those images won't ever stop feeling fresh.

But yes, I definitely repeat myself all the time… I often re-use visual rhymes that I like a lot (the rhyme of a moon and a single brightly-lit window come to mind). I hope my readers don't mind. Some things are just nice to draw over and over.

Talk to me more specifically about what happens when you sit down to make a comic, and the first image that comes to mind is a moon and a single window. When do you lean into that? When do you decide to search out something new? If it’s not obvious, I’m looking for advice because as I think you know I struggle with when to repeat or not repeat myself visually.

Ha! I don’t think of you as someone who repeats yourself at all. I feel like the context always makes it fresh. So I don’t know if you should worry about that.

When I sit down and the first image is a super familiar one, I just always lean into it. I don’t think I could make exactly the same comic twice. There’s always something new to do with the images and the layout.

When repeat images come up, I think it’s usually because I’m drawing on some repeat feelings inside myself. I usually draw at night, and it’s dark and a little lonely, a little meditative. There’s a coziness to being indoors and also a mystery of the darkness of the night outside. I think that’s part of why the rhyme of moon and window come up so often.

"30 Days of Comics 2019: On Climate Crisis" reads as a coherent piece, but also features some individual comics that got a fair amount of attention, such as the pieces you redrew for the "All We Can Save" anthology. What do you think about the relationship between the individual comics and the complete piece in a case like this?

For pieces that come out of a daily practice, it's always kind of funny—I think they feel coherent because they're all made with the same constraints, and I think it's fun to read all of them at once because you can follow how my thinking changed over the month. But I do think they all function well independently of each other.

And sometimes, in the case of the pieces I re-colored for "All We Can Save", they came to life in entirely new ways when read outside the context of the full set. "All We Can Save" is an anthology of women's writing about climate–essays, poetry, and my comics. My comics sprinkled among the poetry and essays, and each piece comes to life in a way I never could've expected, in conversation with the pieces around it. It's a delight to see my work outside of its original context.

I think you’re supposed to end interviews by asking the subject what’s next or what they’re working on now. But that’s a dumb question, maybe in general and certainly in 2020. So instead - how are you doing as this strange and difficult year comes to a close? You’ve mentioned a few times that you’ve had trouble getting into a headspace where you’re able to make work.

I’m doing okay! It’s December 29th today and right now I’m just riding out Christmastide (it’s twelve days when you’re in a tradition that observes the liturgical calendar—and twelve days is so much more pleasant, less horrible pressure, than trying to cram everything into the single groaning, frantic day on the 25th). I’m in a rest period right now.

I’ve been reading a lot of chick lit and doing some baking (a new 2020 habit) and generally trying to hold onto whatever little bits of warmth and brightness I can. Not making much work, but lots of puttering around, tidying, arranging plants and trying to repair Christmas lights.

It’s been so fun to talk to you! This conversation has definitely been a bright spot in a grim year.

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