A Visit with M.S. Harkness in Pittsburgh

Cartoonists M.S. Harkness and CM Campbell. Photo by Matt Petras.

M.S. Harkness stopped at The Copacetic Comics Company in Pittsburgh as a part of her recent book tour. On the balcony just outside the shop, located on the third floor of a building in the city’s Polish Hill neighborhood, she shared a pizza and drinks with her friend and fellow cartoonist CM Campbell and looked out at the city, where much of her latest graphic memoir takes place.

“I’m really glad I’m here because I got to walk around the riverfront area. I was talking to [Campbell] about all the buildings that I drew for the book,” Harkness said. “I’m not going to be able to go to Minneapolis for this tour, so it felt nice to at least be somewhere that felt like it was in the continuum of the book, because the whole tour just feels so disconnected from what it actually is. It's just, ‘Everyone pay attention to me. Everyone give me my flowers for all the drawings I did,’ and it doesn’t seem at all connected to the actual story so much.”

Her latest book, Time Under Tension, published by Fantagraphics, chronicles Harkness’ early years as a cartoonist following graduation from art school; its black & white art switches throughout from simple and readable to lush and bombastic.

All art from Time Under Tension.

The new book follows two earlier graphic memoirs from Harkness: Tinderella (Kilgore Books, 2018) and Desperate Pleasures (Uncivilized, 2020). Harkness sees it as the third in an eventual series of five books, covering a large span of her life. The 31-year old currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she splits her professional time between drawing comics and working as a personal trainer - and the latter vocation is given its origin story in Time Under Tension.

Released on October 24, Time Under Tension—a chunky 264-page, 6” x 7.5” softcover—recounts Harkness' life out of college, marked by a challenging relationship with her family, sex work, the beginnings of a cartooning career working under Frank Santoro in Pittsburgh, and a complicated romantic relationship with an MMA fighter.

Harkness described her previous book as a “feral scream,” largely wrestling with trauma.

“I don’t know if this book is that much more happy,” Harkness said. “I think it’s happier in comparison, but there’s plenty of moments in it that really hit home for a lot of people on a very moving, emotional note. So I’ve been told.”

The larger story that Harkness plans to tell in these five books essentially tells the story of her finding stability in her life. Currently being at that place of stability leads to a level of disconnect between herself and the past self she’s making comics about. “It doesn’t feel like it’s me anymore because I am living such a different life,” Harkness said. “So I get to just work at my drawing table, and I just get to draw things, and it’s not some really overly raw, emotional experience.”

Harkness approaches her work with seriousness and wants to prove that she has a “good hand and a good eye for comics making,” though she feels sometimes preconceptions about memoir comics can get in the way. Some view memoir as the terrain of a student without any original, creative ideas. “That’s not what I’m doing,” Harkness said. “I think about memoir in the way that I think people think about fiction and how to construct it and how to put it together.”

The bulk of Time Under Tension follows a cartoony and easy-to-read style, but Harkness stretches her work into something much more stylishly laid out and drawn for certain segments, such as an early recounting of her family history. There are also some particularly striking landscapes, like a stunning two-page splash of a city during the winter, portrayed predominantly in black.

Sequences in which Harkness' love interest takes her to MMA fights provide perhaps the starkest stylistic change, morphing the book for pages at a time into an action comic.

“I wanted to make it look like a fight comic, so I was looking at [artists] like John Romita Jr. and Punisher comics, contemporary stuff where it’s good and older stuff where it makes more sense, and watching MMA,” Harkness said.

Harkness roughly knows the plot of the next book, but hasn’t delved into working on it much yet.

“It seems like it’s all very disconnected as far as themes go, but it’s all something that’s in my life, so I tie them together somehow,” Harkness said. “And I think it will jump around a little bit more and be a little bit different, but I’m touring and it’s hard to think about it all. I’m just trying to figure out what the next challenge I put to myself will be.”