An Interview with Sophie Yanow

Over the last several years, Sophie Yanow has proven herself to be a rare top talent in nonfiction cartooning: her autobiographical comics detailing anxiety-filled minutiae are just as interesting to read as her on-the-ground reporting on things like the Dakota Access Pipeline, HIV, and our current political system, and the bold yet minimal art choices Yanow makes are just as intriguing as the subject matter. These are tough tasks to pull off. She’s also made time to translate European works, study around the globe, and now teach at the Center for Cartoon Studies. I wanted to talk with Yanow about how she found her voice in comics journalism and the directions her art has taken her.

RJ CASEY: I want to create a little bit of a timeline before we get into your travels. You’re originally from California?

SOPHIE YANOW: Yes. I’m from West Marin County, which is the rural area just north of San Francisco. People also know it for being where very rich white liberals live. The part I’m from is known for being the valley where Jerry Garcia died, and for a world-renowned meditation center. Apparently Victor Moscoso lives there too, but I didn’t know it when I lived there. Anyway, it was pretty granola.

When I was first introduced to your autobio comics sometime around 2013 with In Situ and Sleepy Details, you were a French transplant. How did you go from San Francisco to Paris? Also there was time spent in Montreal somewhere along the way too?

When I was doing In Situ, I was living in Montreal. Sleepy Details was about leaving Montreal to spend some time away from Canada so that I could re-enter on a tourist visa without being turned away. That time, I went to Paris because I had an offer of an artist residency there and a place to stay in Angouleme. It’s all a little confusing. The only time I lived in Paris for a long while was when I was in college. I studied abroad there for a semester and that’s when I started studying French.

How was living in Angouleme? I’ve never been but always naively pictured this sparkling comics nerve center.

It was really nice. I had access to the Maison des Auteurs (which is where the fabled Angouleme residencies take place), and a desk at the place I was staying. I was finishing up War of Streets and Houses while I was there, and overall it was a good place to get work done. I would hesitate to call it a “sparkling comics nerve center” though; to me it was a sleepy town with a bunch of talented cartoonists. Jeremy Sorese was doing a residency while I was there and we became buddies. The festival itself is very fun and nonstop parties, but that’s a very different vibe than the rest of the year.

Do you consider traveling part of your creative process?

I do feel like travel gets me out of my daily routine and can create a sort of meditative space where a lot of good thinking gets done. As I’m traveling a little less now due to various obligations, I’m trying to cultivate those same feelings at home as well. And I would like to be able to make work from a more fixed point, to not feel like I have to be running around all the time. But my parents raised me to hold travel above most worldly possessions, so I’m not sure I can get rid of the travel bug.

In War of Streets and Houses you dive into political and social consciousness in your study of the history of urban development. Around the Seattle area, where I live, they’re putting up a lot of cheaply made “micro” apartments with humongous monthly rent prices. I don’t know what kind of affect that will have on the city itself in the long run, but they sure are prevalent. Are you still interested in architecture? What sorts of challenges do you think urban or city planners will have in the near future?

I am interested in architecture and economics and how those things affect livability. It seems to me that the obvious short term is that more and more people will be priced out of living in “major” cities. Seattle suffers from the same tech industry influx that San Francisco does, which for residents means so much energy spent on keeping your housing or just needing to move. The crazy capitalist endgame might be what we see in London, where entire neighborhoods are empty of people because the international super-rich have bought massive apartment buildings as places to park their capital rather than to house humans. While there are many great architects and urban planners out there, they can’t solve this stuff alone. Short term, people need to band together to strengthen things like rent control and renter protections. Long term... replace capitalism?

Speaking of banding together, Streets and Houses is also about organized protest. In 2012, you participated in the Montreal Student Strike. Are there any similarities from then that you’re noticing now in the US with protests like the Women’s March?

The student strike in Montreal had so much energy behind it in large part because they had been organizing behind the scenes for years in powerful student unions. It was very much the Labor model of organizing (this time as “students” rather than “workers”). By not going to class and delaying their own graduation, they were actually creating problems for the labor market. They were on strike for about 6 months, at times there were upwards of 150,000 striking students. On top of striking, the students were marching in the streets every night. So yes, there were big protests like the ones we saw around the Women’s March, but there was also a firm underpinning of economic disruption via the act of striking. I was a participant in that I was marching with them in the streets and making myself present as witness, but I was neither a student nor a member of a student union. So I think that the Women’s March was a wonderful thing, but it didn’t have the same leverage that those students did in 2012.

Do you think that leverage is attainable right now? What would need to happen to force real change?

It would be no easy task, but a mass general strike would create a similar kind of leverage. Actually, I heard that there are some strikes planned. I’ll be very curious to see how that goes.

OK, let’s get back to your art. Your early comics are straight up autobiographical. Then when you get into work like Streets and Houses, you pulled back a little bit and play more of a narrator role. Now, as a journalist, you yourself are not really featured in your comics at all. Does that progression sound accurate? Was that something that you were mindful of?

I really think of the autobio and the journalism stuff as two different practices. The former is primarily for myself and the latter is more outwardly directed (although I learn a lot from doing research around the different journalism topics). War of Streets and Houses still feels very personal to me, but it does explore “bigger picture ideas.” I made that book primarily with my friends and strikers in Montreal in mind. While the work I’ve been publishing in the last couple years has been less-personal journalism comics, I’ve been working on a memoiresque book that has yet to be published, as well as a short comic along the lines of War of Streets and Houses but thinking about climate change and grief, and I have tons of unfinished journal comics as well. I’m still doing them, but my priorities as to what I wanted out in the world right now shifted, along with my personal life becoming a little bit complicated and heavy. And I wanted to get paid upfront to make comics!

Do you have publishing plans for those projects?

What is a Glacier? will be coming out from Retrofit soon. I’m still figuring out what will happen with the memoir.

When did you become interested in comics journalism and reporting?

Joe Sacco was the obvious inspiration who made me go, “Wow, this is a thing someone could do!” Personally though it was Susie Cagle who really encouraged me to try out some comics journalism stuff. We met in the Bay Area around 2010 when she was still making mini comics and then she gradually transitioned into full time doing comics journalism. She’s an incredibly hard-working cartoonist with a journalism degree, but she was always like, “Dude, you don’t need a degree, you can do this, go for it, get paid, I will help you.” She gave me recommendations for what to read about ethics and reporting skills and pitching, but most importantly she gave me lots of encouragement.

When you started reporting, was it difficult to get out of your comfort zone and cold call or approach strangers with questions or leads?

Yes, interviewing folks was a skill I had to develop. It’s not so hard when they’re people that you’ve made arrangements with who know what’s going on, but walking up to people and asking for an interview has been hard. I think it was most difficult for me when I went to North Dakota to report on the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, because I needed to be respectful and I was aware of my role as a white journalist interviewing Native people, some of whom are rightfully wary of media.

Was that a difficult tightrope to walk in that instance?

Sure. The thing about journalism is that traditional ethical standards of journalism dictate that the journalist is not supposed to show the finished work to interview subjects before its publication. This is an ethical quandary for many. Harvard’s Nieman Foundation has a great book about ethical and practical dilemmas in journalism called Telling True Stories, in which some of the included journalists talk about times they have grappled with this particular ethical standard. There are more collaborative ways of creating work with a “subject,” but journalism sees itself as holding people accountable, which on the one hand I think is important. On the other hand, I think journalism is responsible for a decent amount of misrepresentation as a result of that, especially when it comes to marginalized peoples.

What are people’s reactions when you tell interview subjects or sources that you will be drawing them for your journalism comics? Do you tell them?

I do tell them. Usually I just say something like, “I draw portraits along with quotes” because it’s the quickest way to get an understanding across. Most people who object are more concerned with having a picture taken as reference than the actual drawing.

Your autobio work can get fairly abstract or minimal in terms of line work, but your comics for The Guardian and The Nib are much more representational. Is that a conscious shift in style?

Sometimes in my journal comics I want to keep things abstract enough that folks won’t be able to identify who the “characters” are, since I’m not always drawing those comics with explicit consent. They are more like a diary. When I’m doing journalism, I either have consent or the legal right to talk about someone doing something in public. The goal is totally different. I don’t make the autobio comics to inform the public about issues.

When reporting, how do you decide what you’re going to represent with drawings and what is going to be straight text?

I tend to draw the people I’m interviewing, and as much context as I can without bogging down the flow of things. I would often like to draw even more, but the turnaround time on many of the reportage pieces has been a day, two days, up to a week or so. With time as a constraint, I try to do the drawings that will situate the reader most efficiently. As far as what gets represented… well, I can’t help it; I’m a human and an artist. It’s all being processed, so of course some choices are being made with aesthetics in mind, which is sometimes subconscious and sometimes a trick to get people to read about something I think is important. That’s part of the power of images!

Many of your comics feature negative space prominently. What about negative space attracts you as an artist?

My aversion to the protestant work ethic! But, seriously… in graphic design, negative space is not something that people look sideways at, unless you’re using it in the wrong place. I feel like in comics, artists often feel insecure about negative space, or maybe they just love drawing so much they want to fill every nook. I approach comics from more of a design perspective than an illustrative one. I’m not the first person to say that… so why does negative space feature in my work? I don’t know, I just think it works.

Outside of reporting, you recently translated Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet for New York Review Comics. How did that opportunity come about?

Over the years of being obsessed with comics, I’ve cultivated friendships with folks who are on a similar bent. Lucas Adams of NYRC is one of those people. He went to college with a high school friend of mine and she introduced us years ago and was like, “Hey, you’re both really into comics.” We became friends and eventually he was working at NYRB and he and Gabriel Winslow-Yost decided to pitch the idea of starting a comics imprint to them. Lucas knew I was heavy into European comics and so he asked me for some ideas to include in his NYRC pitch. The Goblet book was one of them and NYRB went for it. I’d already done some translation work (I helped edit the translation of Julie Delporte’s Journal, for example) and Lucas and Gabe offered to let me have a crack at it. They had other folks doing translation tests but in the end they went with mine. In any case, I know someone would have published it eventually, but I’m proud to say that I pointed a publisher to that book and I’m honored that I got to translate it.

You were a fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies a few years ago, but came back as a faculty member this past year. What is your position there? What classes do you teach?

My time at CCS has been all over the place! I was the Fellow for a year, sitting in on classes and doing some teaching. And then I decided to become a student, in order to get an MFA to further pursue teaching, and specifically to work more closely with Jason Lutes, whom I find to be an amazing teacher and mentor. I’m a part-time faculty member now. Last semester I taught the first portion of the second-year “thesis” class, where students begin work on their year-long thesis project, and this semester I’m teaching the second portion of the first-year “cartooning studio” class, where students develop a deeper understanding of cartooning fundamentals and skills and turn out an impressive amount of pages. I get to work with a lot of really dedicated teachers and meet blossoming cartoonists in a weird comics town. It’s pretty cool.

Has it affected your cartooning at all?

I think it’s made me more open to asking for feedback at earlier stages in my work. If I’m making my students do it, I think I’d better be willing to try it more myself.

What’s next for you in terms of reportage? Is there an issue that you’d like to tackle or a place you’d like to learn more about?

I want to let the ideas percolate for a little while. Right now, it’s easier to focus on bigger questions like the survival of humanity. I’m interested generally in climate change and how that’s going to affect communities worldwide, and what we can do to mitigate or prepare for that, but I’m not sure how I might further pursue that. It’s a politically confusing time and I think I haven’t figured out what questions I want to try to answer yet.