“Change Is the Only Thing I Do Like”: An Interview with L. Nichols

Nichols says he’s always drawn – horses and maps were his favorites – but he was introduced to comics while studying mechanical engineering at MIT. Flocks is his autobiographical book about growing up in the South, keeping secrets from his family and church, and coming to terms with his identity first as queer and then as trans. He started the work five or six years ago, the first five chapters published individually, but says he reached “a time in my life where I should finish up unfinished projects and this was the biggest one”. It’s a book he dedicates to “all the people in between”. - Martyn Pedler

How did you decide on your self-depiction as a button-eyed stuffed toy in Flocks?

My junior year of college, I did a year abroad in England. It was very tough – it was the first time I’d ever been out of the country, and I was broke. Yes they speak English, but it’s a very different culture from American culture. There’s a lot of drinking. English winters are just cold and gray, and it’s farther north even than Boston, so there’s no sun. I get seasonal depression, and I think I was just extra depressed. I always liked drawing little weird dolls, and at some point, I realized I was giving it my piercings. I thought, “Oh crap, I’m drawing myself.” I did it before I realized I was doing it. Once I made that connection, used it as a way to sort through what I was thinking and feeling. It was during that time that drawing, making art, really became a way for me to figure myself out.

That’s how the little ragdoll came about. I’ve always stuck with it. In some ways it’s easy to draw, and I like that it’s relatable – you can project whatever you want on to it, and there’s a lot of metaphorical things you can do with it. Particularly in Flocks: here’s this weird little creature who’s trying to fit in with everyone else and doesn’t. It helps create a juxtaposition between me as a narrator and the world around me. I’ve always been drawn to comics because it allows you to portray both internal and external simultaneously. You can have visual signifiers of what’s going on inside as well as outside. I feel like comics as a medium is particularly good at that.

When you reach the self-harm sequences, they play very differently when cutting produces stuffing instead of blood.

I mean, with that... I don’t want to make light of it, but I do, too. When you look back at something that at the time seemed really tough, maybe it’s not quite so hard. The edges get dulled. It hopefully doesn’t hurt quite so much. Not always. I feel like it’s kind of silly that stuffing’s coming out, but with stuffing, you can put it back in. You can fix it. It doesn’t seem so final or so harsh.

The visual metaphors you use are interesting. Like arrows, always raining down. Is that from your scientific background?

It is. When I started drawing them I was thinking about pressure. I was hoping it would become shorthand for the feeling of being trapped, being crushed. I have depression and anxiety, and I feel like when you’re in those mental spaces, the world is weirdly distorted. I get a lot of physiological symptoms of them. When I’m depressed, I hurt more. So I was trying to portray the feeling of having trouble breathing, or feeling stuck. Internal states, externalized visually.

Speaking of shorthand, there are repeated moments in Flocks. Like a preacher, saying all homosexuals will burn in hell, who comes up again and again. It felt a little like music to me...

It was something I was very conscious of. I know parts of Flocks are repetitive, but that’s how my brain works. It’s hard to explain. I don’t think very linearly. I tend to loop back on things. And I feel like when you remember something, every time you look at it is different because of where you are. Your state has changed. I was hoping to capture what it’s like to be in my mind sometimes. I have a very horrible sense of time. That’s one thing I’ve learned over the years. A lot of my other world is way less structured than Flocks is. You mention music – I also publish the Ley Lines books with Kevin Czap and the next issue is one I’m doing on Beethoven. I think a lot about music. I wish there was more music in comics.

Can you tell me a little more about Ley Lines, and what it means to you creatively?

During one of my classes with Henry Jenkins at MIT, we were talking about fan culture in relation to fan fiction and fan art, and what that means for fans to have a feeling of ownership with the subject. About how appropriative interaction was something you don’t really see in fine art in the same way – pop culture feels accessible in a way that other areas of fine art and culture don’t necessarily feel. That got me wondering about if fine art has fans, and if so, who are they? What would a fine art fan culture look like? Fast forward several years, and I made a comic that was about my own artistic interaction with William Kentridge, using his images mixed with my own in a 24 page minicomic. I guess that was maybe a proof of concept? A few years back, I convinced Kevin Czap that they should co-publish a series with me with this concept in mind, a “fine art fan comic”. This is what became Ley Lines.

Kevin and I both are inspired a lot by areas outside of comics, and we wanted to encourage more of a dialogue across fields. The title Ley Lines is in reference to that – we wanted to position these books as a place of power speaking to another place of power, hopefully subverting the cartoonist as being seen as somehow lesser in the larger art world. We want to encourage people to share their inspirations that maybe aren’t always obvious in their work, to talk about how we can be inspired by different fields. To treat the world of “fine art and culture” as if it were just any other piece of culture we could draw inspiration from and interact with. Every artist we’ve had participate has interpreted this in their own way. Honestly, it’s a joy to see what people have produced for us. Ley Lines is something I do solely from the love of doing it and from the desire to see more work like this in the world.

One of the other visual motifs that repeats in Flocks is the word QUEER, looming overhead. The word seems so reclaimed now that seeing it here as the “enemy” feels surprising.

Yeah, I can’t tell you how horrible it was to grow up in Louisiana. I feel very comfortable in New York. It’s pretty liberal. Even if people are jerks, there are enough people who aren’t that it evens out. In the South, it’s a little dicier. I was trying to capture what it felt like, because people always talk about it under their breath in that very particular southern way: “Oh, bless his heart, he’s going to hell.” Anytime someone prefaces something with “bless his heart”, they’re going to say something horrible afterwards. I felt like I had this thing that I didn’t know how to share with anyone, because there were no other LGBT people anywhere near me that I could find. There’s some people, looking back, that I question. Were they just as stuck as I was?

One day when I was in grad school I guy I went to school with he contacted me – he’s gay now, he came out – and he was just, like, “I’m sorry we were so mean to you.” It was really nice to hear. Because at some point I was wondered if it was all in my head that I felt so different. In some ways it was. I have a tendency to draw away from people because I don’t trust them, due to the situation I grew up in. But I got picked on quite a bit growing up, and it was nice to have some external acknowledgement. At least one person felt bad for how they treated me.

Despite that, though, the book has compassion for everyone! How important is compassion to your art?

That’s how I am, for better or worse. It’s an innate part of how I view the world – that everyone has good and bad in them. Maybe an action has good intent and comes out wrong. Some people have crappy days and take it out on you for no good reason. It was important to me, when working on Flocks, that I didn’t vilify people. It’s very easy to do that, especially the crazy Christian stuff, and especially nowadays. The evangelicals, a lot of them – I still can’t say all of them – I feel like they’re just very misguided. By saying these horrible things, they think they’re doing good, but they’re not.

Also, looking back on my life, I came from a place where no one leaves. There’s a town of, like, three thousand people. The nearest city was like forty minutes away, driving. There are not many jobs. There’s nothing. So for a lot of people church is the most important thing in their lives. It serves a very important purpose for communities. Obviously I went to church quite a bit – even now, I go to a very liberal church. They’re openly accepting of the LGBT community and try hard to reach out to everyone, and I just wish there were more places like that.

Yes, politics and beliefs can go horribly wrong. I feel they can totally miss the point of any religion, which is that you should love everyone, and do your best to be together. But I also know from my own life that I would not be where I am had I not had the support of those people. So it shaped me in one way to be someone who perseveres and taught me the life skills to get up and keep going. But then, on the other hand, I never came out to them. I just left. Growing up, knowing that if they knew the truth about me... it wasn’t an easy way to live. But I felt like it was what I needed to do to hold myself together. It took me a really long time to figure out my own place in it.

I was reading an interview you gave years ago where you talked about “coming out as a Christian”. Do you feel like you get different responses now?

No, people are always surprised! Especially in intellectual circles. People are atheist or agnostic, and that’s fine. I would never try to convince anyone else of my own beliefs. I’ve always felt a very strong feeling that there’s something more, something better. My conception of God isn’t “angry father-figure in the sky who’s going to smite you dead”. It’s more like an interconnected consciousness of all things. That’s horrible – I sound very New Agey – but whatever. I’ve always felt connected, and that connection can happen in a lot of ways. All religions have some aspect of it, and it depends on the culture they’re in as to how those aspects are manifested. I guess that ties into how I always try to see the viewpoints of other people. Even people who I don’t agree with. There are people now I’m just banging my head against, like Trump supporters. I cannot figure it out. My mom is a right-wing conspiracy theorist – and I can’t! There’s a certain point where my compassion turns to bafflement.

You talked about about figuring  things out through your art. Did making Flocks change the way you thought about faith, or thought about God?

It was very healing. I printed out the first five chapters, made floppies of them, and had people come and tell me how much it meant to them to read it. It means so much to me to hear that. What making Flocks changed is my faith in other people. It helps me feel more connected to myself and connected to others. I always felt like my uncomfortableness about sharing it would be offset by the good that would come of it. Making this always felt like something I had to do. I needed to do this. It wasn’t easy to write. I feel like I relived so much stuff. I’m really glad that my wife is so supportive, and my in-laws are very supportive. I feel very lucky. I tried to end it on a good note. I’m a bit of a sappy person, just naturally, and I was trying to make it not too sappy. But I feel like I’ve ended up in a great place, and I have so much, and I’m so grateful that I have all that I have – so it’s hard for me to look at my past with too much pain. If I hadn’t have gone through that, I wouldn’t be here. If I changed anything, I wouldn’t be me. Writing the book has helped me embrace my past in some ways. To find new comfort in it, and new confidence in myself and who I’ve become.

I asked if compassion was important to your art – but faith has to be too, right? Not faith in God, but faith in your art?

I feel like faith comes in many different forms. I paint as well, kind of mixed media, and I was showing them to someone. She said, “How do you come up with what to paint?” I just stared at her. I didn’t know how to reply. Some part of it is very much a mystery. Definitely, for me, a lot of my life is, “I don’t know how this is going to work, but we’ll figure it out.” I have two small kids now, and even parenting – I have to trust that they’re going to be okay. I have to have faith in them. In some sense, exercising faith towards whatever spirituality you have is really just good practice for having faith in yourself, having faith in other people, having faith in the process of life. I find it very useful to just let go and be, like, whatever. Life will figure itself out. Everything is going to happen one way or another, however it happens. I feel like I live my life the way I make my art. Everything is very connected in me in the same way. I never know exactly what I’m going to do, but I know that it’ll be fine. I have faith that I’ll figure it out.

We’re living through a peak of trans representation in popular culture. How does it feel?

I’m always happy to see it. It’s great to see any representation of yourself. It’s great not seeing the same stories, the same themes. I find it very refreshing, just like any type of diversity. I find it very exciting that there’s more, and also a little saddening that there’s this much pushback. People don’t like change. I’d say change is the only thing I do like! I feel like it’s inevitable. If you’re fighting against change, you’re going to lose. It’s far better to be flexible, and learn to see others points of view. Not even see them – embrace them. Celebrate the differences between people. I think it’s an important thing. The trans representation is great to see. Even if it’s not always exactly what you would hope, it’s steps in a better direction.

Do you hope Flocks will add to this conversation?

I am hopeful. I feel like, for some people, it’s hard to empathise with anyone who isn’t in their direct circle. Their bubble. Even growing up, people always talked about all the queer people living in the cities.  I mean, we move there because it’s safer. We didn’t come from there! I don’t know. I just wish people were more okay with everyone in general. I would love for Flocks to add to that. I was talking to someone a few months ago about writing, and how when you’re writing, you should have your audience in mind. Who’s your audience? And I was, like, “Me, ten to fifteen years ago.”

So Flocks is like writing a letter to your past self?

Yeah. I wish I had been easier on myself, more accepting of me. I’m very hard on myself. I’ve always been that way. I’m very driven. I get a lot done, but I never feel like I do. It’s hard to be gentle with myself. If I can help anyone – even one person – be more okay with themselves and their pasts, then I’d think I was a success.