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“I Have Been Using My Platform To Tell Our Stories Since I Started In Comics”: An Interview with Bianca Xunise

Bianca Xunise is the creator behind comics including Keep Out, GothThrob, Imaginary Boyfriends, and the 2017 Ignatz Award-winning comic Say Her Name (available here). She’s contributed to The Believer, The Nib, and many other publications. She is one of the Six Chix, the rotating daily strip from King Features. When announced last year, it was noted that she was only the second black woman to have a nationally syndicated comic strip, which is both a cause for celebration and a truly depressing fact.

Xunise’s work is funny and thoughtful. Her linework has this playful energy, and she has a masterful talent for playing with tone in different ways, even as her work shifts from moving personal stories to deep political analysis to elegant and perfectly structured gag cartoons. She is part of the great tradition of cartoonists who are poets of the sad loneliness that for many of us is the essence of being human. For some of us who have admired her work, it’s been strange and honestly heartbreaking to see her work be so misunderstood and mischaracterized by some people. Xunise was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work, and set the story straight about a few things.

How did you initially come to work with Shondaland?

It happened sort of organically. Kendra James, who was a writer and editor there herself, was a big fan of my work and wanted to offer me a platform to share my stories. I had tweeted out some years ago about how I felt black writers and artists are only called upon when industries need work on social justice, but there isn't that same support in our everyday endeavors. My effort as a cartoonist is to show the everyday of being a black woman. Sometimes that's social justice, sometimes that's mental health, other times it's just being carefree. I was really honored that Kendra championed me to have this column, as I am also a big fan of her work. I signed a contract and I was given space to write about anything I wanted (within reason).

Do you feel that you were given that space?

Initially yes. If you go through my series I had a pretty strong momentum. I discussed a range of things from mental health, loneliness, body image and so forth. Kendra honestly stood as a wall for me to keep my voice, she didn't want me to get involved in some of the internal issues that she faced with her work. But after she resigned I was left to fend for myself. This is why it's so important to not just hire black talent but to have black gatekeepers (editors, publishers, platforms, etc.). It doesn't mean much for us to get hired if our work is not advocated for on both sides.

When Kendra resigned, how did your relationship with the site change? Were you partnered with a new editor immediately?

It shifted a little. I was then set up to work with Liz Dwyer, who is also black and goth! But the momentum of my comic started to slow down from there. Liz had some personal things she needed to take care of, so if she wasn't there to edit I didn't have a back up editor. Eventually she resigned as well. I reached out to Liz personally because I knew she was black and goth and would understand my stories. I didn't want to be matched with an editor who wouldn't understand my vision.

Do you have an opinion about the reason behind the multiple resignations?

I have friends from all backgrounds who ended up leaving Shondaland, but since I work remotely I don't know all of the goings on in their office. I believe there was a shift in administration and their brand identity changed.

How did the editorial relationship work when it worked best for you? There's a real clarity of voice with your work, regardless of whether I read it at Shondaland, The Nib, Instagram, etc. I'm curious to what you took from those relationships – was it something specific to comics itself? To the needs of the publication?

The best kind of editorial relationship in my opinion is someone who can advocate for my vision. It's a collaborative process, but [editors should] also know when they need to dial back and push my voice, versus editing out my voice to sound like theirs. I've lost count on how many times I've worked with an editor who tried to explain the black experience back to me. The best thing to do sometimes is listen, and if they don't understand something I am open to having that conversation. Also, checking my spelling is key. I am a terrible speller!

Would you describe your initial relationship with Kendra and Liz in that way? Were you getting what you needed at Shondaland at the beginning?

Working with Kendra and Liz was basically like working with myself. I was never questioned. I was never asked "wow this REALLY HAPPENED?" They saw me and the importance of my work.

"Wow this REALLY HAPPENED?” Sorry, just needed to emphasize that for myself.

People have questioned the validity of my stories before, because they have never had to face the intersections of being both black and a woman.

What changed after Liz left?

I panicked after Liz left, I panicked after Kendra left because the column was essentially her baby too. So her leaving felt like I was losing a creative partner. I cried for a day about it.

When did Liz leave?

This was in July around the same time I got my cat. [laughs] July of 2019.

What happened next?

I didn't want to send my comics to "pitches @ shondaland" because I was afraid they would simply get lost since so many editors were leaving and I was certain there was an overload. So I reached out to Liz and she set me up with Seth.

Seth Plattner?

Yes.

Is he the editor you worked with for the last three comics that are up on Shondaland?

Yes.

So after you get connected with Seth, what happens?

Things with Seth were a little clunky at first. I was losing momentum because I felt like my column couldn't find a permanent home. I had to keep re-explaining my vision. I started to lose hope like I was before I was offered this column. It's a common thing as a black writer. We gain momentum and then we get left behind.

When you say "re-explain” – did it feel like you were having to pitch the column again, like you were a new writer?

Sort of. Re-explain my vision to someone who's coming in who didn't originally share that vision. Trying to get them on board to support me and be as passionate as my first editor was, versus just treating it like some job on a stack of other pitches.

Kendra at least tried to set me up by extending my contract and getting me a higher rate. But if I kept reaching out to editors and not hearing back for weeks at a time, I couldn't even share my story. This was a big problem with Seth.

Kendra tried to set you up before she left? What was the initial contractual agreement – you would create a monthly comic for a specific length of time?

Kendra wanted to make sure my column wouldn't get canned as a result of her resignation and extended my contract for another year. My contract was to produce a longform comic once a month.

So you start with Seth, and what is his initial response? What was it like when he first gets back to you?

Initially things weren't too bad. He told me he was a fan of my work and wanted to be my editor, so at first things seemed normal.

When did things change?

My final comic.

I was devastated after hearing the story of Atatiana Jefferson. I have been using my platform to tell our stories since I started in comics. It is my protest, the way I get the word out there. It's even the work that has been most awarded, like my Ignatz for Say Her Name. So any pushback on sharing these stories seems a bit off-brand considering that's my brand. Jefferson's story was one that hit really close to home for me because it happened in the safety of her home. And as a homebody myself, it really amplified how we as black people are not safe anywhere. I wanted to write a story about the intersections of police brutality for people who have mental illness where folks may feel the need to rely on the police to rescue us in a dire situation. The police were called on Jefferson as a non-emergency call, a welfare check. They are supposed to be there to de-escalate, not create more chaos, and definitely not to kill the person they are called in to protect. I have had friends attempt to call the police when I have felt suicidal, and instead I have convinced them to come over or stay on the phone versus getting the authorities involved.

While I was writing this story, I was in a bout of depression myself. I had some personal things I was dealing with like my aunt who was gravely ill and passed away around the same time this story was published. The original version of this story is a lot more militant than the version that got put out due to Seth’s pushback. He asked me to make the story "more positive" for Shondaland's viewers and brand. I understand this is what his boss was telling him, but it was also incredibly insensitive to the weight of the subject I was talking about. I do not know how to make stories about the lives of my people being senselessly murdered more positive for a brand. I called him out on how it was disrespectful and educated him on that. I don't believe it's the job of the artist to educate the editor but it happens. He did apologize but our relationship was never the same. And I haven't been able to get work on the site since.

I'm sorry to read about what you experienced and I appreciate you telling me about it in such detail.

There’s more.

There's always a fear for black artists that if we push back, or correct others for doing something disrespectful, that we will be punished in return for speaking up for ourselves. So we are taught as children to keep our heads down and be grateful for what little we get, even if it's met with disrespect. I don't know Seth's true feeling for me, but I never felt like he championed me in the same way Kendra did. I was unable to reach him for months after this story published. When he did finally get back he apologized that the offices were closed for the holidays, but it did not excuse the weeks that were not holiday closing. I followed up with a story about black anger and how we feel silenced to hide our justified anger out of fear of retribution. Which Seth referred to as my "anger comic”. I'm not sure if he ever read it because that felt like a slight as well.

When he finally got back to me on Jan 7th, even though I sent the script in November, he told me that they were looking for more political pieces and passed on my story – which lives on at The Lily. I've never had a story passed on before because, again, it was my platform and originally I was given a pass to discuss what I felt was needed at the time. Plus, what's not more political than black anger? Beyond that, it was odd that now Shondaland was interested in a political piece when I felt like I was asked to make my last piece less political. I told Seth that I would pitch something else instead. And never heard back from him again. I took to Twitter to share my story, and this is when I heard from Seth and Seth's boss. This is now Feb 5th. I have missed on 3 publication dates just from a lack of communication. And I tried to get a hold of him several times, which is why I gave up and went to Twitter. I was upset that it was Black History Month and I was being silenced on a platform that I should be able to celebrate my blackness on for that month. I was told by Seth that Shondaland would be in touch with next steps on Feb 6th and haven't heard back from them since. This is gatekeeping, this is how black voices are silenced.

Do you think that Shondaland is a particularly egregious version, or just par for the course with how black voices are treated?

This is an average experience for black voices across the board.

I can feel the desire to make this even more meta, to ask you how it feels to have to go over this again, the racism 101 nature of this conversation. I apologize for that. Do you want to continue working with Shondaland?

Not really, it's always weird to return to a place when you feel like you've been shunned out for speaking up. I don't want people to feel forced to work with me because I am a squeaky wheel, I want people to have genuine passion for my work.

One of our critics pointed out that Sad Boy's hair is drawn better than Jim Lee does Superman's hair. That is legit high praise from them.

[laughs]

For us, the pantheon has always been Naoki Urasawa's hair and Jim Lee on Superman. It is good to have another join this high table.

Awww well thanks.

Where are you making comics for primarily now?

I have my weekly one panel for Six Chix, but it's a shared space. I primarily use it as a space to just be funny and make quick gags. It’s a lot to always write about my trauma so I am grateful to have a safe place to just be silly. But as for longform pieces, I don't have a column space anymore. I've been working on my Patreon to bring the focus more on there so I have creative control, and I know that's what folks are there to read.

How did the Six Chix gig come about?

I'm shifting focus for now. I want to put more energy into my graphic novel. I'm a little burnt out with constantly trying to fight for my voice online and want to have space to take a reeeeeal deeep dive.

The Six Chix job came after doing a Popeye comic for Popeye's 90th anniversary. I worked with Tea Fougner with the Popeye comic and when the Tuesday slot for Six Chix opened up, they thought I'd be the perfect candidate and asked if I’d like to work with them full time.

Was Tea the person who asked? And the person at King Features you mostly deal with?

Yep! I believe they were a fan of my work before they asked.

They are amazing. So tell me about gag strips. We all grew up reading them but what do you like about them? What's the appeal for you?

In terms of Six Chix, one of the perks of the gig was that I would have freedom to write about whatever I like. Which is nice because all too often I’m only asked to do work that focuses on black trauma whereas my white peers have the freedom to write about almost anything.

In terms of my love for gag comics, I just like the dark humor they have delve into. At least they were always kind of dark to me.

That's interesting you think of the humor as dark. What strips/people who did gag comics did you like?

Calvin and Hobbes always had a bittersweetness to it. So does Peanuts. I also grew up reading Baby Blues, Zits, and Boondocks. All of these comics may have seem to just have a punchline, but if you look in to them deeper you can see the complex sadness that is the human existence.

That's beautifully put. I guess another way to put it is that you like comics that no matter their purpose have truth at the heart, which I think is what all your comics strive for.

Yeah!

Having that freedom to write about whatever you want, is that something you've only had at a few other places besides your self-published work?

I have a pretty good range of freedom at The Nib, also my work at Riot Fest focuses on music and is more observational. If my work is published it’s mostly because I wanted to do that piece, but I’ve had to say no to gigs along the way.

I can imagine. And I'm sure there's a certain relief to have a job where you have to come up with one funny comic a week. As far as the recent controversy over that comic, did you have any hesitation about doing that for Six Chix as opposed to finding another home for it?

No, I didn’t have any hesitation at all. People often suggest that I should do comics for The New Yorker and it’s not that I haven’t tried; for years I always get told no.

I feel like when people hear someone’s a cartoonist, they tell/ask them about either The New Yorker or Marvel Comics.

[laughs] Yeah, well considering both of these publishers' relationship with black voices most of the time, it’s gatekeeping that keeps them from being published.

Very true. You think that a gag cartoon has to mean something and say something on multiple levels. Your comic about “oh how I miss the thrill of cancelling plans last minute” is layered, but it's just one person talking.

Yeah that comic is about loneliness.

I related to it on many levels. And it makes it more jarring when people completely go off on other comics like that one. It's such a strange experience to see people missing the point.

It’s funny that no one had a problem relating my comics with only one person in it, a Black person, but as soon as a white person is added to the panel, it’s assumed that they are the lead. Leadership by default.

That says it all. Do you think a lot of your work gets misread?

I think that’s true about all art.

True. Has Tea and the team at King been supportive through all this? They seem to have understood the joke just fine.

Oh yeah. I mean my work goes through several rounds of edits before it’s even published. Lots of eyes see my work. If there was ever an issue with something they would bring it up. And usually the only issue is when I forget to make things CMYK!

But I’m lucky my editors are on my side. I’ve experienced the opposite many times in my life; it’s rather common that if you make too big of a fuss as a Black person, the only solution is to silence them through firing them. Tea sent me flowers. It was incredible.

Yes, this isn't something you made where the first time another human being sees it is after it's posted online. Many people saw this and got it.

Many!

I know it's all too easy to just fire people and hire another freelancer at the slightest problem. I should add that I loved the "Hex in the Cemetery" piece you posted recently [on Patreon].

Aw thanks.

I would love to see you do more with the character, but you mentioned in that post how rarely you get to draw for yourself anymore.

That’s just because I’m busy! Which isn’t a bad thing, but whenever I draw for fun I’m like I should be working.

I know that's the struggle of doing what you love – and when you make it your job, it's hard to do it for fun in the same way.

It really is.

What can you tell me about the graphic novel you're working on?

I can't say much! But I'm putting my whole heart into it. I want to create something for my younger self. That weird kid that felt like no one noticed her and she didn't belong. This is my way of saying "you belong" not just to me, but folks who march to the beat of their own drum everywhere.

On a scale of 1 to Sisters of Mercy, how goth is it?

11.

Legit numbers.

It's so goth and punk, it'll make Andrew Eldritch pay Patricia Morrison the money he owes her from 40 years ago.

Does Shondaland have permanent rights to the comics they have published? Can you take them to a different site?

No. I learned long ago, own everything.

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