“I Really Wasn’t Considering The Reader At All”: A Conversation With Ariel Bordeaux

Photo and art provided by Ariel Bourdeaux

Ariel Bordeaux’s Deep Girl was one of the standout zines of the 1990s. Autobiographical, funny and feminist, the series, which was collected in 2013, established her as a powerful voice with her own style. She followed the series with the one-shot No Love Lost, published in 1997. With her husband Rick Altergott she created the series Raisin Pie, which ran through 2007. During this period Bordeaux was a contributor to many anthologies including Bizarro Comics, Measles, Scheherazade, and Stuck in the Middle.

In 2018, Bordeaux began posting daily comics on her Facebook page. Mostly four-panel comics that Bordeaux drew in pencil and then photographed, they were thoughtful and funny, surprising and beautifully made in a way that only a masterful artist is able to work: simply and quickly. While this didn’t mark a return to comics–Bordeaux never really left–it did bring her visibility and attention for the comics and for her continuing evolution as an artist.

Her most recent comic, Clutter, began as Bordeaux’s MFA thesis at the Center for Cartoon Studies. The initial release from Fieldmouse Press is a book about trauma, but it’s also a book about navigating daily life, mental health, work, growing older, and the ways we manage to center our lives. Bordeaux and I have spoken in the past, and we talked again late last year about her life and work.

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Alex Dueben: When you were a kid what were the comics you read?

Ariel Bourdeaux: Starting from when I was really young there were comics round the house. We had things like Tintin and Edward Gorey. My mom also did these great cartoony drawings all the time, like on my lunch bags, or in letters. My brother got into superhero comics a little bit and we would go to the convenience store together. It was mostly Archie Comics and Harvey Comics and Mad Magazine. I was a Mad reader, but when I was first starting to read those things, a lot of Mad was over my head. [laughs] I loved Archie, though. A little bit later when I got into high school I started reading undergrounds and alternative comics. My aunt gave me an issue of Love and Rockets and an issue of Neat Stuff and I was hooked.

Were you drawing comics before that?

No. I would draw Betty and Veronica and then rip those drawings up because they were “sexy ladies” and that kind of freaked me out. My brother was the artist and I was a little bit envious because he got showered with attention for a period of time. He got gifts of art supplies and it didn’t really happen for me until later when I started taking painting lessons. Comics didn’t come for a while. In college I was reading comics and attracted to comics, but I imagined that I would be making large format paintings. I took a variety of classes but I didn’t attempt to draw comics until after I got out of college. 

Your parents were encouraging and supportive of you both being artists and studying art?

Yes, my mom especially has always been super supportive. She’s a writer and did a lot of drawing and crafting when she was younger. 

Were you mostly studying painting at art school?

Mostly painting, but I also took jewelry and ceramics and things. One of my best assignments in art school was this ceramic diary. We were supposed to make a plaque each week that was based on a moment from our life. That was maybe one of the first times I had an autobio/diary assignment – and I loved it. So I had this cool sequence and I imagined I would be hanging them up. I couldn’t quite pull off the craft well enough to make it display worthy, but that was a great assignment for me. I also did a little bit of animation, too, and that was probably where I started to gravitate towards comics a little bit. I think that I never had much focus or drive. I was just bouncing from one thing to the other throughout college.

You went to art school at Tufts, do I have that right?

I went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, which more recently got absorbed into Tufts. At the time they weren’t accredited, so I got my degree through Tufts, which meant that I had to take some liberal arts classes to get my degree. 

Did you like art school? Was it helpful or useful or give you what you needed or wanted? I understand that this answer may have changed a few times over the years.

Yeah it’s so true, my answer to this question and how I think about art school changes constantly. It’s been over thirty years since I graduated now, so with a lot of perspective I’d say, yes, I did like art school for the most part! What I’ve come to really appreciate is that I was always encouraged to get into emotional and psychological territory. I was exploring the theme of my sexual assault in art school years before I was ready to deal with the subject in comics in a serious way, and it was organic and easy. Critiques were often pretty heavy and deep. It’s also true that sometimes crits were eye-rollingly pretentious, but that made for good sketchbook mockery. I didn’t exactly get great at all of the skills I wanted to master, like pen and ink drawing or classical painting, but my big takeaway was that you could use art to deal with your shit, which was a pretty awesome thing to get out of college.  

After you graduated with a degree in painting, what does one do? Or what did you do?

I graduate and have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to do. Somehow I got the idea to make a minicomic. My very first attempt was a really mean spirited takedown of a frenemy. This woman was one of my closest friends, but we had a really difficult friendship. I did this nasty one page character assassination and showed it to a couple of friends who thought it was hilarious. That was my first attempt. I did a couple oddball comics before putting together my first issue of Deep Girl. It was the most doable art form for me at the time. To get micron pens and write on paper in my apartment was more available to me than a medium like ceramics that requires space and equipment. I was still reading comics but it didn’t occur to me when I started how was I going to share and print these things. It was a weird organic process of figuring out that there was this world of mini comics.

After you finished school in Boston, did you move to the West Coast immediately?

It was pretty soon after I did that first issue. I remember making the copies when I was still living in Boston and sharing it with a few friends before I moved out west. My brother was at UC Santa Cruz, or maybe he was at Berkeley by the time I moved there, but he helped coax me out to the West Coast. I moved to San Francisco. I had a couple of Boston friends who helped me get started there. I pretty quickly found Comic Relief on Haight Street and met Gabby Gamboa and various other people there. I had written to a couple of Bay Area people like Adrian Tomine and said, I’m moving out there. Somehow he agreed to meet me. Between meeting people at Comic Relief and meeting Adrian, I got introduced to more of the mini comic scene.

How did that shift what you wanted to do and how you approached it?

I really have Adrian to thank for helping me have a mission with Deep Girl, because before that I was just a little bit at loose ends. He asked a lot of questions and said, you should do comics about this, you should buy this pen, you’re using horrible paper. Whatever he thought was funny, I did. It helped me to bounce ideas off of someone. And then just really practical things like how to reach an audience, who to send things to.

You made first one in Boston in different circumstances and you can see over the course of those issues of your talent growing, your sense of what you wanted to do changing.

You can see where I start trying to pick up techniques from people. Or people would say, rule out your lines, we can’t read your text. 

Did you start getting feedback and hearing from people?

I got a lot of feedback. And fairly quickly. It still amazes me that this was all through the mail! I had a couple reviews, like a Factsheet Five review and a review in Hate, I think. A couple really nice, order this, plugs from people – and then the mail was just coming in. I was getting a lot of feedback and also just people who would just write random whatever to me. It was such a sweet, special time to have this flood of penpals. Some of them were great. My favorite type of people would be younger women who would send me letters covered with stickers. There was definitely a riot grrrl contingent ordering my comics. There were a lot of creepy men too. [laughs] Like this one guy who would constantly send me packets of a stack of polaroids of porny naked chicks. [laughs] Like, why are you sending me this? Or people who were hitting on me. Which I definitely enjoyed, but looking back, it was very strange. There was somebody writing from jail who said some odd things. There were sometimes I was genuinely a little worried or creeped out because I was stupidly publishing my home address in the comic. I hadn’t quite got it together to get a P.O. Box. But I really loved all of that. I mean I was nobody coming from nowhere and suddenly having this whole oddball community to interact with was pretty amazing. 

I remember coming in on the end of this and it was happening through the mail and letter columns and its so bizarre to think about now.

Yeah and I’ve never wanted to totally give it up. Like, who wants to write letters? [laughs] I don’t quite have the energy or the time to keep that kind of thing constant. I admire people who stayed in the mini comic scene and never left it, but it burned me out very quickly. I only did five issues of my comic and I was way way burned out trying to answer everybody because it felt like a lot of labor to write everybody. I always wanted to match someone’s effort. Not tit for tat, exactly, but if they wrote a two page letter, I would try to send them a nice drawing or something. I stressed a lot over replies, like, let me address each one of your points, thereby holding up orders, and then going into a shame spiral [laughs]

As you were making Deep Girl, you were clearly thinking more about comics and what you wanted to do and being ambitious.

I tried a bunch of different types of things. For a stretch I really wanted to learn to write fiction and it never quite worked for me. I always felt like something was off whenever I’ve attempted fiction. Although I haven’t given up on it entirely. I had this ambition to have a real comic book series. I wish I had pulled that off. A solo title that was all mine, published in standard comic book format. The closest I’ve come to that is the split book with Rick and that was not the same kind of thing. On the heels of doing Deep Girl I got this amazing offer. Drawn and Quarterly wanted me to do No Love Lost. Their whole thing was format first. They wanted to push all these younger artists into longer form narratives so asked me to do a fifty page graphic novella. I couldn’t turn that down because it was too exciting. Part of me wishes I had said no, I’m going to stick with Deep Girl, and just made that a little bigger. But, I did what I did. 

So Chris Oliveros just asked?

I went around a San Diego Comic Con talking to different publishers – Fantagraphics and whoever else – and saying, I want to do a comic series. I’m pretty sure Adrian Tomine recommended me to Drawn & Quarterly. It was a great opportunity. 

Was it just, here’s the page count, do whatever you want?

Send us your pages. We will print them. [laughs] There must have been some kind of editorial process, I just don’t really remember the details. The whole thing was torture. [laughs] I was not ready. And I was moving from San Francisco to Seattle so I had just uprooted myself. I had gotten this attic apartment in Seattle and I remember feeling very, very agonized. And I think that showed. It was not my best work.

After being approached like that, anything you want, but it has to be fifty pages, how do you even start?

I had a thread of an idea that could have been a good four or five page comic. I thought in short bursts. I think I still do. I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I was very immature at the time.

You talked about how your style changed over the course of Deep Girl and it changed for No Love Lost. Was that intentional?

Yes, sort of! I was teaching myself how to draw comics. I got a lot of comments about my style being “ugly”, which was funny at first, but it kind of got to me, and I started working on developing a ‘less ugly’ style. When I started No Love Lost, I got some stylistic advice to try out some of Julie Doucet’s drawing tricks, like thicker brusk strokes, patterns in the background, which I ended up taking far too literally and ended up trying – and failing miserably – to ape her style. 

One thing I loved about No Love Lost, especially on rereading, is how Emma and Gwen, and all the characters really, are good people who screw up and trip over each other, but they’re all characters who are reasonable and thoughtful.

Thank you, that’s nice to hear! In Deep Girl there were some stories where I was still so angry at someone, I just wanted to mock them or diminish them in my comics. With No Love Lost, I was starting to explore relationship dynamics hopefully in a more thoughtful way. 

It stands out as the longer comic in your career. You were always interested in short stories and this required a different way to think and it didn’t play to your strengths.

I’m glad that I went for it and did it, but at the same time, I wish that I had just known to trust my instincts a little more when I was younger. It’s been a long, long journey to learn to trust my own instincts. [laughs]

I always think of your stories as internal and I’m curious how you think of them.

Yes, I’d agree with that. I heard Seth say something in a talk that I wish I could remember better, but it was something about “comics as getting to know yourself through a lifelong conversation with yourself.” That resonates with me. 

In the 1990s and early 2000s you made a lot of comics for different anthologies. Was it just a question of other cartoonists and people you knew reaching out and asking?

Yeah. That was fun. There were all sorts of opportunities to try something different. Like Scheherazade. Megan Kelso pitched the idea of doing interstitial pages to me and I thought that was a really neat opportunity. I had been inspired by her use of black and white gauche painting in Queen of the Black Black and so I thought I would attempt something like that. So I did this series of dog girl paintings, which was a totally different style for me at the time and I’m still pretty happy with that.

Short comics seem to come naturally to you.

I think about that more and more lately. That maybe that’s where my strength is. And maybe I should stick with that.

In comics now everyone has to make a tome and the graphic novel has become the default.

On the one hand that has been great and it’s amazing for the art form of comics, which has exploded so much, and now it has so much visibility and recognition, which is great. But it’s been sad to me in a way too. I mean I really loved that small press comics and indie comics world where I could go into a comic book store and grab a couple three or four dollar titles. I really really love that. And I still miss that experience. Now everything feels overly polished.

You mentioned moving to Seattle, which had its own comics scene at the time. Megan Kelso and Jon Lewis and Ed Brubaker and Jason Lutes and so many others. What was it like? And how did it differ from the Bay Area?

It was very different. There was definitely a more serious vibe. People were taking comics seriously in Seattle. In the Bay Area I got to meet people like S. Clay Wilson and Spain, these legendary underground comics figures, who were around at parties. It felt more free and exciting and the intellectual seriousness of the Seattle cartoonists was a felt difference. That’s not a bad thing. I came to eventually find a friend group in Seattle and it was great. It was a fun scene. But in my experience there was a different vibe around the comics scene.

Seattle was less California laid-back?

Some of the cliches really ring true in my own experience.

How can I say this? I remember one of the first times I hung out with that crew. Megan Kelso, Jason Lutes, Ed Brubaker, Tom Hart and David Lasky, I think were maybe all hanging out at someone’s apartment. They were playing a game of Five Card Nancy. I just remember attempting to play the game and I just didn’t get it. [laughs] It was like, I’m not smart enough for this crew! It felt a little rocky getting into it, but they’re all great people and I eventually found my groove there.

It was an incredible group of talented people, and seriousness I would imagine would have to be a part of that, because everyone had their own ambitions.

I remember Jason Lutes beginning work on Berlin around the time I had first moved there. I was just like, holy crap?! This project you’re talking about undertaking is enormous and was just so far and away from what I was thinking about. I just wanted to take some revenge out on some old boyfriends. That was my whole M.O. [laughs]

So you don’t plan the next twenty years?

[laughs] Nope.

When did Raisin Pie start taking shape?

It was close to when Rick and I were starting to think about leaving Seattle. We got married in the year 2000 and in 2002 we moved back to the East Coast. I forget exactly when, but it was somewhere around then. We just thought, hey, here’s this opportunity. Fantagraphics will print almost anything. [laughs] It was really him. They liked Rick’s work and I could tag along. We thought, if we shared the book, copying the idea of the Hernandez Brothers, we could more easily complete a half a comic in a year. Because we both worked full time, even doing that many comics pages felt like a lot.

Was the idea always that you draw half and he draw half. Not like Robert and Aline Crumb where they’ll draw the same panels together?

I think we did a couple short strips together. It was a place to experiment because neither one of us quite knew what we were going to do for this comic. We’ve talked about how we both imagined it would be a lot more random wacky stuff, but somehow we both got ourselves locked into these longer form stories. It came out a lot different than I imagined. Our work is so different that it caused some tension too. It was difficult. [laughs]

Your work is so different in so many ways, I’m sure a lot of people picked it up for one of you and wasn’t into the other.

It wasn’t the most harmonious series. [laughs]

And if you were both just drawing a lot of short wacky stuff then maybe they would have gone together better? But I did enjoy your serial, Maple Valley Public Library, and it isn’t quite what I’ve seen you do before or since.

Thank you. It was maybe a more ambitious attempt at writing fiction than I had previously undertaken. It was a little odd to do it in that serialized format because I couldn’t really quite plan it out fully. I had bits and pieces. I had the full skeleton planned out but it took a few different turns than I initially intended.

Just in those few issues it had already changed? Have you ever thought about going back to it?

No. [laughs] I don’t think so. One never knows. But it’s got a weird reverberation in my life because at the time I was writing a character that I thought of as a slightly older version of myself if I were a librarian. And now, I work in a library and I’m the age of the woman I was writing. [laughs] I feel like my life has some of these elements that I was trying to imagine in that story. It’s an odd thing. In that story there’s a fire department detective character who ends up being the love interest of the librarian and I remember a librarian colleague telling me that her first husband was a fireman and I was like, wow, that’s really weird. [laughs] And she sort of looked like my character! I feel like that story weirdly comes up sometimes.

Is that the next comic? A character haunted by the story she never finished, which she’s now living?

No! [laughs]

I’m sure it’s tied to that time, that format and everything else which makes it hard to return to it.

It’s weird. I was exploring territory and, well, I don’t know. I’m glad you brought it up though, because I never get feedback on that story.

Sometimes I look at my older work and go, what the hell was wrong with me? Why have I been going in so many different directions? Like the back cover of the very first issue of Raisin Pie I did one of my completely wacko paintings, which is completely at odds with this much more mellow Seth-inspired style of the story.

I like that painting and I like that story. But I understand. It sounds like the tension was, we can do anything, but also setting it up to tell a long story.

It was an odd pursuit. [laughs] 

This was a period where a lot of people launched series that only lasted a few issues, or people ended series. The internet changed things. The economy of comics was changing. It was a weird period.

It was. I was also juggling a couple things. I was getting more involved in illustration. I was doing weekly illustrations for The Stranger. When Ellen Forney left the Dan Savage column, I go that gig for a little while. Close to a year, I think? So I was illustrating these sex advice columns and that’s where that kind of painting came from. There were all these fighting impulses. And you’re right, the times were changing and what are we doing with comics? We were all getting more ambitious and wanting to do longer form work. Maybe? [laughs] I was still very rooted in wanting to do wild experimental stuff. But also just trying to find my voice.

You still felt that way at that time? That you were still searching for your voice and your style?

Very much. And I think I’m making peace with the idea that there’s probably no arrival point. I don’t think I’ll ever quite feel, a-ha! I’ve done it. This is pure me. I think I’m still working that out.

So why did you move from Seattle to Providence?

We wanted to move to the East Coast and we wanted to find some place that was relatively affordable. Someplace reasonably close to family. Rhode Island was not entirely random, but a little bit random. 

Did you know about the comics and art scene there?

I knew it was there. I knew some of the artists’ work from Fort Thunder, but just a tiny bit. Also just knowing that it was a small city but RISD was there and that was a possible place for employment. I ended up getting a job there. But other than that, we didn’t have a real strong draw to Providence. I knew that I didn’t want to move back to Boston. I kind of wanted to move to New York, but Rick really didn’t want to move to New York. [laughs] So we ended up somewhere in the middle. A lot of people I’ve met in Rhode Island are like, how did we end up here? I don’t know. [laughs] 

As someone who lives in Connecticut, I can relate. It’s not bad, but, why here?

[laughs] Basically we were just priced out of the big cities.

It sounds like you were always painting throughout?

A little. In one way or another. I’ve been doing more painting in recent years and trying to find my painting groove. Again I’m at another odd point where I feel like I have too many different threads going on. I’d like my work to gel together a little more, but I am a pretty scatter brained person, I guess. [laughs]

So why did you decide to go back to school?

I was in Rhode Island for a few years. I was working as a decorative painter. I worked at the comic book store when I first landed in Providence. Then we had Eddie and once we had a child I was like, I need to make some money and get a real job. It was very sudden. I’m now responsible for things. I need to make some money. [laughs] I started working at this library and realized pretty quickly that you don’t go up in this field without a library degree. And I never wanted a library degree. I just don’t want to go to library school. I thought about it several times at several junctures, but I just couldn’t do it. I had an attraction to teaching and I felt that without a lot of teaching experience, I’d need an MFA. I also had this comics project bubbling up inside me, but I couldn’t do it on my own. The plan was that I would get the degree and then pursue teaching. It didn’t happen that way. [laughs] I couldn’t handle being an adjunct teacher without the security of a regular paycheck. So my imagining of where an MFA might help me land hasn’t quite worked out, but I’m glad that I went to The Center for Cartoon Studies though because it was a great experience.

Clutter was your thesis project at CCS. You said you had this longer idea. How did it coalesce into Clutter?

I had a couple of pages started before I started the program. James Sturm was my advisor and his advice was, you seem to have these short vignettes, so just keep doing that. I had to complete X number of pages every few weeks on deadline throughout that two year program, and that’s how it came about.

That’s nice. A deadline, a page count. I think a lot of us could use that.

It was really perfect because I can’t remember quite how it was structured but I was able to do the second year thesis program twice. So really I was just doing what I had started and it was just, you’ve got twelve more pages by this point in the semester. [laughs] And of course we’d have discussions about it and I got a lot of guidance along the way, but it was a really nice way to push ahead.

It sounds like they were supportive and didn’t go, you have to abandon vignettes and make a large plot and it has be 300 pages and…

No! In fact at one point I was really stressing about, how do I make this a book? I really want to make this a book. James just said, let a book slowly develop. That’s a little bit hard to hear when you ambitiously want to publish something soon, but as it turned out, it needed to marinate for a decade before I could polish it up. 

So does your thesis differ from finished book?

Yes and no. There’s a lot of page order difference and some rearrangement. I hadn’t titled the different sections of it. I tried to order it in a more reader friendly chronological kind of way than I initially had. And then I wrote an ending to it that I didn’t have. So it’s a little different, but the majority of it was done at CCS.

It was less chronological and more associative?

Yeah. In fact I remember I really wasn’t considering the reader at all when I was initially writing it. This is how it’s coming out of my brain and this is how it’s going to go. After giving it some time, I read it and went, oh no. I want to give at least a couple of clues. Also I got some feedback. I had people reading it who didn’t seem to get that the sexual assault part was an autobiographical thing that happened to me. It didn’t seem to sink in with some readers so I thought it needed to be made a little bit more clear.

When you were making it, did you have a structure and a plan in mind, or were you making it as you went, section by section?

Section by section. And very much intuitive. I think that my approach is, like I said earlier, attempting to trust my own instincts a little more.

I loved Clutter and could relate to different parts. You used the word intuitive and I said associative to describe the writing and structure, but I think we mean the same thing. There’s no plot but the vignettes connect and build on each other and accumulate weight and meaning.

That’s interesting. That makes sense.

And as we get older, so much of our days and our lives aren’t necessarily about large events, but small moments. And making smaller comics in this way you do echoes that experience.

Absolutely. It’s something I’ve really realized by doing the daily comics. That life is this accumulation of moments, and a lot of it is random but there’s a lot of through lines. And I think it’s really really okay to write to that. Although there is a huge part of me that still has this critical voice saying that I’m stupid because I have no real sense for writing something with a massive plot. [laughs] But more and more I’m just trying to roll with, hey, it’s okay if I write a lot of little moments.

Something I tried to get at a bit in Clutter is grappling with our intense need for stories. I mean, it’s well known that our brains are hard wired for stories, and a well-crafted story is extremely satisfying, but on the other hand we have this absolute flood of stories going through our head at all times, created by all kinds of conflicting inner and outer influences. Stories created out of negative self talk and bad memories sprinkled with frightening dystopias or horrific news stories are harmful to our mental health. Sometimes the simpler, smaller moments are a nice relief from the overwhelm of competing narratives. 

In 2013, Deep Girl was collected and reprinted and what did that feel like? Because clearly you had readers who took a lot from your work

It felt great, it was definitely an honor, and Robyn Chapman did such a great job putting it together. To be honest it was a little jarring too, as suddenly I found myself in this place where I was confronted with my younger self – and realizing I had aged and was in quite a different stage of life. Overall it was really great to reach some new readers, and some folks who knew my stuff but hadn’t seen all the issues. 

I did want to ask about how you drew yourself in Deep Girl.

In art school I think my primary influences were sort of a combination of underground comics and ancient ethnographic art. I have to admit to some cultural appropriation, which was very much encouraged in art school at the time. One of my favorite professors was Pippa Shaplin, who taught all the ethnographic or anthropological art history courses. She was so smart and funny, just a truly gifted lecturer. I learned so much about ancient art and tribal societies. I guess between sketching in art history and ceramics class, I kind of came up with these figures with bulgy eyes and grimacing mouths. By the time I started drawing myself that was just my style. 

Related to that, you draw yourself differently in Clutter and your daily comics. Is that the result of a different set of influences? A different style? A different mindset?

Maybe all three. There was over a decade between those two projects, and during those years while my son was little I dabbled in a little teaching, and made some one-page mini comics, collage zines, and just generally gravitated toward quicker ways of making comics. As far as influences, while I was at CCS I had the amazing privilege of attending one of Lynda Barry’s writing workshops, and I then became obsessed with her work and teaching method and philosophy. 

So you had finished your MFA at CCS and finished Clutter and you were painting and what pushed you to start making diary comics?

It was a weird sort of happenstance. Anna Sellheim, who I knew through CCS, had participated in 24 Hour Comics Day and she mentioned me in her comic. The mention was something like, I wish you’d do more comics. It was like an indirect invitation to do this. I was home when it happened. My son was sick. I thought he was sick with the flu and I thought, why not. I’ll log this day and take notes to draw later. But then he got worse and worse and I took him the doctor. It was not immediately clear that he needed emergency help but I took him to the hospital and he was rushed into surgery. He had an appendectomy and it had progressed so badly that he had a full week in the hospital. 

I was staying with him in then hospital. It was the scariest thing I have been through as a parent. It was awful. I didn’t know if he was going to live or die when they wheeled him into the surgery room. He had a feeding tube for a day and half or so. It was so extreme and so awful and I was going through this very much alone. My husband came in the evenings to visit us but he was still going to work. Because just the day or two before this was 24 Hour Comic Day, in my journal I scribbled a four panel comic. And then I did it daily and shared that on Facebook. It was a way to share that otherwise I couldn’t have done. I wanted to tell people that Eddie was going through this horrible thing, but also, it was a weird thing to share the experience of that. After we got out of the hospital, I didn’t continue the comics for a couple weeks or so. But then I just got the urge to start that up again. It was a good processing tool for me, so I did that as part of my regular daily life. I did it off and on and have stopped it more recently. Especially in the end stages of finishing Clutter, I got pretty overwhelmed.

At the end of Clutter you talk about comics being a way of dealing with depression and processing life. Those daily comics seem to have done that.

Very much. And I think it always has, to greater or lesser degrees. Certainly with Deep Girl that was a huge deal for me. Getting those stories out of my system. Being able to reshape and take control of a story that felt like it was going through my head and just eroding like slowly eroding my general happiness and well being. But somehow when you put it down on paper, it’s a nice release. 

When your son was sick, you were telling people what was happening, but if you had written out what happened, people would likely ask a ton of questions and respond to it differently than they did you posting a short comic.

It gets a very different type of response. It’s almost like people are maybe in on it in a more connected way? I don’t know.

People seem to like the diary comics and respond to them.

For a little while I was sharing those a little bit closer to real time and then I found there’s a certain stress in that when people are commenting on your life as it’s happening. [laughs] I don’t know if I want comments! But I like the interaction. Sometimes you just want someone saying, hang in there! But you don’t want a ton of unwanted advice. But when you share something, you don’t know what you’re going to get back.

Has it been a little like making work in the 1990s and getting letters back?

It’s similar enough that it’s been fun. I have been missing that recently because I just haven’t had the bandwidth to continue my postings. I also got involved with putting them up on Patreon, which adds another level of complication to it.

I remember when we talked before, you drew the daily comics on whatever paper you had, took a photo with your phone. This very punk casualness. And then that changed.

It gets a little bit more complicated and more time consuming. I’m still doing rough pencils. For a while I tried to ink it in pen to make it look a little more readable, but just adding any extra step makes it a little too hard to pull off daily.

Do you ever go back and look at the daily comics and see the threads and what they mean as a whole?

Kind of. When I have revisited them a little bit it just reminds me that this is like a meditation practice. It works a little like therapy, too. You offloaded this little bit. Even if the subject of the comic is it’s been a great day and everything is fine and there’s no anxiety, there’s still this chaos of daily life. Everything is random and one moment after the other. When I was thinking about titling my book, I was thinking about why does clutter disturb me so much. Oh right I get it. Comics are putting all this junk into neat little boxes and organizing it. There’s something very satisfying about that.

At the end of Clutter you talked about using comics to cope, along with therapy, and one thing therapy does is force you to do is look at things and see this wasn’t random and understand your behavior and getting to step back. And in that sense comics can do that.

It’s like soothing a savage beast. [laughs] Your rambling mind. I’ve got some anxiety and you’ve got to find whatever way you can to calm it down. I think I’ve always been prone to overanalyzing. I had an overanalyzing type of family who were constantly talking about the patterns of our family dynamics, the dysfunction in our family. That taught me to constantly analyze everything going on in my own life. I was my own analyst for so many years. Or I’d bounce things off of my friends. So much of what I think I needed was just to be able to talk to a therapist and then be able to put that down. I just needed to put stuff down. [laughs]

I know exactly what you mean.

For a stretch of time I was getting into meditation as a regular practice and I stopped doing that just cause I stopped. No reason. I feel like the daily comics practice really helped a lot and did a similar thing. Which doesn’t make any sense. That seems weird to me. Now I’m convinced it could be almost anything. You take your dog for a walk everyday and that could calm your anxiety. 

It has to be some activity that requires some physicality and some awareness, but if you need to think too much, it ruins it.

Exactly. It’s a little different when the artwork is more intentional and I’m working on a ten page story. That does’t help.

You’ve talked about painting throughout this conversation. What have you painted in recent years? What do you enjoy?

I really enjoy the painting process and working with color. Mostly I work in gouache or acrylics, but I’m trying to learn oil painting now too. I’ve been painting simple subjects like a cupcake or piece of pie, trying to learn how to deal with volume and light and shadow – as well as trying to make small paintings that will sell. I’d like to try plein air painting at some point. I belong to a community gallery in Rhode Island called The Collaborative, which has been great for experimenting and stretching myself as an artist. 

I know that you did a series, Gluttony, which was a fine art show but the paintings were related and had a theme even if there wasn’t a narrative, per se. It feels very comics adjacent.

Yes, Gluttony was for a group show that my aunt, Jane O’Hara, curated called Beasts of Burden. It feels like comics to me! There are eight paintings meant to be hung in a row, and each painting illustrates one of the letters of the word gluttony. Each contains an alliterative text about my guilt related to eating animal products. 

You mentioned how readers of Clutter didn’t realize that parts were autobiographical and I’m curious how people respond to your work. Because I think there are a lot of people who read everything as autobiographical.

It’s funny because I’ve heard fiction writing cartoonists complain that readers think everything is autobiographical, and autobiographical artists complain that readers take everything far too literally - or something like that. I know for myself as a reader, I have to work at it to remember that there’s some fiction, and sometimes a poetic complexity to how the truth is presented in memoir. I think it was just that my earlier draft of Clutter wasn’t clear enough for all readers. 

With Clutter finally coming out, are you thinking about what you want to do next or do more of?

I have been thinking about that a lot. I don’t know what to do next. [laughs] I have ideas bubbling. But yeah. Now that I have not been working on daily comics, it’s a nice feeling of freedom. Having this book about to come out has opened up a space that I haven’t felt like I’ve had creatively in a while. I’m just enjoying that open space at the moment.

And your son is older and that gives you a little more time and chance to breathe.

Absolutely. That’s very freeing, too. I haven’t had that until very recently. I definitely will keep on working on something. I just don’t know what.

Do you want to find a place to print the daily comics? Or at least a selection of them?

I would like to find a way to print those. I put one mini together myself and realized that’s a little expensive to print. At least the way I did it. But I would like to figure out a way to print those. I’ve been talking to Rob Clough about it and Fieldmouse might be interested. If they did it it would be zine format, not book format, which would be really great, I think.

I don’t know how much you read or pay attention to to comics, but do you relate to what others are doing or feel a part of what’s happening?

Yes? No? I feel like I’m in a weird space in my life. There’s a part of me that’s just refusing to grow up, but I still would really love to get out to comics shows and have new comics. It’s been a number of years since I have gone to shows. The last one was Comic Arts Brooklyn a few years ago and I had a blast. That’s when I feel like I’m a part of something. But it doesn’t feel like there’s any kind of regular opportunity for that. Hopefully with the book I’ll be able to get to some shows. Just posting things online does not feel like there’s any opportunity to create community. That’s been the toughest thing for me. I’m not motivated to make work unless I’m somewhat a part of a like minded comics community. I have plenty of friends who are still out there making stuff but I don’t know where my place is. I’m very confused about that. I think I’ve always been confused about that. [laughs]