Features

“It’s Unfortunate That So Many Cartoonists Talk About Structure As If It Were Something Desirable”: An Interview With Beatrix Urkowitz

Beatrix Urkowitz, photo by Alex Pizzuti.

Beatrix Urkowitz first came to my attention via her delightful & immortal Shit Comics Tumblr, one of those brief Internet curation scenes that pops up, infects your taste, and then disappears as abruptly as it had arrived. No matter. By the time Urkowitz had dropped off from updating it, I had met her in Brooklyn and was able to keep up with what she thought was interesting the old fashioned way. To mark the upcoming Parsifal Press (Daryl Seitchik and Dan Nott's new publishing project, funded by Koyama Provides) reprint her recent comic, The Lover of Everyone in the World, we're pleased to share this conversation between Beatrix and cartoonist Sara Lautman about her work, her passion & her community. -TCJ

Shit Comics

Sara Lautman: I’ll just start with Tucker’s request that we revisit an Urkowitz deep cut. Can you talk about what Shit Comics is/was?

Beatrix Urkowitz: Shit Comics was a Tumblr I started in high school to compile comic images I thought were cool at the time. I didn't know anyone else who liked that stuff, and I'd never really been a part of any online communities or even posted publicly before. It was something I did for myself alone. But people started to follow it, including cartoonists and other people I'd distantly admired. This ended up being how I made connections with a lot of my first friends in comics, especially once I started college in New York and attended comics shows where I could meet folks in person. I remember getting brunch with a bunch of cartoonists, and was shocked when someone brought up Shit Comics and it turned out most of the group knew of it.

I was truly nothing at the time, in every sense of the word, and I'm really grateful to anyone who knew me then and was patient with me until I became hot and cool. The blog doesn't exist anymore; it was bad and I associate it with what is a very difficult era of my life to even think about. Let's leave it there!

Got it. Thanks for explaining that to me. I missed queer/comics Tumblr by a microgeneration (and a few degrees of just, being online). I covet it as a scene I missed out on, even though I know it's a haunted house of growing pains for people who were there.

The Lover of Everyone in the World

One of the things I love Lover of Everyone for is how literal it is. It sounds like the title is going to be something figurative, but Julie really is the lover of everyone in the world. There's something in that that is both making fun of polyamory (and the language of polyamory) and letting it stand as a beautiful, utopian ideal. I don't even know what question I'm headed for here... is Julie okay? 

I'm extremely grateful to Annie and Dan and Daryl for the opportunity. The Lover is a weird little book that I happen to be very proud of, and I hope it finds a wider audience with this reprint.

I know the title and premise seems like a joke, and to a degree it is, but I really was trying to approach the concept as seriously as possible. It's just a silly idea that naturally led to other ideas. 

Whether or not The Lover relates to polyamory at all, the germ of it did come to me when I had started seeing two different people at once; it occurred to me that being in a relationship (or more than one) takes up so much space in one's head, and so much time, that it might be possible to be totally consumed by care for other people. You wouldn't think of yourself, you wouldn't have time for your own hobbies or interests, there wouldn't be anything about you that wasn't for someone else. It could be kind of nice. (Reading this back, it sounds like I'm just mimicking the way some describe being a mother. Works for me!) That was what went into the first chapter, which was written as a one-off. A year or so later I found myself thinking about the problems with that situation, and what it would mean for the other people in it. That led to the other two stories that make up the middle of the Lover book.

I don't know whether Julie is okay. I worry that the end of that story comes off cynical, as if I'm saying a relationship involving everyone on earth would inevitably be toxic and unsustainable. It clearly didn't work out for Julie and company, but I like to think it could have! The problem is I just don't know what it would take to get the whole world in a healthy relationship together, even in fiction. If I could write a story like that, it would mean I have the secret to world peace or something. The immense cultural impact of such a comic would inevitably lead to a new polyamorous international union, where everyone alive loves everyone else and fucks everyone else and everyone is cool with it, somehow. It'd be like one of Borges's made-up books that alter reality with words alone. I guess those books are made-up because they exert a power on the world that most texts can only reference. They answer the questions literature can only ask.

It doesn't come off as cynical to me. Julie and Everyone's balancing act worked for a little while, and the partners who weren't getting what they needed spoke up compassionately when they needed to, which is very good by any standard. 

I like the idea that being filled up with care for others could be a peaceful, positive thing, like a kind of ego death. I think that's the aspirational part... if every partner in a poly relationship was able to approach things like that, there could be a mutually energizing system of replenishment. Unfortunately it seems hard to be like that.

I know from reading your work and talking to you that you aren't interested in traditional story structures (not to put words in your mouth.) I'm remembering a great Q and A you did for one of my comics classes where you were basically like "fuck traditional story structures for being condescending and dogmatic." Am I totally off? I remember that everyone in the class was like, very Dead Poets Society invigorated after that.

I'm so happy your students got something from that! You aren't wrong - I am, ironically, very dogmatically against "plot structure," at least as Hollywood screenwriters tend to characterize it. 

The problems are many, but perhaps the most obvious is that a strong, "airtight" script tends to have almost nothing to do with almost anyone's lived experience. If I were to tell you about my day, it would lack obvious conflict, character development, thematic cohesion, tonal consistency, dramatic interest, a clear "arc," or any sort of catharsis. I'm not saying my day is necessarily worth hearing about, but I do think the lack of these common narrative elements in most people’s lives says something about those elements. If I can't fit them into my day, how can I fit them into my stories? I reject the idea that stories with these aspects are inherently better than stories without them - that would exclude many of the experiences I find most significant from being written about. 

It's not enough to call out plot structure for being a contrivance, though. Contrivance can be fine; if we took all the artifice out of comics there would be almost nothing left. My greater issue is that structure is often a shortcut to emotion. How often do people say, "That movie was so stupid, but it made me cry?" Structure is often used in fiction to create investment in something that may not be very interesting and may not actually have anything to say to an audience. The audience sticks around because structure assures them the story is going somewhere. When the pieces of the plot fit together it gives "meaning" to whatever happened, even if the story has no significance outside its own framework. Of course we all cry when it's over! It's not the only narrative device that squeezes the juice out of an audience, but it's one of the slyest and, to me, most insidious. 

(All of this is part of why my comics tend to be meandering collections of loosely-related anecdotes that don't go anywhere - it's not an accident!)

An image from Penelope's Property, another of Urkowitz current projects

It's unfortunate that so many cartoonists talk about structure as if it were something desirable. I mean, I suppose it makes sense if you're writing a Hollywood-style narrative. Publishers (the ones that actually pay) are hostile enough to deviation of any kind that you may as well play their game, if that's worth it to you. 

But I won't pretend I have any affection for that mode of storytelling. To me, it is imperative to make art that does not lead the audience by the nose, that never directs them towards any emotion other than whatever they already had inside. The mostly-mediocre cartoonist Daniel Clowes wisely said that comics are not an operatic form, and when it comes to my own ends I consider this a powerful advantage. A comic can't demand your attention as easily as film can. It won't come to you - you have to come to it.  

I should also say I have wider concerns about storytelling as a whole, but I'm still working through those thoughts, so I'll save them. My lovely surrealist lit professor, an anarchist from Jersey who was and probably still is prone to contentious statements, loved to yell "narrative is evil!" in front of the class. Narrative can definitely be very frustrating and dull, even though I'm married to it.

One of my pet peeves is when "this made me cry" is used as an endorsement. It reminds me of when you're in a conflict with someone, and they tell you that they cried as proof that you perpetrated something hurtful. Crying is an amazing and helpful thing that the body does, but there's no way to trace "I cried" back to anything. Getting an audience to laugh maybe plays on an audience's stress valves differently. There’s an impression of it as less sinister, but probably that impression makes it much more sinister. I guess I’m just thinking about “sinister” in the sense of propaganda now.

Yeah, I'm not much for the idea that the marker of good art is an immediate, powerful emotional reaction! The most significant experiences I've had with art tend to unfurl over time, generally outside of viewing the work itself. When the work demands a fully coherent response right then in the moment of viewing it, that's often a bad sign for me!

An image from She's Done it All

Did I hear that you just got into Liz Phair?

I only just got into Liz Phair, incredibly! My more-cultured partner introduced me. She hits all my buttons; music by and for mean, bitter, horny, tall rocker bitches. (I did feel slightly betrayed learning that, despite writing the song 6'1", she's actually short! Cis women love stealing t-girl valor!!!) There's an emotional ambivalence to her sound that really works for me, a kind of sadness that bleeds into happiness, if that makes any sense at all. It's similar to what I got out of Lou Reed (when I could listen to Lou Reed), or what I get from The Breeders or Steely Dan. It's a mood that I prefer to pure sorrow or pure joy.

How has living and making art through covid been for you? We talked a little about feeling creatively destitute (maybe your words were less extreme). Is anything shifting for you at this point?

The truth is that even under the best of circumstances it's difficult for me to be self-directed and impose structure on myself. I'm scared of making comics in a way - I really, really don't want to make another thing I regret. Another empty pretty nothing. It also just takes me a very long time to actually know what a given comic needs to be. I don't want to rush it. The actual drawing is so easy, but the process of self-critique, accumulating ideas and experiences, editing - you might call this "writing" - takes years. I'm also still learning how to be a person, which is the most important part of being an artist. I'm only four years old, after all. As I get older, I'll become ready to draw more comics. 

I lost my job as a leatherworker to Covid and have collected unemployment ever since. I'm extremely lucky. I've hung out with my partner and got really into pickling and collectible card games. I also learned how to experience joy unmitigated by shame, for the first time I can remember. All this is to say I haven't been productive during the pandemic, but who cares. I have the exceptional privilege of not needing to do art for a living right now (not that I’ve ever been able to hack it), which means I don’t really feel the pressure that’s on so many artists to be content creation machines. I don't have much of a career in this, and I don’t know if I want one. I’ll find other ways to make money. All I want is to make comics for my friends and for me, whenever I feel like it. There's no point shaming myself for not doing it if I don't feel like it. 

It's been grounding to realize many artists I know, even those I see as tireless geniuses, experience long periods of stillness. I’ve observed that this goes double for my fellow embittered transsexuals, who are obviously the greatest artists on earth. It’s easy to forget that an entire life happens outside of one’s practice, a truth that is done a disservice by the myth of the endlessly-working ascetic cartoonist. 

The Annoying Person

The Annoying Person, as I read them, can be a universal figure that you bounce different aspects of yourself off of, and of people you know, but TAP also seems very specific, like a real person.

I feel like it’s a pretty self explanatory and obvious story, honestly… although there are some people who are confused by it. I was thinking about a sort of pettiness that, especially, queer people can engage in sometimes, within scenes or friend groups. It’s certainly something I’ve participated in a lot myself. I’ve also of course always been a person who was afraid of being that person for someone else. I think most of us have been on both sides of that equation. 

I guess I was thinking more specifically that these relationships we have as gay people are so… at least they feel, more precious, and valuable, and also… what’s the word? Elusive, or fleeting, or could be taken away at any moment…

Fragile?

Fragile works. I think it’s because for a lot of queer people, those friendships are their whole support systems. They’re all they’ve got. I was thinking about friendships that I’ve come apart from, or just situations I’ve been an observer to, where someone who was dependent on other people for all this support, who maybe didn’t have much outside of that to rely on, got embroiled in some insignificant conflict, and lost those friendships. How easy it is to just lose everything. 

It’s not entirely clear whether that is what happened in the case of the annoying person. We don’t really know what her situation is. But it certainly seems like she’s lost something. And not even by doing something terrible or unforgivable. People just didn’t like her that much.

I think it’s a really common struggle, for all the reasons you named. Especially for a person who didn’t or doesn’t have access to things like mental healthcare, and that’s a generational pattern, or there’s some kind of trauma related to clinical spaces… something that can deprive them of support that connects to social development. There’s this catch 22… the vulnerability that causes them to rely on their friend network can come from the same place as behaviors that alienate those people.

I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush, but being so vulnerable can make you a little abrasive sometimes. It’s not even a judgement of anyone. When I’m at my most insecure is definitely when I’m at my most abrasive. 

The so-called annoying person can even make someone recognize the annoying person within themselves. And people don’t like to see the things that they think are abrasive or annoying about themselves in other people. Classic thing.

Classic thing.

I’m not a person who lives in the moment as much as I am apparently supposed to. So the way that I experience the world makes the whole process of thinking about stories, and deciding how I want to put these ideas into boxes, very important to me. That processing of memory and experience and ideas and, you know... things I overheard one time, ideas I half remember, things people have told me that I’ve half forgotten. Those things only make sense to me if I really take my time with them. That’s why making comics takes me so long. Putting together those legos into something that works.

When I watch students work, it sometimes seems like they think that they have to generate something completely new from a vacuum. As though taking from their life, or from a memory, or movie that they can’t quite remember, is specifically not writing. Sometimes when they present something they’ll pick out one part and be like “this is actually what my mom’s outfits really look like” as though they can’t claim authorship of it. Not that offering that little insight into their work and life isn’t the fun of seeing someone’s process, of course. It’s just sometimes I think they think they have to make magic, like new matter in the universe.

That’s true, though I have my own hangups about needing to make things that are really original. I just wanna sock it to those insufferable people who are like, nothing’s new under the sun, man. I always get irritated by that. I see things every day that I’ve never seen anyone write about, just walking around the neighborhood. Even if those people are right it’s such a boring, unsexy attitude to bring to art.

I feel extremely lucky to have seen so many fucking insane trans and queer artists that I can call peers come up before me, and alongside me. It’s amazing to witness the likes of Erik Nebel (undeniably the best cartoonist in a century), and Margot Ferrick, and Cate Wurtz, and Madeline Miyun, and Edie Fake, and Eddy Atoms, and Marlo Mogensen, and Mia Schwartz - I could go on - all within my lifetime. What’s really special is how little these artists’ works resemble each other. It isn’t work that makes itself explicable for a straight and/or cis audience, and it isn’t even work that’s meant to reflect a broad, immediately familiar image of queerness. These artists make comics that are, first and foremost, for themselves.

There’s a lot of pressure on queer artists - at least, it’s a pressure I feel - to make art that is somehow “relatable,” unambiguous, and reassuring to large swaths of gay people, as if that can really soothe the wounds inflicted on us by the straight world. Perhaps someone out there has felt seen and assured by that kind of work; from how they talk about it, it seems like many people have, and I wanna respect that. But it has never helped me. If anything, the flatness of such works has made it harder, not easier, to see my own self. I’ve only ever felt at home among other freaks who are writing their own scripts as they go along, whether or not their stories fit a tidy, friendly narrative.

In other words, when it comes to the work that has given me the most, the author isn’t trying to speak to some shared experience so much as to themselves, in their own personal language. I mean, that’s what it’s all about for me. Seeing other weirdos, many of them trans or gay or neurodivergent or whatever, many of them folks I have some kind of marginality in common with, but also many others who I don’t necessarily have anything in common with, do their thing.

Yeah, when somebody’s making art, you want it to be as much of them as possible, and not this effort in between to meet you, or meet an imagined common reader, as close to fully as possible.

I don’t like being acknowledged by the author. I don’t like when the author is making concessions for the reader in that way. I always think about my favorite artist, the composer Robert Ashley. It was so liberating to read him saying that he doesn’t care if anyone understands him or what he is doing. He just wants to, you know, hang out with other musicians and do what pleases him. That’s a maxim I try to live by.

Pride Month Comics Roundtable

So, what’s your favorite… uh...

…gay thing?

Yeah. What’s your favorite gay thing.

Oh. Um. I dunno, being a lesbian?

Cool, me too.

Ad for Toucan, the official blog of Comic-con and Wondercon