Where to begin with L. Nichols? No, seriously, where? That's not a rhetorical question — in fact, it's the first one I asked her. The Louisiana-born, Brooklyn-based 28-year-old MIT grad produces work at a slightly dizzying rate, in such a wide range of styles, genres, and formats -- primarily webcomics and minicomics -- that picking a logical starting point is difficult. Fortunately, you don't really need one. Nichols, whose flagship website and one-woman anthology minicomics series both bear the title Jumbly Junkery, brings an instantly apparent, appealing, and accessible intensity of emotion and craft to whatever she's doing, in whatever vein.
Certain commonalities do emerge, though. Her studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have led the thought processes and symbolic language of mathematics to crop up throughout her work, like her own left-brained version of Kirby Krackle. While her style shifts from project to project, her trademark self-caricature is a stuffed doll with a Mohawk and button eyes, evoking both a craft element (Nichols does indeed work in other media) and a punk heritage. And when she shifts from autobiography or poetic artcomix to genre, her science-fiction and action opuses (Flocks, Radio Ghosts) tend to be driven at least as much by issues of empathy, identity, and community as by really rad guns and world-building. Perhaps that's why, when given the opportunity to tout whatever project she'd like, she turns immediately to the murals she painted in a local restaurant rather than a comic. The murals are intended to be viewed communally -- or to borrow the title of her ongoing memoir of living as a queer Christian, by flocks.
Prior to this interview my contact with Nichols was limited to a few brief email exchanges regarding review copies and conversations at various East Coast alternative-comics conventions, where she is a familiar, friendly, flamboyantly coiffed presence. She was just as pleasant to talk to at length, and as forthcoming as her leave-it-all-on-the-field work ethic and emotional aesthetic would suggest.
Sean T. Collins: Normally I like to start these things off by asking a question about one of my interview subject's major works. In your case, though, I'm at a loss as to which of your comics would count as a "major work." The comics that come to mind as candidates -- Jumbly Junkery, Angel, Flocks -- all seem to be up to such different things that I don't know which one is representative. What do you consider your major or emblematic comics?
L. Nichols: You know, I don't know what to say about my work in regards to what would be considered "my major work." I feel like Flocks might be the thing I'm most excited about (but maybe that's just because I'm currently working on it). It's not finished yet, but to me, it feels like a good combination of a bunch of different things I've been working on and experimenting with. While working on it, I definitely feel like I've grown a lot from my very first autobio comics.
I did this short comic, "A Shadow and Its Source", recently. It's probably the thing (other than Flocks) that I'm happiest with. I recently described it as a fine art fan comic, which is pretty close to the truth of my intentions. It is my response to the South African artist, William Kentridge, and how his work makes me feel as an artist. It uses a combination of his visual language/symbols and my own and is the first time I've tried something like that. The only problem with this is that I'm sure what I'm saying is not as clear to people who are unfamiliar with his work. But even now, several months after finishing it, I still think it is one of my most honest pieces. Contemporary art has been a huge influence in my life, so I hope to do more comics along these lines. I feel like fine art could use some sort of responsive, possibly a little more irreverent, fan culture.
If you define "major work" as work that has shaped who I am artistically, Jumbly Junkery is the starting point for everything. I use my Jumbly Junkery comics as a way to keep myself productive and growing, always experimenting with the various thoughts/influences floating around in my head. I want to try and edit them down to a more curated book form soon. It feels like it's about time, now that I reached issue 10.
Collins: Are there comparable collections you can think of in terms of what you'd go for for the look and feel of the collected edition? I really do think that artcomix is still a collected-edition field, just by virtue of ease of getting a hold of the things versus an array of minicomics.
Nichols: I was thinking of going through them with some friends, picking what we thought was the best, maybe 200 pages, and then going from there. I'm kind of enjoying the idea of letting the work guide me as to how to organize it, since that is how it grew for me.
Other than that, I finally feel like I've been figuring out some crucial things and am excited to see where that leads me. I guess what I'm saying is that while I've produced a lot, nothing right now to feels singularly special. I like everything for its own merits and flaws, and appreciate how the work has helped me grow.
Collins: To backtrack a second, what's your basic biography?
Nichols: I'm 28. I grew up in rural Louisiana, in a small town called DeQuincy which had about 2-3,000 people. It was in the southwest part of the state very close to Texas. I left Louisiana to go to MIT, where I got an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in media arts & sciences (from the MIT Media Lab). From there, I moved to Brooklyn and that's where I've been since. I live in Red Hook, which is definitely my favorite part of the city. It's quiet. I have a garden. I know quite a few of my neighbors. I've been married for four years now to the most inspiring and influential person in my life. I have two cats and a dog. Life's pretty great, and I've never been happier.
Collins: Hey, you married young! Well, young for most people I know. So did I, and oddly so did a lot of the people I'm closest to in comics. I wonder what that's about.
Nichols: My wife frequently makes fun of me for the way I will just make up my mind about large decisions and know without a doubt that it's the right path for me to take. My intuition has never steered me wrong and marrying her is a decision I have never regretted.
Collins: I first read your comics when you sent me a couple issues of Jumbly Junkery, and what distinguished them for me was that while you share many cartoonists' preoccupation with your own, I dunno, cartoonistness, with several strips about the creation of comics, you have the work ethic to back it up. You strike me as prodigiously prolific, in a way that's integral to your self-conception as an artist. Can you describe an average workday to me? Do you have a threshold below which you feel unsuccessful as an artist if you haven't produced to that level in a given timespan?
Nichols: There was a point in college, I think it was around the time of working on my undergraduate thesis and going into the beginning of grad school, when I was talking with my professors a lot about what makes a good engineer. Like, where does the intuition of how to build something come from? We started talking about experience, about tangible/tactile experience, and how those ineffable experiences work their way into the way we approach solving problems. For example, you know what a certain material feels like when you hold/bend/break it, so maybe when you're trying to think of a way to fix/build something, that knowledge will feed into your solution. Generally speaking, engineers get better with age because they have a greater wealth of experience to draw on.
Somehow it dawned on me then that if I applied that same mindset to art then I would also be a better artist. That is the root of my work ethic. Basically, the more I can effectively work, the more experiences I can feed into my mind's way of approaching whatever artistic problem I encounter.
My work days vary so much! I try to make lists and then prioritize by timelines what I should get done. Usually three or four categories: ASAP, this week, two-three weeks, & no rush. When I'm feeling overwhelmed at what I have to do, I try to pick something that will be quick and give me a clear result. For example, doing the dishes. I try to build up a momentum and keep going until I've reached a solid stopping point. I don't try to do more than one thing at a time; I work in chunks of time (usually several hours) so I can thoroughly explore what it is I'm working on before shifting projects. I also try to get in a solid 30 mins-1 hour of exercise per day just to help clear my mind and get me focused.
I don't have any quantitative answers to what makes me feel successful, no page numbers or projects or hours works. Maybe the answer is more honestly that there's an internal voice that constantly tells me "You could be working more" and as I've gotten older, I have just tried to temper that feeling with a healthy dose of reality and relaxing. Sometimes I feel like going to MIT just left me feeling like everyone else is smarter/better than me (because, let me tell you, there are some crazy smart, creative, and hardworking people there!), so I have to keep working hard because I don't want to feel like a disappointment. Or maybe I just work because I love to work hard. The feeling of working hard can be a reward in itself! So satisfying!
That being said, there are (many!) days when I don't feel like doing a damn thing. But those are the days that I'm happy I went to MIT because it taught me the ability to keep working even when I don't feel like it. I'm not going to lie, that school kicked my ass! And in doing so, it taught me what it meant to really work for something, how to keep going when you don't think you can. It means even more to me because my art feels like mine. I am working for me and what I believe in and I never want to feel at the end of any day like I failed because I wasn't willing to put in the work. Sure, I may not always reach the artistic goals I set for myself, but I always feel like I'm growing and learning. That is my definition of success.
Collins: In Tom Spurgeon's essay about his health crisis and his life in comics, there's a relatively scathing little passage about people in comics who are at least as busy congratulating themselves and one another for working hard as they are actually working hard. I don't get that sense from you, insofar as, as you say above, working hard seems to be a compulsion for you -- perhaps a holdover from your MIT days -- more than something you do to prove your worth to others. Or am I wrong, and do those leftover insecurities about your merit relative to that of your classmates still play a role in your work ethic?
Nichols: Oh my goodness. I get so tired of the congratulating I see going on, not just in comics but in many artistic/creative circles. I feel like if you're doing good work, you don't need to say it so much. Kind of like when a used car salesman repeatedly tells you that he's trustworthy...
Somewhere during the course of college my insecurities about not being the best turned into a realization that we all feel that way, no matter our skills and abilities. MIT (at its best) promotes a culture of collaboration, not competition. It's an exercise in getting past any feelings of inadequacy and simply learning to see just what you can contribute to the whole. Or if there is competition, it's a sort of pride in executing a well-planned, elaborate, possibly clever, thing that has out-done the person before you. For example, there is this history of hacking, which is basically just super elaborate pranks. That tradition really reflects part of the ethos of MIT. There's a certain pride in coming up with a large plan and executing it well. It's nerdy, friendly competition where the goal is to build up instead of tear down. More and more I find myself wanting to carry that feeling over into comics.
Really, though, after meeting multiple Nobel prize winners and various well-known people around the world, you just have to get over yourself and realize that they were all insecure at some point, too, and it was just consistency and hard work that got them through. Researchers question and doubt themselves as much as artists do.
Collins: Another thing I noticed about Jumbly Junkery is that your art style shirts in a way that's tantamount to code-shifting. You have comics that evoke a craft-y vibe that wouldn't look out of place sewn on a product in someone's Etsy store. You have scratchy-looking things that belong xeroxed on some all-ages punk show flyer. You have a more refined approach that's in tune with the alternative comics tradition as currently practiced. With Angel you try your hand at the "new action"-- action/adventure/genre comics filtered through an alternative sensibility. Radio Ghosts is similar, but less pulpy and driven by vibrant color. Usually when I bring this sort of thing up people say "It all arises from the demands of the story" -- is that true with you as well, or do you deliberately mix things up?
Nichols: Usually it arises from the demands of the story. Sometimes I try deliberately mismatching things and seeing what arises from that exploration. A lot of it has to do with how varied my influences are and what I'm thinking/feeling at the time.
Collins: Did my "code-shifting" bit make any sense? My point is that your work comprises several aesthetics whose fans and practitioners, I think, might turn up their noses at or ignore the other ones.
Nichols: I totally understand that. I think the fact that I work this way has meant that it has taken me a lot longer than some people for people to have a sense of what it is I do. It's only now, after 10 issues of Jumbly Junkery, that I feel like they have a sense of identity to them. I just had to stick it out long enough and have faith in my process.
To me, though, aesthetics & styles are just another tool to be learned how to use, and it's really in how you use them where the interesting stuff comes in. There's a lot of stuff with great artistic craft that can fall flat with the writing. There's a lot of well-written comics with questionable art. I try not to think of them as being lesser or greater and really try not to turn my nose up at anything. Everything I experience is for me to learn from and potential tools for me to use in the future.
Collins: When did you start the series, by the way? Actually, that's a question I should have asked before: What's your background with comics? When did you start reading them, when did you start making them, when did you decide to make them your primary artistic outlet?
Nichols: My background with comics is this: I read the newspaper comics as a kid and never really liked them much. I never really got into superheroes. I read Johnny the Homicidal Maniac in high school, but nothing more than that. Seeing American Splendor in the theater is what triggered the idea that maybe I should make comics (instead of just coming up with characters and maps and thinking that I would write a book). That coincided with the time I moved to England for a cold, damp, somewhat lonely and miserable year, which is where I started drawing in earnest. And I didn't really delve into reading most of the stuff I read now until my senior year of college when I took a class with Henry Jenkins that covered the history of comics in a very even-handed way. This was around the time that I was starting to really explore my own stuff, so for me, criticism, theory, and creation are closely intertwined in the way I approach comics.
I don't know why comics has stuck with me so much. Partially, it's the ease in taking them with me different places to work on. I'm very good at penciling in my Moleskines on the train. And there's something about the interplay of layers of interpretation I find fascinating. Sequencing & narration. Expectations that are built into the medium. I guess I feel like someone who approaches comics with some respect for the history but with no true emotional connection to seeing things stay the same. I'm really curious to see how comics will change and grow and to see what happens when various boundaries and categories erode and shift.
Collins: Math! My understanding of and interest in this field basically didn't outlast the time it took me to read and dismiss the "When Are We Ever Gonna Have to Use THIS?" poster my calculus teacher had up in his classroom in high school, but it's obviously not just a field of study of yours but one that influences your comics and the imagery in them. How profound an influence is it, really? I see the recurring symbology, but I'm unqualified to determine if it runs deeper in terms of layout, structuring, rhythm and so on....
Nichols: Math is just another way of talking about the things we experience. For example, there is the physical feeling of falling through the air, and there is a way to notate that mathematically. Both are valid ways of understanding the experience of falling, but neither one on its own captures the entirety of the experience. One thing I'm interested in in comics is how the visual combined with the words can allow for several layers of understanding. I guess I'm just using math and mathematical symbols to try to find a way to add in another layer of understanding.
Collins: You just blew my mind, late-night dorm-room stoned bullshit session-style.
Nichols: Haha! Thanks, I guess. I also have an intense love of patterns and variations on patterns. This will occasionally affect my layouts. Sometimes I make plays on patterns, ratios, and symmetry. I wouldn't really expect people to notice these things (and I don't do it all the time). Mostly, they're just ways I amuse myself while I'm working. Like, seriously, I will chuckle when I do these things. I am a nerd.
Collins: You need to talk to Frank Santoro about this.
Nichols: I love reading all of Frank's writing about this stuff! I guess I find that the work I do as a graphic designer carries over into the way I think about structuring comics. Sometimes it's more a conscious decision than other times, but it is all rooted in basic principles of proportion and page flow. I totally agreed with Frank when he said something along the lines of "whether or not you want/know how to talk about it, it's still there and you can learn about it." Maybe that was a bad paraphrasing? But, yeah. Design! Super exciting to me!
Collins: Earlier I said that I first read your comics via Jumbly Junkery, but I first discovered your work in general when I saw your He-Man linocuts on sale at the first BCGF. You're a girl after my own heart on that score. But you gave those '80s-trash-genre influences a more thorough workout in Angel, which I found to be one of the more moving and emotional comics of its sort in recent years. When you first decided to try your hand at that Road Warrior/The Warriors brand of sci-fi gang-war action, how central was the love story, or the queer-identity aspect?
Nichols: When I first started Angel, the queer-identity thing was the main thing I wanted to explore. But I didn't want it to be like "oh, here I am being a queery queer-mo doing queer things." I wanted you to get a sense of the character and then have her sexuality be revealed in a more "yeah, this is what I do, no big deal" sort of way. I guess there were several bones I was picking with this story:
1) The way women's sexuality is often portrayed in sci-fi and action. I wanted her to own it, be in charge of it, and not just be vapid eye-candy.
2) The fact that there are very few butch women shown in a positive way, and even fewer as main characters.
3) The way that people generally assume that butch women are necessarily attracted to other women. Which is why I have her with a guy as well as a girl at different times.
4) There's also the way that female bisexuality is often portrayed as a male fantasy. I tried to keep a sense of her own strength and ownership of her body and sexuality without having her be objectified.
5) Then when she was with a guy, I didn't want her (like, what the character might think of herself) sense of sexual strength to be compromised which is why I picked the panels/shots I did (which ties back in with #1).
Collins: A key component to all this, it seems to me, is that Angel is presented in such a way that her gender isn't "revealed" until relatively deep into the story. I spent the whole book until that point believing her to be a man. What were you trying to do by packing your points above into a "twist" like that?
Nichols: I figured that, especially given the genre, people would read her as a man and assign her all the respect/strength/power they might give a male character in her role. I waited a long way to reveal her identity because I wanted the power that she had to be firmly cemented in the reader's mind. And in doing all this, I really just wanted to challenge some assumptions. This seemed like the most obvious way to do it.
Collins: I wanted to talk to you specifically about how you pace the action sequences in Angel--one beat and one character per panel. I found it hard to get a handle on spatially, but very evocative in terms of the paranoid isolation experienced by each of the characters stranded in this violent, hardscrabble future-Brooklyn. What were you trying to achieve with this technique? Were you bringing any specific influences to bear?
Nichols: I really wanted to capture the feeling of how when you're in a rough situation, you are never quite sure of what is all happening at the same time, so I'm glad to hear that that worked. As for influences, old issues of The 'Nam and 70s/80s European comics like Judge Dredd and Pepe Moreno's "Rebel" (which is what inspired me to do this in the first place; I started it as a joke and then just kept going).
Collins: Man, when I think of The 'Nam, it's one of those rare times when I really do believe that there are books meant to be read in yellowed, beat-up back issue stacks. Do you think you lose anything by publishing Angel to the web rather than going the full Benjamin Marra and recreating that floppy '80s action comic experience?
Nichols: I think something is lost, especially given the needing-to-be-updated nature of my website. I kind of want it to read more like Old City Blues does online. It's a trade-off, though, with ease of distribution. Plus, there's nothing to say that I can't make the story into physical objects, too. While writing it, I thought of it more as an eventual book and less of a read it online sort of thing. I'd love to see it published someday!
Collins: This is probably insulting in twelve different ways, but I was shocked to discover that you are a practicing Christian. Like, Chester Brown can put out a book about banging his way through the prostitutes of Montreal and I'm all "ho hum," but a contemporary Brooklyn-based alternative cartoonist offers up a single "hallelujah" and I do a comical spit-take. Question one is do you get that a lot? Question two is how much this kind of reaction factored into your decision to do Flocks, your autobio comic about growing up queer and Christian? Are you doing that strip to exorcise your own demons, or to educate your audience?
Nichols: No worries, I totally get that a lot! People are weird about religion, and I think a lot of contemporary Christianity is a little crazy, so I totally know where that reaction is coming from.
Aaron Brassea (Chainsaw Comics) is the one who asked me to do a comic about this. I had been toying around with the idea in my head for a bit, but him wanting me to do it really spurred me to start. A lot of it is me wanting to react, to explain. I want to exorcise my demons, for sure, and to talk about the reasons why a well-educated scientific liberal might still have faith. I chose the title "Flocks" as a way to hint at the different groups of people I have found myself in the company of and the various expectations these groups have. I had to come out as queer to my family. I often have to come out as religious to my friends now. Both revelations are met with surprise from the respective groups. That reaction and the way I have internally dealt with these inferred expectations is the real focus of this comic.
Collins: "Coming out as religious" makes me realize what effete, godless liberal circles we really do run in.
Nichols: Exactly! Every circle of people has its own set of social norms and expectations.
Collins: How important is community to your work? You contribute to the group blog Comix Cube with Kevin Czapiewski and Darryl Ayo Brathwaite, who like you are also comics-makers who write about comics. What do you get out of that kind of exchange of ideas that you can't get on your own? Ditto living in a comics hotbed like Brooklyn -- is there something there that's unavailable to people living outside of that scene?
Nichols: Community is very important to me, just not always the comics community. Many of the people who I talk about my ideas with and who give me feedback are not cartoonists and often don't even read many comics. My friends are architects, designers, writers, visual artists, musicians, and engineers. This cross-discipline pollination is very important to me. It's so easy to get caught up in one scene or another and find yourself exploring things in tired ways. My friends give me fresh eyes.
That being said, I do also have a very strong group of comics friends. I started the blog with Darryl and Kevin because we all have very different comics tastes and backgrounds and I wanted a place where we could talk about things with an equal footing. Nothing is too low or high to be discussed. It is all comics, and I want to help do my part to build a larger comics narrative instead of keeping things segregated into easy categories (such as the current divisions of web/indie/mainstream/art).
I also have a weekly drawing group on Mondays at my house, where it's a nice mix of different comics styles. Yuko Ota and Ananth Panagariya (Johnny Wander), Evan Dahm (Rice Boy), Scott Wegener (Atomic Robo), Margo Dabaie (Hookah Girl), and Darryl Ayo Brathwaite (Little Garden) are all regulars. There are a handful of other people + significant others that show up, too. It's been fun to see how the group has grown and changed.
I feel like anything I say about living in Brooklyn will be totally biased; I've wanted to live in NYC since I was five years old! Other than the density of creative people, the one thing that I would miss anywhere else is the energy of the city. Some people find it overwhelming or tiring, but I thrive on it. I was explaining this to one of my friends the other day, how at some point in my life I realized that I could shape who I would become only so much, and that I realized that I wanted a tool to help shape me. MIT was one tool, one era of growth. NYC is the current one, and one that has the potential to push me in more ways than I can imagine. I love this city! Sure, it has its problems. It can definitely feel a little clique-ish at times. But in general, the city keeps me from getting lazy. If I lived anywhere else, I wouldn't be anywhere near as productive.
Collins: Your comics frequently have a heart-on-sleeve quality that's rare in postmillennial alternative comics. When it does pop up -- in Blankets, say -- it gets ridiculed more often than not. There seems to be more of a space for that sort of emotional expression in webcomics or even in zine culture than in altcomix proper. Or am I just not looking in the right place? When you look around the landscape, do you see work you feel is hitting these kinds of buttons? Why are you hitting them?
Nichols: I find it incredibly difficult not to be sincere. It just never seems worth the effort to me to try and hide. I guess I've spent a lot of my life feeling like I've hidden who I am and what I want to really want to pursue that in my art.
I also think that sincerity can be very brave. If you're being ironic or non-committal about what you like or what you feel, then you can always brush it off when people criticize you or what you care about. But if you're being sincere in telling them something and having them ridicule it, then you're leaving yourself open for potential pain or embarrassment. It takes strength to say something even if you know people might laugh. But I like knowing that even if I try and fail, at least I did what I did with an honest heart and good intentions. Life is about learning, and you can't learn unless you fall and build up some good scars.