Switching Between Languages: An Interview with MariNaomi

MariNaomi is one of a handful of autobio cartoonists who have managed to breathe new life into the genre—thanks to her sense of humor, her eye for detail, and an unflinching capacity for telling the truth about her experiences as she saw them at the time. This Bay Area artist has been making comics since 1997, publishing in a variety of anthologies as well as her own minicomics series, Estrus Comics. Much of her first book, Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Résumé, Ages 0 to 22, initially appeared in minicomics form, in which the stories alternated between amusing childhood anecdotes, and tales depicting deeply felt heartache, sprung from the sort of risks, extremes, and thrills that are often come with being young and feeling bulletproof.

The book's two separate prologue strips help to illustrate the ways in which the ideal and the actual came into conflict, especially in regard to her burgeoning sexual identity. The first strip is about how her parents met and courted each other, ending with her father hoping that his daughter would find someone to "take care of" her. The second, titled "The Most Beautiful Penis I've Ever Seen", depicts pre-teen Mari with an older, male babysitter. He asks her to take off her clothes so he can take pictures of her (in exchange for gum), and she later asks to see him in the nude as well. Like much of the rest of her work, this scene is depicted without sensationalism, forcing the reader to reach their own conclusions about what he or she is seeing.

MariNaomi leads the reader through her romantic life, one story per partner. We initially get lighthearted schoolgirl crushes (told with a great deal of wit) and move on to early teenage flings. Just when it seems like the book is going to be about a breezy series of hook-ups as gags, she unravels the sad tale of her first love, Jason. This is one of two tent-pole relationships depicted in the book, with subsequent (and occasionally concurrent) relationships frequently in its shadow or reflection. The second relationship, with "Francis", takes on an even more harrowing tone as the artist deals with her own confusion over her sexual desires and her own identity while trying to make her first live-in relationship work.

In providing a compendium of chronological experiences, it can be difficult to figure out when to stop. MariNaomi took her breakup with Francis as that stopping point, tacking on the thin framework of development from egg to pupa to adult, emerging as a butterfly. While the author admitted that this metaphor wasn't necessarily earned by her actual life experiences at the time, it is interesting to note that it wasn't long after that break-up before she published her first comics. Kiss & Tell, in its current incarnation, represents yet another developmental stage for MariNaomi as both person and artist. My thanks to HarperPerennial's Anne J. Tate for her rapid turnaround on providing a galley of the book, and to the artist herself for her candid and funny responses to my questions.

Early Days: Fighting Authority and Drawing On Acid

Robert Clough: You spent your first eight years in Texas and then moved to Marin County, California. You hinted in the book that the transition was a weird one. What was life like for you in each place? Did you enjoy coming of age in the Bay Area?

MariNaomi: It was the strangest transition! Kids in my small Texas town were just kids. Kids in Mill Valley were like little grownups. They wore designer jeans and makeup and did grown-up things like dating and social ostracizing. It was intimidating to say the least, since at that age I was more focused on watching cartoons and nervously avoiding the boys I had crushes on.

One of the stranger things I noticed after the move was how segregated the races were in Marin. Ninety-nine percent of the black kids were in a "special ed" class of their own, alongside the mentally and physically disabled kids, whereas in my old town, all the different races intermingled. It's ironic, since when I tell people I'm originally from Texas, there's always the assumption that people were more racist there.

RC: What was your childhood like from a comics standpoint? Did your parents give them to you?

MN: When I was really small, I remember seeing Japanese comics and hating them, since they drew people exactly how the Japanese weren't: big eyes, big boobs, blond hair. It seemed like self-loathing, and I got it into my mind that if I were to condone it, I would be self-loathing too. I don't know where I got those ideas. I was maybe five years old at the time.

Then, once we moved to California, I became obsessed with Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County. I used to clip my favorite ones out of the paper and re-read them over and over again. I still have my Opus stuffed animal somewhere. I had a huge crush on Opus.

RC: Did you have friends who read comics?

MN: Not that I recall, although my friend once told me she liked Superman. Maybe she was referring to the movie.
RC: How old were you when you started drawing? Were you encouraged by your parents? Did you have friends or siblings who drew with you, or was it strictly a solitary activity?

MN: I've been into drawing for as long as I can remember. My mom is very artistic, and my dad always wanted to be a novelist, so they were very encouraging about creative endeavors growing up. As for the social aspect, I remember drawing with my friends as a teenager, especially on LSD. My folks didn't encourage that, though.

RC: Were you able to focus and concentrate enough while on LSD to create coherent art?

MN: At the time, the content of my artwork was pretty much pure technique, which I think you can see reflected in my early comics. I was all about the random dots and lines. So the focus and concentration were there, in almost an OCD manner, but the nature of the drawings made it so I didn't have to follow any guidelines, I just had to keep drawing. I haven't done LSD since the nineties, and I can't even fathom trying to create something coherent while on it.

RC: Did you keep any of your art from these days?

MN: Oh yes, I've kept everything! Here's a link to an LSD-fueled page from my sketchbook to show you what I mean.

RC: You have a fine arts background, but you've said that you're self-taught. How old were you when you started to get serious about art? What was your college experience like for you in terms of your field of study? Did you draw comics in college, or did you focus on writing and/or painting?

MN: After I dropped out of high school, I was kind of done with school. Well, sort of. When I was eighteen, I took a couple classes at the community college, film and psychology, and they really cemented my distaste for sitting in classrooms. I kind of fell into the fine arts thing after I was invited to be in an art show for lady cartoonists, in 2002. I enjoyed the gallery experience so much that I started painting lots and made a career of it for years. I don't mean to say that I'm done with painting as a career, but I'm definitely more focused on comics for now. I go back and forth.

RC: Is part of your distaste for classrooms related to your unease with authority figures?

MN: Very possibly, but I also think it was related to certain not-so-great teachers I was exposed to. The psych class I took in college was awful, pretty much taught straight out of the textbook. The teacher had no interest in what he was teaching, until he got to the chapter about child psychology, which was his specialty, at which point he put the book down, got all animated, and discussed what he knew at length. Unfortunately, I had no interest in child psychology.

The film class, although productive (I was one of the few people in the class who actually finished their short movie), drove home why I preferred to study on my own. I was filming a dream sequence starring my sister. I wanted to pair it with an ethereal Cocteau Twins song, but the teacher didn't like it. She thought it was "too weird," and recommended that I instead use traditional Japanese music. Because the actress was "Oriental." I got so mad—race had nothing to do with the movie, which was about a high-class child prostitute (I know, WTF?). I kind of lost it and asked her, "If my sister was black, should I use rap music? If she were Latino, should I use the Mexican Hat Dance?"

In addition to all that, I've always had difficulty sitting in one place for long periods of time and being fed ideas. Like, it's really hard for me to sit through an entire movie. I get restless. However, I don't seem to have difficulty working at the drawing board for fourteen-hour stretches.

RC: Why do you think that is? Do you consider yourself to be ADHD in some ways?

MN: I used to think it was because I was a smoker--every forty-five minutes I'd want to be outside with a cigarette. But it's been seven years since I quit for good, so that can't be it anymore.

I do hate to be bored. I don't think I'm ADHD, just impatient. Life is too short.

I also don't enjoy being told what to do, especially what to learn, what's important, if I don't agree with the teacher. It's not always the case. In high school I loved my drama class, and I loved my algebra teacher, Fred Gold, so much that I worked really hard and got an A+ in his class. He was so corny and would write "fractions are your friends" on the blackboard, but it worked for me because I'm pretty corny too. He also wore a bow tie, which was awesome.

My point being that if a teacher is enthusiastic and not a jerk, I can sometimes get into it. But with the exception of a handful of amazing teachers that really stood out for me, the majority of them seemed like they were phoning it in or imposing their own creepy values on the material, and it really turned me off to school.

Likewise with sitting through movies. After taking that film class in college, and working in a video store for two years, I got really picky about movies. And I've gotten so much worse over the years. If I don't love what I'm watching, I start getting antsy, thinking that my time could be better spent drawing comics.


Choosing An Artistic Path

RC: You've noted that storytelling has always been your primary passion. What have you taken from your skills as a painter and as a writer into your identity as a cartoonist?

MN: In the past, when I focused on writing novels or short stories, there was a part of me that felt starved for visual expression. And when I focused all my attention on visual arts, I didn't feel very intellectually stimulated. Cartooning is a great in-between, as it really feels like a marriage of fine arts and writing.

RC: Do you continue to paint and write as much as you did before you started cartooning?

MN: I toggle between the three of them: writing, painting/collage, and cartooning. It's pretty rare that I have the capacity to do all of them. It's like switching between languages.

RC: What inspires you to engage in each activity?

MN: External forces have something to do with it. If there's a great art opportunity, then I'll get psyched to paint. If I have incentive to draw a particular story, I'll drop everything to make that happen. But aside from external forces, I can't really explain why I go back and forth, nor can I predict when the shift will happen. It's nice to have other options for creative expression, though, as each mode has its frustrations.

RC: Have you ever wanted to combine the three, like making a painted comic?

MN: Totally! I would very much like to do a book like that. It's on my list.

RC: You've done some collaborations in addition to illustrating your own writing. What have those experiences been like for you?

MN: The first collaboration I did in comics was for Shannon O'Leary's true pet crimes anthology, Pet Noir,, where I illustrated her story about the San Francisco Dog Mauling. I did a loooot of studying. I read a horrible book about it, and pretty much every article I could find online about the case and all the people involved—and that was a lot. So I feel very tied to that story, even though it was written by someone else. But I eventually learned that such a fantastic collaborative experience is a rare thing, and have since had experiences that would make me think twice about getting involved with someone else's project. That's okay though, since I'm not about to run out of my own material anytime soon.

RC: You don't need to give names, but what was the nature of the difficulties?

MN: Not having the same final vision as the person you're collaborating with. Not having the same work ethic. Being a pre-planner when they're more last-minute types. Not having the same levels of investment in a project. Or the worst is when you pour your heart and soul into someone else's project, then they don't bother to promote it, or worse, never go through with it. There are myriad things that could go wrong with a project. Of course, when it all goes smoothly, it's almost worth suffering through all those other times. Almost.

RC: Do you consider yourself to be a writer that draws, an artist that writes, or something else?

MN: It depends on what project I'm working on. I do think I'm a better writer than I am a drawer, but I think I'm a better painter than I am a writer. It's tricky when people ask me what I do at parties. I usually try to change the subject.