“Our Goal Is to Create an Audience That’s Not There Yet”: An Interview with Jessica Abel and Matt Madden

MAUTNER: Out of curiosity, how was Drawing Words & Writing Pictures received? Did it get the audience you wanted it to? Do you feel like people in academia, be it K-12 or college, accepted it as a textbook?

ABEL: I think those that have seen it have. The thing that’s been distressing for us is the level to which it hasn’t gotten seen. It’s starting to get to the point when you mention it to people they're like, “Oh yeah,” they know it. But it took a long time. The first book’s been out for four years.

MADDEN: It’s been a slow burner. The reviews have been uniformly excellent, especially from our peers. It was very gratifying to hear from like our cartoonist friends, or cartoonists that teach, who tell us that they found it to be a very useful resource. And that was something that we were nervous about, that our peers would be like, “This is amateur crap." So it bolstered our confidence that this is the book we meant to do and this is a really essential book that everyone should be using. So why are they not using it? It just hasn’t reached its audience yet and we don’t really have an explanation for that. The recession certainly plays into it because that happened right as the book came out in 2008.

ABEL: I think there’s still a lot of people who are loyal to other books for teaching because they’ve been out a long time. Even when they say, “Oh well you know it’s not the best book, it doesn’t cover everything, I need to supplement with all this stuff." Well with our book you wouldn’t need to supplement all this stuff [laughter]. But they’re still kind of stuck with older books that might not be as well designed for classroom use.

MADDEN: Our explicit goal with this book is to create an audience that's not there yet. There are certainly cartoonists that are teaching it in a couple different art schools and universities and continuing education programs. There are a lot of schools that teach you how to make comics, but there might not be a local professional cartoonist who can come in and teach a class. But there might be an art teacher or an illustration teacher or even a creative writing teacher who can. And that’s where I think it’s really crucial, because anyone can use that book even if they’ve never made a comic themselves. They can use that and kind of learn with the students and be a couple chapters ahead. They can use our website, we have lots of extra material on there: A teacher's guide, and a student guide and stuff like that. And that’s where I see it potentially having a revolutionary effect, reaching out to high schools and colleges that haven't taught comics a lot.

MAUNTER: Have you seen that starting to happen yet?

MADDEN: Very slowly yeah. We haven't seen a lot of numbers from Macmillan, which is our parent publisher. But it has a certain amount of adoption in schools. We occasionally get emails like, “Hi! I’m a high school art teacher out in Washington State and I just got approved to do a full-year class using your book.” That kind of stuff is really exciting. So I hope that catches on. We're trying to get people to do guest posts for our blog. There’s an amazing series right now by Derek Mainhart.

ABEL: He’s planning to post his entire, year-long curriculum for a high school/middle school comics class. He’s done the first four days so far. And as it goes further along it’ll be week by week, not day by day. But in the beginning he’s literally posting every day: “Here’s what you do, here’s what you show, here’s the activity you can do.” He uses our book but it’s not his only resource. And it’s just incredible. At the moment there’s only four posts up, so I don’t think the sense of the vastness of this project out there yet. But we’ve never taught high school -- well we’ve not never taught high school students, we did a specialized workshop -- but we’ve never taught a high school class. So it’s kind of a lack in our website that will no longer be a lack. Here’s a great opportunity to actually teach comics all year to these students.

MADDEN: Did he pitch this class with our book or was this just something that he just got approved?

ABEL: I’m not sure. He’s been teaching comics a long time but he was one of the first people to get in touch with us in 2008 and say, “This is really great, I love this.” If I looked back at the original email I would probably figure out what the order of things was. “Teaching Comics to Teens” is the name of the series.

MAUTNER: With this book, and with Drawing Words, you're obviously aiming at a wide swath of people like you said. You’re looking at high school students, college students, people who already make comics, newcomers, people who know nothing about comics. Were you at all concerned when writing the book, about spreading yourself too thin?

MADDEN: Unfortunately not. I wish there had been a point where we said, “We don’t have enough material for this chapter, we need to…"

ABEL: [overlapping] Matt was telling me that. He was like, “Look, we should do a bunch of shorter chapters because shorter chapters are better.” And I’m like “Okay, tell where we can make them shorter, I’m happy to do it.” There was stuff we cut out of the book last minute. We were going so far over page count we cut out a bunch of material and were posting it online.

MAUTNER: Like what?

ABEL: We had a whole lesson about how to lay out bleeds that we put on our website under the resources section. It’s a technical task that a lot of people just really don’t understand. They want to do bleeds from the outset and they start screwing it up immediately. So we put that together and then we took it out of the book because there was no room. There’s an activity we posted on our blog a couple weeks ago called "The Anatomy of Doors". That’s something that was in the book. It was designed, it was in there and we cut it. We cut all the appendices practically. There were three or four appendices that we didn’t even finish writing.

MADDEN: One example is webcomics, and especially with digital platforms, there’s no way to write anything definitive at this point that’s not going to be obsolete within three weeks. We had to address it while saying as little as possible.

ABEL: Well, we talked about it structurally…

MADDEN: ... That this is something that's here to stay and you need to be aware of it. It’s galling to me that we couldn’t do anything more definitive, but that’s just the nature of that particular development.

ABEL: Somebody has already been like, “I wish you had talked more about iPhone comics.” And we’re just like, “How are we going to talk about iPhone comics?” The iPhone's not even going to exist in three years, it’s going to be all in our brains or something [laughter].

MADDEN: We’ll all have little eyeball implants.

ABEL: Right, exactly.

MADDEN: How are you going to read comics on eyeballs?

ABEL: Well the glasses right? When you get the special glasses, you’re going to read comics walking down the street. There’s no way to talk about that stuff, but what we tried to do is talk about it in terms of a mind set. Here’s how you go about thinking about platforms. Which I think will hold up, I think it’s going to be okay.

MAUTNER: We were talking about the amount of work that’s out there right now. When I see these new cartoonists coming out of CCS and School of Visual Arts, it’s very exciting to see so much out there. And then with the recession, and reading things like where Kevin Huizenga says that he basically has to rely on his wife in order to make comics or Faith Erin Hicks’s recent blog post ...

MADDEN: I’m sorry, what did Kevin say?

MAUTNER: He said in an interview he did with Art Spiegelman for The Comics Journal how basically it’s because of his wife and her full-time job that he’s able to make comics full-time.

MADDEN: Which is pretty common.

MAUTNER: And then reading Faith Erin Hicks’s blog post about…

MADDEN: Yeah, about her life situation and how she can make a life in comics because she’s Canadian.

ABEL: Canadian and very poor.

MAUTNER: Exactly. Is it possible to make a living doing comics? Do you worry about the economic reality of making comics when you’re teaching or you’re writing a book like this. Sometimes I worry -- and I include myself in this -- that we’re trumpeting a medium that basically you can’t make a living off of. That you cannot even subsist off of.

ABEL: Do I think about it, worry about it? Yeah, absolutely I do.

MADDEN: We’re very concerned about it.

ABEL: I’m not sure if it’s a wise idea for students to come in wanting to make comics. But everybody wants to be a writer, everybody wants to be an artist and who am I to say they’re not the ones who should be?

MADDEN: Who’s going to stop an 18-year-old who’s decided they want to go to school to make comics? [laughs] If they can talk their parents into paying for it or get a loan or whatever. And that’s not going to change. That’s creative people in general. That’s any major. People are going to pursue that. Our job is to make them aware of the realities, and kind of ease them into it. The full-year class we teach together, it's first- and second-year students and it’s their first time in comics and they’re so excited, so we don’t really want to crush them first day and say, “What are you guys doing here? This is a waste of time.” [laughter] We definitely give a very harsh, reality talk at the end of that first year saying, “These are the facts." In fact, we talked about the Faith Erin Hicks blog post.

We have a Facebook page as well for Drawing Words, and I’ve been posting a series of links called “Artist's Life”. I’m up to number nine. Whenever I come across a blog post like Faith's, or things about being a freelancer, things about rights issues, I’ve been posting those on our Facebook page as a resource.

ABEL: I think a lot people who get into and study comics, they don’t realize up-front that what they want is to become an artist. And being an artist means you are a small business owner. Like it or not.

MADDEN: And again that’s true…

ABEL: It's true of any art or any artist. That’s why we have the section in the back of Mastering Comics that has things like “get an accountant" or "do your taxes."

MAUTNER: Yeah, that's what inspired the question.

ABEL: Right, and we really care about that stuff. I’m hoping that a lot of people are reading Drawing Words and Mastering Comics and making comics because they want to make comics and not because they think it’s going to be a career for them. Because it is going to be a career for very few people. Even for us, it’s like, “Yeah we do comics and we do get paid for it, but that’s not how we’re putting our living together.” And that’s true of almost all cartoonists. The recession is irrelevant to that. It’s relevant but it’s not what made that situation true.

MADDEN: Comics are our career in a broad sense in that we make our money, our living, from stuff related to comics. But it’s not from royalties on our books. [laughter] It's from writing textbooks, it’s from teaching, it’s from editing, it’s from doing translation work, it’s from doing workshops and lectures all over the world. It’s a lot of hustle, you know? And the money that we get from our actual work is a very small part of that.

ABEL: And the people that don’t have to hustle to do art, any kind of art, it's so miniscule.

MADDEN: Artists are hustlers.

ABEL: You have to be and it sucks. We hate it, but it’s absolutely fact, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

MADDEN: It's a catch-22 being an artist. Part of what makes me want to be an artist is because you’re creative and you don’t want to live by normal societal rules and you want to devote yourself to art and creativity. But in order to do that successfully you have to be even more hard-nosed and realistic than the average salary worker who has their job and their insurance taken care of. It sucks, it really sucks. But that’s the way it is.

MAUNTER: Do you feel like the comics bubble is going to burst? That that interest in comics that has been going on for the past ten years, has the recession really hurt it?

MADDEN: Well, I think the recession hurt everything a little bit, but comics I think are here to stay. It doesn’t really qualify as a bubble anymore. Probably because it’s already been several years since publishers started snapping up young authors and paying very high advances for people. I think that has definitely tapered off. People are getting book deals, but it's not this heavy, “Oh my god, we’re going to get rich off comics!” thing. They're more realistic. They've calibrated. It’s not going to get us all rich overnight, probably because these things take five years to draw. But we’re still going to keep publishing, it’s still a growing category. Meanwhile you have webcomics and mini comics, all that stuff is as strong as ever. And I just don’t see that slowing down or going away particularly. There’s no bubble to pop. It’s more like a vast organism that can’t really be killed off at this point, it’s just gotten too big.

MAUTNER: You guys are moving to France.



MADDEN: First of all we both got a sabbatical from SVA, and took a year off from teaching. Second of all we got a residency in Angoulême. Angoulême has the big festival every year.


MADDEN: They also have this separate, not related, complex called La Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de L’image, which is this big museum, a library, a book store, a film center. And they have a residency program that's eligible to any cartoonist that’s been published in France. Sarah Glidden’s over there right now, Nathan Schreiber who did Power Out. Ted Stearn’s going to be there next fall while we’re there. So American artists are starting to discover it. It’s been around for a while. We applied, we bring ourselves over there, but they’re putting us up in an apartment along with our kids for a whole year, several blocks away from this building that’s a dedicated studio that has areas for artists with light tables and the whole studio set up, plus a separate room with scanners and computers and work tables. The administrators of the residency have already found schools for our kids.

MAUTNER: That’s incredible.

MADDEN: All we have to do is rent out our house in Brooklyn, which is a big task, and get ourselves over to Angoulême at the end of the summer. And we’ll be taking up residency there.

ABEL: And part of it is about breaking this pattern of just so much stuff going on.

MADDEN: And Jessica wrote a really good blog post which you should check out if you haven’t, which she put up a few months ago. It’s about the stage in our lives where we feel we’ve gone as we can with this current stage, taking every job that comes our way and juggling multiple, important things and having very little time for our own work. So this is a residency and retreat to have the freedom to concentrate on our own creative work for a while. Switch the balance of the equation a little bit, so that even if we’re still doing a lot of other stuff, we're authors that teach and do good projects, and not teachers and textbook writers who happen to do comics on the side. Which is the way it’s come to feel in recent years.

MAUTNER: So in a large part this is an opportunity for you guys to focus on getting back to the core essence of doing comics. So what are you guys working on? What are your current projects? Jessica, I know that you mentioned the Mars story.

ABEL: Roller Derby on Mars, yeah. That’s my current project. It’s called Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars. It’s going to be published by Dargaud. And I’m just about finished with the first volume, a 54-page album. I’m about a week or two away from finishing and then I’ll move on to the second one.

MAUNTER: Do you see this being an ongoing series?

ABEL: It’s not ongoing forever, but it’s long. It has to fly, it has to work commercially for Dargaud for them to continue with it. But I hope it continues for a while at least. It's potentially eight to twelve albums maybe?

MADDEN: But you ideally wouldn’t draw it all yourself, right?

ABEL: Yeah. Well, right now I’m working with an assistant on it. I love working with an assistant.

MADDEN: Her name is Lydia Roberts.

ABEL: Lydia Roberts, she’s awesome. She’s doing a lot of design. She’s a former student, a former intern of ours, and she’s really talented.

Working with an assistant is a perfect middle ground for me between doing everything by myself and writing and giving it to somebody else. It’s great because I’m doing all the figures and working out all the world building sort of stuff that needs to happen. I’m doing that rather than having a third hand part in it. And yet I don’t have to draw all the trucks [laughter], and all the seats in the roller derby arena.

MAUNTER: Trucks are the best part.

ABEL: Lydia’s going to go insane from drawing seats in the derby arena. So yeah, it’s great and it’s really fun. As a series, it’s a little bit goofy, but it has a serious side to it,  the Mars that it takes place in is fairly grim.

So that’s the main thing. And then I’m in the middle of proposing a nonfiction comic which I can’t really talk about right now but if that flies I’m going to be doing a huge nonfiction book too.

MAUNTER: What about you Matt—what’re you working on?

MADDEN: Well the first project out right now to some publishers is a short story collection of most of the short stories I’ve done in the last ten years more or less.

MAUNTER: Including some Terrifying Steamboat Stories work I hope.

MADDEN: I'm actually not going back that far. Most of my stuff is either out of print or unavailable and then even if people are interested in my work there’s not really a good way to see it. So I have a couple of things in mind, and the first thing is the flesh out what it’s probably going to be called Six Treasures of the Spiral and it’ll be a collection of just about a hundred pages or so of short stories I’ve done in the past ten years. And it’ll be the kind of things that appeared in the A Fine Mess series with Alternative Comics and in Rosetta and Hotwire, Blurred Vision, and a couple of new things that haven’t even been published yet. All of them are contstrained comics, and I’m hoping to find a publisher for here and also at least France and Spain, maybe Italy. I have to talk to my publishers who published 99 Ways to Tell a Story, see if I can strong arm them into publishing another book of mine.

In term of my older work, I have another idea for a collection that’d be called Black Candy and Other Stories so it’d be a reprint of Black Candy, which is only fifty-some odd pages, and filling it out with all of the best stuff from my early career up to about 2000. So it would have “Night of the Grossinator” which is a story I did in two colors − I actually just put it up for free on Issuu.com.  And yes, a few things from Terrifying Steamboat Stories.

A lot of that is historical interest rather than contemporary for me, I don't know. It's open to negotiation with whoever ends up publishing it. What I might do is some kind of digital version of it, something that’s as simple as a PDF or something else, I’m not sure.

In terms of being in France, I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but my goal is to do an entire book in a year, which would be a huge task for me because I’m a very slow cartoonist. It takes me a long time just to work out the thumbnails, especially working with weird structural constraints, causing me to have to do diagrams, etc. Just at the logistic level, the amount of time it takes me to pencil a page and refine it and get the inks right and look up references and get distracted on Google image search. [Mautner laughs.] I’m just very slow.

I actually like the European album length, it’s like a long short story, 48 to 54 pages. That's sort of about Black Candy length. That’s the range I’m thinking of. I’ve a lot of ideas and I’m excited to, this summer, spend some café time just going through sketchbooks and ideas, and whittling it down to a final list. Which constraint will win the contest to be my next comic? [Laughter.]