From the TCJ Archives

The Megan Kelso Interview

GROTH: First of all, did the “Queen of the Black Black” appear anywhere else, or was that done for the book?

KELSO: For the book.

GROTH: When you decided to put the book together, was it a strategy to do a new strip and name the book after it?

KELSO: Really, since issue #4 I’ve been trying to do the Queen story. I had the idea for it a long time ago, and I just kept pushing it aside when I would get a more immediate idea. So then I finished Girlhero, and I immediately knew that I wanted to collect all the short stories, and I thought that “Queen of the Black Black” was just a really cool name, for the strip and the book. One of the reasons that I kept putting it off was that I wanted to do it with graytones, I couldn’t see doing it in just black and white, and I never really had the resources to do halftones in one of the issues of Girlhero. So, yeah, as soon as I finished Girlhero I knew I wanted to do the book.

GROTH: Actually, I knew that. I can’t tell the medium, but was it gouache?

KELSO: Yeah. The plan had been to just do it in shades of gray, and have halftones made of it, and my whole model for doing that was those black-and-white gouache stories that Julie Doucet did a few years back. That’s what I was shooting for. But then, I started using this warm gray that has yellow in it, and all the others are just one shade of gray, and it started to take on this quality of color that if we had just done it in straight half-tone black and white it wouldn’t have shown up. When Tom Devlin agreed to publish it, and saw the painted pages, he said, “Let’s do it in fall color, so that will actually show.” But when I had done the story, that whole time I thought it would be done in shades of gray and that that color wouldn’t actually show up.

“Queen of the Black Black” from Queen of the Black Black ©1998 Megan Kelso

GROTH: I was going to ask you about that, because it doesn’t look really black and white.

KELSO: It’s not. It’s full-color printing.

GROTH: Well, since you knew what you were doing before you did the story, tell me what were you trying to convey with “Queen of the Black Black?”

KELSO: Well, there’s a couple different strands. One of the pieces of art at the airport is this piece by Louise Nevelson, who is this sculptor, I don’t know if you’re familiar with her work —

GROTH: No, I am not.

KELSO: She’s a Russian-American, she did most of her work in the ’60s and early ’70s, and she came into prominence when she was quite an old woman, when she was in her 60s and 70s herself. And she does these sculptures: she works either in all black, all white, or all gold, but she’s most famous for the black ones. She just collected scrapwood and weird old pieces of furniture, put these old pieces of wood in, then arranged these boxes, and pretty much all of her work that she’s famous for looks like this. So I have to clean one of these pieces at the airport. It’s really dirty at the airport, and I could dust this thing every day and it would still look dirty. So I have an intense relationship with this sculpture: I really love it, but it’s totally irritating because I have to dust it all the time, I spend a lot of time telling skeptics that it’s important (and it is, because she really is a famous sculptor and the piece is worth a lot of money, blah blah blah). At one point I just wanted to do a biographical story about Louise Nevelson, like the stuff Dave Lasky occasionally does. And then, it started to — I think it was in a conversation with a passenger at the airport about how Louise Nevelson’s work looks a lot like the Death Star in Star Wars. You see the Death Star from afar and you see all that textural machinery, and it’s all kind of monochromatic. And when you look at her sculpture, you get that same feeling. So then I started to have this idea about how fun it would be to draw that, to create that in 2-D. And then I sort of left the idea of a biographical story about this artist, and it became a story that takes place in a world that is created by her. Because she actually did do installations later on in her life, where you’d walk into a room and just be within this Death Star stuff... so, it became less realistic and more an imagined world that this artist created.

“Queen of the Black Black” from Queen of the Black Black ©1998 Megan Kelso

The other strand of it was... in a number of relationships with women I’ve had over the years, the sort of teacher/student relationships where the more you know about the teacher the more sort disillusioned and kind of grossed out you become. [Laughs.]

GROTH: Yeah, yeah.

KELSO: So those are two strands. Oh, and also I guess some of the stuff about being an artist. I’ve had this feeling for years of being right on the brink of doing really brilliant work, but not being quite able to reach it. I don’t know, maybe you feel that forever and that’s what keeps you striving. But the story is about that too — and also about being influenced by other artists. In a way she [Queen] couldn’t see the girl as an artist in her own right except as a protégé.

GROTH: You have the ability, essential in a cartoonist I think, to sum up or intimate a great deal about your characters and their relationship to other characters or the natural world or even themselves very succinctly. This must have something to do with your choice of images and how those successive images connect with one another. [Assuming you agree], could you tell me how you learned to make those choices that pack so many implications and connections into such comparatively little space?

KELSO: Well, there’s the old “Show, Don’t Tell” thing I mentioned earlier. Also, I have this maniacal fear of boring the reader, so I’ve tried to teach myself to be an economical storyteller. I try to feel compassion for the characters in my stories, That probably sounds very woo-woo and touchy-feely, but I believe that if you make the effort to truly understand each character as a fully-realized person, then the connections, relationships and implications will follow. Most of my stories that failed, failed I think because I was creating fake characters that I didn’t have enough compassion for to really think through, who only existed to move the plot along or make the lead character look good or bad or whatever. I think when I figured that out my stories got better. You can pack more meat into a story if every character counts. I have to remind myself of that, because it takes more time and effort.

GROTH: The Queen says, “Why did I leave New York. I fled the sprawling needs of other people. That’s what womanhood is about, you know.” What did you mean to convey in that passage?

“Queen of the Black Black” from Queen of the Black Black ©1998 Megan Kelso

KELSO: Well, there’s the scene where she’s back in New York, and she’s working hard every night in her studio, everyone else is out partying, but she’s extremely committed and serious. But all of us have stuff in our life: taking the cat to the vet, figuring out what’s for dinner, going grocery shopping... and in my experience, no matter how wonderful the guy has been, I have done more of the “maintain the life” kind of work (or at least spent more time thinking about it), and it seems like for a lot of reasons there’s more cultural acceptance for a guy going off to his room, “Fuck everything, I’m going to do my work, somebody else will take care of the kids, somebody else will take care of the life, I am an Artist!” A lot of male artists have wives who agree with that, and believed in their work so much that they want to shield the guy from everyday concerns, and so I think I wanted to talk about the Queen not ever getting to have that. What she needed to do in order to do her work was to leave everything, and go to a place where she was alone, had all these servants and she could just do her work, nobody asking anything of her, where she could just be the pure artist. And I have longed for that.

GROTH: Let me know if you find a way to do that. Let us know. [Kelso laughs.] Do you mean for this to be in any way a cautionary tale? In the sense that the Queen/artist fell into a kind of decadence? I mean, she obviously physically went to hell in a handbasket [Kelso laughs] and there wasn’t a sense that she was vital artistically—

KELSO: Her best days were over.

GROTH: — She seemed over the hill.

KELSO: Mm-hmm.

GROTH: And that the young artist recognized that.

KELSO: Right.

GROTH: And didn’t want to become that.

KELSO: Right.

GROTH: OK, good. [Laughter.] I interpreted that correctly. This was the last thing you did in the book?

KELSO: No, actually I did “The Daddy Mask” after that.

GROTH: Well, those are the two most accomplished.

KELSO: I wanted more heft to the book, more stories.

GROTH: The other strip that you use a metaphor for is the “Pennyroyal Tea,” where you used that fantasy facade. Why did you feel that was necessary for the story, as opposed to portraying a couple of 20-somethings dealing with the same events?

KELSO: Those artichoke people —

GROTH: Which you’re fond of, because you use them in a couple of strips.

KELSO: One summer I started drawing them. I’d finished #4 and I decided to take some time off. I’d been doing one issue every six months (which I know doesn’t sound like much), but I was getting really burned out, so I guess it was the summer of ’95. I said, “I’m not gonna draw comics all summer, I’m just gonna have fun.” I didn’t draw much of anything except artichoke people, doodling while on the phone, drawing these creatures. And I became really obsessed. They were all I wanted to draw, so I decided I was going to do a story about these people. So I wrote a story about them. It wasn’t like I had the story and said, “I think I will have elves act out the story rather than 20-somethings.” It was more like, “I want to do a story about these elves — what would they do?” And that’s what they did. And they’re going to do whole lots of other things, too. I’m going to do a whole book.

GROTH: Now does that free you in some way, as opposed to illustrating the same stories in a more realistic vein?

KELSO: I think so. Like I said, I just like being off in a fantasy world. I mean, “fantasy” sounds so awful, it —

GROTH: [Chuckles.] Right.

KELSO: In comics, in any kind of art, you have to make decisions about what you’re going to include and what you’re not going to include, because you can’t include everything. But if you create a fantasy world, it seems easier, you have a blank slate, you decide what you want to put in the world and you don’t worry about anything else. If you’re going to depict, I don’t know, your average twentysomething, you already have all that stuff, and you have to decide what you’re going to ignore, what to take out, and I find that a lot harder. I mean, I still do it, it’s not like I’m never going to do a story in the real world ever again, but...

GROTH: I also thought there was a more subtle transformation going on in your art, which is away from realism — I’m using realism pretty loosely — into a more denotative, cartoony style of’ “Daddy Mask’ or —

KELSO: Really?

GROTH: It’s almost you’re moving into the territory of Joe Matt’s, but a Joe Matt with soul.

KELSO: Hmm. Well, I’ve definitely gone towards fewer lines, less black.

GROTH: You’re paring it down.

KELSO: I’m not trying to draw any less realistically.

GROTH: You are simplifying.

KELSO: Yes, I definitely am simplifying.

GROTH: Who were the artists then, and who is it now, that you find the most impressive and influential?

KELSO: Well, I find Dan Clowes really inspirational because he so dearly strives to do everything better every time, and to try new things, more so than some of the other cartoonists that are sort of in his generation, so to speak. He tries to write different kinds of stories and draw differently. He doesn’t rest on his laurels, and he could, because everyone thinks he’s the greatest ever, but that doesn’t satisfy him obviously. I didn’t used to like Eightball very much until right before he started “Ghost World.” There was some story he did, it seemed like he moved away from hipster, funny things, and… he started putting love in all of his stories. [Laughs.] I used to be so chilled by the things he did, it was just chilling and bleak. And then love started to appear around the edges, and then I started really enjoying his stuff.

GROTH: Maybe that’s around the time he got married.

KELSO: I don’t know. So, yeah, everybody loves Dan. And Joe Sacco. Joe is smart and talented and dedicated, and he’s the closest I’ll ever get to those glamorous National Public Radio foreign correspondent journalists. I’d like to try journalism comics, but I think I’m too shy to do the journalism part.

GROTH: So give me an example of someone that everyone doesn’t love.

KELSO: Marc Bell?

GROTH: Marc Bell... What does he do?

KELSO: He’s one of my favorite cartoonists. He does a minicomic called Mojo Action Companion Unit, which he’s done as a real comic as well, sort of back and forth. He’s a weird combination of really arty and sort of classic cartooning. He’s Canadian, from somewhere back East. He moves from place to place, and his style’s kinda messy, but it’s really good, and I think what’s inspiring about him is that he’s creating this really great arty stuff but at the same time just doing really classic, funny comics. I also really admire Ariel Bordeaux, because she has this commitment to doing funny comics. And I can’t do comics like that.

GROTH: You don’t do funny comics.

KELSO: I don’t. But I like and admire people who do.

GROTH: What I was saying about the evolution of your style... it seems you’re learning the shorthand that many of the best cartoonists have — like Jaime —you’re using a shorthand that just seems incredibly expressive. You’re getting an enormous amount of expression out of every line, every line matters, as opposed to the kind of artist who puts a zillion lines of crosshatching into an image and impresses with pure technique rather than expressiveness. Is that something that was conscious? Were you trying to refine...?

KELSO: Yeah, this gets back to what I used to talk about with all the cartoonist boys, about how comics is not just drawing — you have to be working on a symbolic, iconic level at the same time that you re making art that is aesthetically pleasing, and you have to have both in mind all the time. And that’s sort of the great “Where does the word end and the picture begin?” dilemma, because the picture acting as an icon starts to serve almost the same function as the word. Yeah, I thought about that a lot and talked about that with all of my cartoonist friends, we were all really into figuring that out for ourselves, how we could all make that work within each of our own comics.

GROTH: Are there any old cartoonists that you really took something from?

KELSO: Well, I really love Peanuts a lot, and I’ve probably read more sheer quantity of Peanuts than any old comics. And the New Yorker cartoonists. My parents subscribed to the New Yorker when I was a kid, and I totally think those artists are burned into my brain, like Booth and William Steig and Saul Steinberg, George Price, all those guys.

GROTH: Any comic book artists?

KELSO: Old comic book artists...

GROTH: Yeah, someone like Alex Toth, or…

KELSO: I like Moebius.

GROTH: She says rather desperately.

KELSO: I really love his beautiful people. All his people are so beautiful, and all those crazy space outfits they wear.

GROTH: Mm-hmm.

KELSO: I love that drawing style, the clean lines. Herge, too.

GROTH: Do you like Moebius’ stories?

KELSO: [Laughing.] I’ve never read the stories’ I tend to just flip through. You know, my boyfriend Mike really loves the old Segar Popeye stuff, and I really appreciate those when he forces me to sit down: “Look at those? Isn’t this brilliant?” Yes, it is, admittedly. It is. And there was an exhibition at the...

GROTH: Frye?

KELSO: Yes, the Frye Museum, which was really fascinating. But it doesn’t... [Struggling.] but I don’t want to sit down and read all that stuff. I’ve tried to explain this to people before: I don’t find it easy to read comics. I don’t find it relaxing or a recreational activity. All my friends who are guys who love comics would rather be reading comics than anything else. It’s more comfortable or easy for them to read comics than to pick up a novel or whatever. And I am not like that. To me it’s work. I love comics. I think they’re great. It’s just that when I’m tired, I’m just home from work, the new Colliers is sitting there and he’s one of my favorite cartoonists ever, but I really would rather read a book. I think because I didn’t grow up reading comics that it’s a struggle. It just takes more energy, and so—

GROTH: In the sense that the form itself is a struggle, or do you have to be thinking more in a professional mode when you read them?

KELSO: No, I don’t think in a professional mode when I’m reading comics, at least not the first time around, I’m perfectly willing to just read them as the audience, not like “Oooh, how did he draw that castle?”

“Pennyroyal Tea” from Girlhero #5 ©1996 Megan Kelso

GROTH: The form itself just —

KELSO: Reading just happens, it enters your brain, like a sign or the ingredients on a box. It just happens, it just enters your brain. Comics seem to just enter some people’s brain, and they don’t just enter my brain. I still tend with comics, unless I force myself, to just read the words. And not look at the pictures. And then, I’m like, “Shit.’“ I have to go back and really apply myself to it. And I just get overwhelmed when I think of all the comics out there that I really should read. [Groth laughs.] It just starts to feel like work, and almost all my friends will tell you, they’ll send me comics and I won’t read them for months. And it’s not that I don’t want to, it’s not that it’s not a good comic, its just that it starts to feel like work.

GROTH: I wonder if that’s because you didn’t read comics when you were younger.

KELSO: That’s the explanation that I’ve given myself.

GROTH: Did you read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics?

KELSO: Yeah, I loved that.

GROTH: Tell me what you got out of that.

From Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art ©1993 Scott McCloud

KELSO: I’ll give you a very specific example. He has this sequence where he talks about the passage of time. One of the examples is a panel of a guy sitting in a chair with a lamp, a square panel I think. Then there’s a long, horizontal panel, this expanse of floor and wall, with the guy with the chair and lamp at the end of the panel. And I just remember he’s explaining how you can stretch out a period of time, and there’s the example, and it just blew my mind. Because as I said, I’ve always wanted to control rhythm in my comics, but didn’t quite know how.

GROTH: Mm-hmm.

KELSO: Wanting to be able to do stuff like that, but not knowing how... there are rules, tools, things you can do to get across the stuff that when you’re reading a comic, just feels so magical. And to have somebody sit down and explain as much of that as he possibly could. It was amazing. He unlocked a lot of stuff that seemed like secret knowledge. I am so into that. One of the things that I just hated about college and academics was that withholding of the special knowledge.

GROTH; There’s a lot of that in college, withholding special knowledge?

KELSO: I mean, just the whole development of professional jargon. Like when you take a political science class, and you’ve never taken political science, there’s all these words that are very obfuscating, and as you enter the club you’ll start to understand it. But the fact that Scott McCloud sat back and said, “I’m going to name all this stuff, I’m going to formalize it, and say that there are rules and things that people follow to achieve certain effects...”

GROTH: Mm-Hmm.

KELSO: I think that’s so brave, because I’ll bet he got a lot of criticism for that, because as soon as you say, “This is called such-and-so,” people are going to say, “It is not!” To go out on a limb like that is really impressive. And for someone like me, who was just starting to learn all of that, it was just a gift.

GROTH: When would you have read that?

KELSO: I think right when it came out — oh, yes, I remember, Tom Hart had been traveling around, and he’d seen some of the pages before they were published. And right after I met Tom he had just come back from this trip, telling us about this book that Scott McCloud did, and how amazing it was. Sol remember anticipating it coming out, and buying it when it came out. And just being really amazed.

GROTH: Tell me first of all just how you got involved in this eco-comic Lost Valley. How many pages is it, 92? [Joking.]

KELSO: 28. [Laughs.]

GROTH: Tell me how you got involved in drawing an informational, educational comic.

KELSO: OK. Well, this woman Bryn Houghton lives in Olympia [Washington], and she had a grant from the department of Ecology, which has a fund for grants, sort of public education grants. She had been doing a series of plays for high school students with grant money. So she’d write a play about an environmental issue, and she’d go to schools, and it would be part of an environmental education curriculum. The kids would perform this play and learn about all the issues in the play. Anyway, Bryn really likes comics, and I guess one day she thought, “You know, this play thing has been going really well, maybe I can get grant money to do an environmental comic.” I think she called Ellen Forney, and I think she might have called Roberta [Gregory]. I don’t know. And she called Chris Dresen. Ellen was too busy, and gave her my name. And so she called me, we met and talked about it, it sounded like a great idea, and we agreed on $100 a page (which at the time sounded like good money), and then it took like a year and a half or so for the whole thing to get off the ground. Originally she was going to write it, but she was too busy, so she got Daniel Snyder to write it. And, um, it turned out to be a lot more work than I thought it was going to be. [Laughs.]

GROTH: [Pause, then laughter.] You got paid more per page than you have for Black Black.

KELSO: Sure, but... I feel like it took a year out of my life. And it’s a comic that I don’t really feel I can consider part of my oeuvre. It’s like a tremendous amount of work that nobody is ever going to see. But I kept telling myself that—

GROTH: Journal readers will see a few pages.

KELSO: Actually, my publisher Tom Devlin decided to solicit it through Diamond, and I have really mixed feelings about this. It got orders for 700, which is like, up there with however many I got for Girlhero. And it’s this stupid environmental comic. [Laughs.]

GROTH: Well, it doesn’t matter what it is, anything you do [Kelso laughing throughout] will get an order for 700.

KELSO: I’m also kinda worried that people didn’t read the description and they’re going to be really pissed when they get it and realize that it’s not a real story. I’m actually quite worried about that.

GROTH: Well...

KELSO: But anyway, it was a great experience. Even though it took practically a year out of my life and nobody’s ever going to see it, I just learned... a lot from doing it. I learned a lot of stuff that I may never actually use, like how to place so Goddamned much text into a comic—

GROTH: How to put 500 words into a word balloon.

KELSO: Yeah, and how to make the word balloons a nice shape. I don’t have that much text in my comics, so I didn’t have those problems previously. I didn’t ever have a problem finding space in the panel for all the words. I’m really good at it now... and I had to draw all these landscapey kinds of things, which I’d pretty much avoided. It was a great learning experience, and I mean that, not just jokingly.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Right.

KELSO: But I wouldn’t do it again. I feel like I’ve pretty much done this enough times to know that doing a comics job for money is just not worth it. I am not very prolific, and I think I need to put my comics energy into my very own work. There’s other ways to earn money.

From Lost Valley ©1999 Megan Kelso

GROTH: How did your group, your contemporaries, feel in relation to mainstream comics? I mean, Ed’s writing some stuff at DC now — I don ‘t know if anyone else is doing that sort of freelance work — and I assume that’s money work. I don’t think Ed’s putting his heart and soul into the stuff, although I could be wrong. But they were certainly familiar with a lot of the mainstream comics. How did you feel your relationship was?

KELSO: I think we have to get a little more precise than that. I think for everyone I know, there’s doing your own work, and doing work for money. And in the “doing work for money” category, there’s a sort of range: There’s doing a short story for Dark Horse, doing kids’ comics for Nickelodeon, writing some funky story that Pat McEown’s gonna draw because your own drawing isn’t mainstream enough. There’s proportions of how much artistic freedom you have, and how much you’re just totally slogging it out for the man. So, where does mainstream start? Is mainstream the minute you get a paycheck from another company, or when an art director says you have to change something? Do you get what I’m saying?

GROTH: Sure. I’d make a clear demarcation between work-for-hire and everything else, with everything else being degrees of whoring [rather than absolute whoring]. However you want to look at it.

KELSO: I don’t think of it as whoring, because I think there’s something really amazing about knowing that you’re making a living plying your craft. That’s really appealing, and it’s really amazing when you can do it, and it often involves cobbling together some kind of combination of doing your own work, doing kind of your own work, and whoring for the man, right?

GROTH: So if you did a Batman story, you wouldn’t consider that whoring? How would you look at that?

Kelso’s illustration for Vampirella trading cards by Topps

KELSO: Well, that’s so beyond the realm of possibility that it s impossible to think about it. But no, I’d never write or draw comics for a licensed character. Not because it’s whoring — more because it seems easier or less stressful to clean houses or file than to create something I don’t own. As for what my artistic relationship is to the mainstream, now that I’ve gotten over my need to deconstruct superheroes, I don’t think about it much except with sadness and despair when I’m hit over the head with it at San Diego. But then I come home and forget.

I did a Vampirella trading card. That’s pretty mainstream. But illustration is never as much work as comics.

GROTH: I saw that.

KELSO: Um... but I think that I’ve slightly gotten over the absolute thrill of making money from drawing, and I’ve started to pick and choose a little more, and come to terms with the fact that it’s probably not going to fully support me, ever. I’m not willing to make the kind of sacrifices in time and energy that are required to make that happen.

GROTH: It doesn’t seem as if film has been a big influence on you; is that safe to say?

KELSO: Well, I think photography has, because I’ve done a lot of it. Often when I’m drawing or picturing a panel I think in terms of a camera. Not always, but sometimes it’s useful. And because I’ve done photography, made my own, I think that influences me because it’s all up there in the same brain. But I don’t really think of film as a model or metaphor like try to make my comics. No.

GROTH: Have you learned from film, anything you have applied to comics?

KELSO: Absolutely, just in terms of storytelling and flipping back and forth between past and present and flashbacks. Lately I’ve thought about that more than I used to, and I think it’s because I have the time and the space in my head to worry about more arcane concerns. Like I saw the movie Out Of Sight when it came out, I think last summer and the sequence of events is pretty complicated... it sort of starts in the middle and works from both ends, and I actually went home and tried to diagram out how they did that, and I’ve never done anything like that before in my life. That’s like a new plateau for me, worrying about how someone structured time in a movie.

GROTH: Well, that isn’t specifically film-related, because it came from a novel.

KELSO: True, but for some reason it’s more obvious to me in film. I get so caught up in books that I sort of forget to think about them technically. Then, after my revelation with Out Of Sight, I started to try and diagram this Henry James novel I was reading, and [laughing] I just got so bogged down...

GROTH: Which one?

KELSO: Portrait of a Lady, and I just [Groth laughs], it was just totally interfering with my enjoyment of reading.

GROTH: Sure.

KELSO: And I said, “Fuck this.” But with a movie, it’s a slightly shorter investment of time, and it all goes by so quickly. It seems more obvious.

GROTH: Who are some of your favorite authors?

KELSO: I really, really love Margaret Atwood. And Nicholson Baker... And A.S. Byatt. I’m on an E.B. White kick right now.

GROTH: Really.

KELSO: Oh, and Marge Piercy. I really like her stuff…This woman Alice Adams, and Mary McCarthy.

GROTH: Mary McCarthy was a hardass.

KELSO: Was she?

GROTH: Oh yes. [Laughs.] Hell yeah.

KELSO: I think you have to be a hardass to survive, the older you get.

GROTH: Yeah, she could be brutal. She once prompted Lillian Hellman to sue her when she said, on a TV talk show, that everything Hellman wrote was a lie, including the “the”s and “a”s.


GROTH: Yeah. Quite an inspiration.

KELSO: Oh — I’ve been on this Rumer Godden kick too. She’s British. I think she was best known in the '50s, she’s written a lot of children’s books, but also a lot of regular books. She grew up in India, she has that British imperialism thing. Not that she’s a proponent of it, she’s a product of it. Which I think is really interesting.

GROTH: [Indicating a comic.] Does this strip have a title?

KELSO: It’s for L’Association — they’re doing this millennial anthology No Language Allowed [Comix 2000], so I took that to mean no title.

 From the untitled, silent story printed in L’Association’s Comix 2000 ©Megan Kelso

GROTH: I think you might have gotten away with a title. Anyway, I like this a lot. It really shows off your cartooning skills.

KELSO: I think that’s the absolutely most recent thing I’ve done.

GROTH: Very simple, beautiful black-and-white line work. How did you refine the quality of the line itself? Your early work was quite crude in comparison to your most recent work. Was it just rote practice or did you have a system that you worked through?

KELSO: When I started drawing comics, I was very stilted, because there’s so much more you have to concern yourself with than drawing. But I already had my own drawing style, since I’ve been drawing forever. I think it took a while before I could relax and let that come out because it was so hard at first simply to do comics. So I guess I’ve been working on my “line” since I was about 4.

I started with the Rapidograph like a lot of cartoonists do because a brush seems so scary, but I knew from the get-go that “real” cartoonists didn’t draw with Rapidographs. In fact, I went and saw the “Misfit Lit” show at CoCA back in 1990 right about the time that I was bragging to everybody that I was doing a comic even though I hadn’t gotten started yet, and it was really great to see those original pages, all the fixing and how it was actually done, and how people were working on any size piece of paper... It was really good for me to see that show at that time.

Anyway, I quickly became really frustrated with Rapidographs since I had been drawing all my life with all kinds of pencils and brushes, and just decided, “I’m going to jump in with this brush thing, I have to learn it at some point.” So I did — I mean, a lot of aspects of learning how to draw comics, I decided I didn’t want to get attached. I didn’t want to get attached to working in a particular size or with a particular instrument, or with a particular kind of paper, because you can get really superstitious about that, you can get trapped. What I’ve really tried to do is try everything and be flexible. But I have to admit, lately I’ve become really attached to drawing with those dip-pen nib things.

GROTH: “Dip-pen nib things.”

KELSO: [Gets drawing implement.t] This is my favorite thing to draw with. And I think I’ve been doing more of that than brush. I feel more confident with that than with the brush. But I really like the line I get with the dip pen.

GROTH: Does this come in various sizes of nibs?

KELSO: Yeah, but I always use Hunt 102s. Tom Hart turned me on to those. He said, “The rattier they get, the better they work.” I think I am better with the dip pen than the brush now, so I guess I’m turning into a superstitious old codger in spite of myself.

GROTH: What’s an example of your brushwork?

KELSO: Well, of course “Queen” I did with brush over the paint.

GROTH: The black outline is brushwork?

KELSO: Yes, I guess I really haven’t done anything with the brush recently. Oh, I did the Montana thing with the brush. I did that last summer.

GROTH: All brush?

KELSO: Yeah, that’s pretty recent.

GROTH: Michel Vrana was going to publish Queen of the Black Black?

KELSO: Yeah.

GROTH: He’s fallen off the face of the Earth.

KELSO: Yeah.

GROTH: And then you got hooked up with Tom [Devlin]. How’d did that happen?

KELSO: Well, let’s see, Michel was publishing pretty much all of my friends’ stuff, and he made beautiful books, so I thought, “That’s who I want to publish my book.” He actually sort of helped out on issues 5 and 6 of Girlhero, he colored the cover of #6 for me, and solicited 5 and 6 for me as a favor, because I was getting so burned out on self-publishing, but I can’t remember how I convinced him to help me out. So, it seemed natural that he would do the collection, and he agreed to do it, but it was right about the time that his design company was really taking off, and he was getting tons of design work. He had less and less time for comics, and he was losing money on comics, so he started doing fewer and fewer. And I just kind of saw the handwriting on the wall, that it just wasn’t going to happen. So I went to San Diego that year, must have been ‘97, the year that Tom [Devlin] showed up with Coober Skeber (the one with the cover that Seth had done), and it made this big splash. He appeared to be someone who could make things happen on a shoestring, so when it became clear to me that Michel was never going to publish my book, I called Tom and asked if he’d be interested, and I think he looked at it as an opportunity, because he was working with all these guys back east, the Fort Thunder guys and Brian Ralph, Ron Rege, and even though I think they’re all amazing cartoonists, nobody had ever heard of them. At least people had heard of me even if they didn’t like what I did. I had been around for a while, and I think he thought, “OK, I’ll do this book and maybe I can actually sell some.” I think at the time I wouldn’t admit to him that I’d never gotten orders over 1,000. [Laughs] But he agreed to do the book, and then he offered to do the “Queen” story in color. So, yeah. And he did a great job.

GROTH: How many copies did it sell?

KELSO: Let’s see... I think he printed 4,000, and as of last spring he’d sold half the print run. So I’m assuming that by now, more than that. But that’s all I know at this point. But he made his money back, at least, which makes me feel good.

GROTH: That’s something else I wanted to ask you about. You don’t make a living doing comics, obviously.

KELSO: Nope.

GROTH: Are you pretty sanguine about that? Have you reconciled yourself to being in that position?

KELSO: I think I have. In my younger days, I had this idea that [laughs] after a few years I’d be making a living doing comics, or at least illustration. And that has not come to pass. I thought that I wouldn’t feel like a “real” artist until I was earning a living at it. I’m 31, I know I’m an artist, I’m not making a living at it, but in my mind that doesn’t make me any less of an artist.

So I do think I’ve reconciled myself. On the other hand, I think that if I didn’t have this great airport gig I might have kicked my butt a little harder and done more work, and be closer to earning a living from drawing. But I don’t think that’s who I am. I’m never going to be super prolific, and I think that’s just how it is.

GROTH: Your airport job: Is that full-time or part-time?

KELSO: Part-time.

“Queen of the Black Black” from Queen of the Black Black ©1998 Megan Kelso

GROTH; Well that gives you more time to concentrate on the art. Do you anticipate one day, ever making your living as a cartoonist? Is this something you hope for, and would like to see realized?

KELSO: Well, it just has to be completely on my own terms.

GROTH: Do you think that will happen?

KELSO: Well, like the story I did with my dad, I could imagine doing something like that for money. But I don’t want to do comics jobs for money just to make some money if it’s a project I don’t feel personally excited about. I just feel like it’s a waste of my time. I don’t have the prodigious output so I could be doing the money job and doing my own work. It just doesn’t happen.

GROTH: What if you could make more money putting in the same hours you do at the airport job doing comics, would you do that?

KELSO: Well, that would be impossible, unless people paid a lot more for comics than they do now. Also, it would have to be comics that I truly wanted to do.

GROTH: And if they weren’t?

KELSO: Oh, no. I’d just get burned out. I don’t want to do comics 24/7. And in fact, at times in my life when I’ve had a lot of illustration work, I just don’t do as many comics, and I think that’s because there’s this, “Is Megan doing enough drawing in her life?” gauge in my brain and if that’s all filled up with, say, illustration work, then I don’t feel very motivated to do comics. So I’m not going to go out of my way to generate a lot of illustration work just to say that I’m supporting myself drawing.