“We’re All Writing About Ourselves on Some Level”: A Conversation with Sophie Yanow

I first met Sophie Yanow at TCAF, and then got hold of her 2011-2012 memoir comic series In Situ from Colosse. Her use of a loosely drawn six-panel grid, sometimes featuring panels designed with just a few sparse hand-lettered words, and her scratchy, impressionistic take on figures and spaces struck me immediately, as did her frank and funny portrayals of queer relationships. Her books include the 2014 Ignatz- and Doug Wright-award-winning War of Streets and Houses from Uncivilized Books. The real people she writes about are always thoughtfully portrayed, occasionally critical of Sophie; it's the sort of approach I longed for when I would read straight dudebros’ self-centered autobio comics in the 2000s. Her work is always political in the personal and vice versa, and always solidly in context. While teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, Sophie made the comic What is a Glacier?, exploring several kinds of grief including grieving for the loss of a romantic relationship, and grieving for our dying planet. I spoke to Sophie by email about her work, including her new ongoing webcomic, The Contradictions.

ANNIE MOK: Your artwork has progressed from a scritchy-scratchy, overtly punk-looking affair with In Situ, to a cleaner, more ruled-out approach with The Contradictions. How has the evolution of your drawings and visual storytelling felt for you over the years? What’s changed for you when you sit down to draw?

SOPHIE YANOW: What’s funny is that to me, this project looks like how I was drawing in 2010. At that time, I was being very deliberate, really taking my time. I did a three-page comic called 94608 that I showed to Eric Reynolds while I was interning at Fantagraphics. Apparently, he felt like the cartooning was strong but that I hadn’t found my voice yet. So In Situ was a project in search of my voice, which to me meant making as many comics as possible in a very short time. So I did away with being meticulous and just scratched out as many comics as possible, focusing on what I was writing about and not on making impressive drawings. The last few comics I’ve done have felt a little more immediate as well. The Contradictions, on the other hand, has been a very long time in the making in terms of drafts. I tried a lot of different drawing styles and eventually, this is the one that worked. I also like that the story takes place in Western Europe and the drawings are heavily influenced by Franco-Belgian cartoonists.

Your drawings have always pulsed with life to me, with a strong and vibrant approach to human gestures. How do you observe people in spaces, and how do you work to translate the way they look and move in your comics?

Thank you! There was a time in college when I was very depressed, and the only thing that helped me out of my malaise was figure drawing. So for a few months, I was going to figure drawing three times a week. I had a fantastic instructor in college, Noah Buchanan; he’s a traditional figurative painter. Classes like his taught me about how people carry their weight, and lots of little tricks to help remember. The top of the shoulder tends to line up with the heel of the foot. The elbow is at the same point as the belly button. Things like that. I know generally where forms are supposed to be in relation to each other, and I think that gives me the freedom to exaggerate a little bit. I think it’s also where my fairly angular approach comes from – I’m always thinking in angles when I draw bodies and sometimes that gets very distilled.

Your comics, most of them categorized under memoir or autobiographical fiction, uses you or a fictionalized version of you as its protagonist, but avoids a common trap of many autobio comics, that many are as accused, “navel-gazey.” Part of this to me is your honoring of the voices of those around you in your work. But making autobiographical comics can be ethically complicated. How do you navigate making autobio or autobio-based comics with the people that may appear in those comics? Are there particular boundaries you negotiate with your friends and loved ones who show up in your work?

I’ve had a lot of students ask me this. It’s a real concern. For me, it varies from project to project. With In Situ, I rarely referred to people by name and the drawings were pretty abstract. In War of Streets and Houses, nobody is named at all. What is a Glacier? partially dealt with a past relationship mixed in with all the climate grief, so I showed it to my ex before publication. It uses her real first name, and if there was something she wanted me to remove I would have listened and then had to make a choice, but she was fine with it as it was.

From What Is a Glacier?

The Contradictions
is autobiographical fiction and some characters are amalgams. I showed the nearly final draft of the work to some of the folks who appear (fictionalized) in the story and listened to their feedback. I'm not going to pretend this was easy, I was pretty nervous – it's like showing them your soft underbelly. Some people had requests and others actually asked not to see it at all, they didn’t want to influence the work and said they would trust me. Ultimately I don’t give these people 100% veto power but I take what they have to say very seriously. I strongly believe that our stories belong to multiple people, and it’s also important to own my perspective. But there is power in being the one with the platform and over time my platform has gotten larger, and so I continue to evaluate what it means to be the person telling my version of something. I try to keep it grounded in what it meant or means to me.

As a little aside, I also feel like I should say – a lot of autobiographical work is accused of being “navel-gazey,” but I don’t think the genre is any more navel-gazey than fiction. As far as I can tell we’re all writing about ourselves on some level. There is bad work across genres and it can manifest as navel-gazey anywhere.

As imaging our bodies can be so fraught for so many of us, I really appreciate how you draw yourself. What do you take into account when you draw yourself, or a version of yourself? How have images of yourself, or your approach in making your own image, changed over time?

As a kid I remember seeing that other girls around me make lots of drawings of femmes. From what I can tell and remember, I almost only ever drew myself and “boys” up until high school. I have essentially always dressed and worn my hair in a gender nonconforming, more butch way and I’ve had the posture and demeanor of a slouchy skater since I was 11. Some combination of these things has resulted in the way I draw myself.

As far as evolutions, for a long time I had a pretty boxy, thin body and as I’ve gotten older my hips and my butt have gotten bigger and I don’t think my drawings have caught up. I try to interrogate that a bit – am I still drawing myself in the more boxy way because I got used to it, or because I feel like it represents what I think a butch person "should" look like, or just because I want to keep drawing myself as more thin? Probably some combination of the three.

In What is a Glacier?, your character asks, "How do I get better at endings?"--but only about halfway through the comic. This moment points to me the push-pull of making autobiographical fiction, or fictionalized autobiography. How has the making of your work affected your life, and vice versa?

Making narrative work creates this problem where things have a beginning and an end. What you do with that can vary, but it does often point towards bending reality into something with a story arc and an ending. I think consuming media that follows that structure created weird expectations in me as a person growing up. Things ever fully ending does not reflect my experience at all – there are echoes of my past in everything I do, and old friendships recede are reemerge over time. I've come to realize I'm a relatively literal person – I was on a panel with Nicole Georges a couple years ago and we commiserated about realizing very late in life that much of fiction is thinly veiled autobiography – and here we were exposing ourselves under the "memoir" label.

I'm very prone to truth-telling, sometimes to my own detriment. I think in some ways I fully expect to expose myself through my work and as a result I try to live as honestly as I can. I think sometimes it also pushes me to do things that I think are more "interesting," just to get the story. And in general that has been a great thing for my life.

From War of Streets and Houses

In this story, your character and the other characters discuss the apocalypse as an oncoming thing. My view of the apocalypse is that it’s happening right now, it just looks more mundane than many people realize. What does making art in what feels like the end times look like?

I don't think you're wrong. For many people in the world today, daily life is already apocalyptic. I imagine most of us in the developed world will only fully acknowledge the apocalyptic nature of things when it is we who must migrate because of unrest that is directly related to climate change and water scarcity (like in Syria). It's hard not to feel like we're on a collision course. I don't think it makes the tensions very different for me though – I have always been concerned with politics and the power or impotence of art making. I try to make engaged work. I try to reflect the complexities of being a political person in our era. And still, making art is never enough for me. In some ways I wish I didn't feel a need to draw and write and publish; I wish I could be satisfied with political organizing. I've only learned to be a public speaker in the last few years. I used to have severe anxiety around it. I wanted to learn how to speak in front of a group and that's part of why I started teaching. I hope to overcome my fears in order to engage politically in ways that frighten me.

[Referring to The Contradictions] you said, "I do think this story does a little explaining for why I choose the subjects I do when doing journalism, I guess? Just because it's kind of about a fictionalized me forming as a person..." Can you expand on that? And to add to that question, what do you hope your readers get out of your work?

I think it can be useful to sort of see how people formed their ideas about the world. Over time we're exposed to new ideas and I think as people we are constantly course correcting. I have learned a lot and I have so much more to learn. As for what I'd like my work to do, I suppose I would like to expose my own humanity in an effort for others to feel less alone.

In the latest entry of The Contradictions as of this writing, your protagonist reads an online article that talks about revolution, and your character reads from a book adapted from a zine in which it reads, “This is what it means to be an adventurer in our day: to give up creature comforts of the mind, to realize possibilities of imagination...” What did you make of these statements when you first encountered them, and what do you think of them now?

Honestly, I feel like I can't answer this question without spoiling or didactically explaining the story. That moment is the catalyst for a lot of the rest of the story. So I will say: these ideas had a big impact on me.

Earlier, you mentioned something to the degree that you said you thought your drawings were circling back to what they looked like early on, with In Situ. What does it feel like to return to earlier modes of image-making?

I think they look like how I was drawing just before I began making In Situ. In some ways it's very comfortable. And there are certainly some changes to the older style. In regards to this project, I haven't had anyone tell me yet that I draw like a child (a critique I received for some of my looser work). It's kind of nice to draw in a way that feels accessible, that is more easily accepted as a "good drawing," and that quickly articulates specific physical spaces. I stand by my other work and I do think it's "good drawing." But I'm enjoying flexing a little. I can easily see returning to a looser style after this project – but this feels appropriate here.