“What’s Next, Walmart?”: An Interview with Mary Fleener

Mary Fleener has been a successful artist in many media. She’s a fine artist, an illustrator, a musician. She made a panel for the AIDS Memorial quilt. But she will always be a cartoonist at heart. She contributed to some of the great comics anthologies including Weirdo, Wimmen’s Comix, Mineshaft, Twisted Sisters, and co-edited the final issue of Tits & Clits. She made a number of acclaimed and beloved comics over the years including Hoodoo, Fleener, Slutburger, and Life of the Party.

Her first graphic novel is Billie the Bee, which was published last month by Fantagraphics. It’s a departure for Fleener, focusing on the titular bee and examining bee society and a curious group of animals who live in a coastal lagoon. The book manages to be deeply realistic and also fantastic and the result is a work attuned to the joys and wonders of the natural wonder even as it acknowledges the violence inherent, from both four legged and two legged animals. Artistically and narratively it is a subtle but ambitious work, and we spoke recently about the book, nature, and making a book sold at Target and Walmart that her mother can show her friends.

I liked Billie the Bee and it’s different from other work of yours that I’ve seen. Where did the book start?

I’m so happy you asked this question. I first read True Swamp twenty years ago. Jeff Mason handed me a copy of that and another book by Graham Annabelle at San Diego. What Jon Lewis was able to do [in True Swamp] was take an animal story but not make it Disney-fied. It was really funny and I felt like I’d entered this secret world of the swamp creatures in a way that I hadn’t read in any other animal book. I thought the genre was old and tired and then I read True Swamp. That percolated in my brain for about ten years. A friend of mine, Janell Cannon – she’s a rock star in the children’s book world – did a book called Stella Luna about a young bat that gets lost and is rescued by a nest of birds. Once again, taking an unpopular animal and giving it some soul. I thought that was neat. I’ve had interactions with bees in my yard. One day I thought, what is honey? You hear its bee poop or bee vomit and I looked it up and I could not believe what I found out about bee society. My brain just went into overdrive.

I’m a gardener and I grow a lot of vegetables and so I’ve had a lot of interactions with bees. We had a bee colony collapse in our yard. There were about 50,000 dead bees on the ground. In my art shed, bees went through the ventilation hole and built a hive right under my drawing table. We had to move everything out of there and hire a bee keeper to saw a hole in the floor to get the hive out. You read a lot about bees in the newspaper about how we’re losing them and they’re in danger – but nobody really knows anything about them. Once I started studying bees, the story came to me really quickly. In 2016 I went to Zine Machine in North Carolina and I wrote half of the story on the way there and half of it on the way back. It just spilled out of me.

You said that you’re a gardener, and reading the book I felt like you must have spent a lot of time observing and paying attention to animals and their interactions.

Yes. Both my husband and I are backpackers and we’ve been up to the Sierras. We go to Central California every year where we observe wild animals and birds. This year there was a lot of grazing cattle and there was one big black bull standing over his family and around him were six coyotes just sitting there. I live for that. If Gary if agreeable I’d like to do a trilogy based on these characters and focus on the coyote in the next book. I’m researching coyotes right now and they are extremely adaptable. They are going to live here with the cockroaches long after we’re gone. They’re amazing animals. I’m fascinated by animals. I’ve never been stung by a honeybee. A bumblebee, yes, but that’s because I accidentally broke open their hive in a wood pile. Just one sting, but it was right between the eyes and my face ballooned. I might be allergic, I dunno.

The book is set in a coastal lagoon. Is it based on a place near you?

It’s a place that’s my energy zone. It’s the San Elijo Lagoon, between the freeway and the ocean and my husband and I go there weekly and just sit and watch the birds. We’ve seen coyotes there. We almost got hit by a rattlesnake as we were walking on the trail. Those rattlesnakes can feel your vibrations from a quarter mile away. We were walking by and I heard that sound and leapt about twenty feet up. Right there was a Pacific rattler, the biggest one I’ve ever seen, coiled up and ready to strike. It was close.

You took a lot of care in realistically depicting the background and setting.

I took over 300 photos of the whole area for reference. Once you get South of Los Angeles there are a lot of lagoons and wetlands along the coast. I like getting out in nature. I feel very comfortable in the forest. I lived in Vancouver when I was a kid and we played in the forest where there are bears and deer everywhere. You learned to get a sense of direction from looking at the sun. I’m not afraid of the four legged animals – I’m afraid of the two legged animals. [laughs] That was another focus on the book. I wanted to show that we’re not always very respectful in our interactions with animals. I hate that. All these idiots right now are going into the fields to “see the blooms” and tromping on flowers. It’s madness.

The scene in the book of the two joggers and their dogs running around off leash was very realistic and really conveyed that.

You see these morons in this beautiful lagoon running through the bushes with earphones on and tape around their chest to check their heart rate, holding their cellphone or texting and they’re missing everything. They’re running by quails and rabbits and hawks and they’re just so disconnected. You’ve probably heard about how the whole California coast is being bought up and no one can afford to live here anymore. Well the people who CAN afford to buy here are idiots. They have no soul. These people are a whole level of consumerism that I find really offensive. So it was with much glee that l drew those people.

You said that you wrote the book quickly. Did you know how you were going to draw the book or did you figure that out as you were drawing it?

I knew how I wanted to draw it because of the guys who were published in Mineshaft like Christopher Mueller and Bill Crook and Crumb, of course. That crosshatching style was something I did in high school and college because I was a printmaker. When you’re working on zinc plates and such you’ve got to create crosshatching for shading. I didn’t do that when I started cartooning because it looked so sixties to me. I wanted to try to do something new and different. When I looked at stuff Mueller does, I began to think I’d like to give that a try. I knew how I wanted to draw it and I also knew it would take me a long time. I had to slow down my brain. I filled up a 100 page sketchbook with very rough drawings. My rough drafts are so bad I’m surprised Gary even wanted to publish it. If he didn’t know my prior work, I don’t think he would have said yes. But the most important thing is to get your ideas on paper. Once I started penciling on the Bristol board, the story changed a lot in different spots, like when I learned about the chemistry of honey or the biology of bees. The battle between the coyote and the raccoon wasn’t originally in there. It was something that came to me while I was drawing.

This is the longest project you’ve ever done. The book is divided into chapters, and was breaking down the book into chapters one way to make it easier?

It was something new I’d never done before. I tried to think about what it’s like when you make a CD – because I’m a musician – so I looked at the chapters as tunes and when it felt like I’d made the point I wanted to make, I’d stop. But I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, to be completely honest. [laughs]

So you thought of the book in terms of an album, where each song has its own arc and approach, but strung together tell a larger story that’s more than sum of its parts?

I went by instinct because this is my first time. I don’t write out a script, I just used my sketchbook to write descriptions and stick drawings and word balloons.

Is that how you’ve always worked?

Yeah. I guess some people write out a story, but that doesn’t do it for me. [laughs] Similarly when I draw, I draw tight pencils on Bristol board and then ink it right away.  When you ink you change it – maybe it’s better maybe it’s worse, but it’s different. I want to keep it fresh. I don’t do tight drawings in my sketchbook. But when I was studying the animals and bones I had to do a lot of research, because if you want to draw a good animal or human you have to know what’s inside there. I had to learn the anatomy of the animals. Peter Bagge will make the elbows and the arms dangling and curvy because it’s funny when drawing people, but I couldn’t do that with these animals because I wanted a realistic feel. I wanted you to feel like you could touch their fur.

You wanted them to act like animals and look like animals.

I learned from Miyazaki who did My Neighbor Totoro. I used to think, either it’s all got to look realistic or it’s all got to look cutesy. After I saw Totoro I realized, you can have both. I started watching a lot more Japanese films and watched how they combined that hyper-realism with cartoony elements. I allowed myself to do that and that’s why Billie is stylized but the other animals are hyper-realistic. I like the contrast. I didn’t think it was allowed, but you can get away with murder in comics. [laughs] And if you don’t think so, you should get away from comics and go take up photography.

In a similar way you have these very realistic drawings of the setting and animals to what people might think of as your style, this cubist approach when there’s music or other things happening.

Well I had to work that in. I’d be an idiot not to. That is my style.

I’ve done a lot of illustrating music lyrics. I used to do a zine back in the 80s called Chicken Slacks which took rock and roll lyrics or blues lyrics or psychedelic or punk lyrics and turn them into comics. Most rock and roll and blues songs tell a little story. A fun example is something I did for James Brown’s Star Time CD collection. I illustrated “I Got You (I Feel Good).” I wanted to incorporate this music illo thing into my story and I thought, hell, Billie’s the size of a hummingbird, might as well turn her into a song and dance man! [laughs] I wanted to lighten up the story. I’m asking the readers to use their imaginations a little bit looking at this page: “Think Ella Fitzgerald jammin’ w/ Thelonious Monk.” I want my readers to think of that scat style of hers and so I am challenging the readers, but that’s what I think comics should do. That’s what I think art should do.

You’ve talked over the years about how Robert Crumb was such a big influence on you. What did Crumb mean to you? Why was he such a big influence?

Number one, he simply redefined what comics were. Nobody had done comics like Zap Comix before that. Nothing even close. His style of drawing was reminiscent of stuff from the 20s and 30s like the Fleischer Brothers, but you have to take it in the context of what was going on at the time. We had the Vietnam War. Every night on TV people were getting their limbs blown off. We had the draft. So every guy knew that once he turned eighteen, he might be killed in this stupid ass war. There was no birth control for women. Abortion was life threatening. There were lynching all over the South. 1968-69 was heavy. If you had long hair you might not get served at a restaurant. You might get pulled over by the police and if they didn’t beat you up, you were lucky. And that was white kids. I got pulled over so much back then. They hated us. The authorities hated us because we were young. Zap Comix was a reaction to this hatred that we all grew up with. Zap Comix were a big F– You to all of that. They were necessary. Same thing with the beatniks. They’d had it after World War II. Is Crumb sexist or does he hate black people or does he hate people? I think its all bullshit. He was doing stuff from his brain. It’s like the Marquis de Sade, if you don’t want to read the books, then don’t read them. If you don’t want to see 120 Days of Sodom, don’t go to that movie. Crumb never came close to that. Look, I’m not super best friends with the Crumbs, but I’ve corresponded with Robert since I started drawing and they’re nice people and it hurts me when I read this politically correct hate and this delicious fear. If you don’t like his stuff then don’t read it. I don’t want to hear about it.

You majored in printmaking when you attended art school, so were you looking at and studying woodcuts and design work then?

We were required to take life drawing every semester. This was at California State University at Long Beach. We would learn lithography using real stones. They don’t do that anymore. We would do etchings on zinc plates. Silkscreening. Not much woodcut. That was a crafty sort of thing. You put a wood cut through a press fifty times and the wood starts to flatten and your lines disappear. You’d put these plates through the rollers and you had to make sure the paper was soaked in water and dried a bit so it could get in the grooves of the zinc plates. We were around a lot of chemicals – and really harmful ones. [laughs] It’s changed a lot. Now all the inks are soy based and they use cooking oil to clean the plates, but it was pretty toxic back then. We were in there smoking cigarettes and getting ink on our hands. [laughs] We didn’t care! Roberta Gregory was in the illustration studio right across the courtyard from the printmaking studios. I can’t believe I didn’t meet her then. I had started doing a little bit of comic work when I was in Junior College. I showed my doodles to one teacher who asked me to make some posters for his ecology class, which was a new thing, so I made the posters look like comic panels. And my style was obvious in my art classes and I got a lot of “that looks ‘cartoony’” from my teachers. Comics didn’t have the respect they do today.

You’ve made a lot of comics over the years, but you’ve also done a lot of other work. A lot of illustration work, a lot of fine art. You made a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. You’re always busy, it seems.

I’m kind of a workaholic. I’m always doing something. If I don’t do something, I won’t do anything. [laughs] Because of comics I got into illustration – when there were lots of magazines and they were paying people. All the Weirdo people were getting work. Hustler was paying great money. My husband had gotten laid off from work during the 90s and that’s when I was doing a lot of illustration work. Hustler saved us and paid our bills. I’ve been involved in the fine art world, but right now I’m mad at the art world and I don’t care if I do anything in the art world ever again. Because that means I have to go to LA and I never want to go back to Los Angeles. I was born there and I hate it. It’s getting worse. You can’t even drive there anymore. For years I would show at galleries like La Luz de Jesus but all these places take fifty percent of your sales. That’s something I never liked either. And then you had to ship the art which always cost a lot of money. The frames ALWAYS get damaged. It’s a lot easier to work in ink on paper and send it through the internet.

I think I was juggling a little too much and that’s why a few years ago I decided to focus on doing a book. Because I really do like cartoonists. I like talking to them. They’re interesting. They have something to say. Artists are boring. [laughs] They are so boring. Cartoonists have camaraderie. I think because comics were always looked down upon and the underground people we were always outsiders so we would cling together. Cartoonists always bitch about each other, but basically, I think everybody’s rooting for each other a little bit. I hope so.

One of these years can we see a new edition of Life of the Party or another collection?

I would love to do that. I would love to do another Life of the Party because I’ve done a lot of stuff since 1994. I don’t believe in making collections where you have everything you ever did. You should really have the cream of the crop. I’ve got so many stories yet to tell and a lot of the people involved in them have died so I won’t get in trouble. I associated with some people who were criminals. I guess they wouldn’t be criminals anymore – no, they would be. [laughs] I don’t know. I like writing stories about weird things that happen and the big picture. I don’t like the kind of autobiographical stuff that caters to whiners: I’m so depressed I want to die and here I am lying in bed in the fetal position and I don’t know if I should have tea or coffee. Ugh. If I’m depressed, that’s my problem. I don’t want to burden people. So to answer your question, yes, I would like to do another Life of the Party and I might talk to Gary about that when I see him.

You’re also going to be in Diane Noomin’s upcoming anthology, Drawing Power.

We can finally talk about it! We were sworn to secrecy. I’m in that book, and I knew it would be a rough experience. I turned down Diane twice. I really didn’t have a story to tell, plus I was in the middle of Billie the Bee. For 21 months I did nothing but work on that book every single day. I got my book done, and a week later Diane asked me again to be in the book. I had recently gone through an experience with a friend from high school where I had confided in him about something disgusting that had happened to me in the past with a mutual acquaintance and he was the first person I’d told and he treated it like it was nothing and joked about it! He made me feel like a slut. He hurt my feelings so badly that this rage rose up in me. NOW I had a friggin’ story!! It wasn’t what happened to me thirty years ago, which was creepy and horrible, it’s worse the way you get treated by people when you tell them about it, like my ex-friend. It’s like if you tell someone you got raped and their response is, what were you wearing? or you shouldn’t have been in that part of town, or how much did you drink? That’s really what the #MeToo movement is all about. The book has quite a lineup of people and I think it’s going to be a hard read. It took me three weeks to do my story and I hated every second of it. It was gut wrenching. I know it’s been hard for all the other women in the book. It’s coming out in September.

You also mentioned that you’re going to NCSFest in May.

They invited me as a guest. I couldn’t believe it. That’s in Huntington Beach, which used to be a pretty funky place and then they gentrified it so people stopped going there. Eventually the city got wise and they started doing things like shutting down the streets for festivals and farmers markets. The guy who came up the idea of doing it like a European festival is genius because they’re going to shut down Main Street and it’s free to the public. There is an admission charge to see panels and presentations. I’m doing a panel discussing underground comics with Joyce Farmer on Friday May 17 at 2:30pm. It’s affordable and there’s plenty of parking. They’re inviting Dan and Jaime and Beto. All those original guys who started NCS were newspaper comics and Saturday Evening Post but they’re all dying off. They‘re trying to evolve and adapt which is really important and I applaud them for that.

Is the book out now?

Yes! Amazon has Billie the Bee, and it’s even on the Target website. [laughs] I can’t say that enough. What’s next, Walmart? (Holy crap, it is!) I’m not used to this! Best of all, my 97 year old mother can finally show her friends a “proper” book I did. My dad died three years ago so I had to help her sort and clean and under her bed I found a storage box and in it was a copy of Life of the Party. [laughs] She had it hidden and I looked at the inscription. It read, “To Mom and Dad, what would St Peter say? Love, Mary.” I gave her a copy of the Spanish version and she has it displayed in the guest room. Maybe it’s not as dirty when you can’t read the words? When I was a kid I liked to draw pretty ladies like Brenda Starr and all the sexy gals in Li’l Abner. It blew my mom’s mind. She thought I was a lesbian. She would say, no, you drew the boobs too big. Or, “Don’t draw that!!” My dad would cut out Little Annie Fanny from the back of Playboy for me to read because of the artwork. He wasn’t as prudish. When I handed her Life of the Party she never opened it. All the things she worried about when I was young, I eventually did, with relish! I’m not ashamed of anything. I think that’s what caused her the most consternation, yet we had a conversations about me editing Tits & Clits, which appeared in Weirdo # 26, (“A Mother and Daughter Chat”,) and she didn’t flinch a bit.