“You Don’t Need Permission”: An Interview with Lawrence Lindell

Lawrence Lindell with a copy of Blackward.

When I first came across Lawrence Lindell’s self-published minicomics a few years ago, I was impressed by their open, thoughtful and whimsical approach to cartooning. Lindell, a prolific cartoonist, musician and educator from California, has explored topics from their own life, including Blackness, queerness, mental health (they have been very transparent about living with bipolar disorder) and community.

Lindell has been self-publishing their work for a decade. Their 2020 zine From Truth with Truth was a finalist at the Believer Book Awards and a nominee for the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics. Lindell frequently contributes comics to the New Yorker's Daily Shouts, the San Francisco Examiner and Razorcake.

In person, Lindell is quiet, unassuming and humble. They said to me that they “just like to make comics,” but in reality, they’ve got a lot going on right now: a small press, Laneha House (co-founded with their spouse, cartoonist Breena Nuñez), a new baby, many cartooning-adjacent projects, and two new graphic novels. Blackward, Lindell’s first, was published by Drawn & Quarterly this past September. Buckle Up, a middle grade graphic novel, will be published by Random House Graphic in 2024.

I chatted with Lindell on a Sunday morning over Zoom about their new books, Laneha House, and the importance of community.

-Whit Taylor

* * *

WHIT TAYLOR: Hi Lawrence. How are you doing? I know you just finished your book tour for Blackward, so tell me a little bit about how it went.

LAWRENCE LINDELL: Yeah. I mean, it was pretty good once I was able to kind of get outta my head, but, you know - the first show, I think four people came and I was like, nah, I don't like this. [Laughs]

Hopefully it got easier as you went along?

Yeah, I mean, it did. We did Berkeley and then I ended in L.A. which-- a lot of childhood friends came. So yeah, it was pretty easy.

Sounds like a perfect way to end it. I read your recent comic from Paper Rocket Minicomics [Just a Kid From California], which seemed like a love letter to L.A., by the way. That was really lovely.

So, let’s talk about Blackward, your debut graphic novel, from Drawn & Quarterly. Can you tell me how it came about? I know that you've mentioned your previous [web]comic, The Section, was an inspiration, and I’m wondering how you refined the story for the book.

Yeah, so [Blackward is] definitely based on The Section, and my editor Tracy [Hurren], we sat together and they were like, "Well, we need to take it from a webcomic and turn it into a longer-form graphic novel." So we spent maybe a year doing that, like in the rough draft stage.

From Lindell's webcomic, The Section.

How did the editorial process work for you?

Because I draw on the iPad, it can be perceived as [thumbnailing], but I just do the full pages of the entire book. Then I send the PDF to my editor and then they look at it, give me notes, and then I go back and fix what I wanna fix. But in my case, I changed the entire book, and they weren't expecting that, and they were kind of like, "Is this part of the mania, or…" [Laughs] But I was like, no, I just had some time to sit down and really fix the book the way I wanted it to be.

What was one of the main shifts that you made in the book?

From Blackward.

Kind of fleshing the characters out more. When I did the webcomic it was drawn every day, so I was writing on the fly and creating the characters as I went along, so now I have this whole catalog of who these characters are. Tracy was like, "Don't be afraid to give us more backstory and who these characters are," where I'm used to moving at a very fast pace. Like, I gotta get on the page and get it done.

I know, I totally understand the immediacy of webcomics and getting that feedback. And how working on a graphic novel is more of a waiting game. How are you feeling about it now that it's out? What's the response been?

It's been good. The response has been good. I still am not sure. I just, you know, love making comics. All the other stuff is kind of like, no. [Laughs]

And it is weird 'cause I never think about this stuff when I'm self-publishing, but now that I'm published, my mind has kind of switched to, "Oh, you gotta care about this." You need to know how many sales it's making. You need to know if it's in this bookstore, you need to know.

All the fun stuff that comes with being a professional cartoonist. [Laughs.] Are you planning to do more stories with your characters?

Yeah. I pitched the second book as a follow-up for Blackward. Tracy likes it, but we're gonna go ahead with an autobio memoir first.

Ooh. Exciting!

So, I hadn’t realized that you'd drawn Buckle Up [forthcoming in 2024 from Random House Graphic] before Blackward. It's a middle grade book and it’s centered around Lonnie, the main character, driving in the car with their parents who are newly divorced. What I liked about it was how you played with your art, within that constraint. One example is how you use color to differentiate Lonnie’s inner monologue from conversations they’re having with their family.

Color plays a big role in your work in general. Another example is how each character in Blackward has a different color that they're associated with. It’s really fun. What is your approach to color?

From Buckle Up, forthcoming in 2024.

Thank you. Yeah, I love working in color. I used to only do black & white because I wanted it to be accessible. But I figured if I'm gonna use color, it needs to have a purpose and not just be pretty.

That makes sense. It’s smart cartooning. Both books!

I see some of your animation background in there too. With Buckle Up, you have this constraint of Lonnie being in the car with either parent, but there's such subtlety in the shifts of facial expressions from panel to panel. Can you tell me a little bit about your educational background?

From Buckle Up.

I started drawing when I was very young. But I went to art academy in high school and that's where I started learning about animation. And then I went to undergrad at Otis [College of Art and Design] in L.A. and I studied 2D animation. And then I did-- what do you call it? Study abroad? Yeah, in Vancouver. And so I learned even more animation. And then I got my MFA in comics from CCA [California College of the Arts], so I've been studying for a while.

Cartoons definitely play a part in how I make comics, but I feel like comics inform how animators make cartoons. So maybe it's-- you know what I mean?

It's a reciprocal sort of relationship. Yeah, yeah. The comedic timing of your dialogue, it reminded me of growing up watching Saturday morning cartoons, Nickelodeon, Animaniacs, all that sort of stuff. There's something really fun, vibrant, young and cartoony about it. What was your inspiration for Buckle Up?

So, I pitched it as nonfiction. I did my thesis in grad school. There's a chapter that's based off of my dad and I driving in the car. And so that's what the book is based off of, but [Random House Graphic were], like, "We do fiction, can you fictionalize it and make it younger?" And I was like, I think, I don't know. [Laughs] I'd never tried it, and then I did it and I was like, oh, okay, I guess this could work. Maybe I'll do most of my work as fiction inspired by real life.

Did you find it easier or harder to fictionalize your work?

It was harder because when I do a memoir, autobio, I try to put all the facts in-- which also you shouldn't do because it's impossible. But I'm trying to be very factual, and [Buckle Up is] a fictional work, and so I'm limiting myself to, well, that didn't happen. And it's like, it did happen because you can make it happen in the story, so. Was a learning curve for sure.

Was it also a learning curve for writing for a younger audience? Because I feel like your previous work seems to be for teens and adults. Wasn't Blackward marketed as “New Adult?” I think that's the term.

That was new to me. [Laughs] I know Blackward is-- I guess it's 'cause it's in color, and like you said, it is reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons, so everyone's, like, "Oh, it's a kids' book."

From Blackward.

Well, as one person who draws “simple” to another, I think there's often that confusion that people look at your work and they're like, "Oh, that must be for kids." But yeah, that can be a misconception.

How was your experience working with Random House Graphic compared to smaller publishing houses?

I started with them during the pandemic, so that's just... well, you know. [Laughs] Whit does all these amazing things, I--

Aww, thanks, well--

Like, seriously, we just looked at your stuff. We're like, yeah, we wanna do a bit of this, this and this. It’s kind of a blueprint of what's possible.

But yeah, I started in the pandemic and publishing was kind of weird during that time. It was uncertain. So I didn't get to sign the contract until the next year. And I didn't get to start working on [Buckle Up] until a few months after that. During that time we had to move, and then we had a flood. We lost our first kid. So it was a lot of life stuff and I was like, I don't even wanna draw this right now. I don't care about this book, but I signed a contract, so I gotta keep drawing it. Right. And then as I was drawing, I was like, oh yeah, I remember why I wanted to do this book. [Laughs]

One thing that I found interesting in Buckle Up was the protagonist’s talk with his father about their sexuality. Given the political climate in this country right now, including book bans, was there any apprehension about how to discuss sexuality in a middle grade book?

From Buckle Up.

That one [conversation] is actually happier than the real story it's based on.

Me and my editor, we had to be like, "All right, it's middle grade, so we need to make it not as raw." ‘Cause my dad can be very matter-of-fact, this is what it is. And so I was like, how do I make this what I would've wanted? I guess that's a lot of what the book is, this is how I wanted these conversations to go. Well, this is my chance to kind of do that.

When I was writing-- I came from self-publishing, so book bans weren’t even on my radar. I was like, oh, they might try it, but whatever. I'm gonna put it in. And then I have an editor who's like, "Yeah, put it in." So I think that might make the difference.

What about for Blackward? Because as the book states, it's unapologetically Black - was there any discussion around how people would receive it?

No. My editor Tracy's just like, go for it. They even had to convince me, because I was like, I think I made it too joyful. And they're like, what? [Laughs] You made a book about Black joy and you accomplished that. You should be happy. So it was nice to have someone be reassuring and not "Oh, maybe tone it down." D&Q was like, what? What do you wanna make? All right, well, let's help you make the best story and let's go for it.

From Blackward.

That’s wonderful. Yeah, one thing that strikes me about both of your books is that they are full of joy. We've seen in recent years that there can be this pull towards, you know, writing about racial trauma as a person of color, writing about the really heavy, serious stuff. I feel like your books address that, but it's not the main focus. It's really about these characters, their family, their culture, their friendship dynamic, and it’s celebratory. Works by creators of color can be both fun and important.

I wanna talk a little bit about you and Breena [Nuñez]’s publishing house, Laneha House. You have The BAYlies project, the Open Mic series and the Kinnard Awards, among other things.

Yeah, so separately, we've both been doing zines and comics publishing on our own for a while. Then we got together in 2017 and we started releasing books. We used to live with another cartoonist named Trinidad Escobar, and we had a thing called Cartoonist House. And so we would release minicomics under that collective, and it was a house in West Oakland. And then the pandemic happened. Breena and I got married, and we were like, "Well, we should talk about doing that publishing house." We were talking about-- since everything seems doom and gloom, this is the time that we might as well just do what we want. And then we combined our family names into Laneha House. We had been doing The BAYlies around that time in Cartoonist House as well. It was more of an archival project.

Laneha House (Lawrence & Breena) at SF ZineFest.

And so that's a collection of Bay Area cartoonists’ work?

It started on Instagram. I was like, hey, do you wanna throw up a comic? So that I can get the timestamp from the date of when it goes up? And then I'll put it on the website as an archive of people who were making comics in the Bay Area. And I did a small print run of a minicomic anthology before the magazine anthology in 2018. The point of the magazine was to get the money and then give out grants, which we did to artists in the Bay Area. And then we paid every cartoonist that did a comic $500 for their page. And I was like, well, there's a way to pay people fairly, you know what I mean?

TOP: A few of the BAYlies artists. BOTTOM: BAYlies art by (clockwise from upper left) Jaime Crespo, Ajuan Mance & Lawrence Lindell.

Yeah, I think it's important to pay people, especially in this industry where lots of folks can feel exploited or pressured to work for free or for less than they deserve. Have you always been into community organizing? Because this feels like a form of community organizing to me. You were saying you just like to draw, but you do so many other things. Did you see a need for this in your community?

Yeah. You know, I grew up in the punk, hardcore scene, and I watched literal kids-- I was like 16, but they were 12-year olds starting labels, selling t-shirts and hosting shows. So that's just where I come from.

My mom, she's always done DIY stuff, like her whole entire life. It's just kind of natural... if there's a need, you can do it. Or maybe people don't see it as a need. I don't think they need me to archive, you know, cartoonists in the Bay. I was just like, I want to do it because I've found several Black cartoonists specifically that I had no idea about because there's no preservation of their work. And so people make all these great comics and then they just disappear and you have to find them later. [For] some types, it’s almost a joy to be like, I know a cartoonist you don't know. But I'm like, no, I want everybody to have access to [their work.]

TOP: Open Mic logo. BOTTOM: Page from a 2021 Open Mic minicomic, Assata's Memories by Sharon Lee De La Cruz.

I think that you have a very inclusive approach. I felt this loss when Tom Spurgeon passed away. There’s people in indie comics [Annie Koyama is another example] who are uniters. They play a central role in keeping people informed of what's going on, exposing us to new and old artists, promoting their work, and creating opportunities for creators. I feel like you all are definitely a force in how you connect creators and make people feel like they're part of something. And I think that's extra important now, because the pandemic has taken a lot out of everyone in recent years.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Kinnard Awards that you have been working on?

Yeah. Also, shout out to Annie because before, when I was just doing zine fests, she was one of the people that made me feel like, oh, there are these kinds of people in comics. She wasn’t like, "You’re gonna be the next big star." She quietly pulled me aside and was like, "I wanna help you out," and did. And it wasn’t just talk.

Yes, she has a way of doing that. [Laughs]

And yes, the Kinnard Awards. That was one of the cartoonists who Justin Hall, my teacher at CCA [introduced me to]. When he talked about Rupert Kinnard, I couldn't believe that I was 30-something and went through all this schooling, and this is the first time his name had popped up. And I thought that was a tragedy. And so we named the awards after him. And I was like, well, I don't want it to be like one of those awards where cartoonists are like, "I didn't get a Kinnard Award. I must be a shitty cartoonist." You know, I don't want that sort of thing. [Laughs] I was like, well, it will just be an award about honoring community year-round. And then I got the approval from my boss, which is Breena, [laughs] and I'm like, hey, Breena, you wanna do this?

The Kinnard Awards.

Yeah, I'd never heard of Kinnard before the award, to be honest, so I appreciate that. It reminds me of your #Cartoonistober challenge of drawing a different cartoonist everyday. I've seen many folks discovering cartoonists that way.

The #Cartoonistober prompt from October 2022.

So, on another note, you’ve been pretty open about dealing with mental health issues in your self-published comics. Do you have any plans to revisit these topics on a larger scale?

Yeah. I have a reprinting of Couldn’t Afford Therapy, So I Made This that I should get back from the printer soon. But yeah, I think the second memoir with Drawn & Quarterly is kind of in the same kind of realm of that.

Couldn't Afford Therapy, So I Made This, a 2018 mental health minicomic by Lindell.

That’s great. I’ve always appreciated your thoughtful approach to discussing mental health. What's exciting you about comics right now? Are you reading anything that's exciting to you?

There's this wave of anthologies coming out from all these different self-publishers and independent publishers that I’m enjoying. It's reminiscent of what I dreamed about when I was reading comics as a kid.

Any specific names?

Yeah, I think I picked up CRAM and then-- is it the Rusted Belt, or Rust--

Rust Belt Review?

Yeah. And then I like what Black Josei Press is doing. So I'm excited for [Gladiolus Magazine] to come out. I don't know, it's always been this way, but it seems like it's more focused since the pandemic, that people are like, we don't have time to be around. We wanna, you know, get our stuff out there.

Yeah. I think I've noticed that shift too with a lot of cartoonists. Like, what do I wanna do with this precious time that I have?

I know we’re running out of time, but do you have any last words that you want to share with readers or people who are thinking about getting into making comics?

Yeah, what I always say is, you don't need permission. I know a lot of people say that, but it-- I mean, comics should be the prime example of "you don't need permission."

Laneha House at the Peninsula Libraries Comic Arts Fest 2018.