Interview: A Minute with Comics Artist Megan Kelso

by Erina Davidson

This summer, Fantagraphics-published artist Megan Kelso released a re-print of her collection of earlier work, including the early minicomic Girlhero strips, titled Queen of the Black Black. (You can read my review of it here.) The lucky dog that I am, I got to ask her a few questions on what it’s like to be a comics artist who went from all-DIY roots to being serialized in the New York Times Magazine. (All of Watergate Sue is available on the magazine’s website; I highly recommend reading it.) Being a college student and an aspiring low-budget, DIY comics artist, Megan’s insight sent me straight to my desk with my Rapidograph and pad of bristol board – though according to Megan and the Xeric Foundation (which recently put an end to awarding grants to self-published artists), it seems that web comics is the way to go. Too bad I’m as tech-savvy as a doughnut.

You can find all of Megan’s graphic novels – Queen of the Black Black, Artichoke Tales, Squirrel Mother – on the Fantagraphics site and in your local bookstore.

Above: Megan Kelso at the 2010 Alternative Press Expo

1.) Did you have any formal artistic training prior to your minicomic Girlhero? What originally sparked your interest in comics?

I took some continuing ed. drawing classes at the University of Washington when I was in high school because my high school didn’t have much of an art program, and then I applied to and was accepted at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with the intention of studying photography. I only went for one semester because pretty much as soon as I got there, I realized I had made a mistake. I didn’t feel ready for art school, I wanted to get a regular liberal arts college education instead. I continued to take drawing and photography classes through college (I later transferred to the Evergreen State College) and into my early twenties, but I never got an art degree. I had a boyfriend at Evergreen who loved comics and kept trying to get me interested. None of what he showed me (Watchmen, Daredevil, Love and Rockets) interested me much until he showed me Dirty Plotte by Julie Doucet and Neat Stuff by Peter Bagge.

2.) When you first started making your zines, did you ever expect to have a career in drawing comics?

To be honest, I was never very career-focused. My parents didn’t talk to me about college in terms of a career, but more in terms of pursuing what I was interested in. I studied mostly history and political science in college, but with no clear idea of what that would lead to. When I started drawing comics in my senior year in college, I had a very clear feeling that I had found what I wanted to do – that comics were the medium of expression I’d been looking for. I didn’t expect to make it a career in terms of earning a living at comics. I always figured I would have to have some sort of day job to support myself so that I could do comics, and that is pretty much how it turned out. I have earned money off and on over the years for making comics, but it has never amounted to the kind of reliable money one could support a family with.

3.) In your original 1998 introduction to Queen of the Black Black, you said you’d be drawings comics when you are an “old, old, woman, barring early death or a freak accident.” What in the world would you be doing today if you weren’t drawing comics?

That’s a good question! When I have “road not taken” thoughts, I sometimes think I would have enjoyed being a producer for NPR, or a book editor, or perhaps a museum curator or a park ranger. But really, these are just pipe dreams. I haven’t seriously pursued any career except comics since I was 23.

4.) Queen of the Black Black is a visual record of your early experimentation with drawing style, lettering, etc. Which of your projects do you believe was the breaking point where you were able to say, “Ah, this is my style” ?

It was over the course of a few stories. I think I began to find my style with “Whistle and Queenie” – it has a lighter line and a bit less black than some of my earlier stories. Then, when I did “In Zanana” I used a dip pen instead of a brush and really loved it. I think “the Daddy Mask” was when I felt like the art, the writing, the pacing of the comic and the subject matter came together — I was homing in on what I wanted. I never had a Jackson Pollock moment ( in the movie where Lee Krasner says, “You’ve blown the whole thing wide open, Pollock!!!”)—-that’s never happened. It felt more like slowly narrowing the gap between what I imagined a story could be and what I actually got on paper. I don’t think one ever closes that gap completely though.

Above: From Watergate Sue, 2007


5.) I recently saw Chris Ware speak at the Whitney in New York, and he said that almost all of his stories are based on his own memories and experiences. Do you find it important to incorporate personal history in your work?

All of my stories have elements of autobiography in them – but the autobiographical part is rarely The Story, if you know what I mean. More often,  the autobiography is the setting or a small moment. Often a memory will spark my desire to do a story, but then the requirements of constructing an actual story take over and the original memory becomes a more incidental part of the story. The story I did with my father, “The Reunion” feels very personal because it is an absolutely true story from his life and I worked hard while I was making that comic to be true to his experiences, while still constructing it as a story. I’ve never worked from my own life experiences in quite such a straightforward way.  I try not  to fall into the trap of thinking something is interesting simply because “it happened to ME.” Personal memories and experiences are wonderful catalysts, and I think essential to making work seem believable and relatable, but they are rarely enough. One needs also to do some embroidery.

6.) Do you have any advice for ladies – such as myself –  just starting out with self-publishing comics and zines?

In Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction,” Seymour Glass tells his brother Buddy to write what he most wants to read. That is the single best advice I have ever come across for any kind of creative work, whether you are a cook or a sculptor or a cartoonist. As for self-publishing, I just heard that the Xeric grant for self-publishing has been shuttered because Peter Laird, the founder, thinks there are plenty of opportunities on the web for young cartoonists to self publish. At first, you just want to get your comics in front of someone’s face so they can read it, and the delivery method is not important as long as its effective. I think if I were just starting out now, I would probably use the internet to get my comics out there. Printing on paper is so much more expensive and complicated. We did it that way because there was no other way, but I think Laird is probably right – the internet is the best way to get started now. That said, I think there will always be the desire for beautiful books, and making minicomics is very satisfying, especially for people who like to make objects. I guess I would conclude by saying, just keep at it. Boring as it sounds, persistence pays off. Write and draw what you most want to read.

7.) And favorite drawing weapons of choice?

After much experimentation, this is what I use:
Clearprint drafting vellum for penciling rough drafts. pads have a bright orange cover.
Staedtler mars lumograph drawing pencils (the blue ones) 

Strathmore 500 bristol board – vellum finish

Deleter black ink #1 – it has a purple label
Cavallini erasers. They’re very soft and don’t fade ink – they look like white oval river rocks, sometimes with cutesy pictures or words printed on them. best. erasers. ever.
Sanford Tuff Stuff eraser sticks for precision erasing
Nikko “G-pen” nibs

Photo of Megan: Guillaume Paumier

Thanks again to Megan.

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