Thursday, October 13, 2011

Interview: Tessa Brunton

Tessa Brunton is a Bay Area cartoonist that I discovered through Twitter. If you are keeping score, this gives us Twitter:1, Bitching about Twitter: 0.

Carrie Try Harder: You say in the about section of your website that a failed attempt to write a novel turned you towards doing autobio comics. You recently made a hilarious flow chart on how to make such a comic that underlined the frustrations of writing about day-to-day life. What inspires you to continue to document your life? Have you thought about returning to fiction storytelling?
Tessa Brunton: I loved messing around with fiction, but I found it really difficult. With fiction you have to make so many choices, and when I made choices that made the story meaningful, it then seemed contrived. When I didn’t the story became tedious. With autobio stories I know what happened and why it felt meaningful, which keeps me from getting overwhelmed and spending five days obsessing about whether having my characters visit a haunted slaughterhouse is too obviously symbolic.

I think the main reason I keep documenting my life with comics is I find it incredibly therapeutic and empowering. I was in denial about some messy life stuff for a lot of my twenties, and dealing with that opened up this floodgate of reflection and comics happen to be a phenomenal way to explore all that. It’s like putting those experiences in a narrative makes them not just these messed up things that happened, it somehow makes them mine. However, making comics about daily life can get really old (exhibit a: the flowchart). I think I keep doing it because of the fundamental human pleasure of sharing your experience. It's like I can say things about myself and my life I wouldn't necessarily say to someone face to face.

That said, I bet that someday I'll get over going all Nancy Drew on my life with comics and will try fiction again...

CTH: In each of the three issues of In The Tall Grass you end the issues with "A Note to My Mom," basically reassuring her with messages like "besides that time on mushrooms [you] do not do drugs in public places."While this is obviously a joke, I wonder how you deal with the fallout that can sometimes come with writing autobio in a world that we share, for instance, with our parents and exes. Have you had to have explicit conversations with loved ones about their appearances in your work?
TB: I've had a couple of conversations where I’ve asked people if they want me to change their names and likenesses, and I asked my brother before I made a comic book about his coming of age experience, but no one’s gotten upset with me about their portrayal in my comics (yet). I think without realizing it I do omit more upsetting stories, for example by not making comics about that housemate that tried to steal my security deposit while descending into addiction. I’ve been told my comics are upbeat and sometimes I wonder if it’s because I’ve been leaving out the stories about people screwing each other over and having horrible break-ups in some weird unconscious attempt to not rock the boat?

I’m actually bracing myself to try to stop only looking at the funny/comforting/revelatory moments and start messing around with the more painful, less-flattering stories, where people are doing messed up things to each other, and I expect there’ll be some fall out when that happens.

CTH: Yes, let's talk about Passage, your recent, most excellent comic about your brother's coming of age experience. In it you mention your own "passage," as arranged by your parents, but the story focusses on your reaction to his. Why did you decide to make his story the framing device instead of your own? Better outfits? Wackier characters?
TB: I think if I had just focused on my story it would have been 32 pages about my buckets of shame. His story not only involved costumery, kidnapping and authority figures acting wacky but he didn’t seem ashamed of the experience at all which was in total contrast to my sense of gut wrenching humiliation. Given what a private person he was, I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t embarrassed by the manhood ceremony, but his experience presented this idea that maybe my reaction was symptomatic of deeper issues. I think his story enabled me to reflect on why I was flipping out and the fact that it was not totally normal that I would have liked to walk around with a paper bag over my head during those years.

CTH: In Passage, and in your recent online comics, you've been delving into those feelings of shame, and the experiences that lead to them, bit by bit. You have also been doing some comics about your chronic illness. What is the impetus to work on these two issues in your comics? Is it the same for each? Do you have any comic-memoir models you turn to when you are stuck?
TB: One thing about shame is that it’s really isolating and I think a lot of my motivation for making comics about being molested and having a chronic illness is how incredibly rewarding it feels to not be ashamed. It seems to be rewarding on lots of different levels – your comics become more interesting, they’re more honest, and (I think most importantly) you feel like you’re less alone in your experience. Whether or not anyone’s even reading it, it's still a way of embracing your situation and the cards you've been dealt, which can be liberating. There are definitely comic memoirs I go back to regularly to remind myself of what I’d like to do. Right now my staples are Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons and Craig Thompson’s Blankets, but I just read Gabby Schulz/Ken Dahl’s Monsters and I’m adding it to my heavy rotation.

CTH: I just reread One Hundred Demons and have been referring to it a ton, too! Someday I will finish my love letter to that book... How was the transition from self-publishing to working with Sparkplug? What was it like working with comics' powerhouse Dylan Williams?
TB: The transition was sweet, any way you cut it. The experience of having someone want to publish your stuff, especially for a cartoonist who doubts their technical proficiency and is toiling away in semi-obscurity, is of course positive. But really, Dylan was rare and wonderful and incredibly encouraging and that made it the best. To begin with, I think his offer changed the way I thought about myself and my comics. It's like the validation gave me permission to be very serious and work on something that would take two years. But part of it was just the pleasure of working with someone who genuinely cared. For example, he first e-mailed me the offer to publish a comic (If I made one) the same month I was diagnosed with my illness. I was flipping out and I never responded. He tried again a few months later and by then I had my head on straight. He said he suspected something was up, and when I told him what was happening he commiserated with his own health issues. I'd check in from time to time to tell him how the comic was coming and sometimes we'd talk about our health stuff, but even so I don't think I ever expressed to him how much the comic book kept me sane and kept my self esteem up while I was wrangling with my illness and other assorted stuff. When it was time to go over the proofs of the book I got a call from him from the hospital after he'd just had a surgery and he was, I think, in pain, just to confirm that I'd given the printers the go ahead. He loved comics and he loved people and his dedication to both really showed, and it changed people's lives. It definitely changed mine significantly for the better.

CTH: So, I somehow skipped asking you about my favorite part of your art--the patterns! How did you develop your style of using many tiny patterns to give depth to your panels?
TB: Well, I love how comics look when they're all cluttered with texture and detail, I find them very tasty looking (I know that sounds kind of weird). However I think I started adding more patterns to my comics at first because they seemed to disguise and compensate for my, ahem, lack of proficiency in some technical aspects of drawing. But then instead of just patterning the wood to try to hide how badly I drew a window frame I got absorbed by how tasty looking they are. Now of course it's a full blown compulsion. I cannot stop myself from obsessively patterning bed sheets. I'm want to curtail it in an effort to draw more "efficiently" and be smarter about creating a sense of balance and mood without indiscriminately adding patterns every which way, but it's hard because I love how it looks so very, very much.

And, well, I don't really have anything to add. Each of these questions made me think hard about what exactly I've been doing and why that is and so there has been an alarming amount of reflection going on in my apartment. Anyways, thank you for providing such thoughtful questions!

CTH: Well, thanks! It was great typing with you. I can't wait to see what happens next with you and your work.

Read my review of In the Tall Grass at Inkstuds. 


Kelly said...

Great interview and glad you asked about the patterns--I love how they look very, very much also!

Elspeth Maxwell said...

Wonderful interview with someone of immense talent and reach. Thank you!

Carrie said...

I know, ladies, she is great!