The multi-talented Lucy Knisley creates comics (available in print and online), makes music, and has designed a shirt depicting the different styles of hot dogs from twelve cities and states. Dan Copulsky was delighted to have her answer his questions in March 2010.
You create primarily autobiographical work. What’s the appeal of autobiography for you? Is the work you enjoy reading similar to your own work, or are other things that appeal to you as a reader?
Making autobiographical work is vital to me—it allows me to order my thoughts and experiences so I can process them for myself and share them with others who might relate, which gives me great relief and satisfaction. I think doing this allows me to feel less alone in the world, when someone feels a connection to my work. I love the experience of having this disjointed jumble of thoughts in my head, rambling around in there for weeks (sometimes longer), and then making sense of it through ordered panels of words and images. As someone who frequently feels confused and isolated by the world outside my own head, making comics about my inner life feels like a way to communicate myself that is clearer than what I’m able to express otherwise. I feel similarly about making autobiographical comics as I do about talk therapy, that ordering and expressing your inner thoughts allows you to better understand the world outside yourself. Maybe once I feel more comfortable outside my own head, I’ll stumble onto a yearning to write more fiction. That said, I adore reading other autobio comics! I get this glimpse into the thought processes of other people, and find it fascinating and endearing. But I think I nearly equally love fictional and journalistic work. In comics, I’m not impressed by fancy art without a readable story; the writing has to be good, autobio or not.
What’s an average day for you like? Do you have set goals or schedules? Do you have a routine?
I have a list of things I need to complete by the end of the week that I make on Sunday night (frequently it’s a set # of pages for my book, plus various ideas I had for projects, commission or freelance work, and miscellaneous bank/post office/grocery chores). I usually divvy up the list throughout the week, but I like to keep my schedule flexible. I’m a “do a lotta stuff in short bursts” kind of person, and get a lot of things done quickly, followed by a great deal of staring into space or eating. I often wish I could be one of those industrious cartoonists that work at their desks from 9 to 5, but I’m more likely to wander away if I try to keep to that schedule. I’ll go for a walk if I’m feeling antsy, or move the drawing out onto the porch. A nice/awful thing about not having a set schedule is that I usually end up working much later and getting more done in a day than I would if I chained myself to my desk for a rigid eight hours.
How does a comic strip come together for you? Do you write first and then work out the visual design, or is the creation of the text and art more intertwined?
It varies from comic to comic, but generally I write out a script while doing little thumbnail pages in the margins. I used to be a lot more off-the-cuff about my comics, just starting to draw and seeing where it led, but in the last year or so I’ve been a little more about having a plan—a beginning, middle, and end that I know from the start. I think this change came from finally being out of school. I spent so long in school making comics that were “wrong” in the established sense of “how to make a good comic.” I wouldn’t script it, I’d go straight to ink, I’d use crappy copy paper and cheap pens, and I’d draw way too small to be good for my hand or the finished product. When a teacher would suggest that my methods were, perhaps, not completely correct, I’d balk. I spent a lot of time worried that, were I to give in and make comics the way someone else suggested, I would be conforming to a method that would make my comics too similar to others. Now that I’m on my own, for the most part, I’m better able to put to practice the things I learned in school and have it be my own impetus, and in my own way, rather than fulfilling an assignment or conforming to the standard of practice. I guess I’m just stubborn.
In a comic a few months ago, you expressed frustration with older artists who couldn’t see the potential in the growing predominance of digital media. In the comic, you mentioned a few benefits of digital work for readers, like cheaper costs and convenience. I wondered if you could say any more about what potential you see in digital media for creators, what is is that these artists ought to be optimistic about.
I think the main point that I was trying to get across in that comic was that it’s wasteful to spend energy and time worrying about something that is happening, when you could spend that energy learning about it and embracing it! The digital transition of media is no new thing. The internet has already revolutionized comic-making, self-employment, and the interconnectivity of art. I can only hope for similar great things from the continuation of digital media (as in portable digital reading/publishing)! It’s totally upset the traditional publishing world, but I’m optimistic that creators and writers can use this transition to their benefit, and create a new publisher/author (and reader/author) relationship, if we would just open ourselves up to it. And as someone who fetishizes books as beloved objects as much as any child raised by a English professor father, I’m curious to see how this might make books more singular and precious as treasured object; Smaller print runs (save trees!), higher production quality to compete with digital color and definition, potentially fewer middlemen between artist/authors and readers (which possibly means more $ for the creators), and a greater widespread respect for small press or self-publishers. I know there are a lot of downsides, but I prefer to look on the bright side and remain confident that we’ll figure this out for the best.
What do you look for in a comic book store? What places do you love?
I’m a fan of stores that have a variety of stuff—not just comics. My favorite comic shop is Quimby’s, here in Chicago, which has gorgeous art books, hand-picked selections from prose books, indie magazines and a huge wall of self-published minis and zines, along with a great selection of straight-up comics. I frequently judge places by their appreciation for all things that go into comics—art and writing and culture and ink, which can be browsed either combined or separated at places like Quimby’s that get that concept, and don’t just stock comics and nothing but comics.
Since I’ve got a food enthusiast who lives in Chicago answering my questions, there’s one more thing I’ve got to ask, for totally self-serving purposes. Do you have any Chicagoland pizza recommendations?
Oh, this is a very sensitive subject. You might end up sorry you asked… When I moved here to go to college, I was really excited to try deep dish Chicago-style pizza (more cheese? Who wouldn’t love that?), but I was actually kind of horrified by the reality of it. I’m from New York, where our pizza is thin with a cornstarch belly, light on the top and folded floppily into a roll in order not to burn your mouth on the top. Chicago, even when they do “thin crust” has this totally different consistency—the crust reminds me of damp matzo, actually—like you can break it off, rather than having to rip, like you do with New York pizza. The round pie is frequently cut into squares, which makes absolutely no sense to me, and while there is little better than cold leftover NY pizza, Chicago style seems to congeal, crust, cheese and tomato, into one spongy consistency when left overnight in the fridge. I’m really not a picky eater, and I LOVE so many wonderful Chicago eating habits, but any suggestions for pizza places are going to be the ones I’ve found that can approximate NON-Chicago style! My best suggestion? Go for a Chicago-style hot dog, instead. They’re absolutely one of the best things this city has brought to cheap food, and people don’t seem to tout it as much as the pizza, for some completely bizarre reason. Hit up Hot Dougs or The Wiener Circle for good ones. Ask for a char-dog (or double-char-dog, when they put two dogs on one bun!), Chicago style. You’ll get this great hot dog with crazy fluted ends, on a poppy-seed bun, nearly invisible beneath a pickle, tomatoes, bright-green relish, onions, sport peppers, celery salt and mustard (never ketchup! NEVER!). An added bonus—you can usually take a swim in the lake after one of these! Not so with the pizza—you’ll sink right to the bottom of the Lake Michigan sludge.