Mary Kate “MK” Reed (http://www.mkreed.com) noted at one point in her interview, “It’s comics or suicide”. She’s part of a generation of comics artists that is simply in love with the form, despite the many obstacles in the way of following it as a career. She got her start doing a daily strip at Syracuse University and later remarkably getting an entire comics anthology funded. Some notable Orange alums in the comics biz include Kurt Busiek and Scott McCloud, and Reed has some ideas why there is such a remarkably deep talent pool at the school. She was a contemporary of well-known artist Nick Gurewitch of PERRY BIBLE FELLOWSHIP fame: www.pbfcomics.com While receiving little formal training at Syracuse, it’s interesting to hear how Reed’s English major was instrumental in shaping her worldview.
After a series of minis and attempts at more cohesive series, Reed broke through in 2005 with CATFIGHT. It’s the story of three high school girls who are close friends, and the melee that eventually results when two of them have a misunderstanding over a boy. Reed’s art is crude but expressive, and certainly quite functional for her purposes here. She’s developed a style that nicely matches her writing, with a remarkable verisimilitude in her dialogue and the types of situations that teenagers get into. While she punches the story up with conflict, it’s the quiet moments that make this a memorable read and a fine first major entry in her personal canon.
Reed just published a mini-comic called PALE FIRE (inspired by the Nabokov novel), about a girl fascinated by a boy who may or may not be a pyromaniac. One can see her composition clearing up as she demonstrates increasing control over the page, as well as her figure drawing becoming ever more expressive. Reed is also writing a comic called COPYKAT for Otazine, with Laura Tallardy doing the art. Finally, she’s organizing a new anthology for Friends of Lulu, though she will detail some of the trials that have gone along with that opportunity.
Reed is exactly the kind of creator that I’ll examine in 30 Under 30. Someone still relatively new to the artform (and the business), but who’s clearly ambitious and making a move. Some of the creators I’ll interview will be better known or better established than others, but taken as a whole it should cover a wide spectrum of indy comics creators.
Background and Influences
SEQUART: What year were you born and where did you grow up? Are you self-taught as an artist or did you have any training? You graduated from Syracuse; did you take any art classes there, and how useful were they?
REED: 1981, Northeastern NJ, in the town that the high school that Rev Run’s kids are going to on that MTV reality show is in. I’m pretty much self taught, I’ve had a few unrelated art classes in different things here & there (some at Syracuse) but not really any devoted artistic training. I did take a lot of photography classes in high school, and a video class, and I worked in a camera store for a year then. That influenced me to go to Syracuse, because then I eitherwanted to do photography or go into film.
When I was at Syracuse, I was an English major, because there was insane competition to get into the communications school, and basically every one there applies to this one college, Newhouse, that’s one of the top communications schools in the country. But they only let in three hundred people, and then they let everyone into the Liberal Arts college or the art school. So there’s a couple thousand embittered wannabe filmmakers there, in the freezing cold for 7 of the 8 months that you’re there, and most of them turn to alcohol. (That book Smashed, a memoir of a decade long alcohol problem begun as a teen, was written by a Syracuse grad who was there when I was. We’re all quite proud of what’s her name.)
But I took a lot of film classes anyway, which definitely had more of an impact than the art classes. (CATFIGHT was conceived in a film lecture after watching Straw Dogs.) As a Liberal Arts student, there were a certain amount of credits that you could take in the other colleges within Syracuse, so I took pretty much all of those in Film, and like two art classes, and one of those was a letterpress class.
SEQUART: What are your influences, both as a child, teen, developing artist and now? In particular, I’m interested in hearing exactly how and why they influenced you to read further and/or create your own work.
REED: I can’t imagine that with all the thousands and thousands of hours I’ve spent watching it, The Simpsons wouldn’t have an effect on me. (Though it’s not what it used to be.) I can’t really think of any specific books that would have influenced my writing. I just read a lot, but I don’t know if there’s really an author who I’ve patterned myself off of.
What I’ve been reading lately are AM Homes, and AL Kennedy, Amy Hemple, a little Lorrie Moore. Obviously, I like Nabakov, though I haven’t read that much. John Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers, I think mainly because I never had him forced upon me in high school (never took an american lit class) and I was able to discover it on my own, and then East of Eden absolutely killed me, and Grapes Of Wrath too, though probably my favorite was The Moon is Down, which is the coolest propaganda ever made, even cooler than Lifeboat, which Steinbeck wrote & Hitchcock directed (Hitchcock is another big influence). It’s short, and even the introduction was awesome. I listened to them while I was working on something… I think maybe towards the end of CATFIGHT. I have to listen to books on tape while I work because music is too distracting, but with a story I have an extra reason for keeping my butt in my chair. I like Bill Bryson, especially his science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. I went through a Chuck Palahniuk phase, but I think it may have ended with his last book, which I only got one chapter into. Hopefully the next one will be better.
As to how they influence me, I pull bits and pieces from everything. It worms its way in, if not in style, in content. Comic wise, I love Chynna Clugston. BLUE MONDAY was like the first comic I read after someone gave me SANDMAN and got me sucked back it to comics, and I started looking for more stuff on my own. I read ARCHIEs as a kid, until I got irritated at the way they punctuated their dialogue when I was about 11. (It’s all exclamation points and question marks, they DO NOT use periods. Which is totally lame.) Also, the content was just really stupid.
Eleven would have been a great age to read BLUE MONDAY, but there was just really nothing to read for me then, in terms of comics. So now I really appreciate anything that I would have liked to read as a teenager. HOPELESS SAVAGES too, though I’m waiting for Oni to print more stuff like they used to & especially Brian Lee O’Malley’s stuff, he is writing some of the most fun comics ever. TEENAGERS FROM MARS I love. And I find that I like the French comics that are getting translated now, mainly through D&Q, I just read MAYBE LATER on the train today, and it was excellent. Liz Baillie’s comics are fantastic, and now I get to see them as she works on them, which is excellent, although I don’t get the thrill of reading them all at once and letting the tension unfold because she shows me the script.
I also got to read Hope Larson’s next book, CHIGGERS, which is going to be great, she’s improving with each book. And I’ll finish my list with Alex Robinson & Aaron Reiner, who tell great stories, & Paul Pope, who just does the coolest looking action stuff and I am jealous of. Shit, wait, also Farel Dalrymple & Jim Rugg. for kinda the same reasons as PP. And Josh Cotter & John Pham. Okay, I read a LOT of indie comics. I can’t tell you the name of an Avenger to save my life, but I can pick out a David Chelsea illustration across a crowded train.
SEQUART: Why did you choose comics to work in as opposed to other media? You were enrolled in a writing program at the New School (in New York City): how did this affect your development in comics? Do you have an interest in working in other media, and if so, which? Do you draw from life or keep a regular sketchbook?
REED: Mainly, comics let me tell a story with visuals that I could only otherwise do with film, but for no money and without having to rely on anyone else to do anything. All my video footage has me yelling at people behind the camera. I’m too impatient to wait for other people to do things for me. I’m interested in doing other things, but not patient enough to go out & do them.
I keep a bunch of sketchbooks on me at all times. At the moment, I’m at work and in my bag there’s 8 sketch/notebooks. 3 of them are for individual projects I’m working on, either the scripts or notes about them, one is sort of a general book for sketching. One is just a couple pages of bristol in case I need to do something on that for some reason. One is my to do book, and then there’s some tiny books I throw in in case I go somewhere that I don’t want to carry all the rest of them but want to have something to write or draw in. (you’re learning my terrible secrets Rob.) I wouldn’t say I regularly draw in any of them, but when I feel like working on something, I have it on me.
The New School was good in that I got a book out of it, (read Pale Fire for a class) and it made me write, but mainly it made me want to work on comics more. When my time was split between writing prose, and not having as much time for comics, I really just wanted to be making comics. So I dropped out.
SEQUART: Do you consider yourself a writer or an artist first? Do you plan everything out ahead of time or improvise (both in story and art)? How long does it take you to finish a story?
REED: Totally a writer. If I thought I could get someone else to do the art in any sort of timely fashion, I’d have someone more talented do it. So I’ve just tried to get better at drawing things, and experimented with different techniques to make things look better. Everything is planned out in advance. I usually think about a story for a long time before I even write any of it. I’ll do sketches and do an outline, and then, when a deadline starts to creep up, I’ll start to actually do the work of writing. I write & thumbnail at the same time, so it tends to be composed as a whole page, and from the outline, I know that a certain amount has to happen within a page. It takes me a while to get a story straight in my head, and then I’ll start writing it when I have 2-3 months left to write it, and about a month before I have to have it done, I’ll start the art and do a page a day. CATFIGHT took about a year & a half from conception to finish, and there were huge chunks of time where I didn’t “do” anything on it, but was thinking about the next sections. PALE FIRE took a year to get done, but that involved six months of not touching paper in between the first half and the second.
SEQUART: So it sounds like even though you’re primarily a writer, the visuals are a crucial element for you. Would you say that you’re a frustrated filmmaker in some ways? Do you consider your comics to be primarily cinematic in nature? (I recall 2 separate pages you wrote that have “montage” scenes with a song named as “background music” for the images.
REED: In some ways, “Frustrated filmmaker” is pretty accurate, and the more I hear from friends who’ve gone to film school, the happier I am with comics, though they’ve got their own terribly frustrating aspects. I don’t know if my comics are that filmic, although there are scenes I can imagine as being really fun to film. But I don’t think there could be a straight up adaption of CATFIGHT, there are some scenes in there that’d totally be cut, at least in the current film environment in the U.S., and PALE FIRE is too short as it is to be a movie. I have the freedom to make scenes as long as I want, and I can throw in stuff like Sam & Sarah talking about John Cusack movies because I don’t have to edit things down to 98 minutes. I just have to take the time to draw them. Likewise, if an idea only sustains itself for 60 pages, I don’t have to pad it out longer or never have it screened in a theater. I’m just limited by the amount of people that actually pick up my books.
I actually also had the first issue of CATFIGHT soundtracked, but I went back and took it out because I didn’t agree with the choices I’d made 4 months later, and then also I though I was copying BLUE MONDAY and didn’t want people to think that I was just ripping that off. As it is, you can kind of build your own soundtrack based on the music they’re discussing in it, so I’ve stopped that for the time being. Then also, there’s the problem that if you read faster than the song, you fuck up the whole timing. So now I generally have a few songs in mind while I’m writing, that generally shape my feel of it, and I’ll leave it to other people to guess what they are. This is probably more in PALE FIRE, but it came up in conversation a few times with my one friend Robin Enrico, who has a unique insight into my comics because he knows a good deal about me & my life, and is one of the few friends I actively discuss my comics with.
SEQUART: Regarding your art, how do you think you’ve improved? Are you basically satisfied with how your art can now communicate your writing’s ideas, or are you still searching for ways to improve and/or new techniques?
REED: I’ve come a long way since I started, and I’m actually at a point where I’m really satisfied with my art, up until I ink things. I have a lot of room for improvement there, mainly because I don’t sketch in ink, or trace my art much outside of when I’m doing pages for my books, versus being able to sketch pretty much everywhere without much hassle. (no ink & water reserve to spill on other train passengers) I’ve experimented with different inks & brushes, and I’ve been playing a lot with brush pens lately, the Pitt/Faber-Castell ones, and some Japanese ones that you can pick up in Asian bookstores around NYC/Jersey pretty easily, but I’m not entirely sure I want to use them. Liz and Robin keep telling me that I should use them, but I like brushes. They have a nice feel to them, I just need to practice more to use them well.
SEQUART: How do you balance making a living with creating comics? How do you maintain motivation as an artist without exhausting yourself?
REED: First part: Poorly!
Second part- I work in spurts, and I tend to structure things around this. I’ve found that if I structure my books into more serial forms, they’re less imposing and seem more do-able. I tend to structure things so that I’ll have a new book for either SPX, APE, or MoCCA, because they’re spaced fairly evenly apart (or used to be, til APE moved to April) and then I get some feedback on how well I’ve done. So, say now, when I’m trying to get something done for SPX- I came up with an idea in May, I’ve just written the first page of it a week ago (mid-July) and I realistically won’t start work on it until the end of August, more likely September. I’ll have to have it ready to make by the first week of October, and then once SPX is done, I won’t want to do anything on it for months. It’s the first 30 pages of a 90-100 page book, so it’s not too tough. So really, exhausting myself is in the plans, and I account for it, but I know that eventually I’ll get back into working if I give myself time away.
SEQUART: One of your strengths as a writer is your dialogue. In particular, you seem to understand how to write teen-agers. What goes into your process of writing dialogue, and how do you give each character their own unique voice?
REED: I usually think of how a scene is going to work before I start writing it, and then I sit down with my sketchbook and write & draw it at the same time. I try to give everyone a clear personality, and I won’t put words in their mouth that they wouldn’t use. Darren & Dwayne in PALE FIRE weren’t allowed to use many multisyllabic words, and instead got to curse a lot. Dwayne really didn’t get much more than a grunt. He was fun to write. Putting limits on what kind of language characters get to use is a fun challenge, and their dialogue comes out more real. Teenagers get to curse more, because I think they do in general.
Sometimes I’ll pattern a character’s speech off of someone I know. I listen to how people speak, I usually don’t talk a lot in public, or if I’m in a group I tend to defer to someone else to tell a story. Good listening skills. I should put that on my resume. But I’ll think about a scene for a while, and play it out in my head, and the best dialogue gets in. I had to learn how to cut down to what’s necessary, because I could probably have a pair of characters talk for 20 pages if I didn’t, and I’d never finish anything, so there’s certain rules I keep for how much chatting can go on.
Comics and Community/Competition
SEQUART: Do you have a sense of community within comics? Is it particular to your generation–do you feel yourself to be part of a specific group with its own particular mindset?
REED: To the extent that there can be a community in a competitive marketplace, yes. There is a competitive part underneath it all, if there weren’t everyone would be handing out their books to each person who walked by, for free. I think the younger cartoonists have an easier time going up to each other and talking about stuff, they haven’t had time to get that bitter yet, so you don’t really see that Comics Journal board, all-out bickering. I see my group as the school of comics centered on narrative and storytelling rather than art books. Less KRAMER’S ERGOT, more Alex Robinson tomes.
SEQUART: Do you enjoy the more abstract, KRAMER’S-style comics? What creators’ work do you either actively dislike or just not understand their appeal?
REED: I kinda totally hate KRAMER’S. I think they’re pretentious and kinda drug-fueled nonsense. Not all of the stuff in there, but I bought #4 at SPX when it came out, and I remember it was largely unreadable. Part of it is that certain types of pages that are difficult to read, because the flow of the comics is so contorted that I get a headache. Gary Panter, Ron Rege sometimes, Marc Bell especially. One time I was in Jim Hanley’s buying one of Kevin Huzinega’s first OR ELSE books, and the guy behind the counter saw me getting it and was like, “You should totally read Anders Nilsen’s BIG QUESTIONS. It’s so much better.” (Which is a COMPLETELY asinine thing to be saying if you work at Hanley’s, I don’t think Nilsen & Huzinega are all that comparable.) And I politely explained that I preferred OR ELSE, avoiding confrontation, and walked outside and let loose with a 5 minute what the fuck rant with my boyfriend, who also thought it was bizarre. Sometimes stuff like that will happen where I’m sure if I was a guy I wouldn’t have to answer.
SEQUART: What do you think of MOME (Fantagraphics’ new flagship anthology)? Its goal was to present comics that were driven more by narrative than something like KRAMER’S, and I’m interested if you think they succeeded in this goal.
REED: It’s kinda hifalutin’. I mainly bought it because John Pham was in it, with the bonus of Paul Hornschemeier (the SEQUENTIAL guy), and I liked Gabrielle Bell’s pieces, but a lot of the others didn’t do it for me. I’d like it to take itself a little less serious than it does.
SEQUART: What role have APE/MOCCA/SPX played in your interest in comics and becoming an artist, if any?
REED: They’ve kept me working, without them I’d never get anything done. Socially, they’ve also been great because I met my boyfriend at SPX, and they put me in touch with other artists and writers, and give me a chance to see what else people are working on. And there’s generally some kind of shenanigans going on after hours there that I don’t have in my daily life, so they’re a nice break from reality. It’s also good to see other people doing the same thing with their free time, whereas if I weren’t going to these, I probably wouldn’t know anyone else making comics. Not nearly as many, anyway.
SEQUART: You are still relatively new to comics–what are your long-term goals? Do you see yourself in comics indefinitely?
REED: My goals are to draw until my hands give out (I have arthritis, or I’m pretty sure of this without having a doctor confirm it) at which point I will hopefully be able to convince some other sucker to draw for me. Before this, there’s a long story I’d like to finish on my own, ideally to critical acclaim and a bunch of awards ‘n junk. It’s comics or suicide.
Syracuse, CATFIGHT, PALE FIRE and Feminism
SEQUART: Let’s talk about some of your past projects of note. How did you get the money from the Syracuse student union to publish BERSERKER? Describe the experience of putting together three issues of an anthology with fairly ambitious content and production values.
REED: The short answer is that I exploited racism, but it’s a funny story:
SU has a daily newspaper that’s “independent” from the school, in that they’re not directly funded by the school, though they’re heavily supported by ads from SU departments. This is the Daily Orange. They had a daily comics page, and I started doing a strip for it in my junior year. Most of the strips were notoriously bad, though this is also where the PERRY BIBLE FELLOWSHIP & REHABILITATING MR WIGGLES came from, so there were actually people with talent there. (Neil [Swaab]s’ stuff is at: http://neilswaab.com/) And actually, Laura [Tallardy] did a comic in there too, but after I left, so I never saw it.
So, one night they called a meeting, and they had everyone sign these stupid contracts because someone did a comic that caused them to lose the study abroad program advertising, it mentioned abortion or something. It’s was like, $10k, so they were putting all these restrictions on us, and it was stupid. So at that meeting, I met Matt Finley, who wrote this crazy comic that I forget the name of, but was bizarre & hilarious. And the next day, they ran this comic that had a character robbing a place with a ski mask, and it was done in a stickman style, and then it got accused of being racist & using blackface. So I ran into Matt after that, and we got talking & hit it off, and we decided to try and get funding for a magazine, and we worked all the right angles, like we’d have more time to try and prevent offensive stuff from being in, which we totally didn’t do.
The first issue we let the guys who did the blackface strip in to redeem themselves, and then also Nick [Gurewitch] did this one page thing with a snake in a woman’s vagina that was kinda gross, which lost him some friends apparently. But when we went to the funding meeting, the student government gave us a standing ovation! And Matt and I were amazed we pulled it off! It was at a point after they had just had a recession, because there was some really questionable spending by one year’s gov’t. And they gave us like $5k to do it, and other people doing kinda more legitimate things were complaining about stuff they’d had cut from their budget.
But Syracuse had this amazing pool of talent. I think because there’s not a lot to do other than drink and go to this obscenely huge mall, because most of the time it’s really too cold to do anything and you’re in this arctic hell hole, so if you’re not into shopping or boozing (though a lot of people there are) or remotely arty, you end up spending a lot more time working. A lot of the best people doing comics weren’t submitting to the DO because it was generally regarded to be really terrible crap. (There was a strip that was titled “Ass, Craps?” with that punctuation.) So we found them through the people we knew in the art school, Nick G & Albert Birney (who collaborated with Nick & some other people & is now in the Spinto Band, who you should check out because they’re really good), and this kid Jon Moses who lived on the floor Matt RA’d.
And they were just crazy talented, so we had our weird little Art Comics mag, and we were all just experimenting with different stuff & trying to fill pages fast enough to get out issues. That tended to be really difficult, because Nick & Albert were in charge of the DO comics page when we finally had the cash to do BERZERKER my senior year, so they were doing a political/comment cartoon every day & layout & illustrations for the paper. And they were doing like all of it. I doubt that they even have any of that art. You could probably go to the DO office in the middle of the day, and dig through some piles of papers and walk out with a ton of their drawings, and even PBF originals.
So they were busy, and no matter how long you gave anyone to do something, they’d sit on their hands, and then a week after everything was due you could then start to say, “Guys, we really need it soon.” And then a couple days later you’d actually get it. So we learned to plan for overshooting our deadline, and just made them really short, like 3 weeks, to make up for all the time we knew it’d take to actually get everything.
SEQUART: What was it like to work with and publish Nick Gurewitch?
REED: Working with Nick is like going to the dentist for some serious work- you understand that you need to do this and that afterwards you’ll feel better and there will be something good coming from it, but the actual process when you can smell & taste the dentist grinding your teeth away is really terrible, even under heavy sedation. Nick is not a bad guy, just very difficult to work with at times. Though he’s probably someone you should interview…
SEQUART: Talk about your experience doing a daily strip for your student newspaper. How did this help your development as an artist? How widely read was your strip?
REED: I think there was probably a distribution of 10,000 or so, it might be as high as 15,000, but probably not much more than that. Mainly, the paper was a method of distributing crossword puzzles to students so they didn’t have to pay attention in class. People got angry when full color comic day happened, and they ran two pages of comics but they didn’t run crosswords. They actually wrote letters complaining. So, as to how many people actually read them… I can’t really say. Two or three people actually wrote to me saying they liked my comic, and my friends occasionally saw them hanging on doors (I used to mainly make fun of drunks, which a lot of strips did, but I guess I did it better?)
It helped to have a regular deadline (that I totally broke all the time, which is good in college when you actually have some work to do and it’s not a hugely important thing that people really depend on.) and through doing the strip twice a week I had to learn to draw something the same from one panel to the next, so I kinda developed from this boxy, angular style where it was very easy to make stuff look the same again & again, which later morphed into a more curvy one that came more naturally after I practiced drawing a lot. But it was tough to draw a 3 or four panel strip, and when I started up again my senior year (after Nick & Albert took over as art editor) & did “Zombie Hunters In Space” I played around more within the space limits, to the point that you almost cannot read the words, they’re so packed in the panels.
SEQUART: You seem interested in episodic, relationship-oriented stories. SENSELESS VIOLENCE was an early example of this. CATFIGHT was the first long-form story you finished. What do you think of this work now? How did you develop the story and characters–was this an adaptation of your experiences or mostly fictional?
REED: I tend to forget every comic I’ve done before CATFIGHT. They’re just not as good, and it’s not worth it for me to keep printing them up, so I’ve put them in a box and maybe I’ll look at them when I move out. Maybe.
If I didn’t do them in episodes, I’d never finish, because I would be so overwhelmed, I’d never start. I think I wrote about that though… CATFIGHT I love, it was just the right mix of action-story and femaleness. It’s not out of any actual experiences, but more is a sense of me and my friends when we were in high school. None of us actually dated anyone then, and the area I grew up in isn’t conservative in a religious way or anything like that, it’s just really close-minded, and there are a lot of wealthy people, (I mentioned the Rev Run thing? It’s all mansions and even modest houses in the area now go for like $7 or 800k and then torn down for McMansions, I’m sure you’re familiar with the crazy high price of housing these days, but it’s extra obscene in this part.) We weren’t poor by any means, but our parents had grown up poor in the city (mine were from Newark which is still a terrible area, though it went into decline in the sixties with the riots and stuff) and busted their asses to get out into the suburbs and into comfortable jobs, my dad tortures himself to this day in as an comptroller, but his dad was a teamster loading trucks, and my dad did that for a few summers as a kid.
And so growing up in my area was really difficult, because my parents weren’t raised like people from families that have always had money, they just didn’t have that kind of mentality. My closest friends at the end of high school and I were really conscious of things that others didn’t seem to notice, like we noticed that it was really weird that a lot of the kids in my grade were just given these brand new SUVs or sports cars, and never had to work to put gas in them or anything. And they were just total assholes about that, very spoiled. So kind of as a result of growing up in this area, I’ve developed a healthy socialistic/anarchistic world view, which is to kind of spit on the rich. (Working lowly service jobs also helps.) Not literally, but it certainly helps to be in the comics world with a disdain for great material wealth.
And my friends had this attitude too, (at least my three closest friends, who I based CATFIGHT around) and we weirdly gravitated to each other, and other people thought we were weird because we’d buy clothes from thrift shops and wouldn’t spend hours trying to be pretty and attract the assholes in our school that we hated. We’d go hang out at the CD store and dig through the racks there and copy stuff for each other, and we were marginally involved in school activities. I edited part of my school paper and took over the literary magazine and basically made everyone who joined after me take these really strict editorial policies, and I wrote short stories and columns for both. My friend Morgan played sports and ran track. But we were kinda always separate from the herd. (The other two… didn’t really do anything. They joined us occasionally on projects, but not often.)
The day after Columbine (this happened when I was a senior, towards the end of the year) they made our gym classes divide by grade and go into sort of therapy groups. My friend Justin, who Don is based on, was in my class and we sat next to each other, and all these girls were getting up to talk and saying, “I just feel so *sob*… confused … and scared *sob* and anxious.” Justin and I were trying not to burst out laughing at them, because we figured we were probably the kids at the top of the school’s list of who were most likely to freak out. And we had really just stopped caring about what anybody said to us, because we’d gotten into college and were ready to leave. But I was still trying not to burst out with “Well maybe if you weren’t all such BITCHES you wouldn’t have to worry about getting shot in your empty head!”
So in CATFIGHT, it’s not strictly autobiographic, in the sense that none of that really happened. But it’s very much what I experienced at the time, a lot of alienation and grief from kids that thought they were hot shit, and looking for solace in the CD bins in my favorite record store. And some things that I wish had happened, especially where people taken down a peg. And when I did have fights with my friends, though this was later on after we’d gone to college, it was devastating. Huge, end of the world feelings.
The actual inspiration point was from a film class at Syracuse. I took an action film class one semester with a professor I loved, my friends & I tracked down a copy of the softcore porn he wrote that’s kinda a rip off of Vertigo & got him to autograph it, and then he started to list it as “a cult favorite” in his biography in his books. But we saw Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and then Coffy with Pam Grier, and then the week after that, we watched Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman. And in Straw Dogs, Hoffman is pitted against these Scottish villagers who raped his wife and are trying to kill this retarded guy he’s hiding in his house, and the guys are laborers and Hoffman is a mathematician, and he’s obviously outclassed as a fighter, but he ends up brutally killing most of them through these backhanded tactics, like scalding them with hot water, and he takes this huge “man-trap” which is this bear-trap thing with spikes, but intended for people, and slams it into this dude and totally kills him. (I’m listening to the soundtrack for “Ravenous” while I’m writing this, it’s fantastically tense & appropriate.)
And there’s something really calculating and evil about him at that point that made me think “Dustin Hoffman fights like a woman.” And having seen Faster Pussycat’s fighting, & Coffy’s fights which are brutal (hiding razor blades in her hair) it inspired me to do something based on how girls fight, and the whole rest of CATFIGHT is basically to give the fight 80 pages in all the fury and wrath it deserves. And then I needed an appropriate ending…
SEQUART: PALE FIRE is almost a distillation of your earlier work. The same themes apply; not simply relationships, but clearly people just now either choosing or having the opportunity to choose to enter into relationships, and the complications this causes. At the same time, you chose to add a level of dramatic tension: in CATFIGHT, it’s the fistfight between two of the leads over a misunderstanding; and in PALE FIRE, it’s the underlying tension of wondering whether the lead’s intended romantic interest really is dangerous. When developing your stories, how important was it to add this level of tension/conflict?
REED: Conflict is everything. So there’s another rule, that at some point in the story, there needs to be some kind of explosion. Not necessarily that something needs to literally blow up, but something in the story needs to. Everything stems from the tension, I build the rest of the story around it. I can’t stand stories where people just sit around talking and crying. Or yelling, even worse. It’s boring. If all that goes on is some yelling, I can do that at home on my own. Yelling doesn’t resolve anything. When stuff ‘splodes, then you have something. This is why Wes Anderson makes such good movies- he’s got the internal character conflict, but he also blows things up & drives cars into buildings. (Wes Anderson goes into the influences list.)
SEQUART: Back to romance/relationship stories: what drew you to concentrate on this kind of story as opposed to something else?
REED: Most of the romance/relationship movies out there are about this kind of stupid, half crazed woman all concerned with having a boyfriend or being in love more than the dude she’s actually with, and they just seem so retarded. Most women’s roles are terrible, they’re like hollow shells that only serve to help further the male character’s story, and that’s not even just in romance movies, that’s in most movies. And they’re shallow and annoying, and make me want to throw things at the screen.
Books aren’t so bad, namely because a lot of women write, although chick lit probably suffers from this sorta thing but I don’t read that so I couldn’t say for sure. But comics really have a huge problem with female characterizations, and half the time they’re like hanging out in the background making pies or tied to a chair waiting to be rescued. And real women actually do things and talk about music and movies and books and not just men, and bitch about each other and how they hate people. And you don’t see a lot of that. There’s a lot of “angel of the stairs/house” and “sexy bad girl,” (in film, there’s the feminist term “to be looked at-ness” that kinda sums this up) and not a lot of actual people. So I write the kind of roles that I want to see elsewhere, and write stories that could ostensibly happen, even if they don’t actually.
SEQUART: Are you mostly talking about superhero comics here, or indy comics as well? Are there particular indy comics you’re thinking of?
REED: No, superhero stuff is more widely acknowledged, because that’s where the worst of it is. Horror-type stuff has a lot of it too. Indy comics has it and manages to think that they don’t. There are many dubious female characters out there, and even really good writers will turn them out occasionally . It’s a problem you generally don’t see in female written comics, unless they’re poorly written, because they know what they’re talking about, and you don’t see as much with guys who are married or have good relationships with women, because they live with women and spend time with them and even if they don’t realize it, they gain some understanding of them. You see it a lot in emo/ lonely boy comics, where guys pine about girls a lot and aren’t able to sustain relationships with any of them, and this is maybe not so much in the dudes that are getting published as in minis people hand out at cons.
SEQUART: Do you see your writing as explicitly feminist?
REED: I have kind of a strained relationship with feminism. I can’t not be a feminist, I’m a woman. But there’s so many different strains of feminism with the blanket term, and pretty much each strain conflicts with every other, so basically each woman has to decide her politics for herself. So “feminist” is really the most offensive f-word to some people. When I was young, I believed in all the equality things that feminism promotes, but I always defended myself with “But I’m not one of those (god forbid) *feminists.*” (Of course, this was the generation after the 70′s feminists, after the backlash, so growing up in the 80′s probably warped me in that area.)
At some point when I was in college, this changed. This is in part because the “English” department at Syracuse is actually called “English Textual Studies,” which is not so much what you do in high school English classes, and writing about authors and stuff, as going into things on a theoretical level. We approached texts (not always books, a lot of film students end up double majoring in English because there were so many classes devoted to film within the ETS department) under the lens of Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, and occasionally psychology & colonialism. (Effectively, at the end of studying there, you become totally paranoid about anyone’s motivation and reasoning behind anything. There were many comparisons made to choosing the right pill in the first Matrix movie, which were pretty apt.)
There were a lot of gender studies classes within them, and highlights in my memory include trying not to laugh out loud at a room full of girls, all basically dressed the in the same mall-store clothes, loudly proclaiming that women’s fashion magazines haven’t influenced them in the slightest, while half my head was shaved and I was wearing used combat boots from the Army-Navy store with someone else’s name written in them in permanent marker. (Not those fancy Doc Martens.)
Another fun time was when we watched a short film about a woman who performed as a bearded lady in the circus, with a beard, and everyone got grossed out when they saw that she also had armpit hair. It was kind of a depressing place to discuss feminism, but I felt the need to get on the other side of the feminist fence, as these other girls were also loudly proclaiming they weren’t *feminist.* It’s still a struggle to figure out where I am politically. I’m more conservative in some areas, and really way liberal in others, but just enough of a blend to be frustrated with most other people. Somewhere in the middle.
As for my writing, I try to feature very independent, strong, ornery women, and make them as smart as their place in the story warrants. (That is not always very smart.) CATFIGHT I think is full of fun feminist things, because on the one hand you have the main girls bonding together very tightly for support, but then they go and beat the hell out of each other over a guy. And then every other girl in the book is almost out to get them, like in the fight in the first part with Andrea & Shell, really over nothing. I’d like to think I create good role models for younger girls who read my comics, and that good lessons can be taken away from them. That might not be the case… but that’s what I hope I do.
Friends of Lulu, the Problem with Comics Stores, and What’s Upcoming
SEQUART: Let’s talk about current and future projects. You are collaborating with artist Laura Tallardy on COPYKAT, published by Otazine comics. What is your general approach to collaborations? What is it like working with Tallardy? How did this gig come about, and do you feel odd writing manga given that your output hasn’t really resembled that sort of storytelling to date?
REED: I actually responded to the only good ad I ever saw on Craigslist & sent Laura a link to my website, and she picked me out of whoever responded. She had the deal to do the book, but didn’t want to write it, so she hired me, and it’s at the printer now, and we’re waiting to see what happens to see if we get to keep doing it. (which would be awesome.) I don’t generally collaborate on stuff, every time I try it ends up with me owing people a script, or them not being able to do the art and nothing gets done. So this is kinda new.
We talked about what we wanted to do in terms of the story, (Laura lives in Brooklyn, so it’s easy to meet up with her) and then I wrote the script & did page breakdowns/layouts, and then Laura cut a bit and rewrote some parts, mostly to make it quicker to finish. We’ve only done the one this way, and we kinda had to rush to get it done in a month, so I dunno if it’ll go the same way next time, but it’s been good. It was a huge adjustment to see how someone else would translate my script. It’s kinda funny, at first when I got the roughs back, I was all, Crap, this is MANGA! (Because I’m not actually a fan of manga. I kinda hate it.) And it seemed really different from what I’d written. And then I kinda came to my senses and realized that I was doing work for a manga publisher, and reread it, and I realized that it was a decent manga-style comic, and will probably do pretty well. Laura has a good sense of how to draw manga, and she’s a good illustrator, and I like how it’s turned out. It was odd at first, but not anymore.
SEQUART: What else do you have going on in terms of the future?
REED: Other stuff I have going on:
5) there’s been a story I’ve been working on since before CATFIGHT, that I don’t know when I’ll actually start it or finish it, because I think it’ll be pretty long, but it’s a romance about how people do really stupid things in their relationships, and how histories keep affecting futures. I have done like a thousand sketches for this, and there’s about ten pages written that I haven’t touched in months. So it keeps getting put on the back burner while I work on shorter stuff.
SEQUART: What is the nature of the Friends of Lulu anthology? Why is it important that it be all-women? Why and how you put the theme together? What are your thoughts on the creators involved?
REED: There’s a lot of weirdness going on in regards to the FOL, a lot of people have strained relationships and stupidness over what should really be an easy decision. Of course women should read and make comics. If you love comics, and you aspire to love women, you should want women to read comics, because it makes it that much easier to approach a woman and talk about something you both enjoy. And there’s so many unappealing aspects of comics to women.
The stores, for example, are not cute and trendy and don’t make women feel comfortable. (In general, there are some spectacular exceptions to the rule.) For the first two years I went into comic stores, I had to be accompanied by a boyfriend or another male friend, and if it was my boyfriend I didn’t let go of his hand or move more than three feet from him. I was hugely intimidated by these stores that were totally off-putting, and it took me a while to even realize that I felt like that. The world was dangerous enough that I didn’t need to go looking for trouble in comic shops alone. Especially when you go in, and see some guy behind a counter making fun of what someone’s reading, or commenting on your selection. The record store, where I was inevitably complimented on my excellent selection, or asked if I’d heard about another awesome similar band without any derisive comments about what I was paying for, was much preferable, and the boys there were usually much cuter and less spazzy, and made conversation much more easily than the laboring nerds did. This is why music nerds can get more girls. Music is sexy and easy, and guys are singing their hearts out for their ladies.
Comics are completely antithetical to this attitude. (This was 2000 or so, which was really almost a completely different market, right as things were starting to pick up for graphic novels.) Here are these places with cutouts of some bimbo with a gun and enormous juggs in the damn window, before you even walk in. People are walking out with the bags they sell porn in that you can’t see through. And this is why most women don’t want to go in. I think this is a part of the manga rift too, because it sells so well in chain bookstores, where women feel totally safe shopping, but not well in stores. I’ve seen a lot of stores that can’t sell much manga, despite its “alleged” popularity.
One thing I’ve learned is that dudes can have their heads completely up their asses about things that women think everyone knows. I once taught a comic class to kids in the Bronx, 3rd graders, and DC sent the place some comic books, which was nice of them, but not their Cartoon Network, kid friendly books- the hero stuff with lots of violence. And the boys were excited to read them, and the girls didn’t want to look at them, because 8 year old kids know that those comics are “boy’s stuff.” I think the best comment I got that day was that Wonder Woman “should have some self-respect and put on a tank top.”
So guys take offense that women take offense to their comics, which is an attitude that I think was not exceptional back in the sixties in regards to most things, not just comics, but really has no place in today’s world and/or comics market. And so we had a few goals with the anthology, and we gave it a theme to:
-help combat the FOL’s image problem. (And having worked at the Lulu table a few times, I know firsthand they have one.)
-expose male readers to female talent they may have ignored, in a book that won’t be threatening with “girly comics” about unicorns & periods, etc, or anti-male attitudes which make you feel bad about being a guy
-give some fantastic & overlooked ladies a print venue.
I’ve also been discovering a ton of overlooked women while doing this. A lot of people have given me names of people I’ve never heard of, so I’ve been checking out a lot of websites and seeing people I’ve passed by before. Er, the theme, which probably should have come earlier, is “The Girl’s Guide to Guy Stuff.” We wanted a theme to make the artists focus on their comics more, and tie the book together a little more nicely than the previous anthology had been. So far it’s been great, except that we need more comics to fill the book, and that’s a bit stressful…
SEQUART: What would you say specifically is Friends of Lulu’s image problem?
REED: Well, we seem to get these very argumentative older guys who come up to the table and debate whether or not there’s actually a problem with women in comics. It’s like talking to WIMBLEDON GREEN characters. I don’t even udnerstand why they’re at the same shows I am. I think there may be a touch of the “man-hating” belief flying around, but the thing I hear most about (because everyone owns up to it) is the kid-friendly stuff, where kid-friendly somehow makes it automatically woman-friendly, insinuating that women are somehow childlike. That’s the one that EVERYbody says is stupid to me.
The sexual harrassment fund thing kicked up some guff too, as I heard from my friend Marion who’s the new treasurer, but I don’t really know because sometimes I just stay in a little bubble that things don’t penetrate. But they got flack for that apparently.
SEQUART: Back to the FOL anthology, could you give some brief descriptions of who’s in the book and what they’re doing?
REED: Emily Flake on her & her boyfriend’s record collections, Dorothy Gambrell on a man who ate a lot of cheese, Abby Denson’s friend who went to a Clash/Sex Pistols/Siouxie show and lost things, Tatianna Gill’s neighbor, Liz Baillie’s biography of jazz anomaly Billy Tipton, Lark Pien’s video game additction, con survival guides for women, lady chickens turned off by their burping chicken boyfriends, secrets of hunting, boobs, living with and smelling like boys, childhood toys and why The Terminator is the best love movie ever. That’s the quick version.