Maia Kobabe Discusses Eir Career and Eir Book Gender Queer: A Memoir

Maia Kobabe (pronouns e/em/eir) is a nonbinary, queer writer and illustrator. A graduate of California College of the Arts, Maia has quickly built a tremendous portfolio of work – much of which can be found here and on eir homepage. Maia has recently published eir autobiography Gender Queer: A Memoir (Lion Forge). Wanting to learn about eir background and eir book, I was able to interview Kobabe for Sequart.

You can learn more about Kobabe by following em on Instagram.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved experiencing? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?

Maia Kobabe: One of my absolute favorite series was the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce, about a short stubborn girl who disguises herself as a boy to train as a knight. Alanna was the character I related to most from ages 10-18 or so. I’ve re-read these books so many times, and I love them just as much as an adult.

Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career as a writer and drawer? Was there a specific moment in which this crystallized for you?

Kobabe: Drawing was my first favorite activity, followed by reading (which I didn’t learn how to do until I was 11 years old). But I think the moment I realized I wanted to be an author was in high school when I started reading more contemporary fantasy/sci-fi/urban fantasy and saw so many of the authors I loved thanking each other in the back credits of their books, or writing introductions to each other’s books. I had this dawning realization, “Wait, Neil Gaimen knows Ursula K LeGuin and Roger Zelazny? Will Shetterly, Emma Bull, Ellen Kushner, Charles De Lint and Terri Windling are all friends? Holly Black apparently knows everyone?” Previous to this I had imagined writing as a deeply solitary career. I thought about it and concluded the best way to meet (and possibly befriend) my favorite authors was to become an author myself. I wanted to be able to say, “Thank you for your stories, they mean so much to me. Here’s one of mine.”

Yanes: You have a distinct art style. Are there creators you think influenced your visual style the most? On this note, how do you think your time at California College of the Arts impacted your evolution as an artist?

Kobabe: I’ve been influenced by so many different creators, but for the style of Gender Queer specifically I’d say the top three are Lucy Knisley, Erika Moen and Alison Bechdel. My time at California College of the Arts was invaluable. I loved every teacher I worked with there, and have transitioned to be friends with most of them post-school. I think the best part was getting to meet a batch of people who were all as passionate and serious about comics as I was.

Yanes: Reflecting on your career so far, what are some of the biggest professional challenges you’ve had that you wished someone would have told you about?

Kobabe: I ran into some legal concerns with Gender Queer which took me by surprise. Because it’s a memoir, I included many scenes talking about books, movies, music, and TV shows that impacted me growing up. I had drawn a lot of characters from franchises like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings in the earlier drafts of the book. I was under the impression that drawing these characters in my own cartoony style would fall under Fair Use. But the legal department of my publisher disagreed, and we ended up having to cut some pages from the book very late in the process because of that. I wish someone had sat me down right at the beginning and explained the legal guidelines the publisher followed more clearly, but it worked out alright in the end.

Yanes: Your most recent project is Gender Queer: A Memoir. What inspired you to tell your story?

Kobabe: Frustration, and a desire to reduce the frustration of other people working on coming out as nonbinary. I began coming out to my family and friends in late 2016, and I had a lot of conversations with people who said “We love you and we support you, but we don’t know what you are talking about.” I would try to explain, but often get side-tracked with a question, or we’d run out of time, or need to go make dinner, or whatever. I never felt like I was able to fully explain what I had been trying to say or finish making my points.

I realized I needed to sit down by myself and write out what I was trying to communicate in a space where I had time to think deeply, working on multiple drafts, and package it in a very clear and concise form.

Yanes: In addition to having years of experience producing comics and cartooning, what was it about the medium of graphic novels that appealed to you? Specifically, do you think the graphic novel artform enabled you to tell your story in a manner other media can’t?

Kobabe: Definitely. There are so many magical things about comics. You can communicate so much nuance by telling slightly (or vastly) conflicting information in the text and the image. You can show silence in a way that’s hard to do in text alone. My book has only one fully silent page, and the placement of it is very intentional.

I also made use of something called a non-adjacent sequence: two pages with the exact same panel layout, but placed quite far apart in the book, to draw a literal parallel between those two scenes. Even if a reader doesn’t pick up on that consciously, I think it still registers at an unconscious level and effects the reading experience. I also love how the brain is able to “fill in” the gutters between panels which show an unfolding action and almost “animate” that empty space with the motion that would fall there.

Yanes: When laying out a page, how much time do you typically set aside to figuring out what you want a page to look like? On this note, were there any panel sequences that you found difficult to get right?

Kobabe: There’s a lot of talking in this book, so many sequences were formed by trying to balance the text most effectively. Other pages were meant to evoke a specific emotion – often those pages have less text and bigger splashier visuals. I’m thinking of the scene in which I listened to David Bowie’s album Changes for the first time. I had to draw that scene twice, because the first time it didn’t feel big enough.

Yanes: With Gender Queer now published, how do you think you’ve benefited personally and professionally from creating this memoir?

Kobabe: I had been considering therapy for a year or more, to talk about the possibly of doing some physical, medical transitioning. I was intimated by the idea of trying to explain my entire gender history to a therapist, so I decided to wait until after my book was out. I emailed a PDF of it to him and said “Here’s the backstory.” At our second meeting, my therapist said, “I wish all of my patients would write a memoir! It’s such a useful shorthand.”

On the professional side, the response to the book has been absolutely amazing so far. It’s already been nominated for the YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, and been chosen for Barnes and Noble’s Best Comics and Graphic Novels of May 2019 list. So many people who read it have reached out to me personally with heartfelt and devastatingly sweet feedback. I spent most of the week of the book’s release writing thank you messages.

Yanes: When people finish reading Gender Queer: A Memoir, what do you hope they take away from the experience?

Kobabe: I hope that people who feel or have felt a disconnect between their identity and their body, for whatever reason, feel less alone. If you yourself have felt this disconnect, you can either ignore it forever, or you can decide to face it. Both are valid choices, and both have consequences. I ignored it for a long time, and deciding to face it has been very scary at times. But it’s also been the most personally transformative, rich, surprising, interesting project I’ve ever taken on. It’s introduced me to a whole new community and brought me closer to my friends and family. I hope my book encourages readers to explore and embrace their true, core self and I hope readers know that if they decide to speak up about it they will be supported and loved.

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?

Kobabe: I am working on three children’s picture books, all of which have trans or nonbinary main characters. Two of the pitches are already with my illustration agent (Emily Mitchell of Wernick and Pratt – if you are an interested publisher, please email her!). I am also developing two fictional graphic novels, a middle grade sci-fi story and young adult fantasy. They are in early states right now, but I am excited to let people know more as they grow.

Remember, you can learn more about Kobabe by following em on Instagram.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Sequart on Twitter @Sequart and on Facebook.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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