Cartoonist Lucy Knisley Talks Marriage, Food, And Artistic Inspiration [Interview]
Lucy Knisley is a long-time favorite of ours here at ComicsAlliance – she’s produced an astoundingly diverse body of work that includes travelogue comics, pop-culture commentaries, NSFW sex-positive prints, Harry Potter fan art, Adventure Time stories, and is probably best-known for Relish, her acclaimed “cooking memoir” graphic novel from First Second books.
Last month, First Second announced her next original graphic novel, an autobiographical wedding planning story entitled Something New. While at San Diego Comic-Con last month, we got the chance to sit down with Kinsley and talk about her artistic inspirations, her thoughts on attending the convention, and her recent and upcoming works.
ComicsAlliance: Let’s start off by talking about Relish. It’s an autobiographical story, so asking what the inspiration was seems a bit silly, but what inspired you to tell this story in graphic novel format?
Lucy Knisley: I was brought up by foodies: chefs, bakers, restauranteurs. And all of the early memories that I was calling forth to tell these stories are anchored in the flavors that I remember eating when I was a kid. So when I set out to tell stories from the kind of bohemian childhood I had, it made sense to present those stories in the perspective of this foodie that I am, and was – and from this childhood, tell the story of my love of food throughout life.
CA: Something I found fascinating is that it was one of those comics that I initially saw less about in the comics press than I saw outside the comic press. I was seeing coverage from mainstream sources, food blogs were like “oh my god you should read this comic.”
LK: It’s wonderful to sort of see people who are like, “I only read cookbooks, and I read your comic, and now I’m reading comics!” And people who only read comics being like, “this got me really into food, and now I’ve been reading food blogs and buying cookbooks and reading Alice Waters and stuff”, and it’s really wonderful to see that. A lot of my earlier work is sort of travelogue, work that crosses travel and comics and memoir, and to have food and comics and memoir intersect as well is really exciting for me.
CA: Was Relish always envisioned as a complete graphic novel, or was it ever something that you thought about presenting in another format?
LK: I’m very attached to the book format. I think it was begun as a collection of three short stories that I made into a mini-comic, and then I sort of got into it, and decided to expand it, and took it to First Second, with the idea to expand it to book form.
CA: And now, First Second has just announced your next project, Something New. What’s the basic outline for that? If Relish was the food memoir…
LK: Well, I actually have two book contracts with First Second. I’ve been working on a book about high school, and I was meeting with my editor to talk about the book, and we were discussing the fact that I recently gotten engaged and she herself got married a few years ago, and we were talking about subverting the stereotype of the princess/my-special-day kind of wedding. The way that every generation is trying to reinvent marriage and reinvent the wedding, and it’s getting further and further away from this idea of women as the chattel that are sold… and now hopefully it’s like an equal partnership.
And so we were discussing this, and it sort of spitballed from there, and became this book where I’m writing about my experiences as a nerd-feminist-DIY-tomboy, as an engaged person, and trying to tell the story of getting married, and how to plan a wedding, and figuring this shit out.
CA: In these books, when you’re trying to tell real-life stories but present them in a compelling way, to what degree do you actually end up fictionalizing the autobio?
LK: Everything’s edited, of course, but I’m mostly pretty honest. I’m trying not to exaggerate in my work these days.
CA: But do you ever have to, say, combine different people into a single character in order to sharpen the narrative?
LK: Oh, in the high school book that I’m working on, definitely — to try and make it make more sense. Sometimes I’ll change names to protect the innocent, but I have a very, very understanding fiancé who’s very excited to be featured in my work. So that helps, as we’re basically two of the only characters in the whole story. But when it comes time to write about my mother’s involvement with my wedding planning, that could be a touchy subject… we’ll see how it goes.
CA: What particular creators and works have you looked to for inspiration?
LK: As a younger person I read a lot of Calvin and Hobbes and Tintin — I’m totally in love with Hergé. I read a lot of Asterix and Obelix, a lot of Archie comics, and I can sometimes recognize some of that influence in my work. I started out with that stuff and sort of came to indie comics. I read everything that First Second comes out with, I absolutely love everything that this publisher puts out. I read a lot of Gabrielle Bell’s work, I just bought Eleanor Davis’ new book [How To Be Happy, from Fantagraphics], and I’m very excited about it. I’m sort of constantly discovering new influences and inspirations.
CA: Anything you’ve seen at this convention that has really blown your mind?
LK: I have a new travelogue that’s about to be released, over at Fantagraphics, and I was just introduced to the finished book for the first time, and I’m very happy with the way that they treated it. And to see it in person, that’s always so fun.
What else? I’ve gotten a few early copies of things that aren’t for sale yet… I’m really excited to read In Real Life, the Jen Wang book, that looks absolutely fab. That Eleanor Davis book just came out, so I just bought that. I went home with the Nick Bertozzi book about the arctic [Shackleton] that [First Second] are putting out, it’s amazing. And then I’m totally excited about the new Scott McCloud that these guys are doing. He was here when I arrived yesterday, they were going over color samples for the book, and I was completely drooling all over the pages. So that’s going to be awesome.
CA: On a slightly different tack… I first heard your name based on your mini-comic and webcomic work. And though it’s lessening a bit, there’s a certain attitude some people have about webcomics and mini-comics, that they’re just a training ground for “real comics.”
LK: Yeah. I find that sad. I buy a lot of mini-comics to this day. And I try and make them, but I’m so busy right now with the book contracts…that’s why it might seem like a training ground, because when you get busy with book contracts, a lot of times you don’t have the time to put a mini together for a show. But if I’m doing a first time show, usually I’ll try to put something together. I mean, it is a really great way to get your work read. Webcomics have been the foundation of my career, I absolutely owe all of my readership to my online presence for the most part.
CA: Do you think that having the background makes you better at hyping your own work, because you have to become your own agent when you’re doing mini and webcomics?
LK: Probably, yeah. I remember when I went on my book tour, I was talking to Gina [Gagliano, First Second editor], saying, “I don’t think comic artists are really cut out to like go and be public personas, we spend all of our time alone at a drawing board, we don’t have the natural personality for this kind of thing.” And she was like, “Y’know, in the ’40s and ’50s, they used to hire speaking trainers and public persona trainers to talk to authors who didn’t know what they were doing, and teach them how to act, and off the cuff answers, and stuff to make them more entertaining”, and she’s like “sometimes I feel like doing that for some comic artists.”
But at least I have the benefit of knowing how to sell myself online somewhat, so that when I have to do it in person I have a little bit of a better handle on it.
CA: You’re also a musician…
LK: Sometimes, yes!
CA: So, how does your familiarity with different disciplines affect your work? It’s sort of a weird ethereal question, but —
LK: I think if I was doing comics all the time, I would go a little nuts. I’d get sick of it, you know? So I play the guitar and the ukulele, I write songs. I also sew and screen print, and you know, do anything that comes along and takes my interest.
I’m very lucky to live in Chicago where there’s lots of great arts classes and stuff, and I took a letterpress class, which I think really helps inform my comics work – when you take these classes in others things, you learn about these other disciplines. I learned a lot about fonts, and the way font placement originally worked, and kerning and quoins and stuff, through this original process of printing that really made me more appreciative of printing comics and lettering in comics.
CA: I find that it often helps to switch modes, and draw inspiration from whatever medium I’m not working in at that moment.
LK: Right. yeah! Sort of go over the mountain, or around the mountain, rather than burrowing through it.
CA: Exactly. And to bring this back around to the book itself, how is work on Something New progressing?
LK: Well Something New is coming along. As the wedding draws nearer, more and more of my day is spent actually working on the wedding, rather than working the book about working on the wedding. And my editor has been very understanding. So that’s going to be my full time gig for awhile, and I’d really like to try and get that done while it’s still fresh, and I haven’t erased it from my mind. That’s what I’m working on full time these days — that, and getting married.
CA: And do you have a tentative release date set yet?
LK: Uh, you’d have to ask my editor, because they told me, and then I was like, “That’s very interesting, excuse me while I erase that from my brain so I don’t have to worry about it until after the wedding.” [laughs] But if you ask me this after September 13, I would probably be able to tell you exactly!