Talking Body: Kat Verhoeven’s Dishes on ‘Meat & Bone’ [Webcomic Q&A]
If you are what you eat (or at least what you dream about swallowing whole), Meat & Bone's Anne Verbeek is soon destined to become Jane Fonda's Barbarella. To clarify: Anne isn't a cannibal, but her deep-seated body issues are manifesting in ways that are catching both Anne and her friends off guard.
ComicsAlliance spoke with Meat & Bone creator Kat Verhoeven about her queer slice-of-life webcomic, the far-reaching influence of body image, and well-rendered chins.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Meat & Bone? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Kat Verhoeven: A bunch of different things happened when I decided to start Meat & Bone. I was out of school and running out of money, so I knew I wouldn't be able to keep doing the illustrated restaurant review blog I'd been having fun with the few years prior --- going out to eat was just too expensive. Eating itself has always been complicated for me, and that summer I was struggling a lot with my body image. Spending a lot of money on fancy, rich food and then obsessing over it was really becoming a weekly problem.
I had a casual interest in comics up until then, and had drawn a few short comics --- one-offs and small scenes. Nothing big. I was always an avid writer. I thought it was time to stop the blog and start a webcomic, but I've always liked serious stories. I thought, why not write about my struggles with food, body image, and disordered eating?
My sister (who is a way bigger reader of comics than I am) had been introducing me to more autobio works like Jeffrey Brown and Lucy Knisley, and I was really into Octopus Pie and Scott Pilgrim --- while having a lot of admiration for art comics and introspective comics. I think the early Meat & Bone pages show that conflict between too many loves. I wanted to give my story a narrative, make it slice of life, combine all my influences into something that was mine, but could also be anyone's.
CA: What’s it about?
KV: In short, it's about Anne and Marshall, who become friends after Anne has a major life upheaval and decides to try to stop eating (again). They contrast each other, are attracted to each other, can't help but influence each other for better and worse. While they're spiraling around one another, the rest of the cast is pulled along in the gravity of all that's happening, tangled up in their own messy romances and friendships and bodies. As serious as a lot of the subjects are (queer longing, polyamory, fitness, self loathing, asexuality and love), I do try to have a light touch.
While the main story certainly moves the plot forward, I think the heart of Meat & Bone lies in the secondary cast and subplots, which serve to cut through the tension of Anne and Marshall's relationship, which can get very tense and unpleasant. There's a lot of levity with the supporting cast, even though they struggle just as much.
I've always been very focused keeping a cohesive focus on body image, but that's such a broad subject that spills over into so many other aspects of life. Body image affects romance, sex, existing in the world, dealing with strangers, work. It can totally uplift or pollute a person's outlook from day to day, and I try to show that in all kinds of snippets, from Nat's glib quips and inability to relate to Anne to Lawrence's strength and shyness.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
KV: Definitely young adult plus --- I always think my main audience will be women in their 20s, so I've been surprised that there's a decent contingent of male readers. While I think teens often are good at determining for themselves what they're okay with reading, I generally try to recommend Meat & Bone to the older end of the YA spectrum. There's nudity, swearing, and the themes can be very heavy.
CA: As you said, body image is such a broad experience that it kinda has to spill out into multiple aspects of a story. And you see how it informs all the different characters in Anne’s life. There’s this moment where Anne’s roommate Gwen tries to comfort Anne with, “You’re not fat, Anne. You’re really beautiful, okay?” and — oof, Gwen, is that a line. Anne’s ostensibly surrounded herself with well-meaning people who, by virtue of their life experiences, volley up some variably toxic commentary.
KV: It's really hard to assume anyone's body experience based on how they look, and thats a field we all have to navigate. It's unfortunate that compliments can sometimes have a completely negative effect, but it does happen. I try not to give physical compliments unless I'm very familiar with how someone handles them. Gwen does take her body for granted, and doesn't always consider that many of the other characters are more aware of their skins. Toxic behaviour can be deceptively relative.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
KV: Meat & Bone is going on year five! Launched at TCAF 2012. I put it on hold for about a year to finish my graphic novel Towerkind, which is published by Conundrum Press. There's a noticeable difference in the art from page one to the current page (225 as or writing this).
I got much more organized after pushing myself with Towerkind, and I also was nomadic/homeless from October 2014 - January 2017 and that made me a lot more aware of how to use my time. I could also take months off any day job to focus on writing, so while the first 150 pages or so of Meat & Bone were written maybe a month or two before I'd be drawing them, the rest of the script was written over a few months. The tone is more cohesive and I was able to go back and tighten references, call-backs, and characters staying in character. I think I like working from a big script best.
CA: Comics artists, especially those creating solo, have enormous control over how bodies are presented in their work. They choose which bodies and physical features get to exist. They choose the angles and ways at which those bodies are presented. How has your experience with body image shaped how you approach both your work generally and Meat & Bone specifically?
KV: Meat & Bone wouldn't exist if I didn't struggle with myself on a daily basis, but my trials in learning to love my self and my body, work in progress though that is, are not all that have shaped this story or my development as an artist. Even though there are so many times where I have felt awful for my appearance, and have been made to feel ugly for not fitting a standard, I have to acknowledge that I am (no longer) very big or unattractive. Repeating this to myself every day even when I don't feel it has definitely made me see it more, and I have had few low moments in recent years.
My own experience is limited. I draw from the experiences of my friends and acquaintances who have talked with me about their own experiences being obese, anorexic, having dysphoria or dissatisfaction. And there are so, so many stories there to listen to.
If I were just trying to represent myself and my struggles through Anne, then Meat & Bone wouldn't have the diversity it does --- I think that's something you can see in the first year of work, where even though I was trying to have a diverse cast physically, it was something I wasn't drawing clearly. Growing as an artist requires endless curiosity and insight, without which I wouldn't have been able to show Jane or Lawrence's struggles or to look at Marshall's twisted perception of self so closely. It took practice drawing in extremes before I learned a visual language that works well for me and my characters, from the emaciated to the fat. I'm very interested in a variety of details.
When drawing a very fat person, I want to show their stretch marks. I want to draw different types of fat people, because there's so many. Fat people with skinny legs, fat people with muscles, fat people who are short, busty, doughy, loud, curvy, circular. The same for very skinny people, average people. After breaking out of this idea that there's only one type of body or face, the world I'm creating becomes so much more real and carries a weight to it --- without showing body diversity only as a lazy and tired indicator of personality (I am very over fat being code for lazy and skinny being code for severe, etc, etc, gag me with a spoon).
CA: It’s cool that the physical variety in Meat & Bone isn’t limited to just full-body builds, but also smaller features: noses, body hair, and, my favorite in how you render them, chins. Do you have favorite features to draw and experiment with, and have there been any that’ve been particularly difficult to nail down?
KV: Chins! Really? That's neat, because I actually berate myself often for drawing the same chin in a lot of my drawings. That's a feature I have to consciously remember to vary in designing new characters. I actually really love drawing feet. I just think toes are really cute and expressive and nobody ever embraces drawing this aspect of bodies....you'll maybe notice now that I avoid having people wear shoes or socks a lot. But feet aren't something where I get to experiment with variety as much. Size, definition and anything weird about nails is all I've got there.
Hair is something I feel like I used to struggle with, coming out of being a manga ripoff artist, where the hair I was drawing was very stiff, plastic and segmented. Now I try to make hair that has a variety of moods, and that isn't always realistic - Marshall's hair is used frequently as a device to show her power over Anne, and to set a red and stressful mood.
CA: Anne’s body image issues are also further complicated by what appear to be romantic feelings for women of her ideal body type. Does she want to have their body? Be with their bodies? Does she feel the need to have that body to be with someone with that body? All of the above? Are these complications why Jane Fonda Barbarella fantasies keep recurring for Anne?
KV: These thoughts are all a big jumbled, related mess for Anne, and that's very much the big question when it comes to Marshall in particular --- but also the women that Anne perceives as threatening, who occupy a similar space to her and who she automatically assumes are occupying it better because they are thin.
Jane Fonda is her idol, kind of an unattainable ideal. There's actually this workout book I was reading (and using for exercise, lol) by Jane Fonda around the time that I was starting to put Meat & Bone together, and in it is a foreword where Fonda talks about her eating disorder. I found her honesty very inspiring, but also the contrast with how beautiful she remains to be hard to come to terms with --- something I won't have, something Anne won't have. Jane Fonda really represents the impossible, and Barbarella in particular. She's oversexed, Anne is undersexed (for her preference, there are other characters who have different needs sexually). Barbarella is out of this world, she's a sci-fi fantasy in latex and fur.
It's very unfair for Anne to look up to her.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
KV: I'll try anything once, and this is my first webcomic. I'm more of a zinester and Meat & Bone is more polished than everything else I've done, and longer, too. I've done single issue minis, mail subscription comics, anthology work... I like a challenge. I liked that there were no other webcomics dealing with eating disorders at the time - I know, I looked. I thought it would be good to make something accessible that talked about feelings that no one else was talking about so directly in comics.
CA: What’s your process like?
KV: Script, pencils, ink, colour --- but I like to work in batches. The script is done, so now I'll draw 2-3 pages on a good day a couple days a week, ink that amount or more one day that week, and take another day or two on colours. I work traditionally with the exception of colours, I never developed the spatial sense to draw direct on a computer. I try to keep a really strict schedule but that's a thing on trial since I've got an apartment and set schedule now --- which is really, really nice.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
KV: At the time I started on it, absolutely. I didn't have much under my belt at the time, queer comics hadn't exploded like it has now (and it's still hard to get the OK on queer stories from many publishers), the art was shaky. It let me meet a bunch of people and really introduced me to the comics community.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
KV: I Do Not Have An Eating Disorder is a very powerful and raw work by Khale Mchurst that touches on the same subjects as Meat & Bone, but more directly, without the slice-of-life narrative around it.
Octopus Pie, but you're already reading that.
In truth, while there are many slice of life, "twentysomethings in the city" style comics, each with it's unique twist, there aren't that many that I know of which are also juggling more serious subject matter. While there are plenty of comics embracing body diversity, most of them sidestep around the struggles associated with that in favor of portraying an idealized world where everyone's body is accepted (as they rightly should be). I appreciate those stories and think they're absolutely necessary to help people feel good about themselves. I would also like to see more comics outside autobio that boldly seek to portray pain and struggle with self worth as well.
You can follow Meat & Bone on its website. Find more from Kat Verhoeven on her art blog, Twitter, and Instagram. If feminist ("feminasty" to be precise) patches are your thing, consider checking out her Kickstarter campaign for exactly that.
If you have a webcomic you’d like to suggest for an upcoming Webcomic Q&A, send a tip to jonerikchristianson[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line “Webcomic Q&A.”