Pam Harrison, 2008 recipient of the Grant for her HOUSE OF THE MUSES series, talks to this year’s winner, Hazel Newlevant, about her works Dance the Blues, and If This Be Sin, the QPG, and more:
What drew you to creating comics?
Since I was a kid, I always wanted to be an artist, but I used to think I'd grow up to be an acrylic painter! Then when I was seventeen, I had a rough year and completely lost interest in the way I'd been painting, which was strictly realistic and reference based. That scared me, because I'd always thought of myself as “the artist.” If I couldn't create, what was I?
A very astute friend noticed the way I lit up when I talked about comics, and suggested I try interning at one of the local comics publishers in Portland. Then everything clicked. The whole time, I'd been reading manga and American art comics and drawing cartoony fan art, but I never considered it as a profession. I thought the observation of painting and the imagination of cartooning had nothing to do with each other, but I've been learning how to combine those skills. Comics draw on such diverse skills, from writing to graphic design, that I feel like I could never get bored with making them. They renewed my sense of purpose in life.
Did you go to Art school or did you teach yourself?
I'm currently finishing my degree at the School of Visual Arts, and before that I took some art classes at Portland Community College. Even though it can be tough, I like deadlines and assignments that push me out of my artistic comfort zone, so I try to put myself in those situations. I'm very lucky to have a supportive family! If you're looking for ways to learn and challenge yourself as a cartoonist without the art school, I highly recommend the books Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice by Ivan Brunetti, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, and Drawing Comics Lab by Robyn Chapman.
What sparked your interest in creating each of your respective stories? Was this something that has always been in mind, or did it develop from a number of life experiences?
Music and dance are my second loves, and I was seduced by blues dance because it's so freeform. Especially in Portland, the community is very queer-positive and there aren't strict roles of lead and follow. Everyone brings their own vocabulary of movement. Whenever I go dancing, I feel like play isn't dead. My comic Dance the Blues was founded on these experiences, and particularly the women who've swept me off my feet.
If This Be Sin was my thesis comic for SVA. As soon as I heard our thesis theme was “Kings and Queens,” I knew I wanted to do a story about a drag king. I've dabbled in drag myself, and I find it curious that the figure of the drag king is so much less well known than that of the drag queen. I learned about Gladys Bentley, the crossdressing Harlem Renaissance blues singer who served as inspiration to many later kings, and was taken with her story.
Currently, I'm working on another comic in this thematic series about queer women and blues music, and thanks to Prism Comics' generous support, I'll be able to publish these comics together as a full-color book in the spring.
HOUSE OF THE MUSES was originally conceived, front to back, in prose, and went through a number of incarnations before I found a creative medium of putting it all together. How were each of your works originally conceived?
For me, rather than coming up with the story first and searching for the right medium to express it, I know that comics are the medium I want to work in, and I know the tools I enjoy using and the kinds of things I enjoy drawing, and I search for the right story to fit that. I try to envision from the start what format the comic will be in when it's printed, and that shapes the story too. Maybe it's like songwriting — some come up with the words before the chords, and some choose the chords before the words.
I think the biggest hurdle for me was just getting started. I felt like I was doing it just for myself, at first. I’d offered it up to a couple of lesbian forums I was frequenting and with a handful of exceptions, it was not well-received. I didn’t know many comics creators personally and self-publishing was completely new to me. Even before receiving my grant, just the presence of Prism Comics helped inspire me. What was it like for you when your series was just taking shape?
I'd already learned the basics of printing a mini-comic, but my previous comics were only a few pages long, so these were a very different experience. I'd never written a script before, because I'm not very confident at writing dialog, and I was initially embarrassed by them. But I was encouraged by my teachers, and at a certain point, maybe after the pencils were done, I was able to step back and say “Oh, I'm actually proud of this. When did this comic change from clueless to good?”
With a comic that takes months to complete, endurance becomes an issue. I did shed a few tears over my drawing board because I wanted desperately to go out blues dancing, but I had to finish Dance the Blues instead. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to work on the same comic for years!
Now that you’re an established comic creator, what’s your writing and illustrating schedule like?
I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm an established creator! My schedule right now is largely defined by SVA classes, with a couple bonus projects, like my weekly Concert Review Comix, and a booklet about gay rights activist Kathleen Saadat that I'm illustrating for Know Your City. To keep a handle on things, I try to write a to-do list every week with what day each project is due, and tackle them in order during the evenings and weekends when I'm not in class. I have a tendency to overcommit, but I've learned certain limitations, like how it takes me 8-10 hours to take a page of comics from zero to finished, or 3 hours to color a page.
What’s your personal remedy for writer’s block?
I find it more creatively inspiring to solve a problem then to work in a blank space where all options are open. Those kinds of challenges help me surprise myself and draw out ideas I didn't know I had. Art school assignments, those books I mentioned before, or constraints from the French experimental comics group Oubapo — all of those things help me generate ideas for new comics.
If I've already started the story, but I need some insight to move forward with it, I'll talk the whole thing through with friends whose opinions I trust, to get their help thinking about it in a different way. After I've laid that groundwork, breakthroughs often happen when I'm relaxed and not thinking about it consciously, like when taking a shower or walking through the city. It's hard to contrive such circumstances, I just have to not stress and let things work themselves out.
What are some of your favorite comics?
A lot of my favorites are autobio graphic novels that blew my mind when I encountered them in my late teens. Things like Blankets, Fun Home, Persepolis, Epileptic, and Maus. Maybe because of their personally revelatory nature, or because of the singularity of purpose that comes from one creator writing and drawing about their own life.
I love manga that use detailed art and slower pacing to immerse the reader in a their environment, such as GoGo Monster by Taiyo Matsumoto, A Bride's Story by Kaoru Mori, or Children of the Sea by Daisuke Igarashi. Wet Moon by Ross Campbell has a similarly engaging sense of place, and he's great at showing the beauty of people with different bodies and orientations.
In terms of short-form comics and strips, I'm into Kevin Huizenga's surreal and cryptic humor. I got Amazing Facts and Beyond!, the collections of Leon Beyond strips by him and Dan Zettwoch, and it's the best comic I've purchased this year.
Are there any creators out there who have served as mentors either directly or indirectly?
I tend to be drawn to age and experience, and I've been lucky to have a lot of awesome mentors in my life! I used to work as an editorial assistant to Diana Schutz at Dark Horse Comics, but she told me I should pursue making comics, not editing them. That was hard to hear at the time, but it pushed me to enroll at SVA, and I'm ever grateful to her for that. Jason Little is one of my favorite teachers at SVA, and right now I'm his intern. Jesse Reklaw is a very loving and supportive person in my life, and I've learned a lot from him, especially helping him draw the final chapter of his graphic novel Couch Tag this summer.
The Queer Press Grant opened a lot of doors for HOUSE OF THE MUSES, but the grant’s influence also went beyond pure dollars. There was a definite bump in interest after the announcement. How has it been for you?
It's hard to say, since as I'm writing this, the announcement hasn't been heard that widely yet. I did notice that one of the themes of the 2014 Helsinki Comics Festival is queer comics, so maybe someone can put in a good word with them for me . . .
Where can readers buy or order your work?
I try to keep my comics in stock at New York comic book shops like Forbidden Planet and Jim Hanley's Universe, and to table at various Zine Fests and Comic Arts Festivals. Otherwise, readers can order mini-comics from my store, and If This Be Sin is currently available as a PDF download from Gumroad. If a store wants to stock my work, they should contact my distributor Birdcage Bottom Books, or my sales rep Tony Shenton.
Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
I'm so grateful to Prism Comics for supporting my work, and I'm excited to keep exploring gender and sexuality through comics. Queer people deserve comics with attraction, love, and search for identity that resonate with them, and non-queer people can see the world through our eyes for a change.
Thank you for reading this interview, and I hope we meet at a convention or something!
Every year, Prism awards the Prism Comics Queer Press Grant to assist in the publication and promotion of LGBT comics. The grant is funded by donors who are either creators who want to help others just starting out, or fans who want to see more LGBT creators get published.
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The Prism Comics Queer Press Grant is funded entirely by donations, generally from comic book professionals and readers. Sales of our "Homo Superior" mugs ($10) and tote bags ($5) support the QPG fund directly. Get one (or both!) today!
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Pam Harrison is the 2008 recipient of the QPG for her historical fiction graphic novel series House of the Muses. In 2010 she launched her popular science fiction space opera series A Deviant Mind and in 2012 she became editor of the anthology series Voices Against Bullying. All her books in ebook and print can be found at her website.