Liz Prince with a copy of ‘Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir’.
2014 was a big year for award winning comic book creator Liz Prince. First in February, Top Shelf published ‘Alone Forever: The Singles Collection’ a book that brings together Liz’s popular online comic about single life and dating. Liz then released her first graphic novel ‘Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir’. In typical Liz Prince fashion, ‘Tomboy’ is an unflinching, humorous and sometimes poignant comic about how difficult it is growing up when you don’t fit the typical gender stereotypes. Tomboy has already gained critical acclaim by being nominated for the ‘Goodreads Choice Award for Best Graphic Novel’ and by appearing on numerous ‘Best of 2014’ lists.
I managed to catch up with Liz a few days after Christmas. Despite the festivities being over Liz managed to rustle up a lot of enthusiasm while discussing why memoir is her favourite genre, how punk inspired her comics and how 2014 was the year of the C’s.
What made you decide now was the right time to write and publish Tomboy?
Tomboy came about because Zest, a small press YA publisher, contacted me to see if I was interested in drawing a non-fiction graphic novel for a Teen audience. Tomboy was the only story that seemed like it could cater to a younger audience, as most of my work is “for adults”. I’ve always wanted to write a graphic novel, but I had been putting it off because I didn’t feel like I was ready, or good enough. But then I decided it was time to jump in and do it already. In hindsight I’m so glad that I waited, because Tomboy truly is the book I wanted to write: I am so proud of the end result.
When writing about your own childhood, you are fundamentally grappling with how your adult identity formed. How did you start going about structuring, writing and drawing about such a difficult subject objectively?
I don’t really believe that memoir can ever be “objective”; it is a narrative told solely through one person’s point of view. Memoir to me is more of a reality-based fiction: the events in Tomboy really happened, but they are my version of events, and the timeline is fudged here and there to make the story move forward. It’s the same with the characters who are more like amalgamations of people I knew, instead of one person.
Writing about my entire life, from the time I was a toddler to being 17 years old, took a lot of focus in order to create an actual narrative. By using gender as the theme of the book it made it a lot easier to stay on task. It helped me to avoid just telling every fun anecdote that popped into my mind.
Tomboy is my childhood through Liz-coloured glasses; To be more accurate it’s through 32-year-old Liz-coloured glasses.
Is Tomboy as honest as it could be, or was there anything you thought was too personal to put in it?
Tomboy is as honest as it could be; I was more concerned with protecting the other characters in the book, than with protecting myself.
An Extract From Tomboy.
In Tomboy, I interpreted a dichotomy between the fictional females as depicted in films / popular culture and the real female figures of your life such as your Mother, Phyllis and Maggie the punk. What message are you trying to give here in relation to gender identity and the role of fiction and culture in forming those identities? And what do you want to see change in the depiction of gender in fiction?
Roxane Gay wrote a great essay about why we feel the need to find female characters “likeable” in order to enjoy a film about women. She used Charlize Theron’s flawed human character in the film ‘Young Adult’ as her example. Subsequently, a lot of reviews of the movie trashed it based on how unlikable her character is. But, women are sometimes unlikeable, and that was one of the things that I appreciated about the film.
Anyway, this is a long winded way of saying women have traditionally been portrayed in a one-dimensional way, and that is obviously pretty damaging. It subconsciously dictates the ways that girls, and women are supposed to behave. Having a less rigid gender binary expressed is really important. The Swedish film ‘We Are The Best’ was a really great example of a movie about teenage girls in a punk band that eschews gender stereotypes.
While describing your narrative technique in this book, you referenced how you wanted the writing style to reflect the mental age you are at that point in the narrative. For example, it sounds like a ten year old’s thoughts when you are ten etc. Did it ever worry you by doing so Tomboy might lose some of its sophistication or depth?
I think since the driving narration in the book is very much my current self, I wasn’t in danger of the storytelling becoming too juvenile. I don’t think I was all that successful at keeping the voice of my character at the different ages represented in the book separate. That could be because when I read it, I just hear myself very clearly.
One of the frustrating things that I read in a lot of reviews of Tomboy, on places like Goodreads, is there’s too much swearing in the book. This is a bummer for me, because that aspect of the script is true to the way that my friends and I talked. I think, for the most part, kids and teenagers swear A LOT. If you think that your kid doesn’t, you are fooling yourself. It’s one of the most accessible ways for kids to feel “grown up”. To me, leaving the swearing in was one of the ways I authenticated my experience.
How much did the local punk scene affect you and your work while growing up? Also as a bit of a punk myself is there any particular records from your old, or current local scene you would recommend?
Well, the direct effect was the ethos of Do It Yourself (DIY) culture. It inspired me to start self publishing my comics. I found a lot of great anti-mainstream stuff in zines, that ultimately helped shape the way I think about things.
The portrait of punk that I painted in Tomboy highlighted its ability to empower women, but sadly this isn’t always the case. However, the good thing about punk is while there are still misogynistic leanings, there is a lot more conversation about why it’s like that, what it means and what we can do to change it. Punk is not perfect, but there are folks in punk who are interested in becoming more self-aware about issues of sexism, racism, ableism, etc.
For me, 2015 was kind of a slow year for music. I was a little more sequestered from going out to shows. I wasn’t seeking out as much new stuff to listen to, but as the year ended and more people started putting together best of lists for records, I’ve started finding some cool stuff. Standouts for me are The Capitalist Kids “At A Loss” (which has a great song that I kind of consider to the unofficial theme song of Tomboy, “Gender Binary Bop”),Chumped’s “Teenage Retirement”, and Caves “Leaving”. I already made this joke in a different interview, but my musical tastes from this year are brought to you by the letter C.
Why do you draw in such a stripped down, line based style? Is this a reflection of your stripped down, unpretentious stories or merely an aesthetic choice?
It might be less of an aesthetic choice and more of a reflection of my actual skill level as an artist. It’s charmingly “simple” because I’ve never been very talented technically. But, I think that I have learned to employ narrative storytelling techniques well. I’m very much a “cartoonist”.
The upside of the situation is I feel like my artwork fits my stories well, especially because autobiographical comics, when written and drawn by the same person, seem to embody the way that person sees the world. Ultimately, I wouldn’t ever feel comfortable trying to draw a sprawling fantasy epic, or a slick superhero story. Luckily I don’t have any interest in telling those stories, so I’m OK with my own limitations.
Tomboy is part of the long tradition of comic memoirs which includes the likes of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Do you wonder why the memoir has become such a popular genre in comics, especially outside of conventional comic reading circles? Do you think it has something to do with independent comics distancing themselves from their mainstream and genre based counterparts?
I’m a pretty biased person to ask this question to because memoir and autobio have always been my favourite genre. Not only for comics, but also everything else I read. Even my taste in TV shows and movies usually stays firmly on the “slice-of-life” side of things. I love the connection that can come from reading someone else’s true stories. Whether or not those are the reasons that graphic memoir has found a readership outside of the traditional comics circles, I can’t say. But, there is definitely something in marketing that makes them seem very sophisticated (which is only sometimes the case).
Tomboy has made a huge impression this year with many people taking notice of it. This can be seen by how many ‘Best of 2014’ lists it’s appeared on. As your work becomes more popular does it put a pressure on your future work, and do you think inadvertently it is forcing you to change how you write?
I don’t know if the success of Tomboy will have an effect on “how” I write, it might have an effect on “what” I write. Tomboy was my first graphic novel, and I loved the experience of having one project that I devoted all of my creative energy to. In the months since I finished Tomboy, returning to freelance work has felt substantially more scattered than it did previously. I’m anxious to get started on whatever my next full-length project ends up being.
Every person I interview I ask for his or her 3 favourite comics that have come out this year. I will then read and review one of those comics. Liz can you recommend me your three favourite comics from the past year? Also I think this will make it your Best of 2014 list .
I’m so glad that I started actively using Goodreads to catalogue what books I read this year, because otherwise my mind would be a total blank when faced with this question. I read a lot of prose novels this year, which is somewhat of a new development for me, so I have to dig a little deeper to remember what comics stood out to me in 2014.
‘How To Be Happy’ by Eleanor Davis is a collection of a dozen or so shorter comics, on varying themes, but they are all so breath-taking.
‘Get Over It!’ by Corinne Mucha is a wildly funny comic about getting over your first serious relationship.
‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast’. I don’t know what’s happened to me. I used to really dislike Roz’s comics in the New Yorker, because they had this “get of my lawn, kids!” quality to them. But now, I think one of the side effects of getting older is that I like them now. This memoir about what happens to parents at the end of their lives is smart and touching.
For all those Liz Prince fans I have some exciting news. Liz is coming over to Britain to do an in-store comic signing at Orbital Comics in London on Saturday February 7th at 4pm.
8 Great Newport Street,
Details of Liz’s appearance aren’t up on Orbital’s website, but should be soon.
Find out more about Liz’s work here: http://lizprincepower.com/