A Chance to Play
Robert James Russell, author of the comic “How to Make a Full English” from volume 73.1, speaks with editor DW McKinney about losing and finding his way back to comics.
For those unfamiliar, what is an English breakfast?
An English Breakfast is traditionally like bacon, sausage, or blood pudding, depending on where you’re at in England. Also, baked beans and usually roasted tomatoes and toast and maybe some other stuff. There are variations of that. It’s amazing and delicious. It’s very, very good if you’re hungover. It’s like the best things you can possibly ever have. It’s a staple everywhere in England.
Do you prefer an English or an American breakfast?
Probably the English breakfast. I really like it and the variations on it. I like the sort of completeness of everything. You’re getting your vegetables. You’re getting your toast, your meats, your beans, as well. I’m a big eater.
The breakfast is central to your comic. There are deep, emotional layers to it. Can you tell us about the backstory?
I did a lot of comics when I was younger, and I was convinced that was the direction where life was going to go. But I started going toward writing. I thought writing was more adult, you know, which is ridiculous. I told myself when I was younger that writers are serious artists. It’s sort of like telling myself that I shouldn’t do [comics].
I went away from drawing comics for a long time. I picked it back up four or five years ago. It started hitting this part of me that writing itself never had. What I started finding is that there were a lot of stories I wanted to tell—like maybe write a short story, a piece of flash, or even an essay, and I just didn’t have a way in. I didn’t know what I was going to do about it. Suddenly, the world of graphic essay, graphic memoir, nonfiction comic—whatever you want to call it—opened up a lot of possibilities for a lot of these stories that I hadn’t been able to tell before.
My time in grad school was illuminating in so many ways, and I was in a severe depressive state for a lot of it as well too. When I think back to grad school, I think about food. I think about the English breakfast that I made for myself a lot. Going to pubs to eat. Being very, very lonely. But I always come back to the food. I thought that would be a good vehicle to talk about this relationship, how lonely I was, and how I was trying to find some escape.
How did you get back to the idea that you could be an adult and illustrate?
If you had known me from when I was five to fifteen years old, you would have just assumed that I was gonna go to art school for illustration. That’s how much of my identity was art and illustration. It was everything. Part of the reason I gave it up was the idea that when you’re a twelve-year-old drawing pictures for people it’s cute, in my mind, and being a twenty-year-old drawing pictures was not cute anymore. It was not adult. It didn’t seem like a thing that people were taking seriously. I hate to say this, but back then I’d fallen in the trappings of toxic masculinity. Like, “Oh, this isn’t manly.” I constantly read comic books of real-life professional illustrators, but somehow I had convinced myself with my dissonance that this was not a serious occupation.
I think I came back to it because of unpacking body dysmorphia issues. The toxicity around gender dynamics and gender roles had been gone for a long time, but I was investigating what I wanted in life that made me happy. I’m not talking writing. I love writing novels but I’m talking about giving myself a chance to play. At some point, I was just doodling at home, and it felt like play. It felt fun in a way that writing hadn’t in a long time. And then I started investigating why I gave this up and falling back into my rhythms and rediscovering my style. This is a super bombastic statement, but if I only ever did graphic stuff for the rest of my career, I don’t think I would be sad about that. That’s how much I’ve love going back into this. It feels like it was meant to be.
Who are your influences in comics?
Adrian Tomine is a big one. Shortcomings is a book of his that was recently turned into film. Huge inspiration. I love how Adrian draws and can take the mundane and make it interesting. I think that’s something that graphic stories and diary comics do well compared to purely written works.
Zoe Thorogood had a book come out last year called It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth. It was a graphic memoir. It’s beautiful. She’s going to own the world at some point. I loved Ebony Flowers’s Hot Comb. It’s a masterful book, and if people are interested in the art form they should own that book. Tillie Walden is another big one. In every single book of hers there’s a lot of quiet space, a lot of dwelling, and showing the cinematic qualities of what the art form has to offer.
How’s the comic scene in Nebraska?
The art scene is pretty good. I’m in Lincoln, which is known for sculptures, and nobody’s been able to give me a reason why. World famous sculptors have come here and made a bunch of stuff, which is great! Our campus has a cool modern art museum, a natural history museum, and a Native American art museum. Regarding cartooning specifically, there are people here who do it, but I don’t know if there’s much beyond that. But this is definitely a place that I think appreciates art.
Can you give me about one sentence to describe your graphic memoir coming out?
It’s called Hard Body. It’ll be out in 2025 from Simon & Schuster. It’s about the impossible standards that society has set, coming to terms with the fact that I have had body dysmorphia, and what that has meant to me and how it has reared itself throughout my life.