Laying Down One Line After Another

Our spring 2019 issue featured the opening pages of Miriam Libicki’s work-in-progress Glasnost Kids. We are happy to report that Miriam has since been awarded a prestigious residency in Angoulême to complete the graphic memoir and that she is ironing out a contract with Fantagraphics Books to publish it. I emailed with her to ask for an update.

—Chris Gavaler, comics editor, September 2019

Chris Gavaler: So, how’s France?

Miriam Libicki: We’re mostly settled in, and I’m having mostly productive studio days. The French sure love their bureaucracy, though.

CG: What’s your studio like?

ML: It’s on the fourth floor of the Mason des Auteurs building, an old stone wedge-shaped building which apparently used to house an animation company. I have an alcove that opens up onto a big room with six computer workstations. My desk is big enough to fit a computer, a scanner, and also my Cintiq and laptop. Opposite that is a tall stool and full drafting table. So far, I’ve been thumbnailing new pages, so I’m only working digitally.

CG: I visited Angoulême once, so I know that’s a view to envy. It’s also a great view of your creative process. Your preliminary sketches are all digital? When do you touch paper?

ML: Yeah, my private window looks out on rolling hills, medieval (to my untrained eye, pretty dang old-looking, anyway) villages and the Charente river. It’s still surreal.

Right now I’m waiting on my first edits from my editor, so I decided to thumbnail chapter-intro pages, because they’re the least likely to be lost or remade and they’re each stand-alone one-pagers. I have a 282 (for now, see last sentence about edits) page script, so I don’t want to do all 282 thumbnails before I get to touch paper again. I’m thinking of doing it in batches. Maybe when I finish the chapter intros, I’ll print them all out, trace and ink them.

CG: That’s your editor from Fantagraphics Books? What’s that process been like? When you visited Leigh Ann Beavers’s and my Creating Comics course in spring 2017, you didn’t have a contract or an agent.

ML: Yes, my editor Kristy Valenti at Fantagraphics. I just signed my contract today! I partnered with my agent Charlie Olsen last year, after Fantagraphics had published my book of drawn essays. He shopped the Glasnost Kids pitch and pages around to a few big prose book publishers, but they didn’t quite “get” it. They’d say things like, “this is such a fascinating and important story, it’s too bad the author has no name recognition,” or “nothing really extreme happens to the protagonist.” I suggested Fantagraphics because of how supportive they were to work with, and how beautifully Toward a Hot Jew was designed and printed. With an agent (and also, I hope, because of the success of the previous book), I got a bigger advance and bigger planned print run this time. Also, I specifically asked to work with an editor, which I’ve never had before, to get my script as resonant as possible before I go to final art.

CG: Congratulations! Those Glasnost Kids pages are the ones Shenandoah published last spring. I remember the script you showed me and its color-coded system of shifting style changes. I recall your ongoing Jobnik! graphic memoir was pre-scripted too, requiring you to return to material years later and problem-solve visual solutions as though you were an artist being assigned another writer’s script. Can you say more about the relationship of script and final images in your creative process?

ML: Since I began cartooning, I’ve always gone from source materials to brainstorm to outline to script to thumbnails to page layouts to final art. So I’m thinking about images while I write, and I’ll do some line edits while I’m drawing, but broadly speaking I do all my writing before I start drawing. Sometimes I’ll forget what I was envisioning while writing and have to guess at the motivations of my strange, past writer-self. But my artist-self is sure that her visual solutions are more creative and evocative than anything her writer could have come up with.

For the Glasnost Kids script, I color-coded my Scrivener “index cards” each representing a page. I have different colors for my “on the research trail” storyline of 2014 Miriam; my flashbacks; interviewee flashbacks; the meta-space where I comment, give context and rant; the chapter-intro pages; and more. It was fun to do, because I’m a heavy researcher and heavy outliner—both ease my anxiety of staring at a blank page, because every blank page already has some scaffolding. It’s more complicated than anything I’ve done before, but everything in Glasnost Kids is more ambitious than any previous project. It started as an MFA thesis, so I had the time and the resources to invest in it (I took a grad level qualitative sociology class and a grad level journalism class just to learn how to interview people, for one example).

CG: How do you define “cartooning”? The term has a stylistic connotation of simplified and exaggerated, which sometimes describes your art, but other times you’re highly naturalistic, even moving toward photorealistic. It’s that range of styles that first drew me to your work.

ML: The auto-reply suggestions for this message included “awesome, thanks!” Which is accurate. I define cartooning as awesome, thanks.

No but seriously, I feel like everything I do falls under the umbrella of “comics” even if it’s nonfiction or doesn’t break up a page into panels, etc. Likewise, if I’m making any kind of “sequential art,” I’m cartooning. “Cartoony” as an adjective refers to simplified designs and exaggerated facial and body language, but you don’t have to draw cartoony to cartoon. My drawing style before I was a cartoonist was striving toward naturalism. Anatomical drawing and portraiture were my favorite. When I started drawing characters across panels, I found it really hard to draw individuals consistently and to consistently distinguish them from others. That’s when I found out what cartooniness is for. It’s a challenge to draw your characters with a cohesive-enough style that they all look like they fit in the same universe, but are easily told apart from each other at every angle. And if you don’t want to be derivative, you have to solve the issue in a unique way.

I started copying photos in some pieces just because I was interested in learning watercolor, and I really like layered photorealistic watercolors. I found that style communicated verisimilitude and was suited to more journalistic pieces (and to more lyrical open-endedness as opposed to rhetoric). Cartooniness, on the other hand, is more immersive (if it’s done well), because the reader has to collaborate by translating the “shorthand” of simplified designs back into their real-life referents. Photo-real paintings don’t “put pictures in your head” because the picture is already there on paper. I think working in nonfiction means I get to decide whether something is better depicted “subjectively” or “objectively” or a point in between.

CG: How long do you think it will take for you to complete the novel? Is the idea to be done by the time you leave France?

ML: That is a painful question. I never drew particularly fast, and since having kids and starting adjuncting I draw slower and slower. This will be my first time in a dozen years that I’ve been a full-time cartoonist working on my own projects. That year (I’d just gotten married and was waiting on my permanent residency to be allowed to get a job, and I got two amazing grants from Hadassah Brandeis Institute and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture), I completed my first graphic novel and made two or three drawn essays as well. Will I be able to be that prolific again this year? Well, I do have two kids now. My partner is taking up the full-time parenting in France though, which is wonderful (we are super grateful to be supported by a grant again, the Canada Council for the Arts’ Arts Abroad program). So it’s just down to me to put in the hours and draw hard every day. So far I have been thumbnailing just over a page a day digitally. I’d like to finish the book this year, but I just have to lay down one line after another.

CG: Well, no matter what speed you work at, I know the finished book is going to be amazing. I look forward to opening my copy.

Miriam Libicki’s comics appear in the Nib, GEIST Magazine, the Journal of Jewish Identities, and Rutgers University Press. Her memoir jobnik! has been used in more than twenty university courses. Her book of drawn essays received the 2017 Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature. Libicki received a BFA in visual art from Emily Carr University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. She was the 2017 Vancouver Public Library Writer in Residence.