This interview with Megan Kelso was conducted via email by editorial intern Hans Anderson, and proofread by Kristy Valenti. Thanks to all! – Ed.
Megan Kelso’s career spans the ’90s to the present. In that timespan she has grown into a highly adept artist and storyteller. Her Ignatz Award-winning Artichoke Tales tackles the themes of power, feminism and the relationships that define our daily lives. In the early 2000s, she also spent time in New York, publishing her serialized strip Watergate Sue in The New York Times Magazine.
Kelso’s latest release from Fantagraphics is a reprint of her Queen of the Black Black anthology, originally published in 1998. This book collects stories self-published from her zine Girlhero, which was written and drawn by Kelso between 1993 and 1998 in her hometown of Seattle. In this interview, which serves as a snapshot of early ’90s self-publishing, Kelso discusses her influences, her Xeric Award, and her development as a cartoonist. — Hans Anderson
HANS ANDERSON: When and where were you born?
MEGAN KELSO: 1968: Seattle, Wash.
ANDERSON: Where did you spend most of your early life?
KELSO: Seattle, Wash.
ANDERSON: Did you have any siblings?
KELSO: One sister: two-and-a-half years older than me.
ANDERSON: What did your parents do?
KELSO: My father was an urban planner, and my mother was a college registrar. Both are retired.
ANDERSON: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is an anthology of short strips, self-published as the serial minicomic (zine?) Girlhero?
Girlhero #1 (July 1993)
KELSO: Yes, mostly. “Whistle and Queenie” was never in Girlhero. It was for an issue of Dark Horse Presents, and there are two stories that I did specifically for the book, “Queen of the Black Black” and “The Daddy Mask.”
ANDERSON: What years were you publishing Girlhero?
ANDERSON: How old were you when you started drawing these strips?
ANDERSON: How old were you when you stopped publishing Girlhero?
ANDERSON: Where did you go to school?
KELSO: I went to public school here in Seattle with a couple years of private school in the middle. I started college at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but dropped out and finished my BA at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
ANDERSON: In many ways, this book is a snapshot of youth culture, in Seattle and elsewhere, in the mid-1990s. What were you drawing your subject matter from?
KELSO: I went to college in Olympia, Wash., which at the time was exploding with bands, zines and really amazing, ambitious art projects: people started galleries; organized music festivals; film festivals; elaborate art installations. People just went out and started these things, not really knowing how, but figuring it out along the way. Because it was a college town, a lot of this work was informed by what we were all studying in college: feminist theory, labor politics, postmodern theory. I started my comic Girlhero because I wanted to be a part of this explosion going on around me. The stories in Queen of the Black Black were not literally autobiographical, but I definitely drew from my life, my work, sex and relationship experiences, my dreams and memories. I was learning to draw comics in these stories, so many of them were kind of like challenges I set for myself — can I learn to draw a convincing bicycle? Can I pull off setting a story in the past?
ANDERSON: The book Queen of the Black Black takes its title from a short story in the middle of the book about a depraved old artist disillusioning a young one. Why did you choose to take your title from this comic?
KELSO: Depraved?! That seems a little strong! I think of her more as old, tired and a bit bitter and cynical. I have always been interested in power relationships: between women, mothers and daughters, teachers and students, babysitters and babysat, employers and employees. I think I’m fascinated by this because, while between women, the classic male/female power dynamic has been eliminated, other more mysterious power dynamics are still at work and are harder to pin down. The title, “Queen of the Black Black,” is from a poem written by the sculptor, Louise Nevelson, who is, in part, the inspiration for the Queen character in that story.
ANDERSON: Who were your artistic influences before and during the creation of these strips?
KELSO: I did not grow up reading comics very much, and when I did (Peanuts, Archie), I didn’t give them much thought. So as a drawer and a beginning cartoonist, I was much more influenced by book illustrators: Maurice Sendak, Doctor Seuss, Beatrix Potter, Tove Jansson, Ludwig Bemelmans, Arnold Lobel, Garth Williams.
I think the work of Julie Doucet’s is what really made me want to try making comics. Once I moved back to Seattle and started meeting other cartoonists, I learned a lot from my peers: Jason Lutes, James Sturm, Ed Brubaker, Jon Lewis, Tom Hart, Jennifer Daydreamer, David Lasky. We actually had a comics working group for a while and shared work, did critiques and helped each other problem solve. Later, I met more cartoonists who[se] work influenced me a lot — Ron Regé and Brian Ralph, who I mentioned earlier. Also, Marc Bell and Lauren Weinstein’s work had a big impact on me.
ANDERSON: Why did you name your minicomic Girlhero?
KELSO: Around the time that I started to make comics, a group of young women in Olympia and D.C. were forming “Riot grrrl.” Before this time, calling a grown woman a girl was considered demeaning. The feminists of the ‘60s and ‘70s worked very hard to be thought of as and called women because they were sick of being infantilized and disrespected by men. I remember my mother just hated it when men referred to grown women as girls. But something happened with punk and irony and feminism kind of expanding into a more complicated analysis in the mid-to-late ’80s where women re-appropriated the word “girl” and used it for their own purposes. Kind of like rappers re-appropriating “nigger.” Anyway, the word “girl” took on this coolness, this cachet at that time. And “hero” is associated with comics, so that seemed to work.
And also, I knew that I wanted to tell stories with female protagonists. I thought a lot about how women are so used to slipping inside the heads of male protagonists in books and comics and movies, but men are not as often asked to slip inside the heads of women. So “Girlhero” was kind of a statement of purpose. If you read this comic, this is what you’re getting. Girl heroes.
ANDERSON: There is an actual story called “Girlhero.” Would you say that’s the crux of the series and if so, in what ways?
KELSO: The main ongoing story in the Girlhero comics was called “Bottlecap.”
ANDERSON: Is there a reason why no segments of the Bottlecap serial appear in Queen of the Black Black?
Girlhero #1 (July 1993)
KELSO: I didn’t think it was as good as the short stories.
ANDERSON: Most of the characters within your strip seem to be trying to figure out their identity, such as the bike messenger who seems to almost hinge her self-worth on her bicycle. What drew you to this theme at that time?
KELSO: I think that searching for identity is one of the main themes of most people in their teens and 20s.
ANDERSON: This book collects your juvenilia. Can you talk about your decision-making process in regards to compiling and ordering these stories within the book?
KELSO: The story order is the same as the first edition that came out in 1998 from Highwater Books. As I said in my intro to the book, I decided not to order them chronologically, but instead to provide a good read. My main strategy was to begin and end with what I thought was my strongest work, and then create a balance between shorter and longer stories in the middle because I think a whole bunch of really short stories together can be tough going for a reader always having to change gears.
ANDERSON: What was your creative process during Girlhero?
KELSO: Most of the time, I would get an idea in my head of the stories I wanted to do for the next issue while I was finishing the drawing on the previous issue. I usually started a new spiral notebook for each issue, and as I developed the stories, I would write or thumbnail the early drafts in that notebook. Something about the lined paper made it less intimidating to start something new. I would draw really sloppily in pencil and convince myself it was no big deal. In the beginning, I wrote scripts for my stories, and then adapted them to comics. Eventually it became a combo of written notes and bits of dialogue and thumbnails, and then some more fully realized drawings of the characters and settings. I still like to do my early drafts in lined spiral notebooks.
ANDERSON: What did you learn as a drawer throughout the five years you were publishing these works that you utilized in your later works?
KELSO: I learned how to use word balloons. I didn’t really have word balloons in a lot of my early comics. I learned how to use timing and rhythm. I learned how to draw characters consistently from different angles. I learned to think of comics panels as stage sets and to think about moving my characters through the spaces in a logical progression. I learned how to negotiate flashbacks and transitions of time and place. I didn’t really do any color-work for Girlhero except the covers. It wasn’t ’til after Girlhero that I started doing color comics.
Girlhero #2 (February 1992)
ANDERSON: Your drawing style fluctuates significantly, perhaps a result of the stories’ non-chronological order. How did your drawing methods change? Did you switch tools regularly? Were you experimenting with different tools as a way to convey a different message?
KELSO: Well, this book definitely charts my initial learning curve as a cartoonist. At first I didn’t have a style. It was all I could do to just make some legible drawings and try to get my point across. I tried as many different tools and techniques as I could, simply because I was looking for what worked. At that time, I didn’t have a whole lot of control in terms of trying to create a certain visual effect. I think when I did the story “Whistle and Queenie” I felt for the first time like I kind of had some control with the drawing and the pacing of the comic. It’s hard to describe, but doing my early comics kind of felt like I was hurtling down a hill on a bike I couldn’t control.
ANDERSON: What inspired you to begin self-publish in the early 1990s?
KELSO: So many people were self-publishing in the late ’80s/early ’90s. In Olympia, I knew a lot of people self-publishing their own zines — mostly Xeroxed at Kinko’s, but the Tacoma band Girltrouble made their own zine that was offset printed. Then I moved to Seattle and learned about minicomics. I probably would’ve continued to do Xeroxed minicomics, except I found out about the Xeric grant from Jason Lutes, and when I got it, I then had the money to go to a printer. I found out about how to deal with printers from other cartoonists (Jason Lutes, David Lasky) and decided to go with a magazine-sized book because I liked the idea of having more space to draw and I liked the way Love and Rockets looked — not so traditionally comic-y, but somewhere between a comic and a magazine.
ANDERSON: Were you reading other minicomics during the time of Girlhero?
KELSO: Well, as I said before, I was really inspired by Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte, and then I started reading the comics of the cartoonists I was meeting. I learned about King Cat from Jason Lutes and immediately loved it. There was a lot of mail order going on then too. People would send you their minis and ask to trade. People would review each other’s minis in the back of their own. So yeah, I read lots and lots of minicomics.
ANDERSON: You got a grant from the Xeric foundation. What effect did that have on your work, both practically and in terms of your artistic development?
KELSO: If I hadn’t pursued and gotten the Xeric grant, I probably would’ve continued doing minis, and selling them locally or through the minicomic distributors like Spit and a Half and Wow Cool. The self-publishing grant catapulted me into a more large scale self-publishing venture. It gave me the money to have the comic offset printed, pursue the big comics distributors, etc. It was a kind of trial by fire, and in some ways, I don’t think I was ready for it — it might have been better to stay small for a while. But I learned a lot, and the comic turned out to be self-supporting for six issues and I felt pretty proud of that.
Eventually though, I got tired of all the duties and stress of self-publishing — a lot of distributors went out of business during the years I was self-publishing and it was demoralizing to then not get paid. I just felt like it was all impinging on the time it took to actually draw comics, and I wanted to concentrate on that more, so I started looking for a publisher. I had an informal agreement with Black Eye to publish Queen of the Black Black, but they were in the process of going out of business, and around that time, Tom Devlin was ramping up Highwater. He offered to publish Queen, so I went with him. Eventually Highwater started to wind down and go out of business, so that’s when I joined Fantagraphics.
I look at people like Tom Neely who is successfully self-publishing, and sometimes I think I should have stuck with it, but I know it’s a lot of work and also I don’t think I have the right personality for the promotional/sales side of self-publishing. And also, I got really tired of going to comics shows/conventions.
ANDERSON: Why did you decide to self-publish the comic instead of looking for a publisher?
KELSO: After I graduated from Evergreen and moved from Olympia back up to Seattle, I didn’t really know how I would proceed with comics. Somehow I connected up with a neighborhood newspaper in Belltown called The Belltown Brainfever Dispatch and they agreed to serialize my Bottlecap comic, which I had begun in Olympia. Originally it ran in my college newspaper, The Cooper Point Journal, as a weekly strip. But as it became a longer, more complex comic and less like a weekly strip, I stopped publishing it in the Dispatch. By this time I had met Jason Lutes and through him, a bunch of other cartoonists and they illuminated the whole minicomic/self publishing scenario for me. It honestly didn’t even occur to me to look for a publisher, as I knew I was still learning how to draw comics and had a lot of work to do before someone would be interested in publishing my work.
ANDERSON: How did you distribute Girlhero?
KELSO: It was a combination of the big comics distributors back then — Diamond and Capital City — and then a bunch of smaller ones: Tower did magazine distribution then. At the very beginning, in 1993, there were newsstand distributors that took comics, but that was all starting to crumble just as I was getting into it. I feel like I started self-publishing just as the whole distribution system was undergoing a massive transition, and it was confusing, plus I lost a fair amount of money to distros that went belly up.
I also worked with the more alternative distributors, Slab-O-Concrete in England, Spit and a Half and others I can’t remember. And I sold directly to stores, and sold to stores at conventions. And I did mail order — I kept up a mailing list and would send out postcards letting people know about new issues and I had some subscribers. I always made enough money to print the next issue, but I never made what you could call a PROFIT.
ANDERSON: Why did you decide to stop publishing Girlhero?
KELSO: I was tired of self-publishing.
ANDERSON: I don’t know if you still have your finger on the pulse of self-publishing, but how have you seen self-publishing change from the days of Girlhero?
KELSO: It seems like the main change has been the rise of online comics, but your guess is correct, I haven’t really kept my finger on the pulse.
ANDERSON: After Girlhero, you moved to New York and had a strip in The New York Times? Could you break down that timeline for us?
KELSO: We moved to New York in February 2001. I was working on Artichoke Tales Chapter 2 at the time. I was also working on short stories — including my first color strip ["Nettie’s Left-handed Flute"] for Pulse Magazine that was later in Squirrel Mother. Over the summer, Gary Groth invited me to do a story for the first [Comics Journal] Winter Special. I was wandering through Prospect Park trying to figure that story out (the first Alexander Hamilton story: “Publius”) on the morning of 9/11. I saw the giant ash clouds and heard lots of sirens, but was oblivious to what was happening.
Between 2001 and 2005, I worked on Artichoke Tales and various short stories for anthologies, and the occasional illustration job. I edited an anthology of female cartoonists called Scheherazade. I proposed a collection of short stories to Fantagraphics made up of all my anthology work over the last few years, and that became Squirrel Mother, which came out in the spring of 2006. My daughter Virginia was born around the same time that the book came out. By this time, the New York Times Magazine Funny Pages feature had been running for a year or so. The editor of the Funny Pages found out about me through asking Gary for recommendations, and when she contacted me she said she liked Squirrel Mother. Also, I think they were looking for a female cartoonist — it had been all men up to that point.
The editor contacted me in December 2006, when my daughter was about 8 months old, and I had just hired a part-time babysitter so I could get back to finishing Artichoke Tales (by this time I had finished drawing the whole book and had the two final chapters to ink). So in January, I set aside Artichoke Tales one more time, hired the babysitter for an extra day and got to work on Watergate Sue for the New York Times Magazine. My husband and I had planned to move back to Seattle before the summer of 2007, but with Watergate Sue I couldn’t think about moving, so we postponed our move to the fall when I was finished with that. We moved back to Seattle on Halloween of 2007.
ANDERSON: How did that experience differ from Girlhero?
KELSO: Doing Watergate Sue was different than doing any other comic in almost every respect. They were publishing the beginning episodes in the magazine before I had even figured out how it would end. It was very strange to send out drafts of an unfinished story for strangers to look at and comment on. My “editors” and readers had always been friends before that. It was super weird to have the comic out in the world in part while I was still working on it. I also hired Austin English to be my assistant. He did scanning, cleanup and color drafts for me. I’d never worked with an assistant before. The Times's editorial stance was very hands off in terms of the plot and story structure, but very persnickety in terms of fact checking, propriety (no vulgar words, no overt sexuality) and copy-editing issues such as punctuation, capitalization, etc. It was flattering to have these people scrutinize my work so carefully, but also kind of maddening, since I was used to the almost 100% freedom of alternative comics publishing.
ANDERSON: What were the advantages and disadvantages creatively of New York vs. Seattle?
KELSO: When I moved to New York, I already knew a bunch of cartoonists who were living there, so I had a kind of instant artistic community there, for which I was very lucky. I met a lot of cartoonists there and felt very included. Because NYC is the center of media and publishing, you just wind up making more contacts and getting more opportunities simply because you live there and meet people who[se] work in media and publishing. It was very exciting and inspiring to be in New York because everybody is so ambitious there, and it’s kind of contagious. But there are also a lot of distractions. In Seattle, it’s easier to hunker down, block out the world and do your work. But there are fewer opportunities, and you have to work harder to find them here.
I hated the summers in New York. It would get so muggy that your arms would sweat on your pages: so gross. I also think the high humidity in New York affects Bristol board and makes your ink bleed more: very frustrating. Drawing is much more pleasant in Seattle, but I do miss the inspiration of being constantly surrounded by people who are all striving for something. Seattle feels quite empty by comparison. I think the inspiration I feel here is more from nature. I would have scoffed at that before I moved to New York. Since I grew up in Seattle, I took the nature here for granted. It wasn’t until I lived in New York that I realized what an amazing place the Pacific Northwest is.
ANDERSON: But you are back in Seattle? What inspired that move?
KELSO: The whole time I lived in New York, I was homesick for Seattle. Every summer, I would long to be back in Seattle, away from the heat, the moisture, the stink of New York. Even though we had good friends in New York, we never settled in for the long haul. We couldn’t afford to buy a house or condo there in a neighborhood we would want to live in. I never felt like living in New York was worth every sacrifice. I always knew a day would come when the disadvantages of living there would outweigh the advantages. That came when our kid turned 1. All our family was on the West Coast and life with a toddler in a small 4th floor walkup was losing its charm.
I remember the summer after she was born…our landlord had just built a balcony for the apartment below us. It was right below our bedroom window, and I would have to put my baby to sleep while we breathed the fumes of somebody else’s goddamm barbecue wafting up through our windows. It was an extra hot, horrible summer in New York, and I vowed I would never spend another summer there. But we did wind up spending ONE MORE summer there.
ANDERSON: What other ways has your daughter affected your work or subject matter?
KELSO: It’s definitely affected my work habits. I have to work in smaller chunks of time, often separated by a few days, so it’s harder to build momentum with a project. I think my subject matter remains more or less the same, but I definitely think my perspective has changed. When I used to do stories about families, even though I tried to be fair to all the characters, my sympathies lay with the child characters. Now my sympathies are more with the adults: it’s not that I have lost touch with the concerns of children, but I have definitely crossed over to the parent way of seeing the world.
ANDERSON: How has your work changed since Girlhero? I ask this in regard to the relationship between “Pennyroyal Tea” and the graphic novel Artichoke Tales, specifically in the drawing and themes addressed.
Girlhero #5 (May 1996)
KELSO: “Pennyroyal Tea” was the proto-Artichoke Tales. While doing that story, I realized I wanted to continue telling stories in that world, and eventually planned the outline for the graphic novel Artichoke Tales. Five or six years elapsed between when I drew “Pennyroyal Tea” and when I got going on Artichoke Tales, so my drawing style had changed a lot. In 1996 and 1997 I met Brian Ralph and Ron Regé and their drawing style influenced me a lot. I especially liked Ron’s thin lines and sparing use of black.
ANDERSON: How has your subject matter changed since that time?
KELSO: I think I still draw on the same general themes, work, sex, relationships, and I still set myself challenges, especially with short stories. I think the main difference is that my scope has broadened as I have become more ambitious about drawing and storytelling — and since I’m older now I have different concerns — I live in a different milieu.
ANDERSON: Are you planning on expanding on any of the other strips within the book?
ANDERSON: In the intro to Queen of the Black Black, there is a quote attributed to you in 1998, which reads, “So let me just say this. I plan to be drawing comics when I am an old, old, woman, barring early death or a freak accident. Maybe I’ll own a skating rink or maybe I’ll be living on catfood omelettes in a damp basement apartment, but I WILL be making comics. Bear this in mind when you finish this book and put it back on the shelf. Forget about it. Then, a few decades from now, pick it up again, read it, and you will say, 'Ahhh… so this is where she began.'” Do you still believe this?
KELSO: I have always loved manifestos and rousing speeches and calls to arms — so I wrote one for myself in 1998. I have thought of it often since then, and it’s been quoted back to me many times. There is a funny kind of self-fulfilling prophecy to manifesto writing. My young self made a vow that my older self feels obliged to keep. I sometimes wonder if that very public vow I made is part of what has kept me at it. However, I love making comics as much if not more than I did back then, so I think I would’ve kept at it even if I hadn’t proclaimed it from the hilltops the way I did. I fear I’m going to be more on the catfood side of things than the skating rink side, but yes, I still believe it.
ANDERSON: How much of your identity is built around being a cartoonist?
KELSO: I would say about 60 percent. 🙂
Megan Kelso self-portrait from Girlhero #1 (July 1993)