Smash Pages Q&A: Keiler Roberts on ‘Sunburning’

The creator of ‘Powdered Milk’ discusses her newest collection from Koyama Press.

In her ongoing self-published series Powdered Milk, Keiler Roberts has been crafting some of the best autobiographical comics being made today. The main characters of the series are her and her daughter Xia, who manages to provide malapropisms and unintentional humor, but for people have read large chunks of Roberts’ work, it’s possible to see Xia growing up in a way that is clear-eyed and unsentimental and familiar, I think, both to people who have children and those of us who do not.

I described one of her comics to Roberts as “funny, relatable and horrifying” and that sums up a lot of her comics – particularly those about parenting. Roberts may sentimentally want to capture these moments, but she depicts everything and everyone – especially herself – without sentimentality. Roberts has crafted something truly outstanding, a portrait of her life at the moment, which, of course, is all too fleeting. It is a striking and singular accomplishment. Roberts won an Ignatz Award for Outstanding Series in 2016, and now Koyama Press has just released Sunburning, a new collection of Roberts’ recent work.

What is Sunburning?

Describing my own work is hard because I don’t want to use words that sound dismissive or grandiose. The absence of artist statements by cartoonists is one thing that makes comics superior over gallery art. That being said, Sunburning is slice-of-life, but not too sweet. It’s part of the same series, Powdered Milk, that I started in 2009 and includes the books Miseryland and Happy Happy, Baby Baby. The series follows a chronology, but can be picked up anywhere and read out of order.

I wanted to have a summery title that suggested being outside. I hope my titles have a mixture of nostalgic and unpleasant connotations. They have a familiarity with a little bit of strangeness.

You’ve said that you didn’t grow up reading comics, though you went to art school and studied painting. What was it about comics that inspired you and made you want to make them? What comics really inspired you?

The narrative possibilities in comics appealed to me. My goal had always been to represent a certain way that life feels to me. Comics can communicate more directly than painting. I wanted to work with text and images, but I didn’t know about indie comics until 2009 when I started making them. I liked most of what I was shown at that time because the medium thrilled me. The autobio comics of Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino and Vanessa Davis inspired me then, and I still love them. I liked the honesty of their voices and the way they edited their life into very conscious short stories. I love all of their drawing styles and they’re all very funny and unpredictable.

What were those first comics you made? What did you want to make comics about?

The first comics I made were assignments in the class I took at DePaul University, taught by Aaron Renier. By the end of the quarter we all made a minicomic. That was the first volume of Powdered Milk, which was about how memory works with childhood. It was about who I think I was as a kid, and who I am now. It took me very little time to figure out the basic goals of my writing. My style hasn’t changed tremendously.

What made you interested in making comics about yourself and your family?

Those are the people I know and can characterize pretty accurately. I’ve always been drawn to personal essays and stories, comics or otherwise. My favorite comedians dwell on themselves and their relationships. In fiction it’s always the characters that matter more to me than the plot. You can know a lot about the nature of a relationship by listening to the way people talk to each other.

You talk about this in the book about trying to find this line about what to show and embarrassing your daughter Xia – who like most readers, I just love. How has that changed over the years?

I wasn’t nearly as concerned about Xia’s reaction when she was a toddler. At four and five I started being cautious about bathroom scenes and her body. At some point she started making more comments about my comics until the day she finally said, “Don’t put this in a comic” after something she was embarrassed by. Since that moment I’ve let her proofread her scenes to get approval because I can’t always guess what will bother her. When she started reading, that also changed things for me. I can keep nothing from her. She looks over my shoulder when I work. I have a few pages that I desperately want to make, but it’s too soon for her to approve. I’m hoping when she’s older she’ll let me.

How old was Xia when she said, don’t put that in a comic? Of course what embarrasses her today will be different from ten or twenty years from now, but you seem aware of that and she seems to understand that you’re making something others will see.

She was five. She comes to comics festivals and events with us, she’s seen me talk about my work with slides of her, and has seen videos of me, but I don’t think she understands exposure and media yet. Most kids see their parents use social media and have maybe watched their home videos on youtube, which is no different from how they watch TV. They don’t have a clear mental division of public attention versus private use of media. Xia and I were photographed for an obscure local news website because we were riding the Christmas CTA train. I showed her the article and she said, “Wow! we’re on a real website!?” It was absolutely nothing compared to so many other ways she’s been exposed. I don’t know why that made an impression on her. She does understand that people read my books and that she is a cartoon character, but it’s also just a normal thing to her that’s been going on since she was a baby. Maybe the experience on the train was special to her because I wasn’t in the middle of it – it was a real photograph of her, doing her own thing. I can only guess how she’ll react to all this attention and possible embarrassment as she grows older.

You have one comic about what if you never made a comic about her and Xia from the future tells you “It would’ve been fine. We’ve all desensitized ourselves to embarrassment through sexting.” That’s a line that most parents would find funny, relatable and horrifying – maybe in that order? – and I feel like that could sum up a lot of your work.

That’s interesting! I never would have predicted “horrifying.” I think of my work as reassuring, although I don’t know why. In that example, the idea of your own teenage child sexting is probably horrifying for some, but in this case I’m hoping it’ll protect her from emotional scars inflicted by me. It’s actually pretty optimistic.

“Horrifying” because many parents would find the idea of their children sexting to be horrifying. Though as you point out, they’re going to get scarred somehow either through action or inaction. Most would prefer it’s about them yelling too much as opposed to being seen naked by skeezy teenage boys.

The thought of children having a sexual identity at all is hard for parents. I read an article in The Atlantic about how prevalent sexting is among high schoolers. The good news was that it had no correlation to more physical sex. My thoughts on this could change, but I hope the silver lining of all these nude photos in circulation is that kids will see a variety of bodies, and maybe be able to accept their own more easily. At least they’ll be comparing themselves to their peers instead of models and porn stars. High schoolers now have probably all been humiliated publicly by someone recording and spreading their stupid actions. They can be miserable over it, or develop the ability to move on. None of us have that much control over how we’re publicly portrayed. A really unflattering photo taken by an employer for their website could be worse than a drunken picture on Facebook.

Xia will have plenty to blame on me. On top of my temper and her lack of privacy, she’s an only child, so she can’t spread the blame onto siblings. I hope she resents something in her childhood more than my comics. When she’s thirty she’ll probably be really happy to have this record of her youth. The piece I’m missing my from my own childhood, is knowing what my parents were like then. How did they talk to us? What was a normal dinner like? I can’t remember these things.

Related to that, you make a number of comics about Xia and about the two of you, you make them about your mom and your husband, and plenty about yourself and having read many I feel like you bare yourself – literally and figuratively – on many more levels than everyone else. And I wonder where you set that line or how you’ve been making sense of what and how much to share as you’ve been making these.

My thresholds for privacy and embarrassment have grown. I rarely even wonder anymore if something about me should be kept to myself. I used to consider that people I know casually or professionally (like my students) could know quite a bit about me. Now I exercise a bit of denial about who may know what. Nothing that I’ve put out there has hurt me yet. I don’t write about the really ugly stuff. Partly it’s to protect other people, and partly it’s because I don’t want to think about those things or relive them. Irritability and rage are big symptoms of bipolar disorder. Everyone knows about the highs and lows, but dealing with anger is the hardest for me. Depression can feel just as bad, but I’m less likely to damage my relationships. I’ve written about this, but I hold back a lot here (and you are already horrified!)

Regarding nudity, It’s fun to draw naked bodies. Men’s bodies have been used for humor forever, even when they’re also being sexualized. Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer have finally done this with women. I want to show my naked body completely free from sexualization and self-consciousness. I want to inhabit it as a child does. I have no idea if this is coming across. I want to show the body without “body issues,” not because of some grand self-acceptance, but because it’s possible to be in my body without even thinking about how someone might be looking at me.

What do short pieces offer? What do you think you’re able to do that you can’t in a longer form? Does the nature of parenting, of young kids, of depression, hell, the rhythm of daily life, best lends itself to short pieces?

All the things you listed seem never-ending to me, and would be suitable for a long, boring, repetitive book. So it isn’t my content that drives the length of each story, as much as my writing style and perspective do. I’m best at sticking to 1-12 pages per story. It probably comes from the lack of any conclusion I’m building to and my avoidance of plot. I also think it’s based on the way I experience the world, which is to look at small, specific things instead of the whole scene. Even when standing on the beach, I have to remind myself to look at the horizon instead of the seagull footprints. I don’t like to take in a lot at one time.

You made a comment in one comic that art and making things makes you happiest. When you’re making comics about depression, about bipolar disorder, do you find it therapeutic?

I think I was wrong. It’s lack of stress that makes me happiest. I hate feeling trapped, like I have no choice in how I spend my time and attention. Drawing and writing are important for my mental health too, but creative activities help with overall wellness, they aren’t possible when I’m in acute mental pain. It doesn’t seem to matter what content I’m working on, drawing makes me feel good because of the process. It feels good to do anything interesting that requires concentration. When I write about dark times, I’ve gotten some distance. I can write about it with a little neutrality instead of plunging myself back into that time.

Being open about bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety is helpful because removes some isolation. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where I can be open about these things. The idea that people should suck it up and move on in privacy is one of the most threatening attitudes to me. I want to talk honestly about whatever I’m facing. The example used in mental health circles about the taboo, is that people aren’t judged for having diabetes, so they shouldn’t be judged for having depression or another mental illness. I agree, but I think people actually are judgmental about a lot of physical illnesses too. Everyone wants to believe that illness is someone’s fault, because it makes them feel safe from it all. I don’t know if I’m helping remove the stigma (I may be adding to it!), but I’m helping the subject be part of everyday conversation.

Your previous comics people know like Powdered Milk and Miseryland you self-published, how did you end up at Koyama?

I met Annie Koyama at the first CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo). After several years and fairs she emailed me and offered to do a book together. I couldn’t have hoped for anything better. There are so many things I love about Koyama Press, but at the top of that list is that Annie works in her area of expertise and lets her artists work in theirs. I get to make creative decisions. A lot of agents and publishers are way too involved in every step. It seems to come from a distrust of artists. Annie respects artists and genuinely wants to help them. Fortunately, she has the skills to do so.

What do you teach? Are you teaching comics?

I teach beginning drawing now at DePaul University and indie comics every fall at The School of the Art Institute. I’ve taught classes at many schools for the last fifteen years, including painting, figure drawing, design, and even art history (which was incredibly hard for me). I taught full-time before Xia was born, but have been the primary caregiver since then. I only teach one class each semester now.

You were awarded the Ignatz last year at SPX, which I think was well deserved, and I’m curious if it changed your thinking about what you want to do, was this a sign   that you’re on the right path and you need to keep doing what you’re doing and push deeper.

Thank you! I don’t know if deserve is the right word, but I feel very fortunate. The Ignatz didn’t alter my process or goals, but if I’d gotten no attention in the last few years, maybe I’d change something. My hope has always been to gain more readers. I think the Ignatz awards can do that, but it’s not like I’ve become a comics star from it. I know a lot of cartoonists who have done incredible work without much recognition. I wouldn’t assess anyone’s work based on awards or number of fans. I was a judge for the Ignatz awards last year (you aren’t allowed to nominate yourself) and I know the number of books makes it hard to do an excellent job. Because of the way work is tallied, none of the judges see all of their top picks on the ballot. Then they’re judged by the people in attendance, which is another highly unpredictable factor. No other process would result in the same winners.

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