Smash Pages Q&A: Andrew White and Madeleine Witt

The editors of ‘Warmer: A Collection of Comics About Climate Change for the Fearful and Hopeful’ discuss putting together the anthology as well their own stories that appear in the collection.

Andrew White and Madeleine Witt are the editors of the new anthology Warmer: A Collection of Comics About Climate Change for the Fearful and Hopeful, which debuted at SPX last month. A collection featuring 16 stories by 19 creators, the project tries to consider the impact of global climate change from different perspectives. It’s about eco-anxiety, and responding to a world changing around us in very fundamental ways.

The anthology features the work of a number of talented cartoonists including L Nichols, Caitlin Skaalrud and Maggie Umber, as well as stories from Witt and White. The project refuses to be hopeless and yet does not traffic in “feel good” platitudes that suggest “everything will be fine.” I spoke with Witt and White about the project and walking that line in this important book.

Where did the idea for this book begin?

Madeleine Witt: I’m stressed about climate change. It’s terrifying and all-consuming and when I let myself really think about it I get scared and sad. Climate grief is a strange thing; it’s intimate and personal but also impossibly abstract. And for those reasons it’s a difficult thing to process.

I wanted artwork that spoke to all of those exhausting and mixed-up and conflicting feelings. Not artwork aimed at convincing climate deniers, or educating people—but work that reflected grief and hope and pain. I wanted to create a space for artists to say something True about the ways they thought about climate change.

What was your original editorial vision for the book?

Andrew White: I’ve gone back into the shared document where we did some initial brainstorming for the book. We wrote, “Somewhere between Ink Brick and The Nib. Compelling, beautiful, and artful. Chiefly concerned with processing the existential ______ of climate change. Will probably incidentally inform the reader or inspire the reader to action, but will mainly be a comfort / salve / something for the already-convinced and already-mourning.” I think that covers it; we probably meant to go back and fill in that blank, but looking back now I think it’s entirely appropriate.

Madeleine: I think that initial vision captured it really well! And remained pretty much unchanged. I haven’t looked at that in a few months. I think we ended up closer to Ink Brick than The Nib—there are a few descriptive and explicative pieces in the book, but most of the work tends towards the poetic and evocative.

How do you go about finding others because you have an amazing lineup of people from all over with very diverse backgrounds

Andrew: First we compiled a wish-list of potential contributors and approached them proactively. We were pleased to find that almost all of them wanted to contribute. Then we decided to hold an open call for contributors.

We didn’t have a specific length in mind for the book, so our decisions about who to include were driven more by our sense of what would make a good book than by a rigid page count.

Madeleine: A lot of people are thinking about climate change, and worrying about it, and making work about it. It was nice to be able to think about that grief with cartoonists whose work I already knew and admired—as well as with some really talented artists whose work I had never encountered before.

Did you have guidelines to creators – don’t do this, we’re thinking in this direction, or what were those conversations like?

Andrew: The specifics varied for each contributor, but we were fairly involved as editors. We asked contributors to pitch ideas and worked with them to refine those initial concepts. We had a spreadsheet describing each contribution in depth and used that to guide some of our editorial suggestions, including our decisions for our own pieces, because we wanted to make sure the book covered a wide range of subject areas and emotions related to climate change. We didn’t want it to be too repetitive.

At least for me, this level of editorial involvement was driven by my own positive experiences working with good editors and by my strong desire not to make a mediocre book with great contributors.

Madeleine: We worked hard to make a book that got at a wide breadth of emotional and spiritual responses to climate change—not just 100 pages of pain, or 100 pages of hope, but somewhere in between.

How did you decide on the full title: Warmer: A Collection of Comics About Climate Change for the Fearful and Hopeful?

Madeleine: Warmer felt right because it suggests climate change very immediately. It also evokes a stirring-up of feelings—a growing anger at those who have let this happen, and a growing tenderness—warmth—towards the earth and each other as we become increasingly aware of climate change’s existential threat to life.

In thinking about the subtitles, we wanted this to be a book accessible to both those in the indie comics world and those outside it.

Andrew: We had a long list of potential subtitles, which we started producing early in the process as a way to guide the evolution of the book. We were aware the project might reach a wider audience and tried to keep this in mind – for instance, we chose not to include the term ‘poetry comics’ in the subtitle since some readers might not understand what this means or be discouraged from reading the book if they don’t enjoy poetry.

Also, we did consider the fact that “Warmer” addresses only one impact of climate change — increasing temperatures. We thought about using the word ‘anthropocene’ or otherwise touching on the wide-ranging impacts of climate change, but ultimately we felt ‘Warmer’ resonated for the thematic reasons that Madeleine described.

I wonder if you both could talk a little about your backgrounds because people might know work you’ve done – Madeleine, your series in The Rumpus a few years ago, or Andrew, Ley Lines – but do you want to talk a little about your careers and what led you to this point?

Madeleine: I’ve been increasingly interested in poetry comics, and the potential of poetry comics to function for readers the way that text-only poetry works for me—as a refuge, a place to sit in and rest; a place where symbols and words can get at something precise and difficult. In a way that prose alone sometimes can’t. I’ve been coming into an environmental and spiritual and political awareness over the last five or six years—three realms of development that are intertwined for me. I think Warmer was the result of all of those forces working together.

Andrew: Lately I’ve been thinking about the importance of gift giving in my artistic practice. For example, in 2016 I focused exclusively on printing short minicomics which I sent out to a small group of people for free. Similarly, I often use second person narration in my comics as a tool for reaching out to the reader. I think these impulses are an important part of why I wanted to help make Warmer. It’s a book that, we hope, tries to speak to its readers intimately and directly.

You each also made a story for the book. Andrew, do you want to say a little about your piece?

Andrew: My piece adapts instructions by Yoko Ono from her books Grapefruit and Acorn. Each page adapts one instruction. Early on I thought the individual pages might work as interstitial pieces throughout the book, but I’m happy with the way they came together to form a single narrative. I see the piece both as an execution of her instructions—this explains why most of the original text doesn’t appear—and as an attempt to evoke in readers the feelings I had when reading the instructions themselves. For me the instructions are a call to go out and interact with the world, to appreciate it for what it is.

Madeleine, your comic is a collaboration with Anya Grenier, could you talk about how it came together?

Madeleine: Anya Grenier is a writer and organizer with The Climate Mobilization and also one of my best friends. I knew that she was working on a bunch of writing about climate change and God, and I approached her to see if she wanted to adapt some of that writing into a comic for the book. And she did!

The text of the comic is Anya’s writing, almost unedited; I formatted it and added imagery to make it function as a comic.

It was a little tricky, because I’m used to having a specific idea of my own and then building a comic around that—and in this case, I had a fully-developed idea and storyline from someone else, and the task was to build a pacing and set of imagery around that. I was thinking a lot about the relationship between text and image in a comic.

My first drafts were chiefly illustrative—describing what was already sufficiently described in Anya’s prose. And I don’t think that makes for a good comic. Things started getting better when I moved into a way of drawing that was more collaborative. Really inhabiting what Anya was talking about, and figuring out how to say the same thing (or something slightly different things) using my own visual vocabulary and set of visual symbols and pacing.

I tried hard to find imagery that augmented and deepened what Anya wrote—rather than just illustrating it.

What do you hope people’s response to the book is? Because I keep thinking about how climate change is for so many people this impersonal abstract idea, and you’ve gathered artists to create personal abstract responses.

Andrew: We agreed early on that the book would only inspire people to action incidentally; we both feel that political advocacy shouldn’t be our only window into climate issues. I think above all we just want to offer people some comfort. We want them to feel a little less alone as they stare into the abyss of our shared climate future.

Madeleine: We approached the project with the assumption that there is something Good about expressing and reflecting true things about how people experience climate change and environmental destruction. I think often, poetry has worked like that for me. When I read something that reflects what I’m feeling—it’s useful, I feel less alone, I am strengthened and bolstered and nourished.

In general, the goal was to say something True about climate change, and the way people feel about it. For some people in the book it meant hope; for others it was about despair; for others it became an avenue for expressing tenderness towards the earth.

What are you each working on now or thinking about next?

Andrew: This week I’m drawing the custom comics that were offered as a reward tier for our Kickstarter. I offered to draw a comic about an impact of climate change in the backer’s city or region—for instance, I just finished a strip about Tangier Island in Virginia, which is expected to be under water in as little as 50 years. We’re working hard to get the Kickstarter completely fulfilled as soon as we can. I’ve also recently completed a long comic that is in part about climate change.

Madeleine: I’m working on more personal poetry comics work right now. I think I’ll continue making work around climate change, uh, until things get better or much, much worse.

Andrew: Madeleine and I both happened to read Flannery O’Connor’s collected letters while working on Warmer. We’re tentatively talking about a project inspired by our reaction to her work.

Madeleine: A lot of the people I know who think about climate change also think about Flannery O’Connor; I’m not sure why. Maybe because much of her work deals with the apocalyptic; all her stories carry an undeniable sense of encroaching darkness that’s undergirded by strange hope. She sees the world as dire and laughable and intensely, severely hopeful all at once. That is the sort of attitude you have to have to stay sane when you’re obsessed with this sort of thing, I think.

So when and where can people find Warmer?

Andrew: We’re still focused on sending out copies to Kickstarter backers for now, but soon you’ll be able to purchase the final few copies through our online storefronts at whitecomics.net and madeleinewitt.net. Many of our contributors will have a few copies available through their online storefronts as well.

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