Smash Pages Q&A: GG on ‘I’m Not Here’

The Canadian cartoonist discusses her latest project, published by Koyama Press.

GG is the pen name of a Canadian cartoonist who in recent years has produced a small but beautiful body of work. In a series of short comics like Semi-Vivi, Valley, Don’t Leave Me Alone and I’m Crazy she’s established herself as an amazing talent. GG’s artwork is clean and precise, and the clarity of the art stands in sharp contrast to her writing, where she leaves the meaning of the narrative up to the reader. There’s a way in which her comics are very quiet and yet simultaneously unsettling and off-putting. They’re tales of transformation, disruption, and told in a way that the reader is never instructed what to think, how to react or how to feel. The result can be unsettling and strange and a difficult read, as every panel should be scoured to understand what’s happening. It can also be transcendent and brilliant.

This year Koyama Press published I’m Not Here, GG’s longest work to date and her first book. It is arguably her best work to date. The book features a young woman who is caretaker for her mother and walks around town taking photographs. What happens next, well, that depends on the reader. As someone who has been a caretaker and likes to walk, I have my own take on what happens and what it means – which is no doubt different from many readers and no doubt different from GG – but that is precisely the response she wants to create. That sense of narrative uncertainty requires readers to engage with the story differently. I’m Not Here is quite simply one of the most affecting and best comics of the year and GG was kind enough to open about the book and how she works.

I like to start by asking people, how did you come to comics?

I’ve been reading comics for as long as I can remember. My mom would pick them up at yard sales and they were essentially my picture books growing up. She didn’t really know what was in them other than they had cartoons and colourful pictures on the cover so it was a random mix of Archies and animal comics but also horror stuff that I was too young and scared to look at. I guess that’s how I learned to write and draw and tell stories. As I got older, I moved away from comics and tried to work in other creative fields that seemed more “realistic” as a career choice. I would still read the odd comic once in a while during this time but I only had a casual interest in them. Then, a few years ago, I just felt like everything else was failing to satisfy me on a creative level and so I started trying to make comics again. Since then, I’ve just been figuring out what kind of stories I want to tell and how to tell them.

You mentioned that you had been exploring other creative fields and reading your work I am reminded of a lot of short story writers and a lot of filmmakers. Whose work do you really like and keep revisiting?

This question is difficult since there are so many things I’m always looking at from all over the place. There are the usual names like Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, or Haruki Murakami – but I’m not really sitting around rewatching/rereading and dissecting their work constantly. I think there are things that just stay with me from good works that I’ve encountered that I don’t actively revisit all the time but they’re still there in the back of my mind. Like I went through a period of being really into Eugène Ionesco’s plays. These days, I don’t really think about his work so much and yet it still influences me a lot. Lately, I’ve been making my way through Banana Yoshimoto’s work which I’ve been enjoying.

How do you describe I’m Not Here?

I’m the worst at describing my own stories so I usually avoid describing or explaining them entirely! I think my comics are a description of themselves, if that makes sense? I rely on comics to describe things that I can’t say with only words – the images fill in for the missing words and vice versa – so that’s why I don’t really talk specifically about my stories very much. If I could describe my stories with just words, then I wouldn’t need to make comics. I also worry that when authors talk too much about their work, it closes off the possibilities for interpretation. I think it’s more interesting to let people relate to things on their own terms so they can take away something more meaningful to their own lives. I’m really just there to highlight details that I think are important and not to prescribe concrete answers. My own ideal reading experience is when I feel like I’m participating in the story somehow rather than just being told what and how exactly to think about something.

You’ve made short comics before this like Semi-Vivi and Valley and Don’t Leave Me Alone. What was the process of making a longer piece like this like?

Working on this longer story and not posting pages online as soon as I finished them gave me room to develop the story a little deeper because I could always go back and correct or change things and no one would see anything until it was all done. My shorter stories usually only take me a few weeks to complete while I’m Not Here took much longer. In the shorter work, I don’t really have time to become disenchanted by the story or have second thoughts about the way I’m doing things – but those are definitely problems I have to deal with when I’m working on the same thing over a long period of time. So it became a constant challenge to find ways to make things more and more interesting for myself to stay invested in the project. I think that worked out in the end to create a better story.

Did you always know what the book would be and it was a question of editing and getting it right? Or did it change a lot in through the process of making it?

No, the book started out as something totally different. I thought it was just going to be a short story for a collection of short stories but then I kept finding more things to add to it and then it became its own thing. When I work, I’m constantly changing things. Nothing is really set in stone until I send it off to print. Even after that, I’ve sometimes gone back and changed things in older stories. I don’t work from a script and the writing and drawing happen at the same time. I do start with a vague idea or just a feeling that I follow and I basically just have to trust my intuition to lead me to something eventually. So there’s a lot of going back and forth with redrawing pages. For this, the redrawing process eventually erased most of the original idea.

There’s an utter clarity to the art, a cleanness and precision, and the storyline functions in a way to undercut that clarity. Was this your intention from the start? Were you always thinking that the piece should work in this way? One reason I ask is because there’s a line when she’s asked about photography, the reply is: “I guess I like to have a record of how things are.”

I think because my stories are communicated a lot through tiny gestures and ambiguities, it’s necessary to draw things this way rather than it being a stylistic choice. Or maybe my style is shaped by what I need it to do along with personal aesthetic preferences. The art can’t be too simplified because it will lose the subtleties, it can’t be too loose because it will lose legibility, and it can’t be too detailed because things could get lost in the density. I’m always trying to figure out this balance better. I think the clarity and having a reference point that resembles recognizable reality helps to better convey the unnameable and intangible feelings that I want to capture. It makes the ambiguous a bit more palatable and gives the reader a way to access it. I also have to keep in mind practical things like how I’m going to have to draw 100+ pages like this and whether things will be readable when it’s actual size on a page with the paper grain/print dot pattern.

In one of the opening pages, your protagonist is reading Book of Disquiet. Are you a fan of Fernando Pessoa? I’m Not Here deals with some of the same themes and ideas as that book and I wondered if the book and he were models or ideas you had in mind when you were thinking about constructing this?

Yes, I’m a fan of Pessoa. I wouldn’t say that I was consciously trying to recall him or the Book of Disquiet through my work beyond that quote. That something I wrote down in my diary a long time ago that I thought fit well to start the story. I read his poetry a lot when I was younger so maybe that stuff has just been internalized and is now an ever present influence whether I want it or not.

One reason I asked about Pessoa, besides the obvious, is because of how he used heteronyms. I mean you’re obviously not creating these elaborate backstories and characters and attributing the work to many authors, but you are publishing under a pen name.

Octavio Paz said something about Pessoa’s heteronyms as being both a way for him to be something he wish he was – but also a way to not be something: a “personality.” I think the second part of that is more interesting to me, especially in the time and culture we live in where being a personality or a brand feels like the goal and the work sometimes feels like a byproduct. I’d rather stay out of the way and let my work be in the front. Maybe that’s why I shortened my name to just the two letters. The sound of the letters still gives you the sound of my first name – but maybe it recedes into the background better because of the smaller amount of space it takes up without the vowels.

What is your process like? Do you have a typical way that you make a page or a story?

I spend a lot of time laying in bed thinking about and playing out scenarios in my mind and then I go to my computer and start trying to put some of those scenes on the page. I work all digital now because it gives me much more flexibility to move stuff around. Like I mentioned above, the writing and drawing happens together and it’s just a process of redrawing things that don’t work. It’s not very efficient. Sometimes I’ll get to the middle of a story and have to throw everything out and start over again because I went down bad path. Again, it’s very intuitive – sort of an “I’ll recognize it when I see it” kind of approach.

How did you end up publishing at Koyama?

I think Annie had seen my first comics when I started posting online a couple years ago and she emailed me about doing a book with her and I said I would love to!

Having finished I’m Not Here, does this make you want to make more longer stories, would you rather make short pieces. What are you thinking about?

With the way I work, I just try to go with what the stories want to do. I’m working on a new thing now which currently feels like it will be as long as I’m Not Here or longer but it’s also possible that it will just be a tiny short story after I start cutting out all the things I don’t like. I think the only sort of response I have to previous work is that I just want the next one to be better!

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