Smash Pages Q&A: Hazel Newlevant on ‘Sugar Town’ and more

The comics creator and editor discusses her own projects, including her next graphic novel, working at Lion Forge and more.

Hazel Newlevant has been making a big impression in comics in just a few years. She received a Xeric grant for Ci Vediamo and a Queer Press Grant for If This Be Sin, and last year received an Ignatz Award for her minicomic Tender-Hearted. Newlevant is also an editor at Lion Forge Comics, and has edited the anthology Chainmail Bikini and co-edited the recent Comics for Choice with Whit Taylor and O.K. Fox

Sugar Town, which was published late last year, is her longest single work to date and her best. The book is an emotional and thoughtful look at falling in love and exploring the emotional work of polyamory. It felt like a breakthrough for the creator in a number of ways. Newlevant and I have spoken before, and I reached out to talk with her about the fact that she’s had a very busy 2017, the ways she used color in Sugar Town, and her upcoming graphic novel No Ivy League.

2017 was a big year for you. Sugar Town was published. Comics for Choice came out. You won an Ignatz.

And the announcement of my graphic novel came out. It’s a lot of things that have been in the works for a while now, but it all got announced or published in the past couple of months. It’s a nice culmination of all the stuff that I’ve been working on.

How do you describe Sugar Town?

It’s a queer poly rom-com. It’s mostly based on my life, though I tried to divorce it from that. It’s about a young woman who’s poly, who meets a new flame who works as a pro dominatrix; she has to balance that budding exciting relationship with a comforting and stable relationship with her male partner who’s at home in New York. I did it because I just wanted to have a poly love story that had conflict and tension, but wasn’t predicated on a “who will she choose?” premise. I feel like there’s way more people who are having non-monogamous relationships, or dating around and being open about that with their partners, than is shown in really any kind of media, much less comics. So, that was the premise. Wanting to have a poly romance that was favorable to the very notion that this is a possible relationship model, that doesn’t gloss over how it can be difficult. I was drawing a lot of things from my own life; I’ve never been much of a fiction writer. Most of my stuff has either been autobio or researched biographies of other people. There are some deviations from real life, but no more so than Craig Thompson in Blankets, where he doesn’t include the fact that he has a sister. I always think of that as an example of something that’s memoir, but shows how you can streamline and tweak stuff to make it workable as a comic. So, it’s based on my life but I’ve taken a few liberties.

It’s a character based piece and the conflict doesn’t come from this notion of jealousy or that polyamory is impossible.

Well, some of it does come from jealousy, but there’s the assumption that jealousy doesn’t always mean that the relationship should end or be monogamous, so how do we work with that, or accept it, or overcome it? I don’t know. It’s about falling in love with people and not being sure how hard you should fall, or whether you’re taking things too fast and it’s not going to work out. Also, being giddy.

That’s a good point, and for Hazel, falling in love with Argent is a complicated thing – as love always is – but it’s also about this larger understanding and coming to terms with her own feelings.

She’s understanding the possibility that there’s room to love multiple people—which of course there is. That’s the crux of it. It’s not impossible. I’ve been really surprised by the response that Sugar Town has gotten so far, because when I was working on it I thought, “this is the most self-indulgent thing possible.” I thought that other people would want to see something that portrayed poly stuff in a positive light, but I mostly did it because it was fun to work on, and it was fun to do a story based on a really exciting time in my life. I’ve been really surprised by how much people have connected with it, although I guess I shouldn’t be. I think that enthusiasm is partly about poly, but also there’s such a dearth of positive love stories between women, which I think is the focal point of Sugar Town. A lot of queer women readers are really thirsty for something that isn’t pure wish fulfillment, but still works out in the end. We’re still making up for so many years of “Kill Your Gays” and tragic lesbian tropes and all that. If it wasn’t my life, I would excited to read it. I guess that’s where people are coming from.

The subject matter makes it stand out, but as someone who’s been reading you for a while, the colors jumped out at me because I’ve never seen your work like this. How did you figure out the color palate and how you wanted the book to look?

This is the first comic that I’ve colored digitally. My other work has been colored with watercolors or gauche. I had done some digitally colored illustrations, but not on this scale. I know that digital coloring is really the norm for a lot of comics artists, but for me, it was exciting with Sugar Town to teach myself a new coloring medium. The secret of my color palate, which isn’t even a secret, is going on aesthetic tumblrs or finding the portfolios of photographers that I really like, that have strong color palates that are somewhat limited, and just putting those into Photoshop and eyedropping aggressively. Ideally, the photograph isn’t exactly the same subject matter as the page I’m doing. That gave me a starting point in the otherwise overwhelming world of digital coloring, where any color combination that the monitor can create is a possibility. Also, it’s translating from one medium to another. It’s legit to look to other illustrators or other cartoonists for inspiration, but I wouldn’t feel so good about copying their colors exactly. I started with colors from the photographs and tweaked it. Once the page was done, I was willing to deviate from that, but that’s the basic gist of it. I tried to pick colors that were exciting and gave me the appropriate feeling to look at them.

You used phrase “candy-colored” which is an interesting way to put it. The colors are bright and heightened in a way people might not expect from a realistic story.

I guess that’s about feel on my part. Not to mention that I knew the story was going to be called Sugar Town before I colored it, and it made sense to go with that. It’s a blend between a heightened romance and the realistic day-to-day communications problems that people have. It’s only 40 pages, so there’s not too much room for anything but the most high intensity romantic feelings.

Having worked this way, has it made you think differently about your work or what you want to do? Or how you want to work?

It takes a hell of a long time. I probably spent at least six hours coloring every page which would be just ridiculous if I was a colorist for a monthly comic. I guess the flipside of digital coloring is that even though this was my first digitally colored comic, I wanted to make it look good, because I could take an endless amount of time with every page. I got a little faster as I was doing it, but it’s definitely not something I would incorporate into all of my comics going forward. Maybe if I had a consistent limited palate, I could speed it up?

Speaking of No Ivy League I’m really looking forward to getting back to that. I did some rewrites and I’m about to start doing the final art for the new pages, which is completely different mediums and just different process than Sugar Town. I’m using impressionistic watercolor washes and then a little bit of inkwork on top of that, just to define a few details. I’m looking forward to that change of pace and change of style. I felt like with Sugar Town, I had to tweak it until it looked perfect, but this other book is going to be beautifully imperfect. I have another 125 pages to draw, so I have to be a little bit more efficient about it.

You still have that much left of the book to draw?

I have really re-imagined a lot of it. There’s two single issues that exist right now that came out, but some of the rewrites that I’m doing include adding quite a few scenes in between those scenes that already exist. It’s an intimidating chunk. I have a good 80 or so pages done right now, but I’m looking at the next five or six months of my life and just trying to be as hunkered down as much as possible. I’m just going to try to not leave the house. That’s my plan. But it’ll feel really cool to have finished a graphic memoir. When I was a teenager and starting out in comics, that’s the kind of work I would look at and be like, this person is really doing it. I’m not going to be Alison Bechdel or Lynda Barry just because I finished one graphic novel, but I’m looking forward to it being finished.

When you were younger and starting out was graphic memoirs the work that you really responded to?

Absolutely. My progression as a comics fan was pretty much newspaper and webcomics then I got into manga. I really liked that it was everyday stories and that the journey was about somebody finding themselves rather than finding some external goal. I know that good shonen has an internal component as well, but that’s what I responded to. In my later teen years I got introduced to graphic memoirs by American and French cartoonists and that totally blew my mind. I have no idea that there were cartoonists in America who were telling these everyday, feelings-focused, often romantically-focused stories, that reflected what I enjoyed about shoujo. Then, I didn’t immediately say, “Oh I’m going to make autobio comics.” I took a circuitous route to doing that. I was obsessed with really formalist, experimental stuff for a while. But as I go on, I feel like my work is getting more and more conventional in format, even in page layouts, but it’s because I’ve gained confidence in the stories themselves. Now, I’ve come around to embracing autobio and memoir, because that’s always my favorite when it’s done right, and I want to make an iteration of what I enjoy reading. But who knows, after No Ivy League, I do think that tackling a fiction thing would be a huge challenge for me. I think there’s value in that, just to challenge myself, but I really have no idea what I’m going to do after that.

I also wanted to ask about Comics for Choice, which you co-edited and launched right after election. Was this something you were planning to do before?

It was an idea that I had had sometime in 2016 before the election. I was seeing news coverage about laws that force clinics to close, how many states just have one abortion clinic, or very few. That was a pre-existing problem, well before Trump, and I was angry about it, for all the many people who need to access abortion care and their lives are made harder. I thought about the most effective way for me, as one individual with the skills and resources that I have, to make the most difference. That’s a question that I think a lot of us ask ourselves about issues that we care about; how to make the biggest difference. My friend O.K. Fox, who is one of the co-editors, said, “You should do an anthology and give the proceeds to a good organization.” I had also talked to my friend Whit Taylor about it, who has worked in public health and done comics about that, as well as editing the Subcultures anthology, which is a really terrific anthology that partially inspired me to do Chainmall Bikini. She said, “If you do this, I would love to help out.” I put it off for a long time. I was intimidated by the level of research and fact-checking that would have to go into it. Things have to be historically and medically accurate, as well as generally sensitive. It seemed a lot harder to edit, instead of a bunch of mostly female cartoonists making stories about how they’re excited about Zelda. I was also worried about hate that I might incur, because anti-abortion and anti-choice protesters are no joke. They can be really scary and violent.

Then the election happened and I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to do something. I already have this idea that I think is good, so I should just do it.” That was the genesis of it, and then we did the usual things to put together an anthology. As much as anything can be “usual” with inviting cartoonists and writers and putting out a call for submissions. Comics for Choice involved inviting a lot more writers who had not written comics before, because they were reproductive justice scholars, or medical practitioners, or just people who have been doing this activism for a long time. We wanted to share their perspectives and their expertise, but do it in the form of comics, which makes it accessible to people who wouldn’t read a nonfiction prose anthology. So, there was a lot of inviting scholars and activists, and then there’s this other cohort of cartoonists who want to help out but don’t feel like they have their own stories to tell. We paired those folks up with writers, which was a complex and intensive matchmaking process, but I think the result is really, really cool. And then we had a book! We fundraised for the book on Generosity, which is IndieGoGo’s platform specifically for charity fundraising, which doesn’t take a cut. And then we got the book printed and shipped out, and very recently we shipped out the last of the rewards, so we could see how much money actually went to the National Network of Abortion Funds after costs. It was a little bit more than $21,000. So, I feel pretty good about that. Approximately two-thirds of the donations went to this charity, and approximately one-third was spent on printing the book, rewards, and sending it to people.

After the election, I think a lot of us needed something.

I needed something to concentrate on. I think it was like that for artists and writers who contributed. Everybody could use their creative efforts and do something that they really enjoyed doing, and know that it’s really for something important. I think it was a motivation for a lot of people. Draw comics that know that it’s supporting a good cause. And not just raising awareness but raising money.

It sounds like the project ended up being what you expected, more complicated, but also more fulfilling.

Yeah. I didn’t end up getting the harassment that I was worried about. I suppose there’s still always a possibility, but somehow I took on another really challenging topic that people are angry about with an anthology and didn’t get death threats or rape threats. Which is great. It’s sad to call that lucky, but I guess it is.

You have another edition of the book out soon.

All of the money raised was given directly to the National Network of Abortion Funds. They paid the printers costs for the people who donated, but not for any extra books. I invested some of my own money in another edition, which are being distributed to bookstores and comic shops, and then the revenue from that is being split between the editors and the contributors. Having it available through a fundraising campaign is great, but I think that everybody’s stories and the information contained in the book are so important that I want people to pick it up or randomly come across it. That’s the beauty of having it distributed in stores. The discovery factor. All of these crowdfunded comics and anthologies are really amazing, but then it’s also a shame for really great work not have a chance for people who aren’t already “in the know” to discover it too. That’s the long-winded explanation of this new edition.

How have you been finding your new day job as an editor?

It’s wonderful. I have been working for Lion Forge for about two years as an assistant and then an associate editor, and in my time there, my responsibilities had grown from strictly filing invoices and proofing stuff, to now I have fifteen or so titles that I’m in charge of. And that number is slowly growing because I’m now in the position where I can acquire things. It’s an exciting extension of being able to champion other people’s work and bring it out into the world because I’m really stoked on it. A bigger and different version of the anthology editing. It’s really cool to shepherd people’s stories through the development process, and as a cartoonist myself, it’s interesting and amazing to get that kind of close up on other people’s process.

Overall it’s rad, and I love the folks at Lion Forge and I love their commitment to diversity of staff and creator and readers. I think it might be the only Black-owned comic book publisher operating right now, and they’re not trying to to publish comics with characters of colors just as a cash-grab that’s all made by white people. I love my job, and I feel really strongly and positively about what Lion Forge stands for, and is publishing, and being a part of that organization. They’re doing really cool shit and I’m lucky to be a part of that.

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