Smash Pages Q&A: Maia Kobabe

The comics creator discusses ‘Gender Queer: A Memoir,’ working with siblings, the craft and process of creating comics, and more.

Maia Kobabe has been making comics for The Nib, and anthologies like Mine!, Gothic Tales of Haunted Love, The Secrets Loves of Geeks and elsewhere for years, but eir first book is the just released Gender Queer: A Memoir from Lion Forge.

Gender Queer is an exploration of identity, an explanation of what the term means, but more than that, it’s a thoughtful look at coming to understand oneself over time and what it means to be human. Maia and I spoke recently about the book, working with eir sibling on it and reluctantly crafting a memoir.

How did you come to comics?

My earliest memories of comics are lying on the floor in the living room on Sundays when my dad would take the Sunday funny pages and lay them out on the ground. Phoebe and I would sit down on either side of him and he would read them aloud to us, pointing at the word bubbles as we went along. That was a weekly tradition for many years. Phoebe and I both came late to reading. I didn’t learn to read until I was 11, the summer between fifth and sixth grade, so my parents read aloud to us a ton. Even though I was quite frustrated about being such a late reader they always kept stories and books around me constantly and kept us interested in stories and constantly engaged in stories. Comics was just part of that.

You write in the book about not reading until you were older, but even as your parents were engaging you with stories, were you thinking in pictures and images from a young age?

I can’t remember. I’ve always loved drawing. I went to Waldorf Schools, and in the younger grades there’s a lot of auditory learning and storytelling in the classroom. It’s very common that a teacher will tell some story or read aloud from a book and all the students are supposed to listen quietly and then draw about what they’re hearing. So it was very common for me to be sitting in a classroom and hearing the story and trying to imagine it as vividly as possible and capture that in a drawing. I don’t think I was thinking in pictures in the sense of when I walked around in my day to day life, but I was getting a lot of, “translate this story into pictures” as part of my education.

In the opening scene you have a line “no one gets my secrets” and I think that idea unites probably more people than anything else. What was it that made you want to share your secrets?

Honestly? The initially impulse was just frustration. I was trying to communicate concepts and thoughts about gender – in the beginning to my friends and immediate family – and I just never felt like I was able to say everything I was trying to say in conversation. I would lose my train of thought or I would get sidetracked by whatever we were doing or the time would run out. It got to the point where I was like, I’m not getting through, I have to write about this. I chose comics rather than prose because I love comics. I’d just finished a masters degree in comics. It’s the language or media that I feel most eloquent in. If I can’t just tell people what I’m trying to say, I need to sit down by myself in a quiet space where I can work through drafts and fine tune what I’m trying to say and reduce it down to the most essential, concise version. Comics are really good for that. When I write a comics script, usually the first draft is way too wordy and over time it gets cut and cut and in the final draft I use as few words as I possibly can.

In so many conversations around sex and gender and identity, I think a lot of people get frustrated because it may be simplistic and reductive but most people want to hear “I’m X and I’m interested in Y.” When we talk about nonbinary and genderqueer and to a lesser degree bisexuality, it’s almost easier to explain what it’s not than what it is.

I agree with you. I feel like I have a lot of pieces of my identity that exist in a middle space – not this and not that. The first queer identity I claimed and still hold onto is being bisexual. Which is, I refuse to take sides. [laughs] That was followed by identifying as nonbinary, which for me is the same thing but with gender. I’m more and more identifying as asexual and aromantic lately which are also, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be pinned down”. I feel like a lot of people’s identities exist in these liminal spaces. This is part of why I get so frustrated by a lot of conversations, especially ones that happen on the internet. I don’t think anyone can be reduced to one or two sentences. I’m pretty sure everyone’s identity is complex enough for a full memoir. Also, we change over time.

When you first thought about this, what was the process and the decision to make a memoir?

The very first draft wasn’t a memoir. The first draft was a series of comic strips I was posting on instagram. I sat down about a month after coming home from San Diego Comic Con for the first time in 2016. I’d had this experience of many people introducing me to other people and saying wonderful glowing things, but using the wrong pronouns the whole time. It was so frustrating because how do I interrupt when the person is saying, Maia is thoughtful and hardworking and talented, but using “she” and “her”. It wasn’t an experience of being mis-gendered maliciously. It was this glowing, loving mis-gendering. How do I explain that it’s not working for me? I just sat down and drew 60 strips. I was drawing four panel square comics, very influenced by James Kolchalka’s American Elf, which I’d been reading a lot of at the time. I would jump from writing a story from childhood to one from high school to one that happened the day before. That was my initial pitch for the book when I first contacted the editor Andrea Colvin at Lions Forge – I basically showed her all the strips and said, “do you want to publish a little book of these strips that I’ve already drawn?” I envisioned a square book in black and white, just the size to fit into your pocket. Lion Forge said, “no, we don’t want to do that, but what if you take this material and flesh it out and we’ll print it in color as a memoir instead of a series of vignettes?” That was the first book deal I’d ever been offered, so I obviously said yes. [laughs] Then the project was, how do I turn this series of random comic strips into a memoir? The first step was printing them out and laying them out on the floor of my living room in chronological order so I could see what areas of my life I had already covered well and where the big gaps were . What I realized was that I had mostly been writing about the recent two years but I had spent very little time on my childhood and high school. Then I had to sit down and flesh out the early years.

So initially the work was revealing, but it wasn’t a memoir. Those comics were more about interactions and ideas as opposed to trying to capture this evolution of your own thinking over time.

Yes, and I think it was impossible to write a memoir without having previously done all those strips because I actually figured a lot of things out in the process of working on the instagram comics. The art would push forward my life and my life would push forward the art and back and forth. I would be drawing comics and get to a point where I would say, okay, from a storytelling point of view, the next thing that should happen is that I should show these comics to my parents and get their reaction and then write about it. But in order to do that, I will have to show these comics to my parents. [laughs] I’d do that and sweat through it and then it would be fine and I’d write about it. Then thematically the next thing that should happen is I should come out at work but that means I have to come out at work. [laughs] I took steps in my life to feed the comics that I think would have taken me longer had I not been making art about it. Making art about it gave me courage because I had a lot of people commenting on the comics and saying, “I’ve been thinking about this, I didn’t even know there was a word for that, I thought I was the only person in the entire world who felt that way”. I was getting all of this positive reinforcement from readers that inspired me to move forward in my real life. I think that was part of the problem in my conversations. I was trying to tell people the memoir story but I was so scattered and all over the place, it would come out in all of these fragments. When I was writing the comic strips it felt like I was drawing one puzzle piece at a time and I wouldn’t even know what the larger picture was until I had enough pieces to start assembling them.

Working on any long project, your style changes. How did you decide on the way the book should look and how do you think it changed while you were making it?

A big change was that I pitched a black and white book and they wanted to do it in color. I said, I mostly work traditionally and if I’m going to color this book myself I’ll do it in a limited palate of watercolors because that’s how I feel most comfortable working, but I think that digital colors would suit it better. But that means we need to hire a separate colorist. They agreed with that. I am very lucky in that I have a sibling who is also an artist, Phoebe Kobabe, and they went to school for motion graphics and are just a whiz on digital art, mostly working in advertising. I asked my editor if it was okay if I worked with my sibling. Andrea said sure and so then I had to think about how to draw the pages to make the process of getting them colored as smooth as possible. Normally I would have inked the pages traditionally using a nib or brush pen, but that would mean I would have to scan the pages and convert them to digital files and do cleanup. To expedite the process I decided to ink the book digitally. This is the first time I have digitally inked a major project, so that was a pretty steep learning curve for me. But I knew that it would make the coloring so much simpler if it was all digital from the inks onward. 

I feel like drawing the instagram strips solidified the style that I used to draw the book. If you look at some of my much earlier work which was drawn in micron pen, this book looks so different from that. This style I developed through the instagram strips and my work on The Nib and reading books by people like Lucy Knisley and Alison Bechdel. If you’re telling a story set in the modern day, you don’t need as many details about what stuff looks like because if you’re just drawing a car or a kitchen, people know what they look like so you can shorthand it further.

What were your conversations with Phoebe like? Readers can see that you two have a very close relationships but how did the two of you collaborate?

I was in the Bay Area and they live in Pasadena. They drove up for a week and we sat at a desk next to each other and I would be inking the pages and emailing them to Phoebe as I finished them and Phoebe would color them. We had decided that we wanted to do limited color palettes but that it would shift from scene to scene. Our goal was to use not more than five colors in any given scene, but I pretty much let Phoebe pick what those colors were going to be. With a couple exceptions. The opening scene where I’m driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, I said, I want the bridge to be the red color it is in real life. There were a few scenes including the doctors’ office scenes where I wanted them to feel sterile and gray-blue and colors that might make people pick up on my nervousness in the setting. I said anytime there’s blood in the book, I want it to be red. Aside from notes like that, I didn’t have super strong opinions about the color. I trust Phoebe and I said, “I know whatever you do, I’m going to love”. 

For one week we sat next to each other and worked and Phoebe would go, “what do you think of this?” I could turn my head and see it. They would ask if I wanted anything changed and I said, “it’s great, I love it, do what you want”. Phoebe would always say, “no, give me feedback, have an opinion”. I would say, “no, it’s wonderful”. And Phoebe would say, “Argh!”. [laughs] There were a few times we were representing real people and I said, can you make this character have red hair. Because even if I don’t mention her by name, it’s her. Things like that. Realism and continuity notes. There were a lot of things that I knew wouldn’t have to explain to Phoebe because I was writing about both of our childhoods and they were there so I wouldn’t have to say, this was the color of our childhood house or our childhood cats were black or this was the color of my car. 

If I didn’t know that your sibling was coloring the book, I would have guessed you did it because your other comics are colored differently from the book, but they share a sensibility and approach and doesn’t feel dissimilar from your other work.

We had a lot of the same art teachers growing up so we have a lot of overlapping sensibilities. People have said that the book looks warm or earth tone-y, and those are the colors of Waldorf education. You draw a lot of rainbows in Waldorf school! In the school we went to, each classroom was painted a different color. So in first grade it’s a soft rosy red and in second grade it’s a warm orange and in third grade it’s yellow and you grow up through the colors of the rainbow. There’s a lot of natural materials. In the classrooms we grew up in, the desks and the shelves would be unpainted wood. There were a lot of toys and tools made out of cloth and wood and metal to keep plastics and logos and neon out of the classroom. Different schools have different guidelines about this, but the school we went to asked students to not wear clothes that had really bright logos and graphics on them. We grew up surrounded by rainbows and earth tones. [laughs]

I commented before that it’s a very wordy book, but you spend a lot of time playing with the design and page layouts and you try to balance that. Some pages will be very text heavy and then other pages are more about the design and the text is secondary. Balancing those is important, but I was curious what comes naturally to you; how do you think?

That’s a good question. I knew that this was a book with a lot of scenes of people talking to each other. I wanted to make sure they didn’t become repetitive or boring so that’s why some conversations are on the phone and some conversations happen when the characters are walking so the setting could change as the conversation moves along. The more design-y pages are the type of thing I do in my sketchbook. In fact some of them are adaptations of sketchbook pages. The past couple years I’ve been carrying around a 5×8 sketchbook. I like drawing a full figure and then a piece of text – sometimes it’s fan art like a character from a TV show and then a quote that I like. Sometimes it’s a celebrity or author that I like and a line that I found meaningful. Some of the design-y pages are in that mode, thinking, how would I draw this if it was a postcard or mini-poster. Whereas when I have to move the conversation along, that’s when I have more interest in “traditional” comics. I hope that I’m fairly fluent in both equally. I definitely wanted to weave the two styles together in the book. I tried to think about what I was trying to communicate in each scene and what would be most effective.

You mentioned that you worked traditionally before this book. What was inking digitally like?

It was interesting. It meant a lot more sitting at my computer. Making comics fully traditionally means the first stage is usually pretty messy. Little thumbnails drawn on lined paper. Then pencils at print size, usually two pages to a larger sheet of drawing paper. If I’m doing it traditionally, I would either scan those pages and then print them in blue line on bristol if I’m going to ink it in black and white. If I’m going to watercolor it, I trace them onto watercolor paper using  a lightbox. The tracing phase is time consuming and pretty boring. If I print it on bristol, it’s faster, but it means that once I’ve scanned them back in, I have to do a lot of cleanup in Photoshop because I have to take the bluelines out and if I smudged it or misspelled something, I have to do all those fixes. For Gender Queer I still thumbnailed in my messy little sketchbook style and I still penciled it on paper. I think much better on paper – still to this day – because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. When I’m thinking about those compositions, those are decisions I want to make with a pencil in my hand. For Gender Queer I would scan the pencils and format them to the right size and then ink them digitally. Phoebe had bought me a used wacom tablet for Christmas before we started the book. I look at some of the very early pages of the book and of course I would make different decisions now, but I did go and touch up a lot of things. The main thing that changed was my handwriting, actually. My lettering got much tighter and neater and more consistent as I went through the book. So I went back and re-lettered the beginning.

So for the book were you lettering in Photoshop?

I was handwriting in Photoshop. I wanted it to have a handwritten feel and I wanted the lettering to feel of a piece with the line art, which is why I didn’t use a font or even write over a font. Because I am dyslexic and very bad at spelling, it meant that the spellcheck with the editors was very intense. I believe one or two slipped into the first print run. People good at spelling – not me – will be able to spot one or two. But so it goes.

You said before that you like to think with a pencil in your hand. You could have created a font but that physical act of writing and drawing seems to be part of your thought process.

It definitely is. During grad school we made fonts of our handwriting and I tried to use it, but it looks so flat to me. Maybe someday for a different kind of book, I would use that, but I really wanted to be able to write it. If you’re doing it by hand, you can go, this word needs to be in all caps or this word needs to be bigger or I want a more flourishy “Y” because of what I’m saying. You can put the emotion and the mood directly into it. I could type it out and fiddle with it on a digital level, but writing it out by hand is pleasurable.

I talked with Craig Thompson last year and we had this conversation about drawing and how it’s sometimes divorced from the act of making comics. You seem to have found a way to keep that feeling through many steps of the process.

Something that Andrea said to me when we were working on the book – and as soon as she said it, I thought, that’s so true – was “your process is so iterative”. I am so amazed by artists like Tillie Walden who can immediately put ink to paper and it ends up a finished page. That’s never the case for me. I do a thumbnail. Sometimes I do a second thumbnail. I pencil. I sometimes will do a second pencil. I ink. I will touch up my inks. As I was turning in the final inked pages, I told Andrea, “if you gave me another year to work on this book, I would print out all of these digital inks in blue line on bristol and redo them by hand”. And I would enjoy it! I wouldn’t find that boring or frustrating because once I have finalized the composition, laying down the inkwork is the most peaceful and satisfying step of comics. I’m no longer struggling with design questions or worrying about the text or thinking about the pacing or layout. At that point I am just using my hand and a tool to put down the final line. If I could do that step even more, I would be a happy artist. [laughs]

Here’s the Craig Thompson quotation. “… drawing from life, is a meditation. If you’re really present with everything but with your breath with the moment with whatever is in front of you and with the process. It’s pleasurable. I can’t say that drawing comics is pleasurable.” He went on to say, “the drawings in comics aren’t really drawings. They’re symbols. Cartooning is symbols. It’s a shorthand. A typography.”

I mostly agree with that. Definitely a lot of the drawing in comics is very symbol-based, very simplified, but I like finding moments where drawing in comics is still drawing. Depending on what the content of it is and what the purpose of it is and where it’s being published, I’ll go more in a symbol direction with my comics or more in a drawing direction. I actually like both of them. The part that I chuckled over was “I can’t say that drawing comics is pleasurable.” That is true. It is very frustrating. My least favorite part of comics and the part that frustrates the most is thumbnails. Turning a bulletpoint script into pages. That is the part that gets me pulling my hair and feeling like a total fake who knows nothing. Usually once I get past that, things improve. Starting a comic is difficult because the first part is the worst but then it gets easier and easier and more and more fun as I go along.

So having inked digitally for this book, is this a new way of working for you? Never again? How have you been working since you finished the book?

It was like adding another tool to my arsenal. Directly after I finished, I wanted a change of pace. I went from finishing Gender Queer to the next day starting this short 14 page fully traditional story for an anthology. It was really nice to play with inks and paints and get abstract and messy. But I have been using digital for more of the short comics essays that I post online. Something that I want to get out quickly that is much more about the concept than the art, more in the symbol direction of comics, I find digital useful. When I’m going more in the drawing direction for comics, I want to get the paints out.

This is your biggest project to date, and it was very personal. Do you want to make another book? Make something shorter? Something fictional that doesn’t involve “I”? What are you thinking about as far as what comes next?

I want to do everything. I would like to do another memoir someday but I won’t start it until I’m 40 because I want to let more life build up. If I do it too soon, there won’t be enough to say. I really want to do fiction. I want to do children’s books. I love doing short pieces for the internet. I want to do all of those things. Since turning in Gender Queer I’ve already finished the short comic I mentioned, two comics for The Nib, and some pieces that I just drew for myself. I am working on a middle grade sci-fi graphic novel pitch with a writer friend. I have two children’s picture book pitches which are already with my illustration agent and I’m working on a third. I’m thinking about the next book that I will both write and illustrate. We’ll see.

So for a final question, what is your pitch for the book?

I usually say that it’s a story of coming of age focused on gender identity, sexuality, and coming out to family and friends. But it’s also a book about being a nerd who reads a lot. I would say that the book is for anyone who has ever felt a disconnect between how they see themselves in their mind and how they feel about their body. Or for anyone who knows someone who has felt that way. Or for anyone who has feelings of shame and doubt and uncertainty about some aspect of their identity that feels too secret and too private and too dangerous to share and wants to think about the concept of what would happen if you were to speak about that out loud. Which I think is something everyone has. A smart friend of mine read the book and called it, a project of shame reduction. That’s not something I would have come up with on my own, but that is what it is. It’s a book to try to get people to accept themselves, their friends, their family, or maybe just the diversity and beautiful complexity of humanity a little bit more than maybe they had thought about or knew about before. I hope people pick it up if they like reading about a human experience.

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