Smash Pages Q&A: Sarah Mirk

The writer, editor and journalist discusses her two most recent projects — ‘Year of Zines’ and ‘Guantanamo Voices.’

Sarah Mirk is mostly known as a writer and editor for her work at Bitch Media, and for her books like You Do You and Sex From Scratch. She’s also written comics for The Nib and Symbolia, and has done cartoons for The New Yorker.

This year, though, she has two major projects coming out that show the breadth and depth of her work and her talent. Year of Zines is out now. The book collects 100 of the comics that Mirk made in 2019 where she made literally a zine a day. In the fall, Abrams is publishing Guantanamo Voices, which Mirk wrote and edited, telling the stories of veterans, prisoners, lawyers and government officials, with a number of artists.

Taken together, the books show off the inventiveness, skill and roving mind of a creator who is clearly just getting started. More recently, Mirk has been covering the protests in Portland in work that can be seen on her Twitter and Instagram. Mirk was kind enough to chat about her work.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I’ve drawn comics my whole life. I started drawing comics as a kid inspired by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mad Magazine, especially Sergio Aragones’ work in Mad and Groo. My older brother and I devoured Groo and Ninja Turtles and we started drawing comics about our dogs imagining them as superheroes. Basically I never stopped drawing comics. In high school I got more into zines and drawing personal comics. I drew comics about myself and my friends. I basically thought I had invented the medium of zines until I went  to a comics convention when I was a sophomore in high school and it blew my mind. There was this whole big world of people doing this and I knew this is what I want to be involved in. At the time I was fifteen and my life goal was to be behind the table at a comics convention selling my own work.

Most people know your background as a writer and editor, but you were always making comics on your own?

Yeah, my career is basically parallel tracks. As a journalist and writer and editor, I worked mostly on issues related to gender and history and politics. On the other hand, I’m also a cartoonist, and I write and draw comics. Only since 2017 have the two paths crossed. Now I call myself a comics journalist and try to combine the journalism that I do with the comics that I do.

Going through other interviews you’ve done, you were doing work like the Oregon history comics, which is such a great project. But so many articles were like, “She’s a serious journalist and look at this weird thing she’s doing in her free time.

I thought of that project as a little side project. I was inspired by Portland and Oregon changing so fast, and I wanted to tell the history of the state in a way that people would actually read. A lot of people who have just moved here won’t take the time to pick up a big dense history book of Oregon or go to the Oregon Historical Society museum, but they will pick up a comic.

I thought of it as something I was going to do for fun, and it really took on a life of its own. It was popular and people loved it, and made me think that this medium works for telling nonfiction and historical stories in an interesting engaging way that people connect with. Doing them as a collaboration worked really well. I was writing the stories then turning them over to artists who could make them their own. That’s still the primary way I work in comics. I love having a collaborator or a team of collaborators who make the stories way better than I could and bring their own voice and vision to it as artists.

Was that the first time you took your background as a journalist and brought that approach to comics? And the first time you worked with collaborators?

It was. Previous to that I’d mostly drawn comics about my own life, diary comics and then little one-panel gag comics. This was the first time I started writing and reporting nonfiction comics. It was also the first time I worked with a team of artists as collaborators. I’d previously done everything myself. 

Local history is one of those things that rarely studied in school but so interesting and obsessive. Did you grow up in Portland?

No, I’m from Southern California originally, Ojai. When I moved here in 2008, I was interested in exploring the history of Portland and the state. I was the kind of person who would go read those history books and go on historical tours and immerse myself in the history of where I moved to. But I know that’s not for everybody. Not everybody learns that way. It’s a real big ask for a lot of people. I was up for doing the research, so I tried to figure out how to make that more digestible, more understandable and more relevant to people. And that series focused on little known and marginalized stories form Oregon’s past. When a lot of people think of Portland they think of Portlandia, that it’s weird and filled with hipster white artist types. I really wanted to talk about racism and sexism and how moneyed interests tried to build freeways through the cities, and if the neighborhoods didn’t rise up and say no, the city would look entirely different today. Let’s talk about those things, which aren’t so cute.

So, Year of Zines. You’ve been drawing comics for years. It’s a big jump from that to making a zine a day for an entire year, though.

I got inspired during Inktober, which is a challenge where artists drawn a picture every day. I thought, “I should make a zine every day for Inktober.” So in 2018 I did. They’re all one-page zines, where it’s one piece of paper folded up, so it’s a cover and six interior pages and a back cover. It felt doable. Eight drawings and some text. I can do that. I did the zines and people loved them and I loved them. When I got to the end of the month, I had so many more ideas. I thought, “I wonder if I have 365 ideas?” So I decided to do the whole year and push myself to come up with ideas. I was interested in what would happen when it got hard. Because at first it was easy. I had a million ideas, and I was interested in what happens when I used up all my obvious ideas and I really have to push myself and dig deeper. 

The other impetus for the project was that last year I was working on this book Guantanamo Voices. It’s a collection of oral histories of Guantanamo told through comics. Facing down the deadline of six months to write that book felt impossible. And the work is so emotionally taxing. It was reading through the Torture Report, talking to people about this horrible violence they’ve experienced, talking about how there’s been no accountability. It’s not a happy subject. I thought it would be good for my sanity to have a project that I could do every day, that I had total control over and that was more simple. And that I could have fun with. Every day no matter how bad it was, I could make a zine about whatever I wanted to make something that doesn’t have to be perfect – or even have to be good – to just get me through the day emotionally and be something I share. The problem with writing a book is that nobody sees it for a long time. Part of the zine project was I have to build myself a scaffold to get through this year and that means I need a project where I’m sharing work all the time where it’s safe to share my feelings where it doesn’t have to be perfect and where I can connect emotionally to other people. Because I was going to isolated and it was going to be hard and really dark.

Were you thinking about this size from the start?

From the beginning I was going to do zines where it’s one page folded up. I thought I would get more creative and try various sizes and structures and formats, but whenever I did branch out into a different size and style, it became a huge pain because at the end of the month I would photocopy all the zines and send them to patron subscribers. It’s really simple if they’re all the same size and they’re all black and white. It gets a lot more complicated when I have to hand craft the zines to send out to people because I made them off proportions or collage each zine individually. A few months in I was like, “Screw it, I’m doing all these one page zines in black and white.” Then in December when I only had a few zines left, I decided to do a few in different styles. I was glad I did them, because I didn’t have to be limited to the format, though I do love the format. It’s so cheap and easy and accessible. My tools for making zines are a clipboard and a piece of copier paper and a bag of pens. It doesn’t require any special equipment or expertise.

And I’m sure that after that many days working at that set size and page count, you had a feel for the rhythm and structure of it.

I think I got pretty good at thinking in the zine format. Now when I think of a story I want to tell, I think in those eight beats. I can think of a story in those beats now because I’ve done it more than 400 times. Now when I’m thinking about how to tell a story or tell a joke or share an experience, that kind of rhythm comes pretty naturally.

Where did the idea of making a book come from?

I was planning on making them into a book from the beginning. I think it’s important for artists to document their work and to make it accessible to people in various forms. Especially for libraries, for teachers, for bookstores. A lot of places don’t shelve zines. I wanted to make a book to have a hardy version of the zines to share with lots of people in classrooms and libraries and bookstores that aren’t good with individual zines. I was already planning on doing a selection, a best of, and then I applied for a grant from the regional arts and culture council here in Portland and they gave me a $3,000 grant to publish the book. 

Was it easy to decide what to include? Or did that take a while?

I decided to include 100 because 100 is a nice number – and because that was the amount I could afford to print. [laughs] For $3,000 I could do a book that was 210 pages and so each zine is two pages, so 100 zines. Keeping that in mind I went through and made a list of the zines that resonated and still felt relevant and true, and which ones that I thought would hold up. Making a book I’m thinking, if someone is pulling the book down 10 years from now, I want it to be relevant to them. When I made a list it was about 120 and then I cut 20.

You mentioned Guantanamo Voices and you’ve written about Guantanamo before this. Why did you start thinking about making an oral history and doing it in comics form?

I started thinking about it in terms of an oral history because about seven years ago a veteran who had worked at Guantanamo emailed me. She had a lot of complicated emotions about what her role had been and what this was and in talking to her, it helped her to talk about her story and to make that story into a narrative. She and I decided to do a project where I interviewed her about her experiences and then I interviewed another veteran and turned it into a comic. That was published in Symbolia magazine, which no longer exists. The reason I think it worked so well as a comic is because you don’t need photos. In this place it’s really hard to take photographs. The photos you have are really censored and controlled. A lot of day-to-day life is just not something you can photograph. Telling that story in comics, you can illustrate that reality. 

One of the big problems about Guantanamo is that the place doesn’t exist to a lot of Americans. It’s not on our radar because we don’t have images of it. When you think Guantanamo you probably think of that photo that was taken in 2002 of men in orange jumpsuits with their hands shackled behind a fence at Camp X-Ray. That photo is 18 years old! What is it like today? What’s going on now? That’s something we need to make visible and make real to people. This place is an ongoing part of our history. Comics are good at making visible a place that’s not very visible. Also humanizing the people that are there. Everything around Guantanamo is so loaded and so political that even trying to say anything as a fact is hard. Everyone says different things, so who do you believe? I wanted to make it clear in the book that each story is from the person’s perspective and each story is true to this person. A lot of what they say in the book contradicts the official Bush administration line, the official Obama administration line, the official Trump administration line, but it’s their experience. They’re talking about what happened to them. As a reporter it’s clear for me to say, “This is the person’s story.” It is not a general statement about what everyone experienced. This is what this person did and what they saw and what they experience and this is how they felt about it. 

That is one of the great advantages that comics have. There is this explicit subjectivity to them.

That’s exactly why I love comics as a journalist. I think there’s a myth that journalists are objective and we’re just robots reporting the news, but everybody has biases based on their own experiences, what they think is important and who they’re reporting for. I love comics as a medium because you can see the hand of the person that made it. You can see that it was made by a person and think about that person – why did they choose to tell this story? How are they choosing to tell it? More than if you’re reading an article or a book.

It’s been interesting to see different outlets, like NPR and others lately, using comics as a way to capture and convey this experience of the pandemic and what we’re going through.

I think that media organizations are now finally catching on to comics as a great storytelling tool, where in the past media outlets were kind of afraid of comics. Now because there’s been so many great nonfiction graphic novels and comics, people can see those examples and say, “We can do a comic like that.” I remember like 10 years ago looking up comics journalists on Wikipedia, and I think there were only five people mentioned, but now if you asked me to name how many comics journalists I know, I could name 50 who are feeling more empowered to tell true stories in comics in their own way in their own style.

I think it’s also a generational thing. Lots of people who are getting into positions of power who are becoming editors and producers have a different perspective on comics. The editor who bought Guantanamo Voices at Abrams is younger than me – and I’m 33. This had been an idea I had for a long time but then someone younger than me came along and said, “Yeah, let’s publish this.” I think you can see that at other media outlets where people who have spent more of their lives reading comics and have a different relationship to the medium can now say this is what we want to publish.

Also, besides everything else you’ve been doing, you are now a New Yorker cartoonist. Congratulations.

Yes! It’s very exciting. When I started drawing comics and submitting them places, I was 20. That’s 13 years ago. I had ideas for jokes I wanted to make and stories I wanted to tell, but I wasn’t very good. My drawings just didn’t capture the feelings that I wanted them to. I’ve spent 13 years working on becoming a better artist and writer and storyteller and drawing every day. Thirteen years later, I’m at a point where I can have an idea for a comic and draw it the way I want it to look. That feels really really good.

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