Smash Pages Q&A: Elizabeth Beier on ‘Bisexual Trials and Errors’

Elizabeth Beier only started working in comics a few years ago, but the graphic designer has made a name for herself self-publishing two issues of the comic Bisexual Trials and Errors, and comics like We Belong and I Like Your Headband. The winner of the 2016 Queer Press Grant from Prism and a Moth StorySLAM winner, this fall Northwest Press is publishing Beier’s first full length book, The Big Book of Bisexual Trials and Errors.

The spine of the collection is Beier’s own autobiographical story of starting to date after a six year relationship and being intimidated and finding her way through the entertaining confusion. Those comics, along with the flow charts and infographics that Beier enjoys crafting, manage to be funny and relatable in a way that transcends age and orientation. But the book is also much more that. Beier mentioned that she loves to draw faces, but she’s also interested in voice, and that interest in authenticity, in specificity, in capturing individuals and their stories is at the heart of her work. This is a coming of age story about a twenty-something woman, but it’s also about a woman situating herself in and coming to understand her community.

The book will be coming out this fall from Northwest Press, and the book is currently up as part of Kickstarter Gold, which highlights new projects by creators who have used the crowdfunding site in the past “making new works inspired by their past projects, so backers can discover extra-amazing ideas.” In 2013 Northwest published Anything That Loves, a comics anthology of comics story that took place in “the world outside of gay and straight boxes,” as editor and publisher Zan Christensen put it. The book was a critical and commercial success and Northwest will be publishing Beier’s book as a companion to and a continuation of that conversation. The campaign, which can be found here, runs through July 27.

What is Bisexual Trials and Errors and what was your initial plan with the series when you first began?

Bisexual Trials and Errors is a series of comics about trying to date women in the Bay Area after breaking up with my boyfriend of six years. I felt awkward, excited, a bit behind, and painfully self-conscious, and I decided it would all be way more fun if I was making comics about it.

The nature of the project has definitely changed over time. At first it was a way for me to commiserate with my friends about how difficult I found it to meet someone, to connect with a woman in that way. When I started in 2014 it did feel like “trial and error” because I felt like there was something wrong with me that prevented me from having the love and sex that I wanted. Over the years I’ve done a lot of thinking and self-reflection that’s caused me to grow into myself, which in turn helped my romantic game – so now I’m also able to draw myself being fulfilled and happy.

So why did you start making comics in the first place?

I think the very first one that I drew and shared was my “Obsessive Crushes – Pros and Cons” chart, which is in the first issue. I originally wrote the pros and cons out very seriously for my therapist. [laughs] When I looked at it, I thought, this is hilarious. This is funnier than a lot of what I see on the internet, so I decided to illustrate it. I showed it to my friends and they were like, yes, this is very funny. I love comics – in particular I love the Hernandez Brothers, Alison Bechdel, Alex Robinson, Allie Broch and Julia Wertz. I’ve always been somebody that draws a lot of faces and a person who tells stories. The comic was just me doing both of those things at the same time.

Had you made comics before this point?

I made a few. One of my friends is a writer so I’ve done some illustrations for her work and some experiments in college, but Bisexual Trials and Errors was the first project that I was seriously developing as my own comics work. Since then I’ve done the Lexington Club book that I mentioned in the kickstarter video, which has a different focus. Also another book called I Like Your Headband, which is about queer coming of age as a young person. Completing Bisexual Trials and Errors and showing my growth arc is what I’m working on now. I’ve done issues which are each 50 pages long, plus the Lexington Club interview pages. Now I’m making at least 60 more pages for the new compilation. It might wind up being a little bit more than that. It’s going to be about 200 pages total.

Do you want to say a little about We Belong, the Lexington Club project?

The Lexington Club project started in the same way as so many of my dating and flirting comics – I started to go there to draw and meet queer women. When it was announced that The Lexington Club was closing, it took on new urgency. I really wanted to capture certain people and moments and friendships and bonds that existed at that club and what the club meant to the diverse people there. It went from a place of just writing about myself to capturing many different points of view. In the end all of the portraits and stories I drew about individuals created one mega-portrait of the bar itself.

We Belong is interesting but you can see the origins in Bisexual Trials and Errors because you’re not just interested in drawing people but in capturing their stories.

It’s true. Even though the books are all from my point of view, it’s important for me for my different characters to be authentic, different individuals. For example I want to be careful when I’m writing dialogue so not everybody sounds like me. I want different characters to have their own diction and phrasing and to sound like themselves, distinct from me, distinct from each other. By doing those portraits of them it creates a portrait of queer life in the Bay Area, I suppose. It’s all through my perspective because I’m the person recording it, but I do my best to reflect people and their own voices.

You were there because you were looking for a relationship, but you were also trying to understand this community and meet people in it.

True, it was a combination of the two. Especially with The Lexington Club where I was really understanding that there were generations of bonds that took place in that bar. That there were older couples who had been going there since its inception and who told me about other bars they went to before that. That was really interesting, learning where people went before the Lexington Club. The compilation will also explore where people went after The Lexington Club. Learning from older queer folks about the history around it. Learning from people younger than me and who came from all different places – other countries, the American South and Midwest, places where homophobia and transphobia manifest in different ways. There were people across the spectrum of queer identities – lesbian, trans, butch, femme, nonbinary, pansexual, bisexual, the whole spectrum. I tried to ask each person, what brings you here? Why do you love this bar? What’s a powerful memory for you of this place? As I look at those pages now, especially now that the bar’s closed, it’s like this journal of what people were wearing and what was the song playing in the background and what jewelry and what hairstyles did each person have. Those physical, visual characteristics were something I could record along and present next to their stories in their own words. A lot of times, especially in an explicitly queer space, people are dressing and presenting to communicate something about themselves and their identity. I’m happy I had a chance to capture those people in those moments and that folks were so generous in sharing their truth with me.

The other year you received the Queer Press Grant from Prism.

I’m now actually the chair of the Prism Queer Press Grant, which is really exciting. I won in 2016 and in 2017 I started my role as chair. It’s a monetary award which helps with printing. I printed more copies of my comic, essentially, but beyond that it’s a really fun cool way to join a community of queer artists who are serious about their craft. It was good to talk to some of the previous winners like Robert Kirby and Jon Macy and this family of really committed creators. The year that I won I tied with another amazing artist Catherine Esguerra and ever since then we’ve been grant sisters and we’ve had each others back, critique each others work, check in to make sure we’re keeping up with our goals. In 2017 Tee Franklin won for her project Bingo Love, which is a romance featuring two older African American lesbians.

Since I won the Queer Press Grant, I aspire more to leadership in the comics community. Becoming chair of the grant means that I organize the judging panel for years going forward. At the last Queers and Comics convention I wound up mc’ing the big show at the end called Queer Comics Live. All of the artists who wanted to present sent me pictures for a slideshow and I put them together and curated a I got to introduce these really amazing artists and at first it was really overwhelming to get email submissions from people like Trina Robbins and Mary Wings, who are so historically important – my most cherished mentors. That’s something I had the confidence to do because of the Queer Press Grant.

How did you connect with Zan Christensen and end up publishing the book through Northwest Press?

My frantic drawing of everyone isn’t just confined to women I find cute, but is also a way that I take notes and often a way that I connect with people professionally. When I saw Zan at different conventions I would often approach him and give him a free comic and say, this is who I am, I hope that one day you’ll consider publishing my work. I think part of the reason he reached out to me is because I live-scribed a panel that he was on about self-publishing at a convention. I drew each panelist’s face and as much as I could about what they said — partly because I was super interested in looking back at my notes later, but also to show it to people on the panel to introduce myself and impress them a little bit. He took a snapshot of it and he saw how quickly I was able to draw and I think that stuck in his head. So when he was approached by Kickstarter Gold, he remembered me. I think the takeaway is really about showing up and being visible and talking to people you want to work with and introducing yourself. Also displaying your talent in real time can be helpful.

I’m very grateful to Zan for emailing me to suggest we do this Kickstarter together. He’s an amazing figure within the queer publishing world – friendly, ambitious, talented. He genuinely wants to lift up the voices of queer creators and put their work in front of as large of an audience as possible, and his skills as a publisher and art director are superb. He has the perfect combination of high-minded idealism and practical and specific knowledge to propel Northwest Press as an amazing queer publisher and I’m super excited to be working with him.

The comic is Bisexual Trials and Errors, but of course the sad truth is we live in a world where a chunk of people don’t believe that bisexuality actually exists.

I know. [laughs] I recently made a flow chart about this. I identify as both bi and queer. To counter people not believing that it exists, all I can really do is tell the most true story that I can. I made the flow chart as a sort of flippant retort, but on a more serious note, I hope that people become more aware as a result of my book. Not everybody has been as educated in sexual identity as I am, partly because I’m around a lot of queer people who have shared their experiences with me and partly because I am queer myself and partly because I’ve done my own research. I don’t know everything by a long shot, but I have the benefit of having some personal insight to impart.

I don’t necessarily think that people who don’t get it right now are awful people. Maybe they don’t think bisexuality is real, but they also haven’t even thought it or considered for more than a few minutes and don’t know that they know someone who’s bi. I believe that there are people out there who are reachable, who don’t really get what bisexuality or fluid sexuality is about right now, but would be open and interested in reading fun, compelling personal dating stories like mine. Who might also read Anything That Loves and be drawn in by each new voice and narrative. It’s a lot harder to refute somebody’s real story that it is to discount an abstract idea. Once you consider a personal story that someone has generously shared with you, you have to either believe that the storyteller is lying or change your mindset. In that way, personal comics have the potential to break down barriers and open people’s minds.

Of course, I’m not only writing these stories to educate nonbelievers. Some of the most valuable feedback I get is from other bi folks who say they relate to the stories in my book, and that it makes them feel less alone. I love hearing: “this really reflects my struggles and experiences, and I haven’t seen stories like mine represented in art before.” Basically: increased representation and visibility about bisexuality and other fluid identities is a win for everyone.

Over the years that you’ve been doing this, how has you found your style changing and evolving?

One of the funny things about making a compilation is looking at my earlier work and being like, Ahh! I want to redo every shape and every word because I feel like I’m a better artist now. But I love seeing the freshness and immediacy of my earliest work that I was banging out while sitting at the bar and having a drink. I think over time my artwork has become more measured and considered. The whole time that I’ve been making these comics I’ve been using the same underlying grid of nine rectangles. That hasn’t changed, but I’ve been more thoughtful about the writing that goes into it. I think at first I thought that the art of comics was 90% the drawing, which I knew I was good at, and the writing was just there to give people a context for the pictures. Now that I’ve done more comics and live storytelling, I see the writing is incredibly important. It’s about considering how to best use the writing and drawing together to tell a story and neither part is more important than the other. I’m more thoughtful about my writing now. That’s the biggest difference. In the same way that I’ve tried to mimic different people’s style of speech and their dialogue when they speak, I’m being more thoughtful of having my own dialogue and my own narration sound like me. In the earlier stories some times I sound a bit like Allie Brosh or Julia Wertz or other cartoonists that I admire. I wasn’t straight out copying them, but the influence is pretty obvious in places. As I’ve matured I’ve learned to develop my own voice. And I’ve also just become more adept at using graphic black, shape vs line, learning to finesse my visual style.

You do seem to really enjoy flow charts.

I do! At the end of the book I’m going to include all my flow charts, pro/con lists and other didactic material. I’m going to have an Appendix & Resources section. Usually when I make a flow chart I’m trying to dispense actual advice. In the case of “Should you text your obsessive crush” that’s real advice. [laughs] I have taken it out and looked at it and gone through it. Almost always the answer is no. As it should be! There are times when you haven’t seen the person in a long time and you want to know if they want to hang out, fine. But that’s usually not why someone is compulsively going for their phone to text their crush. Usually they want the immediate gratification of reaching out to that person. Slowing down for the time it takes to even complete the flowchart is enough to realize… maybe that’s not always a good idea. I’m collecting up the charts, lists, and how-tos for the end, because they’re discreet statements and not storytelling per se.

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