Smash Pages Q&A: Whit Taylor on ‘Ghost Stories’

The award-winning cartoonist discusses her new book, her work at ‘The Nib’ and more.

Whit Taylor has been making a number of award-winning and nominated comics and mini-comics for years including Watermelon, Boxes and Ghost. She’s written for The Comics Journal and Publishers Weekly, and has contributed to The Nib where she’s written about race, Chris Christie, pandemics, health care and hair.

Ghost Stories, which was just published by Rosarium, is her first book. It collects three stories, each made in a different style and approach, that deal with questions of memory in different, interesting ways. I read Ghost when it was first published and like a lot of people thought it was her best work to date, and while none of the stories are ghost stories in that way, each involves hauntings in interesting ways. Taylor was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and her work.

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

Comics have played a role in my life since I was a kid. I started reading comics in second or third grade, and made picture books as well. At the time I was really into Archie Comics and some Marvel Comics. I stopped reading comics and drawing by the time I got to high school.

I rediscovered my love for both by late college, largely due to discovering indie comics. I took an art class in college where we had visit RISD – I went to Brown – and I saw Roz Chast talk about her work at the New Yorker. That was super-inspiring for me because she was a woman and I hadn’t been exposed to many female cartoonists. Her work excited me because it was clever and wacky. That, along with discovering autobio comics,  inspired me to start making comics again, but it wasn’t until 2008 or so that I started making mini-comics. At the time I was living in Los Angeles and homesick. Making silly comics about my friends in New Jersey was comforting so I started doing it regularly and posting them on my Blogspot. I also started going to indie shows and selling minis and it evolved from there.

Ghost Stories is a collection of three stories – Ghost, Wallpaper, and Makers. I have a copy of Ghost, are the other two new?

I originally self-published Ghost in 2015 and Wallpaper in 2016. Bill Campbell (Rosarium Publishing) had expressed interest in re-publishing Ghost and he wanted me to do a collection of short stories, so I created the last story, Makers, with the collection in mind.

Ghost starts out as one kind of story and then changes partway through. I don’t think I’m giving much away by saying that. I’m curious how you worked on it. Did you have this idea of it from the beginning?

Ghost is different from what I’d previously done, particularly in the way I approached writing it. I’ve typically written tight scripts, and then thumbnailed, and drew panels from there. With Ghost, the scripting was really loose and I decided to work without panels to reflect that.  Writing the story was really hard because it was an emotional process.  I started writing it in January of 2015, but it was disjointed and I didn’t know what direction I was going in. I got feedback from a few friends and they were like, this has promise, but it feels like you’re hinting at something but not saying it. I discarded most of the pages and resumed working on it in the summer. I didn’t know where the story was taking me, meaning that I hadn’t figured out who the three “idols” where going to be. At the same time, I started incorporating shorter stories into the main one, that I felt added pertinent information to the overall story. It was unconventional for me, but I think it reflects my thought process from that confusing time.

Wallpaper is a very different kind of story, in that its centered around the text, so I’m sure that required a different process.

I wanted to challenge myself to tell a story about people without actually showing them. Also, at the time, I was I had this awful work commute and the most relaxing thing for me was to draw patterns. The story is told through patterns and reflects the intense, visceral memories that you have as a child that stick with you.

Ghost starts out as one kind of story where you get to meet three dead people and it’s fun and interesting and I especially loved your conversation with Charles Darwin, but then it becomes very raw and intense.

That wasn’t intentional, to be honest.

Like I said, I didn’t have a set script, so I didn’t know where the story was going. I set out that premise of meeting three dead people because I thought it would be a fun thing to write about. I’ve always looked to people who inspire me to get a greater perspective on life, especially when times are challenging. The first two people [Darwin & Campbell] were easy choices. I was considering a third person but then was like, I don’t know what the purpose of this is if I just meet three seemingly random dead people. I had already written up to Campbell and all of a sudden I was like, I should include myself because that’s really what I’m trying to get at.

This is a clearly something you needed to get out and talk about.

Yeah. In addition to just loving to tell stories, comics have always served a therapeutic purpose for me. If you’re trying to sell autobio/memoir comics, you have to be authentic and true to yourself and what you’re expressing, but it also has to appeal to other people and be universal enough that people can connect with it. That was definitely a concern that I had, given that I was writing a story that dealt with sexual assault, when it was not something that was openly discussed. I wrote this a few years before #metoo, so it was not a thing that people were really talking about.

I think of you as a cartoonist who makes personal work. You’ve made some pieces for The Nib, for example, which deal with larger issues but they’re often very personal.

When I do longform stuff for The Nib, it is usually around a topic that I’m interested in and I want to explore it in graphic form. It’s personal in the sense that those are things that I’m interested in or that I feel are important to make a comic about. But yeah, my work has always been personal and part of me feels like that is inevitable if you’re making comics. Recently, my interest in doing autobio comics has waned a bit and I am hoping to focus more on other types of storytelling, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point.

You made a great piece for The Nib recently, “America Isn’t Ready For a Pandemic. Here’s How It Could Happen.” I was recovering from the flu when that came out, so it was terrifying. Thanks for that.

[laughs] I knew when I wrote that that it would probably freak some people out. It’s not really what I wanted to do, but unfortunately in this country we are often uninformed about public health issues for a variety of reasons. For example, there’s so much misinformation about vaccines and that sort of nonsense really puts everyone at risk. Given that flu season was coming up, I felt like this topic was important to write about.

You do pieces for The Nib with some frequency. You’ve made comics about Chris Christie and race and politics.

I love working with The Nib. I appreciate the freedom that they’ve given me to explore topics that I’m interested in. I also enjoy working with Eleri Harris over there, who is a great editor.

Do you want to make more nonfiction comics like that?

Definitely. I love doing nonfiction. I’ve always loved doing research and then trying to distill that research into something that’s understandable and simple enough to be consumable by lots of people.

How did this book come about? How did you connect with Rosarium?

I’d known about Rosarium for years because I was familiar with some of their artists. After Bill reached out to me about Ghost, I was on the fence about republishing it because it’s a deeply personal book and I felt conflicted about releasing on a wider scale. He saw it as a positive thing, which could be a resource for others, especially young women. As a self-published book, I had many people reaching out with similar experiences who found it helpful, so I considered that too.

Did you have a have a set number of stories that you wanted to include or that he did or what was that process like?

Initially I don’t think there was a set number. I was more concerned with the themes and connecting the stories in some way. Now that the book is out, I’ve noticed that some were disappointed that they were not “real” ghost stories. I don’t think I would have named the book Ghost Stories if they were literal ghost stories. They are non-traditional ghost stories. Wallpaper explores the loss of childhood innocence through a series of events. It’s about trying to process things that you don’t fully understand and that you’re not fully informed about. Makers is about the history of a friendship as seen through the eyes of the one who was “ghosted”.

All three stories are about hauntings.

Exactly. And I wanted all three to be about how we process memory. I can see how Ghost can be viewed as abrupt, but I would say that it shows how I was dealing with my own memories and fears. I wrote Wallpaper from the perspective of a child. And I see Makers as one where you’re looking back at a dead friendship and wondering what happened.

I understand what they mean about Ghost but it’s a series of connected events that’s been fractured, and so your memory is functioning differently than in the other stories.

Exactly. The end of Ghost deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that’s a weird thing in that it makes you feel really disorganized in terms of the way you think and how you process information. Especially when it initially happens, which is not always directly after the event.  I was hoping to capture that as well.

I think you did. And for those who know people who have gone through that, you capture some of that sense of confusion.

Again, like I said I was hesitant to get that personal, but when I look back at most of my public comics over the years, I’ve always been open about mental health. I think comics are a great way to humanize mental health issues.

One thing that comics are able to do well is how they’re able to depict time. You take advantage of this in different ways to depict how memory works in different ways.

As an autobio creator, I think that one has to constantly think about how memory translates on the page. Memory is complex and I wanted to show that by telling three first hand accounts in different ways, and in different stages of life.

One thing that also struck me is that each story has a different design and layout. Ghost doesn’t have any panels and you play with the layout. Wallpaper has its own design.

Yes! Each story has a different format and that was intentional. Ghost is more freeform. Wallpaper is prose with art, more like a storybook, and Makers has traditional panels. Before I drew Ghost I felt like I had hit a wall in terms of what I was doing in my comics, the tools I was using, etc. Drawing without panels and switching to brush pens and markers freed me up.

You also co-edited Comics for Choice, which came out last year. Do you want to say a little about it?

Hazel [Newlevant] and OK Fox had discussed doing this and Hazel approached me at CAB about being a co-editor. I’ve known Hazel for a while. She did a piece in an anthology that I edited years ago and since then she’s become this amazing editor. She works for Lion Forge. She knows what she’s doing and she’d already done a super-successful kickstarter campaign for Chainmail Bikini. The reason I think she reached out to me was because of my background in public health. I had worked as a clinical reproductive health educator and wanted to contribute by fact checking and supporting in however I could.

So the book is out. Where are you going to be and what are you going to be up to? What does 2018 hold?

I can’t really discuss any upcoming projects right now. [laughs] In terms of spring shows I will be at MoCCA, TCAF and this new Funhouse show that’s going to be curated by Gabe Fowler (Desert Island, CAB) in March!

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