Smash Pages Q&A: Tatiana Gill

The creator of ‘Blackoutings: How I Quit Drinking’ discusses her early influences, her anthology work, teaching comics, drawing body-positive women and more.

Tatiana Gill is a cartoonist and illustrator. She’s the author of the graphic memoir Blackoutings: How I Quit Drinking. Her comics have been collected in books like Wombgenda, Living in the Now and Omnibusted. She’s also the person behind the adult coloring book Down to Clown.

Gill works as a teacher and illustrator in Seattle. In the past few years she’s had comics in a number of anthologies like Comics for Choice, she was in Resist!, and has contributed comics articles and book reviews to The Stranger and The Seattle Review of Books. After seeing her comics and illustrations keep coming up in my social media feeds and in different publications, I reached out to Gill to talk about her work.

How did you come to comics?

From childhood on I’ve been doing comics. I just had a really early affinity for it. There were some Tintin comics in my house and before I could even read the words, I was gazing at the pictures. As kids my brother and I were drawing comics, making each other laugh with them. When I was about 10 my mom made an autobiographical comic, self published it and left it around coffeeshops in Seattle. Through that she met Roberta Gregory and Pete Bagge and so I got this early exposure to underground and alternative comics. That really changed my opinion of what comics were for, what they could do, and the kinds of stories they could tell. I’ve been a lifer for sure.

And that encouraged you, it didn’t discourage you?

[laughs] It’s funny. From early on I was of the opinion that I should probably get a day job. But also that even regardless of how much income there was, I could put it out there and reach people and tell really interesting stories that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else.

You mentioned Roberta Gregory and Peter Bagge. Were there people early on you looked to as what you wanted to do?

It changed over time. When I was as a teenager I was thinking Marvel-DC but in my early twenties, I worked for a little while at Fantagraphics in the mailroom – answering phones and fulfilling orders. I realized I wanted to do comics like Dori Seda. She did really funny comics that appeared in a lot of all women anthologies and Weirdo. They are funny and beautifully drawn autobiographical comics just about the gross stuff her dog does, stuff that was self-deprecating but really funny. I just loved her. Mary Fleener is another cartoonist I looked to. They both tell stories of what party girls they were and at the time I was a big partier and I was like, yeah, I’m going to live this wild life and my comics will tell stories about crazy things I’ve done. That was my idea back then. Now I would say my big influences are Ellen Forney and autobiographical cartoonists who are making a go of stability. [laughs] I find that really inspiring. Although I still love artists telling party stories, like November Garcia. That still makes me laugh.

A lot of your work can be divided into two vague camps. You have autobiographical work and then you make nonfiction work which may be personal or journalistic or more activist oriented.

I think they do come from different origins. The autobio stuff is almost more like a diary. You’re telling the autobio stuff because it wants to come out. With the nonfiction comics it’s similar but less self-contained. With McKinney I was walking down the street and there was a sign, Samuel McKinney Drive. I was like, I have no idea who this is and I looked it up and I was like “oh my god, wow, what didn’t this guy do?” I had no idea, growing up a mile away from where all this was happening, in my white privileged bubble. It was cool to discover all this and I was like, I’ve got to get the word out.

You’ve made daily diary comics over the years. Do you still make them?

Aside from a couple months last fall, I haven’t done them regularly for a while. I’ll still do it when I’m teaching. I’ve been volunteering at this youth detention center where I teach comics. I encourage them to do diary comics and then I’ll draw my own as an example. I just started teaching a comics class at a community college nearby and doing that same thing, where if I’m giving a daily diary comic assignment, I’ll draw one too.

What was the experience like? Why were you doing it when you started?

At times I’ve had a narrative of why I did it but then I looked back and realized my narrative was out of order. So I’m not sure exactly why I started, but I think it was in an effort to live in the moment and the day. A few weeks into drawing a daily comic I drew the “Blackoutings” comic. I got a lot of attention for that. A lot of people didn’t know why I quit drinking or didn’t understand the magnitude of the problem that I had. This is stuff you don’t really talk about to, like, childhood friends. I got a lot of positive attention for telling my story. And that was always my way to please a crowd, getting drunk or telling stories about the things I did when I was drunk. So I was like, “What do I do now? I’m not making new drunk stories so what am I going to talk about now?” I just felt like, “My life is boring. It used to be a lot of fun and now it totally sucks.” So daily diary comics were my way of trying to show myself that there was something there. I started out trying to focus on the good stuff and then it became a place to vent. That was a lot more to me interesting because it was less of, “Here are my blessings” and more about the details of my neuroses.

A big inspiration for me was Ben Snakepit’s daily diary comics. Probably 15 years ago I got a bunch of them at a comics convention. At first I was like, these aren’t very interesting, there’s nothing happening here, but because I read them all it was cool how this story was told and you find this big narrative from reading hundreds of these daily comics. The real story is in the subtext. That stayed with me and that was in my head as something I could try.

You seem to be doing a lot of things, making comics, illustrations, you’re teaching. What are you up to exactly right now?

Right as my last day job ended, doing marketing, I got a huge freelance gig drawing a graphic novel. This was a nice baseline to have a steady income while I tried to get other freelance work as well, and fulfill my dream of being a full-time freelance artist. Lately I’ve had the good fortune of a steady run of commission work: logos and graphics for small companies, commissioned portraits. I also do a monthly comic for my local blog, and comics for public health projects, which I love. Working with our local needle exchange “The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance,” doing comics and illustrations for them. I’ve done comics with Seattle/King County Health about a free clinic that they have each year. A group of local cartoonists interviewed patients about what brought them to the free clinic, why they waited overnight in long lines for health services. The idea behind the project was outreach, to bring the message to legislators and the community that it’s people from all walks of life who need this clinic. It’s people with full time jobs, who have insurance, people with medicare and medicaid who have still have health problems which aren’t covered.

Last year was a really good year for a bunch of anthologies; I contributed comics I’m really proud of. I did a comic for Comics for Choice, a comic for an anthology called Bottoms Up! where everyone did a story about their rock bottom, and I did a comic for Resist! This year I’ve been doing more piecemeal illustration work than short comics.

You seem really interested in finding outlets for activism and using art for different purposes.

Definitely – that’s where my passion lies, talking about pressing issues. And talking about them in comics because it’s such a great way to get people to pay attention. People will often read comics despite themselves. I was trying to describe the power of Chick comics when I was a kid. They’re these pamphlets with a wild evangelical Christian ideology, and when I was a kid you’d just find them around town sometimes. They were just really extreme but it was such a score to find free comics, I’d eat them up. I think that’s not true of everyone, but it’s true of a lot of people. It’s a good way to sneak information to people.

One thing you’ve done is make coloring books. Plus and Down to Clown may not be what most people think of when they think of coloring books – but maybe they should be?

[laughs] I just did a signing for Free Comic Book Day at Outsider Comics, which is this great woman-owned comic store with a feminist bent. I thought, “Well, they don’t want my naked clowns.” So I didn’t bring any copies but they already had copies there and this girl came up to me and said, “I love Down to Clown, I have one, I got copies for my friends.” It’s for a niche audience but for the people who like it, they are really stoked because there’s not much out there like it. [laughs]

I have to ask, why coloring books?

That’s a good question. All those drawings were in full color and I had to un-color them for the book. But the drawings spoke to me as something that would be really fun to color. It’s fun to color in clowns and I have all this clown art because for years I was a clown. Through that I met other clowns, people across the country that dress as clowns. I had drawn a lot of flyers for variety shows and portraits of clowns over the years. I thought it would make a great coloring book. Now I’m working on a body positive coloring book, pretty much like the drawings that are in Plus, but since I published Plus I’ve done hundreds more of these drawings. I was at a body positive networking event and I asked this group of women, what would they like to see, a book like Plus of colored illustrations, or a coloring book? And they were like, “Coloring book!” I was like, “Really, you don’t think coloring books are too played out?” They didn’t think so. So that’s what I’m working on now.

How did you start drawing body positive images? Because you’ve done some great Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn and other drawings like the unicorn, which I really loved.

It’s interesting looking back at my work even from 10 years ago, the women I was drawing were so skinny. I’ve always liked to draw women, fairy queens or Wonder Woman, powerful illustrations of women that I think are neat. I don’t even think about them too much, they just flow out of me.

At some point, thinking I was very daring, I started drawing little curves on them. A little roll of fat under her shirt. But then it was this personal thing where I gained a lot of weight and I was really down on myself about it and just feeling bad. I drew a fat Wonder Woman because I was channeling the feeling I was having at the time. I was really excited about it because I used the same traditional comic book hair and eyes and lips but a very untraditional body that you almost never see in a comic book drawing.

I started drawing superheroes but bigger, or with body hair, and then it just became what I wanted to draw. I wanted to see more of that in the world. I felt like that was something missing from the world. I like women that look like that. I think it’s beautiful and I also think that it’s not subversive, it’s just not what mainstream media is doing. Although it’s becoming more accepted now. It’s really important for people to see themselves represented in comics, or features of themselves in comics. It’s really therapeutic for me to draw these characters that I used to wish I looked more like, and instead I make them look more like me. It’s empowering.

Is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you’re working on? Or projects you’re thinking about and want to do next?

In some ways I’m all over the place. I’m going to be working with the King County Heroin and Opioid Addiction Task Force. I first assumed it would be about addiction and recovery but it’s going to be public informational comics. That’s something that gets me excited. The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA) is trying to get safe consumption rooms in Seattle. There’s a lot of opposition because people don’t want to condone heroin use. I understand that. I’ve been doing cartoons for years for PHRA, I went to high school with the guy who leads it. The new comic says “Consumption Rooms Save Lives! NIMBY’s Don’t!” That’s more combative than I would have written myself, but I was happy to do it. It’s been shared by a lot of other harm reduction organizations and I feel like it’s gotten more traction than some of my gentler art. [laughs] I’m working on the body positive coloring book but that’s slow going because paid work takes priority. The graphic novel I’m drawing on commission will be very cool. I’m not writing it. It’s this really longform story, which is something I probably wouldn’t write myself. I’m more of a short story person. I’m really excited about it and it’s pushing me. In my comics there are no cars or buildings because these are things I hate drawing. But this comic has a lot of cars and a lot of buildings so I’ve had to learn to draw that. It was painful, but now I’m much better at drawing cars. It’s exciting to see pages full of cars and buildings and crowds, and I don’t even feel like I drew it – it looks like some much more technical artist drew it. It’s exciting to push myself. That’s it for now. I think I will be making more autobio comics and comics about pressing political issues, but I usually don’t know what’s going to happen until I’m doing it.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is a book that will combine all my previous comics about mental health and then do a new comic about all the meds that I’ve tried over the years. I’ve been on some form of antidepressants for, like, 25 years, and for a long time I was combining them with binge drinking. [laughs] I was trying a lot of meds that were not working out. It would say right on the bottle, do not drink on this medication, and I was drinking a lot on that medication, for years. I’ve tried a lot of head meds, dozens, and had different side effects and had different success levels. I’ve found a wonderful combo that is working great for me right now, but it’s a relatively new field. It’s just so touch and go that a lot of times the doctor is guessing. You’re trying stuff to see what works. I think would be beneficial for other people if I were to tell my story, and someone who’s maybe starting on antidepressants could see common pitfalls to avoid. That’s my plan. I’m really excited for Rock Steady, Ellen Forney’s new book. Marbles is really influential for me. I’ve always loved Ellen Forney so as I was reading Marbles I thought, “Wow, she really listens to her doctor!” At the time I was not. [laughs] It was really inspiring to see she’s taking good care of herself. I was like, “I should try that!”

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