Smash Pages Q&A: M.S. Harkness on ‘Tinderella’

Minnesota-based artist M.S. Harkness has been making comics and minicomics for a few years now, like Prizefighter, Normal Girl and A Savage Journey to the Heart of an Anime Convention. Kilgore Books just released her debut graphic novel, Tinderella.

The autobiographical tale is about dating, as the title makes clear, and it’s funny, living up to the title’s promise. It’s also a sharp and thoughtful look at life in one’s 20s — or a nightmarish and horrifying reminder of life in one’s 20s, depending on the reader. The book was excerpted in The Comics Journal before it was published, and I reached out to M.S. to ask about the book and how she works.

How did you come to comics?

I’ve been making comics my whole life in one form or another. I read them as a kid and never really pursued anything else, then went to an art school where they had a comics degree program. Through that, I found out about indie comics and small press shows and I think that entrepreneurial, DIY work ethic really clicked with me so I went that route.

So what is Tinderella?

The book is a period of my life in late 2015. It’s pretty straightforward. A lot of people have found it really close to the chest, but I think I’m still playing with how to tell these stories and figuring out where to step back. When I pitch it to people at shows, I usually say it’s about boys and feelings and then there’s this hard left toward the end that throws it all off a little.

At what point did you go, I need to do something with these experiences and I need to make a graphic novel about this?

I don’t think I ever consciously was like “I need to tell my story,” just because when I focus on putting it all together I try to focus on the strength of the story itself, not how delicately or smartly I cover certain topics. I don’t think it’s really therapeutic or healing to dredge up your past mistakes or traumas either. Human memory is really muteable and weird and the more that you use your own life for material, the more you realize the importance of writing stuff down as honestly as possible the first time around. I don’t necessarily make work for other people to sit with and contemplate their own experiences, but it’s happened. I don’t do this as an outlet to meet people or make friends, but that’s also happened.

You’ve been making autobio comics for a while now. What do you like about that, and what do you think that working that way as opposed to fictionalizing it lets you do?

I like it in that it’s easy because all I do is order things for effect. I don’t have to worry about a lot of issues with writing and I journal regularly so it’s mostly just reference. I like that I can honor my friends in a way where I get to highlight them in my work. I like the outlook that it gives me on life, which right now is pretty healthy. I would never ‘do anything for the comic’ because that’s heinous, but I’m learning to live more in the present. I just want to tell stories and right now I’m too young to tell a story about an experience I haven’t had.

How did you approach making a graphic novel vs making short comics? Did you have to change how you work?

My minis usually take like 3 months or so and Tinderella took about a year. You definitely have to just trust the process and not get too hung up on the fact that you don’t have the joy of just having something done. Days usually just blend together and it’s on you to get it done whether or not you feel like it. It’s annoying in that you pretty much have to make a book to be considered a real comic artist or something, especially when there are so many more interesting minis and cooler things in pamphlet books. But I am excited to try telling more serious ‘graphic novel’ type of stories instead of just the goofy minis about how much my cat sucks or smoking weed, etc.

I definitely need the length of a book to hide shit in too. It makes me uncomfortable when you pick up a short mini that’s hyper emotional with their ass bare on page one. I need time to marinate on a character and look at some drawings. But then I’m sure people look at my minis and are like ‘why is this person so insincere and shitty?’. But it’s like, you’re not really going to get to know a character in 12 pages without it being really simplified. I make minis so you can read them on the toilet and maybe laugh out loud once or twice and then keep moving with your day.

You said, “I think I’m still playing with how to tell these stories and figuring out where to step back.” What do you think you learned, or decided you prefer after making this book?”

A bunch of stuff, I dunno. I think more than anything it’s just nicely asking yourself if the perspective you’ve chosen for a panel is smart or if the scale of the scene matches the angle. Also if you do autobio you gotta make sure you’re not just drawing your same dumb head and expression in every panel too. Just aiming for clarity and maybe even consistency.

Do you think that telling a story that’s primarily about a character, and being able to understand and emphasize with a character, is easier in a graphic novel?

It’s just all about balance. Don’t try to tell a 100-page story in 10 if it doesn’t make sense to. Cut the fat and don’t waste people’s time. You can certainly do more with more pages, but you can also mess it all up with adding in a bunch of things just to satisfy yourself. With autobio you automatically want to include a bunch of crap that’s relevant to you and nobody else, which can amount to a boring strip or a long-ass book, either way.

There are two lines that really jumped out at me – “I was pretty sure being single was starting to warp my mind” and “Lesbians think I’m weird. / Men do too, but they’re shallow.” I feel like those things are both very true, but a good summation of dating when bi.

Yeah, its the worst of both worlds I think in a lot of ways. I dunno if I can really talk about being bisexual because all I do is mess with men, but I guess it’s a lead in if I ever do date someone who identifies as a woman and I want to talk about that. Plenty of people always rush my ass on this because “I’m still bi even if I date men and I deserve a place in queer spaces,” but none of my work is about that and I would never expect lesbians to put up with my shit. I don’t consume enough gay media to know how to navigate anything in that arena and I’ll probably just insult someone so I just tow the line.

How did you end up with Kilgore Books, and what has the experience of working with them been like?

I was pretty analytical about it and tried to just put the most energy into what I thought made the most sense. A lot of midwest cartoonists have good relationships with Dan Stafford and people only speak highly of him. He puts out black and white, traditionally drawn auto-bio stuff so I showed him some of my minis I was working on and pretty much spelled it out like “I have a book that will be done in the fall, so look at this and let me know if you want to see more.” He emailed me back maybe a couple months later and at SPX we just made our plans.

I only have good things to say and right now it feels like a really good spot to be. Kilgore is all hard work, grind your ass off, DIY ride or die. Dan’s just one guy but he does the work of like five guys and I only have good things to say about how Tinderella played out with him. If I didn’t make minis first, I don’t think he would have wanted to work with me, just because it would have been difficult to see if I could finish anything, but nobody at Kilgore looks at minis like a means to an end like “These will matter when I put them in a book”. The vibe of the book tour I put together was pretty punk (for lack of a better word) in that we put ourselves out there regardless of whether or not anyone else cared and people still showed up and enjoyed it.

You’ve mentioned that you have a second book already in mind.

It’s called Desperate Pleasures and it’ll be out in 2020 probably. Follow me on instagram for more information in the form of vague videos on my daily story.

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