Smash Pages Q&A: e jackson

The cartoonist and scholar discusses ‘It’s Discourse, Archie’ and much more.

e jackson is a cartoonist and scholar. They have been drawing comics and illustrations for a few years now, making minicomics like Flux and Love Bites, webcomics like Warm Blood and Baby, and appearing in anthologies including We’re Still Here. They cohost the podcast Drawing a Dialogue with Cathy G. Johnson and are currently in the PhD program in Comics Studies at the University of Florida.

One of jackson‘s recent minicomics, It’s Discourse, Archie, captures a lot of what makes their work so interesting and so unique. The comic is autobiographical but states very clearly that it’s talking about issues as a way of commenting on the show Riverdale. The way they play with the expectation of autobio comics and of fanfiction, while also explaining and addressing ideas and theory. These are many of the same concerns that e addresses in their scholarship and I reached out to talk about how they work and being a comics creator in between classes.

The first question I like to start with is, how did you come to comics?

They were never really a medium I thought about, even though I’d always been somewhat aware of them – reading Sunday funnies with my dad, for example – until the Watchmen movie came out. I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie and it ended up launching me into the whole field, mainly I’d go and just grab random monthlies I thought looked nice and read them without minding continuity or anything. [laughs]

In terms of making them, I ended up doing pre-college at University of the Arts in Philadelphia right after, and I took all comics classes there.

So after that you went to art school and started making comics?

I have a pretty formal arts education background. I was fortunate enough to attend magnet arts schools for middle and high school and I went straight from that into art college for undergrad. I’ve always been simultaneously pretty academia oriented – I briefly considered switching from illustration to pursue art history in undergrad – and towards the end of my college days a film studies professor of mine suggested I look into pursuing a PhD, since those programs tend to have better funding than MAs.

I actually applied to grad school two years in a row. The first year I was totally rejected. [laughs] But I think that’s for the better because it wasn’t until I started working more actively with comics scholarship and started Drawing a Dialogue with Cathy G. Johnson that I really began to figure out what I actually wanted to do.

One of your recent comics i really love is It’s Discourse, Archie and could you talk a little about where it started and how you thought about constructing it?

For literally years, I’ve been joking about making a zine on my feelings about asexual discourse. I identify with asexuality in a complicated way – I’m fat, I’m trans, I’m disabled – and these things intersect with my sexuality, and can make it very fraught. It can be very hard to talk about because there’s such a push to be as inclusive as possible – and to be clear I don’t think that’s bad. At the end of the day I think if someone is trying to work out their feelings about their sexuality and claiming “queer” makes them feel more complete, then go for it. But there seems to be very little space for talking in nuanced ways about how asexuality can actually be damaging or difficult – especially for bodies that are marginalized or desexualized/hyper-sexualized to begin with. So I’ve got all these feelings rattling around and I keep putting off making anything about it, because I actually kind of hate making autobio. Something about talking about myself makes me really tetchy.

I love Riverdale because it’s this baffling Twin Peaks fanfiction of these pretty nostalgic Americana characters. Jughead is a character that is the source of a lot of asexual discourse because he’s canonly ace in the modern comic run, which I have feelings about, but that’s besides the point. I was also joking about making a zine about Jughead being ace succinctly summarized as LET JUGHEAD FUCK because it annoys me when people link asexuality to the idea of “chastity” or “abstinence.” I ended up sort of marrying the two ideas together and using Riverdale and Jughead as a way for me to talk about my own self and feelings without the vulnerability, I guess, of putting my actual body down on the page.

In terms of the actual process of making it, I did it in two days right after moving back to Florida from Providence, RI where I’d been for two years. It was the first time I’d just sat and drawn something for myself in ages, and it ended up being really freeing.

Was it freeing in part because it was about yourself? Because it allowed you to express what you’d been thinking about even if you don’t like autobio?

Yeah. Most of my work is secretly autobio through a lens of fictional characters/situations, so taking it into fanfic was just an easier shortcut. I don’t have to set up the characters at all because people are already familiar with them. Which is challenging in it’s own way because then you’re also managing people’s own assumptions/connections to the characters, but I think it’s worked pretty well.

I kept thinking the comic is sort of a meta autobio comic because you’re saying, I’m making a comic about my own feelings but I’m talking about this character

Yes! Academically a lot of my focus is on using performance theory as a way to analyze comics – mostly I’ve looked at autobio for this, but I think this is also a way for me to test my own theories out, if that makes sense.

It does. As you said, people will make work that is nakedly autobio but call it fiction – and sometimes readers will read things as fiction or as autobio no matter people do. I’m sure some people read Flux as autobio and some read it as fiction, and you can’t control that.

One hundred per cent! It’s a two part relationship – Three part in the case of fanfic-autobio, I think: Your relationship with the work (how you perform yourself on the page either thru “authentic” depictions or fictionalized versions) and the audience’s reception to that, which brings in their own connections/assumptions. In the fanfic-autobio I’m adding the third of “the shared relationship to the source text” because I’m not the source text.

There’s things I can change that play with those perceptions. I’m working on a sequel for SPX in between seminars, and one of things I’m exploring is, what if I say Jughead is trans in this comic? It’s fanfic so it’s possible, of course, but now I’m testing audience boundaries for what they’ll accept as being a “true” depiction of the source material. Does that make sense?

It does. I suppose one of the benefits of fanfic is that people are willing to accept a lot of change to the characters as long as other things aren’t changed. I’m not sure where that line is exactly.

Yeah, I think it varies wildly between people, what their limits are. But it’s a super fascinating dynamic to be exploring.

I think characters like Archie and other comic characters, because they’ve been changed so much over the years, can be changed in other ways. Because there isn’t one way (or even four ways) that the characters exist. They’re very malleable.

One hundred per cent! It’s funny for me, because truthfully I have no connection to the original Archie comics. I never read them or anything. I got into Riverdale because I thought it looked super hokey and funny –and I love Twin Peaks. Riverdale is itself a really polarizing reinterpretation too, so it’s even another layer of removal from the source text.

I saw on your website you have a recent comic, Woven, which you drew but didn’t write. Have you done much of that before?

I did another small work for hire comic a couple years ago, though I don’t think I have it up on my website. Generally I don’t do much artist-only type work less because I don’t like it and more because I haven’t had the offers/opportunities. I am collaborating with Alexis Sergio on a series named Lipstick, though it’s very much still in the development stage/everything I’m doing is significantly slowed down because of school right now. [laughs] I’ve also worked with Annie Mok on a pitch for a graphic novel that hasn’t been picked up yet.

Your work so far has all been short form. It sounds like you’re interested in doing something longer.

Yep! I’ve got some stuff in development, but it’s all still under wraps

I’m sure school dictates a lot of your schedule and what you can do right now.

Yeah, the semester is finally in full swing, and my calendar keeps getting fuller.

What exactly are you studying at the University of Florida?

I’m in the English PhD program and my specific area of focus is comic studies. We do a lot of comics scholarship work in the program which is super lovely – the Graduate Comics Organization hosts a conference every year, we have two scholarly journals (ImageTEXT and Sequentials). I’ve only just started so I haven’t done very much yet, but this semester I’m taking seminars on the formation of the modern penitentiary and its connection to the form of the novel, and transnational feminism focusing on the works of Inderpal Grewal. Generally my areas of focus are performance theory in comic studies, the use of comics as a form of pedagogy or a methodology for creating/disseminating information, trans studies, and issues relating around high/mass culture. I’m really interested in the formation of the Museum in particular. So, sort of broad, but also sort of related? [laughs]

You mentioned at the start your podcast, Drawing a Dialogue that you do with Cathy Johnson. Do you want to say a little about it, which connects your scholarship and a lot of the comics you’re making

We started Drawing a Dialogue a little over a year ago. Cathy had just graduated with her MFA in Arts Education from Rhode Island School of Design and I was looking for a way to strengthen myself as a researcher/scholar, since I come from a traditionally non-academic background. We both really wanted to make something that would be accessible and could be used by teachers, artists, independent scholars, librarians in educational settings or just for their own research & enjoyment. For me personally it’s also been a way to explore a lot of different theories and ideas in a relatively short time span. We’re always looking for ways to build not a “canon” but our own framework for discussion.

You both seem really interested in finding a way to talk about comics and how they’re made and also about theory without getting too bogged down in theory. which is always hard.

I have a real personal love of theory, if it’s not obvious. [laughs] But with the podcast we’re working in a limited time frame so every episode is meant to be the start – or continuation – of a discussion rather than an actual thesis, and I try to talk in a way that someone who has zero theoretical framework can also understand. They’re tiny abstracts rather than full conference papers, so to speak.

You’re also both coming at this work from the perspective of comics creators who are also studying and teaching and you’re trying to say, theory isn’t abstract, we’re talking about things that affect how you make comics and how you read them.

I personally feel it’s very important to always have your theory grounded in some material reality, because people are more important than theory. If I’m talking about museums, I’m not just talking about theories of museum formation, I want to know who’s being excluded, what that exclusion has actually done, and how to work towards solving or changing that exclusion.

I know you’re busy thinking about comics more than making them right now, but what else are you interested in doing as a creator or thinking about doing next?

I’ve been working on getting more into making zines! I don’t consider most of my short work to be “zines” – except for It’s Discourse, Archie – because they have a degree of polish present in them. I’m trying very hard to unlearn the stuff I committed to memory in art school – not because it’s bad necessarily but because I think I’m more interested in stuff that exists outside of the “classical arts education” parameters. Also some longer form stuff, but I can’t talk about it yet!

You mentioned you were working on a sort of sequel to It’s Discourse, Archie. Is that what you’re working on now?

Yeah, just as a quickie for SPX! I want to try and make more of them in general, since they’re pretty fast and give me an opportunity to experiment with my parameters of performance within comics/autobio forms.

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