Smash Pages Q&A: Carolyn Nowak’s ‘Girl Town’

The Ignatz Award-winning creator discusses her latest project from Top Shelf.

Carolyn Nowak might be known to many comics readers for her work drawing Lumberjanes, but she’s also the Ignatz Award-winning creator behind comics like Radishes and Diana’s Electric Tongue. Those two stories, plus two more, along with a brand new story, have been collected in the new book Girl Town, which was just released from Top Shelf.

My feelings to the stories were similar to when I read Nowak’s comic Girl Town years ago. It was a beautifully drawn and thoughtful tale of three women who “got kicked out of astronaut school for being too good-looking to be sent to space. Now we try to make a living raising beans and cabbages, cleaning houses and curating erotic zines about staying on Earth.” It’s a funny opening, but the story itself is strange in a different way. It’s complicated and fraught, about trying to understand the emotions someone else causes in us. About getting older and trying make sense of whether this feeling is love or lust, hate or loneliness, and complexity of relationships and friendship. Nowak half-jokingly described the book as “my twenties” and for those of us who survived those years, that description will resonate in so many ways.

Besides the Lumberjanes collections that Nowak drew, she also wrote and drew the new book Buffy the Vampire Slayer: New School Nightmare, but Girl Town is the work of a masterful artist who has found her voice. Nowak was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work.

How did you come to comics?

I think the most essential way I can answer this question is to say that when I was a kid I would draw people – or often cats with human feelings – kissing. Then I’d think “why are they kissing? why can’t they live without each other?” and then I’d want to draw that.

How do you describe Girl Town? Besides just a collection of short comics.

It’s my twenties. [nihilistic cackling]

One thing that’s different in this collection is that you’ve colored some stories. Why did you decide to do that and what was the process of finding the right color scheme? Do you think they read differently now?

I don’t think they read differently. I just thought it would look nice, and my editor encouraged it.  As far as picking the color scheme, I do what I normally do, which is wing it. I hired Luke Healy to do the real menial bits.

The Big Burning House is a very different kind of story with a different layout and design. Do you want to talk a little about finding the right way to tell the story and how you worked out those layouts?

From what I can remember, the layouts were a major headache. This story took so much time and I just constantly struggled against it like a cat inside a bag. It was just a lot of pacing, erasing, arranging, etc. Text text text And then the little invented digital elements – the fake imdb, the fake reddit, etc – that was a lot of tedious nudging and text-matching. But it was also exciting to make a story like a puzzle, rather than a plot.

You also have a new story in the book, Please Sleep Over. Do you want to say a little about the story and how you think it fits in with the others?

Please Sleep Over is extremely autobiographical in content and aesthetic, if not in plot – and that’s true of every other in the book as well. I like that this one turned out to have a dreamy, affectionate, calm atmosphere, but still a little frightening. I’m really into ending on a note like that. Like I said, this book represents my 20’s quite well – all my interior stresses and hopes – and Please Sleep Over lands in this calm place, the place you get to when you figure things out a little. When you figure out you don’t have to perform for people like you thought you did.

How did you end up at Top Shelf?

They’d been asking me for something for a couple years and I just never had my stuff together to properly pitch – but Chris specifically cited Girl Town (the mini comic) when he first contacted me, and I liked that. He picked my favorite child. I think Leigh proposed the collection after Diana’s Electric Tongue was released, cause that was a nice chunky book – it’s almost half of the collection.

What was it like working with Leigh and the rest of the team putting the book together?

Fine, I suppose! They’re all good at communicating and they truly seem to understand my work, which is nice. It would drive me crazy to be misrepresented and I know they’d listen to me if I had some complaint. Also I’ve had a lot of personal issues in the last year and they’ve been quite patient with me! And I do feel like they’re genuinely excited about my work.

You have another book which just came out, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: New School Nightmare. Do you want to say a little about what the book is?

New School Nightmare is a licensed middle grade graphic novel from Little Brown in which Buffy Summers goes to middle school – like an alternate reality, a rewriting for tweens and kids. It’s been really fun to work in the Buffy universe because that kind of clever zip-zap dialogue is everywhere, do you know what I mean? But it’s also really sincere? That aggressively entertaining Joss Whedon thing. I’m having a lot of fun.

I have to ask about the cover to Girl Town. Can you talk about what you were trying to do and this image?

It’s a spoof on that lovely “Truth Coming Out of Her Well” painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. I just had to google it to get the artist’s name. The concept appealed to me because the painting is also a popular internet meme – like, the fictional women in this book have all been on twitter and they’ve all seen it. I like that it has a place in modern culture. The character coming out of the manhole is Betsy, who is also compared to a painting in the first comic of the book. I proposed the image, and it wasn’t my favorite idea but it’s what Leigh picked and I’m very happy he did. People dig it. Women, I mean.

You joked that the book is your twenties and I get that on so, so, so, so many levels. [nihilistic laughter] The tone of the stories has always stayed with me. They are emotionally fraught and sometimes dark stories, but they end on a very different note and I wonder if you could talk about balancing those elements and settling on a tone that felt emotionally real and satisfying for you.

This is not something I’ve thought of in great detail before. I guess the moment I like to leave a character behind is perhaps exactly when they have some realization – before they get the chance to act on it. Imagine if Empire ended after Luke came out of the cave. There’d be so much momentum! I like that feeling of momentum just as a story concludes. Actually I fear it’s becoming a reliable gimmick for me.

I hesitate to call it a school, but there are a number of artists like Eleanor Davis, Sophie Goldstein, Emily Carroll, and others, who are making stories which are fantastic, but they’re primarily emotional stories about people. Do you see yourself working in this similar vein and what do you feel that this kind of space affords you as a creator.

I do! Actually Eleanor Davis is “goals”, for me, I think. Except maybe I like to be sappier and more pop and more indulgent. I love her though. And Sophie and Emily. They all spin these incredibly seductive dark tales. “Can you believe what people do to each other?” I try to work in a similar vein but I’m excited to carve out my own special space. Are we not so lucky to have such good comics to read these days, though, seriously?

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