Smash Pages Q&A: W.T. Frick

The creator of “Ipsum Lorum” discusses her issue of “Ley Lines,” which focuses on the writing of Ursula Le Guin.

W.T. Frick has made comics for Ink Brick and other publications, but she’s likely best known for her webcomic Ipsum Lorum, a remarkable work about the experience of creating and experiencing art, about doppelgängers and what that means for people. In so much of her work, Frick is less interested in narrative than she is with studying characters and exploring ideas. At one point she described her process as intuitive and her work could be described in those terms, but it also feels much too solid, too involved to ever be dreamlike, or seem unreal.

Frick is also the cartoonist behind the new issue of Ley Lines. The quarterly series is focused on crafting a dialogue between comics and the world of fine art. In the 18th issue, which was just released, Frick interrogates the writing of the late Ursula K. Le Guin along with the work of a number of visual artists. It’s arguably her best work to date and a striking introduction for those who have never encountered her work before.

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

The first comics I remember was a MAD Magazine. I was really into those when I was little. But, it was reading the X-Men in the ’90s as a kid that made me want to draw comics. In 1995, I probably spent most of my spare time trying to learn how to draw like Joe Madureira and Chris Bachalo. To be honest, I still enjoy going back to those “Age of Apocalypse” Marvel Comics. There are some page spreads and panel structures that really left a permanent mark on me.

When did you first read Ursula Le Guin?

This is embarrassing, but I didn’t really read novels until around five years ago. I had a really hard time understanding what the point was. I am a very slow reader and I read in circles. I read a sentence or a paragraph in a loop, again and again. It’s like trying to have a conversation with someone about a story before they have finished telling the story. This way of reading tends to mesh better with philosophy and criticism, which is mostly what I read. 

But when audio books became more accessible, there was a year when all I wanted was to draw and listen to someone read me stories by Ursula Le Guin, J.G. Ballard and Octavia Butler. Turns out that is a thing you can do!

So how did this project begin? Did you approach Kevin and L and say, “I want to make a  Ley Lines comic.”

Pretty much. I had picked up a few Ley Lines comics, and I loved them. And one night I was drawing and listening to an Inkstuds podcast interview with Kevin, and it kinda made me feel less scared to pitch something. 

What was the process of making the comic? Did you ask them for thoughts or guidance?

I pitched something along the lines of a horror comic about Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 conceptual artwork, One and Three Chairs. The artwork is a chair, a photo of the chair and a print-out definition of a “chair.” I had this image in my mind of two people looking at this artwork, who are just in a trance like state continually returning to the question “why?”

I was super surprised and excited when they gave me the green light. But my process is pretty insular and intuitive, and I realized I have no idea how to write horror. So I wrote a loose script that could be read by a hypnotist, about viewing art. The comic emerged out of reading and rereading this initial script then seeing through drawings what scenarios and possible tensions emerged from it.

This is a comic that’s in conversation with Le Guin and her words, it involves artwork by others, and it’s in conversation with the other books in the Ley Lines. How much are you thinking about this as you’re working?

The whole thing is a fluid process. I will say, that while I was making this comic, I definitely was looking at the Ley Lines comics by Cathy G. Johnson, Tommi Parrish, and Eric Kostiuk Williams. These are such brilliant comics, I was thinking them as models of what exists within the series, and something I wanted to be in dialogue with.  

When I am working on a project like this, I like to do “research” while I am drawing. So I re-read The Lathe of Heaven and a some interviews with Le Guin. In her novel The Lathe of Heaven, the protagonist’s dreams seem to be effecting and re-organizing the conditions of everyday life. At one point in the novel the protagonist asks, “But what if there are others?”

I wanted to write something like a fan fiction in which two artist are also having dreams that change the world, but the world that is changed is constricted to the confines of the art exhibition. But as I was drawing it, I had a hard time strictly staying with the original intent to use only Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs.” I wanted to explore the entire exhibition and see what else was there. And that brought me to a cluster of other artworks by Louise Lawler, Elsworth Kelly and Tilda Swinton, and then of course there are fictional artworks in the comic, too. Ultimately, the chairs continued to work as a kind of contract in the narrative, one that is broken. I was looking for artworks that served the dynamics at play with the characters.

These themes of making art, of experiencing art, are at the heart of so much of your work. How did you start to think about these issues in your work and through various characters?

I have a something like a melancholic relationship to contemporary art. There was good chunk of time when that was where I saw myself and my aspirations. Working within the art world, however, left me relatively disenchanted.

Those experiences deeply inform my comics.There is an interesting tension in the art world: the romantic, idealistic drive to the possibility of something new, something you don’t quite understand yet, or something that there is not an existing context for, and on the other hand, an entrepreneurial drive necessary to promote the work and give it a context or market to be seen and understood within. I struggle to reconcile these two drives. I don’t really see how it is possible to make something new while reproducing the  existing entrepreneurial imperatives to be seen. 

In the comic for Ley Lines, “One and Three Exhibitions,” I wanted characters that put my own cynical views in dialogue with the persistence of a romantic pull towards art. 

I’ve read your work before in places like Ink Brick, but I love your webcomic, and I wonder if you could talk a little about it?

Thanks, it’s great to hear that someone is reading it. The webcomic is called Ipsum Lorum. It’s structured around a bunch of back stories to a world in which doppelgängers, speaking a nonsensical language, become a common social phenomenon. It’s an absurd premise; I don’t know why I started there, but it allowed me to explore.

It begins with an art-world couple that believe they are the origin of said doppelgänger phenomenon. There are also a adjacent characters that end up in other comics. For instance one of the characters in the comic I did for Ley Lines also appears within the webcomic. It’s very much a work in progress, a handful of characters, and ultimately world building experiment.

I think I’m a little attached to the doppelgänger as an absurdist solution, it’s only way I could imagine being able to succeed in this world, if there was another me. But of course the idea of waking up to a doppelgänger of myself is terrifying too, to be witness to myself outside of myself, that scares me. Which is why I find it ripe with stories. 

There are some new ones that I am looking forward to sitting down and working on. But, the weird thing about making a webcomic is you can throw an experiment up there for a few months, then decide it still needs more work and take it down. I enjoy that fluidity a little too much, but it makes for slow progress.

Besides more of Ipsum Lorum, what are you working on now?

I have a short comic called 20/20 that is almost done about a mountain lion in an abandoned news set. And a comic that I started last year called Birdgirl that I want to finish. And then I started writing something like a sister comic to One & Three. I hope to finish one of the last two by the spring.

I have to ask, favorite Ursula Le Guin work?

The Dispossessed. Without a doubt. 

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