Smash Pages Q&A: Diana Chu

The award-winning cartoonist discusses her work on the latest Patti Smith-influenced issue of “Ley Lines.”

Diana Chu is a cartoonist and illustrator based in Milwaukee, who in recent years has made an impressive body of comics and zines including Where Everything is Music, Woolies, No Mames Guey, Cloud Houseand Sudden Death. She was awarded a Gold Medal by the Society of Illustrators at last year’s MoCCA Festival.

Her new project, which comes out next month, is the new issue of Ley Lines. The issue is about Patti Smith and music, but it’s also about Jimi Hendrix, Dante Alighieri and Henri Rousseau. Chu is an artist who is not especially interested in narrative, but she’s fascinated in mood and design in interesting ways. She was kind enough to open up and talk about her work in process.

How did you first come to comics?

I didn’t grow up reading comics. I was raised half in Virginia, half in Hong Kong, and during my spare time I consumed all sorts of fiction: sci-fi, literature, plays, poetry — almost anything other than comics. Granted, I had a narrow view of what a comic was, and felt that the graphic novels I encountered showed too much of their hand. They were both illustrating the BAM-POW and spelling it out — where did my imagination fit in? I love sequential illustration as a storytelling vehicle, but didn’t know how to share my ideas without overly holding the viewer’s hand. My first exposure to the alternative comix / zine realm was at Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, Maryland. There I discovered my keen interest in works that were highly visual (often wordless), had a loose narrative structure, focused on characters that existed on social fringes, and had an element of surrealist whimsy. That was my “ah-ha” moment.

When did you first hear Patti Smith?

A few Novembers ago, I was in Spoonbill Books on Bedford Avenue in New York City, visiting the city as a “young illustrator” with some friends and fellow classmates. I picked up a copy of Just Kids with the deckled edge. The title had been on my reading list for some time. I read it on the train back to Baltimore, overwhelmed with the feeling that I had found a kindred spirit. Smith’s words gave me a lyrical sense of longing for another time, one that I felt an intimate ownership over. Despite her hunger and hardships, there was a huge tenderness to her story that I connected with. I started listening to her music on the train. It all collided with me that night, and that’s when my infatuation took hold. I even told my parents that they should read the book immediately, as it would help them understand me better.

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

In a way, yes! I encountered Ley Lines the first time I attended SPX in 2016. Somehow the series kept cropping up in my life, and I loved the idea of comics that paid homage to the intersection of this traditionally mainstream, low-brow art form, with “various fields of art & culture.” That description created an entry point for me; I didn’t feel like a neo-comics-phony. I could use comics as a lens, a tool; it sounded freeing. Using my old Corona typewriter, I wrote a love letter to Ley Lines that expressed my admiration and interest in possibly contributing. I stuffed the envelope with a few printed samples of my drawings, addressed it to L. and Kevin, and dropped it off at their SPX table the following year. I remember that neither of them were at the desk when I mustered the courage up to drop that letter off — L. was out to lunch!

As you mentioned before, this isn’t just about Patti Smith, but also Jimi Hendrix, Dante Alighieri and Henri Rousseau. You described them all as “guides” and not subjects. What does that mean exactly?

Virgil serves as guide in Alighieri’s Divine Comedy through the various circles of hell, into purgatory, then paradise. There are web guides on how to lose stubborn belly fat in 30 days. Harold Gatty wrote a lovely guide on how to navigate sans map or compass. In any case, the reader is the final ingredient. We still have to step up to the plate and wend our way through the provided content to create own own journey, find our own meaning. Alighieri, Rousseau, Hendrix and Smith; they share this mystical, natural, intuitive interest in exploring what’s beyond our eyes, ears, and minds. I call them guides because they want us to see beyond. The comic I’m creating is a call to action to join me on that quest.

So what has the process of making the comic been like? And has it differed from the way you typically make comics?

My process is always intuitive, like cooking. I let certain ideas marinate, all the while gathering visual “ingredients” by collecting stamps, taking Polaroids, doing rubbings, sketching. I always return to things I like reading and channeling mood. Mood boards are a useful editing tool, because I find myself drawn to a lot of things — I easily fall in love with something for its tenacity to be itself. I love idiosyncrasy, I guess. Making a mood board at the start helps me find my way back to my original impulses. I do a lot of writing and give myself plenty of space to make the work. If I don’t feel like making a drawing one day, I’ll give myself the permission to read passages from “The Coral Sea” instead. Everything is interconnected and therefore part to my process. I cannot make in any other way.

Because it is part of the Ley Lines series and everyone has their own approach to what it means and who they’re making comics for and how, do you see your comic in conversation with others in the series? Did you ask Kevin or L for thoughts or editorial support?

I am lucky to be good pals with two Ley Lines veterans; Laila Milevski and Shreyas R. Krishnan, both of whom are connections from the Illustration Practice MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. They are so, so good at integrating complex socio-historical research into their own visual journalism styles. Their work inspired me to lean into my own areas of interest — nerd out, so to speak. I didn’t seek support out otherwise. It was refreshing to simply make without constraint, without outside voices. That’s me being both selfish and naïve.

So much of your work is illustration and you’ve made poetry comics and I’m curious about how you think about narrative. Because you’re not disinterested, but it’s not a major concern for you, it seems.

This hearkens back to my penchant for creating a mood. Any visual or verbal information, when read in sequence, begins to accrue meaning no matter how seemingly random the subject or sequence is. I love working with this fact as an element (protagonist?) in my work. My zines collaborate with the viewer to create meaning from page to page. I find many mainstream American comics too revealing and direct for my personal taste. Working with a blend of poetry and disparate imagery creates mystery and space for the viewer to project their own understanding. Some people find it obfuscating. I find it fun.

You also received the 2019 Cupcake Award from CAKE. Do you want to say a little about what it means and what you’re doing?

Thanks for the chance to give a shout out to Marnie Galloway, Cupcake Award mentor extraordinaire and harrowing storyteller in her own right! I couldn’t be more grateful to CAKE and their 2019 jury for supporting my collaboration with my mother this year; it’s a dream to be creating stories with her. She wrote six vignettes about her late father, Tse Ting Lung. He was a Shanghainese sailor by trade and a man whom I never had the pleasure of meeting. I’ll be illustrating my mother’s words and hopefully Risograph printing the resulting zines myself. My partner Ben Grzenia and I have a lead on a machine. We are setting up Milwaukee’s only Risograph press (for now!). Our creative studio is called “bearbear” — more to come on

I have to ask, favorite Patti Smith album or song?

“Because the Night” makes me want to dance and throw my arms everywhere. Smith’s entire live recording of “The Coral Sea” makes me feel closer to a different dimension. It’s a good feeling.

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