Smash Pages Q&A: Kori Michele

The creator and editor discusses ‘Filed Away,’ ‘A Lucid Date’ and more.

Kori Michele has been making short comics and minicomics for years in addition to co-editing the acclaimed The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance with Melanie Gillman. They’ve made projects including Talk It Out and Public Displays, which appeared on Filthy Figments, Prince of Cats, Portals, Dovetail and others. A few years ago after making an enviable body of work they went back to school and are currently working on an MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Last year Michele produced their best work to date with comics like Filed Away and A Lucid Date, and they were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedule to answer a few questions about personal comics, erotic comics, and how their time at CCS has affected their work.

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

Comics happened to me in two phases. When I was a teen I found comics through manga, specifically Pokemon manga, which led me to Sailor Moon manga, and to the full 90s-aughts pantheon of anime and manga, and in that time I drew lots of ugly manga-style comics, and even submitted a bizarre angsty cop romance to the Rising Stars of Manga Competition. But despite including that comic in my portfolio for my undergraduate college admission, I spent my years in school focusing on “fine art,” doing illustrations and paintings and letting the manga dream fall into dormancy. Then a couple years after I graduated with a BFA in Painting, I was approached by local convention guest Mort Todd (cartoonist and Cracked Magazine editor when it was still a paper magazine), who, upon seeing me drawing Pokemon fanart at my table in the artist alley asked me if I drew comics. I said, “Oh no, I don’t know how to draw comics,” and he famously replied “No one knows how to draw comics until they start drawing comics.” So I did – within a year I had up and started a gay romance webcomic called Prince of Cats, and through doing that webcomic for four years, I learned how to draw comics.

I used to just tell the second half of that story, because it’s very Hallmark, but these days I don’t want to neglect the impact fantasy and shoujo manga had on me – that’s where my love of comics came from, even if I forgot about it for a few years while I tried to figure out what kind of art I wanted to make. 

I wonder if you could talk a little about Filed Away, this memoir comic you released last year — which I really loved.

I’d been working on the bones of a graphic memoir about my memory of my queer youth, and the original form of Filed Away was a short essay that came out of that free writing, called “On the Way: An Examination of Two Decades of Queer Influences.”  Very academic sounding! [laughs] Its list format ended up being well suited for transforming into a comic zine, so when I revisited it last year I made it into a comic. I want to write autobiographical work about my queerness because I’ve been so affected by other queer artists’ comics and I want to pass that on, and doing this short piece was an easy way for me share some of my feelings without it being too gigantic and important in scope. I think a full memoir is in still coming down the road somewhere, though.

Last year you released A Lucid Date, which is a very adult story and it’s beautifully done and fun and thoughtful and could talk a little about how you approached it?

The creation of A Lucid Date is a curious story because it’s very tied to being my first-year final project at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and its conception comes from my love of printmaking and bookmaking. I had been experimenting with making books with clear mylar/acetate covers, screenprinting on them, layering them, etc. When browsing different colors and styles of clear sheets online, I came across gels – clear colored plastic used for stage lighting. But I also noticed that people used them to mask things out – they worked in this way where if you wrote or printed something in the right red, and slid a red gel over it, the writing would disappear. Point is, this was an exciting concept to me, using a sheet to make elements of a picture disappear, so I ordered some to experiment with. Specifically, it seemed like a great opportunity to censor an X-rated comic comic cover in a fun way so it could face out on a convention table.

When I got the gels, I put them to work on some drawings of some sexy demons I’d been idly drawing, experimenting with the ways they could be naked but somehow look clothed with the gel over it.

That was enough to get me excited about making a whole comic to go with this cover idea. I wanted the story to center around a trans woman having a safe and comfortable sexual experience within a dream. The concept of sexy dream demons allowed for all the magical handwaving I needed to designate that space and safe and fun for her, and create a fun and safe experience for the reader, too.

I’m proud of the comic and the package I made for it – which involved painstakingly mixing screenprinting ink to be the exact hue that would be masked out by those red gels – and I’m glad I was able to do something adult for a school project. My faculty and classmates were all very supportive.

You’ve made comics for Filthy Figments like Public Displays and Talk It Out. Do you want to say a little about how you got started with making adult work and what you find interesting about it?

My work in adult comics is pretty straightforward – growing up, all the pornography I came across involved women, or bodies that looked like mine, as objects that sex was done to. Growing up with fandom when I did, in a community of women and queer people exploring adult fanworks enthusiastically, I knew that explicit works could be good and fun and healthy, they didn’t have to be traumatizing and hurtful. So I drew adult comics with confidence, and with the understanding that I would draw enthusiastic, loving sex – even when it was kinky or rough. I wanted to put more porn into the world that was fun and loving. The work of Niki Smith, EK Weaver, and Amanda Lafrenais were big inspirations in that regard.

I met Gina Biggs, who runs Filthy Figments, at an anime convention once shortly after Filthy Figments started running. I was a huge fan of the site and asked her if she was hiring more artists for it. She wasn’t then, which is good, because I still wasn’t very good at comics yet. When the site opened for submissions years later, I was very ready with drafts and concepts already lined up and fully developed. Filthy Figments is a very supportive group, and I felt right at home with other women and queer folk telling the sexy stories they wanted to.

There’s often an element of fantasizing in my porn comics. Fantasizing allows for the exploration of extreme, emotionally complicated, or dangerous sex acts in safe ways.  In Talk it Out, the sex depicted is a rendering of the fantasy a man whispers into his partner’s ear – he describes his partner being the object of a public gang-bang in a club that would be impossible to orchestrate safely or legally, but it’s a fantasy that the partner enjoys. In A Lucid Date, the sex takes place in a dream where the main character doesn’t have to explain her transness, her body, or how she would like to be addressed and treated – the demons just know it, so the sex can happen uninterrupted by those (very valuable and important) conversations. There are more examples, but besides Public Displays, which is more or less straightforward sex in public places, my porn comics are less about the messy mechanics of sex in the real world and more about how sex fantasies can be enjoyed without the real-world dangers and emotional complications they involve. I do enjoy and value work that addresses those things, and conversations about the social and psychological dangers of problematic sex fantasies are extremely important, but I’m also very happy to be making fun fantasy sex comics that people can enjoy without guilt or too much complexity.

You’ve posted a few sample pages of a project you’re working on, Fire Island. You’re working with Alison Wilgus on the comic. What has it been like working with her and the comics work I’ve seen from you is work you’ve made on your own, so what has the collaboration been like?

It’s no secret that Alison is a good friend of mine, and we both admire one another’s work a lot. She had a script kicking around that she thought I might be interested in working on, and I was! It’s an honor to illustrate a comic for Ali. She’s very thoughtful and attentive to the social implications of her science fiction and the presence of queer identities within them.

It was a good opportunity for me, as an artist who was struggling with my writing.  Having a finished script to work off of and trust the integrity of was very freeing. I penciled about a fifth of it before I enrolled at the Center for Cartoon Studies, which put it on hold a bit until I completed my work there. I’m excited to get back to it once I’m done with the pieces I’m finishing now.

You co-edited The Other Side anthology with Melanie Gillman. What was that experience like and how has it affected your work since then?

Publishing The Other Side was one of the highlights of my almost-decade-long comics career. Melanie is an inspiration and a hero of mine, and someone I feel so lucky to consider a friend. In their zine titled Non-Binary, you can see me depicted in one panel, with a little star-shaped hairpin, giving Melanie some advice that would be given back to me years later when I myself came out as non-binary. They’re such a valuable part of the comics community and the community of human beings on earth.

Melanie had the idea for an anthology of queer paranormal romance comics, and I messaged them immediately to say, “Let’s make this happen.” They trusted me enough to take the massive venture on together, and I’m eternally grateful. We got to read and solicit pitches from amazing artists, pay them, and make a beautiful book.

Most exciting was my role as editor. I’ve been included in ten different comic anthologies over the years, and editors have been everything from very involved to very hands off with me. I really found joy in looking at the scripts and helping some of the artists craft tighter stories. Being on the other side of the thing make me recognize some writing problems as the same ones I often struggled with, and the change in perspective let me sympathetically deliver advice that I was often resistant in hearing myself. Really, my hands were in only a few of the comics, as so many of the artists needed no advisement at all, but each comic I did contribute editorial feedback to has stuck with me as the picture of a process that will be valuable to me for the rest of my career.

You’re getting your MFA at CCS. Why did you decide to get an MFA and what has it been like, because I know that you have a BFA in painting?

I decided to go back to school because I had hit a wall creatively. I had seven years and hundred of pages of comics under my belt, and I was struggling to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. My comics education was all self-taught. In undergrad, I studied drawing and painting but not comics. I had good illustrative skill and the ability to render well, but visual storytelling was something I stumbled through by just doing it.  

So it seemed like a good idea to return to a school environment to hone my skills both in terms of learning the basics of cartooning in a formal way, and to have a community of professionals and peers that could help me examine the psychological blocks I was dealing with. So far, working at CCS has been everything I’d hoped it would be. I feel extremely lucky to be part of the class I’m in, and the teaching I’ve gotten from Jason Lutes, Luke Howard, and Sophie Yanow – among others just because I can’t name them all – has been absolutely invaluable.

Are you doing any conventions this year?

Because of some family medical issues I’m dealing with this year, and how that affects my ability to make commitments at this time, I am not planning on attending any conventions in 2019 yet. I am making an exception to moderate a couple of panels at the Queers & Comics conference in New York this spring. The first Q&C Conference was one where I made a lot of really important professional and personal connections and I regard it very fondly. I have really high expectations for the conference this year and I’m excited to be a part of it.

So what are you working on now? Or next? Or thinking about?

Right now I’m working on completing my thesis for my CCS degree! This involves a romantic fiction titled People Like Us, a short graphic novel about queer thirty-somethings and depression and kissing. The other component is a set of interviews with cartoonists called Where It Came From, the first installment of which was recently published online alongside the recent debut of Alison Wilgus’s graphic novel Chronin.

When my feet are back on the ground, I want to finish Fire Island, screenprint a ton of weird little zines, draw more porn, and see where my career takes me next. And see the Detective Pikachu movie, because I hope Pokemon is around for as long as I will be. 

I’m forever grateful that I have such a wonderful, loving community of cartoonists to support me along the way.

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