Smash Pages Q&A: Casey Gilly

The writer and journalist discusses her contribution to the ‘You Died’ anthology, working with Raina Telgemeier and more.

Casey Gilly has been working in comics for years. She was one of the writers of She Changed Comics, has written essays for Winnebago Graveyard, Codename: Babushka and elsewhere in addition to writing and editing various comics, including two of the best in Andrea Leigh Shockling’s series Subjective Line Weight. Gilly has a new short comic in the upcoming Iron Circus anthology You Died, which she made with Raina Telgemeier.

Gilly and I have known each other for years, since we worked together at CBR back in the day, and I’ve read her comics work over the years, both published and unpublished, and know how talented she is. I think one of the things that has connected us is simply that we both love comics but we have very different sensibilities and tend to write about different things. The Kickstarter for You Died wraps up today, and I wanted to ask Gilly about how she started writing comics, collaboration and her highest profile project to date.

How did you come to comics?

I came into comics through comics journalism. Before I get into this story, I want to say: do NOT use journalism, or any other pursuit, as a means to become a comics creator. If you want to make comics, make comics–be transparent about your goals! When I started doing journalism, I had no idea I wanted to write comics, I just wanted to be a writer and spend time on something I loved. So, I was a staff writer for Comic Book Resources for a really long time! I think almost six years? I also wrote for CBLDF and various other sites, organized panels at conventions, all kinds of stuff. In that time, I made friends with creators and started working on small projects with them. I did a bit of editing here and there, story development, co-writing, and then it occurred to me that I was dancing around what I was really passionate about – writing comics. By the time I started pitching for anthologies and books, I had years of good relationships and credibility built up, and I like to think people knew I was a professional who took writing seriously, but it’s not like it was an instant career or anything. I was fortunate enough to write essays for Winnebago Graveyard, She Changed Comics and Codename: Babushka, which I really loved doing – but I knew my heart was in telling visual stories. I began pitching, had a few small things approved, and was in the process of getting going, but just as all that traction started, I found out I was pregnant.

This isn’t a cautionary tale about having children, quite the opposite, but I will say that having my son forced me to reprioritize my time. It also meant that because of the timing of his birth, I wasn’t able to write an arc of a licensed series I’d signed on to, which was a bit of a blow. By the time I was able to get back to work, the series had been canceled so it was dead in the water. That happened three more times. I like to think I’m not cursed, but sometimes I wonder…

All of that did some damage to my confidence, to be honest, and I was scared to start pitching again. I’d been out for so long! Did people remember me? Did I blow my chance to strike? But then Shelly Bond’s Femme Magnifique anthology came around. Shelly reached out to me, saying a few other creators had suggested my name and did I want to pitch a story? The project sounded amazing, and I instantly liked Shelly. She continues to be a wonderful inspiration and occasional mentor. For Femme Magnifique, I had the privilege of working with good friend/mega-talented artist Jen Hickman to tell a story about Mary Blair and how she influenced my creative sensibilities. It was so easy and natural, it reminded me how right it felt. So I started slowly pitching again, learning how to balance being a new mom with my career and comics side hustle. 

I’m nowhere near where I want to be yet, but I’m working on it. I love telling stories. I love figuring out how to best inspire an artist and build a page together that honors their vision. I love the entire process of turning an idea into a tangible item. It’s what I will hopefully do for the rest of my life. It’s the closest thing to birth and parenting besides, you know, birth and parenting. 

How did you end up collaborating with Raina on a story for You Died?

Raina and I have been friends for years, having met through mutual comics friends. She’s one of my favorite people, both as a friend and a storyteller, but I never thought we’d work together. She’s completely famous, immensely talented, and wildly successful, which aren’t things I factor into our friendship but certainly felt intimidating when we decided to do this project. 

As soon as I saw the openings for You Died, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. For any readers who don’t know, You Died is an Iron Circus anthology exploring death-positive stories. The Kickstarter opened July 29 in case you want to get in on it. Anyway, I had a lot of formative experiences with death, including the loss of my father, which is the subject of our story. I’d originally decided to tell this story with another wonderful artist, but our schedules didn’t end up working out. By the time we realized it, every other artist I knew was either busy or already pitching with someone else. I was explaining the situation to Raina, asking her thoughts, and it slowly sort of morphed into us deciding to work together.

I’d told her the anecdote before – the story of my late father’s unconventional funeral – and she’d seemed morbidly fascinated by it. As soon as we started talking, I knew that it was going to be perfect. Raina has such an incredible command of humor: small moments, facial expressions, and gestures that land a silent sentiment. Her sense of humor is one of my favorite things about her, both as a friend and a creator, and this story needed someone who could appreciate and lovingly translate gallows humor. 

You’ve made two comics with Andrea Leigh Shockling. How did the two of you connect?

I met Andrea at Image Expo years and years ago. I tease her because she knew we were supposed to be friends and I was reluctant, socially awkward, and shy at first, but she was just like, no, we are friends now and I am coming to dinner with you and I am sitting next to you and now we are friends. And she was RIGHT. Now she’s one of my dearest friends.

What was the process of working with her on Subjective Line Weight?

The process of working with her was effortless. Andrea and I show each other projects we’re working on, so I was already a fan of Subjective Line Weight. She’d asked me to contribute since I’ve done a lot of writing about body positivity, and I was thrilled – but I wasn’t quite ready. I couldn’t picture any of my thoughts about my body in Andrea’s style yet since her work is so expressive and fluid and the journey of my relationship with my body feels sort of stale when I think about it. I’ve talked about it so much that it’s basically a script, and I just didn’t think I could write about it in a way that left room to inspire her. Then, at the beginning of my pregnancy, I started to have a lot of very new, very angry, very passionate feelings about my body – they were so fresh and raw that I knew it was time to put it on paper and send it her way. The result is, honestly, unbelievable. Andrea’s ability to sculpt poetry into ink is unique and memorable. Her work makes me think, makes me want to write differently, to see what I can pull out of her brain. When I began struggling with postpartum depression, I talked with Andrea a lot. She has a teenage son, so I look to her for parenting advice, support, and wisdom. During a particularly dark night, I was crying into a pillow in my living room and had all of these evil, piercing thoughts. I started texting them to Andrea and that text turned into a piece of writing she ended up translating into a comic. She doesn’t shy away from cruelty, she doesn’t make sharp edges softer – so I felt very safe with her telling that story. She is a fierce talent. 

We know each other because we both worked at CBR and we were talking with cartoonists, and I’m curious how your time covering comics and writing about people and the industry shaped how you thought about comics?

Working in comics journalism taught me the importance of three things: be polite, be professional, be curious. Those tenants are important to me both personally and professionally, but I was shocked at the rampant absence of professionalism among a lot of comics communities. Creators often commented on how nice I was and how helpful I was when really I was just doing what I thought was the bare minimum to be a decent person. I was like, “why is this person saying nice things about me when I simply sent them a link to the article?” but as I spent more time in journalism, I realized that basic courtesies aren’t always important to other people. It made it clear to me how much people have sacrificed to work in comics, including expectations of professional treatment.

Writing about comics made me more sympathetic, especially toward the experiences of other women, LGBTQIA individuals, and people of color. Hearing stories of what they gave up to work in comics, what kind of behavior they tolerated, what situations they had to deal with – it turned me into an activist. It made me want to do more, be a better listener, be a shameless learner, and advocate for fair treatment in the arts. Ultimately, comics journalism taught me so much about the industry and helped me meet people who I now consider my closest friends. I did it because I loved to write and I wanted to do the best I could to highlight these cool achievements in creators’ careers, and I hope I did a good job. 

What’s next for you? What are you working on, what are you thinking about, what would like to write next?

Well, I’m working on an unannounced licensed project with a publisher that I’m super excited about, I’m excitedly collaborating on a story with Jen Hickman for the Hey, Amateur! anthology, and I have a few pitches in progress, but I’m always looking for more work! 

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