Smash Pages Q&A: Victor Martins

The cartoonist behind the most recent issue of “Ley Lines” discusses Virginia Woolf, the Hello Boyfriend comics collective, goats and more.

Victor Martins is the cartoonist behind the most recent issue of the Ley Lines anthology, a quarterly comic series where in each issue a cartoonist looks at a work of art. The result has been one of the very best comics projects of recent years, as each artist has yielded something distinct, not just from each other, but often it involves them trying a new approach in these “essayistic” comics.

In the new issue titled Cabra Cabra, Martins looks at Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, the story of a character who changes sex and lives for centuries, a character inspired by Woolf’s lover, the writer Vita Sackville-West. Martins re-read the novel and had a different response to it, and the resulting comic is a thoughtful look at the differences.

Martins is one quarter of the comics collective Hello Boyfriend, which has produced Doki Doki High and Archie Fancomics Digest. Martins has made a number of comics and minicomics, including You Don’t Have To Be Afraid Of Me and Stay. We spoke recently about Virginia Woolf, trying to grapple with our feelings toward disturbing and problematic work, and prioritizing the emotional arc of a story.

How did you come to comics?

My mom likes comics, so, growing up, I read a lot of Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix, For Better Or For Worse, Turma da Monica, stuff like that. But the real (and kind of embarrassing) gateway for actually making comics was Homestuck. I started reading it cause I saw some fan art Tom Siddell, the creator of Gunnerkrigg Court, made. I looked at his drawing of this candy-corn-horned gray vampire looking thing, and I was like “ohoho, what’s this?” Then I got way into it, then I got waaaay into it. It was the first time I sort of understood that people who made comics were just some rando. Then, a little while later, I was like, “Wait a second, I’m also just some rando!” Profit.

How old were you when you first read Orlando?

I’m actually quite fuzzy on that one! I remember I didn’t speak English yet (I read a Portuguese translation of it), so I must have been younger than 12. Ten sounds too young, so maybe 11? I remember I was dealing with things being kind of rough by just reading books 24/7, and I went through all the explicitly age-appropriate really fast, so my mom just started throwing her books at me. I got way into Dickens and Austen for trans reasons at around the same time, but nothing ever hit quite like Orlando.

Like I said before, I haven’t read Orlando in years, so my response to the announcement that you were making a Ley Lines issue about Orlando was, “Oh I loved that book, I loved the movie, I’m going to love this comic.” I feel like that was your initial plan – and then you re-read the book.

Oooh, yeah. I’d kind-of-recently watched the movie adaptation with Tilda Swinton (aside: I really liked it), and there was more white nonsense than I remembered, so I was sort of bracing myself for that. But, oh boy, haha. There are a lot of slurs. I was like “Wait, were these here before? I feel like the Portuguese version didn’t have these.” I felt so ashamed!

I spent the week after re-reading it just feeling angry. Shaking my fist at the sky, pacing back and forth, yelling, “How could you do this to me, Virginia Woolf!?” the works. But I was also like, “Oh shit, I told Kevin I’m doing Orlando, I gotta do Orlando. How can I make a comic about this thing that’s making me so frustrated?” Then I figured I could make a comic about how frustrated this thing was making me, and hopefully it would serve as a way to start a conversation about *gestures vaguely* all of that.

The comic felt like it echoed your own journey about rage toward the work, and trying to understand and unpack that.

I don’t know if rage is the word. I think it’s more – I was frustrated, and annoyed, and tired. Like, of course this old-timey British aristocrat lady is racist. Of course her work is problematic in all sorts of ways. It’s more like I was hating on myself for knowing that thing and still having this book be so important to me, frustrated for allowing myself to feel let down by this racist old-timey British aristocrat lady.

I also wanted it to work as an acknowledgement that having problematic faves that let you down is a thing, and it’s its own whole thing if you go looking for representation in The Western Cannon™ as a queer person of color. I’ve had so many friends come up to me to say, “Hey, these feelings? Me too, except with [insert author here].” It’s a thing!

I think about how I’ve abandoned different artists and writers over the years, but so often that’s because of who they are and what they believe. When it’s the work that betrays you, that’s something that’s worse. Because it was the work that meant so much.

I think something that’s missing from the way we talk about this stuff is that there’s room between swearing off someone’s work because they suck and refusing to engage with any criticism of something because you like it. You can step back and try to take in the entirety of what the work is, acknowledge these contradictions. 

Like, for me, with Virginia Woolf, of course she’s an amazing writer. I love how intricate, smart and funny her writing is. Every time I read something of hers, I learn so much. And reading her work hurts me, because it’s violent. It’s coming from a place of unquestioned belief in white supremacy, and all sorts of other nasty shit! If we met, she wouldn’t be willing to acknowledge my full humanity. If I’m going to talk about her, it’s important for me to make room for all of that.

So many people say, “Oh just ignore that.” Or there’s this gaslighting of it doesn’t concern you, it’s not about you – it’s about, well, everyone like you.

Yes, “I’m not affected by it, so surely it’s not a problem.” Learn some empathy, br0!

Or people will say, “It’s about modern standards” or “It’s about the lens you’re looking at the work through,” but no, they put their bigotry and hatred in the work.

There are slurs printed on the page! 

As you said, you had to rethink what you thought of Virginia Woolf and Orlando, but you also have to acknowledge what it meant to you when you first read it and it doesn’t change what the work meant.

Yup.

And it’s one thing to talk about taking Virginia Woolf off a pedestal, but she wasn’t necessarily on a pedestal – the work was on a pedestal. 

Absolutely. I feel guilt about that. How *dare* I allow something so bad to be so important and so revelatory to me. But at the same time, I don’t have the words for how much it shook me reading about how these people were changing genders. Nuance, baby! 

To switch to a lighter note, why a goat?

I think it’s pretty easy to make funny drawings if you’re drawing a goat. They look kind of funky and don’t take themselves too seriously. I wanted something that was kind of disarming, so that people would hopefully be more willing to stick with me through this comic about being really frustrated with noted queer feminist hero Virginia Woolf. 

I also like that goats are tough as shit. They’ll eat anything, and be fine! I really liked this idea of something that just looks kind of silly and goofy looking, but is actually super resourceful and resilient.

The title of the comic is Cabra Cabra. Why is it called “goat goat”? Or is that a colloquialism for something?

I wanted to call it “Goat,” but I worried people would get it mixed up with “Greatest Of All Time.” My goat is not the greatest of all time, they’re pretty middle of the road! Then I was like, “Wait a second, what if it’s called goat – but in a different language? Wow! What if it’s in Portuguese? That’s my first language! Wow! Unprecedented!” But Cabra sounded too serious. There’s something very high art about just Cabra. So I tried Cabra Cabra, and it felt right! It feels like a taunt, or the beginning of a nursery rhyme. 

For people who don’t know, what is Hello Boyfriend?

Hello Boyfriend is a comics collective I’m a part of, together with Christine Wong, Jade Armstrong and Keelin Gorlewski. Just a bunch of pals making comics together.

It grew out of this comic-making club we hosted all through college. We all wanted to make comics, but we were all very scared and unsure. We found that if we had a peer group, we could hold each other accountable!

Also, if we tabled somewhere, as a group we could split the table fee and split the hotel fee, so it made breaking even a lot easier. 

It’s really fun and really helpful. I don’t think I would still be making comics if it weren’t for them. Psst buy our comics at helloboyfriend.itch.io.

Is the group your first reader?

Oh, absolutely. I constantly bully them into reading my comics and telling me what’s working for them, what’s not working for them. It’s especially nice because I know I can trust them to not just say, “This is wonderful, wow Vic, you’re so good!” Having people who will spend their energy helping you make your work better is really incredible, and I’m really lucky!

They also are willing to say, “This is wonderful, wow Vic, you’re so good!” when something is working, which is very nice. [laughs] I spend a lot of my time making comics thinking they’re terrible and no one will want to read them. So it’s super helpful to have people who will tell me “Victor Martins, this happens literally every time you work on something, get over yourself and finish the ding-dang comic.”

A number of you put together an Archie fan comic as a group project

Yes, Christine Wong organized that. It was really fun!

Are you an Archie fan?

I’ve never read an issue of Archie in my life! [laughs] It’s a big thing in Canada, but I’m from Brazil where it’s not a thing. Christine was like, “Do you want to do this?” So I watched Riverdale and I was like, “This is good enough, right?”

I’ve read a few of your comics, but the one that’s really stayed with me is You Don’t Have to Be Afraid of Me. It was this very emotionally raw comic, and it felt like you’d spent a lot of time thinking about how to say this.

Yeah! I made that comic as part of a mentorship with Carta Monir. I had this mandatory animation internship thing I had to do for school, and she was gracious enough to work with me to figure out a way to make it be a me making comics thing instead. It took a lot of gentle reassurance, but I’m really glad I got to do it.

Basically, in early transition, I had this non-stop monologue that would keep running through my brain. It was taking up a lot of my energy, and making me quite miserable! That comic was a way for me to try to draw my way out of that weird feedback loop I was stuck in. 

I also felt like if I put all this stuff I was thinking about on a page and then showed it to people, they’d be able understand where I was coming from. Early transition was super rough for me, I felt so alienated by my peer group, by my workplace, by school. I was learning how to be a person, and people were learning how to exist around me, and it was tough times all around. It’s something that I think most every trans person has to go through, and it’s super hard. 

I keep thinking about how comics are an emotional medium for you. That the emotional journey and structure is more important than the narrative one.

I mean, I personally think my narrative structure is super tight, thank you very much! [laughs]

I guess, when it comes to stories, I really don’t care about things happening, but I think the way people feel about things happening is super interesting. Like, I could make up all sorts of shit, but it would never be as interesting as the stuff that’s actually happening in the world. But if I’m making things up so that I can think about how these fake people would feel about them, how I’d feel about them, how my friends or loved ones or enemies would feel about them – that’s the good stuff!

I remember re-watching Prince of Egypt as an adult. I loved loved looooved that movie as a kid, and it’s just such a hot mess. But the emotional arc of the story is so strong that it kind of sweeps you up and suddenly all the weird choices don’t matter, cause the way it feels is just right. 

With Cabra Cabra, you start with a goat, there’s a portal from the future, it’s really about Virginia Woolf. It’ll make sense, just run with it.

Or you can not run with it. That’s fine, too. It might be fun to come along for the ride, though!

On your website you have paintings and illustrations and other work besides your comics and I’m curious what’s your day job, and how much what you make is comics?

My day job used to be working at a children’s comic book store called Little Island. But then COVID-19 hit and everyone got laid off, so now my day job is fretting! 

I graduated from a Bachelor’s of Animation last year (in like, late August), and I feel like I’m still very much in new-grad-trying-to-figure-things-out terrain. I’d love for comics to be most of what I do eventually, but only if I get to work on my own stuff. Otherwise, I really do love my day job, and hope it’s still there when all of this is over.

Right now, I’m working on my first full-length graphic novel with PEOW. I also have about a bajillion smaller comic things that’ll be wrapping up really soon, that I’m super excited about! 

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