Smash Pages Q&A: Emma Jayne

The creator of ‘Dreameater’ discusses her process, her minicomics, the importance of music to her work and more.

Emma Jayne made a splash with her graphic novel Dreameater, a queer horror musical thriller that is fun and inventive, but she’s had the biggest impact with a series of slice of life comics like In an Empty City, Pseudo Slut Transmission, and the 2019 Ignatz Award winning minicomic Trans Girls Hit the Town.

Each of these stories can be described in simple ways, with little happening plotwise, but Jayne’s gift as a storyteller is the ability to tell these small stories that manage to encompass and involve so much. In each story, though short, the reader is able to learn and intuit so much about the characters and their lives. It’s done in such a subtle way that some readers might miss just how profound and complex the stories are, and just how perfectly Jayne nails it. The first time I read Trans Girls Hit the Town, I had to immediately reread the comic so that I could see just how she pulled it off.

Jayne is a gifted, insightful storyteller, and I have no doubt that we’ve only begun to see what she’s capable of as an artist. She was kind enough recently to answer a few questions about her work.

Emma, to start, how did you come to comics?

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact time, really. I’ve been drawing since before I can even remember. I think that eventually took the form of comics when I read Captain Underpants as a kid. The two kids in that book made and sold their own comics and made me realize “Hey, I can do that!” So I did and haven’t stopped since. I don’t think it became clear to me how fundamental I wanted them to be to my life until college, though.

How did you first connect with Carta and Diskette Press?

A good transition! Carta and I have actually been friends for about a decade now – we went to college together. She started up a student-run comics publication, which I eventually became an editor for after she graduated. A few years later, we both ended up in Ann Arbor. When she started up Diskette Press, I suppose I was a pretty convenient and trustworthy artist to add to the roster right away. The press has put out some really spectacular work since, and I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished!

Comics of yours like In an Empty City, Pseudo Slut Transmission, Trans Girls Hit the Town are all these very emotional, slice of life stories. When did you start working in this vein?

Well, completely on accident and out of convenience to be honest. I was deep into working on Dreameater when I was going to attend SPX with Diskette Press for the first time, but there wasn’t a chance in hell that it would get finished by that September. Because of that, I put together In an Empty City as a quick and easy little book to have an actual representative of my work at the table. I decided to use Cassi and Charlotte from Dreameater because they were fully-formed characters I already knew so well. Writing a few everyday conversations between them at that point was a breeze. I was surprised how much it worked even without Dreameater’s supernatural underpinnings, so I guess that’s when the slice-of-life approach to storytelling began to stick.

What is your process like? Has it changed over time?

Absolutely, it has changed. Years ago, I’d write a script, thumbnail the pages, properly pencil the pages separately, scan them, print them out in non-photo blue on bristol, ink and letter on said bristol, scan the bristol, and finally make minor corrections digitally.

Nowadays, I write a script, thumbnail pages in my sketchbook, scan them, then ink and shade directly over them digitally. I miss working physically sometimes, but it’s certainly streamlined the process and allowed me to indulge my infuriating perfectionist tendencies. Maybe one of these days, I’ll make a comic completely in pencil as a palate-cleanser.

Is music and musical rhythm important to how you work?

Depending on the work, yes! Unsurprisingly, that’s more the case with Dreameater than any others. I have a playlist that more or less functions as a soundtrack to that book. In fact, there was a point where I considered burning that playlist onto a CD to give away with every copy, but by the time I was finished drawing it, I was ready to move onto new things.

It’s funny that you say rhythm because my initial drafts of Dreameater were separated into ten chapters: one for each of the escalating counts up in the bridge of the song Kiss Off by Violent Femmes. That bridge’s crescendo mirrored the sense of rising tension I wanted to express in the story, and Kiss Off was even the book’s placeholder name for a long time. Ultimately, the story didn’t need that bridge to express what is essentially a basic storytelling technique, and on top of that, I’ve been told the business of reprinting other people’s lyrics can be a bit hairy. So all of that stuff was axed, but it was important to me when making it.

Now your first full length book was Dreameater, and most people know you for these very slice of life comics and this was a little different from the other work people probably know you for. Where did the idea for the book start?

Let me get something completely unsurprising out of the way: I’m a gargantuan sucker for punk rock, so it takes all my self-control not to make every story I write about a shitty punk band. And although I was still playing in a band with one of my good friends when writing the script, I was frustrated with how it was something that would probably never be as big a part of my life as I’d like it to be. Working full-time, making comics, and having a semblance of a social life makes my life feel full to the brim already. Being in a band on top of all of that just isn’t feasible. Not to mention it’s probably healthier for me. My young and stupid self refused to wear earplugs when I was in drumline in high school or during any of the concerts I went to, so now I have permanent tinnitus. I still desperately wanted music to have a place in my life despite my hearing damage, and that’s ultimately what Dreameater is about – not abandoning that youthful passion but coming to terms with the fact that it might need to take a different shape for you to be able to move forward.

As far as the more fantastical elements, that was my default storytelling mode at the time. Most of things I’d made before that (which are locked away in the vault for now) relied on fantasy concepts as a device to bolster and sometimes to act as a metaphor for the emotional stakes of the narrative. Lately, I’ve felt like letting the emotional stakes just be plainly themselves, but I’d like to pick up that method again someday.

You received the Ignatz in 2019 for Trans Girls Hit the Town and what did that mean to you? 

Ah yes, I suppose we should talk about the book that people actually know me for! I was floored when I learned about my nominations, and I think my brain is still in denial that I actually won one of them. It meant a lot to me, obviously (who can say no to validation that this thing you pour your soul into is actually good), but the thing that sticks with me the most is how it’s affected other people.

Several younger trans cartoonists have told me they were in tears during my acceptance speech because it was tangible proof that there’s a place for them in the independent comics community. Being trans is a harrowing experience of making yourself so known and vulnerable to every person you meet whether you like it or not, and a lot of trans representation in media is controlled by cis folks. So seeing work explicitly about transness created by solely by an actual trans person be something that the community sees worth lifting up and celebrating makes that vulnerability feel a little less terrifying.

So what are you thinking about or wanting to do next?

For better or worse, a little bit of everything! I have so many stories sitting around, waiting to be told. I’d love to make all of the trans experiences and punk rock nonsense and horror tales sitting in text documents into realities, but the physical process of me drawing it all is a massive choke point. I’m not ready to talk specifics on the several things I have in the works at the moment, but believe me: the best is yet to come.

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