Smash Pages Q&A: Rob Kirby

The creator and editor discusses his new Patreon, his graphic novel ‘Marry Me a Little’ and much more.

Rob Kirby is the acclaimed creator of the long-running comic strip Curbside and many other comics. He’s a critic and interviewer for publications like Publisher’s Weekly and The Comics Journal. And in a series of anthologies like QU33R, The Book of Boy Trouble, The Shirley Jackson Project and What’s Your Sign, Girl? has demonstrated that he’s one of the best comics editors around.

Kirby recently launched a Patreon, and I reached out to ask about his current project, Marry Me a Little; why he decided to make a graphic novel after all this time; taking advice from cartoonist life coach MariNaomi; and our shared dislike of “romance.”

To start, the question I always ask is, how did you come to comics?

At an early age. My parents were really big fans of the cartoons in magazines like the New Yorker and Punch; they loved Walt Kelly’s Pogo as well. So I grew up with comics all around me. When I discovered “Peanuts” my dad was totally into it and would read aloud from the Fawcett Crest paperbacks with me. To this day the big hardcover Peanuts Treasury collection is one of the most influential books of my life. Actually, in 2014 I drew a little strip called “Comics Nerd: A Brief History” for this Whit Taylor-edited anthology, Subcultures. While drawing it, I realized that at one point or another as a kid I’d read pretty much every kind of comic you could name: DC horror comics, Marvel superheroes, and titles from Harvey, Archie, Charleton, Gold Key, and the Warren B&W mags. This story was only three pages long, but I tried to cram as much of that info in as possible. It was a fun little trip back in time for me. 

As for creating comics, I dabbled a bit as a child (I drew a lot, from a very early age), but never focused my noodlings into any concrete plans to be an actual cartoonist. I just didn’t even consider it. But then as a young adult, I discovered alt-comics, especially Gay Comix, Wimmin’s Comix, and Weirdo. Alongside that, there were queer zines like Holy Titclamps, Gawk, Homocore, and J.D.s, which opened up my eyes to a whole new definition of what being gay/queer meant. I’d never felt much of a part of the gay mainstream culture and these publications offered me a much more interesting alternative. So in the end, the comics I was reading inspired me to finally start drawing my own and the zines I was so into inspired me to make my own. It was a perfect symbiosis! So that’s how that started. Actually, one of the nicest things anyone ever wrote about me was this little blurb in City Pages for a reading I was going to do back in the mid-aughts: the writer said I acted as a sort of a conduit between alt-comics and queer comics. That sounded true to me, as those were all important influences. 

So why did you launch a Patreon recently?

As I’ve gotten older, life has become ever more distracting, and it’s gotten harder to produce pages. I also review books for Publisher’s Weekly and The Comics Journal and other places, which takes up even more time and creative energy. So I thought if people could in effect subscribe to my comics output it might help me focus and instill me with a sense of responsibility—to have someone to answer to. 

In this aspect I feel it it’s working. I’ve already felt spurred on to get back to my in-progress graphic memoir, and I’ve already made and posted new work in the few weeks since I launched. I love putting up archival stuff too, as I have a ton. And though I still feel sort of sheepish about it, trying to monetize my work is not a bad goal. And establishing more of a direct relationship with the people who read and like my work is gratifying. So I hope it’ll work out. 

Also, I also have to send a shout out here to my friend MariNaomi, who had been strongly encouraging for me to try Patreon for a while now. She’s always been one of my biggest cheerleaders. I listen to her—Mari knows a lot. 

Mari is amazing. And I’m glad she pushed you to do it.

Mari could be a cartoonist’s life coach. She’s a force of nature! 

Will we see more diary comics from you on the site?

That’s my intention. I’ve done a few quickies for my patrons already. I’ve found if I don’t draw a diary segment pretty quickly after conceiving it, I lose the moment and the energy and it becomes harder to commit to and thus complete. I love the form; I’ll read anybody’s diary comic and I’m always sort of thrilled when I manage to complete one myself. Who was it who said that life isn’t a novel, it’s more like a string of short stories? I think that’s true and that it captures something of what diary comics are all about. So much of life is in the little quotidian moments: a cup of coffee can be deeply soul satisfying; passing by a decaying storefront can offer an aesthetic revelation; the sound of a ticking clock can spark existential dread. 

What is Marry Me a Little?

Marry Me is about getting married when you’re gay/queer and middle-aged and had never even considered getting married before, as it wasn’t even an option for most of your life. My book is a contemplation of all of that, from my own experience. I couldn’t help but cast a glance at some other viewpoints on the issue, and acknowledge the fact that for many queer people, marriage is still often a thorny issue. Depending on who you talk to! 

Is this the longest comic you’ve ever made?

God yes. I’m up to page 42 now and still have another 20+ pages left. The longest single story I’d ever made before was a minicomic called King for Day in 2011, which ended up being 24 pages—and that took me a year to complete. On the other hand, there’s my 2002 book, Curbside Boys, which was actually conceived as a graphic novel, i.e. a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, but it was done in short one-strip chapters as a biweekly newspaper feature over five years. Working in that format I could kind of trick myself into completing a book one page at a time, each being a little chapter unto itself, with that every-two-weeks deadline. I’ve since noticed that many pages of Marry Me have that same feel: being a one-page strip that forms into a larger work—which is probably a result of my newspaper comic strip training. And that’s fine with me, I like a good comic mosaic.

Are you thinking about and working on Marry Me in one-page chunks? Did you write them or initially think of them in that way? Or did they just work out that way as you’ve made them?

I think it’s just kind of working out that way. I’m thinking more and more about each page as its own stand-alone drawing. I never used to think of my comics that way. I think this is because of how I work now: really slowly, trying to make every page just as sincere as it can be. I just finished page 40 a few weeks ago and it’s a simple looking page, just showing John and I talking, but I was so happy with it. I had originally written out all this text, blah blah blah, and as I began to draw it, I started throwing out all the narration, which just made everything simpler and more truthful. Everyone always says to cartoonists: “Show, don’t tell,” but hey, guess what, sometimes exposition is necessary. But nowadays I try to keep it to a bare minimum. If you read my 2002 book Curbside Boys, I was still in the throes of my Lynda Barry influence, using a lot of narrative, ofttimes too much narrative.

So much of your work has been shorter comics, what made you want to make a graphic novel now?

I don’t know – insanity?  At heart I’m really much more of a short-form cartoonist. Long stuff is a lot harder because you have to sustain your energy and drive for a quite a stretch. I’ve always been a completist sort of person, I don’t like things being open-ended and inconclusive for a super long time. So that’s been hard. I have found it expedient to stop for some good stretches of time, sometimes unfortunately for even several months. Which causes me great stress. Mimi Pond once wrote that to make a graphic novel you just have to really want it. Aside from the fact that queer marriage is a very interesting topic to write and draw about, I guess I really just want to have this under my belt. 

It sounds like for you, one of the reasons to make a graphic novel was just the challenge of it. To do something you’ve never done before. I often say that most artists may not be competitive with each other, but they’re very competitive with themselves. 

Yes, I would say that the challenge was part of it. But even moreso, I very much want to create at least one more solo book, and Marry Me struck me as my perfect vehicle. It’s been so long since Curbside Boys was published. 

What interested you in telling this story? You’ve mentioned about being unromantic, so I’m curious about the appeal and interest for you.

Again, examining the institution of marriage not only for how it impacts me and my spouse personally but also its broader cultural implications. There’s this one central conflict for queer people in that we have always been outside of the mainstream, and that can be freeing in a lot of ways. You know, we can make it up as we go along, we can be cultural outlaws. So, what are we sacrificing by embracing the norm, what is lost, what is gained? I like to think that anytime I write about something that I’m looking at it from a broader view than just about me and my situation. Not always true, but that is the ideal! 

I’m actually romantic at heart, deep down, in my introverted way. I can’t help it though: highly public, extravagant declarations of romance generally make me cringe. 

Being a romantic is an interesting thing. I’m also an introvert and a lot of the things I’ve been told are romantic I don’t want any part of. I think I’m romantic, even if no one else does.

Romance is so much more than it is presented as. Making John a coffee and taking care of him in tiny little ways like that is romantic to me. While he’s driving and has to come to a sudden stop and we lurch forward, he always instinctually extends his right arm in front of me, to protect me. That’s really romantic to me. Like creativity, romance takes many forms, it doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles and thousands of dollars spent on engraved invitations and elaborate floral arrangements. 

If I’m honest, when I think about the work and headaches of most weddings, it’s the most unromantic thing I know. Though I am single and have never married.

Yeah, I’m really repulsed by those million-dollar wedding pageants that take the union of two people and turn it into an enormous look-at-us spectacle. But at the same time, I think there’s value in making a public statement about your love and commitment to another person. John and I went to the courthouse with a few friends and family in tow and then had a fancy dinner afterward at our favorite Minneapolis restaurant with several more people in attendance. That felt like the truest way to do it for us, with the dinner making it extra special, a celebration with loved ones. I’m conflicted about a lot of this stuff. Which is why I suppose is I thought it would be a good subject for a graphic novella. If my mind was 100% made up about everything it would be much less interesting to draw about. And to read. 

I feel like there are many books about marriage, but most tend to be from straight cis white wealthy people saying, I don’t like traditional marriage. What does queer marriage mean. Especially since we’ve been told for decades that the homosexual agenda was to destroy marriage and the nuclear family. 

I like to think I’m exploring what queer marriage means to me. Like, that’s the impetuous of the book, it’s an interrogation. So while I’m grossed out by vulgar, over-the-top wedding nuptials, I love things like dollar dances and wedding parties and that sort of thing. Rituals. They are important to us as people in some core, primal way. And honestly, while doing a bit of research, I got misty-eyed reading about Michael Baker and Jack McConnell, who basically got married in Minneapolis way back in 1971, because they really wanted to be married, they believed it was their right. They fought like hell for it. They are heroes. And talk about romance! Their story is romantic as all hell. I bow to them. 

You cited ritual as important and for all my eye-rolling, I think that is one aspect of marriage and weddings that is important. It’s a way to celebrate our relationships, and to celebrate who we are as individuals and as couples, but also a way to ground us and bind us to the past and to others.

One of the underlying stances of Marry Me is just that: how you do it is your choice. Everyone should make their nuptials what they want them to be. If making it a huge event that has to be absolutely perfect is what will make you happy, then go for it! (I’m just glad I don’t have to be involved.)

How have you been working on the book? Has making a project of this length forced you to change how you work at all?

As I said before, it can be quite sporadic. John and I moved twice in the past two years after years of living all settled in our old house, and the general upheaval really upset my working equilibrium. I was horribly distracted. I tend to be really productive in the summer and not so much in the winter, and you’d think it would be the other way around. At the moment it’s summer again and I can’t go much of anywhere due to the COVID crisis, so I’ve been drawing steadily—mostly on Marry Me but on other things as well. 

Besides being a cartoonist, you’re also a great editor. QU33R, The Shirley Jackson Project, Boy Trouble. Are you editing anything right now?

After Shirley Jackson Project was published in 2016, I had to stop. That was the last anthology that I’d felt completely driven to put out into the world. I’d produced at least one anthology per year since 2010 (when Three #1 debuted) and I was burned out. Though I loved working on all those books and collaborating with so many of my favorite creators I felt it was time to get back to working on my own stuff. I’ve often felt that the anthologies were this weird sort of work avoidance: I was too busy compiling the work of others to have much time for my own stuff. It was a way to be lazy yet still productive!

I would love to do another anthology after I finally get Marry Me wrapped up, but we’ll just have to see how things play out, if some idea grabs me.

Is there any chance of a big fancy collection of Curbside one of these years?

You know, I had actually talked to Zan at Northwest Press about it several years back and he was game, but eventually I realized it just wasn’t the right time. I felt like I wanted to move forward rather than look back, know what I mean? For now, anyway. Managing your output is a juggling act. I love the idea of a retrospective. At the moment I’m reading a collection of stories by this now-deceased Manga artist named Kuniko Tsurita and I feel sad for her that she didn’t get to see the book published in her lifetime. Maybe I’ll get lucky and there’ll be Rob Kirby retrospective released while I’m still in this world.

I hope there will be a Rob Kirby retrospective soon! I’m glad you’ve been able to get some work done recently. A bit jealous, too.

If it’s up to me you will get all of your wishes, someday! But we’ll have to wait and see. Right now I just have to get Marry Me done, which I hope to accomplish next year.

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