Smash Pages Q&A: KC Councilor

The comics creator and professor discusses his memoir ‘Between You and Me: Transitional Comics’ and much more.

KC Councilor is a cartoonist and an Assistant Professor of Communications at Southern Connecticut State University. He is the cartoonist behind the great memoir Between You and Me: Transitional Comics, and has contributed comics to various anthologies including the recently published Menopause: A Comic Treatment. He has also made comics for academic journals including a great recent article, Drawing the Body In: A Comic Essay on Trans Mobility and Materiality.

Councilor and I spoke recently about Lynda Barry, Graphic Medicine and how making comics changed his life and the way he processed the world.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I didn’t give comics much of a thought until I was in my thirties, a grad student at University of Wisconsin – Madison, and took a class with Lynda Barry. I never thought of myself as an artist or cartoonist. I read some comics as a kid in the newspaper and I had read 100 Demons and Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. Coming into Lynda’s class for the first time, my entire world changed.

What comics were you making initially? Autobiographical work?

In the first class I took with her we didn’t actually make comics. We wrote and drew but we didn’t necessarily put them together. The first comics I started making were autobiographical and often just these little daily experiences of gender. Things that would stand out to me. I made zines about things that had changed when I went from identifying as a woman to identifying as a male. About how my dreams were different. How behavior was different in public. One early one was about the experience of being solicited when walking down the street by a woman who was clearly on drugs and asking if she can do anything for me as I’m crossing the street. It was a moment that was very sad, but also very validating for me at the same time. [laughs] These moments that were really rich but so fast that I found comics so good at capturing.

Was that part of the journey that led you to make Between You and Me?

Most of the work in that book was created in Lynda’s classes over three or four years. She’s a tough teacher. I produced so much work and so much of it helped me through the process of transitioning. When the two of us put the book together, we were looking at which strips captured this whole world that are not strictly about being trans or transitioning, but stories that capture a whole arc of the human experience more broadly. I think of it more as a compilation.

It’s not strictly a memoir. It’s a series of short pieces. Were you always making short comics and then piecing them together and finding that arc was a later process?

That definitely was a later process. What it looked like was Lynda and me in her comics classroom physically laying out all the pages in this serpentine shape and then doing it by feeling. Physically walking through it and going, after this piece we need something lighter. Or, now it feels right to have an illustration page break. That was the process. One thing that we went back and forth about was whether to include a letter to the reader as a preface or at the end. There were some college students at Boston University who read a version for their comics class and they wanted the letter to come at the beginning to give them some structure and guidance. Lynda felt very strongly that readers should have their own experience before my narrative voice came in. I agree. Not wanting to be too directive and say, here’s how you should read this. Lynda’s the only comics teacher I’ve ever had so that’s why we also have the invitational section and the behind the scenes and the interview to talk about the creation of the book.

I understand that. They want a frame and guide to how to read it. But what comics do well is drop you into a situation and let you work your way to an understanding. And opening with how to read it and what it means would take away from that reading experience – and the artistic experience you had creating the work.

Also the loving relationship to the reader that I’m assuming in that letter, I haven’t earned at the beginning. I think that happens through reading the comics, but at the beginning, I don’t know you. [laughs]

It sounds like taking Lynda Barry’s class changed how you processed the world.

Yeah. In some of the classes we had to turn in three completed comics pages every week. That could be fiction, nonfiction. I was drawn to nonfiction. That’s a lot of pressure. Over 16 weeks you’re making at least 45 pages of comics, so it really forced me to have experiences. If you’re staying home and just being a grad student doing work, you’re not have any experiences that are worthy of making comics about. It forced me to view the experiences that I was having, looking for what was interesting and what was happening. It made me choose to have more experiences to push myself so I would have something to draw. That was immensely helpful. If you’re just making comics about how miserable you are, that doesn’t work. It’s not interesting. It took me from that space of mostly being miserable as a grad student in Wisconsin in the winter where most of the school year is cold and dark, and it forced me to be interested in the world around me in a way I hadn’t before. It took me out of my own headspace.

I would imagine in transitioning there are so many experiences that are completely new, which is exciting and sometimes terrifying.

There was a lot that I was dreading that was painful or uncomfortable or awkward. Those things make really good comics. That helped me. Instead of shrinking away from having those experiences, I would go, this is what I’m going to draw my pages about this week. It made those experiences very valuable for me. For me, transitioning and becoming a cartoonist are two sides of the same coin. Art – but for me specifically comics – is so helpful for things like grieving and processing difficult stuff that in the past I’ve simply avoided. One of the best things about this book is how many young people it has helped. I hear from so many people who read the book that they finished it and immediately gave it away to somebody in their life. That is such a gift for me. I’m a shy person but I have this book that can help other people. To have something you can see yourself in. Trans women have very different experiences, but there are these shared points of connection that we have. I have found that I’m a much better visual storyteller than I am a verbal storyteller. Some little thing would happen to me and I would come home and tell my partner and she would go, “Oh, great.” But I would draw it as a comic and she would weep. Because of the way comics let you slow down time and show the richness of these really quick moments, I’m able to communicate what that experience is like so much better as a comic than I can just in speaking. 

One recent project of yours was “Drawing the Body In: A Comic Essay on Trans Mobility and Materiality.” How did you end up making an academic article that is a comic?

That was part of a special issue. I do not study comics, although recently I have started to. I mostly study other things as an academic – communication – and then separately make comics. In this case, those editors knew me as a trans person and an academic. I had not studied or written about anything related to trans-ness but they asked, since you research trans materiality and mobility, do you want to write a piece for this issue? I had not studied that or written about it – but I had made comics about it – so I asked if I could do a comic version of that essay. I started it right as we were moving to New Haven and then I finished it before we had finished unpacking our apartment here. It was hard. Making comics is not easy but doing academic writing is really not easy. I can’t say that I want to do academic comics because it’s hard! [laughs] But I was very grateful for that opportunity because apart from a number of people who use it in teaching college courses on gender, it’s really helpful for students, being able to understand these theoretical ideas about trans-ness and gender.

I think so and it was interesting how you quoted and cited people. It was fun and playful in that way, but also a really thoughtful piece. You had a line about how drawing comics is a good way to own your experiences instead of suffering from them. I think a lot of people have done this well in comics, but finding a way to retell our stories in a way that lets us understand them better allows us to understand and be understood.

Right. I think that works in a lot of forms of storytelling, but I think there’s some magic happening in comics and in drawing in general. The way that Joe Sacco talks about the embodied experience of redrawing something you’ve experienced. That is such an intense thing to do. I think that is part of the power of comics.

I know a number of trans cartoonists who have all found ways to write about their own experiences – mentally, physically, and spiritually – sometimes literally and other times just about people changing in some way, but the ways that comics can share that liminality, of being very solid and unsteady all at once.

One of the coolest things about drawing yourself is that you get to portray yourself as you would like to portray yourself. I found without ever talking to anyone about it, how I’m representing myself. I started to draw myself differently before I physically appeared differently. I feel like my drawing hand is what started my transition. That’s something that Lynda noticed, but she didn’t mention it until much later. I often think that if it weren’t for comics, it would have taken me a lot longer to come to that realization. It was through drawing myself.

You’ve been involved in Graphic Medicine. I just got the Menopause: A Comic Treatment anthology, which you’re in. How did you get involved?

That was also through Lynda. She mentioned and shared MK Czerwiec’s work in class and I started looking at MK’s work and it blew my mind. I’m a hypochondriac, but I hate going to the doctor. I made comics about all kinds of things but the doctor was this private shameful experience I preferred not to think about. Seeing MK’s work I realized I could draw about this stuff. I went to CAKE in Chicago and met her and she’s so warm and open. I introduced myself and I asked for her address and sent her comics and we became penpals. She was my entry point into Graphic Medicine. And a lot of people’s. I think it’s one of the most interesting areas in comics right now. That Menopause book is fascinating. Lynda also has worked with Dr. Michael Green and other folks in med schools. I have students who are studying nursing and social work and giving them this way of engaging with their own patients or clients one day is so cool. Graphic Medicine has been quite a welcoming and very interesting community of people. It’s very diverse in terms of people’s training and how they’ve come to comics. I always think of doctors as on a different level, but here we are all drawing comics together. That’s not the typical power dynamic. I also think there’s a lot of work that needs to happen around training medical professionals around trans-ness. There’s a lot of potential there. I did a workshop with some Walgreens pharmacists over the summer where they read my book and because they are working with trans patients it was helpful in train them about what it means to be trans and how little things that they do can make a big difference for trans folks. I think there’s so much potential in Graphic Medicine and it’s endlessly fascinating to me.

You’re a professor of communication and as you said, you’re not teaching comics or writing about comics necessarily. How do you see the overlap and relationship between your comics and your academic work?

I teach some classes like Intro to Communication. We teach four classes a semester so I have many opportunities to teach different classes. When it’s not a pandemic and we’re face-to-face, all my classes start with a three-minute self-portrait. Every single class meeting. I’m not doing that now online, but it’s a nice grounding exercise for students. Then I collect them and at the end of the semester I give them all back. I give them a quick cartooning lesson, the same one Lynda gave us, and let their style develop from there. It’s also a really good way to create a classroom culture and community. Students get to class on time because they don’t want to have to rush through the drawing. It’s a nice entry to class. I also teach a class called Capturing Family Stories. Often we’re writing through the method that Lynda uses that’s very experiential. At the end they produce a book, a collection of their own family stories that is both writing and drawing. That is a class that fulfills a creativity requirement at the university and so some take it thinking we’re going to study the theory of stories, but they quickly find out that they’re going to be writing and drawing their own stories. We read some comics and stories, but mostly it’s about doing. At this point it’s about 50/50 students who have heard about the class and want to take it, and others who are like, what is this? I get students from all over the university and it’s always full. In the fall, I usually display student work at City-wide Open Studios, but not this year because it’s online. People respond really well to their work in a public setting. That’s another part, they’re unsure about their work. They think, I’m not a trained artist who’s perfect at drawing. Well, I’m not either. But you are trained at telling stories. 

For so many of us, we know what good art looks like – and that what I draw is not that. Getting over that initial block is so important.

And it is frustrating. Like, how do I draw people with their legs crossed? I can see it in my mind, why can I not draw it with my hands?

I know that you’re very busy this semester, but what are you working on now?

Starting in March, I was drawing a daily comic until the semester started in August. I hadn’t drawn a daily comic in a long time. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with those. I have an exhibit at the New Haven Public Library that’s scheduled for December. I don’t know if that’s going to be virtual or not but I have some other new work that’s polished. I’m interested in that archival quality of tracking what’s happening in the world. I may do an exhibit that involves some of those diaries. It’s so hard to do work during the school year. I want to put together a book that’s sort of a continuation of Between You and Me. It’s different now because I pass as a man all the time. My partner is a photographer and I helped her with some weddings last weekend. We were using chairs on the beach to take group photos and there was a guy who worked at this place taking the chairs and I said, “Sir, we’re using these for the photos,” and he yelled at me. It was shocking for second and then I realized, that’s how a man would yell at another man, but not at a woman. There’s another one I penciled and started inking about this moment where I had been listening to the podcast My Favorite Murder at the gym and I stopped at CVS on the way home. It was dark and raining. Outside, there was a woman who asked me for a ride because the weather was bad. I wanted to say, “you can’t just get in random men’s cars!” She was right on my way home but I couldn’t be like, “I used to be a woman, I used to ride in random men’s cars.” That would freak her out! We talked about her husband taking aspirin for his headaches, other small talk, but it was this weird moment. I loved having that experience with her and it must have felt safe for her to do that, but it was also shocking. So I’ve been drawing about moments like that which are related to gender or masculinity, moments that strike me in a particular way that are “Transition Part 2” or “Post-transition.”

I am working on another academic piece. There’s a journal called Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies that’s doing a special issue on speculative fiction and graphic novels. I’m talking to different people who I see as visionaries about education, kinship, masculinity, health, biomedical science, mothering, and other areas. I’m drawing their portrait and then in the speech bubble I’m drawing the scene of their vision. I’m framing that with a couple panels of comics. Their visions for what the world can be are inspiring and interesting and it’s tricky because not everyone’s vision translates easily into a single scene in a speech bubble. That’s what I’m working on now and I need to finish that by the end of the year. They’re realistic portraits of people and more of a comic style to their speech bubbles. The idea is basically, what if scholarship and academic work felt like this? It’s so much more interesting than reading PDFs and copying citations. [laughs]

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