Smash Pages Q&A | Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith

The creators of the critical hit ‘Wash Day’ discuss expanding the story into ‘Wash Day Diaries,’ which is out this week from Chronicle Books.

Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith teamed up for the comic Wash Day, which was funded through Kickstarter and was released in 2018. It was a critical success, but while the two thought that the story was over when they finished the comic, the story has grown and expanded into the new book Wash Day Diaries, which is out this week from Chronicle Books.

Smith was a recent graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies when she first drew Wash Day, and today is best known for working on Nubia: Real One for DC Comics. Rowser, besides writing, has been expanding Black Josei Press and is publishing new work. I spoke with the two recently about how Wash Day Diaries happened, working through the pandemic and collaborating again.

How did the two of you first meet?

Jamila Rowser: It was my first comic, and it took a long time for me to get the courage to feel like I could and should create comics, so the script took longer than it should have because I was fighting that self-sabotage. J.A. Micheline was my editor and really helped me with the script and learning about comics in general. When I was done, I reached out to some folks who I had already known, but were not available. I really wanted to work with a Black woman or nonbinary artist who would really understand what Wash Day meant. I saw somebody retweet Robyn’s art, and I was obsessed immediately. I’m a big manga fan and so I’m super drawn to black-and-white art and certain kinds of lines. I was like, “Oh my god, I love this artist.” I started following her, went to her shop and bought like everything. [laughs] I loved the way she draws hair. By then, she probably was familiar with my name just because I was like commenting and being a fan and I shot my shot and asked her if she was interested. Thankfully she was.

Robyn, what made you said yes?

Robyn Smith:  I felt like this person obviously liked my work so I knew it would end up being something they were really passionate about. I feel like finding a writer who really loves comics and specifically wants to write for comics isn’t as common as you’d think. Hair is my favorite thing to draw so after we spoke, this sounded like something I wanted to do. Over time, as I got to know Jamila and more about the project and how prepared she was, I was like, okay, this is going to be great. I feel like it was a very easy yes. I didn’t feel like I was taking too much of a chance. I thought Jamila was taking a chance on me because I had just graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies so I hadn’t done anything long. Or in ink. [laughs]

Jamila:  I had not done anything, period. [laughs] I think it worked out really well. I was paying her, of course. Thankfully I had a job that paid well at the time, so I definitely wasn’t like, let’s work for free. The Kickstarter helped recoup the funds and also help fund the printing of the comic. That went a lot better than I expected. It’s such a niche topic and I didn’t really see anything similar to that in comics so I wasn’t sure how it would resonate, but it did really well. Enough that here we are talking about the graphic novel version!

How did you go from a successful comic you kickstarted to getting a book deal?

Jamila:  I literally had no plans on doing anything else with Wash Day. Actually, when I first had the idea for Wash Day it was going to be a series and it was going to different genres. But then I as I started to draft those stories I realized it was going to be a lot of work for my first time. So I told myself to just chill and start with one comic. [laughs] That was my one shot and I was going to move onto other stuff. We were reached out to by Chronicle Books. Sahara Clement, who was an editor there, was given Wash Day by a friend and loved it so much that she pitched it internally to see if it could be turned into a graphic novel. So we didn’t pitch it at all. She came to us! We were like, what?! You’re offering us a book deal?! Is this a scam? [laughs] So we were like, yes! 

I wasn’t trying to make a longer version of Wash Day mini, because that was never my original plan. But we made it work by creating five short, interconnected stories. It was exciting that we were approached. And it spoiled me a bit because now I think to myself, I have to make pitches if I want to do more comics? Can’t I just tell you about it and show you my other work? [laughs] So that was how our graphic novel got started. They reached out to us. We got an agent real quick, Jen Linnan. It was being worked on during the pandemic, so it was super challenging. But it was a source of joy for both of us. Even though it was difficult to do, I think the content helped drive us and keep us going.

One of the striking things about the original comic was that both of you had this great sense of pacing, which can be hard for a slice of life comic where not much happens. And made it very tactile and sensual.

Jamila:  That was my intention, but that being said, it was what I worried about the most. Is this going to be boring to people? Because it’s not super action filled, but I just stuck with my intentions, showing this process, a slower paced breaking down of the steps of the wash day and really highlighting how much care and attention goes into it. Also, just the silence of watching this young woman’s day unfold and seeing what is happening around her and in her neighborhood and learning about her that way versus a lot of dialogue or narration. And Robyn illustrated it beautifully. Better than I could have imagined. I would tell myself at times when I doubted my writing, even if its boring, at least it’s beautiful. [laughs] I love slice of life and quieter comics. I stuck with what I loved and thankfully that paid off. 

Robyn:  I really loved that, too. It’s why we work together so well. That is my favorite kind of comic. Learning about the main character just from what they do and the things around them. Specifically for Wash Day and now Wash Day Diaries we learn so much about each of the girls because of how they interact with each other and not so much about the words they say to each other. I care a lot about slow pacing so seeing Jamila’s script I immediately was like, great! I am really not a fan of jumping too quickly between scenes. I worried about Wash Day and will people think it’s boring if I draw the same thing over and over again, but I love drawing the same thing over and over again! At least I’m enjoying it and I know Jamila will like it.

Jamila:  It’s one of the things that visually is really beautiful and that I love to see in comics. It was really intended to like break down the steps of the wash day process and show a routine and that wouldn’t be as effective if we had Kim go into the shower, gets out of the shower, etc. Her wash day would be over in two pages! It was about the whole day and the whole process and highlighting all of the little parts that we felt were most important.

As far as the book goes, there are a number of possible ways to expand on the comic. How did you decide on this approach?

JamilaWash Day was going to be just the one shot, and that’s how I created it in my mind. When I was thinking, “How can I make this a graphic novel?” it was difficult for me to easily come up with a story that fit within what already existed. They wanted us to include Wash Day so I was going to have to build upon that. So I went back to the original idea of multiple wash day stories. So we added more friends and made them interconnected short stories of their sisterhood, keeping most of the focus of their hair being done. We learn about their lives, go through different types of subjects, and were also able to show different types of hair styles being done. Showing different types of hair styles was really important to me because I wear my hair natural, however, I want Black women to wear their hair in whatever way they feel most comfortable in. I wanted to be able to show wigs and box braids and not make natural hair seem like the superiority style. 

We also get to dig deeper into the characters and what’s going on in their lives. Different subjects that I wanted to talk about or write about in general. Subjects like depression, fun friendship and gossip, relationship drama, family trauma, and more. In each story, we  show how they’re all in each other’s lives, but focus on one person in each story. And then we get them all together in person together at the end and we can see how that bond physically manifests and how close they are with each other. That what they have is a true sisterhood and they’re very comfortable with each other. Other than hair, friendship was the other big theme of the story. I think it made it fun too hopefully for Robyn to be able to do something different with each story.

Robyn, for the book you get to create new characters, and then draw characters like Malik who we hear about long before we see. But talk about the way you used color in each story, which is so striking.

Robyn:  We worked together to figure out what each character’s color palette would be. Jamila and I really love the color pink, so I feel like we centered everything around pink. [laughs] Pink is always a great starting point and then from there particularly when I think about Nisha and Devene’s color palettes and thinking about who they are and what their stories are about. Especially for Devene’s story where we tackle her depression and then the contrast of Cookie’s colors and trying to yellow the place up. It made it really fun to think about how the colors interact with each other. So picking the color palettes was fun, but then I would think a lot about them being together. Particularly in every story someone shows up and what they bring and what their relationship is to this person.

Kazimir Lee actually colored Cookie’s story, and we’re really good friends and I love them and I love their color work. I learned a lot from them and from Bex Glendining, who helped me with Davene’s story. Getting their help and getting help from friends is important for the creation of the book. It was the pandemic and trying to get things done on a deadline and feeling the support from Jamila, who I love, and two more friends who are really strong colorists helped me and was important to the book.

Beyond the color, it’s incredible to see – here and in the original comic – the way you establish character through small nuances, expressions, body language, how each character has their own energy and the ways they play off each other. 

Robyn:  Thank you. It’s a lot of character acting with my family. Sometimes it’s me, but also asking, “How would you do this thing?” Like asking, “How would you pick up a cup?” where it could be similar to how I do it, but all those little things count. One of my favorite things to draw is how characters interact with each other. I really love friendship as well and friends who are super touchy, so I imagine all these friends being super touchy with each other. And playing around with their heights because each of them takes up space in a different way. It was a lot of fun thinking about how each of them are friends, and I love thinking about who they are individually. It’s just a lot of calling on reference from my own life and my family.

As you were talking, I kept thinking about “Bright Side” because there’s so much in that story where you don’t even need dialogue, because the body language and expression and use of color makes things so clear.

Robyn:  Thank you. I feel like something Jamila and I talk about a lot is wanting our stories to be as clear as possible. Especially because I think we want to bring in a lot of new readers – particularly Black women and Black queer folks who have been excluded from comics for a long time. They haven’t necessarily grown up reading comics and understand what these signals mean or the way that these lines work, so we had to make sure that everything was explained, but not over-explained. We wanted Wash Day Diaries to be an easy read.

The same was true of the mini-comic. That people reading it who had similar experiences could go, “I do that,” or, “What’s that?” And finding something they could hold onto and understand what the story is saying. I think emphasizing the color and the way that they talk to each other and the pacing, so we’re not jumping from action to action. That’s why we vibe so well and why we like making comics together. 

Jamila:  As a writer, I’m usually not dialogue-heavy, unless it’s necessary. “Group Chat” and maybe “Ride or Die” have a the most. But I always think, “Does this need dialogue? Does this need narration?” For the most part, I want the reader to figure it out on their own, but making sure it’s easy to understand. Does this character need to explain how sad and depressed they are if they’re alone in their room? No.

I decided against thought balloons because I didn’t want to tell the reader too much about them. I wanted them to feel what we were trying to put on the page and understand their mood versus using a thought balloon and the character telling the reader straight up, “I’m depressed because of blah blah blah.” That wasn’t what was important. When I was writing the story, why she was depressed wasn’t important — it was that she was depressed. I was focusing on what was most important in telling the story and always thinking, “Can art show this without words? Or can it do it better?”

In “Bright Side,” why would Davene be talking to herself out loud? I’ve gone through depression and anxiety myself and you don’t want those thoughts on the page. [laughs] I think it helps to set the mood and help people connect with it a little deeper on their own. That was our intention. “Bright Side” was one of my favorites. That and “Group Chat.” They’re so different, but I think Robyn and I really did so well in those two very different kinds of stories and accomplished what we were trying to do.

They are very different stories, and it’s a chance to try different approaches. Like there’s so much in “Bright Side” that’s unsaid, that doesn’t need to be spelled out, and you give the readers just enough to understand it emotionally and get a feeling for the details.

Jamila:  In “Bright Side,” for example, we were focused on giving readers just enough to know that something hair-related happened to her at work with co-workers that made her uncomfortable going to work with her hair natural. But we don’t need to know the work story. We just need to know that she’s not comfortable because something happened. With Cookie and her abuela, we don’t need to know all of the details of what that trauma was, but just enough to know that it was deep and it hurt. I like to do that.

Robyn does a great job with things going on in the background and being able to get a sense of who the character is in subtle ways. We’re very big on not explaining things. We want it to be easy to understand, but we don’t want to over-explain ourselves either; we like finding that middle ground. When I was writing the script for Wash Day I was like, “I’m not going to explain anything. If you get it, you get it, and if you don’t, or you can Google it.” [laughs]

In Wash Day you showed things step by step without explaining, “Now here’s what I’m using, and these active ingredients do this,” and going into those details.

Jamila:  Parts of Wash Day could have been a straight-up tutorial with how much we broke down the steps. Showing how it takes up a lot of time. But not explaining why she left the deep conditioner in her hair and walked to the store. A lot of people will know that and relate to it, and that’s what we were aiming for. And some folks will be like, “I don’t get it.” But that’s cool. It’s a thing that some folks do. [laughs]

As someone who has dealt with grandparents with dementia, Cookie and her grandmother in “La Bendición,” — I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a lot that rang very true.

Jamila:  I won’t get too much into it either, but it’s something that a lot of people experience with their elders, and something I experienced myself with most of my grandparents. So “La Bendición” was about what happens when dementia is intertwined with past trauma. It’s the one of the stories I feel most sensitive about.

I feel very different about all of the stories. They all give different energy. Part of me wondered, are they too different? This story is kind of sad, and this one is fun and happy. But I thought to myself, “This is what our lives are like.” Literally I can go through all of those emotions in one day. I wanted to show these characters who have all these different kinds of things going on in their lives.  

I think it works beautifully as a linked short story collection and how the two of you put it together. On many levels. But just to close, are the two of you going to work together again?

Jamila:  I would work with Robyn forever. So, most likely.

Robyn:  We are.

Jamila:  We already have a graphic novel that we’ve been talking about which we’re really excited about. This time, Robyn will be involved with the story from the beginning and play a big part in the script. We get giddy just talking about it. We know it’ll be great. It’s just a matter of us finding the time to work on it. 

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