On Saturday, July 25th, 2020 at 11:00 AM San Diego time, the prerecorded Inspired: Personal Stories in Graphic Novels panel was released on YouTube. Please be advised that this conversation includes discussions on sensitive topics including eating disorders, sexual abuse, gun violence, racism, and suicide.
The panel featured Katie Green (Lighter Than My Shadow), Joel Christian Gill (Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence), and Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer: A Memoir). The panel was moderated by Shawna Gore, who is an editor at Oni Press.
Gore opened the Inspired panel with something of a mission statement.
“Before we jump into the conversation, I just wanted to say that right now we are at a pivotal time in history, where we are hearing and listening to more stories from people whose voices have historically not been heard, including Black and Indigenous people of color, and LGBTQIA people,” said Gore. “We really hope that by talking about these specific books we can inspire more people who have historically been marginalized to tell their stories. And more importantly, that more publishers, producers, and people who help fund media in general will consider the importance of these voices and support them in telling their stories. And I hope y’all agree with me that this stuff is particularly important at this point in time!”
Each of the panelists discussed what inspired them to tell their personal stories during the Inspired panel.
“I guess the idea for it came from not finding the book I wanted to read at the time,” said Green. “My memoir is about dealing with eating disorders and sexual abuse growing up. Obviously, once I had my diagnosis and I was wanting to get well, I was looking at research and trying to find books that might be helpful, and I just didn’t find anything that really hit the right note. So that was the starting point, was wanting a book to exist that didn’t seem to be there. And I don’t think I was thinking about an audience, I just wanted it to be there for me!”
“My first year out of grad school, I was teaching at a community college. And there was a woman who took the class that I was taking,” said Gill. “We were talking and her husband was the principal of the elementary of the school I went to.”
Gill told the woman that he grew up in Candlewood, and the woman said she would relay the information to her husband. At the next week’s class, the woman approached Gill again.
“She came back the next week and she goes, ‘You grew up in Candlewood? Oh my god! And now you’re a professor? Oh my god!’ She could not believe that I had come from that place and was able to survive,” said Gill. “And I though, when I originally started drawing Fights, which was a completely different story, that I wanted to show people that it was possible for kids like me to come out of that. Like, we weren’t throwaway kids. I say this all the time, but I say that Fights is a love letter to kids who are like me growing up.”
Kobabe shared the genesis of eir book, Gender Queer: A Memoir.
“It really came about because I was starting to come out as gender nonbinary to my family, friends, professional community,” said Kobabe. “I switched to using alternate pronouns – I use the gender neutral pronouns e/em/eir, specific gender-neutral pronouns – and I was just having all of these conversations as I was starting to introduce this to my community, where people were like, ‘we love you, we support you, but we kind of have no idea what you’re talking about.’ I would try to explain: this is why this is important to me, this is where this is coming from, maybe you’ve known me for a long time and you seem surprised by this, but let me promise you this is something that I’ve been thinking about my entire life…”
Kobabe said e was not satisfied with these conversations.
“For whatever reason, these conversations just never seemed to get across the full point that I was trying to say,” said Kobabe. “It was honestly kind of frustration that drove me to draw this book, because I was like, I just can’t seem to explain what I need to say in conversation, so I’m going to have to sit down and write it where I have time to think through drafts and boil it down to the most simple, clear essential form of what I’m trying to communicate.”
Each of the panelists had come to graphic memoirs at different stages of their respective careers and lives. Kobabe explained that e had originally started drawing short comics about gender that e posted on Instagram, and that eir originally pitch had essentially been a collection of that pre-existing material.
By contrast, Green had a different path to graphic novel storytelling.
“I did not grow up really knowing about comics or reading comics, I was that person who was like, ‘Oh, well, comics are for people who can’t read proper books,’” said Green. “I didn’t read a comic until I was twenty-three. So Lighter Than My Shadow initially was going to be a ‘proper book,’ until I read The Red Tree by Shaun Tan – which is not a comic as such, its more of a picture book. And then I was like, oh my god, this has blown my mind, I could tell my story in pictures, I’ve had this really unique idea, I can do this different thing! And I spoke to my friend and he was like, ‘Yeah, so here’s a graphic novel, and you should probably read it.’ And as soon as I read Art Spiegelman’s Maus, it was like discovering how to speak a different language. It felt like the right way to tell the story.”
For Gill, Fights went through some considerable evolution through the creative process: when it began, it was something of a magical realist story rather than a memoir.
“I actually started working on Fights, initially, was the first thing I started to draw when I started drawing comics,” said Gill. “It’s funny, because I was on a panel at Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg with Jerry Craft, and he and I were talking about how New Kid was going to be a more direct representation of a flashback type of thing when he first started drawing it, and my story was going to be an imagined story which was about a kid like me… Which is really funny, because we were both going to do different stories. I think his worked out better!”
Gill said that he had something of a creative journey.
“In the process of just trying to learn how comics work, because I got a MFA in painting, I ran across Box Brown’s work, and started cyber stalking him,” said Gill. “I was Googling his name once, and I came up with a story about Henry Box Brown, who was an enslaved African who sold himself in a box from Virginia to Philadelphia.”
Gill’s interest was piqued, and he had to investigate: “I sent Box an email at the time, and I was like, ‘why are you a white kid in Philadelphia with the name of this former enslaved African?’ And he responded and said, ‘oh, it’s really funny, I’m square-shaped so my friends call me Box, but I might do a story about that guy someday.’ And I’m like, ‘here’s the perfect time to ever steal a story.’”
Gill said that the story developed from there. “I stole Box Brown’s idea to draw a story about Box Brown, and I did The Story of Henry Box Brown, and I did a number of stories about obscure Black history, and just the idea of telling stories.”
Gill explained that sharing historical stories of disaffected Black people in America was a really good way hone his comic storytelling technique, since the story spark and narrative arc were already built into the historical tales: all that was left for him was to determine how to draw it.
“So after four of those, I decided it was time for me to go back to the idea of telling my own story, and being more direct about how I told my own story,” Gill recounted. “I thought it would be better specifically because men, and in particular, Black men – like you look at me and you’re like, oh, Joel’s a scary giant man – but in reality, Black men don’t talk about the vulnerably that happens or the insecurities that happen because of sexual abuse, because of trauma, because of violence, and how absolutely terrified I spent most of my life. I thought it was important for me, as me, somebody who looks like me, to tell the story, because I thought it was better to tell that story than to have some fictionalized version of that. So then I just turned around and drew myself in the same way I drew Henry Box Brown, where there was a narrative arc, and just built it around that.”
Kobabe said that getting encouragement from editors and readers alike was one of the best parts of sharing eir story.
“A big part of it was just having somebody who was in the professional publishing world just be like, ‘no, this is good, no, this is valuable, keep going,’” e said. “The sort of epiphany moments that this was important kind of almost happened before I was even pitching the book, when I was posting those tiny little comics online and I had so many people reach out to me.”
Kobabe said e heard from people like former classmates and coworkers, who e had never known too well, but who shared that they had questioned their gender and could see themselves in Kobabe’s work.
“So many people came out to me because of that, and it made me feel so much more connected to my community in a way that felt really wonderful and important,” said Kobabe. “It made me realize that I really wanted the book to be something that built bridges, not burned them.”
Gill said that Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me helped him realize that not everyone’s experience growing up was the same as his, and this helped him understand how valuable sharing his story could be.
“I had never thought about how much I was ruled by fear as a teenager about going places,” said Gill. “I believe that the importance of sharing stories is to humanize everyone. When we do this on a personal level, when you go out to have a cup of coffee with people, it’s like you’re sharing little bits and pieces of yourself with that person. I think that when you have a larger platform, and I have a little bit of a platform, I think it’s really important to share those stories in a broader sense, so that now I’m not so much of the micro, but now I’m the macro – like, sharing the stories of Black people so that people can actually see what its like to be me.”
Green told the Inspired panel she had a specific moment when she realized she needed to write Lighter Than My Shadow.
“I guess my moment of epiphany was much more personal and internal because of what I’m talking about specifically is mental illness, which is for the large part a solitary experience,” said Green. “And the moment when I decided that I had to write the book was the moment when I was thinking about taking my own life. And the thought of writing the book was the only thing that I could think of to stop myself from doing that. So it became, ‘I have to figure out how to get through this so I can figure out how to write the book about how I got through this.’”
Green said that her book has continued to change her life in the seven years since it was first published in the United Kingdom. However, shortly after the book was released, she had a breakdown and was very ill for several years. The experience highlighted the fact that while the narrative of the book may have a clearly delineated beginning, middle, and end, the sense of completeness may be illusory when compared with the reality of continuing to live one’s life.
“I’ve come to have a deeper understanding of recovery and myself since then, which aren’t in the book,” said Green. “I think specifically because it’s massive, its 500 pages long, people think it contains the whole of everything.”
As a teacher, Gill told the Inspired panel he has had some interesting interactions with his students after they had the chance to read Fights.
“My students always start off the semester terrified of me, and then by the end, they’re like, ‘we don’t really care, it’s Joel,’” said Gill. “We have a good relationship, me and my students. There was a student who, every time I said something, would make these marks on her hand, like, this is a moment where you’re flexing. Like, ‘why you got to do this weird flex, Joel? You gotta flex?’ And it would just be me saying regular stuff, like, I would think it’s regular stuff, but she would say it’s flexing. Like, ‘we all don’t have the money to have as many pairs of sneakers as you do, Joel!’ You know, whatever, right? So after reading Fights, she was like, ‘I think I’m going to pull back on that a little… but not completely.’ Then I said something smart, and she was like, ‘whatever, nevermind.’”
The panelists each had more insight to share about their creative processes and the importance of memoirs during the Inspired panel, and you can watch the full hour-long panel on YouTube now.
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