Women in Comics: Cartoonist Shaenon K. Garrity


October 12, 2012 by shepla

Yesterday New York Comic Con opened, running through Oct. 14 at the Javits Center. And on the West Coast, Alternative Press Expo is going on today and tomorrow at Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco. And if you’re there, stop by the Couscous Collective booth and say hi to the super-savvy Shaenon K. Garrity, a talented writer who has been creating comics for 12 years. You can check out her work, including webcomics “Skin Horse” and “Narbonic” at http://www.shaenon.com/. Shaenon is also a long-time freelance editor for VIZ Media.

Girls+Comics: I know you have broad taste in comics. Do you even make the distinction between comics for girls/guys when you’re buying them? Do you think the stories are different? (For me personally, even if the story is good, whenever there’s a long action or fighting scene, my brain kind of tunes out until the main storyline kicks in again…)
Shaenon K. Garrity: I like all comics that don’t suck. So yeah, I like action comics, but only if the action is awesome. Good action is hard to draw. I think manga artists are generally the best at drawing absorbing, kinetic action scenes, but even most action manga is kind of blah. Not many cartoonists can be Katsuhiro Otomo [Akira] or Yumi Tamura [Basara, 7 Seeds].

G+C: It bugs me that stuff like, say, Spider-Man is so popular, and there’s no equivalent mainstream title for girls/women. Does that ever bother you? Do you think it’s even possible to have something as big as Spider-Man that’s targeted to girls?
SKG: At this point I’ve more or less accepted that Marvel and DC are not interested in female readers, or even most readers outside a small circle of devotees. And that’s okay; I dig those comics when they’re good. But most of the amazing stuff in comics is happening elsewhere. Tons of girls read the First Second books, tons of girls read the Scholastic graphic novels, tons of girls read webcomics. Raina Telgemeier is one of the most widely read comic artists today, and it’s not because of that X-Men book she wrote. Same goes for Kate Beaton.

The girl-targeted equivalent to Spider-Man is probably something like Sailor Moon, which has had enormous staying power despite being out of print in English a lot. Alternately, I know lots of women who grew up reading superhero team books like X-Men and Legion of Superheroes, which have a mix of different kinds of characters and situations. If the superhero publishers decide they want girls to read their comics, they could focus on pushing titles like those.

Or they could work more gay subtext into their
Iron Man/Captain America scenes. That always does the trick.

G+C: What are your favorite comics? Do you prefer indies to mainstream stuff? And what did you read growing up?
SKG: Growing up, I read comic strips, especially Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes. I didn’t really get into comic books until high school, when, like many nerdy girls of my generation, I discovered Sandman. From there I started reading indie comics like Bone and the work of Tom Hart, and in college I got into manga thanks to a student-taught manga class that a couple of girls put together.

I don’t have a favorite category of comics, but my favorite living cartoonists are probably Lynda Barry and Moto Hagio, if that helps. [G+C: Check out Shaenon’s interview with Moto Hagio in The Comics Journal here!]

G+C: When did you know you wanted to be a cartoonist? How long have you been doing it?
SKG: Like all kids, I drew a lot; I just never stopped. I drew comic strips in high school and college, and after I graduated from college I started my first webcomic, Narbonic, to give myself an excuse to keep drawing. I’ve been doing comics semi-professionally for 12 years now.

G+C: Can you describe the comics that you work on? Because you’ll do it so much better than I will. 🙂
SKG: Hurm… Right now, I cowrite (with Jeffrey C. Wells) and draw a daily online comic strip called Skin Horse, which involves a small government bureaucracy devoted to assisting “nonhuman sapients,” mostly the unfortunate creations of mad science. I’ve also started drawing a weekly webcomic called Monster of the Week, in which I recap every episode of “The X-Files,” something that seemed like a good idea for about ten minutes. I’ve got a couple of other projects in the works, either as a writer or an artist.

Since none of this makes any money, I work as a manga editor for VIZ Media, handling about a half-dozen series. Currently this includes Case Closed, Hayate the Combat ButlerFushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden, and a few other titles.

G+C: How do you promote and distribute your work? (And is that more work than making the comics?)
SKG: I’m not the best at self-promotion. Most of my comics run online, so I do a small amount of advertising and much more word of mouth via social networking sites. I’ve also been publishing print collections through my cartooning group, the Couscous Collective. Yes, selling comics is more work than making comics. It also involves a lot of creativity, because the comics market is weird as hell.

G+C: What else is on your plate these days?
SKG: I teach at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Right now I’m just doing one-on-one tutoring at their writing lab, because teaching classes kind of freaks me out. I always have the feeling that, at any moment, my students are going to figure out they outnumber me and rise up against me.

Also, I’m working to develop and promote the Couscous Collective, the aforementioned cartooning group. We’re a dozen or so cartoonists, printmakers, and other artists, mostly in the Bay Area, who have joined forces to make comics. We put out an anthology every six months, so I’m always working on some Couscous story or another. Our newest anthology is Kitties, a collection of stories about cats, and after that will be Spirits, which can be either ghosts or booze. I’m planning to do one of each.

G+C: I know your husband [Andrew Farago] is the curator at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, and you’re super well-connected. What’s been your best experience in the industry?
SKG: A few years back, Andrew and I curated a show of art by Disney artist and illustrator Mary Blair, one of my all-time favorite artists. I got to go to the house of Mary’s sweet, shy son Kevin, who kept the family art collection, and go through boxes of amazing artwork. Some representatives from Studio Ghibli in Japan saw the show at the Cartoon Art Museum, and they decided to do an even bigger Mary Blair show in Japan. Andrew and I worked on that show, too, which meant that we got to visit Japan (twice–for the installation in the spring and the deinstallation in the fall) and spend time with people from the Ghibli Museum. We even had tea with Hayao Miyazaki. That was an amazing time.

I’ve had a lot of great experiences in the industry. Most comics and animation people are really nice.

G+C: Do you have any advice for aspiring cartoonists?
SKG: All I can do is quote Kyle Baker’s book How to Draw Stupid: “To be a cartoonist, you must actually make cartoons. I bring this up because I’ve met a lot of people who say they want to be cartoonists, but they don’t have any cartoons.”

Basically, to be a successful cartoonist–or, really, an artist of any kind–you need two of three things: talent, reliability, and social skills. If you’re really talented, you can get away with being unreliable and/or a jerk, and if you’re both reliable and pleasant to work with you can get away with not having talent. But you need at least two out of three.


5 thoughts on “Women in Comics: Cartoonist Shaenon K. Garrity

  1. I’ve always considered the first 125 issues of Spider-Man to be a consistently entertaining superhero/romance hybrid. As a little kid, I enjoyed the superhero stunts more. But as I got older, the Peter Parker & Gwen Stacy romance kept me hooked. Has there ever been a mainstream comic book series published in the U.S. that balanced love and rockets better?

    • shepla says:

      I have to admit I never have even opened a Spider-Man comic book. I guess the whole superhero concept just doesn’t appeal to me, even if there were a romance involved.

      • Another good example of a superhero/romance hybrid might very well be X-Men. I wonder if editor Amy Yu might agree (see previous Girls + Comics post). She went from X-Men comics to shoji manga without a hitch.

      • Stephen C. says:

        I’ve heard this said before about superhero comics in general and Spider-Man specifically but I’m not sure that I’m on board with the idea that the soap opera stuff in superhero books qualifies them as romance comics. I’d love it if someone looked at what’s been said by the creators of Silver Age superhero comics over the years to see if there’s any evidence that they consciously imported that stuff from romance comic books. Iconic Spidey artist John Romita Sr. was a veteran of romance comics so there’s that connection at least.

  2. Stephen C. says:

    I’ve a question for you manga industry insiders: How big is the market for manga in this country vs. the market for mainstream American comics? I ask because my personal (and perhaps inaccurate) observation has been that traditional book stores devote as much space, and sometimes more space, to manga than they do to other other comics and graphic novels, which seems to imply to me that they are selling in equally high numbers there. You don’t really see periodical comic books sold many places other than comics specialty shops, of which I think there are only a couple thousand in the U.S. Some of the comments in the interview have got me wondering if it’s even true that the mainstream comics mentioned above are selling in higher numbers than manga, much of which appeals to girls. Their characters are very high profile these days because of Hollywood’s current superhero kick, but the comics themselves still seem to only be read by a small niche audience. Again, this is based on my own personal impressions and no actual facts, so please chime in with any you might have.

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