Next week a new autobiographical comic book comes out from Sina Grace. Unlike so many of its predecessors, this one is about a man with a job. He might not like the job, nor even want it, but he throws himself into it with a totality that nearly undoes him, sucking him into a destructive, corporate, retail abyss and spitting him out the other side, ready to become the artist he was meant to be. Luckily for us, that man is Sina Grace and he shares every aspect of that journey in Not My Bag.
At Emerald City Comic Con a couple of years ago I met Sina Grace, he was promoting the (at the time) new comic book Li’l Depressed Boy, which he was drawing to Steven S. Struble’s writing. Grace was surprisingly charming and talkative, and not just about comic books. He complimented the design of my earrings and we began discussing the strange psychology of women’s fashion. He hinted at a book in-progress, something which would touch on his own experiences working in a high end department store as a women’t fashion salesman. Like most people, when I was younger I had my own share of dismal retail jobs while I was figuring out what I wanted to be, and so this piqued my interest.
This week Grace finally let me read the finished book which I’d been waiting for ever since we met. Poring over the revealing and incredibly honest accounts of the fashion retail industry, broken hearts, and buyers remorse I gained an enormous understanding of the weirdly uncomfortable atmosphere in department stores. As Grace says in his book, they are purposely creating a hostile work environment, who knows why, but it reminded me that life (as is so often true) is far too much like Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil. The book is brave and revealing, we’re given a first row seat to the contributory factors which created this incongruous detour for Grace. And even though it is relatable and understandable, (most people have had at least one mind-bendingly irritating job, if not many), it is simultaneously a unique sort of a book, with mediations on the importance of great accessories, a weather-appropriate wardrobe, avoiding men who are replacement father-figures, and (most importantly) remaining centered enough to listen to our inner warnings.
Sina Grace spoke candidly about his motivations for the book and the real-life implications of this true life story:
Sonia Harris: Thank you for letting me read Not My Bag. I love black and white comics and as a book about fashion, it is even more appropriate.
Sina Grace: Wait til you see it in print. I picked the best paper in the universe. Off white and a little toothy!
SH: Sounds gorgeous, I love a good quality paper! So is this the first book you’ve written yourself as well as drawn?
SG: I have done some stuff here and there through high school and college, but this is the first book that will be published by someone big. The last time I wrote and drew something was an illustrated novel back in… 2008!
SH: I notice that Steven S. Struble (writer of, and your collaborator on Li’l Depressed Boy) designed Not My Bag, did he give you any advice or guidance about writing the book?
SG: Struble has been nothing but a great and supportive friend in this process. I had kind of kept him out of the process until the end, and asked for his design help during a time crunch, and to have my favorite collaborator somehow be involved. I made the decision early on that Not My Bag needed to be 100% me – writing, artwork, lettering, etc. When I found a way for Struble to be involved, it felt right.
SH: Is it completely biographical, or are there elements of fiction in it?
SG: The book is not entirely autobiographical; I used the gothic genre to improve upon moments that- while dramatic on their own- needed to jump on the page. I took some awful stuff that happened in the real world, and did my best to make them read well on paper.
SH: Did you enjoy writing it, did it feel as cathartic to write as it did to read?
SG: Not My Bag was sometimes an ice cream treat on a Li’l Depressed Boy weekend, sometimes it was my worst enemy, but I always loved the idea of writing it… just sometimes it was difficult to get out of me. There was a period of a few months where I was having a lot of trouble getting to the core of the relationship portions, and my friend Spencer had suggested therapy as a means of excavating and getting to the core of my problems. Suffice to say, I felt like I had actually closed a chapter of my life- one that was beleaguered by the notion that I couldn’t grow as a person (cue Spencer making a joke about my waist size growing).
SH: I found the book surprisingly raw, filled with personal details. Are you worried that any of the players involved will read it?
SG: I’ve made the mistake of writing about friends, romantic partners, etc in the past before. I think the difference with Not My Bag is that so many of the events are so exaggerated and dramatic… and the people involved… I tried to make things about my reactions to events, not particular judgments on people. The ones who matter know what’s up.
SH: How long was this period of time that the book was about? It reads as about 6-9 months (apart from the flashbacks, obviously), is that right?
SG: The book takes place over a period of roughly sixish months.
SH: How long ago was this time of your life? Does it feel like ancient history or is it still a fresh memory burned into your mind? SG: The events that inspired this book took place around three or four years ago. Sometimes I get NAM-style flashbacks about things I forgot about (like how important it is to get people to sign up for credit cards), but the world of retail feels incredibly far away. What has stuck with me is the knowledge of how I wanted to be treated as a sales associate, so I try my best to be as low maintenance as possible… I usually end up just taking my clothes off on the sales floor to avoid the hassle of a fitting room!
SH: Have you completely walked away from your personal interest in fashion? Did your work in THE STORE poison it for you, or can you still enjoy the artistry of it?
SG: The world of fashion will always be intriguing and exciting to me. At its core, fashion invites people to use the imagination to express themselves on the go. I understand now how much of it involves marketing and how much money people can make off of it, but that doesn’t change how much I love a tailored suit, or one of those couture gowns you only see in museums, or even the spikey doc martens I just saw a chick walk out of this coffee shop in. What can I say? My love is unflappable.
SH: Have you seen the Alexander McQueen book Savage Beauty? It definitely combines art and fashion that you talking about in Not My Bag.
SG: I love that book so much! I had missed the exhibit, and I still wish I could have made the time to go.
SH: Finally, (and I hope this isn’t a spoiler for future readers), are you still with the Lawyer?
SG: My relationship with the lawyer has evolved into something a bit closer to lawyer/ client… with a strong dose of friendship tossed in.
SH: Thank you Sina, I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions. I think this book has a very wide range of appeal, for regular comic book readers as well as people with an interest in fashion, work, and love.
SG: Thank you! It’s a special book for me, so I do hope that readers dig it!
Not My Bag will be out in softcover from Image Comics for $12.99, available in all good book stores, as well as online retailers like Amazon.com, and in a digital format as well.