Odds are good that you’ve come across Kate Leth’s artwork. She writes and draws the webcomic “Kate or Die” and is part of a generation of artists who have established themselves and built a career through tumblr and Twitter. Her work has been seen in many anthologies including “Womanthology,” “Anything That Loves” and “Smut Peddler.” She’s drawn backup strips for “Locke and Key” and “The Strange Talent of Luther Strode.” Leth is also one of the writers and artists contributing to BOOM! Studios’ “Adventure Time” comics.
Leth spoke with CBR News recently about her comics career, her day job, working at the Halifax comic store Strange Adventures and the Valkyries, a group for women who work at comic stores.
CBR News: Kate, when did you start drawing comics?
Kate Leth: I don’t know the exact date but it was about four months after I started working at my comic book shop. I’ve been there about three years so it’s been about that long. That’s when I first started posting them online.
What made you interested in going the webcomics route in the beginning of your career?
Honestly, before I started working at the comic shop I was not a huge comic reader. I grew up reading Archie and have an incredible love/hate relationship with Archie Comics. I got back into it when I started living with some roommates who were really comics fanatics. They got me started reading again. They got me into “Runaways” and re-introduced me to webcomics, which I’d been really into in high school. I try not to mention that because my webcomics friends don’t like to be reminded that I’m that young. [Laughs] I started drawing at work. I was doing ads for the store and signs for different things and my boss said, “Why don’t you try putting these online?” I did and it was slow going at first, but then I did a couple comics about bisexuality and feminism and they sort of exploded. I thought, okay, I should probably keep doing this. [Laughs]
The first few comics you posted were retail stories, work stories and some creepy customer interactions. While you still make those kinds of comics, it’s much rarer. What was your original intent when posting comics? Was the idea always intended to be a place for whatever you drew?
I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do comics, but I wasn’t sure what they were about or what I wanted them to be about. My boss said, “Just write about work and the store.” I did that for a while, but I one day I just sat down and I did the first feminism comic I did — which is horribly embarrassing at this point because there’s a lot of factual inaccuracies. [Laughs] Once I did that, I thought, “This is so much more me.” Talking about things on an emotional level about things that are a lot more personal just meant a lot more to me. I still tell a lot of jokes and do a lot of funny comics but the stuff I like best is the personal stuff. I will still occasional talk about my job and retail but it evolved.
How did you decide on the title, “Kate or Die?”
[Laughs] I feel like I should keep changing the story because the origin story is boring. There was a guy who worked at a coffeeshop downtown in Halifax who used to have a sweater that said “Skate or Die” all over it and in the middle where it hit the zipper it said “Kate or Die.” When I started to do a blog I thought of that the night of. It stuck and it works very well.
When making autobiographical comics, how much are you conscious about how much and what you’ll reveal?
There are things that I don’t like to talk about directly. There are relationships that I am in and have been in that I’ve written about in a slightly more abstract way; talking about how it affected me, but not so much dealing with the other people involved. I think if someone were doing that about me I’d probably be pretty upset so I try to stick more to things that I am comfortable being open about and talking about without trying to jeopardize other people’s privacy. It can be hard because there are things that I’m going through now that I want to write about that I can’t really. There are things that I have gone through that I want to write about, but I just don’t feel right being candid about. I feel like I’ll eventually have to go the route of writing a graphic novel and vaguely disguising people under the guise of fiction. [Laughs]
I remember Ellen Forney made the point that she’s completely open about what she wants to be completely open about, but other things she never discusses.
I read her book “Marbles” recently and I felt that way reading it. When I was a fan of comics and I would read them I felt the same way. When I was reading “DAR” and I was reading Kate Beaton’s family comics you feel, “Wow, I really know this person.” As I’ve gotten to know artists and made more of my own comics, you realize, no. It’s that person’s version of a story. It’s that person’s filtered honesty. I mean there’s a lot of honesty there, but you have to protect yourself. You can’t just be completely open in every way. I don’t think that’s good for your mental health. [Laughs]
My favorite artists in general — in music, in comics — are people who are honest and will push that boundary, but it is nice when you realize there’s a lot there that you’re not seeing and that’s good. I really went full bore into it when I started and just sharing everything. The criticism is so much harder to take in those situations because it’s not like this joke you made isn’t funny, it’s attacking this very personal thing that’s you and yours, so you have to find a balance.
You mentioned “DAR” and I think Erika Moen’s comic has become one of the big touchstones and influences of the past decade. What was it about “DAR” that made such an impact on you?
It’s so funny because I’m honestly embarrassed how often I mention it and credit it whenever I give any kind of interview. It was a big deal for me when I read it. I remember being completely in awe that someone could put so much out on the table on such a controversial topic. It just impresses me so much and it’s something that I come back to all the time when I’m starting to chicken out. I think, “I need to push myself and go, okay, she did this and I have to push myself.”
To a certain degree, do you think that the sense you give audiences about what you’re like is a strange cumulative process? For example, you wrote a comic about breaking up, which was very good, but that colors how people read some of the comics that came before.
I think it probably does. That was a weird time and a big credit to him that he was cool with that and with me putting it out there. He and I are really good friends now and it’s the healthiest breakup I’ve ever had. He was there when my comics started and he was with me through that process. He was very, very supportive and that’s awesome. I think it’s probably really hard to date someone who makes autobiographical comics because you never know what’s going to be secret. [Laughs] I don’t know. I think it probably does. If you go back and read those comics before where I was in a really happy place in that relationship and very much in love and then you get to the end point and it’s like you follow-up along with that journey over time and it’s interesting. I like reading other people’s diary comics. Comics like the ones Julia Wertz wrote as she came to the end of a relationship, because you’re seeing it unfold in “real time,” really do make you feel like you’re close to that person. There’s always something you can take from work like that to relate to.
Do your friends ever say, “This can’t go in comic?”
[Laughs] You know, it’s funny I’ve never had anybody say that. I’m the one telling other people, please don’t tweet that I said that. [Laughs] All the time. I’m like, “Don’t put that on the internet.” I think there’s a lot of conversations that people shared with me that I’ve thought, I want to put that in a comic someday but I can’t do it now. There’s a lot of things going on in my life that I want to write about that I’m keeping notes on so that in five or six years I can write about it in an abstract way. A lot more common is I’ll be out at dinner and one of my friends will say, “Oh my God, you have to make a comic about that. This has to be a comic.” Which then I almost always forget. [Laughs]
This year you’ve been working without panels a lot more.
Yeah, and I’m not really sure why that is. It came from a lot of stuff I was reading. I love Kate Beaton’s family comics that she writes when she goes home. They almost never have panels and I love that. It has an interesting style to it. I love Erika Moen’s “Oh Joy, Sex Toy” comic and the way that’s more freeform. There are panels in it but it’s a little more open. I was very rigid and strict about my panels. I’m experimenting a little bit and figuring out how I want things to look as I go.
Some of the comics really felt like you were trying to think about the page differently and very consciously experimenting with layout and design.
That’s how I used to draw when I was younger. I was really interested in filling a page so that it was a little more interesting and a little more dynamic and I read a lot of comics working in a comic shop and going to conventions and I pick up so much from what I read and what I see other people doing and I find that the work that I do that is rigidly stuck in panels works but I don’t know there’s something about trying to approach it a little differently and throwing panels in there but not having the whole page be stuck in boxes just works better for me. I’m not entirely sure why, but it’s what I’ve been leaning towards in the last couple months for sure.
This has been a pretty big year for you. Your name keeps popping up in anthologies like “Smut Peddler” and “Anything That Loves,” and then you’ve done some “Adventure Time” comics —
And there’s going to be more! [Laughs]
Well, like almost every webcartoonist, you’re doing some work for “Adventure Time.” How did that happen?
I didn’t know it but Shannon, the editor of “Adventure Time,” followed by tumblr before we had any contact whatsoever. She was following my comics and knew them through an interview I had done on Autostraddle. She started following me and when they announced the Marceline and Bubblegum miniseries I reblogged it and wrote on the bottom, “I would literally kill an infant to be part of this series.” [Laughs] Within twenty minutes I got an e-mail from Shannon going, “Don’t resort to infanticide.”
We started talking, I ended up with a backup strip and a cover and then I just became part of their roster of artists. I have some really exciting projects with them in the next year. It was a big deal for me. It was a big step up in terms of getting my name out there. The things they’re doing with the comics like Shannon and what she’s done with all the webcomics artists in “Adventure Time” is so cool because she’s given so many people a shot to put their name out there and be attached to something big.
You’ve also made backups for other comics like “Locke and Key” and “Luther Strode.”
I didn’t do anything new for “Locke and Key.” They reprinted stuff I’d already made, which was cool because it was an unpaid project. [Laughs] For “Luther Strode” I did that for exposure. Some new people found me through that because obviously it’s a very different audience than people who would normally find my stuff. That was really cool and it was neat to challenge myself in those. I’m really happy with how they turned out. I really had to push myself for those. Yeah now I’m working with “Welcome to Night Vale” and doing some merch for them and that’s been really awesome. They’re amazing.
What are you making for “Welcome To Night Vale?”
It was a secret for a while, but it just came out: I did the badges and patches for them. It was awesome because I started listening to them on a roadtrip that I was on. I listened to probably eight episodes in a row. I tweeted at them and it turned out they had read and liked my comics and we became friends. I made some fan art of badges and they emailed me and said, “You want to make these for real?” That was really cool. I’ve been crazily lucky just the amount of work I’ve gotten out of twitter. I mean I have a career because of tumblr and twitter. It’s insane. Just approaching people and saying, I really love what you do, and then I work for them.
How did you end up in “Anything That Loves?”
Erika Moen actually recommended me, which was a pretty big deal. I remember sitting at my computer just staring, like, what? That was awesome. She put my name forward and they contacted me. I sent them all the strips I had done and they ended up being the opening pages for the book, which is really cool.
They worked really well because they’re fun and funny, but they also get to the heart of the matter.
I think it’s a nice icebreaker. You pick up that book and you’re not really sure what you’re in for and it’s quirky and fun and simple and educational and it gets you into the meat of the book and the more serious stories.
Stylistically though, you could say that about many of your strips: that because of the style and tone, they’re quirky and fun, but by the end they become more personal and emotional.
That’s what I try to do. I think the subtitle of my first book is going to be “A Few Comics About Uncomfortable Things.” [Laughs] Which I also want to call “Do We Really Have To Talk About This?”
Well, you keep bringing these things up.
And there’s a lot more that I want to talk about. There are things that I’ve pencilled and set aside because I’m not sure if I’m ready yet. Which is funny because the stuff that I put out there about my sexuality and self-injury and kink are really personal, but there are other things that might not seem as personal that are still harder to share.
I can definitely understand that. I was going to say that I really loved the bisexuality comics, but the self-injury ones I think were the ones where people really started to take notice.
I hope that it gave the impression that I have more to say or at least that there was more substance to the comics. They are really cute and they’re easy to gloss over, but I did have more I wanted to talk about. I’m really interested in that juxtaposition of cute and really serious. When someone writes a big essay or article about cutting it’s not very approachable and a younger person isn’t going to read it and identify with it as much. I thought, I want to make this more relatable because it’s something I dealt with starting when I was really young — like eleven or twelve. I think it worked in that sense. It’s a hard thing to talk about, but it’s something I’ve mostly grown out of and gotten past and I wanted to show people, “Hey, you can do this too.”
You used the word “cute” and your style has changed, but do you ever think, I want to tell this story but I need to find a new way to tell it?
I think there have been times when I bent the story to fit the comics a little better, but I don’t really want my comics to be super-dark. I have a story I really want to tell about a really crappy relationship I had with a teacher in high school that’s hinted at in one of the self-injury comics, but I don’t know how to write about it yet. Not even to write about it, but to draw it and make it into that style. There are other things I find really easy to draw in that style and to make comics about, but sometimes I have to stop when I realize the page is half text. [Laughs] I have to back up and think, “How do I make this more than just an essay?”
Are you conscious of your style and how it’s changed?
I think I’m better at drawing than a couple years ago. [Laughs] Those first comics I did were super rough. I try a lot harder now to make things a little cleaner and to make my characters look a little different and to put backgrounds in things. I don’t know. I’ve been really trying to improve the way that I do things and see what other people are doing-not to steal their styles, but to take little pieces and figure out how they can work for you. I’ve been working on it.
So who are the Valkyries and why should we beware them?
You should beware them because they are fierce. [Laughs]
The Valkyries are a group of females that work in comic stores internationally. It’s based around a message board that we have on Facebook. It’s private and you’ll never find us, so don’t try. It’s just a collection of the women behind the counter-sales people, volunteers, organizers, managers — not as many owners because I did want to keep it to the retail end of things, people who are on the floor and dealing with customers. I wanted to build a network for us because it wasn’t a thing that existed and it’s been really positive so far.
On the Valkyries website, it says that what unites you is that you love comics, live for Wednesdays and read “Saga.”
Yes. [Laughs] Which is not an exaggeration. Literally every girl in the group as far as I know-there’s probably someone in the group who’s terrified to say it-love “Saga.”
What’s next for you? Are you interested in doing something more long-form?
I am working on some big stuff in the next year that I can’t talk about yet-like most comics artists. [Laughs] I do want to work on something longer. I have something in mind I really want to write about that’s a longer story but I don’t think I’m going to have time to start working on it until next year. There will be little pieces coming out sporadically. I’m contributing to so many things. “Smut Peddler” is a big thing to work on. I’ve never worked on actual long-form sequential porn before. I’m really to try. I don’t know if I can draw naked men. [Laughs] I’d really like to put together a collection of the comics that I have into a book. I have enough now that I could do that, but things just keep popping up and when you work full time and do comics as your second job, it gets hectic.