Lilli Carre is a Chicago-based cartoonist, illustrator and animator. She was a regular contributor to “Mome” and adapted Hans Christian Anderson’s Christmas tale “The Fir Tree” into comics. Her books include “The Lagoon,” “Tales of Woodsman Pete,” and “Nine Ways to Disappear.” She’s crafted a number of animated films, which can be viewed on her website, lillicarre.com, and have screened at various international festivals including the Sundance Film Festival. She’s also co-director of the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation, which she founded in 2010.
Her new book from Fantagraphics is “Heads or Tails,” a collection of short comics from various publications ranging from “The Believer” and “The Guardian” to “The Best American Comics” and “The Best American Nonrequired Reading.” Reading the collection, it’s hard not be impressed with Carre’s skills. The way she jumps, seemingly effortlessly, from one tone and approach to another, playing with design and layout, but also telling some very human and very affecting stories. It’s an accomplishment even more notable given how young she is. Comic Book Resources spoke with Carre about the new collection and her other projects in comics and animation.
CBR News: As a way of introduction, how did you first come to comics?
Lilli Carre: I drew my own scribbly comics as a kid, and was obsessed with certain comics as I grew up: “Hot Stuff,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” “MAD” Magazine, “Bone,” and “The Sandman.” I was always on a quest to seek out and collect the earliest “MAD” issues I could find at the comic shop — my passion for “MAD” as a pre-teen was very strong! It was upon leaving LA to come to Chicago to go to college, though, that I became fully immersed in independent comics. The idea of self-publishing comics and a whole community around it was a new world to me. Of all cities to discover this in, Chicago was particularly great — there were great comics being self-published in the city by the former Holy Consumption group of Anders Nilsen, Paul Hornschemeier, John Hankiewicz and Jeffrey Brown, and I learned of comic stores like Quimby’s that housed incredible work being made in the city and elsewhere. I encountered Chris Ware’s work right upon moving to the city because he had a full page comic that appeared weekly in the “Chicago Reader” at the time, and the first graphic novel I picked up at Quimby’s was [Daniel] Clowes’ “David Boring,” which immediately blew my mind.
So, inspired by encountering all this great comics work, I started making my own. I mainly studied experimental animation in school at SAIC [School of the Art Institute of Chicago], and really developed my personal style through doing that, but I also began taking offset printing classes in order to print covers for my comics. I would sell them at the comic shops in Chicago and a couple other cities, and have kept making them since. I think I will always be interested in making mini-comics and artists’ books in addition to any longer comic stories that may be published — I just like the feel of making and reading a handmade book too much to ever stop.
You’ve made a graphic novel, short comics and then strips and vignettes. Is there one form that you enjoy or think that you’re particularly good at?
I struggle with making very short comics in strip form; it’s very hard for me to think of a comic that can work in four tiny panels, like the strips I was doing for “The Believer” magazine for a while. I’ve done most of my comics in short story form, and in general I really enjoy reading authors that write short stories, and so far have preferred to work this way. I also like experimenting with different styles and trying different methods of storytelling within a comic, so working on short comics allows for this kind of exploration. I’ve become kind of hungry, though, to start working on one long story that is more weighted on the narrative end than my past works — I’m currently in the stage of trying to look at all the little story thoughts that I’ve scribbled down on paper for this next project, and work it into something resembling a script.
In any good collection of short work, there are many different styles, approaches, settings — what do you think is the connecting thread between the pieces? Or do you think there is one?
“Heads or Tails” collects about five years of comics, and I am using different styles and materials with many of the stories, so there is definitely visual variation throughout the book. Hopefully the comics within feel like they come from the same hand and mind. As I was thinking about collecting the stories together, I was re-reading through them all and realizing they almost all clearly circled around the same theme of making decisions, thus the title “Heads or Tails.” Our lives can be reduced to a series of non-stop, never-ending choices, big and small! A lot of my stories have characters that are caught in a state of ambivalence and frozen in indecision, or who actively make a change that flips the tone of their life, OR they live through their own imaginings of what their life would be like if they made other choices or lived it a different way, etc. There is also a fair amount of visual play on the idea of two-sidedness throughout the book. It’s always interesting to write one comic story or many, and then to stand back and realize the overarching themes that are staring back at you — things you hadn’t actively been trying to write about, but that were clearly there, staring you in the face.
A number of the comics in the book have seen print before in different outlets. Tease a little about what people are familiar with your work can expect to see in this book and why they need to buy it.
Several of the stories in “Heads or Tails” were in “Mome,” as well as a couple others that appeared in anthologies and magazines over the past few years. About an equal amount of the book is comprised of new stories and work that only existed as very small editioned [sic] artists’ books or mini-comics that I reformatted to be included in the volume.
You also designed the book. What was that like and why did you want to do that? Was it as simple a process of saying, I want the book to be these dimensions and have french flaps, or something else?
I loved designing and arranging the book. Figuring out which pieces to include and the best order for them took quite a while, since I wanted each story to speak to the one before and after it, and to have a good flow despite the shift in styles. It was like making a high-stakes mix tape. I was excited to have the opportunity to design french flaps in a playful way and to try to make a book that would feel really nice to hold and look through. The covers to my three previous books of comics have all had a design that included a border or corner ornamentation and a central illustration of a character — so, for this book I spent a lot of time figuring out what might work as a cover in a way that felt different than the look of the other books.
A number of the stories here first appeared in “Mome,” which you contributed to for about half a dozen issues. What the experience of working on “Mome” like?
“Mome” provided a great opportunity to have work published in full color in good company, with deadlines and motivation to create work on a quarterly basis that otherwise might not be made. I was really honored to be included in “Mome,” and it encouraged me to experiment with different methods of writing and drawing comics.
Compare the process of creating the short pieces we’re seeing in “Heads or Tails” versus the short pieces we saw that composed “Tales of Woodsman Pete,” which was more a linked short story book. Even “The Lagoon” was very much composed of stories within stories and stories that mean something different pulled together as part of a larger narrative. Is there a difference in how you think or work?
Yeah, this collection is certainly different in that the stories within were made as self-contained works and over a larger span of time, rather than as one focused project or character-driven work split into pieces. It’s kinda like I spoke of in an earlier question, that while these stories are made as singular, separate comics rather than being connected from the start, they all do definitely contain the thread of what I’ve been working through thematically over the past five years, whether I’m aiming for that or not. It doesn’t feel too different to work on individual stories like these as opposed to the ones that I actively trying to make all connect to create a large whole. Though I haven’t done autobiographical comics, if there’s something I’m thinking a lot about or dealing with in my own life, I can’t help but have it seep into the lives of those in my comics. When these stories sit together, as they do in this new book, they automatically speak to each other for this reason, and this links the stories without that having been the initial intent when writing them.
You create animated films and comics, you draw illustrations and create covers. They’re similar projects, but they’re very different as far as the role of the image and how the viewer/reader is supposed to relate to the image and think about it. Can you talk about how you have to approach each of these forms differently, but also how they overlap and relate to each other?
They all inform each other, but yes I look to each form for different things. I usually work in animation to make more intuitive, expressive work, and reserve comics for specific, structured story ideas. I get a lot of pleasure by being able to jump back and forth between working in these two forms. As soon as I get sick of one, I’m excited to work in the other. Additionally, freelance illustration and animation projects are what I do to make a living, but they also inform my personal work. They force me to draw different types of things than what I might usually do for my own stories, and are always giving me new puzzles to try to solve visually, and quickly. Switching between different media and different sorts of audiences always keeps me on my toes a bit and able to look at a project with fresh eyes.
What is the Eyeworks Festival?
The Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation is a curatorial project that I do with Alexander Stewart, which we started in 2010. We both love experimental animation, but there aren’t many good venues for viewing this sort of work at the moment — there are experimental film festivals, and there are general animation festivals, but what we are interested in specifically are the films being created that fit squarely between the two. This would be films often made by a singular artist or duo, focusing on abstract animation and/or unconventional character animation. So, we decided to start a small festival to showcase this type of work, on a scale that we could manage running between just the two of us. In our programs we showcase classic films, new works and rare masterpieces that are hard to glimpse otherwise, and we try to show works on 16mm film as much as we can. We have held the fest annually in Chicago for the past three years, with additional curated programs presented in Chicago and other cities throughout the year — most recently as part of this year’s Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival. The past programs are on our website and give a good sense of the type of films we are excited to show.
So what are you working on now?
I’m trying to put together a longer story right now, and it’s definitely in the loose scripting phase. Be it animation or comics, I want to explore a single story more thoroughly than I have before in either medium. In other news, I also just started taking a ceramics class! I want to try to create narratives with clay — we’ll see how that goes.
“Heads or Tails” is on sale now.