Over the past decade, Liz Prince has been crafting an incredible run of short autobiographical comics. In that time, she’s received an Ignatz Award for Best Debut for her book “Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed?” and has released several books through Top Shelf while self-publishing a long list of minicomics and participating in anthologies and publications like “Marceline and the Scream Queens,” “Project: Romantic,” “Vice” and “Papercutter.” She’s a contributor to “Razorcake” and has had solo and group exhibitions of her work across the United States and in the United Kingdom.
Her latest book, published by Zest, is “Tomboy,” a look at Prince’s own life and her thoughts about gender stereotyping, gender expectations and how those played out when she was a child and teenager. It’s also a book about identity and how Prince found a community that accepted her for who she was.
CBR News: Where did the idea for the book start for you?
Liz Prince: Well, it’s my life, so it’s always been in there somewhere. I’d actually written a short comic that outlines a lot of the major incidents in “Tomboy” in a sketchbook from… 2004? It was just a rough thumbnail outline. I’d had this idea to talk about what it means to be a tomboy and what it meant to me, but I never saw it as a full graphic novel. The publisher, Zest, got in touch with me and wanted to do a book with me. Since they mostly do teen and young adult books, I had to come up with a concept that fit in with something that a teen or young adult would want to read. I was thinking about it for a while and I was like, I could tell this story and it seems like a good time to talk about a gender issue in a comic. I know there are comics that talk about it briefly, but I haven’t seen a lot of comics where it is the main focus of the book. I thought it might not be completely unique, but no one’s told it before that I’ve seen.
This is your first longform comics project. Was this a very different experience for you?
I’ve always wanted to draw graphic novels. I’ve tried a couple times to start one that I’d get sixty pages into, and then I’d get stuck. A lot of drawing a graphic novel, I realized, is connecting the dots between the scenes that are really exciting and engaging to you and having to fill it in with stuff that might not be as fun or exciting to work on. In the past, I’ve been able to drop a comic when I stop being engaged in the story, or when I start being frustrated that I’m not coming up with a way to make a transition. Since I had signed a contract for “Tomboy” and it had to be turned in nine months after I signed the contract, I didn’t really have time to say, “I’m bored with this.” There’s an element of having to plow through it, and some of the things that I didn’t think flowed right got fixed, and some of them didn’t.
In the end, I really enjoyed working on a schedule like that. It was beneficial for me. I don’t know that I’d necessarily chose that tight of a deadline again but it definitely made me do the book. The things that I didn’t like are not as glaringly obvious to me now. And I hope they’re not as obvious to those who are reading it.
Was the process of making the book very different from how you work on short comics?
I know that a lot of people will write scripts for their books or even write it out like a writer on a comic book would, where they plan out the pages beforehand, but I’ve never been able to work that way. I thumbnailed the entire thing at the size it would be drawn, and then sent those to the editor. (My thumbnails are pretty close to what the actual finished pages look like, with the exception of a few things.) Then I re-pencilled the entire thing on bristol, still at the same size as it was printed at, and then I inked it and then I scanned the whole thing. I think that the next time that I do it I might thumbnail it the same way, but then print those thumbnails out on bristol in blue line and then ink over that, because not that much was changed between the thumbnailed version and the final version.
Redrawing an entire book that isn’t very different — I mean, in this case it only took me about a month to re-pencil the entire thing, and about a month to ink the entire thing. But I don’t ever want to do that again. [Laughs] I watched a lot of “Gossip Girl.” That’s how I got through it. That is the perfect show to work to because you never have to actually look at it. It’s just good, trashy teen drama that you never have to look at. That’s my tip to would-be cartoonists: Just watch “Gossip Girl.”
So you thumbnailed and wrote it, then penciled and inked the book in nine months?
I would say that the entire process probably took a little closer to a year, because I came up with the concept and then formally pitched it, and then there was a couple months between when they sent me a contract and accepted the pitch. I didn’t start earnestly working on it until I got the green light from them, just in case someone else wanted it in a different format or something. I didn’t want to get too invested in something and then have to make drastic changes.
Often, when we do get stories about gender expectations, they tend to be from trans or genderqueer individuals. But you’re like, “I’m cis and straight — I just don’t want to be ‘that kind of girl.'”
I think a huge component of this book is talking about stereotypes. There is a stereotype in the other direction, where anyone who doesn’t necessarily present as their gender, there’s the stereotype that they all are gay or lesbian or trans. It’s just another aspect of the greater gender stereotyping that women should be like this and men should be like this. I hadn’t seen many books about cis males or females talking about their own gender identity and not having it line up with what is culturally expected of them.
One of the reasons Joan of Arc was burned at the stake is because she wore mens’ clothing. It’s so silly, but it’s something that’s so ingrained.
It’s so frustrating. It’s something that seems really trivial because how you look and what you wear is very usually not a representation of what you are like. It’s really interesting that these outside signifiers mean so much to people, and it’s hard for people to really disconnect them from what a person is like on the inside.
I pay a lot of attention to news stories that get passed around. There was a story about a girl who was like eight years old and she got kicked out of her Catholic school because she didn’t want to wear girls clothing. It wasn’t a uniform. She wore jeans and t-shirt and they considered that to be distracting. I mean in 2014 that’s not okay? I don’t know what kid culture is like these days. I would have assumed that things would be different. I’m sure there are a lot more progressive things going on. The fact that stories like that get national attention is a sign of progress, but it’s interesting to hear that those things are still triggering to people. Not identifying with what a gender is supposed to be is something that can get you in trouble right now.
I worry now that for many people, there’s the “explanation” that if you don’t meet this stereotype it’s because you’re LGBTQ, which means the gender stereotyping is “correct.”
Exactly! That’s one of the reasons why writing this book was important. I’m not gay, but I certainly get I don’t want to say “accused,” because I don’t think that’s in any way wrong. But I was told by a therapist, unrelated to any conversation that we had, that just because of the way I dressed that she was surprised that my partner was a male and she thought that I should rethink my sexuality. I was like, wow — seriously? She was not my therapist for very long. [Laughs]
When making a book involving your childhood are you drawing all of this from memory, do you have journals, are you talking with other people?
It was mostly from memories, and a lot were more the way situations made me feel more than how they exactly played out. I assume that’s how most people’s memories work, especially from a time like elementary school. Pretty much the only person I talked to about events was to try to get my timelines correct, or sometimes it’s hard to know, did this happen or was this an episode of “Family Ties?” I don’t actually have any of my journals anymore, which is a little disconcerting because my mom has basically everything else I’ve ever touched in my life. I don’t know if I got rid of them, because it’s possible I might have. I don’t want to think about my younger brother getting his hands on them and distributing them, but it’s possible. I apologize to him if he’s reading this, because he’s not a jerk! He’s my younger brother.
People have asked me if the journal parts are taken from real journals, and they’re not. They’re a device to remove my present self as narrator, because once I got to the point in the story where it was in sixth grade, I didn’t need myself to show up and explain things. That was the age where I could start thinking more critically about these issues and so it seemed like a good device to have my own insight from that time into what was happening.
You also used it as a good way to transition between scenes and stories.
One of the things that was really challenging about writing this book was that it takes place over, basically, eighteen years of my life. How do you write a book that spans that much time without it being too long, too rambly and having too many characters? Using the journal pages as a transition. I also combined people so that every character is an amalgamation of two or three people. Hopefully that helps shield people’s identities. I found myself using more storytelling techniques or refining them more than in my other comics.
You’ve been telling autobiographical stories for a while now. What do you like about them?
I don’t really know anything else. I’ve never been too interested in genre stories. I’m not a fantasy fan, I’m not a sci-fi fan, I’m not a superhero fan. I like things that are more slice of life. I’ve always enjoyed reading autobio comics more than other comics so it makes sense that they would be the kinds of stories I would want to tell. For someone who likes talking about themselves so much it is kind of funny that I really hate public speaking — especially about my own work. It just seems like I connect better with stories that are told by other people about themselves. I feel like I try to make that connection with my readers as well.
Does telling autobiographical stories require a higher tolerance for embarrassment?
Probably. [Laughs] I’m one of those people who has a really hard time being dishonest. Not about little things, but I’ll find myself making sure that I get details of a story completely correct. I live on the first floor. It’s the first time I’ve lived on the first floor since I lived in Santa Fe — since I’ve had my cats, they’ve always been on the third floor or second floor. I found myself telling people, this is the first time I’ve ever had my cats on the first floor. I mean, except for the foster home, then they were in on the first floor. It’s like, who cares? Why is that a detail that needs to be said? I feel that it’s not completely truthful. Details like that, I find myself having to pick and choose which I should integrate into “Tomboy.” Part of me is like, does that affect the story at all? No. I’m so detail oriented about certain things. I don’t know if it’s one of the things that makes my comics good, per se, but I do have this attention to detail and the need to feel like I’m being very truthful about things. Even if those things are highly embarrassing to myself — which I’m sure my comics are. Just don’t tell me. [Laughs]
In “Alone Forever,” you have a strip where you say, “I wish I had the guts to say whatever I think.” I thought of that just now — the way you just spoke about comics, it feels like you try to do that.
That’s one of the things that’s funny about a comic like that. I wish I had the guts to say all these things I’m thinking, but then I basically just said them all — just not to someone’s face. I think I work out a lot of things as comics, also. It’s part therapeutic, part me trying to be funny for other people.
You’re going off on book tour on the East coast and West coast. After that, are you going to make another graphic novel, or do you want to return to short comics?
I think I got bit by the bug. That was always my intention, and I really just didn’t know if I could pull it off before this. I would like to make a graphic novel every other year, I think. I know that I can definitely do that work wise. I have a book that I’m in the middle of putting a pitch together for, and hopefully that will become my next project. I expect that I’ll still be doing other promotion stuff for “Tomboy” into the next year. I hope to do the spring convention circuit with this book. It’s the project that’s the most personal to me, and I’m the most proud of. I hope it reaches as many people as possible.
Throughout September, Liz Prince will be visiting the West and East coasts on her book tour. For dates and more information, go to lizprincepower.com.