High School Love: Denson Talks "Tough Love"

Love is tough. Surprisingly, it's not actually any easier for a gay kid in a suburban high school, but that's exactly what Brian's dealing with. He's the main character of Abby Denson's graphic novel "Tough Love: High School Confindential."

Originally serialized in XY Magazine in the '90s, "Tough Love," with its minimalist art and soft touch for the characters, has become a bit of a modern classic. It's available as a collected edition for the first time, and Denson has been touring extensively in support of it.

Denson is busy with the tour and her band and her cat Slinky, but CBR News managed to steal just enough of her time to talk with her about "Tough Love."

CBR News: So how would you describe "Tough Love: High School Confindential?"

Abby Denson: "Tough Love" is about Brian, a gay teen coming out in a suburban high school, and his Kung-Fu fighting boyfriend, Chris. It focuses on issues gay teens deal with as well as important relationships with friends and family. It's also cute, sad, and funny in turns.

CBR: What inspired you to write the book?

AD: I was interested in doing a romance comic and saw some Shounen-ai anime and manga, back in the mid-'90s before it was so readily available in English. I thought that was a new twist you didn't see in any American comics. I wanted to do a gay teen romance, but more realistic to the American experience than Shounen-ai is. Also, my own background was not homophobic, my Dad and uncle are gay. So I wanted to do something that expressed my worldview as well.

CBR: So then, how much of an influence was manga on "Tough Love?"

AD: Definitely in concept, manga inspired me story-wise. The wide range of subjects is one of my main interests in manga.At the time I was creating "Tough Love," the American mainstream comics scene was not covering different subject matter and genres the way that manga does.

It still isn't, but the manga and graphic novel boom we're having is changing that, I hope. I am somewhat manga influenced artistically, but not enough where I'd call my book "manga." I consider it an American indie comic or graphic novel with maybe a little manga flavor.

I studied in Japan while I was in college and have traveled there since. I've even exhibited at Comic Market twice a ways back. I could be considered a Japanophile and I think manga brought me into that, but artistically I'm trying to do my own thing.

CBR: "Tough Love" originally began back in the'90s. Do you think things have gotten better or worse for gay and lesbian teenagers since then?

AD: I think it's a mixed bag. In the media gay people have become more visible. The internet has made communication much easier for questioning youth to find information and support groups. At the same time, the political climate has been very negative towards gay people. A teen whose parents support Bush may find it very difficult to talk to them since Bush has made his anti-gay agenda quite clear. Also, unfortunately, gay youth suicide attempts are four times that of heterosexual teens. I received suicide letters when "Tough Love" ran in XY Magazine, since I addressed that issue in the story. We have a few pages of resources for kids in trouble in the back of the book, a major reason I'm trying to get it in as many libraries as possible.

CBR: Beyond shounen-ai and manga in general, who are some the people that have influenced your art?

AD: Rumiko Takahashi, Jaime Hernandez, Andi Watson, Rodney Greenblat, Keith Haring, Roberta Gregory, Kiriko Nananan and Lynda Barry to name a few.

CBR: Is there any chance of revisiting Brian and the other "Tough Love" characters?

AD: I definitely have ideas, especially to follow Li, Chris's ex-boyfriend, on some adventures.

CBR: In addition to "Tough Love," you've done a lot of work on licensed properties like "Powerpuff Girls," "The Simpsons" and "Sabrina, The Teenaged Witch." How did you get into that?

AD: When I finished school at Parsons School of Design I went to the DC offices to see if I could get some work. I met with Heidi MacDonald, who was working on the Cartoon Network books at the time, and she gave me the chance to pitch for "Powerpuff Girls" comics, which were just starting. Luckily, my pitches were approved and I've been doing licensed comics ever since.

CBR: You've been touring quite a bit for "Tough Love." How has that been?

AD: It's been amazing. I think the two-week West Coast tour I did was one of the best experiences of my life so far! It was just so exciting traveling to these new places and seeing old and new friends. Meeting the readers was great and I received so much support and good will from friends and strangers alike. I felt very loved. Sometimes it's easy to be down on people and how they treat each other in this world, seeing the bad news every day. But I'll never forget the kindness I experienced and it reminded me of people's huge capacity for goodness. Sharing joy in art between creator and readers is a very special thing that I'll always treasure. I'm still traveling and doing appearances for "Tough Love," most recently I spoke at some schools and it was very rewarding.

CBR: What comics are you digging right now?

AD: For manga I love "The Wallflower." For American comics I absolutely adored "Need More Love" by Aline Kominsky Crumb! Lynda Barry, Tim Fish, Matt Loux, I just read "Wet Moon" by Ross Campbell and enjoyed that a lot.

CBR: Before we go, what else have you been cooking up?

AD: I'm working on "Dolltopia," it's a mini-comic that I'm continuing into a graphic novel. It's about dolls that are tired of being controlled by humans so they start their own society. It's been described as cute and twisted. At MOCCA, I released a mini-comic of "Passing Notes," a 12-page gay teen comic I did for XY Magazine that never ended up being published in its entirety. Also, you can see my contributions in the following anthologies this summer, "Young Bottoms in Love," "Prism Comics 2007 Guide" and "Life Meter 2." In addition to that I've been doing some illustration work here and there, which has been fun.

"Tough Love: High School Confindential" is available from Manic D Press and your better book and comic shops. You can check out Abby's Web site for information on her book tour.

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