Joan Hilty Talks "Bitter Girl"

The name Joan Hilty is no doubt familiar to many comics readers for her long tenure at DC Comics, where she's worked in almost every editorial division, overseeing a long list of titles including "Blue Beetle," "Checkmate" and "Black Lightning: Year One." She's currently developing graphic novels at Vertigo.

What many fans may not be aware of is that the Rhode Island School of Design educated Hilty is herself an acclaimed cartoonist, having contributed to dozens of magazines, newspapers and anthologies over the years including "Gay Comix," "Wimmin's Comix," "Real Girl," "Girljock Magazine," "The Village Voice," "Ms. Magazine," "The Advocate," "Juicy Mother," "The Book of Boy Trouble" Volume 2, and many others.

Hilty's ongoing project for many years has been "Bitter Girl," a weekly comics strip which has been syndicated through Q Syndicate since 2001 and is available on Hilty's website joanhilty.net and in many newspapers including "The New York Blade," "The Dallas Voice" and "The Seattle Gay News."

On her website, Hilty describes "Bitter Girl" as "the cartoon for the cranky urban girl in all of us." While the strip has never lost her focus of documenting the lives of a group of gay women, as with all great art, Hilty finds something universal in this specificity, which speaks to both how mainstream queer culture has become and just how queer mainstream culture has become. "Bitter Girl" is also one of the best comics strips that has yet to be collected, though years of strips are available through various online archives.

Joan Hilty took time out of her busy schedules to talk with CBR News about "Bitter Girl."

CBR: Who were the cartoonists that really inspired you and helped develop your style?

JOAN HILTY: I grew up loving comic strips and editorial cartoons -- I checked out the same "Dick Tracy" and "Bringing Up Father" library collections over and over again, bought Doonesbury books, had a "MAD" subscription, read my great-uncle's Bill Mauldin books... So through that time I'd say Garry Trudeau, Mauldin, Pat Oliphant and Mort Drucker. It wasn't until college that I started getting into comic books -- some mainstream stuff, but mostly indie/underground titles -- and that's when I actually started meeting other cartoonists and getting more direct encouragement.

You lived in San Francisco in the '90s and became involved with a lot of publications including "Gay Comix" and "Wimmin's Comix." Who were the people who played a major role in your life, both in terms of growing as an artist and working as an editor, but also in more practical terms of living as a cartoonist?

Well, I definitely wasn't making a living off it. Right after graduation I shopped "Jitterbug Waltz," a campus paper strip I'd been doing, around to syndicates, and I got some very kind, individualized attention from editors and cartoonists -- Jay Kennedy, Lee Salem, Kathryn LeMieux, Cathy Guisewite -- but there was no question I wasn't ready yet. And I started drifting sideways into indie comics, because I was drawn to telling longer stories, and I'd gotten involved with various political and social groups.

It was a great, fertile time for indie publishing in the Bay Area -- you had stuff like "Processed World" that really was the forerunner for "The Onion;" you had Howard Cruse and Robert Triptow publishing comics that mostly showcased the white-dude voices of '70s gay lib but also were reaching out to women and artists of color. The OutWrite gay writers' conference was new and thriving, and that's how I met Jennifer Camper, Howard and Alison Bechdel.

"Gay Comix," "Wimmin's Comix" and a tiny Fantagraphics title called "Real Girl" were publishing regularly, so I published my first stories with them. I became a regular contributor to an awesome zine called "Girljock," a really funny, idiosyncratic, queer-friendly indie sports zine for hipster girls that eventually grew to a glossy magazine. One day Roxxie's ["Girljock's" editor-publisher] assembling her zine at Kinko's, a few years later she's running back-cover Absolut ads. For a while it was just possible to do things like that.

Where did "Bitter Girl" start and how did it end up becoming an ongoing comic strip?

I ended a long-term relationship in 1996, and that kicked off several years of pretty comical singlehood; ill-considered affairs, early Internet dating, Dinah Shore Week -- oh god, the horror. I wasn't drawing much either, so I was creatively lost, too. But I was keeping a journal, and started creating cartoon alter egos in the margins that were trying to talk me in or out of every romantic situation I kept getting mired in, and they expanded into little comic scenarios, and gradually I remembered how much I liked strip cartooning.

You have a sample of "Bitter Girl" from 1998 and it's in a full-page format. When and why did you end up working in a four-panel structure?

I'd been self-syndicating it for a few years when I was approached by a start-up lesbian/gay content company, Q Syndicate. They wanted to pick it up but preferred that I do it as four panels, and I preferred that they do all the marketing and distribution work, so I said yes. I knew so many people who self-syndicated, and it's just so much hassle -- I don't think the Web has made it much easier since then. I really admire those who do it, but I've never been cut out for it. I went through the existing full-pagers, retooled what I could down to four panels, and all the new stuff going forward became four.

What do you enjoy about the size and format of "Bitter Girl?"

I always say it's like writing haiku -- you're trying to get so much across in so little space. And of course, if you've got a weakness for ensemble casts or extended storylines like I do -- I think lesbian strips almost require them, under the laws of gravity or something -- it's extra-challenging. But I like that. It disciplines me, to the extent I can be disciplined at all.

Why is it called "Bitter Girl?" I don't find the tone or any of the characters particularly bitter.

Well, it was definitely more bitter at the start. Now that I've been married for five years, I guess I've gotten further away from the anecdotal memory of singlehood. But there's still plenty to be politically bitter about, so I've sort of tacked off in that direction.

Every cartoonist I've spoken with for years now has talked about the challenge of keeping newspapers and the lack of new outlets in print. What are your experiences with that, and how has your thinking about using the Web changed?

It's been terrible for alternative papers for a long time, and of course that goes double for the gay press -- its outlets have been consolidating and paring down content for a long time, and they don't even have the advantage, if you can call it that, of being bought by a truly big alt-media chain like New Times. And while the Web's great for publicizing your own work and reaching a wider audience in general, I have yet to see it benefit alternative comics on a large scale.We all had high hopes for Open Prairie Syndicate years ago, but it folded. And it's great to see the big syndicates putting content online through things like DailyInk and GoComics, but those are the big syndicates. Online collectives are great, but they still require a ton of sweat equity and you don't get any kind of regular pay, far as I know. You know, this is just never going to be a high-earning business for 95% of the people in it. You've just got to love what you do and network like a bastard.

Are we going to see a print collection of "Bitter Girl" one of these years?

That depends on a lot of things, but I'd like it to happen.

This is a more fraught question, but I wonder whether you have a feeling of being ghettoized as a "lesbian cartoonist." Do you find that being an LGBT cartoonist with LGBT characters means that a comic strip is almost automatically marginalized, even by the alternative media and comics?

It's not as fraught a question as it used to be. Maybe it just needs to be a more specific one. Things like this aren't "automatic" -- people make conscious choices about what to put into print and what to read. So who's still doing the marginalizing -- and why? We've come so far in terms of openly LGBT themes and characters entering popular and political culture, and works like "Fun Home" have proven you can now get a really wide audience to identify with a serious, fundamentally queer work of art.

But isn't it interesting that this is largely a nonfiction phenomenon? "Fun Home" is a memoir, and the openly gay public figures enjoying the greatest success these days -- Ellen DeGeneres, Suze Orman, Barney Frank -- they're in the business of talking about real life, not mythmaking. By contrast, you look at comic strips, at the whole of fictional entertainment really, and you do see a lot of tokenism still going on. At the very least, LGBT characters & themes can't really be central to a story aimed at a wide audience -- they have to be less than or equal to the "straight" themes, for lack of a better word. I'm not saying these stories don't succeed. But when they do, it's still the exception rather than the rule.

I think about this a lot because frankly, it's difficult to keep a gay strip consistently "gay" these days. I'm deliberately biased in my casting; I don't have any straight and/or male main characters. It's simple preference -- I live in a world pretty much dominated by men and straight people, so why add to it? I don't ever want readers to forget that they're reading about the lives of gay women, and if I've done my job right you'll identify with these girls anyway, whoever you are.

On the other hand, if I just write about coming out, the bar scene, and queer politics I'll die of boredom. I am generalizing wildly to make a point, but over the last 40 years we've become so much more assimilated as a group that we've got both the blessing and the curse of needing to go beyond that source material now.

So I've got to be able to tell all the same jokes you'd tell in any comic strip, do it with mostly gay characters, and do it from an openly gay point of view. I guess that's the essence of the challenge I mentioned earlier -- of getting out of the mythmaking ghetto. American society seems ready to have LGBT people exist in real life, but now it's got to let them truly take hold of its imagination.

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