MariNaomi Reveals The Uncomfortable Truth Behind "Dragon's Breath"

MariNaomi is most known as the cartoonist behind the book "Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22" as well as her series "Estrus Comics," which she published from 1998 to 2009. Her work has also appeared in many anthologies, including "I Saw You" and "QU33R." Besides her work as a cartoonist, MariNaomi has contributed to the comic book community with her Cartoonists of Color Database and the LGBTQ Cartoonists Database.

Her new book, "Dragon's Breath: And Other True Stories," contains a collection of comic vignettes, some of which were originally published on The Rumpus. In this interview with Comic Book Resources, MariNaomi reveals how "Dragon's Breath" marks a change in her work and shares her thoughts about the value of true stories.

CBR News: How did you end up making comics for The Rumpus?

MariNaomi: Right after "Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume" came out, I was looking for ways to let people know it existed. That's when I came across Cheryl Strayed's "Dear Sugar" column on the Rumpus, and utterly fell in love -- with Sugar, and also with The Rumpus's audience of sympathetic, compassionate writers. I noticed there was a comics section, and that a pal of mine -- Susie Cagle -- made comics for them, so I decided to approach them.

Was there a Rumpus kind of approach or tone that you were conscious of, something that distinguished this work from other project you were doing in this period?

When I started talking to Paul Madonna, the comics editor, about creating a series for the site, he wanted to steer away from stories about my love life. At the time that was pretty much all I was doing, so that was kind of intimidating, but it was also exciting to write memoir from a different place than I was used to. I pitched a bunch of ideas and he chose a handful of stories to start with. For the first few he gave me light editorial direction, but from there I pretty much just ran with it. It was my first time doing comics for an internet audience, and it was such a different experience than the printed books and zine-making I'd been doing for so long. I loved the instant feedback and I paid attention to the themes that seemed to best resonate with the audience. Like, when they responded to a story about my grandpa, I felt more confident to tell a story about my aunt. But when a story about losing faith in god got only a handful of comments, I dropped that subject and went in a different direction.

Are there any other ways in which creating work for the internet affected your approach to making comics?

There are lots of factors! At the base of it all, I like to make comics about the stories I've been telling for years -- stuff I've already put a lot of thought into. If you've known me for a long time, or if I dated you for at least a year, chances are you've already heard most of these stories.

For the creation of the Rumpus "Smoke In Your Eyes" comics, the order in which I created them was kind of like free association. Like, writing the comic/essay about searching for my long-lost ex-boyfriend reminded me of his roommate, who freaked out on drugs, became schizophrenic and homeless, and then killed himself in a particularly gruesome manner, so I wrote about my relationship with him too. One memory sparked another and since so much time had passed, I was able to look back at these events and see a larger picture -- how they affected my actions through the years.

Sometimes a news item would spark a memory, and I'd be compelled to write about it -- like my comic about visiting a shooting range and momentarily getting too breezy about holding a pistol. I recalled that one after a shooting was in the news and gun control weighed heavily on my mind.

And then sometimes I'd wake up in the morning and just need to tell a certain story. I have so many of them, too many to tell. I think the most common thing autobio cartoonists hear from their friends and family is, "You should turn this into a comic!" Because honestly, every single day there's at least one thing I could turn into a comic, but there's not enough time and not every story is relevant. I've got to pick and choose what will benefit the greater picture. All that other stuff will turn into anecdotes or tweets, or maybe when I've gotten some distance it'll appear as part of a larger story.

Writing "Turning Japanese" was exciting in that I got to revisit a lot of old stories. I have all these memories of that time, of working in the hostess bars, of traveling to Japan, of all the people I met and things I saw, and of the relationship I was in. At the time it was too overwhelming to fit into a single narrative, but with so much time having passed, it was easier to pick out the relevant stories once I decided what my focus was going to be. Stranger in a strange land, yes, but also a young hapa trying to find her place culturally. I had to leave out a lot of really interesting stories because they didn't add to the big picture, or because there wasn't enough space to tell it all. Maybe someday I'll do a director's cut kind of thing, if the book does well.

What is it about autobiographical stories that you find interesting and compelling as opposed to fiction?

As a reader, I find lots of fiction compelling. What interests me most is the human experience, the emotional honesty in a story. Some writers are better able to mine that in memoir, others shine when they free themselves from the factual details and write fiction. So it depends!

I enjoy writing memoir because it doesn't require me to expend energy on world-building and I don't worry about being inconsistent. If I write about things that really happened, I can focus more on getting to the core of it and less about potential holes in the story. Instead of justifying my characters' choices and reactions, I can delve into the how comes. That said, I love doing both. There's a lot more freedom in fiction.

When making a story about something that actually happened, how concerned are you with remembering the event truthfully?

I used to be very concerned about everything being completely accurate, but over time I realized I was getting stuck on the details and that the only reader who cared about this stuff was me. This seemed especially silly when I started changing names and details to protect identities. What does it matter if I draw my childhood teddy bear accurately if I'm drawing my short blonde friend as a tall brunette?

Eventually I stopped focusing on the details and just tried to tell a good story. What's important to me is the emotional accuracy, and the events. I have no problem paring down my characters -- blending two friends into one character in some cases, completely leaving out people in other cases -- so as not to confuse the reader or muddle up the story with inconsequential details. But I'll never write that I did something that I didn't do. Not in memoir, at least.

In a book like "Dragon's Breath" you use short stories and vignettes to tell a larger story -- the story of your life. Is this something you were conscious of while you were making each vignette or is it something that came into focus after you had made many of them?

I didn't start thinking of these stories as a whole until I started putting the book together, deciding which stories fit and which didn't, and in what order. But the stories that appear in "Dragon's Breath" are pretty consistent because in each of them I was focused on telling an uncomfortable truth. As a result, the making of these comics was a pretty heavy time, but it wasn't all I was doing. Simultaneously I was making lighter comics for a website called Tapastic -- silly slice-of-life vignettes called "Said While Talking." I've since collected these [comics] into a maxi mini. I just now made up that term to describe a mini comic that's more than 50 pages. Do you think it'll catch on? These comics helped take some of the pressure off [of me] so that I wasn't just focusing on uncomfortable truths all day everyday. But, of course, none of these appeared in "Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories," nor did a bunch of other stuff I was doing at the time. The book has its own soul.

Your cartooning style depicts essentials and suggests other elements, focusing on the key emotional details and allowing the reader to fill in the rest. How much is this something you're conscious of while creating each story?

I think about this a lot for every drawing I do. Like, deciding on whether or not to include a panel border, a narrative, a background, or descriptive text can drastically change the take-away from a story. It changes the pacing, the atmosphere, everything. I often experiment with multiple ways to draw a panel before I settle on the final image. I want to get it just right.

How did you end up being published by Uncivilized?

I signed a book deal with 2D Cloud for "Turning Japanese." I'd originally planned to self-publish "Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories," and I was talking with 2D Cloud about them helping me with distribution, but then they offered to publish it instead. That sounded good to me, as I kind of loathe all the things that go into book-making: cover design, distribution, offset whatevers. It's so complicated and distracts from my true love, which is, of course, drawing comics. After that was settled, 2D Cloud and Uncivilized banded together as a way to distribute and market the book more heavily. I love that they did this for my book, as I'm such a fangirl for both of those publishers.

Can you tell us a little about that upcoming book, "Turning Japanese"?

The story in "Turning Japanese" starts when I was twenty-two years old, where "Kiss & Tell" ends, but the book is a long-form comic, not split up into shorter bits like "Kiss & Tell" or "Dragon's Breath." I had just broken up with my first long-term boyfriend and was feeling lost. I ended up in another relationship and living far from home where I got a job working as a hostess in a Japanese bar. The book is about my weird relationship with Japan, as someone who is half-Japanese but had very little exposure to Japanese people other than my mom. It's set to publish in September 2015, but 2D Cloud is putting a new chapter up every month on their website.

What else are you working on?

Mostly I've been working on promoting my book via a book tour that's taken me to the east coast, San Francisco and LA. Next up is the Pacific Northwest, and I intend to keep on pushing this thing until it sells out or I drop dead, whichever comes first.

In the rare moments I've gotten the chance to draw, I've been working on a young adult graphic novel with a slight supernatural element to it. I've finished about 100 pages, which sounds impressive until you realize it's a 300-page book, and part one of a trilogy. Which means it most likely won't hit the bookshelves until my sister's newborn baby is old enough to be corrupted by it.

One other thing that people might know you for is that you created the Cartoonists of Color database and the LGBTQ cartoonists database. What has the response been like to these projects?

It's been interesting! I've gotten thanked online by a lot of people of color and in person by a lot of Caucasian folks. What does this mean? I don't know! But it's nice to be thanked. Much nicer than the white dudes who complained that I was being racist for not including them in my PoC database. What?

One person donated five bucks, which was sweet, but that's the only time anyone's ever used the donation button. It's okay though -- it's not something I ever expect to make money off of. But there are things I'd like to do with it, like get it its own URL and webhosting, that I can't justify spending my own money on. Already my husband and I have put in countless hours -- I'm guessing over a hundred -- compiling and managing these things.

So for now, I try to update it every week or so, and spotlight a different creator every couple of days on the Twitter feeds. I'm hoping to eventually pair up with a nonprofit organization so the databases can get the special attention they need. But for now, I'm just proud that they exist.

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