Melissa Mendes Puts Family History At the Heart of Her Comics

On the surface, "Lou" is the story of a tomboy who wants a dog, her older brother whose boss at the pizza parlor is mixed up in unsavory business, what's striking about cartoonist Melissa Mendes' story is that while the family dynamics between the three siblings are spot on, it's really about more than that. Ultimately, Mendes is spinning a tale of their parents, of the town, and growing up. "Lou" was originally serialized through Oily Comics and has now been collected in a new edition published by Alternative Comics.

In addition to remastering "Lou" for its collected edition, the Xeric Grant-winning cartoonist has been at work on a webcomic. "The Weight," released online at the rate of two pages per week (read it via her website), is loosely based on Mendes' own family history. But what started out as a way for her to illustrate her grandfather's memoirs became something somehow even more collaborative.

CBR News: Where did the idea for "Lou" come from?

Melissa Mendes: I did a minicomic a while before "Lou" called "Bird." It was a mostly silent story based on an experience I had with my dad, where he rescued a woodpecker that hit our window. The girl in that story was an early version of Lou, basically -- a freckly red headed tomboy. "Lou" was always going to be about a girl and her dog, but originally it was going to follow Lou as she grew up and her dog was going to die and become a ghost that sort of follows her around like a guardian angel or something. Maybe I'll do that story someday.

Lou's little brother John is based on a little kid who went to the school I work at. He was like a tiny adult with a bowl cut, and I loved that his name was John. The oldest brother, Eddie, is inspired by my partner Chuck Forsman. Chuck actually did work at a pizza shop as a teenager, and one day his boss just didn't show up to work, and it turned out he was in some trouble with the law.

We had this book called "The Run of The Mill," a photography book by Steve Dunwell, about the decline of New England mill towns, and it was very inspiring to me. The abandoned building that Lou and her friends hang out in is a real building in New Hampshire, I think, an old theater that was used to test cameras that they used on Mars. This is how all of my stories happen. I always start with a character, then outside influences sort of congregate to form a story.

A page from "Lou"

I had never done a serialized comic before "Lou." At first I had no idea how to approach it, but then I ended up loving it, because I tend to make the story up as I go along. Also it was great to set a goal for myself of one issue a month. It really helped me focus on my work. No matter how shitty I was feeling, I had to do an 8-page comic. I had a rough idea of how I wanted the story to go, but I sort of let the characters take it where they wanted to, which is also how I'm doing "The Weight." And in the end of 17 issues, it was like I magically had a book! I redrew a lot and moved things around for the book, but it was great to have something all laid out already.

You use a pretty straightforward grid when you lay out your pages. Is this something you were doing early on?

When I was a student at [The Center for Cartoon Studies], I tried to get fancy with layout sometimes, but soon I realized that's not for me and it doesn't make sense to do that with the stories I do. I let go of that and started just following my instincts. It's kind of like when you're writing prose and you know when to end a paragraph. The panels are as much a part of the story as the drawings and the words are, and they all have to work in harmony, otherwise I think the reader gets taken out of the story. "Lou" wouldn't make sense with lots of fancy shaped panels and grids because there are a lot of just regular everyday moments, and I try to be very straightforward and real in my stories. "The Weight" and "Freddy Stories" are the same.  

Also, it's a lot easier to follow a grid! Especially if you're just starting out and not sure what approach to take. It's better to start with structure and move on from there, I think.

For this collected edition, did you change anything to the original minicomics or add anything?

I changed a bunch of things. I redrew the first couple of issues, because I had drawn them with a brush and thought they looked too different from the rest of the book. I took out a couple issues that didn't really fit with the flow of the story, like the Halloween one. And I added some stuff to make the conflict between Lou and her mom a little stronger, based on some feedback I'd gotten.

The collection of "Lou" is now out, but you've been working on your next project, the webcomic "The Weight." Where did this start?

A couple years ago, my Grandpa Jack died. He was the first grandparent I'd lost, and really the only close relative I'd lost, and it hit me really hard. A few months later, I was shopping "Lou" around to publishers and got rejected a couple times. This gutted me. It made me question everything, who I was, what I was doing, am I any good, what's the point of being a cartoonist, etc etc. It was my first big rejection, and even though I didn't want my worth to be determined by whether or not I was published, it very much felt that way. Plus, it was amplified by my grief over my grandpa.

But I knew I had to keep going, keep doing something, anything. So I forced myself to sit at my desk. I had in my possession a short memoir that Grandpa Jack had written in a creative writing class, and I knew I had to use it. The parts about him growing up in rural central New York State are so full of rich details. My first idea was to transcribe and illustrate each sentence of his memoir. I tried that, but taking something so literally is a lot of pressure. It didn't feel right.

I had an idea for a character, a grown woman, in the 1940s, which was different for me because my characters are usually kids. As I started reading the memoir, that character and my Grandpa's story sort of started melding together, until they became one thing. A story I heard on a podcast about a woman who survived her husband's abuse also inspired me. My Grandpa grew up in poverty, and his father was abusive to his mom. Again, I guess this is how most of my stories start -- they are mostly all fictionalized versions of my life and my family's life.

Why did you decide to make "The Weight" a webcomic and serialize it that way?

I decided, after "Lou," that I wanted this project to be something I did just for me. I wanted to draw and write exactly how I envisioned, but I knew that I also needed deadlines to keep me focused. Making myself post two pages a week keeps me working, even when I feel like crap, and knowing that people are following it and reading it fuels the fire under my ass. So that's why I put it online -- to give myself some structure.

Has your process changed because you're posting this online, one page at a time?

It has a little. It's kind of letting me be looser with the story. I've been allowing the characters to sort of take the story where they want to, and not planning out anything too rigidly. I do feel the pressure of posting two pages a week, especially right now, when there's been some upheaval on the home front and I've been busy. I feel very guilty when I fall behind.

Do you have a sense of how big and how long this story is?

I really love family sagas, like "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck and "The Thorn Birds" by Colleen McCullough, for example, where the story spans generations. That's sort of my plan with "The Weight." I want it to at least encompass Edie's (the main character's) entire life, and maybe it'll even go beyond that. I have a rough idea of the main turning points in the story, but nothing is set in stone at this point. But yeah, it's a huge project.

Was the inspiration for the title the song by The Band?

The title actually came before the story. I was obsessively focused on coming up with a name for a website idea I had, and I'd spend hours just looking at the thesaurus and writing down words. My idea was for an online publication of autobiographical stories and short form memoirs. I was thinking a lot about the heaviness of real life and the invisible burdens that we all carry with us. I thought of that song, "The Weight," by The Band, and then I read the Wikipedia page about the song, and it's so much deeper than I even knew -- influenced by the Bible and by Luis Bunuel (the filmmaker). Robbie Robertson, who wrote the song, said, "In Buñuel, there were these people trying to be good and it's impossible to be good." That got me. All the characters in "The Weight" are flawed, and I'm trying to make them as human as possible. Edie tries to be good but she has a lot of anger in her, a lot of anger at her dad that she can't express, and it comes out in other ways.

A page from "The Weight"

One aspect of your work that is really striking is how you capture these quiet moments. You have scenes with dialogue, but for the most part you work with silence.

Thanks. I actually started out doing only silent comics, and this probably has influenced my current work a lot. I try to show as much as I can without explaining anything, and just follow my instincts in terms of what feels natural, which often means less words. I'm a pretty quiet person so that probably has something to do with it. I'm more of an observer than a doer, and I think that comes through in my work.

You received a Xeric grant in 2010; I'm curious what role that played in your career.

I actually applied for the Xeric twice, once before I went CCS, while I was actually working for Mirage Studios. They were based in Northampton, MA which is near where Hampshire is, and I interned there after I graduated. I understand why I didn't get it the first time. I applied with my thesis project from Hampshire, which wasn't completely finished. It was a silent comic about divorce and imaginary friends, and was the first time I drew Freddy. She didn't have a name, then.

When I was at CCS, Freddy reappeared in a character development assignment. That's when everything started to come together, and I started writing more stories about her. My Xeric book, "Freddy Stories," is a compilation of work from both years I was at CCS, plus some more stories that I added after receiving the grant.

I think for my career, getting the Xeric was a huge deal. The support I got for it was amazing. And it feels so good to have a finished, professionally printed book in your hands, especially if it's self-published and you are responsible for every single aspect of it. Also, when you are first starting out in the comics world, and you are going to conventions and meeting your idols and making friends, it's great to have a book you can give away or trade without worrying that you are losing money. I gave away a lot of copies of "Freddy" and I don't regret it! Except now I'm down to my last box and it's making me a little sad. I'm not sure what's next for "Freddy Stories." It is available digitally, but I'd like to reprint it someday.

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