Newlevant Tells the True Story of Gladys Bentley in "If This Be Sin"

Hazel Newlevant may be a recent graduate from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, but she's already an experienced cartoonist. The recipient of a 2012 Xeric Grant for her minicomic "Ci Vediamo," last year Newlevant received a Queer Press Grant from Prism Comics, which she is using to self-publish her first book, "If This Be Sin." Set to debut at the Small Press Expo in September, the project consists of three stories revolving around themes of queer women and music, two of which have been published already via her tumblr account. The stories range from the biographical to the fictional, from the 1920's to the present.

For those who have seen her comics online, the three stories in "If This Be Sin" represent a noticeable leap in her skills as an artist and a writer. Newlevant, who seems to have found her voice as a storyteller, spoke with CBR News about art, work and life after graduation.

CBR News: Where did "If This Be Sin" come from? Because I had never heard of Gladys Bentley until I came across your comic.

Hazel Newlevant: That's my hope, that people will go into it probably not knowing anything about her. It was actually my SVA thesis project. Every year, all of the illustration and cartooning students have a certain theme for their thesis. The theme was kings and queens. I thought it would be cool to do a drag king, because I'm really interested in queerness and gender performance. From there, I did research to see who are the most famous and influential -- it also had to be biographical -- so I researched who were the most influential drag kings. Gladys was sort of a proto-drag king and she had such a cool story.

Were there any other constraints as far as format or size or length?

It had to be at least sixteen pages, but otherwise, it was up to me. Another part of choosing that topic was I knew already about the Queer Press Grant from Prism Comics. From the beginning, I was thinking about creating something that might be applicable to that.

You mentioned the formal restraints, and I thought of your minicomic "Curio." I loved your description of the book: "A collection of short comics themed around some of my favorite topics: pharmaceutical, sexual, and formal experimentation."

With that comic, I was feeling inspired by the French group OuBaPo. I was inspired by some of the constraints that they placed on themselves, and that being a method for generating something new. I think that if you don't have any challenges to solve, what comes out could be just a rehash of the tropes that are in your own head. With "Curio," I was trying to figure out the overarching theme of all these comics I made, and of course being young and being at SVA, it was experimentation. [Laughs]

I assume you read Matt Madden's book, "99 Ways to Tell a Story."

I loved that. He was one of my teachers at SVA. I had read that book and I thought, I want to take a class with him because I'm so excited about his work. That's kind of how I chose classes. [Laughs]

You've made other experimental work, like "Mariposa," for example.

Yes, "Mariposa" and "Ci Vediamo." I thought that if I'm creating something for print, it needs to justify being in that format somehow. There needs to be something about it that wouldn't work online. So "Mariposa" is butterfly-shaped, and "Ci Vediamo" has transparent pages. Which is cool, but now I feel like I don't need to reinvent the wheel. There's a reason why people don't make as many things that are so inconvenient to print. I love different book formats and I love seeing how people use that, but right now I'm more interested in straight storytelling.

Could you talk a little about the Queer Press Grant? Is it like the Xeric Grant -- which you also received -- where you get money to print?

That's pretty much what it is. You put in a proposal of something you're going to self-publish. With the Xeric, you would send them receipts and they would reimburse you, and you're not allowed to use the money for promotional things like websites or t-shirt printing. With the Queer Press Grant, they just give you the money, which is more flexible. Still, I'm on the verge of sending "If This Be Sin" to the printer and having it offset printed in China, and I'll use more than the amount of the grant for printing costs.

Is that because the cost was more than your estimate?

Partly because I decided to increase the print run from what I originally decided. You don't want a bunch of books sitting around in boxes that you can't get rid of, but I've been feeling inspired.

"If This Be Sin" is the title of the story, but it's also the title of this collection.

It is a little confusing. It's the title of the story about Gladys Bentley, but it's also the title of this collection of comics about queer women and music. I think of "No It U Lover" as part two, which carries some of those themes further into the Twentieth Century.

How many stories are in the book?

There's three in total; the last one is a modern day story about blues dancing, which is one of my hobbies.

The plan is to debut the book at SPX.

Yes. It's going to happen. I have a couple weeks of slack in the schedule in case the slow boat from China is really slow. I'm so excited to debut it there.

You recently posted a few comics on Twitter, about a character named Li'l Hazel. How would you describe her?

I have been trying to create some gag strips to submit to "The New Yorker," although I think the idea of Li'l Hazel may be too sexual for them. I think it's funny to re-contextualize the trope of a little boy with a budding interest in sexuality, a Dennis the Menace-type of lovable character, as a girl. That's not something that people consider appropriate for a little girl. I think it's awesome. Also, the Li'l Hazel character would be interested in both men and women, like me, although the scenarios are not me. It's a cute way to externalize my id and make jokes about being a pervert.

I can definitely see a "New Yorker" influence in those comics. Was the magazine and people like Peter Arno a big influence or inspiration for you?

I definitely had "The New Yorker" around the house and read it for the comic strips as a kid, although I would say it's not as influential on me as, I don't know, Edward Gorey. My whole family is really into "The New Yorker," so if I was going to have a family-approved career in cartooning, I couldn't really do better than that. Of course, if I was in "The New Yorker" with some sexualized childhood comic, maybe they won't like that.

When did you start making cartoons?

Well, it's the old story, I've been drawing forever and I just never stopped. I think I started cartooning in a serious way from doing fan art. It took me a while to fuse the idea of a made up drawing with observational drawing and painting. I was always really good at copying a photograph, but I didn't know how to apply that to an imaginary world at first. But now I think I can understand the gist of things better.

So you were always drawing but not necessarily drawing a narrative. What was the fan art?

I drew a lot of "South Park" -- which sounds weird, but it was a whole thing on DeviantArt. I guess the perk there is that the characters are so simple, you can put a lot of imagination into your interpretation. I think that's how I really developed my cartooning style. Later on, I figured out how to infuse more life drawing into that.

You are young, and I'm curious what do you want to do. Or is this the obnoxious interviewer version of, what are you going to do after college?

I have some projects that I'm really excited about being able to devote more time to now that I'm not in school. There's an autobiographical comic about a crummy summer job I had pulling ivy, and I'm trying to get in some themes from my previous work, like outsider status and looking for acceptance. Sexuality is a big element of that story, both in a positive sense and in the sense of sexual harassment. I'm excited to work on that. And in the broader sense, I don't know. [Laughs] I'll just try to put my work out there in as many venues as I can.

Are you thinking about making longer work or do you prefer short comics?

I've been moving onto longer narratives. I really like the short story but looking back on my previous work, I wish that my pacing had been a bit more leisurely. Some manga artists are really influential to me in that regard, like Taiyo Matsumoto who did "GoGo Monster." I like the way that he uses panels to set the scene and mood. He's not worried about getting from here to there so efficiently, and it brings out the characters' emotions. I want to incorporate more of that sensibility to that work, and I think it will naturally come out longer.

You just graduated, but you have a career and a body of work. You mentioned earlier that if you printed a comic, it needed a reason to be in print. Has your definition of that changed?

I think it has changed. I no longer feel the need for a comic to be in a really atypical format for it to be printed. I think that sitting down with a comic, even if it's just a regular rectangle, is always going to be a different experience that some people will seek out. It gives me pleasure to see my work as an object. I know there are routes for monetizing stuff that you're putting online, like having merch or Patreon, but selling books really appeals to me.

When you said that I'm already in this career, I guess I'd agree with that. I don't consider myself an amateur cartoonist or an aspiring cartoonist. I am participating, but one of my goals is to make a comic that somebody else publishes. Partly for the stamp of approval and partly because it's less work for myself. Doing all the printing with these grants, it's super awesome and helpful, but I still have to do all of that production myself rather than just concentrate on being a cartoonist.

It sounds as though you're more interested in narrative innovation rather than formal innovation right now.

My interests changed because I have found my voice as a storyteller more. I'm more in touch with what I'm about in terms of subject matter. I think part of wanting to play with formal things is that not too many other people are doing this and it was a way my work could stand out. In that sense, it can be a crutch. I don't know. I feel like I'm being contradictory, but I'm still processing it all.

"If This Be Sin" is debuting at the Small Press Expo and is available for preorder.

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