Interview: Jessica Abel Pt. 1

Categories:  Interviews

Jessica Abel

Between the award-winning series Artbabe, the 2006 Pantheon graphic novel La Perdida, and several years spent teaching at Manhattan’s School for the Visual Arts, alongside her husband and fellow cartoonist, Matt Madden, Jessica Abel has been busy making a name for herself in numerous facets of the cartooning world since first emerging on the scene in the early 90s.

Even with all of that under her belt—and a new baby—2008 is shaping up to be one Abel’s busiest years yet. Aside from the aforementioned SVA course load, the next couple of months will see two major releases from the artist, including the teenage melodramatic vampire comedy, Life Sucks, a collaboration with artist Warren Pleece and sci-fi writer, Gabriel Soria, as well as a comics textbook cowritten with Madden.

Somehow, in the midst of it all, Abel managed to find half an hour to speak with us about her numerous upcoming projects.

Life Sucks is something of a marked change from pretty much everything you’ve done before. How did the project come about?

I started working on Life Sucks a while ago—maybe four or five years ago. Gabe [Soria], Matt [Madden], and I were out having fun one night, and Gabe came up with this idea of a slacker vampire. We were joking about it for a long time—we thought it was funny, and Matt wrote down the basic outline on his Palm Pilot.

A couple of months later, we hadn’t done anything with it, but I got in touch with Gabe, and asked if he wanted to do it together. Part of the idea at the time was that cowriting sounded like fun and a good way to regulate—have two people both encouraging each other and so on, but it didn’t turn out that way, at all [laughs]. I love Gabe, but it didn’t end up being a lot of fun.

There were moments that were fun, but it turns out that it’s a really hard way to work. My initial idea was probably not the wisest, but it turns out that the book was probably better off with the collaboration. We each brought our own voice to it and made something that neither one of us probably could have done on our own.

What was the collaborative process like between the two of you?

It morphed over time, but it ended up being something along the lines of: we would get together and talk about the next piece that we wanted to do, or the overall arc, or whatever we needed to work on. And then, when we finished that section, we each had an assignment, “you do this scene, I’ll do that scene,” and then we’d go home and draft it, and then trade it back and a forth a few times, to edit it and expand the sections.

Was there more or less of you in the book than you suspected there might be, when you initially set out to work on it?

I don’t know if I had thought about it that much initially. I’m happy with the way that it came out. There’s still some stuff in there that surprises me when I reread the book, because I didn’t create it. So that’s kind of fun.

It probably helps a bit too to get out of your head, with this so different than any of the other subject matter you’d tackled before.

Yeah, and I knew when we came up with this idea that it sounded like fun, but it wouldn’t be like anything I’d done before. And I knew that I didn’t want to draw it. I wanted to do something really different, to see what I could come up with, working in a really different way.

Were you second guessing your ability to write such a different story on your own?

No, but I felt like the story belonged to Gabe as much as to me. And I guess I did feel like this was a story that I wouldn’t have written perfectly on my own. The comedy aspect—I mean, I’m not unfunny, I can certainly make funny stuff—but Gabe is a funnier writer that I am, I think.

I realized it’s probably a bit early to start thinking about this, but are there ways in which the collaboration has affected projects you’re working on, or will be working on, in the future?

It’s hard to separate how things have affected my process over the last several years, because I think my process has changed enormously. Part of it is attributable to working with Gabe, part of it is from working on the text book with Matt, part of it is teaching the students. Plus I just finished writing a novel, so there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on.

Is it tough to juggle so many projects at once?

It can be hard. At the moment I’m not working on any of them. I’m working on the Website for the textbook, so my mind is clear. But for many years there, I was working on any number of things. There was La Perdida, Life Sucks, the novel, and then I started working on a bunch of new things, which I’m still working on—but are kind of on hold for the moment.

It can be hard to juggle them—each of them takes their own approach, such a different voice, and such a different way of working that I really had to pull myself out of a certain mindset and into another. It’s not like I could just sit down and work on one for a couple of hours and then move to the next for a couple of hours.

I’d work for a week on one and a week on another, and a lot of it had to do with what was due. I think you sort of benefit from that distance you get by switching, but it is funny to come back to something like Life Sucks when you’ve been working on La Perdida for a while. The difference in moods is just so radical.

It must be difficult to completely divorce yourself from a project. Do you have inspiration for one project when you’re working on something else?

Sometimes. As long as your brain is working on anything, you can continue to have this background function that continues to work on other projects and problems. And being busy and involved in what you’re doing is the best way to solve problems with your writing.

If Matt initially played a role in helping inspire the story for Life Sucks, why was he not a part of collaborating for the final project?

It’s not his area. He was having plenty of fun talking about it at the bar, when we were hanging out and wrote it down, but it wasn’t really his cup of tea.

[Continued in Part Two.]

–Brian Heater

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