We sat down with La Perdida artist, Jessica Abel, to talk about two forthcoming First Second releases, Life Sucks and Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. Thanks in large part to our extremely short attention span, this third and final installment almost immediately turns into a discussion about her now-infamous “Stinky Date” with Peter Bagge. Also: valuable career advice that may or may not have come from Daniel Clowes, Gary Groth’s short-term memory loss, and why there’s a good chance that Abel is not currently reading your diary strip.
At what point did occur to you that comics might be something that you’d be interested in doing full-time?
I didn’t think about full-time until well after college. It didn’t seem plausible. We’re talking about the early-90s, here. In fact, the first time it even occurred to me when I got together with a group of cartoonists in Chicago. The core of the group was Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Gary Leib, and Archer Prewitt. I went to hang out with them, a couple of times. Dan and Gary were a bit older than me and it was a little intimidating, so I didn’t do it that often.
At one point, I brought my sketchbook and a few comics in, and I was talking to Dan, and he asked me if I was serious about this. Did I really want to be a cartoonist, was I going to keep going with this? And I said, “yeah, I really want to, but I know I can’t make a living at it,” and he just looked at me and said, “why not? I do” [laughs]. I’ve since told him the story, and he’s denied that he said that. He said there’s no way he would have said that. So, take it with a grain of salt, but I remember it very clearly.
Where does the Peter Bagge story fit in?
Well, I graduated from college in ’91, and I met Pete in the summer of ’92. I’d entered a “Stinky Date” contest. I won it, and he invited me to meet up with him at the Chicago Con, so he could draw me and put me in the comic. I brought issues of Artbabe to show to him, and as it turns out, Gary Groth and Eric Reynolds [of Fantagraphics] were there too—I think Kim [Thompson] was probably there, too, but I didn’t actually meet him that time, I gave it to all of those guys. Gary, of course, didn’t remember that I had ever met him or that he had ever seen me, until five years later.
Did readers assume that Artbabe was largely autobiographical?
Well, they assumed that the Artbabe character, who was on the cover, was me, which she isn’t. The stories, not so much, because often they don’t have a female protagonist. I didn’t get that as much. But I get that all the time with La Perdida—people think it’s autobiographical.
At least for the first-half. At one point it becomes pretty clear that it’s not autobiography.
Well, you’d be amazed. Matt [Madden, Abel’s husband] and I were on tour in Leon, and a woman turned to me and said, “so…that guy, is he okay?” And I asked, “what guy?” and she said, “the guy in the book. Is he all right?” I said, “oh no. that was just a story” [laughs].
You guys were living in Mexico for a while—you must have drawn on some real-life inspiration.
Well, in that sense, sure. I was also drawing on real-life inspiration in Artbabe in that I was living in Chicago. But the story is completely fabricated. Seventy-nine-percentage of the locations are real, however.
You seem to be the exception to the rule in alternative comics, never having done an autobiographical work. Is there are reason that you’ve shied away from that?
I just don’t have an interest in it. I don’t need to tell anybody else about my life. I don’t have an interest in the diaristic element of autobio comic, and I don’t have a story to tell about me that would work by itself. I mean, I could probably figure something out—anybody has a memoir in them, if they try, but it’s just not interesting to me. Some of them are interesting to read, but it’s not something that I want to be doing. It’s a little disturbing to me that it’s what everybody assumes I do.
There’s just so much of it.
And it’s weird that everybody assumes that [La Perdida is] autobiographical. The girl in this book is just a dummy. I mean, I really like her, but she’s not really an attractive person in a lot of ways, and that was intentional. But now it’s like, “so what do you think of me? If you think she’s me, what does that say?” [laughs]. That’s a whole side issue, though.
Are you finding that a lot of kids coming up now are still drawn to that manner of storytelling?
Yeah, a lot are. I think you have to draw a sharp line between kids who are interested in comics from an alternative/literary direction, and everybody else. There are many more of the “everybody else” than the artsy crowd, but that said, yeah, there are still a lot kids into autobio. That’s sort of the default that people go into, and I don’t get why. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, but I don’t get why the first thing you’d think to do is write something about yourself.
Would you dissuade a student who was interested in doing that?
If they’re boring. And I don’t mean if they’re boring personally—I mean if they’re telling boring stories. I tell people that all the time. I don’t tell people not to do autobio, but I tell them that, if they’re going to tell a story, there still has to be a point to it. There still has to be structure. It’s still fiction—it seems like it’s non-fiction, but if it’s done well, it’s still fiction. You’re picking and choosing elements, you’re orchestrating the story. You’re in control. If you’re not in control, it’s going to be dull. “I woke up today, had breakfast, had phone calls to make, a guy had to fix the dishwasher, took my baby out for a walk. Yep.” [laughs]. You know, that’s the nature of a lot of autobio. I’m sure I could come up with a really poignant thing to say about the day, if I really tried, but you have to really try—you don’t just put the first thing that comes into your head.
Has teaching affected your work?
Sure, yeah. Again, I’d be hard-pressed to define how, because it all happened at the same time, but the amount of intellectual work that I’ve done in trying to understand how stories work and trying to put my stories together in a way that’s accessible to other people—all of those things are really valuable in understanding my own work.