Interview: Susie Cagle Pt. 1

Categories:  Interviews

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It’s strange to hear say it, but Susie Cagle has only been “serious” about this whole cartooning thing for a year-and-a-half now. But while I’ve certainly seen her name and work floating around the scene for longer than that, I suppose there’s an important distinction between doing something and doing something seriously.

Until recently, Cagle was more apt to describe herself as a journalist, with the whole drawing thing falling more firmly on the hobby side of category. Things, of course, rarely turn out precisely as we plan. Sometimes hobbies become careers (though at present, Cagle would likely put that last word in quotes). Cagle’s cartooning work has garnered her a bit of notice as of late, thanks to her Food Not Bombs-centric mini series, Nine Gallons, and “I’m Here From the Government,” Cagle’s first-hand account of census data gathering.

But if she was a touch hesitant to identify herself as a cartoonist, it may well have had something to do youthful rebellion, as the daughter of prominent editorial cartoonist, Daryl Cagle. Whatever the case may be, Susie Cagle is a cartoonist now, whether she likes it or not.

Did you ever reject the idea of becoming a cartoonist because it’s what your father does?

I guess it’s not really a path that I ever planned on taking. It’s not really something that I planned on working toward in my young life. This has all been a relatively recent decision on my part. My first mini-comic was in 2008. It took a long time for me to come to terms with the genetic aspect [laughs].

Have you been drawing your whole life?

Yeah, yeah.

And writing? But the two never met in the middle?

Yeah. It just didn’t feel like it was my thing. I fancied myself a rebellious kid. I certainly didn’t think that I was going to take up my parents’ career and continue the family business. It wasn’t something that I ever perceived as an option, really.

It’s funny. For most of us, setting out to make a life in comics is a bit of a rebellion in and of itself. It’s the sort of thing that parents tend to dissuade you from.

Exactly. You would think that, if there were any parents who would be accepting of a child who is a cartoonist, it would be mine.

And they haven’t been?

Well—my parents are very supportive now. I think they were skeptical, at first, because I think it wasn’t always something that I had wanted to do. I had always wanted to do art and drawing, but never as a career, more as a hobby. So I think it took them by surprise. And also, my father is in a unique position to know just how hard it is to make a career of cartooning. He knew all of the pitfalls, and he knew just how bad everyone’s publishing deal was [laughs]. And just how little money there is in this whole game. I think he just couldn’t help but be concerned.

At what point does it clearly become something that you can’t not do?

When it’s something that people want to give me money for. The reason I started doing it in the first place is that I wasn’t getting a whole lot of journalism work. I’ve always been a huge comics fan. I grew up in LA, going to Comic Con all of the time. I read Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes books as a teenager.

I made my first mini-comic for the San Francisco Zine Fest, which seemed a small enough event that it was a super-low bar to entry. It was even free to get in. And I just gave it out to people for free. I didn’t really expect anything to come of it. It was, “I am unemployed. I have all of this free time.”

And then I made my next two mini-comics in rapid fire after that. My first three mini-comics came out in a four-month span, where I was just drawing furiously. And then I got a full-time blogging job and kind of backed off from cartooning a bit.

But that’s what spurred it, this lull in work. And I wasn’t really thinking of it as an alternative career—until I started to see that people actually liked them and were willing to pay money for them. I didn’t have to give them out for free [laughs].

Do you wish there were a more romantic answer than “it’s what pays the bills?” Have you gotten to a point where it’s what you actually love to do?

Yeah. I think I have [laughs]. I’m still have existential identity issues. I really did grow up thinking of myself as a writer. And then, all of the sudden, that’s not who I am anymore. And that’s taking a little bit of getting used to.

I’ve done a couple of straight up commercial illustration projects, recently. That’s been really difficult for me. I’m working with writers and I’m the illustrator. That’s so weird. I never thought that’s where I’d be, but those jobs are paying me more than the writing jobs. And I do love drawing. It is fun, but it doesn’t feel like it’s what I’m supposed to be doing like writing does.

Do you approach your own comics in a different way than you would a long-form journalistic piece?

I think it’s actually pretty similar. I think that I’m an obsessive planner, and I outline and re-outline, over and over again. I do the same thing for a 5,000 word story as I do for a mini-comic. I like to have all of those parts really obsessively lined up, and then I change them a tiny bit. But it’s actually really similar.

My first step is writing down the big points I want to make on index cards, and then I write those down and then add things to the different cards. It’s something I started doing in grad school. It’s stuck with me, and it’s exactly the same for a comics as it would be for a written piece.

So, other than those pieces where you’re only doing the art, where is the stigma? You grew up in an environment where there was respect for the medium, and you are working as a writer in some respect—what’s the problem?

There isn’t really a problem. I don’t think of it as a stigma. It’s just growing pains, really. It’s the fact that I’m doing a completely different thing than I was a year-and-a-half ago, and it’s just happened so quickly that’s it’s taken some getting used to, more than anything else.

Is the comics culture/community more welcoming than attempting to make it as just a writer?

Oh hell yes. That’s been really nice. It’s a much lower bar to entry [laughs]. But I think that’s great! You can make your own mini-comic, and people can actually see it. You can send it out to the world in a meaningful way, where it will actually reach people, whereas you’re never going to hear back from Harper’s about that pitch.

There’s got to be a middle ground in writing, right? Is there a zine equivelant to mini-comics?

Comics is a lower bar to entry, but it’s also a much smaller field. There are many fewer people trying to be cartoonists, and that was something that drew me to it. I was also trying to be a writer in New York City, and I was one of millions—millions who had more money and connections than I did. So, it was nice to do something where I felt it was just a smaller pool, and it seemed like maybe I had more of a likelihood of people seeing and noticing my work.

You’ve seen nepotism at work, and how tough it can be when you don’t have those connections. Have you felt it necessary to distance yourself from your father’s success in the comics field?

That is something I’ve been hugely paranoid about.

About people thinking that you are taking advantage of it?

Yes. I was talking about this with my mom, actually, and saying it is frustrating feeling this way, and she was like, “well, how many people out there do you think already think that you already think that you get this stuff because of nepostism?” [laughs]. It’s like, “oh, shit. You’re right!”

But who is going to see one of your minis or a book on Microcosm and say, “the guy from MSNBC is clearly helping her out?”

Right. That’s totally true. I think that, in a lot of what I do, people don’t know what my father does. I don’t think it’s the same demographic. But I just joined Cartoon Movement, which is this new international syndicate. They publish online and they do second rights for a variety of publications. And that is largely populated by classic editorial cartoonists from around the world, some of whom are also syndicated by my father. So I’m doing some more classical editorial cartooning stuff.

It’s fun and I’m really enjoying doing it, and am really excited to see where the site goes, but that was one where I didn’t know how people would perceive it, but I have to stop giving a shit.

[Continued in Part Two.]

–Brian Heater

5 Comments to “Interview: Susie Cagle Pt. 1”

  1. Kim | January 19th, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    Nice interview!

  2. this is what concerns me » press time
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