SPX ’17: Jillian Tamaki And Eleanor Davis In Conversation With Jim Rugg

by Hannah Means Shannon

At the Small Press Expo panel on Sunday, September 17th, for Jillian Tamaki and Eleanor Davis, hosted by Jim Rugg, Tamaki and Davis both gave audio visual presentations of selections of their work.

Rugg observed that both use very strong “voices” and asked how that forms part of their storytelling across different styles. Tamaki comes from an art and design background, and was encouraged to experiment at college, and when she was starting out professionally as an illustrator, she found that fun, too. She had always assumed that comics would be a side-project, a personal thing that was more of a subsidy, so she gave herself “psychological permission” to do what she wanted with comics. She hopes it retains a “core” of her personality.

Davis said she’s always trying to find the right “tone” for a comic, and style varies as long as the tone is correct. Her comic Libby’s Dad, set at a pool party, and since she was nervous about drawing water, she didn’t want to draw that in black and white. So it was necessary to choose color. She said that reviews for Libby’s Dad often said they didn’t “get it”, which can be disheartening, but it may mean that if everyone understood her work, she might be too obvious.

Asked if they have readers ahead of publication, or work with editors in terms of advance feedback, Tamaki said that it does matter what people say online, and it can influence her, like interest in a particular character. But you have to “know where to draw the line with that” in terms of “putting the audience first”, whereas really you should be putting the story first. She’s always shared stuff online, and when working on a long-form graphic novel with no feedback, that can be “uhealthy”, she feels. Serialization helps, since then you don’t have to operate in silence for “years” working on projects.

Tamaki said she doesn’t consider herself a “controversial cartoonist” and doesn’t try to “rile people”, but This One Summer is a highly banned book. You never know what will happen since “once it’s out of your hands, it changes the meaning of the book”, and the world adds its own layer of meaning, she said.

Asked what strategies they employ to “combat loneliness”, since both had mentioned isolation, Davis said “Twitter”, to laughter. She’s also married to a cartoonist, and they edit each others’ work a lot. It’s a major part of her process.

Tamaki said she’s not that lonely, laughing, though it can be “solitary”. She has to “aggressively schedule friend-time”. If you’re running your own business, you can end up working all the time.

David did a kids graphic novel in 2009, and found her working process was way too isolated, and she had less sense of strategy for it. After that, she stuck with short stories, but now she has roughed out her first 150 page graphic novel since then. But she is going to serialize it online, most likely.

Tamaki said that many projects she does are reactions to projects she’s created before. Starting her webcomic was a reaction to working on long graphic novels, in an attempt to interact with readers more.

Asked if they feel the need to keep energy and fun as part of their work, Tamaki said that it’s always clear when a drawing has energy and when it doesn’t, which doesn’t necessarily mean a work is a success or failure based on that, but you can see it, and maintaining that can be hard.

Davis said she took a year off drawing publically to draw for fun, and it is a difficult balance for her to achieve, since you really need to be able to draw for many hours a day.

Knowing yourself and your schedule helps, for instance, Davis works best in the morning, so that has to come first, and e-mailing and other things come later.

Tamaki always has to make her bed, since working at home, to “draw psychological lines in time and space” operating in the same apartment. There are actions that help her “flip over to work mode”.

During the Q&A, Tamaki was asked about working with others versus working alone, she said she’s only ever worked with her cousin, so that’s a very special thing. It wasn’t a traditional comics process there. As she’s done more of her own work, she appreciates more working with her cousin, too, since she could never have come up with those stories by herself. A collaboration creates something new, that’s “refreshing”, versus being faced with yourself all the time.

Asked about the role of self-promotion, Tamaki said she doesn’t do as much as she used to in an intentional way, whereas people starting out need to do so. At some point, your work hopefully becomes self-perpetuating, but she uses Instagram and Twitter as “ephemeral” promotion. She’s always loved sharing work on line.

Davis said that it can be difficult, and feel a little “gross” to self-promote, but you want to be “an interesting person” online so folks don’t “mute” you or overlook you. She feels that being online, however, gave her a career, rather than traditional promotion. “Being really authentic for money” is a weird, dubious paradox, and it’s something that caused audience laughter.

Tamaki said that teaching is very eye-opening about how good artists are—the best students are the ones who take feedback and then go “Meh. Ok, but I’m doing my own thing”. She feels artists need to learn how to get over it if people don’t like your work. If everyone likes it, that’s “middling” and it’s better if people really like it or really don’t, perhaps.

Asked if they get pigeon-holed as “chic” creators, the panelists said it’s a “no win”, so just have to have a “fuck them” attitude. It’s complicated, Tamaki said, and when she started off as an illustrator, her work was “women-focused”, and that felt unusual at the time. Now that’s more standard, and that’s a positive change.