Seeing Humanity Through Comics – Erin Nations On His Career & Telling Transgender Stories

by Hannah Means Shannon

Erin Nations has been creating comics for a number of years while based on Portland, Oregon, first via the internet with webcomics, and now through single issue print distribution via Top Shelf at IDW. His comic Gumballs contains an anthology of short stories in each issue, addressing a wide range of topics from daily life experiences, memories of childhood, and observations about the world.

There aren’t all that many autobiographical comics being published in single issues  by major publishers, and especially not in full-color, so Nations’ achievement in championing the autobio format is as impressive as the witty and engaging stories you’ll find in Gumballs.

Some of Nations’ stories reflect on personal awareness of gender and becoming transgender, and issue #4 of Gumballs, coming up in December from Top Shelf, is set to address the embattled state of gender assignments and regulations applied to public restrooms.

This week is Transgender Awareness Week (November 13th through 17th) and we’re very happy to have Erin Nations here with us at Comicon.com today to talk about his life and art, and appreciate his help in spreading awareness of transgender creators, and transgender issues, in comics.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What led you into creating comics? What made you aware this was a possibility and what road did you take toward creating and publishing?

Erin Nations: I think it was a natural progression. By the age of 10, I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist, but back then I was leaning more towards animation. Growing up, I appreciated comic books for their visual appeal, but the content didn’t really interest me because I was under the impression that comics were about superheroes. In college, a friend introduced me to graphic novels, and cartoonista like Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware. I became an instant fan.

When I took a comic book class, during my last term, I realized it was something I wanted to pursue. However, I wasn’t very ambitious at age 23. I continued to make art, but not comics. I became more driven as I approached my 30s. In 2012, I took a comic book class at a local art school, taught by Brett Warnock. With his encouragement and support, I began making comics online. Three years later, I caught up with Brett again and that’s when the seed for Gumballs was planted.

HMS: Since autobiography plays a strong role in Gumballs, how do you think growing up in Oregon has influenced you as a comic creator and as a person?

EN: While my environment has influenced the content of my comics, I’m not sure if it has really impacted me as a creator. Regardless of my location, I’ve always had a drive to create cartoons.

If anything, Portland has afforded me opportunities I didn’t have access to in the small towns I grew up in. There are a handful of places in Portland that offer educational courses in comics. There are various comics/zine events in town that allow people to network, form friendships with other creators, and sell work. We have a lot of comic book shops, and it’s become a hub for comic book publishers.

HMS: Was there ever a time when you felt it would be impossible for you to publish your reflections on gender like in stories such as Stand By Me”, whether for personal, emotional reasons, or for practical reasons?

EN: No, I don’t think so. Being published, in general, seemed impossible to me. The stories I create aren’t new. Books about gender and sexuality have been published for as long as I’ve been alive, so I assumed anything is possible. I never believed a big publisher would take an interest in my comics about gender, but I figured I could always self-publish or submit my work to an independent publisher.

HMS: Top Shelf tells us that issue #4 of Gumballs will directly address transgender bathroom assignment and regulations.

Obviously, things have become much darker under the current political regime in this country, in terms of not allowing people to use restrooms based on the gender they identify with. But what, specifically, made you decide to create a story about it? What do you think will make a difference or inspire progress on this issue?

EN: Public restrooms have always been emotionally taxing for transgender people and anyone who is gender non-conforming. These laws only accelerate our fears because they’re designed to put our lives at a higher risk of violence. I can’t speak for all trans people, but I’m sure a number of trans folks fear public restrooms because of the violent repercussions they may incur if they are misgendered.

Every day I have to use a public restroom and not just once, but multiple times a day. I’m anxious every time I use the restroom. If the anxiety is too intense, then I’ll avoid it and wait until I get home. I don’t think people realize the reality of what we go through and I wanted to address that in this comic in hopes that they’ll understand.

Maybe personal stories like mine will help people see the humanity in us, and they’ll be sympathetic enough to reconsider their prejudiced views. I want them to understand that we are human beings that deserve to be treated with respect.

HMS: As a cartoonist, how do you decide which ideas will actually make it into comics form out of all the possible stories you could tell?

EN: I think it boils down to if I think it’s an interesting or important story. Receiving constructive criticism and getting feedback from fans has sorta helped me figure out what works and what doesn’t. If people want to continue reading about a certain storyline, or if a particular topic intrigues them, then I’ll keep making comics people want to read.

HMS: Reviewers and readers notice your use of color as well as line art style in Gumballs and comment on it. What kind of sensibilities influence your use of color? Do you have a particular philosophy about it?

EN: My only philosophy is to stay consistent, therefore I use the same palette. I choose vibrant colors that are stimulating to me.

HMS: How did Gumballs come to be published by Top Shelf? Was getting publishing distribution a big change for you at all? Did it influence your view of your work?

EN: Brett Warnock, who was one of the founders of Top Shelf, was my former teacher and he continued to follow my work (via social media) after the class ended. He was able to see my comics evolve. Several years later, he asked me if I’d want to be published. That was in the fall of 2015, so he had already left Top Shelf by then. However, he was still very influential in helping me get published by Top Shelf. He contacted Chris Staros and when Chris expressed an interest, Brett became a mentor and helped me put together the first issue of Gumballs. Once it was completed, I submitted it to Top Shelf.

Being published changed a lot of things, because my comics can now be found in comic book stores across the U.S. Having my comics distributed and promoted by a publisher has definitely helped me reach a wider audience and gain new fans.

To a degree, it has influenced the way I view my work. Before I was published, I didn’t scrutinize the marketability of my comics as often. I made art for the sake of making art. Now that I have a bigger audience and a publisher, I spend more time wondering if the comic is good enough and if people will like it.

HMS: What do you think has been achieved so far, in terms of transgender representation in comics, and what positive developments would you like to see on the horizon?

EN: Generally, the comics I read that feature transgender characters are self-published or published by small press publishers, and they’re created by transgender or non-binary creators, so the representation is pretty accurate.

As far as trans representation in mainstream comics, I’m sort of in the dark, but Mey Valdivia Rude wrote an incredible article titled, “The Complete History of Transgender Characters in American Comic Books” at Autostraddle. I recommend people check it out.

According to her, transgender characters were almost non-existent prior to 2005. We didn’t see a significant change until 2013. Since then, the comics industry has continued to move in a positive direction. Unfortunately, there are still some comics that grossly misrepresent transgender people, but the majority of trans representation in comics has been pretty positive in recent years.

I think it’s important for publishers to continue releasing comics featuring diverse characters. Not just transgender characters, but characters of all gender identities, races, and sexual orientations. Aside from being represented, I’d like to see more diverse leading characters. Also, I’d love to see more diverse creators!

Many thanks to Erin Nations for joining us today on Comicon.com!

Gumballs #4 is scheduled for a December 13th release in comic shops and retailers can place their orders until next week (using Diamond codes OCT170550 for Cover A and OCT170551 for Cover B).