BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
Artist Jennifer Hayden
rediscovered comic books and graphic novels when she was recovering from breast cancer. It didn't take long for her to get the itch to create her own story, Underwire
, illustrating her times with her family and life in a way everyone could relate to. After getting a few chapters created, Dean Haspiel
became aware of the work and offered her a spot at Act-I-Vate
. Now, Top Shelf
has given her the chance to have her own graphic novel, The Story of My Tits
, which deals with her cancer scare and more, see print. Hayden told THE PULSE why she went with Top Shelf, how she's grown as a webcomics creator and how she's encouraging someone from the next generation to make his comics. THE PULSE: When we first talked about your webcomic in September, you said you were learning the "fine art to spilling my guts" in Underwire. How has the learning curve been so far?
Well, I really learned that fine art when I started my graphic novel, but that wasn't very public. Underwire is public, and I've learned more about discretion there. Actually, what Underwire
has taught me is that the more I spill, the more people love it -- which is as it should be. THE PULSE: So what is your graphic novel about? I thought it possibly could be a collection of Underwire, but it sounds like you're working on something different ...?
Yes, very different. I started working on my graphic novel, The Story of My Tits
, three years ago. It's really a memoir about my life and my experience with breast cancer. While I was working on it, I got a little overwhelmed with the material at times and with thinking about the past, so I started doing these shorter, lighter comics about my current life and family, and that's Underwire. I hope to publish a collection of these short comics after I'm done with my graphic novel.THE PULSE: That's quite a title there! I can guess how you came up with it, but were you worried at all about the title giving the wrong idea -- like maybe it's the story of implants or something or the story of development ...?
It's about all that. It's the story of everything that happened to me from when I had no tits (freshly born) to when I had tits, to when I had no tits again (after my bilateral mastectomy, when I had implants.) THE PULSE: You've been working on this for three years ... why has it taken you so long to get it created? I'd imagine it was kind of tough recalling everything and putting it on the page for everyone to see ....
It is going to be 350 pages, and I'm only halfway there. I had a few other things going on at the start -- the graphic novel was my guilty pleasure, in between illustrating two children's books and being a Mom. A year ago I gave up children's illustration, and started doing comics full-time, but I still divide that between my book and Underwire
. And the book has a lot of juicy stuff in it. THE PULSE: Like what? Is this a straight autobiography? How did you decide what "chapters" of your life made the stuff of good comics and what to leave out? It's tough to look at your life and make decisions like that ....
It's a fabulous exercise for anyone who's been through a life-lesson like cancer and for anyone who's reached middle age. It becomes quite clear what to put in and what to leave out as you go along, and you find out what meant something to you and what didn't. Your path becomes clear. I'm including everything that resonated for me when I got my diagnosis--my slowness to develop tits, my mother's breast cancer, my mother-in-law's death of lung cancer, the birth of my children, it's all here. THE PULSE: Are you drawing it straight through or have you skipped around and drawn some stories that were easier to relate?
I'm drawing it panel by panel, with a rough outline and a timeline. I never quite know what will come next, and yet I always know. Every panel is a surprise.THE PULSE: That kind of sounds strange to me ... how can you not know, yet know?
I mean, I know the events, but not how I want to tell the story. It's like writing a poem. You know what you want to write about, just not exactly how, until the words (or images) emerge.THE PULSE: So aside from the actual events, is there anything else that is influencing how you're brining your story to light here?
Well, I don't want to bore my audience, and I do like to chuckle, so I'm definitely paying attention to what's funny about all this and what's interesting in terms of dramatic structure.THE PULSE: Who do you think are some of the masters at being able to tell autobiographical comics like this?
HAYDEN: Alison Bechdel
, of course, and Lynda Barry
, and Marjane Satrapi
, and Julie Doucet
, to start with the women. I'm partial to women. Then Jeffrey Brown, Craig Thompson
, and David B.
. These are some of the first people whose work inspired me go ahead and do what I'm doing now.THE PULSE: Have you had the chance to talk with any of those people since you began running your comics on Act-I-Vate?
No--but if I ever run into any of them, believe me, they won't escape. Actually, I've met Alison Bechdel
and Lynda Barry
, but all I did was shake their hands. They were signing books. Next time I'll have the nerve to talk to them.
And I've left out Marisa Acocella Marchetto
, who wrote Cancer Vixen
. This came out just as I was going through my surgery, actually, the original comic, not the whole book. And it made me very inspired to tell my story. I met her too, but just shook her hand, and didn't have the nerve to talk to her. I also have met Jeffrey Brown
, who was very, very gracious about listening to me babble while he drew me a picture.THE PULSE: Have you had people come up to you yet who've read Underwire and were kind of star struck?
Star Struck!!!!! That is hilarious. If a few people are reading it outside of my faithful circle of friends, I'm delighted. If they actually come up to me, I'll have a heart attack. I'm not sure I'm star material yet.THE PULSE: Have you set up at any cons yet since you began working on your comics?
No, it didn't seem worth it yet, because I don't have anything to sell. Basically, I'm doing a webcomic, which I hope will grow in readership, and I'm working on a graphic novel, which will be published in 2011 by Top Shelf
. When I'm at a con, I'm just meeting people, buying books, and learning all I can.THE PULSE: Does your daughter like comic books, too? Does she ever go with you to cons? What about your son?
She likes the Archies
, but has never been to a con. My son went to last year's NYCC with me, and he brought a friend. These guys went nuts over all the games, in fact they got to try the new Halo, so they were very psyched. My son reads some comics, but not that much.
What's happening to kids these days? I just can't get my kids to read more comics!!!THE PULSE: Do you think it's the quality of the comics or the inability of most kids to sit still long enough to read or do anything that doesn't involve a DS, Xbox 360 or Playstation?
I was actually teasing -- we should be wanting our kids to read more books, and in fact my kids read more books than comic books. But they do like their computer junk -- my son likes his games, my daughter likes video chatting and IM-ing. And I fell in love with comics during summers we spent with no TV set, so it was the next-best junk available. I think it doesn't have that same appeal anymore -- except to kids who have that visual/verbal storytelling instinct which all comics people have. A kid in my daughter's class is very serious about reading and making his own comics. I encourage him all the time.THE PULSE: Very cool. How'd the deal with Top Shelf happen? There are a lot of independent publishers out there, what made them the ideal fit for your story?
HAYDEN: Chris Staros
is just one of my favorite people. I sent him my first pages and he actually sent me an encouraging email. Then I met him at the first con I went to, and the second, and the third, and by then I had more of my book done, and I kept showing it to him, until at last he gave in. I wanted someone who would give my story the TLC it needed to come out just right, someone who clearly valued his artists over the long-term. And in the end, the economy convinced me to go small. Small publishers are flexible and well-positioned and seasoned enough to survive.THE PULSE: Speaking of, how has the economy been affecting your life in and out of comics?
So far, so good. I'm holding my breath.THE PULSE: How many pages of Underwire are online now? Is it still updating one Saturday a month?
I've posted five chapters, or individual stories. They're 18 panels apiece, which I display one per page online, so I guess that adds up to about 90 pages. Not the same thing as 90 nicely-laid-out comic-book pages, mind you. In print, it would amount to 15 pages, with six panels per page. And yes, I'm still posting the fourth Saturday of each month.
I also just found out my webcomics are currently in an online webcomics exhibit sponsored by the Greylock Gallery in Adams, Mass. PULSE readers can learn more about that here: http://greylockarts.net/dot-comics-underwireTHE PULSE: Are you working on any other projects besides the webcomic and The Story Of My Tits?
No. That's keeping me very happy right there. My other projects are things like remembering to make dinner and do the laundry once in a while.THE PULSE: You mentioned the NYCC are you going again this year?
You betcha. I learn so much there. Unfortunately, I spend too much money on books.
You can read more about this slice-of-life series here: http://www.comicon.com/ubb/ubbthreads.ph...true#Post372382
You can read Underwire
for free here: http://activatecomix.com/64.comic