Interview with Liz Suburbia: Punk Rock Ethos on Paper By Natalye Childress
It’s been a whirlwind year for Liz Suburbia, who saw the release of her first book, Sacred Heart, published by Fantagraphics Books. The artist and author opened up in an email interview about how punk rock and comics helped mold her approach to art, how she’s teaching herself to improve her craft, and her thoughts on the internet’s role in creating a platform for marginalized voices to be heard.
Suburbia is punk rock—and not just in the sense of dyed hair and piercings, though she has those too. But her version of punk rock goes beyond aesthetics to encompass an unfiltered version of the world. Sometimes that means creating something for the sole purpose of self-expression, regardless of how unpolished it might be. Other times that means drawing characters with glaring personal flaws and visible physical imperfections. And of course that also means fighting against oppressive systems with her words, her actions, and even her money. So when Suburbia puts pen to paper, you can guarantee her punk rock ethos comes spilling out.
Natalye: For the uninitiated reader, can you briefly tell us about yourself?
Liz: I currently live in Nevada and try to squeeze making comics in around having a day job and having a life. I like walking around outside and exploring my city and going to shows, even though I don’t go to as many since leaving the D.C. area a couple of years ago.
Natalye: What made you decide to make that move and what differences have you found between the two places?
Liz: The D.C. area was just getting really unlivable. It’s really expensive and hard to get around because the traffic’s so bad. In Reno, I pay half as much for an apartment twice as big, and I can get anywhere worth going inside of fifteen minutes. For the first time, I can actually afford to save up a little money for whatever it is I want to do next, life-wise. I miss D.C. a lot, though; the punk scene there is really something special.
Natalye: When did you first become interested in art as something you partook in and not simply consumed?
Liz: I’ve been drawing comics for as long as I can remember; my references have just changed over the years. I started out copying FoxTrot and those kinds of newspaper strips as a little kid. In high school, I met my best friend, Kevin Czapiewski, who introduced me to zines and punk music, which really influenced the direction my approach to art took, even if it took a few years to really incubate. Later, I worked at a comic shop in Virginia for almost four years, which was really educational as far as seeing how much stuff is out there and collecting influences and developing my own style.
Natalye: What specifically about zines and punk influenced your direction?
Liz: I think most of all it’s been the big DIY principle of making and sharing your own shit with your friends, instead of just consuming what the culture at large is manufacturing with a bottom line in mind. It’s the idea that wanting to do something is enough—you don’t have to be at a certain skill level, you don’t have to have a certain number of people paying attention, and it doesn’t matter if it’s forgotten a year from now or if it ever gets any kind of notice or makes any money. When you’re just making a zine or writing a song or whatever for your own edification, or to share with your friends because you love them and you want to do something fun for them, it keeps you in the moment. It’s what helps us feel alive. And the freedom that comes from that can open up a space for amazing things, like art and ideas that really push boundaries and platforms for people whose voices don’t get heard otherwise. My surface aesthetic tastes are fickle, but that core world view is going to enliven and sustain me until the day I die.
Natalye: When you were developing your own style, were there phases where you didn’t really know what you were doing? Are you proud of all your work, or are there any time periods when you produced stuff that you’re not so into now?
Liz: Oh yeah, definitely. I don’t even know if I’d say I know what I’m doing now! There’s precious little I’ve ever drawn that I can look at without cringing. I’m at this point right now where I’m really just trying to destroy my stupid ego—like getting a grip on my natural tendency to be a perfectionist—because it makes it hard to get anything done. I waste so much energy fretting that what I’m working on won’t be good enough to show other people, which I realize totally flies in the face of what I was saying earlier about a punk ethos. It wasn’t really an issue when it felt like no one was looking and I was just doing this to amuse myself; I’m not so hardcore that I’m immune to self-consciousness. That’s the price you pay for gaining a wider audience.
Natalye: In a past interview, you’d said “I think [punk] should be more of a tool to learn more about yourself and others and a lens through which to see and question to world around you, than a full-on identity.” Can you share an example of this to illustrate what you mean?
Liz: Not to talk shit or anything, but over the years I’ve seen a lot of punks really fall into the trap of letting the identity do all the work of being a human being in the world for them, you know? I’ve known people who sneer at their square neighbors when the only difference between them is one of them has weird hair and drinks their coffee from a Misfits mug. I mean, I know how it feels to want to belong to something cool that makes you feel okay about yourself; it’s a mean world and I fully endorse the use of aesthetic rituals to drum up the strength to face it. But the day I walk out the door thinking I’m better than anybody else because I listen to Bikini Kill instead of Rihanna is the day I’ve lost touch.
Natalye: When people talk about your work, often they mention how intense, messy, and gritty the artwork and the topics are. What’s your response? How deliberate are you about this?
Liz: I’ve actually been kind of surprised to hear it described in those terms. To me, it feels like I’m being too neat and clean and uptight, artistically and thematically. I’m just trying to be as truthful as I can. Maybe people are just surprised to see a cartoonist actually acknowledge that things like cellulite and body hair exist.
Natalye: You’re known for your zine, Cyanide Milkshake. But last summer, Fantagraphics released your first graphic novel, Sacred Heart, an epic three-hundred-page story. How did you make the transition from the fun short scrapbook style to a longer form?
Liz: I actually started doing Cyanide Milkshake as a break from early Sacred Heart production. My natural tendency is toward really long, drawn-out ideas. So I decided I would try to crank out something short and silly as fast and unselfconsciously as possible, which was Cyanide Milkshake #2 (the story of #1 is kind of dumb and weird; I’ll explain it in the eventual collection).
The Sacred Heart pages on my website were a pretty rough draft, even though I was kind of sweating blood over them at the time. Once the publishing deal came up, I started redrawing the whole thing from scratch, and it took me about a year and a half of really hard work to get it done. I was also working my current day job—which has mandatory overtime half the year—and dealing with some personal family stuff, so it was a rough time. I didn’t go out or exercise or take care of my body, so I pretty much felt like I was dying 24/7. It really took over my life and I don’t think I could do it that way again.
Natalye: In working with these “long, drawn-out ideas,” you also have so many characters and plotlines colliding with one another. Where does the inspiration for each person come from?
Liz: I definitely spend a lot of time trying to figure people out, maybe because it doesn’t come very naturally to me. I frequently feel like an alien life form who’s trying really earnestly to pass for human. I read a lot of advice columns.
Natalye: Do you have a process for creating characters and their backstories?
Liz: My characters tend to start as general ideas of what kind of people I want them to be and what their place is in the story, and then I have to do the more conscious work of rounding them out, which usually involves asking a lot of questions: What do they do when they’re depressed? How do they act when they have a crush? What’s a formative moment in their past? Where are they going to end up when they’re old, if they make it that far? Once you have a good sense of them as a person, you just kind of plug them into the plot, and if you’ve gotten to know them well enough, their actions and reactions will be mostly self-evident.
Natalye: How do you keep everything straight?
Liz: I write everything down in a big notebook, but I really need to start transcribing it onto a computer and backing it up on the cloud or something, because if that notebook catches on fire or whatever, I’ll really be up a creek.
Natalye: Even though there’s only one book, your plan is to write more. How will you be approaching the next installments?
Liz: Going forward with Sacred Heart, I’m planning to serialize it at a slower pace, and I’m trying to figure out ways to draw that are easier and more economical, even if it means I don’t get to nitpick each individual drawing and try to make it look perfect or whatever. The story is going to follow the main character into her old age, so I’ve got my work cut out for me.
Natalye: What specifically do you mean by “easier and more economical” ways of drawing?
Liz: Faster, looser, less self-conscious. Making more space for spontaneity and happy accidents, almost like doing improv instead of sticking to a script. I’d really love to learn to enjoy the process of capturing a truthful feeling, instead of being so fucking precious about formulating a rigid picture in my head and trying to translate it as closely as possible to the page.
Natalye: You also recently announced a new project, Egg Cream. What can you tell me about that?
Liz: Egg Cream is basically just going to be a somewhat more polished version of Cyanide Milkshake. It’s a regular release of a certain length, in which I plan to serialize new installments of Sacred Heart and also have room for any other kind of silly one-offs or other stories I want to do. It’s being published by Czap Books, which is my best friend’s imprint, and I’m as stoked as I could possibly be to be working with them on this.
Natalye: In addition to changing your approach to drawing, you’ve also said in another interview that you’re trying to develop as a writer. Has that been challenging for you?
Liz: It’s been a little challenging, yeah. I’m not very sharp or academically minded, so my method is to basically read a lot of comics and watch a lot of TV and try to pick apart what works and what doesn’t. I like to watch sprawling dramas like The Sopranos or Big Love and just kind of learn about things like characterization and story arcs by osmosis. I’m lucky to have some really good friends with really varied approaches to writing and making comics, and keeping up with their latest work always challenges me to not just get complacent with what I’m doing and how I’m thinking.
Natalye: How have you seen your writing develop?
Liz: I don’t know if I’ve seen my writing develop much, but it’s nice to have a kind of awareness of how to hammer a raw idea out into something that’s outwardly comprehensible. Comics, for me, are about communicating and connecting with others, which most anxious people will tell you can be kind of fraught, so it’s nice to have something resembling a system for doing so.
Natalye: In what ways do you experience that communication and connection? Is it all just knowing you’re putting stuff out there, or is it more concrete, like meeting people, receiving fan mail, et cetera?
Liz: For me, it’s most deeply felt in the exchange: I give you my comic, you give me yours, and over time we influence and challenge each other. Stuff like fan mail and meeting people is actually kind of the hard part for me, because I get overwhelmed by it really easily. I love people, but I have a shitty brain! I get anxious about answering my email, and it piles up in my inbox more and more until it’s just completely paralyzing to even think about.
Meeting one person at a time takes a lot of emotional resources—like, I want to put my best self forward and be present in the moment and absorb what they’re telling me about themselves, so meeting a ton of people in one day at a show or a convention can drain me pretty quickly. I start running on autopilot, and when that happens, I miss out on really engaging with the person in front of me. SPX 2016 is coming up at the time I’m writing this, and I’m stressing out about not remembering names and faces that I’ve met before. I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life, which can really physiologically do a number on your memory. I don’t want to accidentally be an asshole to anyone who’s nice enough to want to reach out to me.
Natalye: Speaking of SPX, I’m paraphrasing here, but you spoke on a panel there once about not wanting to work for a mainstream publisher in “queering up/feministing” their characters, given their shitty track record with these topics and “punk/queer” culture not being a thing for them to appropriate. Could you elaborate on that? Would mainstream publishers putting out more comics that are relatable to queers and punks make the world better? Or would that be more like fetishizing something actually important that it’s hard to trust them to get right?
Liz: It’s kind of a complicated issue. How much principle are you willing to sacrifice for that kind of visibility, and is that visibility worth it to you? Like I said in that panel, my friend Cathy G. Johnson put it really well and really simply: “It’s up to the people in power to meet marginalized groups where we are, instead of exploiting us for sales and street cred.” That’s a paraphrase, but you get the idea. You can’t trust those kinds of places not to use you just to make their shit look better and not to take marginalized people’s money without really giving anything back.
Honestly, I don’t think we need the acknowledgement of DC or Marvel or whoever, you know (that’s who we were discussing on the panel you mentioned)? In the internet age, it is so easy to find work by POC and trans kids and queers and everyone else you can imagine: work that they have control over, and that doesn’t serve corporate interests at their expense. And you can support that work directly. I mean, I’m not going to judge anyone for the work they take to keep food on the table, because we’re stuck with a broken system for the time being, and I think it’s more important for a marginalized person to stay alive first and foremost. I’ve got my eyes on my own paper. I have the means to turn down that kind of work, so I try to stay aware of the reasons why I choose to do so.
Natalye: You’ve mentioned it in passing a couple of times, but you have a job that keeps you pretty busy. What is it?
Liz: It’s about as boring to hear described as it is to do every day. I just do art stuff on the computer for a printing company. The health insurance is really good and the pay is enough that my comics don’t have to carry the burden of paying my bills.
Natalye: Do you have aspirations of getting to do comics full time, or would that ruin it for you?
Liz: I’d like to have a different day job eventually. I’m saving up my Sacred Heart money so I can go back to school and actually get qualified for something, but I don’t think I’ll ever do comics full time, barring some kind of surprise windfall. It would be easier if the only lifestyle I was trying to sustain was one that lets me keep making comics, but I have other stuff I want to do in life too. It’s important to me—speaking only for myself—to contribute equally financially to my household, and comics just don’t pay a living wage. My book did really well and I live pretty modestly, but what I made last year wouldn’t have been enough to live off of. And my work really suffers under any kind of pressure, so I think if I tried to do comics full time they’d really fall off in quality. Maybe this point of view isn’t very punk rock of me, but whatever, life’s a hustle and my dogs need to eat.
Natalye: You’ve been putting out and distributing your art with Silver Sprocket for some time now—including contributing to three of the four issues of As You Were zine—and you recently announced a new comic you’re releasing with Silver Sprocket. What are the details on that?
Liz: Glad you asked! It’s called SuperNova MegaCrush, and it’s about a blob alien hive mind crushing on the human race from afar and working up the courage to ask us if we want to casually hook up. If you read Cyanide Milkshake, it takes place in the same universe as Girl Boy Adventures, the silly zombie comic where a character from Sacred Heart fell through a portal into an alternate universe. It’s kind of a porno in that the whole story is driven by sexual encounters between characters, but it’s pretty softcore: lots of nudity and heavy breathing, but not really any close-ups of body parts going into other body parts or anything like that.
Natalye: What does the rest of 2016 look like for you? Will you be publishing or releasing anything?
Liz: I’ll be releasing the sexy comic with Silver Sprocket, hopefully in something resembling a timely fashion—I’ve had a lot of overtime lately so it’s going kind of slowly. I’m going to try to have Cyanide Milkshake #8 and maybe a mini comic about the imaginary friend I had when I was thirteen done in time for SPX. Beyond that, who knows? The time goes by really fast! I’m just trying to figure out how to loosen up my drawing so that it’s faster and less stressful to make comics, instead of throwing my free time away agonizing over every damn line and making stuff that just ends up looking really uptight and anxious.
Natalye: Is there any new direction you want to experiment with?
Liz: I’m still feeling really burned out from finishing the book and I’m just trying to remember how to enjoy drawing again. Maybe I’ll try making comics using a digital drawing tablet, but I already stare at a computer screen for forty-plus hours a week for my job, so maybe not, at least not yet.
Natalye: If you had to choose one artistic piece of output of yours that would be representative of who you are to show someone who is not familiar with your work, what would it be?
Liz: I guess Sacred Heart is my biggest thing to date, in terms of the scale and ambition behind the story and the themes and everything, so that might be a good one. I don’t know. I’m always learning and changing so I always feel like my best stuff is still ahead of me. Whatever I have coming out next, that’s what you should read.