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She starts with a story, typed in paragraphs, then draws thumbnails, figuring out what will go into each panel and removing any text that can be shown in a drawing. Then she makes a rough sketch layout, penciling the pages. Next comes inking, text lettering, and color. All these steps, she points out in a recent Tumblr sketch, can be done in pajamas without leaving home.
Knisley has kept an online drawn journal for years, writing comics about such personal matters as breaking up with her long-time boyfriend. "That online connection is very intimate," she acknowledges. "It's all about communicating and creating a bond with readers." Obsessed with comics since she was a kid reading Archie and Tintin, she started drawing autobio comics as a painting student at the Art Institute of Chicago, as "an act of communication when I felt really isolated. I didn't have the socialization thing down. I was miserable, alone; I would sit in my room all day and make comics. It was my way of saying, 'I'm here.'"
Emotional honesty is paramount. Knisley expresses frustration with online reviewers who criticized French Milk for her character's flaws and occasional self-absorption. "You don't have to be perfect to be a strong female character. You can have pettiness, bad days, moodiness. That's what being 22 feels like."
- An illustration from Lucy Knisley’s Relish: My Life in the Kitchen.
Is she ever uncomfortable when strangers feel as if they know her? Not at all, Knisley says. "I'm very flattered when people know me and my work, when a stranger comes up to me at a convention and asks, 'How's your cat?' It's work I make public. I'm very honest, but I'm not putting anything out there I'm not comfortable with." Many autobio comics are far more revealing; she recalls being on a panel with Chester Brown, author of Paying for It: A Comic Strip Memoir of Being a John. "I read his book and thought, 'I know a lot about you.' But it's not like people are trying to pick me up. For me, it usually means readers bring me snacks. Which is good."
Knisley prefers "comic artist" to "graphic novelist" because comics is an all-encompassing term, covering everything from single-panel cartoons to superhero comic books to literary memoirs. "It helps to de-seriousify the graphic novel thing," she explains. "I'm happy to make work that's not Art Spiegelman's Maus, about a Holocaust survivor, or Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, about her father's suicide."
"I love those books," Knisley adds (her ardor appears to be mutual: Bechdel's jubilant blurb appears on the cover of Relish). "But I'm happy to bring a different voice to graphic novels. There's a lot of downer stuff, because you're not going to find a lot of people who make comics because they're well-adjusted and happy, and now they want to be crazy artists who spend all their time drawing and stay in a house, like, forever."
Knisley shows no sign of staying indoors forever. Along with her books and ongoing webcomic, she's designed T-shirts, posters, and roller derby logos; produced a CD, Pretty/Nerdy; and now does freelance illustration and journalism for Time Out, New City, Huffington Post, and Saveur, where she landed her dream gig: travel food writer ("All the things I like!"). She's been to Korea, Africa, and Australia, but one of her favorite culinary destinations is right up the river.
"A lot in Relish stems from my youth in the Hudson Valley," Knisley says. "The food growing in my neighbor's backyard is what we'd have in our salad bowl for dinner. I really miss that. I live in New York, and I lived in Chicago before that. So much of working on Relish was about reconnecting to my youth and to this place. And now I can hop a train, go upstate, and my mom will feed me amazing food."
She also gets amazing Hudson Valley food from the Union Square Greenmarket, where she sometimes buys produce from her former bosses. Knisley recalls selling mushrooms at a farmers' market one frigid day in November, and being so cold that a customer took pity and gave her gloves. Now she's a customer herself. "I've been buying these beautiful purple carrots, probably grown by one of my mom's neighbors," she says, sounding dreamy. Maybe she'll make sautéed carrots for MTV after all.
This is the drill: "Heat butter and olive oil in a big pan, about half and half—I like a little more butter. Peel the carrots and cut them into matchsticks. Throw them in and cook them for about five minutes. Right at the end, add a little salt and sugar. That's the secret weapon—it caramelizes them. When they get just a little limp, take them out. Or if you're like me, eat them right out of the pan."
Sounds good enough to draw.
Lucy Knisley will appear 4/4 at 7pm at Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck and 5/4 at 4pm at the Hudson Opera House.