I Thought More People Would Freak Out and Run Away
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
This month, we published weekly comics by the hilarious Joey Alison Sayers. Today, she answers a few questions for comics editor Sara Lautman.
You are a humorist. Was that part of the plan from the beginning? A more specific question: did you come to drawing by way of writing, or writing by way of drawing?
I’ve been drawing comics off and on since I was a kid. The first strip I did, when I was 7 years old, was a humor strip called “Play on Words” aka POW. My father co-authored it and it was very popular in my family, but no one else ever saw it. I’ve always written and done other creative things like playing music and occasionally writing poetry, but comics have always been my most consistent medium. Even when I write poetry it tends to be humorous. It’s not that I can’t be serious — I’ve written some pretty miserable and sad poetry thanks to a lifelong struggle with depression — but humor is more fun.
I’ve always veered toward humor in art and life. I guess I would have been a class clown if I hadn’t been so shy. That’s a pretty good recipe for a cartoonist, really: funny and shy. When I got serious about comics about fifteen years ago, doing funny stuff just seemed like the natural place to go. Even when I’ve done more serious, personal comics, like my autobio book Just So You Know, I told the story though a lens of humor.
Just So You Know is so great. I loved that one where your co-worker is talking about getting her period.
The title Just So You Know sounds tongue-in-cheek, like a sexual health brochure, but it really does serve the purpose that it’s maybe making fun of — making very specific emotional and social experiences accessible to anybody reading it.
Was Just So You Know conceived with that in mind — as a way to expedite your coming out story? It seems like the jokiness of the title, but also the warmth of it, suggests in a gentle way that the social practice of coming out is not quite fair. (The personal practice of coming out to oneself, of course, is an entirely different thing.)
The title Just So You Know wasn’t meant to sound like a sexual health brochure, but if I ever redesign the covers I’m definitely going to design them to look that way! The title was meant to convey this sort of breeziness about the subject matter that it didn’t really deserve. Like, “FYI, I’m trans, no biggie”. Whereas it was a pretty big biggie to myself, of course, and my family and friends. But the irony is that my coming out to acquaintances and strangers was actually pretty low-key. I had my share of stares and names and weird reactions, for sure, but I had a lot more support and understanding. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I’m sure that had something to do with it. But back to the book itself, I really was trying to show the lighter side of upending my life. Lots of trans memoirs deal with the pain and the struggle — which are very real — and I wanted to present the process of transition through the humorous moments. I think that resonated with a lot of people — both trans and cis. And it did provide a quick way to come out to people that I didn’t want to have that whole exhausting conversation with.
Did your community react to JSYK in any ways that were satisfying or disappointing or surprising? Was anticipating a response even part of the story, or was the reception just like, of course Joey made comics about this, she’s a cartoonist.
My comics community was extremely supportive. I got a lot of encouragement after I drew the first volume to continue it in a second one. The cartoonists I know are excited to read new stories and new perspectives. The comics community was pretty supportive of my transition, too. Overall, I was surprised by the support of everyone in my community. I transitioned ten years ago. It wasn’t as common of a thing. Trans people weren’t all over the internet and TV to the extent they are now. I thought more people would freak out and run away, but in truth I only lost one or two friends.
What were your favorite newspaper comic strips as a kid? Did you read serialized comics or collections of cartoons?
Oh, I read pretty much every strip when I was a kid. Even the soap opera ones, but I didn’t have the slightest idea what those were about. But my favorites were Peanuts and Garfield when I was really young. As I got older and more sophisticated, I discovered Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. And I loved the collections. Oh man, I’d read Garfield collections over and over. Also, when I was a kid, a friend of my dad’s visited Australia and brought me back all these collections of newspaper strips from there. They were incredible and so exotic to my little brain. I got super into this strip called Footrot Flats. It was about these farmers and their animals in the Outback and I understood probably 25% of the jokes because of the cultural differences. But I loved it just the same. It was like an alternate universe with all these jokes and strips that somehow existed without my knowledge.
And my love of comic strips has never really waned. As I got older, I got into Bizarro, and some of the snarkier strips. Then in high school I found Matt Groening’s Life in Hell. But it was when I discovered Lynda Barry’s comics, and This Modern World, and Tom the Dancing Bug, and all those cool, weird strips in alternative newsweeklies that the seed was planted in my brain that a handful of years later would grow into my desire to do a weekly strip. And that’s when I started Thingpart, my weekly strip that ran for a few years in a small handful of newsweeklies around the US and abroad. Unfortunately, I got into the newspaper comic business right around the time that the newsweeklies were cutting content and consolidating, and generally dropping comics altogether. That was the dark punchline to my first attempt to make it as a cartoonist. Fortunately, though, that didn’t deter me and I figured out how to put comics on the internet and now I’m (not remotely) rich and (a tiny bit) famous!