Welcome to the eighth installment of The (re)Collection Agency, a post series where we bring you informal talks with comics scholars about their comics reading and collecting practices and how that intersects with their work. The idea is to open up the discourse a bit to integrate the personal experience of comics reading and material culture with the scholarly side of comics through historicizing, interpreting, and archiving. In the introduction of the first installment I explained the origins of the term “(re)collection,” as I coined and theorized it in my dissertation project. While this and the coming installments of The (re)Collection Agency do not specifically focus on (re)collection, the idea behind it energizes my inquiries and seeks to narratively suture the idiosyncratic experience of reading with a scholarly context that asks that reading serve a further critical purpose. It has been a few months since the last installment, so let’s get to it. . .
I don’t recall how I started following Francesca Lyn on Twitter. Clearly it was somehow related to comics, but we were mutuals when I noticed we were presenting on the same panel at ICAF 2016, which is how we met in person. We’d end up in a crew of “young scholars” who hung out throughout that conference (okay, well… I am not “young” but I didn’t complete my PhD until the year I turned 43, so I am new to academia, and always young at heart). Upon hearing Francesca’s paper on Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons I realized that despite the differences in the content and types of comics we were working with in out respective areas of interest, there was significant overlap in how we thought about them and in our thematic concerns. And so, since part of what I want to do with The (Re)Collection Agency is shed light on young scholars, whether they’ve completed their degree or are still graduate students, I was eager to get Francesca to take part and bless us with some of her precious time.
Francesca Lyn is currently a doctoral candidate in Media, Art & Text at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Her dissertation “Graphic Intimacies: Identity, Humor, and Trauma in Autobiographical Comics by Women of Color” examines how such comics offer a new framework for exploring transgenerational trauma through the complex and intersecting themes of race and gender. She created and teaches the interdisciplinary courses “Gender, Race and Comics” and “Gender in Comics,” part of which includes teaching students how to do comics research with special emphasis on utilizing VCU’s Comic Arts Collection. She also enjoys performing stand-up comedy and creating her own comics, including Flower Girls, with artist Sally Cantirino (which you can order a digital copy of here). Careful readers may also remember her name from her contribution to “Caged and Enraged: Bitch Planet Comics Studies Round Table (part one)” entitled, “How Do Screens Function as Mirrors in Bitch Planet?”
OO: Okay so let’s start with what I am most curious about…You mentioned recently on Facebook that you got an award for writing an essay about collecting?
OO: Can you tell us about it?
FL: On May 3rd I was presented with Virginia Commonwealth University’s First Annual Book Collecting prize. To enter, I wrote a short essay on my small press and autobiographical comics collection. They selected one undergraduate and one graduate winner. You can read a bit about it here and see selections from my collection here.
OO: So, what, in your estimation, makes your collection of small press and autobiographical comics significant?
FL: While my collection does not have a large monetary value, it has a lot of particularly significant examples of autobiographical minicomics.
OO: Speculative collection is for the birds
FL: Also, many of my minicomics were purchased at the Small Press Expo (SPX). SPX is a comics festival for independent comics and is held once a year in Bethesda, Maryland. I’ve also managed to collect a lot of work created by women of color. And a lot of autobiographical women cartoonists in general. A lot of handmade minis.
OO: Right. Given your dissertation project—studying depictions of the lived experiences of women of color through autobiographical comics—that makes sense to me.
FL: I have a copy of Sam Alden’s Hawaii 1997 for example. That one is a favorite of mine.
OO: I am not familiar with that. What makes it a fave? (I have to admit this stuff is out of my wheelhouse. I have some small press indie stuff, but not enough to even begin to have a sense of the field).
FL: Hawaii 1997 is a dreamy semi-autobiographical story; it’s a smudgey pencil comic. It was eventually published by Uncivilized Books as part of It Never Happened Again (2014), but I love the original mini. Sam is one of my favorite cartoonists of all time. His work is so impressive to me. You can read a scan of it here.
OO: Wow, those are impressive pencil drawings! Which came first for you, the collecting or the scholarly project?
FL: The collecting came first. What really got me into autobio comics was Gabrielle Bell. I love her work. I think I have almost everything she has made, including a bunch of great self-published stuff. I love The Voyeurs. Though primarily autobiographical, she sometimes embraces the surreal to tell her story. I’ve been lucky enough to take a cartooning workshop at the Sequential Arts Workshop in Gainesville, FL with her.
OO: How’d you happen upon her work? And what appealed to you about it?
FL: She makes these very thoughtful comics about everyday stories. Plus, she is funny! I like when her stories get weird and surreal. I think I happened upon it because of my professor Tom De Haven. He had a lot of different comics for a class he taught on writing and creating comics. Tom is kind of a big deal though you would never know it from how nice and humble he is.
OO: WHAT? TOM DE HAVEN!?
FL: Yeah, he’s on my committee. Do you know Tom?
OO: Only from having written one of my all-time favorite books, It’s Superman!
FL: Wow, that’s great.
OO: Sounds like it’s great for you! That’s awesome. So, what led you from collecting autobio and small press comics to do scholarly work with them?
FL: VCU has a great comics community, we have a lot of talent here, but I started writing about comics as a budding comics journalist —a lot of my friends from Florida are writers.
OO: This was after undergrad? Where were you writing?
FL: I kind of owe that path to my good friend Danny Djeljosevic. He was doing reviews and making comics way before I had any serious interest in it. And he linked me up with people at Comics Bulletin who published my first reviews.
OO: Cool. What year was that?
FL: I started writing for Comics Bulletin in 2011. But I didn’t really get into indie comics until after I graduated from my masters and took an adult class at the sequential arts workshop.
OO: Maybe that is where I first knew you from? I know I knew you from comics twitter when we met at ICAF in 2016, but I can’t remember when I started following you or vice versa
FL: Maybe! I am very active on Twitter.
OO: So, you mentioned a sequential arts workshop, do you see an intersection between your making comics and your scholarship on comics?
FL: I do see making comics as informing my scholarship. I don’t think I would have wanted to write about autobiographical comics if I hadn’t tried to make one.
OO: Why is that? Was it an attention to form that arose from making them that you now recognized in others? Something else?
FL: I don’t think I would have understood the motivation to create them. In this case I am really interested in how comics can conceptualize racial difference. I am interested in how they can depict trauma. But it wasn’t until I actually tried to make them that I started to really theorize and question them as cultural products. Plus, it was interacting with the community, especially other people who made minis—people like Whit Taylor and Hazel Newlevant—that made me really want to spend time analyzing and writing about them. I feel like, in a small way, I am helping people find out more about them. These sorts of indie comics scenes can be a really kind and welcoming community. I am so grateful I can be a part of it in my own way.
OO: That’s great! So different from my own relationship to comics. I love it! Comics as a field is so capacious. You had a co-creator/artist on Flower Girls, but do you draw comics too?
FL: I have drawn a tiny bit. I am not naturally talented at drawing. I’m not a draftsman. Plus, a lot of the impetus behind Flower Girls was wanting to work with Sally Cantirino. She draws like a dream.
OO: Dream-like seems like a good way to describe Flower Girls, it even features dreams, but the waking world also has a dream-like quality to it.
FL: In some ways that project was meant to be an escape from my academic pursuits, but I ended up working with all the themes I am grappling with in life and academia. I’m not sure what people think of what the story is based on, but it came from a more personal place than I expected.
OO: I considered that as I was reading, but as I warn my students to do, I resisted the urge to assume that the events of a story reflect the author’s life in any direct way.
FL: Oh yeah. The character is not me and is not supposed to be me but being in a transition, coping from trauma, a lot of that was more about real events in my life.
OO: So are there more issues of Flower Girls coming?
FL: We aren’t sure yet when but I would love to. I have a very ambitious longer script outlined but both of us are pretty busy. I need to get this dang dissertation done, but I would love to do so much more.
OO: It felt both like there could be a continuation and that that was all that was necessary. I was re-reading Flower Girls this afternoon in getting ready for this talk and was really struck by its sense of anticipation, if that is the right word… It seemed like an intentionally interstitial story, if that makes any sense. Like a story between stories.
OO: Anyway, in case it isn’t clear, I really liked it, and I’m glad I splurged on a print copy.
FL: Thank you so much, that means a lot.
OO: So, you mentioned before that one of the things that appealed to you about Gabrielle Bell was her humor. . .and I know you do some stand-up comedy too right?
OO: Is it ok to talk a little about that?
FL: Sure, I am really just starting out. I started doing comedy through improv at the Coalition Theater in Richmond, Virginia. I moved on to take a standup joke writing class at Coalition with a great teacher, LE Zarling. A lot of my friends in Richmond do some sort of comedy. Again, I am lucky to be a part of a small community. I was briefly interviewed about it in a feature on Richmond’s female comedians.
OO: So, I guess the obvious question would be if you see any connection between being a comic and studying or making comics?
FL: I think both of them come from wanting to make sense of the world. I like standup because it has a kind of purity to it. Either people laugh, or they don’t. When they do laugh, it is often because you have just said something that is surprising and true. In its purest form, it is honest. I think comic books can do that too. Plus, I like talking to people. Comics help me do that. It allows me to create a dialogue with others. I am not the funniest person off the cuff, but I really like writing and rewriting to make jokes better and funnier. To me, that is the best part.
OO: I imagine that the framing of what you are saying matters a lot in both media. That is, for example, in comedy you can say things that in other contexts would not be funny and be very funny. Comic books can do that too because the combination of visual and textual lets you control a context (or even multiple contexts at once).
FL: Yeah, I think comics and stand-up comedy do have a lot in common. Cartoonist hours and standup hours are similar. Both are for weirdos.
OO: There was one other similarity between comic books and comedy that I wanted to ask about. Both seem (to me, at least) to be very white dude dominated fields. I know about comics, but from the outside stand-up seems that way, too.
FL: It’s funny because while I agree, I also worry that when people say that we also run the risk of overlooking the complete dominance of some women in both fields.
OO: I guess that depends on what kind of dominance we are talking about
FL: Is there any male cartoonist doing as well as Raina Telgemeier?
OO: In terms of individual achievement there are clearly women at the top of the craft…
FL: Yeah, but I’m talking about money, too. We know there have been great women cartoonists since the beginning.
OO: Yes, of course. So, you don’t think that overall men get the accolades and get to make more editorial choices? That in comedy men get more attention, better pay?
FL: I think the tendency is to downplay the incredible storm of women creators because a lot of them aren’t waiting for the industry to change. Take something like Iron Circus Comics.
OO: Spike Trotman’s press?
FL: Yeah, I believe that company is still the most funded kickstarter project of all time?
OO: Something like that, yeah. They’ve raised over a million dollars total on their various projects.
FL: I like that examples like Spike Trotman’s Iron Circus comics are less about being the one woman to make it into the boy’s club, and instead it seems to be more about making our own more inclusive clubs. Is it still extremely hard to be a woman creative? Of course. But I think maybe I am just tired of that question. It’s exhausting.
OO: Fair enough. That makes a lot of sense.
FL: I have read comics fans discounting the work of some of the great women cartoonists because they are making kids comics. So what? They are good comics!
OO: Yeah, that’s some bullshit. Some people act as if all the world must match their tastes at every phase of their lives.
So, let’s hop back to the topic of autobio comic again, because I realized I skipped a question I wanted to ask. As you may know, my own work has to do with comic book seriality and identity through a lens of collection. Autobiographical comics seem like the perfect subject for that perspective. Is there a way to think of crafting auto bio comics as a form of collecting experiences, events, memories? It makes me think of what you said before about “making sense of the world;” does that also mean making sense of self? Like a form of self-curation?
FL: I think so. A lot of my work has been about autobiographical comics centered on traumatic experiences.
OO: Can you say more about that?
FL: I start with Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons
OO: Yes, I remember that was what you were presenting on at ICAF2016
FL: I argue that it explores the fractured and fragmented nature of traumatic memory. One Hundred Demons (2003) provides a framework for confronting and examining trauma that is unique to the comics form.
OO: So, there is something about comics that makes it ideal for representing/revisiting trauma?
FL: Yes, I think that the fractured and often repetitive nature of traumatic memories can be expressed quite nicely in the format of comics. Also, traumatic memory is often plagued with gaps. . In One Hundred Demons Barry also frequently alludes to gaps or ruptures, within her memory and the gutters become a potent metaphor for trauma’s unknowability.
OO: Yes! I feel like I saw that in Flower Girls, too. That sounds so great! I think there is so much the comic form can do that others can’t. We’ve just started to scratch the surface of it. This is important work!
FL: Yes. And if you go back to the first autobiographical comic written by an Asian American woman—Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660 (1946)—it chronicles her experiences in Japanese American internment camps during World War II. It’s one of the first longer works of its kind as far as I can find
OO: Oh wow. So, born of not only personal trauma, but cultural and intergenerational…
FL: It is noteworthy because it suggests that the history of the autobio comic genre is one that has always interrogated racialized difference. And, of course African American newspaper cartoonist Jackie Ormes created several comic strips that were at least partially based on her own life experiences.
OO: Are you making a connection between racialized difference and trauma?
FL: Yes, I am looking at these historical antecedents as well as more contemporary examples.
OO: Jackie Ormes is someone whose work needs a lot more attention in general. I’ve seen maybe two presentations on her work at conferences, and of those, only one was focused solely on her work.
So, I saw that your doctorate degree will be in “Media, Art and Text” is that right?
FL: Yes, I am in an interdisciplinary program.
OO: So many comics scholars seem to come from a literary studies background (at least at first); how do you think your interdisciplinary approach gives you an advantage in studying comics?
FL: I think I had an easier time of it because our program very much has a home in the English department here. Additionally, since my program is pretty rigorous in media studies and critical studies it was not considered that weird to study comics.
OO: That makes sense, but I mean more like in terms of helping you to develop the skills for studying comics.
FL: I’m not sure. That’s an interesting question. I don’t have a lot to compare it to? My methods class had a specifically feminist research methods focus, rather than an English literary studies one. But my project approaches the investigation more like a traditional lit dissertation in structure.
OO: I wonder if there is a way to do an event or panel about methods at a comics conference.
FL: That’s an interesting idea!
OO: The presentation I am doing at the CSS conference this August is, in a way, about methods. I am presenting on The Middle Spaces itself, about public-facing scholarship and what it might mean for the field.
So for the final question you have a choice: what’s the comic that is least respected or popular that you’d go to bat for? Or, conversely, what is the uber popular/respected/critical darling thing that you think is trash? And why?
FL: I really like Cathy. I think it’s easy to pick on and people love to hate on it.
OO: Why do you think people hate it?
FL: I think people hate it because it is unapologetically a woman writing woman-centered stories that can be frivolous. I think it is cute and charming. As a kid, I remember thinking Cathy was super interesting because it was one of the few newspaper comics written from an adult woman’s point of view… And I think Craig Thompson’s Blankets is trash, though I get why people like it. I don’t really have a strong hatred of any comics, even Blankets,
OO: I haven’t read Blankets. I will admit I have made fun of Cathy, though there was a recent article at The Comics Journal, “On Hating Cathy” that made a great case for it. There is one strip I remember from when I was a kid that I really related to and loved. She is watching a football game with her boyfriend Irving and each panel has her reacting to the game. Finally, he asks confused, “Wait. Who are you rooting for?” She replies “The clock”
OO: When I was a kid, Wonderful World of Disney came on Sunday after football and football often ran over, so I did a lot of rooting for the clock… Anyway, thanks so much for doing this Francesa! You’ve definitely opened my eyes to some ways to think about comics that are not my usual steez, but maybe that will change now. Is there any last thing you want to make sure people know or forthcoming stuff of yours to keep an eye out for?
FL: Yes! First things first, I am writing like a maniac to get this dissertation done. I am defending in the spring. In August I will be presenting some new scholarship on autobiographical comics at the 1st Annual Comics Studies Society Conference at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A completely unrelated project I am working on is organizing and hosting a trivia night called “Trivia Beach” at a restaurant and venue called Flora in Richmond with my good friend Josh Blubaugh. With that I get to combine research, writing, and performance.
I will be at the Mind the Gaps conference as well and am looking forward to hanging out and catching up with Francesca, along with several other scholars I have interviewed as part of The (Re)Collection Agency series and a few I haven’t gotten to yet. I am also looking forward to learning more of what Francesca’s work has to teach us and hope she will update us with any developments with her scholarship, comic creating, and comedy!
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).