In creator Jessica Abel comics have found a tireless advocate in the medium’s shift to mainstream acceptability through the medium of graphic novels. Abel’s most recent work, “La Perdida,” won her major acclaim for its realistic portrayal of a clueless American expatriate in Mexico City — prior to that, Abel garnered attention for her comic “Artbabe” and her graphic short story collections “Soundtrack”and “Mirror, Windows.”
Part of Abel’s appeal is due to a misunderstanding — her style and presentation create such an intimacy and seeming transparency to the works that some readers mistake her fiction for tales culled from her own life.
“People have always assumed that I’m doing autobiography because it adheres so closely to life,” said Abel, “but I’ve never done autobiography, it’s always been fiction.”
This perception has much to do with the medium itself — autobiographical comics are more the norm in the world of alternative, non-superhero comics. It’s become a standard genre unto itself and Abel’s work — while a typical style of presentation in the wider world of prose publishing — is still pushing to gain ground in the comics and graphic novel mediums.
“I think in straight fiction, prose fiction, you also get that to a certain extent if there’s a recognizable character, interviewers will ask ‘Is this character based on you,’ but they don’t assume that the thing is 100 percent ripped from real life,” said Abel. “With comics, that’s a much more common assumption and I think partly because it’s so immersive, but also because there are so many autobio comics out there, it’s such a common approach. Proportionately, many more people in the more literary minded comics are doing memoir and bio rather than doing straight fiction. It’s pretty uncommon to do straight fiction.”
“La Perdida” certainly blurs the lines for some people, since it was done following Abel’s move to Mexico with her husband, Matt Madden. It was not a plan to go in order to write a book about the country — Abel’s plan was to go for the life experience, with the general assumption that she would bring something back with her that would pop up in her work. She and Madden spent two years in the country.
“A lot of the background material is from my experience,” said Abel, “in the sense that the settings that they’re in are often places that I’ve been — there are a few that are invented, but they are mostly places that I’ve been. The feeling of the day to day life in Mexico City is from my experience, but the characters are all completely fictional, and the story’s completely fiction.”
The move also provided Abel with something that had eluded her — the chance to devote her time to being an artist and not worrying about a day job. The cost of living in Mexico is low enough that her income from comics went much further and Abel transitioned into her current status as “full-time artist.” It’s a rough place to get to in the world of comics and one that she had been working toward for since the early ’90s, when she had began by self-publishing “Artbabe” knowing that she wanted to do comics and unexpectedly finding that there were other people out there with the same notion.
“I just made comics,” said Abel, “and then I don’t even know how I got the idea to make-up photo copied mini comics, I don’t know where that came from. I must have seen them around or something or known that it was something that people did, but it wasn’t like I was trying to join the movement or anything. It was just once I did it, it turned out there kind of was a movement and I was in it, then. But I didn’t know that at the time.”
Abel’s goal was to be published by the respected alternative publisher Fanta-graphics — at the time, comics had not crossed over to the respectable realm and for anyone wanting to do serious work, Fantagraphics was really the only game in town beyond doing it all yourself. Abel published four mini-comic versions of “Artbabe” and one full-sized, after winning the Xeric Grant, which is awarded to comic book self-publishers, before ending up with Fantagraphics.
“They picked me up to do a second run of ‘Artbabe,’” said Abel. “That was a-chieving a goal but I didn’t really have any idea of what that would mean in terms of my life, where do you go from there?”
There was very little precedent for the next move in her career — certainly not in Abel’s experience in the world of buying comics. The Hernandez Brothers’ “Love and Rockets,” also published by Fantagraphics, was a great influence to her — as it was to many of her generation who wanted to create comics but not the typical male-oriented adventures that dominated the form — but what was plainly out there, and what she had experienced for much of her life, were mainstream titles that gave little indication that someone could produce literary works and build a career from them.
“When I got to college, there was a small record store in town that had alternative comics,” said Abel, “and so that’s where I actually found ‘Love and Rockets’ for the first time — also ‘Read Yourself Raw,’ which is that anthology of Raw comics, ‘Jimbo’ and other stuff like that. When I was 17 or whatever, that’s when I started down that path and by then I had basically abandoned buying mainstream comics.”
From the early 1990s on, Abel’s career walks a parallel with the boom in graphic novels. Slowly over that period, alternative comics began to get more attention — first in alternative weekly newspapers, then in magazines. About five years ago, publications like The New Yorker and the New York Sunday Times Magazine began employing alternative cartoonists like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Seth, while book publishers like Pantheon and Harcourt began publishing the sort of titles that were once the sole providence of companies like Fantagraphics — it was all changing and Abel was in that wave.
“Being in New York and knowing who I know, I saw this happening right before my eyes, it didn’t spring on me,” said Abel. “I think you can mark the beginning of this wave from ‘Jimmy Corrigan,’ which was 2001, I think. But stuff had been happening all along, and I had always been one of the few optimists out there.”
When Abel wasn’t just creating comics fit for the literary world, she was advocating for their viability on panels at conventions and in articles for publications like Publisher’s Weekly, where she offered tips to stores that wished to delve into the graphic novel market — how to do it and why to do it. Even as others in the industry might too often predict the death knell, Abel insisted the future was bright.
“I’ve always played that role, very much a believer that this could happen,” said Abel. “Now, I didn’t think it would happen so radically and so fast, so that did come as a surprise. As late as 2002, some friends of mine are working on book proposals for various projects, and I’m thinking that this is not going to fly, there’s no way, and then it did. And then things just kept going.”
Abel does feel that there is a bit of a bubble going on in regard to graphic novel publishing, but once the inevitable fall out has past, the clock will not turn back — at least on some level, graphic novels will remain acceptable to book publishers.
“In the US, there’s a very American embracing of this new medium,” said Abel, “and the fuddy duddies who were like,’”Oh, comics, they’re garbage for children,’ there are very few of those people — at least who will speak out loud now.”
As well as creating and advocating for the form, Abel’s other major interest is in education. She teaches in the cartooning department at the School of Visual Arts and is collaborating with her husband on a cartooning text book, “Drawing Words and Writing Pictures,” to be released this year. One impetus for the text book was a section of Abel’s Web site that offers practical advice on cartooning — materials, process, even mini comics publishing suggestions — as well as instruction on the practical business of distributing your work.
“It remains one of the top sections in my Web site, even though I haven’t done anything to it in years, just knowing that there was such a hunger out there for information,” said Abel.
The book is designed to be a course in cartooning, based on a classroom model and going step-by-step, with exercises and homework. It can be used by a teacher or just an individual working at his or her own pace. The book covers the technical and conceptual, instructing readers on storytelling issues in regard to story structure, composition and more. Abel can’t pinpoint one area that people want to know more about when it comes to cartooning — in her experience, people want to know just about everything.
“They want to know what kind of pen nib do you use,” said Abel, “and how do you set up a page and how do you put something in it and where do you come up with ideas — everything. It’s an incredibly difficult artform to master and we’ve all been asked to do it all on our own, without any apprenticeship or training or anything. It just takes years of extra effort for nothing. Why should we all have to reinvent the wheel?”
Abel sees cartooning as a process that is not intuitive to most people and it takes a fair amount of time and effort to master it.
“My early comics are okay, but there was so much for me to learn and it took me forever,” said Abel. “People can emulate what’s out there — they may not do a good job of it, but they can just copy it — or they can be able to, either through training themselves or having training through somebody else, think through the whole process themselves and come up with new solutions and do something really creative. It doesn’t require school, it just helps.”
Even as Abel works to educate the next generation of cartoonists, she has also found the pleasure in stepping back. Her upcoming graphic novel, “Life Sucks,” is a collaboration with Gabe Soria and Warren Pleece. It’s a relationship book — a romantic comedy — involving vampires. It’s a departure for Abel in that she only scripted the book, the art chores are left to Pleece — it’s a a direction that she sees her career moving in lately and one that she enjoys.
“‘La Perdida’ I wouldn’t have ever handed over to someone else to draw, because the knowledge to draw it is too much a part of me and I couldn’t convey that very well,” said Abel. “A book like ‘Life Sucks’ has a very different nature and it was fine for me to hand it over, so it depends on the project. It was exciting to see what somebody else would come up with.”