Reprinted with permission from Under the Radar magazine’s Web site.
Eye of the Majestic Creature, which is now available from Fantagraphics, merges the quirky with a refreshing sort of honesty that, pleasantly, creator Leslie Stein exhibits in her correspondence as well. Like her casual reveal in mid-April that: “I did MoCCA [Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art festival] this weekend, and for some reason I can never draw for a few days after the convention.”
Stein took advantage of that temporary artist’s block to answer some questions about her artistic background, her wonderful book, and the balance she struck therein between her real life and a surreal world containing the anthropomorphic musical instruments and other unique relationships of a young woman called “Larry Bear.”
Osmosis Online: When and why did you start making comics? Did you have any kind of formal training?
Leslie Stein: I loved comics when I was a kid, and I think I pretty much started drawing them as soon as I could read them. The earliest ones that I’ve seen were collaborations with my brother, where I would draw most of it and he would draw the punchline panel. Weirdly, the characters in those looked totally Amish. I did a comic called Simon the Super Spaceman in elementary school and a comic called Leslie in middle school, and a comic called Cancer (my astrological sign) in high school. I never had any formal art training until I went to art school though.
Where did you go to art school? How did you find the experience? Was it a necessary part of your growth as a comics creator?
I was an interdisciplinary student at the San Francisco Art Institute for half of my college career, before moving to New York and transferring to the School of Visual Arts so I could focus more time on drawing actual comics. As far as art school experiences go, these couldn’t be further apart in the spectrum. The Art Institute was a conceptual art school where everyone was carrying haystacks around and placing them in different places and calling that art. SVA was almost like a trade school. I took what I could from both experiences, the good and the bad, and hopefully it’s made me a better artist. My whole life all I’ve ever wanted to do was draw comics, so art school or not, I’d be doing it no matter what.
Is this the first book you’re having published by another? (Am I correct that you were selling stuff on Etsy for a while)?
It is. I self-published the single issues of Eye of the Majestic Creature on newsprint. When I was done with the fourth issue I sent it to Fantagraphics and they said they couldn’t put it out as a pamphlet style series but that they would like to collect the first four issues in a book. That was nice of them. Anyways, Etsy was awesome because I could then sell my stuff online instead of just at conventions.
Some of the choices you make —making some characters anthropomorphic, all the surrealisms —play with reader expectations in a really fascinating way: how you juxtaposed the relationship between Marshmallow and the other instruments with that story of Larry Bear’s complicated family dinner, for instance. Despite the fantastic/fanciful trappings, EOTMC feels genuine. Is EOTMC an intentional response to the gloomy/self-deprecating/cynical autobio comics of the past few decades?
Oh jeez, I really hope it comes across as genuine and real, because it really does come from my heart. One of the things I loved about indie comics when I found them was that they made me feel a little less lonely as a teenager and I wanted to put something out there that (hopefully) had the potential to do that for other people. I dislike autobio comics (and there are a lot of these, unfortunately) where someone plays the “Woe is me” card over and over again. I feel very lucky to be alive and well fed, and I try and put a humorous spin on what could be seen as sad situations.
As far as the mix between real and surreal (or completely unreal) elements and my writing process, well I think it all unfolds organically. Here I have a character who is largely myself, so already I know her completely and what her motivations are and what her personal trajectory is. Then I have these totally fantastical characters that I can play with and weave in and out of the story to make it more interesting and fun.
Can you discuss your creative process?
Sure! It’s changing all the time though. Right now I pretty much write out the comic like a movie script and then just attack the page. As I go along I change some of the dialogue or add different sequences I’ve thought of to enhance the story, like if there’s something I draw in a background on a whim, I might like it and incorporate it into the story. This way it’s exciting as I go along, and not just laborious drawing. As for the concept, it just pops into the old bean. Magic!
What are your future plans for comics? Anything coming up in the near (or not so near) future?
I’m currently working on the sixth issue of EOTMC, I’m almost done. It’s a collection of childhood stories. The fifth issue was a real delight to write and draw, I dissected the 1900 Theodore Dreiser novel Sister Carrie, and used passages from it to enhance Larry’s story of working as a shopgirl in New York City.
I’ll be at SPX this fall, and I’m going to set up some signings in book and comic shops in the east coast around that time as well.
Where are you currently based?
Brooklyn, New York. USA.
Speaking of which —location plays a big role in EOTMC. Did Larry B’s journey mimic your own? If that’s the case (and I recall correctly), she was in San Francisco, then “the country/middle of nowhere,” and eventually New York. How important to you is getting a sense of place across in the work? How important is it to you in the creative process? Has one location been more or differently influential than another in your creative work?
It mimicked mine, except for the part where she lives in the countryside, which I totally made up. At the time I was living in the East Village and had this fantasy of moving to the country, so I kind of played that out in my head and on the page. In the fourth story in the book New York becomes a hugely influential on the story. it becomes even more so in the fifth issue, which is really a love letter to New York and the ambition it inspires and well as the difficulties it creates.
So, the countryside thing was an imaginary journey—did playing it out in your head/on paper make the fantasy sort of go away, or does the idea of running away from it all still have some appeal? Did it help you reconcile what you hoped?
No, I still have a fantasy about moving somewhere more open and natural. It’d very specific, actually, a particular type of house with a green door and a garden full of flowers and vegetables. It’d be near water so I could go swimming and I’d have a little barn or shack on the land where I could paint and draw. At the time I drew the stories where Larry Bear is in the country I wasn’t content living in New York yet, so the fantasy seemed more urgent. Now I’m pretty comfortable here.
So, is that part of making comics for you, that it’s a coping mechanism of sorts?
I think creativity itself is a coping mechanism. People are happy when they are making things, whether it be art, music, a project at work or figuring out which flowers to buy at the deli. With EOTMC, it helps me figure out a bit of who I am and process the past as well. Sometimes I’ll draw a comic and it takes a year, and I don’t really know what it’s about until it’s finished. So yeah, I’d say, for me, they go hand in hand.
Do you play music as well? With instruments figuring so prominently (as characters and as, well, instruments), I’d love to hear the role music has in your life and work. And seeing an anthropomorphic guitar play a xylophone is awesome, BTW. For the record.
Haha! Yeah, I’ve been playing guitar since I was twelve. Music had the same impact on my young self as comics did, even more so, probably. I remember the first time I heard Jimmy Hendrix, I thought I had died. Marshmallow is the same model as my acoustic, a Yamaha my mom bought before I was born. So it’s the only thing that I’ve had with me everywhere I’ve lived. I’ve had nightmares that I smashed it while I was drunk and woke up so upset. I mostly play electric now but I need to have it out at all times in order to feel like I’m at home.
I’ve been in a band (Prince Ruperts Drops) in New York for about six years, we’re like, the least ambitious band in Brooklyn. It’s with my best friends (the “Boris” character from my comic, and the bird who always wears plaid, and my friend Chad who will probably be drawn as a donut in future issues, for no apparent reason). We’re playing with a couple wonderful bands this summer, Endless Boogie and Hans Chew.
Thank you so much for your time; I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes next.