You might know Sina Grace as artist of Lil’ Depressed Boy or perhaps as editor of Robert Kirkman’s Skybound Entertainment, but before all that he was a sales clerk for a high-end women’s clothing store. And yes, it was hell. Stepping out into the first solo graphic novel, Grace is coming clean with his story of retail hell in Not My Bag.Scheduled for release on October 10, Not My Bag chronicles the six months Grace spent selling designer jeans and high-end couture and balancing the demands of the customers with expensive tastes and the co-workers who act like sharks looking for their next meal. All the while, the cartoonist harbored comic book ambitions of their own and was just aiming to pay the bills while his comic book career got off the ground.
Mixing morbid humor with office-place comedy, Grace’s tour-of-duty behind the retail counter is over and done with and he wants to share the story of his tribulations with Not My Bag..
Newsarama: In a press release, Image Comics describes this story as your own "personal hell." What is Not My Bag about?
Sina Grace: Not My Bag is a graphic novel that follows an "artist" (who looks like if Marjane Satrapi and Craig Thompson did a convention sketch of me) as he dives head first into a job selling women's clothing at a department store. From there, things get all kinds of wacky and dark.Nrama: That artist being a fair approximation of you in real life. Learning how to draw yourself is a must for autobiographical comics obviously, but can you explain how you came to perfect the rendition of yourself we see in Not My Bag?
Grace: I've been doodling myself since I was in high school. I suppose I've always been drawing from real life as a resource for storytelling. My friend Justin Hall said I was so smart giving myself "Tin Tin" face, which means making my features as simplified as possible so any reader could posit themselves onto the protagonist... but I really think I was just trying to avoid drawing my stubble and heavy bags under my eyes.
Nrama: The heavy bags come in part from the job you reference in this book. Would you say being a sales associate at this upscale department store is the worst job you've ever had?
Grace: I've been a lucky guy in that my career trajectory has been: comic store, department store, handbag shop, editorial director and now freelance artist. I've wanted to murder clients on some freelance gigs in the past, but they were never malicious or conniving the way sales associates can be... so yes, working in that department store was the absolute worst.Nrama: But did you get any unique insights into people from working there?
Grace: Working retail was a great invitation into the lives of people one would just normally never encounter. Some people had fallen from grace as designers or buyers and worked at a department store for a paycheck, some were students, others slowly fell into it after doing so many retail gigs. What was more fascinating to me, and may be something I explore later, is what makes people want to spend hundreds of dollars on jeans, or what makes a label whore.
Nrama: This is a straight-up auto-bio of your time here, but there's a tentacle sticking out of your bag on the cover here. Can you talk about incorporating some not-so-real elements in your story?
Grace: I learned a few lessons self-publishing my first comic in college... it was about a young girl working in a comic store... lesson one: winnow your cast down. I had a million people working at this fictional-but-real comic shop because that's how the shop was staffed. That gets confusing and takes away "screen time" from key characters. Lesson two: make things visually more interesting than a bunch of talking head panels. While there are definitely autobiographical elements to Not My Bag, I had to trim things down, tweak events, and delete entire "characters" to make it -what I hope- is a good read. As a fan of the gothic genre, I thought "okay, let's push the drama," which gave me more freedom to play with visuals and storytelling. Hopefully a lot of dudes won't mind reading a book about clothes because there are ghosts and fights and kooky-looking characters. That also allowed for me to push the outfits, because, at the end of the day, no one is selling stretch pants in vintage Balenciaga.Nrama: In an interview at CBR you describe this also as an ode to Alexander McQueen. Can you talk about that?
Grace: Alexander McQueen was the first designer I embraced, and was the first one who made me really see an artistic through-line in a designer's work. As a personality, he seemed to suffer greatly for his work. I know that fashion is a grueling industry, because if you actually care about your work, a designer is forced to come up with something new, twice a year, every year, with no breaks. In spite of these grueling demands, the guy delivered and created a remarkable space in that world. He's my Kurt Cobain. The book wouldn't exist without him, and for what it's worth, I was always trying to push myself harder because he was proof that better exists within your grasp.
Nrama: At what point did you realize your experiences as a sales clerk at a women’s clothing store would make a good comic?
Grace: The idea definitely came into my head when the events of the "finale" occurred. There was a minute where I thought, "this isn't real." Any time reality is too well-timed to be true is the moment I think about putting it in fiction.In all honesty, I never thought anyone was going to care about a book like this, and I had started it to be either a part of a larger collection of autobio material I had from college... but every time I showed people the pages from Not My Bag, they were enthusiastic about me continuing with the story. I remember Image Publisher Eric Stephenson looking at a batch of pages at a con, and me trying to feel out if he was going to publish the book. He said "every page you've shown me so far is awesome," and that's kind of when I knew this would shape up alright.
Nrama: Not My Bag is acting as the big coming out for you as an artist. You've been drawing The Li'l Depressed Boy for awhile, but this comes out just after you stepped down from your day job as editor of Skybound to pursue drawing comics full-time. What led to that decision, and how was the impending release of Not My Bag part of it?
Grace: Moving on from Skybound was incredibly scary, but the decision became clear when I saw an old band play a reunion show at a small venue. I was watching them, thinking "yeesh, there is a time and a place to be jumping around, playing power pop songs at the Troubadour, and it's in your 20s." You can't get me to say a bad thing about working for Robert Kirkman, but the task of juggling two books, a social life, AND a stressful day job? Something had to go. There is a time and a place to be growing as an artist and struggling financially, and that's during your 20s. I can always return to an office job later, but I needed to give this a real shot. Before I made the decision, I just figured I would be pulling all-nighters and asking for maybe a few days off to finish Not My Bag, but in retrospect- the book would never have come out in that world.