Wide World of Webcomics: Pay Attention to LUCY KNISLEY

Wide World of Webcomics: LUCY KNISLEY

Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best creators on the web. Today, we’re going to focus on a creator whose autobiographical work has made her a favorite of many comic fans.


Over the last several years, Lucy Knisley (www.lucyknisley.com) has earned a devoted following for her work in comics/illustration/music/puppets/animation…put bluntly, this is the definition of “multihyphenate.” In print, she’s earned widespread acclaim for such works as 2008’s travelogue French Milk, and she’s become more visible to superhero fans last year with her contributions to Girl Comics and I Am An Avenger at Marvel.

But Knisley’s most visible as a creator on the web, where she regularly updates her autobiographical comic Stop Paying Attention, along with various standalone cartoons and illustrations of everything from zombies to superheroes to Harry Potter, the last of which will be the subject of an upcoming comic from her this year. We talked with Knisley about her work, her life, and the unique advantages and challenges of a life online.

Newsarama: Lucy, you work in a variety of media - what do you take from one to another? For example, how does writing music or working in animation affect the way you create comics, or vice-versa?

Lucy Knisley: Everything I make contributes to my happiness, so the more genres of art I can noodle with, the better! Every artist is different, but for me I need to feed the monster of distraction by allowing myself to follow through on the compulsions I have to try new or different media.

In the end, allowing myself to get distracted from a painting to make a song will lead me to make a comic and then I've made three things instead of one! That's a big part of why my comic is called Stop Paying Attention, because I find myself most interested in the things we think about or do when we are supposed to be thinking about or doing something else.


I also find that much of the actions I take as an artist are sort-of considered to be pursuits of childhood - drawing a comic or singing a song or making a puppet show are things that people tend to stop once they hit a certain age. I never stopped, so these compulsive artworks are forms of play that definitely inform one another in the sense that they stem from that same "play" function.

Nrama: How easy is it these days to work in different media, and to have resources for recording, animation, etc. with the Internet?

Knisley: I was born in 1985, and I'm lucky enough that I had a computer in my house when I was nine: years old. So working with the Internet has always been something that was assumed and natural for me, and for most people in my generation.

There's still constant learning, but I just can't even imagine doing anything like what I do without Photoshop, internet artist networking and reader feedback. The ability to go from concept to public display of a comic or song or video within the space of a couple hours is something that is really helpful for compulsive artists like me, and just couldn't exist without the Internet.

Nrama: Who are some of your biggest influences, both in terms of writing and illustrating?

Knisley: I had the pleasure to meet Lynda Barry a few years ago when she came to teach a workshop at the Center for Cartoon Studies. I'd adored her work, both in comics and writing, since I was a kid, but meeting her and learning from her was a real revelation for me. She's really good at just telling you how to pull the art out of yourself and make the process less painful. She's been an amazing influence on me.

I'm constantly inspired by Maira Kalman, who dances around between wonderful comics and kids books and writing and fine art, the way I hope to someday do so gracefully. Her writing is beautiful and flowing and contemplative, and I really love that and aspire to it.

Hope Larson was a big professional influence early in my career. We met at art school, and she sort of scooped me up and introduced me to the comics’ world.

As for writing, I have a pretty natural predilection towards humorous confessional first-person narratives. I would read David Sedaris' grocery list, if I could! And I think I was really influenced as a kid by my favorite books by C.D. Payne, the author of Youth In Revolt, which is an excellent example of how to write in the first-person and make it funny, flawed and insightful.

Newsarama Note: She’s right, and it’s way better than the movie.

Nrama: Does your work as a teacher affect your perspective as a creator, in terms of providing inspiration or insight into people, and if so, how?

Knisley: It depends a lot on the class. I've done workshops for kids who just blow me away and make me reconnect to the basic kid-act of telling a story with words and pictures as the naked form of comics that everyone once did.

But I've also taught classes to kids who were on that cusp of second-guessing that act - that age where, "I dunno what to drawwww! I can't drawww!" becomes the norm, and it's really disheartening. It's also frustrating for me to see kids falling into a style that is not their own - I understand that phase of imitation, and certainly went through it myself (with Archie comics!), but it's really hard when I've spent a lot of energy focused on finding my own style of art or writing, to tell a kid that a copied anime drawing is a pretty good technical piece of work.

I want to help them find their own style, but adolescents really bounce around in finding themselves through the exploration of others, and that's very true in becoming an artist. So I bring in tracing paper to those classes and have the kids trace their favorite comics to really understand how the lines work, and to build their confidence that they don't have to frustrate themselves over getting it exactly the same.

I think it's good for people to teach what they do, because it allows for a deeper examination of their work. I always find myself to be a bit humbler towards art's amazing presence in people and power when I examine what it might be like to look at it from the perspective of a 10-year-old kid who's never taken an art class before.


Nrama: You got a lot of attention for your "It Gets Better" strip. Was it hard reliving those parts of your past, and what is your reaction to the success (in terms of awareness and participation) of this movement? What's been the most interesting/moving response you've had to that comic?

Knisley: What I really appreciated about a lot of the "It Gets Better" stories were people's willingness to share their difficult experiences. I think those are the most affecting videos, because they unify people in the understanding that we've all experienced crappy times in our lives, but that it doesn't last forever.

So in sharing my own, I wanted to get that across - that you don't necessarily end up a movie star or a famous columnist, but that you can be happy someday and it won't always be high school. I've wanted to make a graphic novel about my high school experience for some time - there's a lot of fodder there - but it's still a little raw.

I have difficulty picturing the book. It's a little dark for young-adult age. But making the IGB comic was a really great foray into touching on those subjects in my work. The most incredible responses have been from young kids - especially geeky comic book girls - who were reassured by my comic and made to feel less alone.

My hope is that my work can always do that for readers, but it's extra lovely to reach out to kids who were struggling as I did.

Nrama: What have been the most positive and most challenging aspects of having the evolution of your work online for all to see?

Knisley: It's hard not to be horrified that your early work is available for public consumption. It's part of the illusion of being an artist that, most of the time, you want readers or viewers to imagine that you sprung to life, instantly able to create your best work.

But because I so love to look at earlier work of artists I admire, I understand the importance of showing where you've come from. I'm not a self-taught artist - I took after-school drawing classes all through elementary and high school, then went to art school and comics grad school. I have had a lot of development and learning, and I think it's important to respect those stages, even if they are embarrassing.

Because my work is mostly autobiographical, I have to have a buffer between me and the self I project in my work, or I'd go insane. To look at a comic I made in high school, it's automatic for me to cringe! "I was such a little shit!" but at the same time I see my students make work about their lives and it's amazing and wonderful and important to their development as an artist, and I was there to see this part of them developing! So cool.

Nrama: You've talked about this in your work, but with new venues such as the iPad emerging as an alternative to print, what do you think the biggest challenges are for cartoonists in evolving their styles - both artistic and business - toward these changes?

Knisley: Well, there's obviously a lot to compete with. Readers can read a comic, or they could wander over and watch YouTube videos instantly, or read the millions of other things that lure them in online. We need to bring the color or movement or excellent content that can compete with the rest of it!

It once was that you could spend some money and make a zine or minicomic and get it into the hands of hundreds, but now you can make a comic online and get it into the hands of thousands for free!

But I think it's important for everyone who puts their work online to think about that image or blog or video and question, "Why is this here? Who is this for?" It's the end of the process of making something, and leads to better, more thoughtful things that we can turn our attention to.

This act of thoughtfulness would be helpful, I think, in bringing down the rate of Internet plagiarism. I've been really fascinated and horrified by the online disconnect between the artist and the art.


People feel that if it exists online, it is there to be taken and used for whatever they wish. This is a really damaging concept for artists. The Internet and digital media is one of the greatest things to ever happen to artists - it allows people to share their work with everyone for free, make money in new ways from their art, and do things like animation or color comics that would be price-prohibitive in print or production.

But people steal work all the time, robbing artists of their money and credit, and think nothing of it because it's the Internet and they think that there are no repercussions online. It's vital that artists stand up for themselves in these instances.

Putting work online, you have to have an understanding that people will have it once it's there, and can use it as they wish. But that doesn't mean that we can't publicly discuss how people have used our work, and how it's not ok or polite or legal to take someone's work and use it for their own profit or message or to promote themselves.

It's a really convoluted and messed-up issue that I'm only beginning to try to get a handle on.

Nrama: Do you feel you've gotten a bigger audience through your online work or your print work?

Knisley: Online, definitely. I love and appreciate the tons of people who love print and buy my work. But I'm pretty sure most of them found me online first. I try to maintain a balance between my online presence and my print work - I'm not about to abandon either, as I think they're important to one another and in maintaining a healthy business as an artist.

It's pretty vital that print comics have some sort of presence online, but print is still my first love, and as someone who loves to own the printed word of a beloved artist or writer, I know I'll never stop making my own.

Nrama: Has your work at Marvel brought in a new audience to your work? Will you be doing more stories for them in the future?

Knisley: I hope so! I loved working with Marvel. I await their offers for more work with adoring eyes. It's a good stretch for me from a lot of the other work I do now, and really fun to get to play with their toys.

Nrama: Though you're best known for autobiographical work, I've gotten the sense that you enjoy other genres such as fantasy, particularly given your lovely illustrations of The Giver (I quite geeked out on these - doing a phone interview with Lois Lowry for a local paper last Feb. was one of the highlights of my year). Would you ever want to do an extended fictional work in those genres? Or even a fictional YA story with a realistic basis?

Knisley: It is rad that you got to chat to Lowry. I'd love to do an extended fictional fantasy work. It's on my list, for sure. I've got a lot of story kettles cooking for that sort of thing, but it's all long-term. I'm pretty tied up in freelancing and making my autobio book and online work for now.

I hope sometime in the next few years I can start developing a sort-of 1920s fantasy cross-dressing scooter-racing adventure story I've been germinating for years. Maybe I can also dig out the 30-page hand-written Giver sequel I wrote in 6th grade and see if that's viable.

Nrama: Do you see yourself doing more work as an artist for another writer, or as a writer for a different artist? What do you gain/lose from those experiences, in your opinion?

Knisley: I do a lot of freelance illustration work, but I haven't yet delved into doing much narrative comic work with another artist or writer. I'm curious about it. I hope I get to try more of it someday. It would, of course, depend on the writer or artist. I know I wouldn't be able to turn down a project if someone whose work I just adore wanted to collaborate. We'll see, I guess!

Nrama: What are some of your other favorite comics, on the web or in print?

Knisley: I just finished re-reading (now in book form) Maira Kalman's And the Pursuit of Happiness, which was originally serialized online by The New York Times. It's wonnnnderful! I love her painted pages, and meanderings through America and food and history.

One! Hundred! Demons! is my favorite Lynda Barry book. Smile by Raina Telgemieier is one of my favorite books that came out last year. I recommend it to a lot of my students (especially if they're struggling through orthodontics nightmares!).

I'm still impressed by how good Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore is. I read a lot of crappy comics in high school, but I loved none so much as SIP, and it's totally stood the test of time.

Online, I like Menage a 3; The storylines are hilarious and the art brings me back to my Archie-comics-loving roots. I also read anything by Jess Fink or Maris Wicks or Dustin Harbin. I'm lucky, just keeping up with my indie-comics pals and their work online gives me tons of great reading!

Nrama: What's next for you?

Knisley: I'm working on a book about food, and my experiences growing up with a chef mom. It'll be released by First Second Publishing sometime in the future. I'm working on a lot of freelance, and comics for my online series Stop Paying Attention, and collaborating with my print-artist roommate to make T-Shirts and prints and songs and all sorts of fun stuff.

This Feb, we're going on a "working" trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where I'm going to write and draw my experiences and self-publish them in a mini-comic that she'll screen-print a cover on. We held a Kickstarter fundraiser for the project, and it's going to be rad.

In part 2, we take a completely different path from autobiographical comics when we talk to German creator Daniel Lieske about his new hit The Wormworld Saga! Be there as Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics continues.

Wide World of Webcomics Part One: Ethan & Malachai Nicolle's AXE-COP

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