Jennifer Hayden emerged in 2011 with one of the year’s funniest and most acclaimed debut comics with Underwire, her collection of autobiographical comics from Top Shelf. Rendered in a simple-yet-detailed illustrative style, Hayden’s dead-on and politically incorrect look at life and parenthood depicts the kind of hilarious situations that any parent can relate to sharing with another.
We talked with Hayden about how she came to comics from illustrating children’s books, the reaction her family has had to Underwire, and her follow-up in progress, a look at her battle with breast cancer with a title we kind of had to censor for a family website.
Newsarama: Jennifer, what's been the most interesting reaction you've gotten for Underwire so far?
Jennifer Hayden: There was a comment on the first story I posted - "Watercress" - when Underwire was a webcomic on ACT-I-VATE.com. A guy said: "These are all characters I don't care about." Suddenly I understood that not everyone was going to accept my subject matter, and that I was going to have to develop a thicker skin.
I replied to the comment: "Even the pervert?" (There was a character in the comic who was a pervert). And that was the first and last really negative response I got.
Nrama: How long have you been drawing?
Hayden: My first drawing was a large crayon mural on the wallpaper under the hideous fabric wall-hanging over my crib. I worked on it during naptime. My mom sent me to art school before I went to preschool. But I never did go to art school later on, so it all balances out.
Nrama: Who were some of your biggest influences?
Hayden: Hilary Knight and Maurice Sendak to start with, when I was little. I loved their pen and ink and their sense of character. Then it was Aubrey Beardsley, Kate Greenaway, and Albrecht Durer. Durer's woodcuts were amazing to me.I was also addicted to comics throughout my childhood - the Archies, Doonesbury, Mad, National Lampoon, Peanuts, romance comics, and Asterix and Obelix. Asterix and Obelix became my gold standard. Absolutely nothing funnier or more expressive per square inch. And when Alicia Bay Laurel published "Living on the Earth" in 1971, I was ten years old and I spent a lot of time imitating her warm, primitive, rapidograph style.
Nrama: What was the biggest change in doing sequential stories vs. picture book illustrations?
Hayden: I was so uncomfortable with picture book illustration and could never figure out why, till I rediscovered comix. I didn't like color, for one thing. All I wanted to do was pen and ink. Also, I hated filling a huge page with a single image--or worse, a two-page spread. It took forever! Even with a spot illustration, I never knew what to do at the edges.
But the biggest change was that I didn't have to tell someone else's story anymore, which I was always doing when I was illustrating. I wanted to tell my own stories - to an adult audience - and that's what sequential art enabled me to do.
Nrama: What do you dread the most about your daughter reading this someday?
Hayden: I don't dread her reading Underwire. The stories are all true, or they're my fantasies, and I've said it all out loud, or it all happened, usually with her there, so none of it is a surprise.And she's gotten used to my openness. I think she sees me as a young child who can't be helped. She doesn't mind having a starring role, either. And though she may one day change her mind, I think she still sees that this is really a love letter to my family.
Nrama: What are some of your other favorite current comics?
Hayden: I read a lot of graphic novels, and this year I've really enjoyed Craig Thompson's Habibi, Paul Madonna's Everything Is Its Own Reward, Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld's The Influencing Machine, Joe Ollman's Mid-Life, Ludovic Debeurme's Lucille, Leslie Stein's Eye of the Majestic Creature and Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant.
But I also love the webcomics Gabrielle Bell and Vanessa Davis have been doing, as well as James Kochalka's American Elf and Paige Braddock's Jane's World.
Nrama: Tell us about your next project, The Story of My T***s. Boy, that's a sentence you don't get to type every day.
Hayden: It's a very long memoir, still unfinished (200 pages so far, over a hundred to go) following my life from when I had no t**s--as a baby--and ending with my experience with breast cancer at 43--when I again had no t**s.
I set out to tell the story of my cancer, but I realized how much meaning my t**s had by the time I lost them, how much meaning cancer and breast cancer had to me. It was a great opportunity to look back at my life and see what the hell happened--marriage, death, babies, illness, work--and I highly recommend the exercise to anyone middle-aged. My goal was to make the reader feel that same significance by the time the cancer enters the book.
Nrama: What sort of perspective have you gotten on dealing with your cancer through this book?
Hayden: What I've realized is that I want people to see that cancer--if you're lucky--is not the whole story. It's a chapter of a life, with a great deal that went before and a great deal that will come after.Cancer, for survivors, is life-changing, and the change can and should be profound. I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. I gave up my t**s, but I got way more in return.
Nrama: Also, just want readers to know how you're doing now, health-wise...
Hayden: My breast surgeon has kicked me out, no more annual checkups--it's been seven years, and statistically I'm quite safe. I had DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ), and I opted for a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction because there was too much of it in one breast to save the breast, and because it so often comes back.
The best solution seemed to be to get ride of the breast tissue completely. My lymph nodes were clean, so I didn't need any follow-up therapy, and I feel great. I take better care of myself than I ever have.
Nrama: On a lighter note, what's it been like working with Top Shelf?
Hayden: Bliss. They are what I consider the ideal, old-school book publisher---nurturing and loyal. They're also very hardworking. Chris Staros and Brett Warnock have given me so much creative freedom, and so much support, and then when Underwire came out I discovered that they are also tireless marketing wizards. Leigh Walton has been fantastic. And they do it all while being so damn lovable.
Nrama: What's been the most interesting reaction friends and immediate family have had to the book?
Hayden: The fact that they took it seriously. None of my friends and family have the slightest knowledge about comix, so this was a stretch for them. And I'd been trying to write the great American novel when I was younger--which they could get behind--and then illustrate the great American children's book--which they could support.But comix? I assumed I'd do this on my own, and my friends and family would just stay out of it. Au contraire. They read all the stories on the web, they all bought the book, they came to my parties and signings and conventions. Even my mother was proud. And that really touched me.
Nrama: What do you feel is the biggest trick in giving an autobiographical comic a unique voice or perspective that stands out from others?
Hayden: I doubt you can give an autobio comic a voice or perspective you don't already have. This format will work for you if you already have a unique voice or perspective, and you open up completely to it.
As Gahan Wilson said about working for National Lampoon in the seventies: "They wanted me to really give 'em hell." Tear the roof off. Jump off a ledge. What you're most afraid of, what you think you should keep hidden, what you think is too outrageous? That's just the beginning.
Nrama: And have you realized anything about parenting from reliving your own experiences?
Hayden: As a parent, I truly savor the moments when my kids and I get to a place where we understand what we just do not understand about each other, and we can sit there and dig it.It's sad, it's funny, it's so human. As a cartoonist writing about parenting, I get a chance to walk around these moments and really look at them from all angles, and I do love that.
Nrama: What's next for you, in addition to what we've already talked about?
Hayden: For the next year or so I'll be finishing my graphic novel The Story of My T**s, and I've promised myself not to do anything else. Which is why I promptly started another webcomic called S'Crapbook, which I'll be posting monthly on Dean Haspiel's new multimedia arts cyber salon Trip City (http://welcometotripcity.com/).
I have another long-term project in mind after My T**s are finished (I really look forward to the number of inappropriate sentences that title is going to lead to), but that's staying in the top-secret shoebox for now.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Hayden: I'd like to thank the Goddess, since she's the reason I'm doing all this--and also Charles Dickens, whose books taught me how stories could be complicated, simple, hysterical and tragic, all at the same time. And Fred Astaire, who to me represents humble perfection (and who is so f***ing sexy.)
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