Curated by Ben Crothers
The Naughton Gallery, Queen's University Belfast
23 June - 07 August 2016
The Naughton Gallery, Queen's University Belfast
23 June - 07 August 2016
KEILER ROBERTS (b.1978, Milwaukee, Wisconsin) is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and original voices in contemporary comics. Her Ignatz Award-nominated Powdered Milk minicomics – the focus of this exhibition – primarily explore her relationship with her daughter, Xia, and husband, Scott, as well as her interactions with friends and extended family. Despite the laugh-out-loud humour found within Powdered Milk, these small stories also paint a picture of Roberts as a melancholy, anxious mother living with bipolar disorder, rendered in beautifully sketchy linework.
Marking Roberts’s first solo show outside of the United States, the works in this exhibition - featuring original Powdered Milk artwork, preliminary sketches, wall drawings and the minicomics themselves - capture the hilarity and innocence of childhood with a similar charm to Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, Judy Blume’s Fudge series, and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona. This is combined with a contemporary perspective and sharp wit that puts Roberts’s work more in line with the likes of Lena Dunham, Miranda July, Larry David, and Louis C.K., all of whom she cites as influences and inspirations.
Roberts’s work sits within the tradition of autobiographical comics, a form that first became popular in the underground comix movement, which emerged in the United States in the late 1960s and has since become more widespread. Cartoonists working within this genre range from legendary figures in the industry such as Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman to contemporary examples including Alison Bechdel, Gabrielle Bell, Noah Van Sciver, and Julia Wertz.
IN CONVERSATION WITH
BC: To begin, I was wondering if you read comics growing up and what books served as your introduction to the medium.
KR: Growing up I read the Sunday paper comics and collections of The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and occasionally my brothers’ Groo The Wanderer comics and Mad magazine I had no idea what was out there. I was always drawn to books with pictures and thought a lot about making a children’s book, but I wanted it to be for adults.
BC: When did you begin making comics and what inspired you to do so?
KR: I started making comics in 2009 in a course taught by Aaron Renier at DePaul University. My husband (Scott Roberts, who also makes comics) thought comics might be the answer for me, as I was trying to quit painting but needed a substitute art form. I had spent almost two years on a blog project where I documented my efforts at making a complete wardrobe for myself from scratch. Parts of that project were very frustrating, but I loved combining words and pictures, and it was also autobiographical and funny. The audience was too small though, and the percentage of wearable clothes I made was small.
BC: Once you began making comics, how did you begin circulating your work and what was your path to recognition?
KR: I think I’m on the path to recognition now – close to the beginning. I began making minicomics and sold them at Quimby’s (a Chicago comics store) and at CAKE (the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo). I put everything on my website up until the 11th volume of Powdered Milk. I also started posting on Tumblr and Facebook. I’ve always done as much as I could to get my work out there, even when it means I have to spend a lot of money to do so. My goal is always to get more readers, not necessarily more sales.
For the recognition I do have, I thank John Porcellino, who has been sharing my work with people and selling it through his distro, Spit and a Half. There are several other people who have helped by writing reviews and including me in events. I owe it to them because I am not adept at selling myself. I sit quietly at expos and speak when spoken to.
BC: Your comics work is all autobiographical. What draws you to this form of writing rather than fiction?
KR: I don’t know why. I can’t say that it’s better or more important. I’m drawn to it like I’m drawn to cookies. It’s in my nature. I love realism in all art forms. I always want to know more about people’s lives and I want to know the truth. I think knowing what people are really like has helped me accept some things about myself, and it has definitely opened my mind about how people think and behave.
BC: With that in mind, how do your husband, Scott, and daughter, Xia (as she gets older), feel about their presence within your comics? How do you feel about putting your family life in the public realm?
KR: Scott has always been a good sport. I let him see rough drafts for his approval and I avoid scenes that would be too personal for him. I make fun of him, but it’s always good natured. I think most people are flattered to be in a comic (not just mine) because most people like attention. So far, Xia enjoys being included. She laughs hard when I read her lines to her. I asked her the other day if she wants me to stop putting her in my books and she looked like she was about to cry, like I was threatening to take something away. She is old enough to get embarrassed though, so I’m carefully avoiding anything I think she’ll resent.
I feel comfortable putting my own life out there. I hesitated to write about having bipolar disorder – thinking about future students and employers knowing about it. I haven’t regretted that because it’s a huge part of my life, and I couldn’t be very honest if I didn’t include it. Plus, I feel like maybe I’ll play a little part in reducing the stigma. Then again, I might make it much worse, if people generalise, based on me. I hate to think that I’m “using” people in my work. I think I’m giving them something of value. I would love to be in someone else’s comic. I am careful to represent people in a positive way. I don’t make them glamorous, but I show what I consider endearing traits. I try to show people as I see them – funny, warm, and interesting. I never write about bad relationships.
BC: Whilst autobiographical, how much of “you” is the Keiler in your books? Does she feel like a character to you or do you see her very much as yourself?
KR: It’s hard to say. I’m certainly not idealising myself, but I still think my character is much better than I am. When you look at or read a scene in any book, the character is fully present in that one experience. They’re never as distracted and disjointed as I feel in my head. In one panel I might be eating with Xia, having a conversation. In reality I was watching the time, worrying about forgetting to do something, figuring out how to convince her to do something, and opening the mail. I’m probably also analysing my mood and counting how many fluctuations there were and how intense they were during those twenty minutes. And I’ve probably answered two texts and an email. It would be overwhelming to draw the way I live and I don’t want to dwell on it. I want to retroactively slow down and soak up every experience.
Everything is softened in comics. No one could ever be as vulnerable in that form as they are in life. There are scenes when I’m yelling, swearing, and crying and I’m willing to admit that I’ve done those things. I freak out sometimes. It’s not hard to say that, but if the people actually hear me freaking out, it’s humiliating. I never want to see them again. It really sucks to lose control of yourself, and of how you want people to see you.
BC: Speaking of control, you choose to self-publish your work, take part in conventions and fairs etc. What appeals to you about this side of the industry rather than the bigger publishing houses?
KR: I like self-publishing because I like to make all of the creative decisions. I didn’t want to have to change anything in order to get published, however, I am working with a publisher now. My next book will come out in a year. I can’t say more until they announce the book, but I was given the freedom to do things my way. Before this, I did work with a big agent for six months on a proposal. I hated feeling like I had a boss. They had a specific idea for the book that I couldn’t incorporate in the way I write, so the relationship dissolved. I love how the comics industry includes self-published books in a legitimate way. My books have been reviewed, nominated, purchased, and anthologised just like those from publishers.
BC: Regarding your exhibition at the Naughton Gallery, how do you feel about the presentation of your work in a gallery context? Do you think this is a place where the comics medium is headed as it gains greater recognition as a legitimate art form?
KR: I thought I quit painting because I hated galleries, but I’ve realised now that my discomfort was rooted in my paintings – not the galleries. I no longer have the defensiveness I had about my work. People rarely understood them, and that’s partly due to how limited the audience is for painting. Many of the layers of meaning are created in art schools based on the history of painting. Most comics are much more accessible. The ultimate experience in my mind for experiencing a comic is to read it in a book. Seeing a show of a cartoonist’s work once, however, will change the way I read their work forever. It’s interesting to see the scale, materials, and corrections on the original pages. The formal qualities are more apparent. I think you can gather up the tone of the work while standing in a space and absorbing it all at once, that is different from reading it as a book. For one thing, a lot of people read comics quickly, and may be more likely to dwell on one composition in a gallery. It does look like comics programmes are increasing in universities, and as there are more degrees in comics, they will be in galleries more.