Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Hand-Sewn Domestic Female Aesthetic: An Interview with Kendra Josie Kirkpatrick
This is the first in what I'm loosely referring to as a "Post-MoCCA Spotlight" series of interviews with creators whose work I discovered because they were exhibiting at MoCCA. Kendra was the first table I went to, so hers is the first interview I wanted to publish. More coming soon!
I got to MoCCA on its opening Saturday this year well before the 2 pm rush came and flooded the hall with bodies, noise, and dozens of people who seemed way too miffed that the elevator wasn’t working. The very first table I went to go find was Kendra Josie Kirkpatrick’s. Of the people whose names I did not recognize when scrolling through the exhibitor list, Kendra’s work stood out with her ability to coax both humor and horror out of historical events, all while sticking to a stark black and white aesthetic. Her penchant for non-fiction extends to both the biographical and autobiographical, making for some poignantly candid comics told with a great degree of visual care.
Despite still being in school and probably (almost definitely) being way too busy for my nonsense, Kendra was nice enough to answer some questions I had for her. You’ll find her answers below, along with further exploration of the things in her work I find interesting.
Austin: How did you get into making comics?
Kendra: If I’m remembering correctly I started making comics in 2nd grade. The first extensive project I remember making was this Power Puff Girls rip-off that went on for multiple pages. I might have made more comics before that but that’s the one I remember.
Austin: What made you decide to major in cartooning? Was there ever the thought of just having the comics on the side?
Kendra: I was in 10th grade, disgruntled in an art program I hated because it was fine-art oriented and dismissed all comic art- and I found a course book for SVA and saw they had comics as an actual major and it was tunnel vision from there.
Ironically it’s now that I’m about to have a BFA in comics that I’m thinking of just having comics on the side.
Austin: All of your work is black and white, but not just in the sense of lacking color: it’s very specifically black and white and leans heavily on negative space. Was this just something that immediately clicked as part of your personal aesthetic or was it something that developed over time? Do you have any plans to work with color?
Kendra: The first project I can say used the negative space the way I do stylistically now was PENDLE, [which you can read here] and from there I just pursued it as an aesthetic. I actually just finished a zine that’s in color, it was done with Risograph.
"Pendle" is a full-length comic about one of many nasty witch trials that occurred outside of the far more well-known Salem. The cover alone is indicative of Kirkpatrick’s style. It should be no mystery to the reader that black and white themselves will be substance in the forthcoming comic. The first page is a great example.
Reading the text alone, Kirkpatrick’s introduction to the Pendle witch trial reads like a typical history essay. What’s impressive is that she wraps up this introduction in a single page with thoughtful text that isn’t verbose. The lettering alternates in a similar black and white contrast to all other elements of the book. Obviously this is out of necessity at times (sort of hard/completely impossible to read black text on a black background), but because Kirkpatrick makes such stylish use of negative space throughout the book’s pages, the lettering often oozes the same kind of design-conscious flair.
The overall way in which black and white are going to interplay to create the substance of this work is clear-as-day after this first page. Kirkpatrick is not only using negative space to create panels: she is using it to build entire pages. Black and white juxtapose to form the very first panel of this page; however, they also juxtapose to give the overall page its feel. A black page-width panel alternates with three open panels, then to another black panel, finishing with a wide open panel. What takes this page over the top is the fact that Kirkpatrick winds her story beats through the page in a way that allows the reader to navigate the stark contrast of the overall page.
Even when this vertical juxtaposition of black and white is played slightly more straightforward and more verbose, Kirkpatrick demonstrates that she’s not afraid to do interesting and narratively significant things with the page. The magistrate is a visually imposing figure on this page, even more so perhaps than Jennet on page one. The penultimate panel in which Old Demdike is framed by witchy icons breaks up the hard edges of the rest of the page, while making a particularly small but verbose story beat feel like it fits without much shoehorning. Kirkpatrick constantly finds new and interesting ways to fit things into what would otherwise be a monotonous aesthetic.
Austin: What is it that draws you to working with non-fiction in particular?
Kendra: There are two things, one is not as elegant, but here’s both:
I cannot fucking write original stories or characters. I’m horrible at it. And I also hate working with other people’s stories or characters, I’m perpetually not interested (the exception being an adaption, which occasionally intrigues me).
Mostly though I’ve always been interested in history, and then that kind of branched out into true crime, etc. There’s so much interesting stuff that actually occurred, so I almost find it pointless for me to struggle to create some kind of original narrative when there’s so much great non-fiction material to work with.
Austin: Do you have a preference between working on the more strip-like works “Informative Ancient Egypt Comics” or longer projects like “Pendle”?
Kendra: You know it really depends. I only make longer projects if there’s a topic I’m very very interested in and want to get out there. With shorter strips you don’t really need to have that intensity to finish them, and ironically people tend to respond overwhelmingly to shorter strips over a long project you’ve nearly killed yourself over. It really depends.
Kirkpatrick has range, something made impressive by her willingness to work within a particular aesthetic. The creepy play between blank spaces in “Pendle” and her still ongoing “Isabella” (being serialized page-by-page here) is morphed into an exploration of the clumsier aspects of ancient Egypt. Below is my favorite of the “Informative Ancient Egypt Comics."
This is wildly different in tone than “Pendle.” The first obvious reason for this is that the subject matter is in itself wildly different. The visual aproach to telling the story, however, is also much different. For some of you, this is obvious and I’m saying something really uninteresting; but, I think it still bears pointing out, especially as far as Kirkpatrick’s range as a storyteller is concerned. Kirkpatrick could never in a million years tell “Pendle” the same way if she was confined to a grid; similarly, the comedic effect of this cartoon is very at home in this simple, storyboard format. The ability to co-vary the design-conscious approach to storytelling with the distinct story beat approach required for simple grids is a huge boon to any cartoonist. That kind of flexibility is the thing that allows for a variety of stories and tones to come through in the creator’s voice.
Austin: What do you feel the bigger challenge is for you? Cutting loose and opening up the page in an original way, or fitting what you want to say into a neat grid?
Kendra: Grids are much much easier. That’s why I enjoy grids, they make it easier, but at the same time it’s not a cop-out if you use it in a way for you to organize your material/create pacing etc. Grids are much less daunting because from the very beginning it’s a way of organizing your ideas down to a simpler form you can process and execute.
Austin: In your Waldorf comic (I did not know about Waldorf education by the way and got sidetracked while coming up with these questions in a Wikipedia-enabled rabbit hole) you discuss your experience of Waldorf education when you were a child. You hint it a little at the end, but I’m curious how much and in what way you think that education impacted your artistic leanings?
Kendra: I’m incredibly biased towards working traditionally over digital. I’m convinced that’s their fault.
Also, I think they may have pushed me farther into my interest in working more graphically, because I remember being in elementary school and they had us draw everything rounded and colored. I also got bitched at for drawing “outlines” on my characters and giving them faces, and now all my work is very face-centric, black and white, sharp shapes etc.
So basically I have some of their biases still but I’m also convinced my tastes may have been shaped by what they didn’t want me to draw.
To be fair though, I think Waldorf Education is a big part of the reason I even ended up going to an art school because they do put an emphasis on having kids draw, etc. even if it’s weirdly regimented.
My real issue with them is their inability to accommodate kids with learning disabilities.
If you don’t know anything about Waldorf education, then I’ll let you have your introduction to it as I did: go check out Kendra’s autobiographical take.
What really grabbed me before I discovered the longer autobiographical stuff, however, were some of the shorter, one-page comics, my favorite of which is a one-page biographical comic, “Miscarriage.”
For this, Kendra interviewed someone and then presented their story in this comic. I often see discussions about the power of comics as journalism, but this is something even more personal. Of course, out of that personal, emotional frankness comes something that’s universal. In order not to represent the person directly in the story, Kirkpatrick opts for more general looking cartoon figures. In doing so, she not only achieves anonymity, but also nods to the prevalence of miscarriage and the many women it effects.
Formally what stood out to me about this comic were the panels dedicated to lettering. One of the first things I brought up to Kendra when I met her at MoCCA was that I loved the sort of bubbles she put the letters in when she made those panels, and I was wondering why she chose to present them in that way. She confessed a main reason was that she was tired of using the white ink. Despite this being a functional decision, it’s interesting to see how it works both aesthetically and narratively. The circle in which the words appear plays visually off of the image of the fetus in the womb. Coming back to that image gives the reader a sense of becoming that’s never quite fulfilled. And, of course, having these lettering-dedicated panels at all helps pace the “easy” grids of which Kirkpatrick is so fond.
Austin: Most (if not all) of your stuff is brush and nib, which makes sense since it’s all black. Are there any other mediums you like to work with?
Kendra: Yes actually, I enjoy screen-printing a lot, particularly on textiles and wood, and I also just got into Risograph.
Austin: Answer one or a few or all: Best thing you’ve eaten recently, best thing you’ve read recently, best thing you’ve listened to recently.
Kendra: Eaten: Paris Baguette’s fruit tart.
Read: I barely ever read but I finished Tezuka’s “MW” a few months ago and it’s great.
Listened: BEHEMOTH’s album “The Satanist”. I’m seeing it live Saturday and may cry.