It’s easy to relate to the spontaneous, angst-filled comics of Sarah Laing, which draw on her everyday experiences as a fiction writer, graphic artist, and mother in Wellington, New Zealand. Here, Sarah talks about her creative process, her new graphic memoir Mansfield and Me, and the evolution of her blog, Let Me Be Frank.
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You’ve worked on your graphic memoir, Mansfield and Me, for the past few years, immersed in Katherine Mansfield’s world. What’s it like to devote your time mentally and creatively to another person’s life — while telling the journey of your own?
I find Katherine Mansfield endlessly fascinating, and she crossed paths with many of the key figures in modernism. She wrote hundreds of letters and diaries — old-fashioned blogs — and her observations are so vivid and visceral you feel like you can reconstruct her life with them.
Katherine Mansfield was a prominent modernist short story writer and is New Zealand’s most internationally famous author.
My life has been quite ordinary in comparison. But I find it interesting how you can find intersections with the most extraordinary lives — as humans, we are always looking for ways to connect. It was quite a different process, writing Mansfield’s life as opposed to my own. Mine was easy to remember and the struggle was figuring out what to include when I had so much material. Mansfield’s required vigorous research, and since I wanted my graphic novel to be different from a conventional biography, which is chronological and includes lots of detail, I had to figure out how to linger in the moments and be more cinematic, fully realizing a particular scene from her life.
But I find it interesting how you can find intersections with the most extraordinary lives — as humans, we are always looking for ways to connect.
When working on your manuscript, you hand-painted over 300 pages. Can you describe what a typical workday was like?
I have lots of notebooks from my time working on this project! It was a process of drawing lots of exploratory comics, figuring what I wanted to concentrate on, and then drawing the proper comics. I didn’t script, as some cartoonists do, as I prefer my projects to develop organically. I’d view each chapter as a self-contained story, pencil it out, then apply the ink and the watercolor. Whilst inking, I could listen to podcasts, but not whilst penciling, as I needed the language part of my brain.
Once I’d finished a chapter, I’d scan it into the computer and fix up my mistakes — there were always a lot of them. Often I’d straighten up my type — for some reason I resist ruling lines (but I think I will for my next project!). The finished scan went into my InDesign document, which contained the entire manuscript.
In addition to Mansfield and Me, you’ve also worked on an anthology of comics from New Zealand women. What kind of work is represented here?
Three Words is an anthology coedited by Rae Joyce and Indira Neville. We felt that women were very underrepresented in local comics publications and exhibitions. When men were challenged about this, they claimed that there weren’t many women making comics. Many of the older female cartoonists had moved onto other, more lucrative careers, and the younger women weren’t coming along to the male-dominated comics gatherings.
We put out a call through social media for submissions and included everybody, because we wanted to challenge conventional ideas of what makes a good comic, and because we wanted to prove that there were, in fact, loads of women making comics, and they were amazing. We have everything in there from Susan Te Kahurangi King’s outsider art, inspired by the visual language of comics; to slick, manga-style comics and grungy riot grrl-style comics.
We felt that women were very underrepresented in local comics publications and exhibitions.
You’ve been blogging at Let Me Be Frank for over six years. How has it evolved?
When I started, my blog was very much a diary. I posted most days, and my comics were short and observational. They were a warm-up for the larger project I was working on, a novel called The Fall of Light. The more comics I did, the more central they became, and I began getting commissions to draw comics for publications. I also started writing longer stories, sometimes serials.
Right now I don’t blog as much, although I go through bursts when I have time. They don’t feel like much when I draw them, since they are relatively quick to compose, but I look back on them and realize they are a particular distillation of a time that has passed, and ideas I’ve been mulling over. Had I not recorded them, I would’ve forgotten about them entirely.
You publish comics on your blog for your online followers, but also distribute comics and hand-painted books at zinefests. How is blogging different from attending events? What are the benefits and drawbacks of blogging?
It’s really fun to be involved in a community event such as a zinefest, getting to meet other creators and zine and comics fans. In some ways it’s sensory overload — all these people to chat to, all this noise, when I’m used to working alone. I love all the discoveries I make at such events.
With blogging, you can post a comic and then slink off. I can usually tell which ones are going to have a large response and which ones will be quieter, and I sometimes drive myself a bit crazy checking my Facebook and Twitter feeds for notifications.
The benefits of blogging . . . well, I definitely got my name out there thanks to my blog, and I’m sure it’s in part to thank for the media interest I have for Mansfield and Me. As for the drawbacks, I haven’t figured out how to monetize it, and sometimes I feel conflicted by my desire to have my work out there and the sense that I’m giving away everything for free. But I like giving it away for free, and the responses I get from my audience! These days, though, I don’t force myself to blog so frequently — my followers will get email notifications if I do post something, so they won’t miss out.
. . . sometimes I feel conflicted by my desire to have my work out there and the sense that I’m giving away everything for free. But I like giving it away for free, and the responses I get from my audience!
Have your kids influenced the evolution of your comics?
My three kids often appear in my comics. They’ve been petitioning me to write a kids’ comic, and I’m thinking that may be my next project. Kids seem to often read my adult comics, maybe because children are so visually literate thanks to years of picture books, and maybe because my style is child-like. Not deliberately so — it’s just how I draw!
What’s one piece of advice you can give to comic artists and cartoonists who have just started blogging?
As more and more people are reading on their phones, I’ve relegated the classic panels to my print work, and instead use a simpler format that will scroll easily.
Although I really love longform comics and am a big reader of graphic novels, I think that people respond better to short comics on the internet. You also have to think about how people are reading them. As more and more people are reading on their phones, I’ve relegated the classic panels to my print work, and instead use a simpler format that will scroll easily.
Posting regularly is also a great thing to do when you are starting out — there is so much stuff on the internet, it’s easy to forget about a new comics creator, however amazing they are.
Also, remember, it takes time! And if you do a little bit each day — or week — it will build up to a substantial body of work over a year.