10 Things I’ve Learned from Making Autobio Comics
Oh autbio. Often the most maligned genre of comic, many write it off as the easiest, most self-indulgent form of storytelling. But read on…
I’ve been making autobio (aka. autobiographical) comics for the past few years. When I moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles, I started off making minicomics (shout out to Kinkos!) about my post-college life and my close knit group of friends from my hometown, possibly as a means to deal with the distance. Aside from learning the technical skills of constructing a simple mini, I started to develop an artistic and storytelling style, which of course I continue to refine. For many, especially those starting off, autobio is the go-to, because you pretty much assume that you have a ready-made story. And sometimes you do, but it’s important to consider multiple things when you are telling an often very personal and “true” tale (I put “true” in quotes for a few reasons that I’ll get into). So here are some things that I’ve learned:
1. Refine Your Self-Portrait
I’ll be honest. I’m not a mind-blowing artist. I’ve come to sort of accept my natural limitations, even though I continually strive to get better. Beyond technical skill though, I think it’s incredibly important to develop a style, YOUR style. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from John Porcellino who told me to “own my line” (or something to that effect). At first I had no clue what that meant, but then I realized that regardless of my insecurities I should stop drawing my figures like I was unsure of them.
Fig 1. An early drawing of myself. Note that I did not use skin color as I had not yet turned Black.
Style is particularly important when drawing yourself. At first there will be a lot of variation or inconsistencies, but over time you’ll develop a caricature of sorts (or multiple caricatures if you choose to represent yourself in different ways). I suggest consistently doing character sketches in the beginning to better define your self-portrait. Really though, time and lots of work are key.
Fig 2. A: Recent Me…someone once told me that I always draw myself with that look of “life…is this it?”. Perhaps they are correct.
2. Get Over Yourself
Your stories may or may not change the world, and either way, that’s fine. But don’t take yourself too seriously. Yes, that break up sucked beyond belief, but instead of seeing it as an opportunity to distinguish yourself from others, use it to communicate a shared human experience (more on this later).
So get over yourself. You don’t always have to portray yourself in the best light. I recently went on a date(?) with someone who had read Madtown High. They were surprised, dare I say appalled, that I represented myself as a naive, boy-crazy, grunge nerd. “Do you really want people to see you like that?” A first I thought that maybe he had a point, but then I realized that yeah, I was like that in high school. It’s not that I wasn’t giving myself enough credit, but I was allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to show the world where I was at that time.
Fig 3. If he had any doubt about high school me, I should’ve showed him this poster that used to adorn my bedroom wall. Actually I’m pretty sure I burned it.
3. Consider Your Audience
Don’t get me wrong, I love reading autobio, but sometimes it’s like seriously? I know your cat likes to do cat things like sleep and huff catnip, but where is this going? If you are writing things just for yourself or inner circle, go for it, but don’t expect the outside world to care or relate. We all know the phrase “you had to be there”. Yeah, that’s applicable here.
Fig 4. TO STOP WRITING STUFF THAT I DON’T CARE ABOUT!
With some of my earlier stuff, I definitely got reviews using those words. At first it stung, but then I realized that they were right. You can write about specific events that hold meaning for you or others. You can write about your own idiosyncratic observations. But be aware of who you are writing for and who it’s serving.
Fig 5. Some inside joke I wrote for my friends in 2010ish. I can’t remember what it was about for the life of me.
4. Be Smart
Fig 6. “So, I see here that you’ve written a “graphic novel”. Tell me, what is this new-fangled creation?”
Be thoughtful about what you are sharing with the world, particularly on the internet. Ultimately, what you are putting out there is a reflection of you, your values, and your behavior. You really can’t control what people think of you at the end of the day, but still consider how you represent yourself and what the possible repercussions of that are. For instance, if you are considering working for the government one day (which I actually did, blurgh), it’s probably not the best idea to post comics about doing bong rips with your friends at a 420 celebration all over Tumblr and Facebook. Just a thought. Sometimes what you make in your earlier days catches up with you and can burn some bridges. Which leads me to…
5. Respect Others’ Privacy
Fig 7. Probably should be doing work at work instead of making this.
This is super important. When you are writing a story with thinly veiled characters, be mindful of how it will affect the people you are representing. If you have any doubts about writing about someone, either don’t do it, or ask their permission first. When I was writing my series Madtown High, I asked my friends beforehand how they’d feel about being satirized. Luckily, they were down for it, but I’m glad that I checked in with them first.
I’ve had a few slip ups in the past though. Given my admiration of Jeffrey Brown’s ‘Girlfriend Trilogy’, I decided to do a short series called ‘Of Boyfriends Past’, where I challenged myself to sum up each relationship in a one page comic. I mean, I highly doubt that my exes read my comics (at least I don’t think so…) but they were so thinly disguised that I could have potentially hurt or embarrassed someone. This was also true concerning my comic Relics, where I discussed my parents’ pending divorce (which never actually happened), much to my mother’s dislike. Thinking back, it was selfish on my part.
It goes beyond privacy though. Think about how you are portraying people. Are you making fun of them? Drawing them in an unflattering manner? Just things to consider. Ponder the trade offs and the consequences, even if you think your representations would “make” your story.
6. Fudge The Truth
I’ll admit. I don’t always tell the truth in my comics. I don’t make up ridiculous lies and scenarios, but often I’ll tweak what happens, either to make the story more compelling or omit something that I find inappropriate to share. It’s OK to do that. In fact, it can be really beneficial to your story. Step back too. Your story is never “the truth”. You have biases. You view your life through your own lens (and one that may be full of cognitive distortions at that!). So don’t be afraid to make adjustments as needed.
7. Read Work From Other Autobio Cartoonists
Aside from the therapeutic and reflective aspects of doing autobio, I became really interested in it through reading other cartoonists’ material. I encourage you to read as much as you can, be they self-published minicomics or famous graphic novels. And off course, read outside of the genre and medium too. For me, reading other cartoonists’ autobio has let me escape into their lives and really identify with shared experiences. It has helped define my tastes and also exposed me to different forms of storytelling within the genre.
Fig 8. From Craig Thompson’s Blankets. Beautiful.
8. Have Fun
If you’re not having fun with a story, you probably shouldn’t waste your time doing it (…not that, you know, if I got a lucrative deal to write a graphic novel about the War of 1812 I wouldn’t take it…). Seriously though, I’ve probably had some more weighty things happen in my life that would make for good material, but I simply don’t want to write about them for various reasons. I DO want to write about this night though:
Fig 9. The night I want to write about.
Really though, making comics should be fun. Challenging, but fun.
9. Take A Break
So my life is pretty boring right now. As much as I’d like to do a daily comic, there is something unappealing to both myself and probably the world about watching Supermarket Sweep in sweatpants after a 9-5 (Actually I don’t watch Supermarket Sweep, but Jeopardy…I was fudging the truth!). Take a break from making autobio if you feel like you have nothing to say or if you feel limited by the medium.
Fig 10. My recent attempt at fiction…if only these guys existed in real life :(
Try fiction! “But I’m not a fiction writer” you say. Well that’s because you’re not doing it. Maybe you’ll discover that you like it. You can always come back to autobio, and it will probably make you a stronger cartoonist overall.
10. Think Small, Communicate Universally
"As a matter of fact, I deliberately look for the mundane, because I feel these stories are ignored. The most influential things that happen to virtually all of us are the things that happen on a daily basis."
- Harvey Pekar
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