Plus ça change — except they really do

Good nails, not great much else
Good nails, not great much else

This photo is a year old, which means that last year right now I was also sick with Whatever Is Going Around. The timing is awesome (well, extra awesome) because despite earlier reports, the coldest day of the season is actually going to be this weekend, with polar vortex-esque temperatures and all that attendant fun. My decade-plus in Chicago has prepared me well for this terrible time, but it’s sort of a no-brainer solution: hiding in my apartment, chugging down tea and cold medicine, paying huge tips to delivery guys if for some reason I run out of food.

Well, you say to yourself, this could be all right. You’ve run out of Parks & Rec on Netflix and you could really use this time to focus on self-improvement fun. This is always true! I keep having books I could read for pleasure, food-and-travel shows I could bask in and Hamilton songs to finally learn. I have a lot of practice in all those things. I’m an expert in many kinds of loafing.

Except here’s the thing. Last week I finished up Summer Pierre’s online comics-making course. Short version: It was wonderful. Making comics with no pressure to be perfect, surprise surprise, makes it so much easier to get in there and actually make comics. Can’t recommend the course enough, it starts again in April, you should definitely do it if you’re curious but think you can’t. It has nothing to do with drawing ability, just a desire to do it.

That’s actually really good for me to relearn. See — surprise, surprise — I’m a lifelong perfectionist. I keep forgetting that everyone is a beginner at some point, and that you get good at things by experimenting and practicing, not by doing it really well out of thin air or panicking if it’s something you have to work at. Somehow this is not obvious to me, but luckily my therapist is very patient about it. Summer’s comics course is wonderful because she insists on using the most low-stakes materials right out of the gate — some index cards, two pens and a cheap composition notebook for drawing in (so you don’t get caught up in the fear of ruining the pristine perfection of a brand-new fancy blank sketchbook — how did you know, Summer? it me!). That’s it. You just throw yourself into it and don’t give yourself the time to get caught up in your head.

My favorite for practice is the list comic (see also: Nine TV Shows I Love to Rewatch, Nine Things I Miss About Chicago). If I accidentally leave a page blank in my daily planner, it’s just the right size for a simple grid of nine and either organizing some organizables or observing what’s around you. I used to draw all the time as a kid, and I probably fell out of it because I didn’t think I could catch up to the people who were really good, even though every other class I’ve ever taken post-college — singing, social dancing, improv — has been about embracing your beginner status and rejecting the idea that you’re “bad” at anything you don’t know how to do.

One of the amazing things about Tumblr, probably my favorite time-waster, is getting to see all kinds of incredible art all the time. I really love it when these artists share progress updates — this is how far I’ve come in a year. If you just discovered me, I’ve been growing a lot, and you can too!

I want to make comics a habit. It’s an art form that’s excited me my whole life, and actually sitting down to try it, to experiment with visual language and challenge myself to use fewer words, is exhilarating, actually. Getting stale is the worst. Trying new things is great. So, without revealing too much about the process (take the class!), here’s the rough draft of the final, real, nine-panel comics story that I made, with thanks to Virgie Tovar and Agent Carter:

Her name is Merle Van Der Ellis, and she’s a fashion designer. At least, she started out that way. Turns out I made some discoveries when asked to play around with her. My improv teachers would be so proud!

And here’s what happened when I sat down, smoothed it all out and… actually made a comic, ohmygod:


I know I’ve literally blogged before about how buying art supplies will not make me an artist, but I’m not going to lie: Yesterday I went to Dick Blick and bought some slightly heavier drawing paper, because printer paper was making me nervous about erasing too much and I have all kinds of things I want to keep making and trying. I resisted all the gorgeous pens and colored pencils, but the notepad, I think that’s a good present to myself.

(Sidebar, for real: Summer’s class is a great present to yourself. She’s warm, welcoming and so, so good at what she does. I’ve been admiring her from afar ever since her book The Artist in the Office saved me at my first desk job, and I’m so glad to have gotten to learn from her and my amazing fellow classmates. She makes comics so accessible! Look at me — Miss Perfectionist central, and I’m all ready to keep scribbling and developing my style and skills. Like a beginner. Which is a pretty good place to be.)

Comic: Telemachy, first panels

I look forward to coming back to this image one day and congratulating myself for how far I’ve come. Still, I have to say, despite noseless Odysseus and alien baby Telemachos and any of the other flaws, I liked thinking about how to put this together. Let’s break this down a little.

First panel: “Your father never wanted to go.” Close-up on Telemachos, as he looks down over the island. When I’m a better artist, he’ll have a much more emotive face. He’s frustrated, bitter and resigned to doing nothing about the suitors overrunning his home and courting his unwilling mother. He’s certain his father is dead, and the rest of his family has given up too. His grandfather, Laertes, a king himself, spends his days ragged and sad on his farm, far away from everything. His grandmother, Anticleia, died of grief while her son was away. His mother, Penelope, spends her days in her room, sleeping, crying or weaving. Telemachos lives his life bullied, thinking he deserves better but without the confidence to make that happen himself.

Second panel: “But he did.” A view of the empty harbor. That blotch to the left is supposed to be the town. Ithaka is a society with virtually no men of age left. All the able fighters left with Odysseus for Troy, and are lost. All the nobles of the area are laying siege to Penelope’s bower, and are young themselves. I’m still trying to decide who is narrating these panels, whether it’s Penelope, who may blame her son, just a little, for their circumstance, or Eurykleia, Telemachos’ nursemaid, a slave who basically reared him and loves him dearly.

Third panel: “Great Agamemnon came for him himself. You were just a boy.” Flashback to Odysseus atop the same hill, spotting the black ships of Agamemnon, High King of Mycenae and brother to Menelaus, Helen’s cuckolded husband.

Fourth panel: “Your father wanted nothing to do with that war.” Baby Telemachos cradled in a woman’s arms. He looks like a prop from The X-Files; sorry about that. I had already inked it before I thought of a way to represent him as a toddler (holding onto a woman’s skirts, or leaning against a woman’s legs), which is, from what I remember, more approximately the age he is when Odysseus leaves.

Last summer I took a trip to the Mediterranean. We didn’t get to Greece, sadly, though we did fly over it (I saw the Acropolis from the air!). One of the highlights of the trip, and, if I’m honest, of my life so far, was hiking the trails through Cinque Terre, a series of cliffside villages in the Liguria region of northwest Italy. It’s not an exact match for Ithaka, but as I think on it now, some of the essentials are there.

The bay at Riomaggiore
The cliffs, mid-hike and very high up
The harbor at Monterosso at sunset
I can't help but approve of this. From the Lovers' Walk, the easiest (and first) bit of the trail.
Of course there's a spot for my guy Homer. He's my dead Greek boyfriend from time out of mind.
It would figure that someone would scrawl Odysseus' name right on the rock, unofficially.
We also made it to the Vatican on that trip. This bust of Homer is gorgeous in person.

This post brought to you from my very serious business work space and incredibly highbrow new Domo-kun notebook. It is a response to This item will give you talent! Now you see why I’m craving (though needlessly) a drafting table.