From GURL to IGNATZ: Tracy White Talks TRACED
Tracy White is a pioneer of webcomics. Although she may not be as well known as James Kochalka and his American Elf series, Tracy's TRACED is an equally powerful set of stories about self that marks out a unique piece of journal comic territory. From working on the early website GURL.com to being named one of Scott McCloud's personal top twenty webcartoonists, (and from our archives: Tracy did the cover art for one of our earliest covers in August 2003) to more recently receiving a nomination for Best Online Comic at this year's Ignatz Awards, Tracy's work has had a consistently interesting and moving presence in webcomics.
So can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you living these days?
I have dyed my hair every primary color but blue. I am double jointed in four of my fingers. I can only see blurry images out of my right eye even with glasses. I am very neat and my t-shirts are organized by hue. I hate salmon and love mint tea.
These days I’m living a large part of my life in my mind because I’m finishing up a graphic novel for Roaring Brook Press that is due VERY VERY soon.
Anything you can tell us about the upcoming graphic novel with Roaring Brook Press? Is there a planned publication date yet?
The pub date is around Christmas 09. It’s for the YA audience and the main character is not me. The manuscript is being copyedited as I write this – a very good thing because my grammar skill is highly creative – and I am trying to draw a page a day to keep on schedule. The emphasis being on the word trying.
It’s an interesting challenge thinking about layout for a books instead of a computer screen. Other than some four page panels I did for a newspaper a few years ago I’ve never worked in print.
You were recently nominated for an Ignatz award in the Online Comic category for Traced. Congratulations! You're in great company - the other nominations are for Achewood, Danny Dutch, Slow Wave, and Thingpart. Will you be at SPX this year (where the Ignatz awards are presented)? Any thoughts on the nomination generally?
Thank you! I am in great company and very happy about the nomination. I’m honored that the judges chose TRACED.
I didn’t have plans to attend SPX so now I’m scrambling around to see if I can get there for the day with my six month old daughter and my husband. It’ll be our first road trip since she was born and her first comic convention.
My thoughts on the nomination in general; It’s great to know I’ve reached people. Getting email from a fan, having TRACED nominated for an IGNATZ, those things legitimize, in my mind, what I do and why I do it. I wish I could be someone who didn’t care what others thought, or if anyone ever liked my work, but I’m not.
Traced is clearly an autobiographical comic, but often described by you as "guaranteed 95% true." Why is that? What kind of changes do you make that keep it from being completely true?
TRACED is not totally true because telling a true story in a linear a to z story line would be very long if you kept every single detail in it. I need to be able to squish and stretch the truth to keep the rhythm of the comic flowing well and because sometimes the whole story, actually most of the time, the whole story isn’t the whole point. More often it’s a detail in the narrative that’s at the heart of what I want to say and in order to bring that out I need creative license to disregard certain moments or enhance others.
Sometimes there are characters that get imagined into a plot who are amalgamations of people or sometimes-just plain made up. They help to move the comic along or smooth out transitions or are there because I’ve forgotten things and placing them in the narrative aids the storytelling.
How long have you been creating and posting on the web episodes of Traced?
Since 1996. It started out as part of a school project call GURL. Gurl is a webzine for teen-age girls and TRACED was a way to reach out to them within that venue.
Your most recent comic "Growing" is representative of the kind of straightforward honest reporting of life experiences that often make up Traced. How do you decide what memories to make a comic about? Is it motivated by events in your life in the here and now?
Current events don’t help me to choose what to write but current events very much shape the way I view or revisit the past. For example a story like “Virgin” or “Why” could not have been written without a certain amount of perspective.
Serendipity decides what story I will focus on or else it’s a specific theme someone has hired me to write about. Mostly my comics come from words I use to trigger my memory or images I see. For example “Kissing” came about because I was hired to write a comic for Oxygen.com that was a non-valentines day, Valentines Day comic. So I wrote down the word valentine and then made a list of words that reminded me of that day and then from those words I started writing and eventually the comic was written. It’s a sort of bastardization of something I learned from Lynda Barry a few years ago.
That said the next comic I’m working on is the first one that is the result of something that just happened to me. It’s about friendship and the idea came about when someone from my past who I hadn’t had contact with in a long time emailed me.
Maybe my favorite story is "Awkward" which while not exactly like anything in my own past gets at some kind of universal awkwardness that immediately brought to mind many awkward memories. The postscript is an interesting bookend to the story -- did the "jordan" of the story ever read the comic?
Oh it’s so great to hear that Awkward brought back your own awkward memories. For me the whole point of storytelling is to illustrate the universality of experience through specific instances.
I suspect “Jordan” did read the comic and that’s why he mentioned the necklace to me. The one that I left at his house on “that” night. There was no other reason to say anything it other than to let me know in a round about way that he’d read it. Especially since I’d seen him several time since that “incident”.
I remember the interview Joe Zabel did with you a few years back and he was very interested in the choices you make with respect to the comic. The bits of limited animation you sometimes put in and other effects. My impression is that for the most part there isn't much experimentation in webcomics compared to the beginning of this decade -- do you still have an interest in exploring ideas of just what you can put in a (web)comic?
I am interested in continuing to explore what can be done with comics going forward. Technology is constantly evolving so there are always going to be new things discover. Recently I was in touch with someone from MIT because he’s invented a really amazing application and I think it could be adapted to comics in general.
To me with TRACED the challenge is in thinking about how to best take advantage of the opportunities afforded by technology without letting the technology come first. In other words once I have the comic I think about what’s out there that will help me to tell/present it in the most effective way.
Take “Cocoa” -- that comic is the first one that I’ve done with sound but the story line absolutely lent itself to audio. It’s hardly new to have sound but sometimes it’s not about what’s new it’s about having a comic come along that can be told better with different tools.
I guess I've also always wondered why you made the choice to have your comics use white lines on a black background. It's a distinctive look actually (I don't think I've seen any other comic use it regularly).
Technology. When I first started drawing TRACED the majority of teen girls were on 14k dial up modems. REALLY slow. To ensure there was no lag in download time I made the comics Bitmaps and by just using a hexadecimal color for the majority of the image I made them even smaller. I think comics they were all 2k.
Of course I don’t need to do that now, but now I really enjoy working on a black background. Occasionally like in “Fieldtrips” I’ll use color to highlight a certain point or bring out something in an image.
What is it about the medium of comics that led you to choose it to tell the stories for TRACED? I'm interested in how you made the decision to do comics as opposed to writing it out just in text (or some other medium of expression). Was it purely circumstantial or was it driven by what you saw as best serving the stories you wanted to tell?
Circumstantial and then driven by how I wanted to tell stories. During grad school I doodled constantly. When gURL.com was being created someone asked “Tracy you draws all the time, want to make a comic”? Since I was in school for telecommunications, I’d always read comics and had just finished Understanding Comics [by Scott McCloud] I was game.
I love drawing, I love writing, I’m interested in telling stories in new ways and when I created that first comic it was like wow, this is it: I can do all three things in one narrative how great is that?!
Can you tell us about the For Real project you did - when did you do that, how did it come about and were you happy with the results?
FOR REAL is a docucomic for the web about the experiences of immigrant teens living in New York today for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Two teen girls were interviewed; key moments were chosen and then drawn.
I worked on that project a couple of years ago and it was a fantastic experience. It’s only the second project I’ve done that was not based on my life but on someone else’s and the first project I did where I worked with another artist – Marianne Petite – we each interviewed and drew one of the girls. I set the direction of the drawing and then built the site with the help of a programmer.
I am happy with the results and more importantly the museum is happy.
What comics are you reading these days? What have you liked so far this year?
Blue, which I enjoyed, and Skim. Oh and a few weeks ago I finished up Maybe Later by Dupuy and Berberian which I also liked. So nothing that’s come out recently but all recent in terms of what I’ve read.