Something to Smile About: An Interview with Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier has done a lot of work in her Take-out Comics and has pursued a longer story about her dental difficulties as an adolescent in the fascinating Smile on Girlamatic. She recently consented to an interview with our interview editors…one that will get us all smiling.

1. How does doing Smile compare to doing Take-out Comics? Why did you decide to tell the story of your accident and dental woes?

Smile is the first comic story I've ever done that was longer than eight pages. Take-Out started out as a place to collect all the short stories I was creating for various classes and for myself. I had a bunch of one, two, three-page stories that needed a home, so I just started collecting them into mini-comics. They got to be a bit popular, I was selling them at comic conventions, through a few stores, and on my website, and one of the most common things people would say about Take-Out was, "We really like your comics, we just wish you would tell longer stories!" I thought of several longer stories I was interested in telling, but didn't have a format in my head that was ready to go. You know, I didn't know if I wanted to do 24-page comics (kinda expensive to self-publish) or try and submit a serialized strip to a newspaper, or just do an entire story in one shot as a graphic novel. Luckily, Lea Hernandez came along and suggested I do something for Girlamatic. It seemed like the perfect time to try out a longer autobiographical story, and the trauma of how I lost my front teeth was the one that was most visual and ready to go. I have told this story verbally time and time again, and now I can just sit back and say, "read my comic if you want to know what happened!"

2. How is the process different adapting something out of your own life from doing a work of fiction? Have any of those mentioned (mother, sister, friends) objected?

Well, most of my stories are completely autobiographical. And the ones that aren't, are still inspired by things in my life. I've never felt comfortable writing fiction, which is interesting because I really enjoy reading fiction. As far as constructing stories out of real-life events, it's pretty important for me to wait things out, observe a situation, and then try to be objective about it. If I try and slap an ending on something, it always falls flat and feels contrived. Maybe that's why it's easier to write about childhood…it all happened a long time ago. I have a bit more perspective on things now and can see the structure in events that happened, and I can decide what was interesting and what wasn’t.

My family (and everyone who might appear as a character in Smile) lives on the other side of the country from me. That's not to say they don't read it—they do, when it goes up on the web. But I don't have any of my characters weighing in on what they think should happen and how I'm portraying them. Recently my mom said it was weird reading about herself as a character in my comic, that it makes her sort of nervous that I'll spin them in a less-than-flattering way. Sure, we had family tension, but that's not what the story is really about, so she doesn't have too much to worry about. My friends, on the other hand, well…I think all eleven-year-olds tend to dump on each other to a certain extent, I just happened to be one of the kids who really took it to heart. And since I felt very vulnerable because of my misshapen smile, I constantly worried that everyone I knew was as aware of it as me. I'm sure they weren't, I was just projecting…but the memories remain. A lot of people can relate to being a scapegoat, I think.

On the other hand, my dad constantly forwards the link to my comic to his friends and co-workers. I think he gave a couple of my Smile mini-comics to our current dentist, too.

3. What artists do you admire? Who are your artistic influences?

My first big influence was Walt Disney, because animated Disney movies like Pinocchio and Bambi were among the first things I watched and loved as a child. I also watched tons of cartoons: Scooby Doo, Woody Woodpecker, Donald Duck, the Smurfs, the Get Along Gang, Alvin and the Chipmunks…when I got into comics, in third or fourth grade, my favorites were Calvin and Hobbes, For Better or For Worse, Luann, and Fox Trot. Over the years I’ve added a ton of artists and illustrators to that roster. And it seems I stumble upon new artists to admire, every day, many of whom are friends of mine or people I’ve gotten to know through the cartooning community. My favorites today are Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim), James Kochalka (American Elf), and Adrian Ramos (Count Your Sheep, The Wisdom of Moo).

4. Who are your storytelling/writing influences?

It's interesting, I'm working on a graphic novel right now based on The Baby-sitters Club series, by Ann M. Martin. I've just re-read a bunch of the books, and in doing so I realized just how much I had been influenced by her writing, as far as the way I develop and describe characters, the way I write action, the way I write dialogue. I was a huge fan of BSC when I was about nine years old, and probably read about 60 of the books in the series, maybe more. I guess it's no wonder that they helped shape my story skills, and kind of amazing to now be turning them into comics! My boyfriend, who has never read the books, was reading my layouts the other day, and he said, "Wow, these really DO feel like you wrote them yourself." So I guess I was a good choice for the project!

Lynn Johnston had a huge influence on me, too. I've been reading For Better or For Worse practically every day since the fourth grade, and it's always been a comfort to have Lynn's characters around. I feel like they're friends of mine. Her writing has always been smart without being snarky, and I loved that real life humor could be so funny, especially coming from characters you know so well. It helped me see how to write about real life in a positive light, always looking for a smile in every situation.

The other hard-hitters are Lynda Barry (whose written dialogue I will always adore), Adrian Tomine (who taught me that stories don't have to have standard endings or punchlines), and Keiji Nakazawa, who wrote Barefoot Gen, and convinced me at a very early age that comics were a powerful medium that could go way beyond cheap laughter. I see elements of all these artists in my current work.

5. Tell us a little about yourself—I know you moved from San Francisco to New York City. Tell us something we DON'T know about you from reading your comics.

Uh, okay. One motivating force behind my leaving San Francisco was the weather. A lot of people love it, but I wanted to live somewhere where there was such a thing as "summer" and "winter". My family’s house was in the fog belt, so almost all we got year-round was fog, fog, fog. Oh, wait, I think I wrote a comic about that a couple years ago…sorry, my comics ARE me. What can ya do.

6. How has your experience with Girlamatic been? What do you think is the future of webcomics?

So far so good. Girlamatic, and ModernTales in general, is cool because you automatically get to associate with other fantastic creators. There's a sense of community between the cartoonists, even though we're from all over the continent and in many cases have never met face to face. Lea Hernandez, the editor of Girlamatic, is just super to work for. She's very supportive and encouraging of the lot of us. It was extremely gratifying to see her win Friends of Lulu’s "Lulu of the Year" award, for her work in organizing Girlamatic. She was so happy, and it was like a win for all of us.

The future of webcomics? Wow! Tough question. Well, it's a medium that virtually anyone with a computer can get into. Anyone who wants to draw them, can. Anyone who wants to read them…has thousands to choose from! I like the fact that they come in all shapes and sizes, and people who’ve never read comics before or thought they didn't like comics might find something on the web that they love. Navigating them is another story…I think ModernTales is onto something, by making separate websites for different genres of comics: GraphicSmash for adventure comics, Serializer for alternative comics, and so on. It gives readers a launchpad of some sort. Hopefully when people get into webcomics, though, they'll want to read lots of different ones, not just stick to the one that they know. The future is really in the hands of the creators, those who are already doing it and those who have yet to start.

7. Did you keep a diary when younger? Have you ever found you misremembered something when writing Smile?

Oh, yeah! I started keeping a diary in fifth grade and continued through college. I kept them around, re-read them later on, laughed at myself and ultimately got some perspective on things I'd been through, crushes I'd had, stuff I worried about. I roll my eyes at most of it now, because the bulk of it was angst-y, teeny-bop lovesickness. But that stuff helps me zero in on how I felt and what was important at the time, which certainly helps in re-living it, to write stories now. Yes, I can still get into a zone and cry over silly stuff that happened in seventh grade, if I want to. Yes, I liked to mope on paper, but there were a lot of exclamation points and smiley faces in my diaries over the years, too.

Smile is pretty accurate. There's a specific timeline I'm following, and I remember most of it well. I take a bit of artistic license as far as who said what and when, and naturally to make it all work I have to use certain tricks…but I'd say the story is pretty truthful. At least from my point of view, anyway! Recently I was trying to remember when I got my braces put on for the first time, for a sequence coming up a little later in the story. My mom sent me my old dental records, which she still had lying around, so I looked at those. I had written out my basic scene, but wanted to be sure—and I found that the date on the records matched the date in my mind almost to the week. Remembering my twelfth birthday party helps me remember when I got my ears pierced, which helps me remember when I got my braces, which helps me remember what outfit I wore to picture day in seventh grade, which…this is how I work. I'm good at pulling out associations and relative memories. It doesn't hurt that my parents have an extensive amount of photographs of me and my sister and brother from our childhoods, so those are good reference as well. It's especially fun being able to draw the clothes I wore back then.

8. Was this the most traumatic event that ever happened to you?

It was pretty traumatic. Partly because I'm still suffering the consequences of having knocked my teeth out. I won't go into the details, but to this day, I still need extensive dental work: all the reconstruction they did on my mouth at the time was basically invented as they went along, and it turns out it wasn't a perfect permanent solution.

But looking at my accident in perspective, I've certainly been through worse experiences. I had my accident in March of 1989, and in October of the same year, San Francisco had a 7.1 earthquake. No damage to my personal life, but it was all around us. My friend and I rode our bikes around our neighborhood a few hours after it happened, looking at all the cracked buildings and stuff.

And, I was living in New York City in September of 2001. That changed everything about my life, just like it did everybody else. Again, I was lucky: I didn't get harmed personally. But as someone who has always been opposed to war and violence, it shook me to the core. I sort of lost my faith in humanity for a while, which is much worse than losing a tooth or two.

9. Why did you do this as a webcomic? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the medium?

I like the wide reach of the web, because as a self-publisher there's a lot of postage involved in getting your comics anywhere. I'm enjoying doing a regular strip, and my readers seem to like it better than the frequency I was producing mini-comics at, which was about two per year. Having a deadline keeps me moving. That’s a help, but it can also be a hindrance, as I think most web cartoonists, and serialized cartoonists in general, will tell you: sometimes you just have so much going on that it’s hard to get your strip up for the weekly (or daily, bi-weekly) deadline. I haven’t missed an update yet; let’s hope I never do. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage to the kind of webcomic I’m doing (the pay-for-archives variety) is that readers can’t just come into it late in the game and casually decide to read the strip from the beginning. You have to subscribe in order to do that. I’ve become a fan of certain comics because the archives were free, and I found I really liked reading it once I got into the story. Still, the great thing about subscribing to Girlamatic is that you don’t just get one or two great comics, you get twenty-five.

10. What are your future plans? Do you hope to make Smile into a graphic novel? What other projects do you have planned?

I would love to see Smile in print when I'm done with it. Coming from the world of print comics to begin with, I guess it still feels like that is the ultimate end result. It'll probably be over 100 pages, give or take, so a print version probably won't happen for a while, because I'm drawing them as my weekly deadlines come. The story will probably run on Girlamatic for at least another year, maybe longer. Unless Lea decides that braces horror stories are too much for our readers to handle!

Like I mentioned before, I'm also working on The Baby-sitters Club graphic novel series, which Scholastic is publishing. That will keep me busy for a while, too! I'm still drawing short, self-contained stories as well, because there are always anthologies or magazines that want stand-alone comics and I want to keep my brain active in as many ways as I can. When I get enough stories for another issue of Take-Out, I’ll make another mini-comic. And then there's the upcoming Bizarro World anthology that DC is publishing in February 2005…there’s a Justice League of America comic I drew in that! I had never done superheroes before; it was great fun. This all boils down to the fact that I am making most of my living off of drawing comics these days. And that was really my goal to begin with!

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.