Among the verdant oak and acacia in the San Francisco Bay area lives Eisner award-winning artist Sophie Yanow. A cartoonist and educator, Yanow creates percipient comics that stun and humor readers while challenging their principles. Her keen eye for storytelling has produced insightful works that force us to confront the unsettling nature of inequity and destruction around us. Inspired by her participation in the 2012 Montreal student strikes, Yanow’s novel War Of Streets And Houses (Uncivilized Books, 2014) unites political activism with the insidious history of urban planning. She followed this with What Is A Glacier? (Retrofit Comics, 2017), where she wrestles with the complicated nature of grief, (climate) change, and air travel during a trip to Iceland.
Now, Yanow has much to say about how we form our ideologies in The Contradictions, published with Drawn & Quarterly (September 2020). The graphic novel is a fictionalized memoir of Sophie’s attempt to adopt an anarchist lifestyle while hitchhiking in Europe with a friend. It explores the fragile nature of our ideologies and, through haphazard adventures, elucidates the reality that our beliefs often contradict themselves — a sometimes necessary “evil” when you’re still learning what type of person you want to be.
Yanow draws with a clarity of line and thought. When you flip the pages, you immediately notice the negative space that reads like its own subtle commentary. Her characters move and act with a damning realism that only draws the reader nearer to the page. It’s unavoidable to see our own missteps fall in line with those of her characters.
Recently, Sophie and I corresponded through e-mail about The Contradictions and the challenges of telling true stories objectively and with transparency.
What inspired you to pursue comics journalism?
When I drew War Of Streets And Houses, which was a memoir, I was already crossing into research-based nonfiction. I was thinking about how my own narrative around protest and policing connected with bigger ideas around architecture and urban planning. My friend Susie Cagle is an amazing journalist and she encouraged me to try doing some journalism after that. There was also an outlet called The Nib where I knew some of the editors from the comics scene, and so it wasn’t too intimidating to pitch ideas.
When working on graphic memoir and autobiographical comics, do you try to also include a little bit of reportage in your storytelling?
Generally, yes. If I’m thinking about a concept, I want to do more research about it and find sources, and I often end up documenting the process of learning these new ideas. In comics that are more story-oriented, I do end up doing research, but I wouldn’t call it reportage, exactly.
You spent some time in Paris. You’ve studied abroad and also did an artist residency there. Do you think studying abroad is the life-changing, enriching experience it’s often marketed as or mostly just what you want it to be?
I don’t think “study abroad” specifically is life-changing, but rather, living abroad in any capacity. For one thing, it helped me understand how much context matters when it comes to cultural exports. There’s so much nuance you don’t fully understand when you watch a film or read a book from another culture. Becoming immersed by living somewhere definitely expands the scope of understanding. And I think being somewhere that is pretty different from what you’re used to is almost always going to lead to growth.
Your latest book, The Contradictions, is set in Paris. Did the idea for the book originate while you were studying abroad?
Not exactly in the form that it took. When I came back from living there, I was very excited to draw a story about hitchhiking. But what my 20-year-old self thought was interesting and exciting about my adventures was somewhat different than what I now think was compelling about that time. I definitely didn’t have the distance, nor ability with the craft, to imagine this book back then.
The Contradictions is a coming-of-age story that focuses on a queer person in their 20s. But one of its most compelling aspects, its focus on discovering your principles, means that it also can be applicable to a coming-of-age story for a person in their 40s, 50s, and older.
I appreciate hearing that! I never imagined it would be applicable to a wider audience in terms of age. I know I have gone through similar experiences at different stages of my life, but I’m 33, so I don’t claim to know what it’s like at every age! But I suppose I have an educated guess that self-discovery is ongoing.
The book depicts a fictionalized version of yourself and other people in your life. How do you navigate being objective and honest to yourself and others without cutting too deeply?
I’m not sure I can be objective! Part of why I wanted to have myself as the protagonist, even though it’s fictionalized, was to explicitly point at that character and say, “This is the ‘me’ character. You don’t have to guess which person is representing the author.” I want to make it clear that there is an element of subjectivity here. But I think when I was younger and trying to write a story about this time, it was certainly different. I was really embarrassed about certain things that I did at that time, and really beat myself up. With the distance I have thanks to time, I could look at those embarrassing moments as touchstones that I felt were really important to depict, but it didn’t pain me to write about them anymore. I could also find the humor in them. I also think that back then I had less compassion for the people around me, less of an understanding for why they did what they did. More distance means I have more compassion, and I think that leads to better writing, because I’m trying to understand the whole behind why a character or person would do something.
What is most challenging about rendering yourself on the page – whether in autobiographical or fictional form?
Trying to be honest without simplifying too much or overcomplicating things. I don’t want to bog things down with every detail of my life story or the character’s background, but I also want there to be enough there that it’s truthful and perhaps revealing.
In filtering the story through a fictional lens, do you find that you have a bit more freedom?
Absolutely. I got to try to make a tight story with intentional scenes that build on each other, and create scenes where the action could tell some of the story, instead of relying on narration to explain what any given situation meant to the characters.
When I read that you lived in Marin County, I felt a tug of kinship. I attended undergrad in San Rafael. For four years, I lived in what was a very white, very rich space that was often at odds with me and a lot of my friends. What is your perception of navigating spaces like Marin County when you find yourself outside of its demographic?
Well, the funny thing is, I actually grew up in Marin! But I grew up in West Marin, which is (or was) pretty different from Central Marin. It was very granola, lots of patchouli and bead curtains at my friends’ houses, and zero spandex. My parents still live there and my partner got a job teaching at a San Rafael school, so here we are. Now that I’ve lived for many years in places with more racial diversity, and class diversity, and places where more queer folks congregate, it was pretty weird to move back here. And yet, as a kid I was very gender noncomforming, and in high school my girlfriend and I were the only two out gay kids for most of my time there. So I guess I’m used to feeling like an odd duck here in some ways anyway. When my partner and I first moved here I definitely felt pressure to conform, to shave my legs and dress differently. But I’ve found some new and old friends here who help me feel less out of place.
This reminds me of a scene in The Contradictions where Sophie alludes to “semiotic shortcuts” that come with otherness. These shortcuts are so vital to survival as an “othered” person. Do you think that illustrating these shortcuts brings awareness to them and thus makes them less necessary?
I don’t think it makes them less necessary, because I still think we need them in our day to day lives. I still feel that various forms of flagging are important, even if most people aren’t literally rocking a handkerchief in their pocket. I hope we never reach a point where we only make new friends through social media, where we’re all putting up our little flag emojis. But in the offline world, I still think these shortcuts are important.
What I admire about your characters is their shapes, how you draw them. They depict a capacity for fully embodying their emotion in a way that’s realistic. While “cartoonish” or angular, they are still also real bodies. How important to you is the human body in your storytelling?
My work is extremely figure oriented! It’s only recently that I’ve leaned into making less impressionistic backgrounds. I guess I want things to feel grounded in reality in terms of human bodies as well, and to that end they’re mostly proportional and they have a sense of gravity. The “acting” of the characters is also important. I also want to contribute my drawings as a way of drawing characters who aren’t cisgender men. There’s a lot of baggage in comics that comes from years of sexist and racist depictions, and as best I can, I hope to throw some drawings on a different pile, giving all my characters dignity in how they are drawn.
It’s critical that artists provide a degree of transparency in their work and what I appreciate about The Contradictions is your portrayal of anxiety. This is also something you illustrate in What Is A Glacier? alongside the environmental discussions. What do you see is the role of artists in portraying the complicated aspects of themselves and the parts that are deemed taboo or that we’re “supposed” to keep hidden?
I think I’m lucky in that, personally, I don’t see my anxiety as particularly taboo. So it didn’t feel like a big reveal to talk about it. Although, I’ve had a lot of people tell me I seem mellow and easygoing, so perhaps in my day to day life I’m keeping it contained. I want to reveal parts of myself that I struggle with through my work so that others who may be going through similar things can feel that they aren’t alone.
You’ve also discussed creating rituals to help deal with grief and catastrophe. What rituals have you created for yourself now in a year that has been wholly chaotic and distressing?
I have been trying to ground myself with lots of physical exercise. I’m in a place where I can go outside to run. I run every other morning and I’ve started doing some indoor strength training. I am blessed with a bathtub… I take a lot of baths. I haven’t been too focused on writing or working through things on the page yet. Right now I’m just trying to keep spirits up.