July 26, 2013

Spotlight: Taylor-Ruth

It's your so-called comic book life.

When Taylor-Ruth's number flashes on my phone, I sink into my chair. Something about having a conversation with the young creator of the wonderfully sarcastic comics makes me extremely nervous (it's like meeting Tavi Gevinson and you're not sure you should hug her or shake her hand - still cringing about this moment), and so when I answer my phone and hear this bubbly voice telling me about how nice it is outside in her hometown of Carmel, Indiana, I'm utterly confused. But all the articles said she was this outcast Tumblr queen! Isn't she the girl from the comics who says all those sharp, witty things, because, you know, I've heard she also wears glasses. Will she say dark things too? After five minutes into our conversation, I realize that yes, I'm an idiot, and had been doing everything the other sites have been doing. I promptly get over myself.

Because despite how hard various outlets try to peg Taylor-Ruth down into what they think she is, based upon her Tumblr (otherwise known as "Hanging Rock Comics," which, yes, can be very personal, but it isn't everything), she's a recent high school graduate which, as we all know, is a serious time for change. Odds are, she isn't the same person she was yesterday, and won't be the same person tomorrow. And of course she's wont to say dark-tinted things, but isn't everyone? And if we do, that doesn't define our entire existences. Nevertheless, as in the past, Taylor-Ruth's comics keep on coming with the same sharpness and unique qualities people relate to; as a result, she continues to see thousands of notes on her posts and a growing fan base that can see a little of themselves in her drawings. She's even beginning a project with Doug Aitken in which (sigh) Grimes is involved, as well as slew of other awesomely creative people. I got the chance to separate the girl from the comics, discuss the direction of female characters in comic books, and teen dramas that describe our high school careers. 

THE LE SIGH: How did you get started with drawing comics specifically? I know you do other illustrations, but what about comics drew you to them?

Taylor-Ruth: I've been drawing pictures and writing my whole life. Then when I was thirteen, my parents were getting divorced and I was in 13-year-old therapy, and my therapist told me to start keeping a diary. I was too lazy to keep a strict diary and write everything down, so instead, I would just draw the things happening in my life and write dialogue to go with it. They kind of turned into comics, which really sparked my love of comics. I really liked the marriage between being able to draw and playing with those aesthetics, and articulating a certain voice. It seemed like the perfect fit for me. It put these two things together that I loved.

TLS: Had you read a lot of comics before?

TR: I had been into comic books for a while. I guess the kind of comics I had always known were the superhero, one-dimensional comics that don't really open up a lot of opportunities for expressing what happens in everyday life. So I had never really thought about it in the context of expressing my own little stories and events.

TLS: Historically, comics have been dominated by men, and then on top of this you're writing about problems a lot of girls go through; how has it been being a girl doing something that's always been a boy's game?

TR: I definitely think as I've gotten older, I've gotten more focused on representing a female narrative and that's really become my main concern above everything else - connecting to a young girl audience, rather than young boys, or whatever. I definitely think the landscape of females in comics is changing but not in the sense that Marvel comic books are going to be written and taken over by women any time soon; it's changing more in that the Internet has provided a different landscape for female illustrators and comic artists to get big on. We don't have a place in the conventional comic book world. Strides have been made, but if you look at the design team for any comic book, it's still 98% male and I don't see that changing any time soon; there's no effort on the comic book company's part, there's no effort on the artists' part to represent any kind of realistic portrayal of women. It's just not going to happen soon.

So what women have always always had to do is kind of create our own space if we want it. And we're really good at it! I mean just look at the Riot Grrrl movement - historically, we've taken it upon ourselves to create our own place wherever it may be. I think right now, what's happening in a huge way for illustration, comics, and graphic novels--because I think the Internet provides this huge forum where we don't need to go to the comic book companies to get their approval--we can do it ourselves and get an audience. I swear, most of the popular creators on Tumblr (myself, Unadoptable, etc.) are women! And it's some pretty kickass content, and people are getting noticed for it. [The landscape] is in the midst of changing, but not necessarily in the way I thought it would. I think I've kind of given up the hope of the conventional superhero/Marvel/DC/Dark Horse comic book world ever creating a space for females, and have instead gained a lot of hope in us creating it for ourselves and really that becoming a huge resource for female-centric comics.

TLS: In a way you're kind of modifying who the female superhero is, which I think is why people really adore what you do, because they can see themselves in it.

TR: Tavi Gevinson has given a lot of good analogies to how female portrayals and characters portray the superhero archetype. A strong female character is often portrayed as a woman who's invincible, can do it all, always has a straight face and doesn't cry. I definitely think changing our idea of what a strong female character is, is really significant to adapting the possibilities for that role. I try to make things that are number one, relatable to myself, while keeping in mind a larger perspective to create a more realistic female character for other people to see themselves in.

TLS: Going back to Tumblr being an awesome platform – the site can be kind of a black hole sometimes because there's so much on it. How does one stand out on Tumblr? How do you think you managed to stand out?

TR: I think a lot of it was timing for me. I kind of feel like I got in there early, and not to say that it's impossible to do it now, but I feel like I got into Tumblr at a time where there wasn't a lot of content around like I was creating, especially from a female point of view. I almost accidentally created this persona really quickly, and that kind of became a "thing." A huge part of it was luck, too. Early on, within six months of creating my blog, I had a woman from Wired [Magazine] contact me and wrote an article about me, which was pretty huge for my blog. But I think the key to getting big on Tumblr is putting something out that isn't there already. I can't tell you how many people ask me to look at their blogs and when I do, after five or so, it's all the same. And if you're a content creator on Tumblr who's looking to get yourself noticed, I think you have to be putting out something that is unlike anything out there. Not that you have to be a revolutionary, but, you have to put out something people are going to look at and feel a sense of newness to. And, I think it's also important to have some kind of regularity in your posting. Once you get more popular, you get more leniency with that; I've been known to take a month off at a time. It's really weird - I've never been able to quite pinpoint a certain formula to getting big on any social networking thing, Tumblr especially, because it's so content-driven. I guess it all depends.

TLS: Timing is a good point – we've had people say to us about our blog, "You know, I'm surprised you guys are picking up speed since you joined the game so late." And at first we were offended, but after thinking about it more, it's interesting to consider.

TR: So much of it is contingent on getting in there first, because at this point in the game, there are so many content creators on Tumblr who are doing work that's comparable to mine if not better, but I think because they might have entered it later in the game, or stuff had already been exposed, it's just very different. I also think a big part of it was I was really young when I created my Tumblr and I think it was a huge novelty to people. There's a 16-year-old making comics! My early stuff was so amateur-ish, and you could really tell it was coming out of my notebook from the middle of math class. There was a big sense of naivety and I think people liked that, in a way. There are so many different aspects; a lot of it is luck, it's knowing your audience from the get-go and pandering to that.

TLS: After reading various articles and surfing the Internet, people have really latched onto the idea of you being "different girl." People have even started categorizing you as "Girl with Glasses and Braid," which I'm sure can be so maddening! How do you maintain your own identity as an artist, woman, and yourself?

TR: When I read your question, I was like oh my god, she gets it. I was like mom, she's articulating everything I've been feeling! I've thought a lot about why people have the tendency to do that to me, and I think it's kind of like whenever we have a female who doesn't fit a mold we're used to, we have to put her in the box, like, "Oh, she's different girl, I can't put her in the box I'm used to putting girls into, so I'm going to turn her into this archetype geek-girl." We have these limited boxes we have to put girls in, and if you don't fit into [them], you get put into the "different girl" box. Not necessarily that that's a bad thing, but it severely limits who you are as a person in their eyes. It's very annoying to read those articles about yourself and feel like they misunderstood you a little. I can't complain whenever I get press because obviously that's all a good thing, but I do dislike getting put into a box. Sometimes people will blur the lines between me and the character in my comics, and at this point, I'm not the girl in the comics. She's kind of taken on a life of her own. She is exaggerated.

TLS: And how do you get out of that box?

TR: I think I've definitely made more of an effort in the past year to separate me the person from me the comic book character. I try to articulate that to people in my interviews, and I don't know quite how it happened, but there's a very specific image that's been attached to me for a while; the side braid, glasses, whatever girl. I kind of strayed away from that in my comics, and stopped seeing change as a bad thing. I feel like when you're known for being something very specific, people make you think changing that is a bad thing, and you're being disloyal to yourself. But when you're a teenage girl, you're supposed to change! It's not something you should be discouraged from: to experiment with yourself and go through phases, make mistakes and change! I think a big part of distancing myself from the "different girl" image was to stop seeing change as a bad thing and let myself go through phases and stray away from 16-year-old me and grow.

TLS: Have you seen your art changing with you?

TR: I definitely have been going through a lot of different changes in my art. In the past couple months, I've been super explorative in my art in terms of working with color in an unconventional way and combining elements of collage with elements of my comics. I've also been drawing on unconventional paper and really experimenting with the visual aesthetics of what I do. I've had a lot of fun with that. I'm actually going to be involved with a project called "Station to Station," which is this train ride art project that's being cultivated by Doug Aitken, NPR, and Wired Magazine. I have the opportunity to ride it and am really excited to see if that puts me in a new direction or opens up new opportunities for me.

TLS: That sounds so awesome!

TR: Yeah! I got really lucky, actually. It's starting in New York and ending in San Francisco and I get to ride the whole time. They came and interviewed me and I get to make posters for them. I'm the only person under 30 making a poster. Oh, and Grimes is going to be riding it and Jack White too.

TLS: That's going to be a weird train ride.

TR: [Laughs] I'm so excited for it.

TLS: Because people think you're the girl in your comics, have you ever had the problem of your parents, friends, teachers, whatever, thinking they're being projected in your work?

TR: When I first had my blog, my mom would get super uncomfortable reading it. I think it was a mixture of realizing it was so popular and everyone could see these thoughts. She came into this weird position, where she had really close access to these personal things I was thinking. I think it was just really weird for her for a while, but she kind of grew out of it. She's really respectful of my work right now and realizes that even if I do make comics using us, it's not necessarily a projection on her or anything. I think she's kind of learned to deal with it and honestly doesn't even go on my blog anymore. Also with friends, all my girl friends know it's just what I do. I think I've gotten more in trouble with boys being mad at projections I've made of them than anything else. It's hard when you put out these personal things into the world, where anyone can see them. I've kind of gotten to the point where I disconnect myself from the whole thing and don't even always realize that, oh, I'm putting this out in front of a crowd of 100,000 people. It doesn't always occur to me that other people can see it, so it can be really weird when people call me on my comics and I realize, oh yeah, you can see that too.

TLS: I'd been reading on your blog that you'd been contemplating going to prom. I was wondering if you'd ended up going after all?

TR: I did not.

TLS: So what'd you do instead?

TR: Was I contemplating going to prom? I think it was more wondering if I was going to regret not going to prom. I don't know, it's not really my thing and I didn't really get an opportunity to, so I didn't go. But I think I'm going to be ok.

TLS: I think you will be too. You're done with high school now, congratulations, by the way. If you could use one teen drama to describe your high school experience, what would it be? Mine would probably be Glee, unfortunately.

TR: It's going to sound really cliche, but I'd probably either have to go with My So-Called Life or Daria or Ghost World, just because that's kind of what I've modeled my whole universe after, in terms of comics. All those shows focus on these two girls' friendships and that outside girl archetype and working with it and experimenting with it. I'd probably have to say those because they've been so influential in my high school career and what I do now.

TLS: You're also really interested into music.

TR: It kind of became an accidental thing that I'm known for – it started out as "I'm just going to post the CDs that I make" and became a thing where [the playlists] were getting thousands of notes. And I thought, this is pretty cool. I'm also maybe getting the opportunity to do stuff for Pitchfork, which is really exciting.

TLS: What music will you be listening to this summer?

TR: I've already made a few summer mixes, actually, but I've been listening to a lot of Brazilian, tropicalia music, like Peruvian surf rock and low-fi indie pop type stuff. I really like South American sixties garage pop in the summer. They just have this really vibrant tropicalia type sound and it's so summer-y and fun. It's what I've been playing a lot lately. It's also fun because you can pick up a little Portuguese; I'm pretty sure I know how to say "Hey baby" in Portuguese.

Check out more of Taylor-Ruth's comics here.

Written by Molly Morris