Interview with comics artist Amy Camber

Shortly after the presidential election, Seattle artist Amy Camber’s comic “One Week Later” was a gift to those of us who were stunned and aching.  Published on The Huffington Post, the comic now has more than 13,ooo views, likes, and shares.  The message of grief and empathy was just what so many of us needed to hear, just when we needed to hear it.

one week later.jpg

Amy is a prolific artist, with a great big blog, comics printed in Seattle papers, and a handful of published books.  I had picked up her book Going Home at the Short Run Comix and Arts Festival last year, and I enjoyed her skillful storytelling and her brave candor in telling the story of her sexual abuse as a child.

Amy and I met at a coffee shop in late February to talk about her comics and the role of art in our new political climate.  We also discussed anxiety, parenting, and our experiences of living with and healing from trauma.

ERMA: Let’s talk about “One Week Later”, the comic about your response to the election as a survivor of sexual assault.   It was picked up by The Huffington Post.  What was the response like?

AMY: For a long time I wouldn’t look at the article or any of the comments (comments showed up on all different social media platforms, on [the Huffington Post] Facebook and twitter posts).  It was really intense.  A lot of people wrote and told me about how they were not able to cope with the election because they felt so re-traumatized.  I felt similarly and wrote back to every single person to just say, “I hear you.”  The clearest thing that came out of all the responses was that a lot of women were just really hurting.  A lot.  I was a little bit nervous about what I would do if someone trolled me or said something really awful, but I didn’t hear anything like that.  It was primarily people telling their story, or even posting it publicly, like on Huffington Post’s Facebook page.  So, it was really overwhelming.  Good, I think, but intense.

ERMA: It sounds like a really important and intimidating experience.  

AMY: I think it was.  To be honest, I hardly remember making that comic.  It’s different than all my other comics.  It’s drawn differently and there is a lot less text.  I just felt compelled to make it and in some ways, it felt like it made itself pretty quickly.  When it was done, I wanted to get it out there, to name what I was experiencing because I knew that I was not alone.  I wanted others to see it and feel some comfort, and be able to say “Yep! That’s how I felt too.”  That said, I didn’t want to put it on my own blog.  So, I sent it around, and Huffington Post got back to me right away.  It traveled pretty far after that.   

I wanted others to see it and feel some comfort, and be able to say “Yep! That’s how I felt too.”

But I didn’t share it on my own blog initially and I almost didn’t put my name on it.  I knew there was something problematic about my hesitation to sign it so I made myself do it, but I wasn’t at all resolved about it.  I was pretty scared.  Then, someone I know found the comic and shared it on social media, linking it back to me.  I started hearing from both strangers and people I know, messages of support and solidarity.  People who were feeling the same as me, people who had suffered and were still suffering.  After that, I felt more grounded.  I was able to breathe a bit and start unpacking why I was scared to share it on a more personal level.

ERMA: Can you tell me a little about that?  On your blog, you said that you were embarrassed to share it.

AMY: I know some of the people who follow my blog are my parents’ friends, people I kind of know, people who I knew a long time ago.  I didn’t think that I wanted to share that particular story with them.  Incidentally, I have never shared all of Going Home on my blog either.  But I was also thinking that if I had been, say, held up at gunpoint and robbed, that I probably wouldn’t hesitate to share that type of traumatic story.  So why would I not share this?  And that, right there, is part of the problem.  We don’t talk about sexual violence despite it being so horribly common.  I’m sure it’s in large part due to the shame that comes along with being sexually assaulted.  The person who was assaulted feels shame, as if they did something wrong, or they weren’t able to protect themselves or be strong enough or something.  Ultimately, I decided that I would share it on my own blog.  I still wasn’t totally comfortable with all of those people knowing about my experience but I also knew that some of them likely had similar experiences.  And I decided that my desire to make assault more visible, more talked about, had to outweigh my discomfort in that moment.

ERMA: It was a brave thing to do, because we usually want other people to feel safe.  We don’t want to talk about these difficult things and ask them to respond.

AMY: Right, and my experience of being abused as a kid has really shaped my psyche in this way specifically.  As a child, I didn’t tell anyone what was happening because I knew that if I did, it would really hurt people.  I knew that adults in my life would be devastated. I think that holding something like that inside, keeping a secret like that throughout my formative years really skewed my understanding of the power I had to hurt others. That is something I still deal with as an adult.  I’m often worried on some deep level that I’m going to traumatize somebody, or ruin their life just by saying something.  So, by sharing this comic, and then having all of these people say “Yah, I’m traumatized, too,”  I didn’t necessarily feel good about it.  I worried.  I wondered,  “Am I hurting someone by putting this out there?  Am I making it worse for them?”  I mean, I don’t intellectually believe that, but that is a deeply ingrained concern I carry.  It’s really complicated.  

As a child, I didn’t tell anyone what was happening because I knew that if I did, it would really hurt people.

ERMA: Yah, I agree.  It’s like “You can’t handle the truth.  Believe me.  It’s painful. I don’t want you to have to have to respond to this, to have to digest it.”

AMY: Yah, and I think as a kid, I spent a lot of energy trying to protect others, especially the adults, from what was happening to me.  That’s not a role any kid should take on. I still have a warped sense of who I need to take care of in life (and I’ve done a lot of therapy!).  

ERMA: So, you were responsible for taking care of yourself, and for taking care of adults.  And that carried over into your feelings about publishing this piece…  Did the responses that you got to the comic help to soothe that feeling of being responsible for other people’s emotional experience?

AMY: No.  Well maybe.  I felt really conflicted.  A lot of people thanked me and I really appreciated that.  But I was still confused.  That said, I felt and still feel like we have to talk about assault even when it’s hard.  There was such a visceral reaction to Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape.  Every woman I knew had a story.  It wasn’t necessarily that they had been raped or molested, but that they had been objectified, treated as less than, that somebody had touched them inappropriately or grabbed them.  Everyone!  My mother-in-law had stories!  More than one!  We had to listen to that tape over and over during the campaign.  In the weeks prior to the election, there was this sense that it was almost over, this “just hang in there everyone.”  And then he was elected and it felt like we were all cast away, set out to sea.

ERMA: How is it feeling now?

AMY: (Laughs.)  Pretty awful.  I want to put out there that even when I made that comic, I knew that the feeling of being left out to sea, of people using their vote to say “These other issues are more important than whatever injustice or violation you’ve endured,” has been experienced by people who have been marginalized in our communities forever.  That is not a new feeling.  But it really, really stings.  And I’m still really angry.  Now, I focus a lot on all the work that people are doing.  Everyone I know is now doing something, has completely reevaluated their daily life.  Everyone I know is asking, what can I do today, what can I do this week to oppose this administration?  That’s what I focus on.  

Now, I focus a lot on all the work that people are doing.  Everyone I know is now doing something, has completely reevaluated their daily life.

ERMA: How did you come to a place where you could write these honest stories about your life? Even before you published “One Week Later,” in your printed books and your online comics, you tell some real truths.  

AMY: I think every time I share a comic, I have a little panic attack.  Every single time! Because they are really revealing.  But I do it because I’ve always been drawn to stories like that.  I’ve always appreciated when people tell their story really honestly.  When I first started making comics, I told myself that I’d tell about my experiences as honestly as I can, that I would just put them out there.  At first is was just an exercise I’d do for myself. Then, some of my friends would see it.  Over time, I began sharing them more widely than I did in the beginning.

ERMA: As your comics have rolled along, some really big things have happened.  You’ve had kids, there have been deaths that were very important to you.  Have you taken these new episodes in your life as a challenge to tell new stories?

AMY: I think that my comics have become a sort of therapy, a way of processing what’s happening and making sense of my life.  Actually, I did this all the time before I made comics.  As a kid, I was constantly writing stories.  I did this with film for a little bit, too.  I made a short film about trying to understand my dad’s relationship with his parents, about the intangible things that are passed down through families.  

The comics I made when my friend died – a lot of those are very hard for me to read now.  I feel like, looking back, they are too sweet, too saccharine, somehow.  But I also know that they came from a super honest place.  They told the story of what I was feeling at the time.  And, I needed to make them for me, so I could understand what was happening.  Actually, they were for all of us who were left after she died. Because it was really sudden, and really tragic.  Those comics were a way of communicating with people who I didn’t necessarily know very well, but were in the same strange, devastated place after she was gone.  Camber November 1st

I would say that a lot of my comics are trying to communicate with others. Like, I’ve written about my family members and old friends.  Sometimes they’re apologies.  I wrote one of those for my sister and one for a friend from high school.  Those comics are genuinely for them.  I’m trying to communicate in some way.  Like, “I know this happened and I think about it, and I carry it with me, and I’m sorry.”  I didn’t answer your question, did I?!  

ERMA: That was a great answer!  I like your style of drawing your panels as though they are through your eyes directly, seeing what’s immediately in front of you.  It seems like that speaks to your desire to communicate directly with a particular person, like saying “This is the way that I saw that story.”  How did you arrive at that style?

AMY: Part of making comics for me is an exercise in not overthinking, of not being a super-perfectionist (two things I do far too much of).  When I first started, I told myself, “You are going to make these comics by any means necessary.  Whether it’s a ballpoint pen on the back of a teacher meeting schedule, you are going to make these and get them out as fast as you can.”  So, the imagery – that’s just how I remember things.  I’m remembering the story and grabbing the first images that pop into my head. I grab it, I draw it, and I try not to think about that part too much.  It’s a super intuitive thing that I try not to censor, to just let it out.  I think much more carefully about the words.

Part of making comics for me is an exercise in not overthinking, of not being a super-perfectionist

ERMA: How long does it take you to write a comic?

AMY: I write them really quickly.  I’ll write the words first, usually when I’m walking somewhere.  I’ll speak them into my phone.  Then I’ll revise and revise, making the writing more concise because I tend to be really verbose.  I have tons of un-illustrated comics that are just waiting to be drawn.  Drawing and lettering takes me a long time.  

ERMA: How do you draw?  What are your materials?

AMY: It’s changed over time, and part of that is to make things go faster.  I used to do everything in pencil, and then I’d ink it, and then scan and color it in Photoshop.  I’ve worked off and on as a designer for so long that Photoshop is very second nature to me.  Now I actually draw on my computer.  Well, I sketch in pencil, take a picture and then ink it on a tablet.  It goes a lot faster and I need a lot less stuff.  That’s one thing about making comics  — I don’t need a lot of stuff.  When I was a printmaker, it required a lot of setup and cleanup, and a lot of space.  I didn’t have that when I had little babies — I didn’t have that kind of time or space.  I needed something that I could do really quickly, in little bits of time. I’m the primary caretaker of my two children and the youngest is three.  I’ve worked really hard to make moments to work on comics.  I’ve gotten it down to, if I have an hour, I can work for 59 minutes.  The 30 seconds on either sides are just, like, turning on my computer.  So I’ve tried to get rid of anything that takes time. I’m the most disciplined I’ve ever been about anything in my life when it comes to making comics!  

ERMA: A benefit of being a parent?

AMY: Yah, I’ve talked about this with Sarah Romano Diehl, about how there’s something about the limitations [of parenthood] that can be really helpful for creative projects.  Because you can’t do all the second guessing, all of the “oh, is this right??”  No, you just gotta do it!  And just get it out there!  Don’t waste your time, don’t check your email…just work!   It’s given me a hyperfocus that I didn’t have before.

ERMA: You mentioned that you are a printmaker.  What’s your artistic background and training?

AMY: It started in college.  I took a drawing class my sophomore year.  Before that, I think I was planning to do something with writing or political science.  That drawing class was really hard for me, it was really out of my comfort zone.  It also felt really electric.  It felt like, “you have to get to the heart of whatever this is”.  So, I did.  I started taking a lot of art classes, and when I found printmaking I knew that was the place for me.  I loved all of the political posters, flyers and posters –  art that’s made for everybody.  Prints can be easily reproduced and interact with a huge audience in a way that’s different from work that hangs in a museum or a gallery and I love that.  In printmaking, there was also a weirdness allowed that I wasn’t seeing in other departments of the little art department at my college.  The print studio felt really inclusive and embracing.  

I was in my mid-30s when I finally started making comics.  It suddenly just felt like a thing I had to do.  It was really compelling.

After college, I started a lot of projects but I didn’t finish most of them.  I also went back to school for art education and social justice and taught for a long time.  I’ve done a lot of work with kids and photography, exploring the idea of “how do you document yourself when you’re already represented in a larger cultural narrative?”  Ideas around self-representation.  For a long time, there was something about making my own stuff that just felt too indulgent.  I’m not sure how I feel about that now.  I was in my mid-30s when I finally started making comics.  It suddenly just felt like a thing I had to do.  It was really compelling.  Once I started, I couldn’t stop.

ERMA: What was your intention when you started making comics, and is it any different now?

AMY: It’s still very much the same.  I actually never considered myself a comic artist when I started – I’d always loved comics but never considered my work on that level.  I think I called what I made “illustrated stories.”  I started calling them comics with some confidence when I started participating in Short Run [Comix and Art Festival].  It’s such an inclusive festival and so many things can fall under the umbrella of “comics.”  That is really appealing to me.  

As an artist, my biggest inspiration has been Lynda Barry.  The way she tells stories through so many forms – comics, writing, teaching –  just felt so true to me.  Her work has resonated with me so much at different points in my life.  If I had a guiding intention from the beginning, it would be to make something like that.

ERMA: You have in common with Lynda Barry that you are telling stories about your childhood, or about your own children.  How do you decide how to tell those stories?  

AMY: Well, I’ve always remembered my childhood really clearly.  I especially remember how I felt at specific moments.  I’m always so baffled when people tell me they can’t remember their childhood – I feel like I remember being a kid more than I remember last week!  Childhood memory is something that Lynda Barry talks about – just the funniness of autobiography, how memory is a tricky thing.  I revisit my stories all the time as I try to make sense of who I am.  They are funny and sort of precious to me and I like making them into comics.  I sometimes wonder how “true” they are.

ERMA:  I love the way you talk about your own anxiety in your work.  I’m the parent of an anxious kid, and so much of what you say rings true to me, and even makes her reality more clear to me.  You are able to infuse humor into your anxiety stories — could you tell me about the process of finding that voice?  How did you learn to tell funny stories about your own discomfort?

AMY: I think I’ve walked the line of humor and something much darker my whole life.  Also, anxiety makes us do weird stuff and sometimes that’s really funny!  I’ve spent so much of my life trying to not be anxious, trying to push away or ignore the discomfort I felt everyday.  I think my comics are the opposite of that.  They are kind of an acknowledgment and even celebration of anxiety.  

Camber liarliarout
More sweet stories of her anxious childhood can be found in Amy’s book Problem Child.

 

My son is also an anxious person and being with him as he navigates the world reminds me of my own experience.  I relate so much to what he goes through.  Anxious kids, my son included, can be super empathic and really aware of other people.  I’ve met a lot of kids like that and I wish that those people had more prominence in our world.  I wish that highly sensitive people could be in more positions of leadership and guidance.  I think we desperately need it!  Can you imagine what it would be like if we were led by more people with that kind of sensitivity and ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes? Anxiety can be debilitating for sure and I’m all for figuring out ways to be more comfortable in this world as an anxious person.  But I’d also like to see more stories about the upside of anxiety, not just the “this is a problem that needs to be fixed” stories.  I don’t know that my work does this but I’d like it to!  

[We have a long chat about kids and anxiety.]

Parenting!  Parenting is so hard. It’s so hard.  The series on parenting, I did when I was really feeling like I was going to lose my mind.  

Screenshot 2017-03-06 15.39.26
Excerpt from Amy’s blog..  Turns out, this is not what parenting is like.

 

ERMA:  I love the one where you’re camping and you’re like, “What I thought parenting would be like…”

AMY: Yah!  I really did have some kind of idea like that.  Last summer, I didn’t sign the kids up for camps and we just spent SO MUCH time together and it was so intense.  I came in one day and wrote, like, four of those comics.  I was laughing so hard I was in tears… and meanwhile, while I’m writing them, there’s utter chaos.  Someone probably fell off a table or something.

[See more of Amy’s parenting comics on Huffington Post.]

ERMA: What are some of your other inspirations and influences?

AMY: There are two comics in Barry’s 100 Demons that I love and often go back to.  One is about a dog she adopts with an abusive past.  She tries some tough-love obedience training but comes to realize that what the dog really needs is some gentle love and understanding.  The other is about resilience and how people often say how kids are so resilient despite awful experiences.  She argues that adults say this to make themselves feel better.  That rang so true for me.  Ever since reading that comic, when people talk about resilience in children, I think No!

ERMA: Lynda Barry is so good at hitting home those really strong emotional messages.  

AMY: She is!  I actually tried to start writing comics in my early 20, and it was shortly after I’d read the whole collection of Marlys comics.  While reading them I was like, Yes! This makes perfect sense to me!  These are weird and sometimes heartbreaking, super painful stories that are so funny!  I saw such an urgency in her work.  The way I read them at the time was, you just get the story out, you just do it even if your text doesn’t all fit, even if it runs out of the box or it has to come down into the picture. Even though I didn’t make them for a long time, I always loved comics.  When I was a freshman in high school, I read Maus. I had been raised reading Garfield and The Far Side and Calvin & Hobbes, but Maus was a new thing that really resonated with me.  The work of Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel, these are my heroes. It just makes so much sense to me to tell stories, whether they are historical or fictional or autobiographical, in this way.  

ERMA: Is there is anything you’d like to say about your experiences as an assault survivor?  I mean this to be very open ended — please share anything you want to.

AMY: I’m working on a longer piece about this.  I’ve been working on it for a long time – I come back to it and then I leave it.  That’s kind of how I’ve dealt with my experiences, little by little and with lots of therapy.  I had the experience as a child, and I was also assaulted when I was in my twenties.  Those experience have become for me… they are like a part of me. They have affected me on a cellular level.  I’m working on how the ramifications of those experiences have shown up throughout my life.  

I wrote Going Home after I’d taken a break from comics.  It was the first comic I did after moving back home to Seattle.  When we moved, I knew I’d have to do something with that story, because I was moving back to the same city, the exact same spot where it took place. While writing the comic, I called on the different things that have helped me process that experience.  Like the ghost story part of it – that was something I actually figured out years ago.  I was in college when I realized that haunting was happening at the same time that this [abuse] was happening to me in that house.  It was like a bombshell and, as I say in the comic, “I believe that was true, and it helps me that someone was there in whatever way.”  The other part of that comic is about reaching out to yourself at that age and being there for that person at that time.  It’s saying, “when you were three, you couldn’t cope with it, but I’m forty, and I can, so I’m going to go back, and I’m going to give you a hug, and I’m going to be there for you.”    And in the same way, I had a rough adolescence, and I think it’s important to go back and say, “you’re ok, it’s ok, you are sixteen years old and you are doing your best to figure this out.”  So I do that a lot, I put a hand over my heart and say, “it’s ok.”  So, that’s what Going Home was about.  And honestly, it made moving back ok.  That goes back to it being some sort of therapy, It’s like this weird processing that happens in the writing and drawing and putting things together.  It has a real effect on the way I am in the world. It’s kind of an intense thing that happens.  

ERMA: By writing about it, it clears a space of safety?

AMY: It does for me.  It’s almost like this complete reframing.  I imagine that I’ll probably be retelling this story again sometime in the future, addressing the way it shows up in my future life.  For right now, this is how I’m going right into the heart of my past experiences and being with them.  I’m trying not to let them be some kind of nebulous thing affects my life but isn’t directly addressed.  

ERMA: So you’re telling your story in this way, at this time, and you imagine that some years from now, you’ll tell that story and it will be different in some way.

AMY: I think so.  

ERMA: Thank you so much for talking with me about your comics!

 

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