Getting Consent When Creating Autobio Comics

I went to a writing conference with a friend of mine. He was trying to get his comics into the publication that was hosting the event (I would recommend checking them out, their short fiction pieces are very good, but their comics and poetry are iffy). There were artist talks and panels discussing writing fiction, memoir, and poetry.

The only panel I remember going to was one about how to write memoirs. I vaguely remember that all the books were on really serious topics like grief and drug abuse. The only thing I distinctly remember was the Q & A. Everyone was asking about their process, or how to get over feeling exposed when writing about themselves. I had finished my mini thesis for the Center For Cartoon Studies a few months prior (the last assignment of the first year of the program: take all the things you learned from the first year and make a 16 page zine) about being bullied and then turning into a bully myself. It had a lot of people from my past in it, but no one I particularly cared about in the present. But I had a question because I had a feeling I’d be making more autobio comics in the future-

“How do other people react when reading your work that mentions them? How do you take that into account when writing?”

The panelists answer was essentially:

1) You never know how people are going to react. There’s things you think that are going to offend people mentioned in your work but turn out to be no big deal and things that seem totally innocuous turn out to be big problems.

 2) You need to make sacrifices and at the end of the day your art is more important than these people.

The first point was something that I didn’t internalize and would come back to bite me in the ass. And the second point was, and still is, in my opinion, absolute bullshit. Sure, if I piss off someone I don’t like and I show them being shitty, who cares? But I wasn’t willing to lose friends or cause grief with family over my dumb comics. I had other stories I could tell (I’m lucky because I can pretty much tell anyone anything about my mother, she’s an over sharer too and is very supportive of my work).

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But man, I wish I had taken the first point more seriously. I did a comic about a crazy (and traumatic) night I had with my friend’s dog while pet sitting and put it on Twitter. My friend totally freaked out. I took it down immediately and apologized, but it was too late. Our friendship wouldn’t recover. When I tell other people this anecdote they all say my friend is crazy and over reacting, but he had his reasons that totally make sense and I just wasn’t thinking.

Losing that friendship was devastating, but it taught me a crucial and powerful lesson- I fucking ask for permission before putting someone into my goddamned comic. I don’t even mean just for heavy shit, I mean for everything. Literally every gag post I put on social media is run by the people that are in it, unless their lines are “HA HA HA” or they are merely there to set up a punch line and are saying something like, “What do you mean?” or “What’s going on?” or “Hey, how are you?” (see the above comic as an example of me not asking anyone pictured for explicit consent, though maybe I should have). Almost everything else is run by people that show up in my comics. They get veto power to stop me from showing a comic they’re in to the world. Especially since I often change my conversations with people to better fit the narrative of my work.

I am VERY glad I do this because I have fucked up and done comics that expose things people don’t want the public to know or I’ve accidentally made them look like an asshole. But it’s not a big deal because they just say, “No, don’t post this” or “Fix this part” and it’s just between us. Asking for permission is a really easy thing to do that stops a lot of future drama.

My art isn’t worth upsetting the people that I love. This isn’t true for everyone: if I don’t like or care about you, I don’t give a shit about making you look bad. That’s not very kind of me but it’s true. I’m not really a kind person anyway, I just prioritize the people in my life I care about. You could argue that this is actually me being selfish, because I’m the one that cares about maintaining healthy relationships.

I have always been at odds with hipster artists as a whole (especially in my fine art days). Sure, the fact that many of them are pretentious and clique-y and obsessed with status (which I am too more than I want to admit)  etc. irritates me. But the underlying reason is that I fundamentally disagree that art is more important than people, and that is something a lot of artists buy into (or their art is more important than themselves; the suffering artist trope is BEYOND damaging and just plain stupid). If I had to give up making comics in order to keep the people I care about in my life, I would in a second. I’m lucky enough though that pretty much everyone in my life that I care about supports my comics. And because I keep their feelings in mind when writing stuff, I will probably never have to make a choice between the two.