Graphic Novelist Lucy Knisley Talks about Family, Recipes, and Illustrating Some of Her Favorite Food Memories

Editor's Note: Explicitly Graphic is a monthly column on our arts blog, Jackalope Ranch, by Cynthia Clark Harvey (who's working on a graphic novel of her own). From time to time, Harvey reviews graphic novels, talks to artists, and dives into the scene of all things explicitly graphic. Today, she's sharing her discussion with graphic novelist Lucy Knisley on Chow Bella.

Lucy Knisley's new book, Relish (First Second), is a piquant medley of family memoir, cookbook, and paean to food.

Knisley shares her appreciation of edibles ranging from the simple, yet sublime, "tomatillos (which I'd peel and eat, hot from the vine, crunchy and delicious, after unwrapping them like pieces of hard candy)" through the middle ground of a fondness for "comfort grease" to a childhood taste for foie gras heightened by an injurious encounter with a flock of geese. Sprinkled throughout are recipes, most of which I want to try.

Lucy Knisley and I communicated recently via email while she is on a tour for Relish.

See also: - Cynthia Clark Harvey's Explicitly Graphic Column on Jackalope Ranch - Phoenix Cartoonist Doug Pike Finds Wine World Funny and Profitable

Yours is the first comic book I ever read that made me hungry. Granted, I'm not a dainty eater, but still, who would expect to develop, mid-way through an autobiographical cartoon, the cavernous need to sauté and consume a pound or three of mushrooms?  How'd you do that with such simple text and drawings? 

What's interesting about images of food is that they can so easily lack the visceral reactions we so often have to food-- that immediate "I wanna eat that!" thing. Making a drawing of food look appetizing can be tough. I took it as a challenge to try to make readers hungry, so I'm always happy to hear when that succeeded!

Was any of "Relish" published on-line or stand alone before the book came out?   Nope! Book only. I wanted it to be a complete read.

What was the easiest part of making and publishing this book?  The hardest?

The easiest part was coming up with food memories to tell my story. I love food, and so many of my childhood memories are associated with meals, so it was a great way to tell my story. The hardest part was dealing with the fact that comics take a lot of steps and time to make, and I wanted to take my time to make sure it looked good, but it was so frustrating not to be able to share it faster!

Why comics?  With your background and education, why not culinary art or fine art or food writing?  It seems you might be able to pull any of these off and it's not as though comics is fantastically more lucrative than any of those other pursuits.  

Comics perfectly combine my love of art and writing in a way that allows me to do both without sacrificing either. Plus, I get to make comics about what I'm passionate about-- in this instance, food and my culinary upbringing. I'm a good food seller and cook's assistant, but I'm a better comic artist and it makes me happier. This way I get to be a food fangirl, and celebrate the food I love through the work I enjoy making.

I read that you got your MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies.  Was that experience more about experimentation or refining a style you'd already developed?  How much did you cartoon before you went to CCS?  Who/what are your comics (or creative) influences and/or inspirations?  

CCS was a great way to cap off my arts education with a structured comics program-- we had a lot of comics history and visiting artists, which I couldn't get at art school. It was good for me to think about nothing but the [c]raft of comics for a period of time, to be around other artists and playing around with my style to make me fully comfortable in my style of work. I have tons of comics role models and heroes, and I was lucky to meet a lot of them when I was at CCS. Among the visiting artists I met were Alison Bechdel (who's work I have adored for years) and Lynda Barry, who I'd always read and who inspired me so much upon meeting her.

This book would serve as a lovely Mother's Day gift for some moms; you express such love and respect for yours throughout.  How does she feel about your choice of career?  Has either of you ever considered working together, either in food or comics?  A comics cookbook?  

My parents are both very supportive... NOW. As a kid, I read a lot of Archie comics. My dad thought they weren't literarily challenging, and my mom thought they weren't positive enough about female role models. I had to defend them to my parents so they would continue to buy them for me, by finding literary or feminist merit. Now I try to make comics that are literary and positive for women, so that people can read them without having to defend them to anyone!

After your book tour for "Relish" wraps up in May, what's next in work? Is the next book already in progress/planned?  Other pursuits?

The next book is slowly coalescing in my brain. I had a great year and got to travel quite a bit and make travelogue comics about my adventures, so now I have to sit still for a bit and work on the next big thing, which is exciting and scary and I'm really looking forward to it.

If you had only one foodie tip/secret/stunning insight to offer, what would it be?

When traveling, ask locals, not guide books, for food recommendations! People are eager to share their favorite spots, and guide book places can be touristy and out of date. Find someone who loves food and ask them for the best new place they know in town, and it will always be better than a guide book rec!

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