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April 13, 2008


CR Sunday Interview: Leah Hayes

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Leah Hayes is one of about a dozen young cartoonists the alt-comics institution Fantagraphics has been nurturing over the past few decade. Her debut book Holy Moly was half-sketchbook, half-extended meditation on the act of drawing in class. The follow-up, Funeral of the Heart in one sense marks Hayes' graphic novel debut and in another stakes out prose/illustration territory some might not even consider to be comics. Done in entirely in scratchboard, Hayes' latest features spooky hand-lettered text and any number of evocative, compelling images. Not too shabby for the first major Fantagraphics artist to debut from the slush pile since (I think) Graham Chaffee. Hayes is also a talented musician, and I enjoyed asking her a few questions.

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TOM SPURGEON: Was this kind of book what you had in mind when you attended art school, or has this style, this approach, developed in recent years?

LEAH HAYES: Neither books were something that were planned. But I was influenced by classmates of mine in college when I wrote Holy Moly, so a style did begin to form then.

imageSPURGEON: Your style on both Holy Moly and Funeral of the Heart kind of lies outside that of traditional comic books. Beyond your classmates, are comics a general influence on your work or do you come at comics from a different direction?

HAYES: Comics are a huge part of my life, and were when I was growing up as well. But I was always drawn to illustration, as opposed to sequential, paneled comics. I still have a hard time expressing stories in panels... I feel much freer when I can take up the whole page, and get across many ideas with one image.

SPURGEON: When you went to France after school, were you exposed to any of that country's art or rich comics scene that you specifically recall?

HAYES: Well, I went to France during school -- and then after -- so it was the time during school that I felt the presence of French comics. I speak French, but I couldn't understand everything about the storytelling... so it was actually an amazing experience reading "silent" comics like that. The art became very important to me.

SPURGEON: Am I right in remembering that you were a cold submission? What was the experience like of having that first book come out?

HAYES: Yes, it was a cold submission. I even read the Submission Guidelines and ignored them, because I thought that it was never going to be seen. I just sent a crappy-looking bunch of pages in an envelope. But it did get seen -- and I still can't believe it. I have no idea how it got from the mail pile to Gary Groth. Some super nice intern, maybe? I have to find that person and give them a medal. They really changed my life.

imageSPURGEON: How much are your comics and your music compartmentalized in terms of process and the daily working on it? Is there any way that you can describe how working on one element of your art might inform the other? Are there elements you think cross over between those two forms of expression?

HAYES: I'm still trying to figure out a way to answer this question for myself. I'm not sure there is an answer: at the time that I'm creating music or art, they don't connect very much. But in retrospect I see connections. And other people see connections. I write songs about what I'm sad about, and I draw comics about the same thing. But I can produce music faster, make more of it. It takes me years to draw a whole comic. I write songs every day, almost. I feel more at ease with music.

SPURGEON: When did you start to work in scratchboard? Did the project arise from the desire to work a certain way, or is working this way a decision you made based on the material?

HAYES: Scratchboard was accidental. I didn't know i would write a whole book with it. I had never used it before Funeral Of The Heart. It was just around in my house at the time, and I thought it would be a cool medium. I had no idea how intense working with it would be, though... I got a lot of clay and dust in my nose for two years.

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SPURGEON: I'd love to know how you write. One can sometimes get a clue from someone's work what the process must have looked like, but with your work I have no idea. In "The Change," for instance, there's both a provocative central image -- the killing of geese -- and a compelling narrative ploy, the twist that makes tragic the protagonist's decision to switch careers. How much do you refine a story before it's fully executed?

HAYES: I'm as far from a writer as possible. I had barely ever written a story before Funeral. I'm not sure how to describe the process; they are all exact truths about how I feel about the subject at hand. The ducks aren't even metaphors, really. It's all true.

SPURGEON: How do you decide what to pull out and illustrate, and how to arrange to the text vis-a-vis those pictures? I just made the assumption that these are illustrated stories, but do the illustrations follow after text? How much refinement is there when it comes to the selection and placement of imagery?

HAYES: Well.. there were images that I created with scratchboard and then changed the story around the drawings, and then there were plot lines that I illustrated to fit the story. The craziest thing I did was draw a whole title page without any idea about what the story was going to be -- and then I wrote a story around that. That was probably a stupid idea, but the story turned out to be one of my favorites.

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SPURGEON: Is that your natural handwriting in Funeral or is that a considered effect?

HAYES: That is how I write in real life.

SPURGEON: A recurring theme in your work is that people sometimes mishandle their gifts to tragic effect. Is that a concern of yours? For that matter, is your interest in these stories and others like them in the exploration of ideas, or being able to execute those ideas on a certain level or the process or another way of approach the work. Are there specific satisfactions to making comics or illustrations that is absent from making music?

HAYES: I'm not sure how to express my feelings of sadness and fear without doing it musically. But with comics, I often assume I don't have as much to say, and then when I start it all comes out. I am attracted to sadness and darkness in storytelling... and you can do that to some extent in songs, but there is a lingering sadness that you can create in drawing... In other words -- a song goes into the air and is gone, but a drawing sits there on the page and can haunt you until you have to look away. I like that.

SPURGEON: What's next for you, particularly comics- or illustration-wise?

HAYES: I am working on new things. Lots of songs, and different band side-projects.

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* all images from Funeral of the Heart

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Funeral of the Heart, Leah Hayes, Fantagraphics, 120 pages, 9781560978886 (ISBN13), March 2008, $14.95

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