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A Short Interview With Megan Kelso
posted December 31, 1999

imageWho She Is: A nationally-renowned cartoonist, Megan's most popular works are the self-published omnibus Girlhero, the book Queen of the Black Black, and, with writer Daniel Snyder the educational comic Lost Valley: A Trashy Tale of Excess.

Why She's Important: Kelso is one of the few female cartoonists who do their primary work in the male-dominated world of comic books. As one of several young cartoonists to begin work in Seattle in the early '90s, Kelso was a fixture in North America's most important cartooning scenes of the last decade. She has since become one of the comics medium's most important young artists. Many living in Seattle who never read a comic book are familiar with Kelso's illustration work for local publications. And unlike the majority of artists in town, Kelso was born here.

TOM SPURGEON: Do you think being a native-born Seattleite has given you a perspective on the arts that your peers who moved here from elsewhere may not have?

MEGAN KELSO: The Seattle that I grew up in, on Capitol Hill during the 1970s was very nurturing and arty. I had a lot of art-friendly hippie teachers and I lived near the Seattle Art Museum. My parents took me to interesting movies and concerts. I remember doing kid's projects at Bumbershoot. So my perspective on the arts may have more to do with the liberal '70s milieu I grew up in than Seattle per se. I think most cities had some version of this culture.

SPURGEON: How much has the region informed your work?

KELSO: When I began drawing comics, I scrupulously avoided scenes that took place outside since it was so much easier to draw a tiny one-room apartment. But last year I was hired to draw a 28-page environmental education comic that took place in a fictional town not unlike Olympia, WA, so I had to figure out how to draw mountains and evergreen trees in a simple cartoony way. It was really difficult, but it made me a better cartoonist and inspired me to draw a story about hiking in the Cascades with my parents as a kid. I'm thinking about starting a whole new genre: Hiking Comics.

SPURGEON: Do you consider yourself part of a Seattle comics community?

KELSO: Yes. One morning I was working on my comic, listening to a local radio call in show, and my friend David Lasky, another cartoonist, called in to tell some anecdote about Jimi Hendrix. It made me really happy to picture Dave at his drawing board, too, listening to the same show.

SPURGEON: How important was it for you to find like-minded peers when you first started doing comics?

KELSO: I really believe I learned how to draw comics from my peers more than I did from reading comic books. I went out of my way to draw with my friends when I was just starting out, so I could kind of spy on how they did stuff, what tools they used, and ask a lot of questions. Talking about comics was somehow much more helpful to me than reading comics.

SPURGEON: You've done local illustration work, and hung art shows at Sea-Tac airport; has Seattle been good for you in terms of those kinds of opportunities?

KELSO: As a native daughter I have definitely lucked into some cool opportunities. Seattle is small enough, that if you grew up here, it is possible to know people from all walks of life with whom you collide over and over throughout the years. I think its easier to practice the "Do-It-Yourself" ethic when you can call upon friends of parents, old school mates, old neighbors, co-workers, etc. for help. Sometimes it feels smothering to live in my home town, but I draw enormous pleasure from watching people from my past grow up and start running the city. I like to think when I'm on old lady, the Mayor might be my childhood baby-sitter's grandson or something.

SPURGEON: How aware are you of being a female artist in a medium dominated by males?

KELSO: I think about gender issues constantly; it's a hobby of mine since studying feminist theory in college. But I think about them in relation to my whole life and the whole world -- the comics industry is only a small part it. It is a fact of life for most women to have to function in male-dominated arenas. I don't really think it's any more or less onerous in the comics industry than anywhere else, just different.

SPURGEON: The way you approach figures on the page, and the source material from which you draw, is very distinctive. Can you describe some of the main influences outside of comics that have been concretely helpful to you in making your books?

KELSO: I think I have been most influenced by writers because I was a total bookworm growing up. But one of the things I love most about comics is that I don't have to describe things, I can simply show the audience with a drawing.

I've always had clear pictures in my head -- which frustrated me as a kid, because what was in my head was so much better than what I could get on paper. I still feel that way, actually. I had a drawing teacher when I was 22 who taught me not to be afraid to draw things over and over, to erase, to cross out, to throw away. She taught me not to feel precious about what was on the paper because that was not the essence of the drawing. The essence of the drawing would always be in my head, so I shouldn't be afraid of trying it over and over until I got it right.

SPURGEON: A lot of your comics are about female relationships; is that something you've drawn on from real life?

KELSO: Yes, probably. I've often thought that non-sexual relationships are more interesting to tell stories about because all the conflict, and miscommunication inherent in most relationships cannot be whisked away with a cathartic roll in the hay. The characters have to really grapple with each other, which I guess I enjoy.

This was done for a travel book called The Stranger's Guide to Seattle. Don't know if they used it, though.