The following interview was conducted several years ago and is being republished.
Abby Denson is a writer, illustrator, and has been involved in punk music, playing in a couple of local New York City bands. Her first work, TOUGH LOVE, initially came to my attention quite by accident on Ebay earlier this year. Abby made frequent appearances this past July at the Prism Comics booth at Comic-Con. She was always animatedly talking with con-goers and I was a little too impatient to stay in one place too long to figure out who she was. I did have a chance to talk with her, regrettably too briefly, after Andy Mangels’ Gays in Comics panel. Her personality is infectious, so I hope you enjoy!
Joe: Abby, will you give us a snapshot of the story for anyone who hasn’t read a description of your TOUGH LOVE?
Abby: TOUGH LOVE is about Brian, a gay teen coming out in a suburban high school, his friend Julie, and his kung-fu fighting boyfriend Chris. It deals with serious issues like gay bashing and suicide attempts, but it’s also a fun, life-affirming story.
Joe: If I’ve read other interviews correctly, you were going to Parsons School of Design when the idea for your story came to you. That brings to mind a couple of questions. First, how did the idea come to you, and did being in an art school environment in any way affect the project?
Abby: I was inspired to cover this subject matter by seeing some shounen-ai anime at an anime convention. I had been a fan of more mainstream manga like Ranma ½ as well as underground American comics like Love and Rockets, but hadn’t previously considered being a cartoonist. I was studying illustration and thought cartooning would be tedious, drawing the same characters over and over struck me as boring. When it occurred to me that I should do a romance comic, but with gay teens giving it a different twist, it inspired me enough to kick-start my cartooning habit, which is still going on today. Art school definitely was an enjoyable environment and it impressed my teachers and classmates that I had a paying art gig pretty early on. It also was great for the art training of course!
Joe: What qualities about shounen-ai stories first attracted you and do you still enjoy reading it?
Well, the art is very beautiful and the boys are very attractive to look at, and since none of it was translated at the time, it just seemed really mysterious and romantic. Shounen-ai is made for and by women in Japan and culturally I think it’s a bit of escapism for them as well as being titillating. Of course, it is usually not realistic at all to the actual gay experience and that was one thing I tried to address in TOUGH LOVE. I adapted the basic subject and androgynous look of the characters and a bit of the soap opera feeling, but I made the story more realistic and the art more my own high-contrast style.
I haven’t been keeping up on a lot of the shounen-ai out now, though I’m glad so much of it is currently available. I got Kizuna and Antique Bakery, which I’m not positive is technically shounen-ai though it has gay characters. A lot of it was more fun when I didn’t understand it all and was looking at the Japanese. I guess I was able to imagine better stories than were actually there! Ha!
Joe: How did the idea to send your comic to XY come about?
Abby: I had printed 50 copies of the first Tough Love mini-comic and just sent them around to cartoonists I liked as well as putting them in indy comic shops in New York. XY magazine was just coming out then, I would see it on the newsstands in New York. I thought it would be cool to send it in for review, but I also suggested it could run in there. Luckily the publisher, Peter Cummings, enthusiastically picked it up and it ran for two years. I’ve also done some other comics and illustration work for them.
Joe: In other interviews you’ve mentioned that you’d received emails from some suicidal teens when XY ran the story. It seems a very powerful comment on how people can relate to stories and a wonderful compliment to you. What kinds of reactions have there been to the collected edition?
Abby: Interestingly, I am getting a lot more Myspace messages than e-mails this time around. Technology marches on! I’m not getting any troubled teens so far, I think it’s because we added suicide hotline information and other resources in the back of the book, so if teens are in trouble they are hopefully making use of that information. Also, XY had my e-mail address right next to the comic and with the book you’d have to look at my website and find my e-mail there. I’m also getting people who had followed TOUGH LOVE in XY and are thanking me now later in life. It’s a very rewarding feeling. Also, I’ve been hearing from straight male comic fans who picked up the book because they liked the cover, didn’t know what it was about, and enjoyed it.
Joe: I think what I’m curious about is if you can use TOUGH LOVE as a sort of social barometer for how gay youths and American culture may or may not have changed between 1996 and 2006. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Abby: On one hand things have progressed a bit. I think there are many more resources now and as the youth are getting more and more wired into technology the resources on the internet are getting better and play into peoples lives a lot more than in 1996. People are coming out earlier than ever before. Also, in entertainment you have things like Will and Grace and Brokeback Mountain, gay people are getting a lot more visible in the public consciousness. However, politically things are just getting worse it seems. There’s a real tug of war going on, I feel like I’m being hit by good news and bad news all the time, from the sodomy law being changed to the back and forth on gay marriage decisions. I feel that the stances George Bush takes are unabashedly anti-gay and anti-woman. Imagine being a scared teen who’s on the verge of coming out and you see the president making these statements and decisions against you. He’s supposed to be representative of the country as a whole and is stomping on your rights. It’s not easy for teens to communicate openly about sexuality with their parents, especially if the parents are pro-Bush. That is where it’s really dangerous, when teens have nowhere to go and nobody to speak to suicide becomes a risk. Parents really have to get over their own hang-ups and realize that their silence is risking the lives and health of their children, whether it’s a closeted gay teen or a teenage girl who is uneducated about birth control and disease prevention.
Joe: Your publisher, Manic D, has sent you on a book tour. What was it like to go out and promote your book? Any surprises on the road?
Abby: The West Coast tour was probably the most amazing experience of my life so far! We called it the Summer of Tough Love West Coast Tour and I’m actually continuing my appearances in the East Coast through the fall and winter. As soon as I got the book deal I knew I wanted to tour and figured I’d start from San Diego Con since I go every year. I ambitiously wanted to go all the way up the West Coast to Vancouver, BC since I’d never been to the Northwest. I didn’t think we’d necessarily manage to get all the cities I wanted in, it took a whole month of planning, but we managed it! Also, my friend Larry designed an amazing silkscreen tour poster for me. Manic D was great and publisher Jennifer Joseph showed me all around the San Francisco area.
The Pacific Northwest is especially beautiful. I’d encourage every author to go on tour if they have the chance. It was great seeing the sights and meeting the fans, I met several teens who said some really touching things to me about the book and how it affected them. I also got great feedback from librarians and teachers. That is major since we really want TOUGH LOVE to be included at libraries and schools, especially since it includes important resource information. I was really surprised by the great folks at the store Comics Unlimited in Westminster, California. They got me a TOUGH LOVE cake with the book cover design on it. I was happily surprised at being on the cover of Vancouver’s Westender weekly paper. It was very surreal to see my face on every street corner! Also, I heard about the Stonewall Award nomination on the road. That was so great!
You can see my entire tour blog with pictures here.
Joe: What have been some of your other projects?
Abby: I’ve self-published the comics Night Club, Dolltopia, The Koi Fish, S.P.O.L., Deadsy Cat & Kissy Kitty, and Jamie Starr Teen Drag Queen. Some of those comics ended up in various anthologies and in XY as well. Night Club and Dolltopia are the only ones currently available from my website but I hope to get more in print soon. I’ve also been scripting licensed comics since 1999 and my credits include Powerpuff Girls, Simpsons, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and various ones for Nickelodeon Magazine among others. Most recently I’d been scripting Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi stories for DC’s Cartoon Network anthologiees.
Joe: Any chance of seeing them collected? I’m especially thinking of S.P.O.L. and Jamie Starr Teen Drag Queen.
Abby: I’ve thought about that and would love for that to happen. Though I’m thinking I’d like my next book to be newer material, I definitely would like a collection as well. Ideally I’d like a big collection of all my self-published stuff in one book and I fantasize that it would have some glossy color pages and illustrations included.
Joe: Do you have a dream project that you’ve been dying to work on?
Abby: I’ve been fantasizing about a TOUGH LOVE movie, complete with animated dream sequences and really hard–core Kill Bill style Kung Fu action. Something fun, but also intense. I’d also like to explore Li’s character more if I got to do a movie. Comics-wise I’d love to do a Dolltopia graphic novel and I have some other ideas brewing as well.
Joe: On a related note, are you a manga fan still and are there any manga creators you’d like to work with?
Abby: I do read manga still, but not as much as I used to. Ironically, being a cartoonist can stymie actual comic-reading, especially time-wise! Currently available manga I like include Antique Bakery, The Wallflower, Bambi and Her Pink Gun, Tramps Like Us, and Othello. Who would I like to work with is an interesting question since I usually do it all myself, but I guess Rumiko Takahashi since she’s so legendary, one of my original influences, and I bet she could teach me a LOT. I’d also like to do a comic biography of Joan Jett, Blondie, or Pansy Division. Really any rock bands I like!
Joe: Who are some of your influences?
Abby: Jaime Hernandez, Andi Watson, Roberta Gregory, Rumiko Takahashi, Howard Cruse, and Lynda Barry are a few I can think of. I’m also a fan of Keith Haring and Rodney Greenblat. I used to work as Rodney’s assistant and also was in a band with him! Writing-wise, Poppy Z. Brite, Martin Millar, and Alvin Orloff are some of my faves.
Joe: How did the GN come about? Was it your idea? What kind of experiences did you have shopping it around?
Abby: I always wanted a TOUGH LOVE collection and had a lot of stops and starts shopping it around. I actively shopped it around 1998-2000 but didn’t get any serious offers, so I started focusing more on licensed work and started other projects. The indy comic publishers I took it to weren’t ready for the subject matter and art style and the gay publishers didn’t know how to deal with a graphic novel format. Now that the market is much more graphic novel-friendly and manga has made a major splash in the bookstores, it’s a great atmosphere for TOUGH LOVE. Sometimes I feel like I was ten years ahead of my time! I found Manic D Press because I was a fan of their novelist Alvin Orloff, his book I Married An Earthling is one of my all-time faves. When I had the opportunity to meet publisher Jennifer Joseph at a release party, I pitched the book to her.
Joe: Sometimes readers latch onto a writer’s characters and create personal scenarios based on them. Well, maybe it only happens with me. But I’m curious if Chris and Brian live on in your mind and, if so, what their lives are like right now?
Abby: Hmm, good question! They are a part of me, all of my characters are. By now they’d have been in and out of college and while I think they make a great couple it would be unrealistic to expect that they’d stay together the whole time. Not many people stay with their high school sweethearts these days. Though perhaps they’d have ended up at different colleges, then get back together afterwards. I like to think they’d end up together ultimately after experiencing more of life and growing up a bit.
Joe: How does it feel to have TOUGH LOVE nominated for a Stonewall Award from the American Library Association?
Abby: Amazing! And it’s really an affirmation after all the work I’ve done and the delays I’ve gone through trying to get this book out. I hope TOUGH LOVE will be recognized in other areas like the JoeAAbby Media Awards too. It’s an entertaining and socially relevant book, it does have the capacity to actually help people, which is especially rewarding.
Joe: It wouldn’t be fair to talk only about TOUGH LOVE and not mention your other love, music. How’s that going?
Abby: I’ve always been musical since being in my first all-girl band as a teenager. Rock and roll is definitely a love of mine. However, it’s always been more of a hobby than a career. Since things have been heating up with my book tour and I have other book projects on the horizon my band, The Saturday Night Things, will be taking hiatus. I have mixed feelings about it, but I’m trying to avoid biting off more than I can chew right now. Luckily I have a lot of recordings to feel proud of and you can find stuff from my bands Mz. Pakman and Let’s Audio on itunes and CD Baby. My other stuff is all available for free download on myspace. Links are all on the music section of my website (see below). We have a show on Oct. 7 at Bowery Poetry Club in NYC as part of a Punk/Comic event and that’ll be our good-bye blow-out. For now anyway! I’m also hoping at some point to get more time to work on more music with my computer like I did on my Abbymatic project. There are just not enough hours in the day!
Joe: Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about making comics?
Abby: Make sure you have an idea you’re really passionate about before you start a project because it’s a lot of work and you’ll need the inspiration to drive you all the way. Taking life drawing classes is always a good idea. Also, don’t hesitate to self-publish, especially if you have a really original idea. Making it into a web comic and having a web presence will help you a lot. Now there are great print on demand services like comixpress.com that make it so easy and cheap to make great looking books. I’m always thinking of how much easier my early zine years would have been if there had been such high quality print on demand back then! That book can be your calling card when you meet other creators and publishers at conventions and such. Always carry some copies with you because you never know who you may run into. Also I’d encourage people to get postcards and pins made once they have a book out. These are cheap items and great to give out to people who may be interested in your book. Also, getting involved with organizations like Gay League, Friends of Lulu and Prism Comics is a great way to meet other like-minded cartoonists and share resources.