Lilli Carré is one of a kind. Her style is all her own; I’ve never seen anything else like it. The stories she weaves and the images she creates have a trademark air of melancholy, regardless of genre.
The first piece of her work that I picked up was The Lagoon. Very rarely do I give people a play-by-play of books I’ve read, but I made a few people listen to me gushing over this one. The pages were saturated with watery desolation. It drives in the sense of loss that comes with growing old. I’m only thirty-one and am constantly shocked at how fast time goes by; this book is a small taste of what is to come.
Her style is also heavy on subtlety and nuance. At no point is the message spoon-fed to the audience. You must read it, let the images and the story sink in, and then figure out what it means to you. Of course, that process should be standard for all books, but it’s especially true when it comes to Carré.
This surrealness extends to her children’s books, as well. Her TOON-Books contribution, Tippy and the Night Parade, is a dreamy look at a girl’s explanation for the chaos in her room every morning. The Fir Tree is an illustrated adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale (a story that is already morose and whimsical without Lilli’s delicate imagery). Even the two pages she drew for Sing a Song of Six Pence in Chris Duffy’s Nursery Rhyme Comics are otherworldly.
Carrés talents extend beyond print. She also works in film, book design, sculpture, looping animation, and she co-directs the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation. Her work has appeared in the Sundance Film Festival, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Best American Comics, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has accomplished so much that it stung when I found out we’re the same age.
She was kind enough to agree to an interview with me last week:
Some of your works are quite surreal and atmospheric. When you start a new project, do you tend to let the story and the images come together on their own, or do you prefer to compose a storyline and then create images to go along with it?
My process depends on the project and story I’m working on, and the materials I’m using. I write notes to myself when I have an idea or an observation that I want to put into a certain work, or something to possibly use down the line. Sometimes it is an image, sometimes a concept or formal structure, or a moment that is autobiographical, fictional, or historical. I accumulate these ideas and notes to myself as I form the project in my head.
I don’t write a full script in words first and put images to it, or the other way around. It’s a fusion of combining words and images at the same time; raking through my notes and sketches and creating thumbnail sketches as a way of charting out the story before working on the final thing. Some stories I’ve done have been structured in thumbnails before starting the final drawing. Other times I use the thumbnails or starting ideas as a looser structure, more of a jumping off point, and allow the work to form, stretch, and follow tangents that emerge through the process of creating the final
In your experience, where are self-published books most appreciated? What about those particular cultures do you believe accentuates their positive response?
Self-publishing is a really important part of comics culture. Many comic shops have a self-published mini-comic/zine section, and at alternative comic conventions all over the world, trading self-published mini-comics is a way to meet other cartoonists and encounter a lot of different approaches to the comics form. Self-publishing a comic creates an object that can be discovered in a shop, mailed, traded, held, passed around … It has its own considered design and hand-made presence, which is important to me when I make my own work, and is something I definitely respond to in other handmade comics. I imagine that is what others like about it too — there is something very direct and personal about holding and reading a book that was made by someone else’s mind and hands, which has then ended up in your own.
When I moved to Chicago, finding the huge section of self-published comics at Quimby’s Bookstore was what initially opened up the possibilities of comics to me, and made it really feel like something I could start doing myself, and start doing that very day. It’s a really unique aspect of comics, that people can make and put their work out into the world in a physical space with a kind of immediacy, with just paper and pen and
access to a Xerox machine. I found such wonderful, experimental, handmade, solid comics in that section at Quimbys, it was extremely inspiring to be able to see what other people were making, both in my city and beyond it. A self-published mini-comic usually doesn’t have much monetary worth, beyond a couple of bucks, which is a kind of liberating aspect of it … It can be a way to try out new ideas, get feedback, experiment with printing, book, and narrative structures, and to communicate to an unknown audience, with no gatekeepers.
One of the striking aspects of the artwork for Sing a Song of Sixpence is the details that bring such an old rhyme to life. Like the ingredients to make blackbird pie and the honey dripping off of the bread. What was it about that rhyme that drew you to illustrate it?
Thanks! I didn’t choose that one in particular, though, it was assigned to me by the book’s editor Chris Duffy. I like the strangeness of the rhyme and the imagery, and was happy to get to work with it. The ending of the rhyme is wonderfully bizarre, with a bird snipping off the maid’s nose. I wanted to exaggerate some of the other behavior found in the rhyme — like the king slowly counting teetering stacks of money as if from a piggy bank,
and the queen eating a disturbing amount of honey on bread — but to then depict baking birds into a pie as something kind of matter-of-fact. It was rich imagery to get to work with!
By the way, your moving drawings are wonderful and hypnotic. Do you think moving drawings have potential for encouraging literacy? Can eBooks, films, television, or other media successfully incorporate moving drawings as a means to instigate further reading?
I don’t personally find an especially strong connection between animated gifs and the idea of literacy, but I agree that looping gifs can be hypnotic and pleasurable … I think there’s a sort of universal delight found in a drawing or illustration that moves. As we are in an increasingly visual culture, I think that comics are a great way to encourage literacy, as a fusion of text and image on the page or screen. The motion of looping animation paired with text, though, is a different experience, and how this works in combination really depends on the style and subtlety with which it is put together. Animated gifs certainly have a way of commanding one’s attention!
Your recent work in TOON-Books, The Fir Tree, and Nursery Rhyme Comics are incredible additions to all-ages comics. Do you have plans to do more kid-oriented books?
I’d like to! The books you read and re-read as a kid really stick with you as you grow, and the opportunity to create a story that stays with a person from a young age is motivating. I like the challenge of thinking about how kids experience certain stories and themes, and to try to think about how a story might be interpreted through their eyes, their range of experiences and imaginations.
What are your thoughts on current public reception of women cartoonists as compared to ten years ago? Specifically, female written/illustrated graphic novels and comic books.
In alternative comics, I think female cartoonists are making some of the most exciting and interesting work happening right now. As far as a general public reception, two of the comics of recent years that have managed to reach many people outside of the realm of regular comics readers in the US are Persepolis and Fun Home, both created by women.
I think the prominence of these books has allowed for the general public to further realize the possibilities of comics as a medium, one that can have many layers of complexity, and investigate different types of personal and political topics. I started making comics myself around 10 years ago, and from the start I’ve found the alternative comics world to be a pretty welcoming place in my own experience.
Do you draw inspiration for your art from events in your childhood? If yes, any examples you are open to sharing?
My childhood experience definitely filters into the feel of my work sometimes, though not so much as distinct, concrete scenes that end up in the stories. When thinking about writing Tippy and the Night Parade, I reflected on my experiences as a kid myself. I thought about how much time I spent trying to play with (and capture and corral) bugs, frogs, lizards, stray cats and other animals in my neighborhood. I liked the idea of Tippy having a secret life while asleep — possibly real, possibly imagined — exploring nature and gathering a different menagerie every night.
And last but not least, what were your favorite books and comic books when you were a kid?
One of my favorite picture books as a young kid was The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base. I loved that the story was a mystery that could be solved by very closely studying all the intricate illustrations, looking for clues. There was so much too look at… Little extra hints and funny narrative details tucked in all over the page. I also absolutely loved books by Elsa Beskow, and generally anything involving elves or tiny people. Also, Chris Van Allsburg’s The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, and Maurice Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen were favorites.
Stories without pictures that I read many times (or were read to me) as a kid were Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg, and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales.
As for comics, I was obsessed with MAD magazine, and with drawing Alfred E. Neuman in different scenarios. I also loved Hot Stuff the Little Devil, and Calvin and Hobbes. As I became a teenager, I got deep into Bone, and then The Sandman, and started wearing eye makeup in the same style that the character Death does in those books. Like I said, I got deep into it! I could go on and on with more books that made an impression on me when I was younger, but these are at least a handful of favorites that have stuck in my mind.