Life of the Party: An Interview with Mary Fleener

Mary Fleener’s 1996 collection of her autobiographical comics, Life of the Party, is a cult favorite, loved for its humor, authenticity, confidence, and distinct artistic style.   

In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud uses examples of Mary’s art style to explain the concept of non-iconic abstraction. In his pyramid that breaks down varying artistic styles that range from realistic to meaningful (or simplistic iconic artistic styles), Mary’s work is at the top of the pyramid, right below what McCloud dubs at the Object Picture Plane, where shapes and symbols function on their own to create meaning or “can be themselves and not pretend otherwise”. Hovering alone, above the other artists, is Mary.  

Part of the autobiographical comix movement, Mary pushed the boundaries of what comics could be about.  Last year, her work was included in the beautiful omnibus, The Complete Wommen’s Comix, that contains all the issues from that important underground magazine.  Mary’s work stands along other female powerhouses of that generation, such as Carol Taylor and Phoebe Gloeckner.  

Over the last decade, Mary has continued to work as fine artist, illustrator, and has written the cartoon series, The Less You Know, The Better You Feel, for The Coast News, a local paper in California where she has lived all her life. Last year, she released two new comics through Mineshaft, an old-guard indie comic magazine. She also designed the cover for their 2016 Spring Issue.

Is there anything you’ve found interesting about how the the comic industry has changed since you began working in it? Either in the publication process or just in the culture in general?

The amount of women who now read, write, and draw comics. Super hero comics had their Golden/Silver Age, but the publishers and distributors did a good con job on the public for a while by convincing the retailers that only boys read comics and all these titles would be worth money someday, and they destroyed themselves. All superhero stuff now is anatomical fetish material, and the stories are lurid and boring. Autobiographical comics, in contrast, speaks to the human condition and have universal themes and struggles that normal people can relate to, and I credit women cartoonists with giving legitimacy to this genre, although Justin Green is a pioneer, and Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse should be required reading for every high school student in the world.

Do you have a go-to doodle or doodles?  

Drawing faces.

Can you describe your creative process?

I do a lot of visualization in my mind, like the book I’m working on right now. I’ve been “seeing” the panels and storyline in my head for years now. It’s like a little movie. If someone else writes a story, (such as the work I did with Dennis Eichhorn with his Real Stuff series), and I’m going to draw it, I approach it strictly as an illustration job and it goes very quickly. If it’s a one or two pager that I wrote, I like to tell the story to someone before I do it. It seems if it is interesting as a conversation piece, it’ll work well as a comic story. I have large sketchbooks where I rough out the ideas and panels and then I do very tight pencils on Bristol board. I always do the text and talking balloons first and read them out loud (when no one is around).Then I ink over the pencils with pens and brush. A big bottle of correction fluid is my best friend! Then it gets published and I see all sorts of mistakes—oh well!

What is your favorite part of the creative process?

Sketching out the story is a journey and it’s fun to finally realize your idea.

What is your least favorite part of the creative process?

The lettering of the text. I have to be really careful because I am so eager to get it over with I forget to add vowels, and misspell words. Or I may use correction fluid on ONE letter and forget to ink it!

How do you deal with rejection?

Oh man, I get my feelings hurt, I seeth, and stick my lower lip out all day, but then something takes over. When I finally come to my senses, and really listen to whatever they didn’t like, then I become DETERMINED to prove them wrong, and if I am given another chance, I take it, and 90% of the time, my work is accepted, but it sure puts you through the changes, especially when you realize the criticism was justified, and “they” were right.

You wrote a series of comics called The Less You Know, The Better You Feel for The Coast News. Can you tell us a little about them and why you have enjoyed doing them?

I’ve been involved with Encinitas local political issues for a long time, and there came a point where the voters HAD to purge some of the more toxic council people out of office, so in 2012, I offered my cartoons, free of charge, to The Coast News, for 44 weeks, to be exact, and then I asked for a small sum. Naturally, this gave the editor of the paper a pass to start messing with me, and after 2 years and 2 months of doing a weekly strip (and making my deadline week after week), I bailed. Newspaper people are very competitive and there is absolutely NO camaraderie. I also found out doing effective single-panel political stuff is very hard, and I struggled with using as few words as possible. I’d say I was successful about 60% of the time. And yes, we got a bit of deadwood out of Encinitas city hall, but they’ve been replaced with more idiots that think our town should be covered in concrete and people packed in like sardines.

Do you have a favorite cartoon you’ve done over the years?

The two stories I did for Fantagraphics’ Hotwire, edited by Glenn Head. One was called Niacin, a story about a blind date and being dosed with PCP, and The Judge, a story about me buying a gun. I spent a lot of time on the drawings and used a lot of crosshatching, which really looks good. It takes a long time, but it makes the graphics look rich. I am now regretting my decision to get a gun, because it’s not as effective as having a brave, loyal dog in the house. Guns have only ONE purpose and that is to KILL. I wonder if I could actually do that if I was faced with a situation that required that decision.

Your newest comic in Mineshaft is about psychic abilities and your own premonitions over the years.  Why do you think as a culture we still seem to struggle with these kinds of emotional connections?

Power. People crave power, but being able to tell the future, or predict the future, scares people, because you have a gift that everyone would like to have, but many people would use that to do bad things, believe me. People can be selfish and greedy. How many people people would use that gift for the good of mankind? How many people would share a million dollars if they found it on a beach or something? Answer: not many!! So, in our quest for happiness and security, people go to “psychics” and “fortune tellers”, many who rip them off and simply tell them what they want to hear. Oh, it’s not hard. Given the chance, people will tell you everything about themselves with just a little prodding. I do have intuitive abilities, and I have had psychic episodes, but I cannot control it, and it’s more of a curse than a blessing. I have a neighbor from hell who I have wished many bad things to happen to him, and it just doesn’t! I’ve tried every curse in the book! I’ve used up all pins for my Voodoo dolls! If I really had The Power, that guy would be six feet under right now. The fact is, no one has The Power, nor should they.

You have mentioned in prior interviews that you enjoy Tarot cards and witchy things, which is one of the reasons you were so drawn to Zora Neale Hurston’s work.  Do you still read Tarot cards? What do you enjoy so much about them?

It’s a fascinating subject, because I think all people are born with a sixth sense, but it gets knocked out of them, when it’s something that should be nurtured. I was interested in Hurston’s work because of my love of music, especially the Blues, and all the folklore and stories had a mystical edge to them. The hoodoo doctors charged for their services, and even though their rituals can seem horrible and creepy, many people believed they could work, and people thought this kind of “sympathetic magic” could provide results and justice, particularly in poor communities. Many times, it did not, but the folklore that grows around this kind of activity is always a good read! Hurston went to the South to collect these stories, and they have become anthropological and important to preserve. Yes, I started becoming interested in Tarot in high school, and I can give a reading, but I do it less and less. A few times things I’ve told people things that I saw in the cards and those events did indeed happen, and they weren’t pleasant. I also do not like how people become so trusting, they take anything you say very seriously. I believe in Free Will, so even if I see a card that depicts Death, for example, that can be interpreted as Change in your life or the Death of a bad habit, but to a Querent, they may only see DEATH and will obsess over the literal meaning. I do not wish to make anyone worry. That’s just wrong.

In a podcast interview you did for Virtual Memories, you talk about how people in comics are “really passionate” about music. Who are some of your favorite musicians? Also, do you have a particular kind of music you like to listen to while you work?

They sure are. Don’t even make fun of The Sacred Cows, like The Carpenters or rap music, to name a few. In the 80s’, cassettes were real popular, and I used to get a lot of them in the mail, and the more obscure, the better. Dennis Worden is a punk rock fan, and he’d send me dozens of tapes, and it was so great cuz you wouldn’t hear any of this stuff on the radio and I’m not into collecting, so it was quite an education, and by the by, all those old cassettes still play a lot better than CDs, which suck! When I work, I listen to nothing. It’s gotta be total quiet. When I finally get to the inking phase, after I’ve lettered everything, then I can rock out. I love blues and rock and roll, real rock, not MOR crap. I have a soft spot for Jeff Buckley, Ryley Walker, and Richard Thompson. But I’m a rocker…The Cramps, Blasters, Dave Alvin, come to mind. I also like Heavy Metal but not the grindcore/death/Exorcist voiced stuff. There’s a guy named Ty Segall who did a CD with his band called FUZZ, real garage band stuff, which I like. Those NUGGETS box sets are terrific.

Speaking of singers, no one is better than Tracy Nelson, and I like the female singers in Lake Street Dive and Alabama Shakes. Freddie Mercury is someone I am beginning to appreciate and miss more and more. Jack Bruce from Cream made two solo albums that I still listen to. I play bass guitar and my two big influences are Jack Cassidy from Jefferson Airplane and John Entwistle from The Who. I am also a fan of jazz, West Coast stuff like Chet Baker, not only a great trumpet player but vocalist. I also love Gil Scott Heron’s voice and Nina Simone.

Do you have a contemporary issue or cause that is particularly important to you?

Women’s Reproductive Rights. If you are anti-abortion, then there’s the door, and I’ll make damn sure it hits you on the ass as I throw you out!!

Locally, the battle between community character and the attempts of the Building Industry Mafia to monetize every single square inch of land here on the California Coast. I did a lot of cartoons for The Coast News about this issue 5 years ago, and the battle rages on. Our governor, Jerry Brown, has gone to the Dark Side and thinks we need to build more houses, and more everything. He really thinks the concept of “affordable housing” is a great idea, when in fact, it’s a scam and the only people who will benefit are the building developers. The only reason this is being done, is because cities need tax money from sales and property tax to support the OVER PAID salaries and pensions of government workers. We have a retired fireman on our city council who makes $190,000 a year in retirement. Forever!!! That pisses me off!! I care about this a lot, because I do not want to see Encinitas turn into what Huntington Beach looks like now, not to mention Los Angeles. I’m a second gen LA native, and that place has always been Ugly Town.

Can you tell me a little about the comics you are currently working on?

I just finished a four-pager for a writer named Danko Jones from Toronto, who writes for the Huff Po. He does amusing “rants,” so he is collecting these in a book called I’ve Got Something to Say, and I illustrated an article he wrote called, I’m Sick of Your Disgusting Feet! That should be out in 2017.

Fantagraphics is doing a 40th anniversary book, We Told You So, and I did a one pager for that. It’s about the weird way I got to know Gary Groth. I’ve been doing stuff for Mineshaft for 10 years, and I did a cover for the issue #33, and did a one-pager in Issue #34, which came out in Feb. 2017.

The big, main project I am currently working on is a graphic novel I am writing and drawing called Billie the Bee. I started sketching it on the plane when I came to Zine Machine in Durham, North Carolina in April 2016, and in July, showed it to Gary Groth at the San Diego Comic Con and he agreed to publish it. It will be over 120 pages, and I am currently 1/3 of the way done. I have been drawing almost daily for 8 months and doing a book is a strange place to be. It’s the most important project to me right now, and little things that used to bother me don’t as much, because I have this to look forward to.

The work is a challenge, and it is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Each time I sit down to draw I wonder if I can do it, but once I get started, something magical happens, and when I finish a page, all is right with my world! I am not doing a story where the animals act like humans (like Disney), rather I’m showing animals being ANIMALS. My main character is Billie, a honey bee that grows to the size of a hummingbird and becomes the “ranger” for her hive and becomes friends with unlikely creatures, such as a rattlesnake and a coyote. I’ve been researching honey bees and their society, and they aren’t just cute little bugs that flit from flower to flower. Their hive structure is rigid and unforgiving. They’re brutal! I’ve been very inspired by Jon Lewis’ book, True Swamp.  In fact, I just had the honor of writing an introduction to his second volume, True Swamp: Book 2, which is being published by Uncivilized Books, and will be available Spring 2017.

If you could give advice to an aspiring writer or artist, what would you tell them?

Read a lot of books, look at a lot of art, and go to a lot of museums. I compare a lot of things to learning how to play a musical instrument. It’s almost like a Law of Nature. If you practice, you will get better. If you draw a lot, you will get better. Some people take longer, and some can do it right away, but if you do not practice you’ll get nowhere. Another thing, if you have a burning desire to try something, then you MUST. If you do not, you will always wonder what you missed out on. Envy is another thing that can either give you the drive to try harder or it can eat you up inside. If someone gets an award, congratulate them, don’t be bitter. One more thing: always say “Please” and “Thank you”.

Gina Prescott

Gina Prescott

Gina has written for The Rumpus and the Threadless blog.