Looking Forward by Looking Back: A Retrospective Interview with Anna Selheim

Anna Selheim Banner courtesy Anna Selheim

I love to consider how a cartoonist’s work has changed over time. For most practitioners of a craft, the work evolves slowly, but as readers we can swiftly sink our teeth into multiple works and seek out recurring themes, shifts in art style, and general growth. It’s not often that I get to conduct such a retrospective with the actual artist, so I was very excited to talk to Anna Selheim about the grander scheme of her work.

There’s a good chance you’ve seen Selheim’s work. She contributed a comic to The Nib about interning for Hillary Clinton, a lovely collaborative piece about drawing oneself for Dirty Diamonds, a very meta story about anxiety to the first volume of the Sweaty Palms Anthology, and she and Tillie Walden co-wrote a comic about positive experiences with Planned Parenthood called “There for Us,” which was picked up by Upworthy. Her work covers heavy topics such as anxiety, depression, and bullying, but always takes on a hopeful tone. Well — almost always.

After looking at about two years’ worth of work, we discussed Selheim’s uncertainty about her place in comics, her perspectives on bullying as a former bully, her writings on mental health, and the very meaningful coincidences that crop up in her comics.

There for Us Cover courtesy Anna Selheim

This interview has been edited for purposes of length and clarity.

It was really interesting to look at work that spanned multiple years and see the way you’ve grown and changed over time; that’s something I like seeing in artists. What do you think has changed most about your art since you created Petty?

The colored pencil stuff is all new, and I think my writing has gotten better for fiction. I really have a soft spot for Petty. It’s weird, I’ve been in this a couple years now and I still feel like I’m starting out. I’m definitely gaining an audience and getting more established, but I gauge a lot of things based on social media. I feel like Petty should do better than it did!

My art has changed a lot and I think my writing has gotten more solid, too. Petty was really before I discovered how to write different character voices, so I was using tricks. If you go back and look, the way I differentiate between the guy and the girl is the guy is just asking a lot of questions, which is a trick that one of my teachers was like, “try that!” It worked, but it’s kind of a gimmicky thing; I feel like my characters have become more realized.

Panels from Malai courtesy Anna Selheim

That’s interesting, I feel like in comics you have to start out for way longer than in any other career. Comics just seems so rough on people.

This isn’t going to be a career for me; that was never the goal. I don’t have the discipline to work on comics like six hours a day and do all the back end stuff. I just want to do dumb admin jobs, ‘cause I also can’t keep my own schedule. I like doing dumb grunt work that doesn’t require a lot of thinking and then I can come home and work on comics. At the same time, I feel like I’m a bit late to the game. I’m 29 which isn’t old but when you look at all these ingénue on the internet who are like 17… I’m also best friends with Tillie Walden who I think was 18 when I met her but I think she’s 20 or 21 now. We worked on a comic together, but it’s hard not to compare yourself. Then you go to conventions and everyone is like five years old and you’re like, OK! I’m 29 and I feel ancient and that is cognitively the dumbest thing in the world, but emotionally that’s how I feel.

As someone who knows comics isn’t going to be their day job and has leaned more toward self-publishing, what is your gauge for success?

The problem is I don’t know anymore. I wrote this script for a webcomic and the script itself was like 90 pages. I drew like 60 pages of this comic. I don’t like deadlines, so I [thought I’d] just do this all up front and then update it like crazy once I got it done. [My boyfriend] was like, you’re gonna be invisible for years! You’ll have nothing to show for years if you do this. It was gonna be like a 10-year commitment or something insane. I ended up abandoning the project and it’s kinda thrown me for a loop in terms of confidence in where my “career” is going.

I just want as many people as possible to read my work, and like my work. That was the goal.

Again, it’s not a career. I do all these steps as though I’m trying to make it a career. I go to conventions, I have this really professional website, I have a store and I do all these back-end things that I actually hate doing. I don’t really understand why I’m doing them. I went to the Center for Cartoon Studies, and before I went to CCS I was like, I just want as many people as possible to read my work, and like my work. That was the goal. I just wanted to have a dedicated following. Everything’s Fine Vol 2 isn’t available online for free [and] that is the opposite of what I was intending when I went in. It makes sense from a business aspect, because every other comic is on my website except for the Sweaty Palms comic because it’s so specific to the anthology.

My dream was to work 25 hours a week at a day job and then make enough money in comics that I would be able to live a middle-class lifestyle. Based on how much I actually work on comics, that isn’t feasible. I’ll work on comics maybe ten hours a week and that’s just not enough to make significant money at it. I’ve kinda lost what success is at this point.

Having a day job is very real and valid and so many people have to do it, but [day jobs] make you so tired.

That’s part of the reason I only work on comics like ten hours a week, ‘cause I don’t feel like totally putting my nose to the grindstone and having two careers. I just read an online comic called Let’s Speak English [by Mary Cagle], on Hiveworks. At the end, she talks about how she’s not doing a second year in Japan because, while she loved it, at the same time she’s teaching English full-time, she’s making this comics thing work. She went to school for comics, as well. She is just like, I have two full-time careers and I can’t do that consistently. I gotta come back to America and see if I can make comics work. I hope she can; her stuff is super polished.

That’s kind of the thing; I’m not willing to do that. I’m going to burn out. Comics is a passion thing, and I was lucky enough to be able to afford to go to grad school to pursue this passion thing, and not worry about money. It screwed with my head a bit because I was surrounded by all my classmates who were like, I wanna do this full time! You’re speaking to me at a time when I’m more unsure about my place in comics than I have been since, period!

I wanted to talk a little bit about both This Isn’t About You and Safe, because I think they’re two comics that deal with bullying, albeit in very, very different ways. I also feel like I can’t get through [reading] an interview with a cartoonist without someone asking, “how is the political climate affecting your work?” So I feel like I have to ask that, but it was interesting to think about your personal experiences with being bullied, being a bully, and to read this comic that was basically about how our current political climate enables bullying. I was curious if you had any thoughts about how bullying is present in your work in a broader way?Safe Cover courtesy Anna Selheim

Y’know you say that, I realize that there’s a big aspect of bullying in my webcomic that I’m not doing. I don’t have empathy for Trump and his administration, but I do have empathy for high school bullies, because I was one. I remember, back when I was in college, there started to be cases where people were getting sent to jail because they would bully kids and the kids would commit suicide. I never followed up with this but I remembered it happening, where the bullies were put on trial. That happened a few times in Maryland and that easily could’ve happened to me. No one ever committed suicide but I was horrible to people, and I know why I was horrible to people. It was because I was unmedicated, and so depressed and so angry and I just took it out on everybody. I have an empathy for bullies in a way – I don’t like it in our society where they’re totally vilified and they’re two-dimensional.

There are two separate groups that I bullied when I was a kid and I was in high school. There are the people I feel guilty about that didn’t deserve it, and then there are the people I don’t feel guilty and I think they totally deserved it, which is horrible, but it’s true.

There are two separate groups that I bullied when I was a kid and I was in high school. There are the people I feel guilty about that didn’t deserve it, and then there are the people I don’t feel guilty and I think they totally deserved it, which is horrible, but it’s true. For example, I have a gay brother. If boys dropped the f-word, the slur, I would beat the crap out of them. I don’t feel remorse for that. I think they started doing it more because I was pretty cute and I think a lot of them had crushes on me. But I show [in the comic] the kid I beat up on the bus, who I called Bobby because he looked like Bobby Hill from King of the Hill. But this poor kid, he’s probably the one I feel most guilty about because he was younger than me, but he just irritated the crap out of me. I’m sure he was terrified because he had to be on the bus every day.

I have empathy for bullies in a way that I think other people don’t, because they don’t know what it’s like – or maybe they do know what it’s like to be miserable but they don’t handle it the way I did. Since being medicated I’ve changed a lot; it used to be that I took out my anger and depression on the world and unfortunately it’s kind of turned inward? Which is better for society, it’s not necessarily better for me. But I’ve mellowed a lot, too.

That’s another thing, there’s that scene in This Isn’t About You where I went from being bullied to switching around. So Kendall is someone that was a bully to me for a while and then I became really popular and started bullying her, and I don’t really feel remorseful about that, that’s like sweet vengeance.

That’s what’s interesting and what I think is very clear in This Isn’t About You: it’s recycled behavior. You’re reacting to bullying but you’re also like, oh right, this is depression, this is anxiety, no one named it for me. Whereas Kamon [from Safe], his response is to say, oh maybe I shouldn’t speak Thai in public, maybe I should draw inward. I think bullying is a response to negative things where you draw outward. The difference is in reactions.

This Isn’t About You also dives into mental health, and that is an interesting through-line in your fictional and autobiographical work. Did you grow naturally toward this kind of emotional, introspective storytelling?

What I used to do were these gag strips where it’s just like, funny conversations between me and my friends. That’s what I did from high school until I was I wanna say 25? I didn’t really start writing fictional stuff until I got to CCS, and that was a huge source of anxiety. I do well when given a prompt. The first year is kind of like boot camp and they just give you prompt after prompt with these parameters. So Petty, the prompt was a crime story, and then, of course, I was the only one in my anthology that didn’t do murder. The people in my anthology were great but man did I fight them over that! Like, really? We’re going to have five stories and four of them are murder? You can’t think of another crime? It was stupid because I was the first one done!

Anyway, [in the other comics] I didn’t have prompts, it was just freeform. Malai specifically is about me and my friend’s relationship falling apart when she went to Thailand in the summer. (We’re besties, now.) I think I just naturally write mental health stuff because “write what you know,” that’s what I know.

When did you start drawing yourself as the hooded figure with the lined face? That is a really interesting image.

Man have people read into this! Like Rob Clough had this insane description that it’s supposed to represent her being guarded – he just had this interesting analysis. Really what happened is we were in the lab at CCS, the printer wasn’t working and for some reason we all felt obligated to be there instead of, it’s 11, I wanna go home. I drew that figure because I like drawing patterns, and I was like, oh, this thing is kind of cool. Then I drew it eating McDonald’s, and I was like, man I love McDonald’s, I guess this is me, now! That’s literally all of it, a cool doodle and then I turned it into me because it was eating McDonald’s.Everything's Fine Cover courtesy Anna Selheim

That’s so funny! In Fractured there’s the moment where that kind of pattern takes over [the protagonist’s] whole body, and I thought it was based on that!

Fractured’s not me. Everybody thinks Fractured is me but I’ve never wanted to genuinely die the way that character wants to die. Also, I didn’t start going to parties until college and I kept going to parties and being like wow, I hate this! Fractured came after [the hooded figure], and that’s just my favorite pattern to do.

The autobio comics with that figure are very relatable, but you don’t depict yourself as a person with a face.

My comics are so instinctual, I don’t plan them, really. I kinda do a draft, and then I have another draft, and then I’m done. I definitely have happy accidents like that where you can read into this avatar, but it was just a cool doodle.

And On and On Cover courtesy Anna SelheimIs it the same for how you depict your friends in Everything is Fine and On and On? They kind of look like cute aliens, they have fun hair and brightly colored skin and they’re a little bit surreal.

I try to incorporate the way they look and their personality. It’s so easy to draw certain people and others it’s just impossible, I don’t know why that is. For Everything’s Fine, there were two reasons I came up with the abstract. One is it was way more interesting to draw, and two is because I was working in colored pencil and I didn’t know how to draw realistic figures for colored pencil. I haven’t actually done that since The Nib piece, The Adventures of a Clintern. The reason everyone has a crazy avatar is it’s just more fun. Also, I can’t capture likenesses for crap.

The color palettes in Everything is Fine and On and On don’t repeat in any of the comics. Is that just for fun, or does the palette match the comic’s tone?

I love glitter, I love rainbows, and I want to use every color in the toolbox. Tillie [Walden]’s like, “have you heard of color palette?” The color palette is just, “oh this color combo would be cool,” unless it’s taking place at night in which case I use darker colors. The only time where it was a cognitive choice was the Everything’s Fine And On and On strip where I was like, am I asexual? That one was the colors of the asexual flag and that was really hard. It took me awhile to get that palette because it’s really ugly; I hate greys and neutrals!

For my next project I’m creating more Everything’s Fine strips and then I’m going to take the most relevant of the first two [zines] and make a book. So I’m working on Everything’s Fine strips all the time right now, and I now am very much like, OK, which colors haven’t I used? It’s a learning curve but it’s been good.

In the beginning of And On And On you have this comic in which a teacher expresses the concern that the diary comics will get stale, which I thought was a really funny way to start. And On and On feels tonally different, maybe because the final comic is very calm and satisfying. It also has a dog in it, which doesn’t hurt.

I was in a much better place mentally when I did And On and On. I also think I became a stronger cartoonist, so I like And On and On more than the first volume of Everything’s Fine.

In And On and On, in conversation with friends, you say that a person’s art is the deepest, truest expression of who they are as a person. I was curious if you feel that that is true of your own personal work?

OK, I got in trouble for this! I also say in that comic that I would never date an artist and then I ended up dating an artist. He was terrified of showing me his art for a while because he does cute goofy strips. He just thought that I was gonna break up with him immediately, but knowing him and knowing what the strip is about, it’s from a very personal place.

I do think, unless you work for hire, when you’re creating stories that you want to create for yourself? I think that that is an incredibly true expression of who you are. God knows, yes, my work is very much me. It’s got the mental health stuff, and a lot of it is melancholy but has hope to it, which is what I would say is my overall demeanor. I am an incredibly hopeful person. I tend to be negative, but I always have hope. That’s the only way I’ve survived my deep depression and anxiety, having the hope as a baseline. I would say that my work is pretty much exactly who I am. There’s more to me than that, but it is very much who I am.

Everything is Fine comic courtesy Anna Selheim

That’s interesting; there’s a comic in Everything is Fine where you start catastrophizing, but then you realize you’re almost late for work, and you just take off. That one really grabbed me and because I think comics about depression and anxiety often show people at their lowest and they kind of can’t get up, but you always get up. It is very hopeful and encouraging.

I’d say I deal with a lot but I’m an incredibly perseverant person, my entire family is. It’s just a family trait of ours. It’s like, you can’t let your baggage get in the way of reality. I didn’t appreciate this at the time because I was so depressed it didn’t matter, but in my worst depression, which was right before I got medicated, I left school in order to figure things out. I was like 21 or something, I might have been a little younger, and my therapist said to me, you know, you are so high functioning that no one would realize how depressed you are. At the time it was like, who gives a crap, everything’s the worst!

I also tend to have massive freakouts that end quickly. They suck, they take over the entire room. The therapist that I had with the dog at the end of And On and On, the first time I had one of my meltdowns with her she was like, yeah you probably should be hospitalized, and really what I needed was like a meal and to take a nap. You gotta power through stuff. I can’t remember who did this tweet and it makes me feel very bad, but there’s a tweet that is possibly my favorite tweet of all time. It’s someone saying, there is an importance to self-care, but to make it in this world you kind of have to kick your own ass. I agree with that.

I actually just did a comic about this Tumblr where I shared my views about how much I hate the “haha I’m trash isn’t that relatable” sentiment that’s online. I think it excuses low self-esteem and I have come to realize in the past couple months how much my low self-esteem has negatively affected my life. I think that when it comes to everyone talking about self-care all the time, people use that as an excuse to avoid reality. You just kinda have to kick your own ass.

Do you have anything new coming out soon?

I’m in the upcoming Comics for Choice anthology. I don’t have a zine planned or anything like that. You can read everything except And On and On on my website, and I have Tumblr and Twitter. I’m gonna be tabling at MICE, and I’ll be walking around SPX.

Help Selheim decide the trajectory of her career by reading her comics at her website, and buying a few from her online store.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.