CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses eating disorders.
A review copy of this book was provided by the artist.
One of the most thrilling parts of being a webcomics fan is watching an artist grow as they complete a project. It’s exciting to see someone’s style evolve over time, and to speculate on how they’re finding joy in their work. However, it’s perhaps more rare to get to discuss that evolution with the actual artist.
In 2016, I interviewed Kat Verhoeven about her webcomic Meat and Bone. The comic is primarily about Anne, a writer trapped in an OK but unfulfilling food service job, and Marshall, the stunning downstairs neighbor who encourages Anne to fall back into her eating disorder. Anne’s long time friends and new roommates, Gwen and Jane, both suspect that Anne is backsliding but are caught up in their own problems. Gwen is new to polyamory and is struggling to maintain healthy relationships with her partners, and Jane is recovering from a breakup by diving into her writing and, excitingly, getting buff. The story follows each of these women as they strive to feel comfortable in their identities and bodies.
Now, three years later, Conundrum Press is publishing Meat and Bone as a physical book! Verhoeven graciously did a follow-up interview with me so we could trace how things have changed for both the artist and her characters over as she prepared it for publication.
It’s difficult to chat with an artist about characters you’ve already analyzed and then followed for several years and not feel like you’re talking about real people you know. I can only imagine that in doing these interviews, I got to feel a tiny bit how Verhoeven felt when she was writing Anne and her friends. We dissected several of the characters’ motivations, as one does when worried about a friend in trouble. Verhoeven also let me ask endless questions about Meat and Bone’s gorgeous, Barbarella-worthy colors, her current feelings on Jane Fonda, and how she balanced the heaviest, darkest content within Meat and Bone with lightness and romance.
This interview contains some light spoilers, however Meat and Bone is much more about the characters’ emotional journeys than the plot’s end point, so don’t feel too deterred.
When we last talked, you had just finished writing the script for the full comic! Between then and now, as you drew the rest of the comic, did anything evolve or change in the story?
A couple things. There’s a scene pretty late with Daniel and Ryan, [when they have an emotional confrontation in] the museum. The whole museum scene is a really late addition to the script, but it brings a lot of emotional depth to both Ryan and Daniel, so that scene’s really important to me.
Ryan and Daniel’s story—it’s really interesting to read in book form (versus a serialized webcomic). His romance with Daniel feels very whirlwind and ends in this rough breakup. When we talked about Ryan last time you mentioned that he is a character who has been with you for a really long time; longer than Meat and Bone. I was curious if you had this plan for Ryan from the start or if that surprised you?
When I first started Meat and Bone, Ryan wasn’t even supposed to be important. He was just going to kind of be around. Because of his relationships with Gwen and Daniel, he’s the most romantic character in the story. The story isn’t about romance, but having something that was a little bit lighter was really nice especially after I’d written a scene that was hard or got into stuff that made me uncomfortable, or that was emotionally difficulty for me as a writer. It was nice to turn around and be able to write something that was a little bit more cleansing, more relaxing. He’s easy for me to write, and to have in my cast.
That comes through. It’s never a surprise when Ryan comes back. The museum scene ends in this really cool sequence where Ryan moves from Gwen to Daniel in this blanket swirl. Later, there’s a montage where fall is settling in and each of the women is doing something—running or working out at the gym or writing—and a wind blows each characters’ hair. I loved that. Last time we talked about your poetry comics and that to me felt like elements of your poetry comics sneaking in, that kind of visual language.
I think the way I draw hair in general kind of calls back to those. The laws of nature fly away and hair can take over the narrative in a way the characters don’t acknowledge, but it very much affects how the reader relates to that scene. It’s fun for me.
Yes, it happens with movement and also color. The color in the story, it’s very either very seasonal, like the scene where Marshall and Anne are running and it’s fall. In scenes like that, you draw these gorgeous, lush backgrounds that really give the comic a sense of place. However, there’s also a scene in which Gwen has received some horrifying news, and Anne comes home and sees her in Jane’s arms. In that scene, there’s no background. It’s done in all these cool blues and the characters all feel very scared and helpless. I was curious about how you plan the colors for those emotional moments.
Sometimes backgrounds are distracting! There’s some moments in the comic that I think need to be there and I’m glad I put them in there, but I read them and I’m like, this is really hard for me to read.
I really feel [the colors] out. Sometimes I will start some random flood fill colors just to get all my flats done. I’ll work backwards from there to make it cohesive. My own feelings guide me through the scenes. Some of the color schemes I’ve chosen are really weird and unorthodox, but I like that. There’s a scene closer to the end of the book where Anne and Marshall have a real argument, like – “maybe this isn’t going to work for us.” It’s this really nuclear apocalypse scene. If I’d gone slightly redder or slightly blue or green it would’ve been very Christmasy! The ominous-ness of orange led that scene for me, but I didn’t have a plan when I was drawing it that, “this scene will be orange.” The line art and the coloring are completely separate to me.
“The ominousness of orange” is a very good Marshall descriptor in general. When Anne first meets her she imagines being swathed in Marshall’s hair.
In the last interview you mentioned that if Meat and Bone ever became a book you would retool the colors from the beginning to make the story flow. Did you retool or change anything? You can definitely see how your art changes and evolves, but there are some color palettes from the beginning of the story that came back in the end, some green/yellows.
I took some scenes from earlier in the book and moved them way forward in the book. One of the decisions that I’m really proud of but that was scary at the time was taking a scene from almost a third into the book, which is when Jane is originally introduced, and moving it into the first fifty pages, so Jane arrives immediately. That’s artwork from maybe one and a half years later and I had to make it fit. I think that helps because it breaks up that original color scheme that I decided I would do the entire comic in, and that was a large portion of the book. Moving that scene forward breaks up the monotony and makes it seem more natural when the comic completely moves into me experimenting with color and letting myself have fun instead of having rules. Rules aren’t fun.
As a reader I can tell when you’re having fun. Definitely the dream sequences, anything with Barbarella or Jane Fonda on the page, and anything where the colors just explode feels very “Kat’s having fun.” In a comic with such heavy content, it’s nice to have that. It’s a good balance. Speaking of fun, one thing I thought was very funny from the last interview is that we talked about Jane Fonda not being a modern reference — but now she is again, because of Grace and Frankie! Do you have thoughts about Jane Fonda and how now she is back in the public eye, specifically talking about beauty and aging and body image?
She’s still relevant and she’s still wonderful! I love her and I STAN. I bought myself a Barbarella t-shirt so I can truly embody the stereotype I built of myself. I love that she’s still using her power to raise interesting topics. She’s cool.
Yeah, my first Jane Fonda experience was 9 to 5.
I still haven’t seen that one! I tried to see all of her films but it turns out there’s a lot of them, and I don’t spend that much time watching TV. The film that messed me up the most is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It’s one of her earliest films; I think she was maybe twenty. She plays the most bitter, cynical, angry young woman who is touring dance competitions where you keep dancing and whoever is the last dancer wins the money. It’s a really sad movie. I like those bitter characters, and I liked seeing her play someone who is really dark.
The comic is about Anne backsliding in her eating disorder and finding an enabler in Marshall. Now that the whole thing is complete, I was curious about how you feel about Anne and Marshall, and if anything changed over the telling?
I had a list of things that I wanted to happen and I had a timeline for all of those things, where they would happen in the characters’ lives. It was meant to get a lot darker before it got better [for Anne], but then I decided I was going to make it book-length, not a serial, and cut a whole bunch of stuff. I think that’s better. It’s easy to go into that trauma porn or trauma voyeurship, specifically with eating disorder stuff. I’m glad I didn’t let Anne bottom out completely, or lean into the audience appetite for that kind of story.
There is a part where Marshall gives Anne something that will let her binge and puke, and it’s not shown. Later, Anne and Marshall are sharing their catalysts [for disordered eating] but we don’t ever get Marshall’s full story. She’s too closed off. Anne tries to talk about her catalyst and it didn’t read to me as her telling it to Marshall. It’s almost an internal moment for the audience, or you telling the audience.
Anne is somebody who apologizes for herself more than she needs to. I do sometimes wonder if I should’ve given Marshall more backstory and exposition, but when I’m reading stories the exposition is one of my least favorite things. When I’m writing a story, I want to ask a lot of questions and not necessarily have them answered. I don’t want to do that at the sacrifice of feeling that you’ve experienced a full story, but I want it to be a story that intrigues you emotionally. Leaving Marshall as somebody really complicated and without any answers for the reader does that. There’s a lot of negative stuff about Marshall, and I don’t know if I could’ve tried to soften her more.
It made sense to me that Marshall still isn’t fully open and that there is a lot of mystery to her background because her relationship with Anne was so focused on not eating. The unanswered questions that were there felt organic.
Marshall does a lot to control her relationship with Anne, so giving a lot of herself would give away the control. Marshall likes it. I worry more about what trans negative stereotypes I have fallen into and have I done enough to mitigate them. I hope I did an OK job.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jane’s story brings lightness to the comic but it’s also very fun. I think one of the most joyful moments is when she first deadlifts.
“I am a god!”
Jane brings so much joy. I like, too, that she gets a free trainer in Thom.
Thom, of the boys in the cast, is the most wholesome. He just wants to help people. He’s not there for any secondary purpose, he’s just there to be a friendly bro.
Do you watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?
Oh gosh. There’s a character named White Josh—they call him that because the main Josh is Filipino, and he’s the one Rebecca moved to California for—and he is Thom. He’s also really buff and works in a gym.
Oh my god.
White Josh, who is coincidentally gay, is the straight man in their comedic scenes. Every time, he’s always just like, “you’re all so weird, why are you like this?” all the time, and I feel like that’s Thom.
[Thom is] the guy who has been dating the same person for ten years, since they just got out of high school, and he more or less knows exactly what he wants and slowly but steadily pursues it. It’s nice to have somebody like that around. It’s so calming to have somebody who’s just, not chaos.
Gwen’s poly storyline is also fun. This is going to sound weird, but I was surprised by how happy and successful she ends up. She makes such huge mistakes in the beginning and is doing such a poor job of communication, I was very impressed with her at the end of the comic. I was very proud of Gwen.
Gwen’s got the sort of personality where she will refuse to be defeated by anything. Even though she has her down moments, eventually she goes, no, you can’t tell me how to live my life, I’m gonna live my life on my terms and get everything I want, and then she does. She can be really aggressive and steamroller people but she’s pretty good at heart. Gwen and Jane both have things that Anne lacks that they could really benefit from, even though they’re also flawed characters. With Gwen it’s her go-getterness, and with Jane it’s belief in herself. They accidentally teach Anne really good lessons.
Jane I feel is inner strength; inner strength expressed in outer ways through deadlifting! That’s why she’s able to push Anne.
That’s a good way to put it. Jane is inner strength and Gwen is outer strength, and Anne doesn’t really have much of either of those, so being in the middle is good for her.
You can order Meat and Bone from Conundrum Press, or request it from your local comic shop!