An extremely talented indie comics figure, Laura Knetzger has rightfully been receiving accolades from publications like Buzzfeed and Comics Alliance for her fresh and inventive comics, ranging from more personal works like Sea Urchin to her breakout series Bug Boys, which has recently been collected by Czap Books. Christopher M. Jones chatted with Laura Knetzger recently about Bug Boys, her secret misanthropy, her recent work with indie game platform Twine and lots more.
Christopher M. Jones for Loser City: Firstly, I just kind of wanted to know where your head is at since coming back from New York. I was wondering if you think the change in geography has had any effect either on your style or your overall mentality.
Laura Knetzger: I feel much different now. Living in New York clearly changed my mentality, which I think was changing my artwork, and I did not like the changes.
I was so worried the only work I would make forever was cry-for-help autobio comics. It felt hypocritical to make something cheerful like Bug Boys back then.
LC: Yeah, Bug Boys definitely deals with heavy things sometimes, but there’s an inherent optimism to their adventures that I think is hard to preserve if you’re worried about your career and your environment like you sort of have to be, living in New York.
I’m not sure if you wrote it while you were living in New York but I’m reminded of (I think) the second Bug Boys issue, where they meet the old beetle in the terrarium. “But…it’s a cage.”
LK: Hmmmm!!! I wrote that one pretty much right after the first one, when I was living in Seattle. I was home for break from school.
It was more like I was ashamed of my life in New York? Like I only ever thought about myself, and I just thought mean thoughts all day, and I was scared of how I was changing so I would avoid seeing friends. And it felt like making something about friends loving each other would be bullshit.
LC: So your instinct was more to protect the world of Bug Boys from what you thought would be toxic for it, as opposed to bending the tone or content to fit your attitudes at the time.
LK: I think it was more like I wasn’t ready to go to the place of making Bug Boys. I want Bug Boys to touch on serious themes but I don’t ever want to make like a nihilistic issue.
LC: On that note, I’ve always been kind of curious about how Bug Boys started. It’s always seemed to be confident of what it was trying to say; even those early issues, as alluded to above, deal with big ideas next to Rhino and Stag B’s buddy comedy.
LK: Okay, so I drew some cartoon beetles on a whim and called them “bug boys” because I like alliteration. And then I refined the character designs a bit and decided I wanted to make a comic. I decided it would always be something where I trusted my gut. I think I had a lot more rules about what Bug Boys was going to be at the beginning, but it’s changed a lot over the years. I can remember what it felt like but I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking when I was making the first few issues.
I’ve spent so much time thinking about it that I don’t even know anymore. But I know what the comic should feel like, so I can go from there.
LC: That’s fitting considering so much of BB’s stories tend to spring out from Rhino and Stag’s emotions.
How did the selection process work for what went into the new collection from Czap books? Were there stories that there weren’t room for or that you didn’t think would fit the rest of the comic?
LK: No, it’s just all the issues I had self published, plus one more that just appears in the collection.
LC: I wanted to talk about the tone of your work for a bit. Your “cry for help” autobio comics, as you phrased it earlier, are in pretty stark contrast to the gentle pastoralism of something like Bug Boys; it’s like the internal world you portray in “Sea Urchin” is a maelstrom whereas a lot of your comics about the living earth carry a lot of hope and whimsy. I was wondering if you had this specific connection to nature as something healing in your personal life, or if it works more as symbolism in your work for having a clearer head and a brighter outlook.
Yes, it’s based on a real healing connection in my life, albeit one that was a lot stronger when I was a child.
I’m worried it has become a metaphor, though. Or evidence that I’m like an arrested-development adult child. Or that I actually associate nature and forests with solitude and I’m masking a deep misanthropy with twee forest fairy girl shit. This is another thing I left New York to try to get a handle on. Because when I lived in New York I felt like a hamster in a metal cage. But I’m not sure how to fix this one.
LC: This is interesting to me because it seems like your inclination is to see your more pessimistic works as being more “honest” in a sense, if I’m reading you right.
LK: I think they’re both honest. I don’t want to make comics that are dishonest to me.
I’m worried people will see me as faking the happier stuff, but that’s just a worry of mine.
LC: That’s why I thought it was interesting that I was getting that feeling from you, because your softer comics come off as very self-assured. They don’t feel at all like they’re made by someone who fakes a smile all the time.
Comics is too small for people who fake the funk, anyway. That stuff doesn’t rise to the top.
You also have stuff like your Twine game, Don’t Go in the Old Greene House. It’s hard to call that game “optimistic” because it’s so tense and unsettling, but its ending is also oddly reassuring. Where did the idea for that game come from and what draws you to Twine in general?
LK: I got the idea for Don’t Go In The Old Greene House when I was watching the short film “Black Angel,” which has this angelic girl spirit being held captive by an evil spirit. It’s very short so it doesn’t really get into who, what and why.
So I imagined a scene where a human was talking to a ghost girl in a haunted house’s kitchen. And then I was thinking, why would a ghost stay in a haunted house? If they have ghostly powers, what would make them stay in one spot? What could hold a ghost captive?
The girl in “Black Angel” is like a perfect angel damsel-in-distress (or perhaps a temptress???) and I wanted the ghost girl to be a more complicated character. Like she’s playing on your expectations of an angelic little girl to get things from you. And again, why would she not use her powers to leave?
I had done the art for my friend Nina Freeman’s game Freshman Year in January of 2015. When we were talking about what art she needed she showed me a draft of the game that she made in Twine, so I looked at her file and how Twine worked then.
I wrote Greene House thinking it would be a comic, but I realized it would be a really long comic. And I didn’t want to draw it for some reason, so I decided to try Twine. It was made pretty slapdash, like the file is really disorganized. And there are some parts of the art that are pretty careless. I’m really glad it worked at the end.
I thought about having another ending where you leave Madison behind and escape the house, but I couldn’t write it well enough, and that seemed like far too mean of an ending.
After a while I just wanted to finish the game as fast as I could. I started feeling like making a story about child abuse was like I was summoning a demon that I could lose control of. I had an abusive boyfriend, so I knew about that type of conversation that’s just the other person reasserting dominance over you over and over and nothing ever goes anywhere. But I had a great childhood.
LC: It sounds like staying in the headspace needed to make that story work was draining for you.
LK: That’s a great way to put it! That sounds very professional.
LC: To wrap things up, who do you think you’d like your comics to reach? Who do you think comics could do a better job of reaching? I remember you once told me you were really happy that my mom liked Sea Urchin.
I’m so glad to get the mom vote because I’m worried my comics are too specific, too small and insular, too much ME. So it’s a relief to hear someone older liked it.
I wish self-published/small press comics could reach people outside of art easier. I’m not sure how to do that. The internet??? I wish I was better at understanding what Comics (the people) needs. I want my work to be read by a lot of people. I also think it’s great to make comics just for yourself and your friends. But I’ve been trying to figure out some solid goals and the steps to take for them to make wider-reaching things.
Christopher M. Jones once wrote a comic about dogs people liked a bunch. He ostensibly does other things too. You should follow him on Twitter.