Fairbanks: I stopped by Katie Skelly’s table at SPX 2015 and bought a copy of… basically everything, having only seen her art and heard your glowing reviews of her work. So why don’t we start with that: what is it about Skelly’s work that causes her to stand out so prominently amid the great sea of comics that pass us by?
Silva: Well let’s get right to it then. Katie Skelly’s comics are a turn on. Full stop. I know, I know, as a happily married man in his early 40s (relatively) with two daughters calling a female cartoonist’s work a “turn on” sounds at best, problematic, and at worst, pervy. Allow me to unpack.
What I mean by “turn on” is awareness, more specifically the act of making someone aware. Now, David, I know you’ve said to someone, several someones I’m sure, “you’ve got to hear this record” or pressed a book into a friend’s hand with the sincere instruction: “read this.” It’s why you bought the lot at Skelly’s table at SPX. It’s a turn on, awareness.
If a grand unifying theory of Skelly’s work exists, perhaps it’s as simple as “awareness.” I recognize how reductive it is to use one word to describe work as multi-layered and complex as My Pretty Vampire and Skelly’s other work, but there it is.
I would also be dishonest, intellectually and otherwise, if I didn’t also own that I think Skelly’s comics are sexy. Katie Skelly draws sexy-ass comics. There I said it. Safe to say, she’d own such a claim too. She’s been making sexy and sex positive comics from the jump. Her Agent series for Slutist gets at sex from every angle: explorative, exploitative, uncomfortable, sophomoric, shameful, raunchy, and above all, unapologetic. To “get” Skelly, you need to take a page from her own book and own both the holy and the profane.
Awareness and how it translates into the act of taking ownership is the carotid artery, if you will, that pumps blood through My Pretty Vampire. I’ve introduced this idea of “awareness” as being the GUT of Skelly’s comics, but her gestalt default is closer to “ownership. Skelly has the good sense, the smarts, to accept that boldness doesn’t come without a cost, several costs: guilt, sadness, absurdity, and messiness to name just four, not to mention beauty and soulfulness. Skelly’s work raises my awareness and makes me question my own humanity and both my flaws and strengths. Skelly teaches readers to accept, embrace and move the fuck on.
It’s like Karen says about Henry in Goodfellas: “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of their the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide … I gotta’ admit the truth. It turned me on.”
Fairbanks: Yeah, I think I get you. My Pretty Vampire seems to revel in the spectacle it creates, a combination of simple linework, unadorned colors, sex, and violence that feels like the closest a modern comic can come to adopting a sort of grindhouse aesthetic despite Skelly’s incredibly clean style. The spectacle of My Pretty Vampire is present in every inch of it, literally. Skelly’s stark linework and flat colors could scale down to digest size without damaging the story; simply look at works like Operation Margarine, which could fit into a large back pocket or a small purse. There is absolutely no need for My Pretty Vampire to be this hardcover, magazine-sized epic of violence and rebellion other than to render that violence in a grand scale, in order to garner stares on the train for those of us bold (or foolish) enough to read it in public, to let ourselves get turned on — as you say — among strangers.
But the spectacle Skelly lays on — and she lays it on thick — is simply the fangs, if you will; it’s the aesthetic that garners the attention of a reader. In the nether regions of the gratuitous violence, beneath the sheen of “adult” horror movies Jaime Hernandez likens My Pretty Vampire to, under your profane, is the holy: Clover’s pure, violent rebellion against the brother who would imprison her, who would attempt to placate her thirst with ox blood, who himself has rather unnatural desires.
I think it’s certainly possible to enter and exit My Pretty Vampire having done nothing but bathe in the violence, experiencing the profane as a break from the hellscape we live in. But I love that there’s more here once the blood has been wiped away or allowed to dry.
Silva: Spectacle! Could this be the ‘third law of Skelly?’ Awareness, ownership and spectacle! Are we onto something now or what!
In addition to being a sensual comic from a sensualist cartoonist, My Pretty Vampire seethes with aesthetic pleasure and, yes, you’re spot on, David, spectacle is foremost. In fact, it’s the first thing you see, right? The design. The size! The colors! The album format for this comic fits like couture. Stylin! It should come as no surprise an installment of #bookcovercrush, the NPR Books tumblr, featured Skelly discussing her inspirations and process for My Pretty Vampire’s cover. She says, “I wanted to communicate an idea of taking pleasure in your own body and enjoying your space.” ‘Pleasure’ and ‘ownership,’ couldn’t have said it better myself.
Oddly, this Skelly aesthetic depends on a certain degree of underestimation or undervaluing — not so different from how Marcel undervalues Clover. Like her spiritual godfather Jaime, Skelly draws with such a clean line and keeps the backgrounds to a minimum that at first blush her work appears uncomplicated to the uninitiated. And because she wears her influences and passions on her sleeve there’s a tendency to view her work as either a pastiche hustle or a classification con. Know this: Katie Skelly ain’t some genre frigstress.
Hold up. Comics is a Janus, forever looking back as it struggles to move forward. Those who shaped this culture (mostly men and for the most part white) become the innovators we recognize them as because they took risks and said damn the results. No artist appears fully formed, they all steal and borrow, they’re human too so they also covet and have preferences. They appropriate. It’s at this confluence of ownership and awareness where artists either innovate or imitate. A Janus represents duality in its spiritual form, but in the physical world a Janus marks a transition a doorway.
Skelly’s influences, inspirations and appropriations are obvious. And? Since we’ve yet to discuss the interior art of My Pretty Vampire and mostly concerned ourselves with surfaces, allow me to hammer a bit on that Jaime quote some more. Here it is:
“I’m thirteen years old, up late watching an early ‘70s adult horror movie on TV, waiting for the racy parts. The dumb thing doesn’t deliver. Forty-four years later, Katie Skelly delivers with flying colors.”
At face value, Hernandez, like many readers and critics of Skelly’s work, gets caught up in the those genre tics: horror, adult, racy. Too often, the criticism of Skelly’s work becomes a litany of 60s/70s flotsam, it’s all shags and bobs, Bardot and Sebag, too much emphasis on the (supposed) disposability of fashion without the Streep-ian monologue to breakdown the importance (and power) of cerulean blue. For me, her influences are an entry point into Skelly’s work, not the destination, not something to trace back to the source. Skelly loves her Barberella, her 60s and 70s kitsch and her beloved Giallo for sure. Again, she owns that. But it’s what she does with those influences, how she uses that love and admiration that makes her an artist, storyteller and cartoonist to reckon with. I suspect that’s what Hernandez sees in her, they both work the same side of the street. Game recognizes game.
Far be it for me to continue to stick my head into the mouth of a literary lion like Jaime Hernandez but, what he’s getting at, what he wants (and what Skelly delivers) is follow through, intellectual completion. Teenage Jaime tuned in (turned on?) to see the horror, the adult, the racy, but when his biggest sex organ, his brain, didn’t receive what was promised, well …
And that’s what we’re talking about here, that’s the answer to your initial “what-is-it-about-Skelly” question, David. She takes the spectacle, the flash, of those trashy late night movies and because she’s an artist and such an adroit critic — something we perhaps should discuss — she’s able to point out their power, mine it, refine it and imbue it with her own gifts. If the spectacle of 60s chic, lesbian vampirism, secret cults, and cocaine doesn’t blow your hair back, Skelly’s got nothin’ for you, man.
So, let’s get down to it … what’s My Pretty Vampire about, really? And please provide proof for your argument.
Fairbanks: We’ve talked a lot already about how the format is rebellious, but for my money, My Pretty Vampire is rebellion, inside and out. There are the obvious rebellions: the housekeeper sneaking cigarettes to Clover (who then smokes them inside the house), the escape from her prison of a home and the attempts to shut her away from the living world, and her life on the run post-escape. But Clover’s very existence is a kind of rebellion against order, against society, and even against nature. The existence of vampires would upend the food chain, and their unnaturally long lives would quickly disrupt society if they were allowed out in the open.
And I guess I’m going to zoom back out again. It feels like an act of rebellion for a woman to create My Pretty Vampire and release it into the world we live in. To be clear, a necessary act of rebellion. There’s plenty of sex and violence in comics, but a lot of it is written by men, drawn by men, and is, frankly, awful. Superhero comics’ often muted displays of sex and violence are the midday, edited-for-a-TV-audience version of whatever movie Jaime was watching before I was born. Tossing this pastel purple, blood-red accented cover into the sea of comics is like firing a flare into a crowd of businessmen.
My Pretty Vampire also carries with it a bit of a warning. While a character like Marcel may deserve a horrid fate, Clover is like a force of nature: she leaves bodies in her wake. While I would hesitate to call any of her victims innocent, Skelly has made it clear that crossing Clover will leave you as a corpse. There’s a righteousness to the rebellion as she strikes out against the world that would imprison or kill her, one that’s refreshing to see in a world where women are being told that the legislation of their bodies is simply politics, told that they must try to compromise when their autonomy is being threatened.
Silva: Skelly is the rebellious sort ain’t she? You’re tapping into something, David, that is central to all vampire fiction: border crossing. Vampires, by their nature, have to cross boundaries, with the whole “life and death” thing being the most obvious. These children of the night are fiction’s foremost travelers, tourists in a world of flesh and blood. In order to live, the vampire must move from place to place, victim to victim. Now, this vampiric traveling bone is, of course, as psychological as it is physical and writers, directors, musicians, cartoonists, and on and on have used this bit(e) of vampiric knowledge to great (and sometimes middling) effect.
Read Skelly’s criticism on The Comics Journal and besides the envy one feels — okay, the envy I feel — at her clear, concise, and conversational style and the way she (seemingly) effortlessly moves from fiction to non-fiction, her writing hits like a sledgehammer. She’s a scholar, a researcher, an anatomist. In the parlance of our times: Skelly knows her shit. So when she writes about Vampires, there’s no doubt she going to make damn sure she’s acquired that under-the-fingernails knowledge she needs in order to create something that’s going to rip past the heart and go straight for the soul of the Vampire. Vampires are the vessel for whatever fear, fetish, idea or act an artist wants to convey, and Skelly knows it; when done well, they approach subjects at odds with the prevailing culture. It’s why Feminism, for instance, can fit so well within the Vampire genre: it represents change and a challenge to the status quo, and nothing terrifies like change. At the macro level, a vampire story is perfect for Skelly, who takes what she needs from her surroundings and moves on to create and kill anew, and make no mistake: Katie Skelly kills.
Yes, Clover loves to drop bodies and fuck all else. She’s young. She’ll learn. One killer sequence that gets at the vampirism of My Pretty Vampire is the seduction and death of Sheila, the “sorry not sorry” coke vacuum. When Clover follows David back to his apartment and asks to be invited in — nice touch that — she is set upon by Shelia. In this introduction/seduction (vamp?) scene Skelly shows her efficiency and skillfulness as a cartoonist. In two panels Sheila goes from lying in a splayed out drugged out reverie on the the couch to pawing at Clover’s hair, complimenting her long blonde locks and peppering her with questions. Cocaine, kids; it’s a powerful drug.
In next panel, Sheila locks herself hand-in-hand with Clover, Besties 4EVA!, and seals her fate. Sheila’s eyes and mouth say, “I’m gonna fuck and get fucked” while Clover’s face is all unease, she’s not yet the one in control and so she remains the postulant. It’s Sheila who has agency, for now. She leads Clover as if she’s pulling her onto the dancefloor — an act thick with anticipation and apprehension. On cue Sheila’s fellow partygoer lays down some wax and says, “Here we go …” Skelly ends the sequence on a close up as the needle hits the record. She uses these cinematic single panel cutaways throughout My Pretty Vampire to add atmosphere and pace the story, a clear indication Skelly knows her craft and uses it to maximum effect.
After some champagne and Sheila’s reveal that she’s found her “secret stash” and is eager to share with Clover, Skelly’s cartooning gets as turnt as Trina joint. Up to this point Skelly keeps her story within standard comic grids, panels, and gutters. For this scene of seduction, highs and heightened emotions, she erases those borders and lays one panel on top of another for an emotional acceleration as each seduction, each high, each emotion overlaps the previous one. As the highs increase and the borders are erased — crossed (out) — Skelly desaturates the bright colors that have marked the story to this point and drains the life from the characters, it’s white bodies on rosey taupe, mint, and cordovan. Like the panel of the turntable, the colors are used to dictate pace. Skelly’s layout is quick with the panels overlapping while the moodiness and languidness of her color choices slows down the pace and makes the surroundings soften to an antiseptic druggy distance. Clover and Sheila’s bodies bleach out their surroundings in the push-pull-frenzied-torpor of getting high. There’s such an eagerness and seductiveness to this scene it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sleek subtle machinery of Skelly’s craft.
She has used this “white out” effect before to convey a heavy emotional movement in Operation Margarine. But whereas that was a black and white comic and My Pretty Vampire is color, Skelly groks how to use this different tool, color, and how its priority in this story acts as an accessory, essential to the ensemble. This is a cartoonist of true fashion. It’s this kind of harmonic convergence that wrings the most out of the form in order to make the reader feel the bite of comics.
David, we’ve come to praise Skelly, but I am curious how you read the ending. It’s a triumph, sure, but is Marcel worth it? Clover’s got a new cut and color, she’s shown agency and an ability to survive (and thrive), but she’s sent back to the beginning and told by a higher authority, “she’s too dangerous for the city.” So in the end what’s gained? She’s still a kept vampire and doesn’t have total autonomy. And who stabbed John, the mustachioed detective with the eye patch?
Fairbanks: I see you over there covertly trying to wind this down, nudge me to the door, you-don’t-have-to-go-home-but-you-can’t-stay-here me, and I gotta say that you could’ve chosen a better Semisonic song but I otherwise like your hustle. While I like where the ending landed, it did feel unfortunately rushed, as if Skelly knew where she wanted this chapter of Clover’s story to end and had gotten up to the scene where John discovers her out in the wild, then decided to just draw a four-page interlude to get us there. It definitely feels like it’s in the vein of the low-budget horror films Skelly is homaging, but I’m not sure that’s a feeling I like for the comic.
That said, I think perhaps I’m more optimistic than you are about where Clover lands; the final pages leave Marcel locked up and frantic while Clover has markedly more freedom than she originally did. As far as Clover’s autonomy goes in the grander sense, I read the scene with the deus ex machina more as “we can’t keep covering your tracks,” which seems to give her all the autonomy of more traditional vampires — she may not be able to go on a killing spree, but throughout the course of My Pretty Vampire, we’ve seen her develop the tools to lure and kill humans. Now she’s been told she needs to pick up her dishes after she’s finished her dinner.
Of course, the fact that she’s been told to do anything is part of a problem, as it feels like it will only be a matter of time before Clover gets bored with playing that bat-god-thing’s games and lets the streets run with blood. Is My Pretty Vampire the kind of comic that leaves us with an open ending and allows the reader to decide for themselves what comes next, or will it join the ranks of so many genre stories and get a sequel (or five)? Only time and the Fantagraphics sales numbers will tell, but I’m sure if there’s another one, Keith and I will be back for it.
Silva: A nudge? Nah. I could talk about this comic ‘til the vampires come home. Also … is there another Semisonic song?
I agree that, from its primary colors to the delicious incomplete-completeness of its ending, My Pretty Vampire gives off a lovingly curated Argento-y vibe. Bildungsroman feels a wee bit strong, too grand for Clover’s story. As you grok, David, it’s quite the education and, yeah, it ain’t over.
You’re thoughts on the ending fit with an insight that flashed for me after my last missive. I was turning my question to you over in my head, driving, and listening to a podcast you may know, I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats. In the premiere episode host Joseph Fink (Night Vale) and Mountain Goats singer/songwriter John Darnielle discuss “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” As a way to explain the song’s famous (?) Hail Satan! Hail Satan! ending, Darnielle cites the “satanic principle of self-discovery” as reflected in the song’s heroes, Cyrus and Jeff (not to be confused with Milton’s Satan). That’s My Pretty Vampire all over.
Like us, Clover is incomplete. If her story gets a next chapter, I’ll be beside you, David, nudging, subtly. What stands out about Skelly’s comics — the turn on? — is the central tenet of her work: we are in process, all of us, self-discovery all the way down. Skelly ain’t some water witch dowsing for closure. She knows the best revenge is your paper. So embrace the process of self-discovery, that most satanic of principles. Hail Satan! Hail Satan tonight!