August 25, 2014
by Nick Spacek

Liz Prince is an artist and illustrator whose work covers a wide spectrum: she’s done album covers for criminal pop-punk quartet Masked Intruder, as well as stories and covers for the wildly popular Adventure Time comic, to say nothing of her award-winning autobiographical comic Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed? Her first graphic novel, Tomboy, will be released by Zest Books on September 2. It’s a moving tale, encompassing everything from gender stereotypes to the punk scene to the cruel pangs of adolescence. There were points where I laughed until I cried, to say nothing of scenes that left me bawling. It’s absolutely wonderful, and I was happy to speak with Prince by phone about the process of bringing Tomboy to the page.

The Runout: Tomboy is your first graphic novel. How long did it take?

Liz Prince: How long did it take to do Tomboy, or how long did it take for me to work up the nerve to sit down and do an entire graphic novel?

I would say, both.

I’ve had a lot of false starts. I’ve always known that drawing graphic novels was my ultimate goal. It just so happens that most of my previously published, Top Shelf books, are more like comic collections, and those all consisted of things I had self-published before. The idea of sitting down and writing a 200+ page story that no one’s ever seen before – and that no one will see until it’s done, except for editors and whatever – is really daunting, and I’ve had a couple of false starts before.

There are a couple of books that I’ve probably gotten 40 pages into, and gotten stuck, and not known how to transition to the next part, so I’ve just … left them, which is really depressing, when I think back on it.

So, one of the good things about working on Tomboy was that when I signed the contract with Zest, who published the book, it had to be done nine months from when I signed the contract, so I didn’t have any time to just get stuck on a part and leave it. I had to go and hopefully just fix things that didn’t work – and there are still some transitions in the book I’m not super-excited about, but I think, as a whole, it came out really authentic and genuine, just because I had to draw it that quickly.

Tomboy, as a whole, was probably like a year-long process, but writing and drawing it was nine months.

How did Tomboy change as it went along? You spoke about the things you’d abandoned earlier – did any of those pieces find their way into the book?

No, Tomboy is a story that I never – I never thought that I would write a book like this, and the reason that it came about was because Zest had contacted me about doing a graphic novel for them and they are mostly like a teen / young adult publisher, and they’re specifically looking for graphic novels, non-fiction, by women that would be for teens, and I didn’t really have anything that fit that category, because a lot of my work is for adults. Not that it’s like, super-sophisticated, but you know, there’s language, sexual situations – stuff like that.

And so, Tomboy was something that I came up with specifically for that audience. It’s funny, because when I came up with the idea, I was like, “Oh, this is a story I won’t mind an editor having their hands in!” and it really became far more personal than that and turned into something entirely different as I was writing it. It definitely became the book that I’m most proud of, and the book that is most personal and revealing about myself, I think.

Was the experience of writing and drawing the book a cathartic thing, when it was all said and done?

Yeah, surprisingly. There were some parts that were hard to draw. Not difficult, just emotional to draw, would be the way to say it. One of the things about writing a memoir – and this is the first thing that I’ve written that could be considered a memoir – I found that sometimes, I didn’t remember the specifics of a situation. I just remembered the way that it made me feel, and that was a very interesting experience.

Writing a memoir is a lot of filling in the blanks. You’re definitely telling the story in your own voice, so I don’t know really how true any memoir can end up being, because it’s really one person’s experiences, one person’s side of the story. So, I had to get over my journalistic tendency to have everything be true, and be exactly like how it happened, and let go of that a little bit.

Speaking of not everything being exactly true – there are diary entries in the book. Are those real, or are they re-imagined, like the show fliers?

They are not actual. The diary, although I did have one, I don’t know exactly where it is. It’s actually kind of funny: my mom kept all of this random stuff of mine, but I can’t find any of those, which is weird. That was really more of a trope to move the story along, without having to have me as a narrator come back.

What I really found interesting about the book was that there’s a through line of the tomboy topic, but there’s also this through line of having these experiences which you had to step away from, even though you really enjoyed them – be it Girl Scouts or baseball – because of your experiences within those activities. However, the one thing you stay with is drawing and writing. What made writing and drawing the things you could stick with?

Well, I don’t think that writing and drawing are necessarily gendered things, so there definitely wasn’t anybody saying, “A girl’s not supposed to do that!” It was definitely like, the thing I was best at – friend were always like, “You draw so good,” or teachers were like, “You write and draw very well,” and my parents definitely encouraged that.

So, when you’re a kid that gets bullied and teased a lot, you definitely latch onto the one thing that people will praise you for and for me, that was always writing and drawing, and later, combining the two to make comics.

Did it help that it was a solitary pursuit, since the other things were social activities, and that seemed to be what dissuaded you from continuing?

Yeah, I do think that you can be, and that it actually helps to be alone to write and draw – although, I did do a fair amount of drawing with friends of mine, because most of the friends I had in elementary school also wanted to be cartoonists or animators, or just really liked drawing as a pastime, too. I didn’t really have to be on a time to be able to draw. No one had to want to be able to interact with me to be able to draw. It was something I could just do on my own.

The ending of the book is really what I took a lot away from, because it ends in a way very different from most young adult fiction, because it ends with personal discovery, as opposed to romance. Did you go toward the ending of the book with that as your goal?

I think I always knew what the ending of the book was going to be, and I always knew that it was going to be that one beat, because it really calls back to a theme throughout the book, which is people who don’t know me, mistaking my gender and me not doing anything to correct them because one, it’s embarrassing when someone mistakes your gender and two, for a while, I didn’t have a problem with it: “Sure. You think I’m a guy? Great! I would really rather be a guy.”

The ending of the book: that’s what really completes the story for me. I’m not really the kind of person who can be totally into a book, and the ending is flat and sucks, and be like, “That was still great.” If something at the end of a book doesn’t really bring it all home, I’m like, “Eh, what was that, really?” That was always an important part of the book for me. I always knew that had to be the end of Tomboy.

I see that whole last chapter of the book, where you’re talking about Warehouse 21 and that Discount show, as – and this is sort of comic nerd-y – as being the origin story that ties the book into everything else you’ve put out.

I definitely consider Tomboy to be my origin story. How did Liz become Bruce Wayne? Well, this is what happened.

What’s also really interesting is that Alison Mosshart, when she was in Discount, was kind of tomboy-ish, as well, which makes her kind of an apt musical hero to show up at the end.

Dude, I will tell you that when I was looking up photos of her to accurately draw her – I didn’t really keep track of her after she left Discount. Not like I didn’t know about her other bands or other projects, but it’s kind of shocking to see that she’s kind of like a female fashion icon now. I guess if I was still adamantly against feminine things, I’d be one of those people who’s like, “Oh, you sellout!” But, luckily, I’ve gotten past that. It was kind of an interesting “where are they now?” Oh, they’re talking to Vogue about their favorite mascara. Interesting.

That splash page, with Discount coming out and everything – it’s very cinematic, in a sort of way. It’s like that big scene at the end of a movie.

It’s interesting, because that page was added way after the fact, because we just needed to fill a page. I’m glad that it fits, because whenever there was a situation where I was asked to add a page, or take a page out, I was kind of worried about how it would affect the general flow of the story. But once that page was in there, it made a lot of sense, and also drives home the point of the book, getting to see this woman in a band who represents the way you do and is just really doing it for her. That was definitely an empowering thing for me.

Read a preview chapter of Tomboy here

The release party for Tomboy takes place at Boston’s Brattle Theatre on Wednesday, August 27, with a presentation, Q&A, and signing. You can find info and tickets here.

Liz Prince will be doing a book tour in support of Tomboy, as well – dates and info (among many other totally cool things) can be found at her website.