OPB: You’ve called yourself a ‘literature nerd.’ What sort of writers and stories influenced “In the Sounds and Seas?”
MG: Ha, yes! I think I've called myself a 'literature nerd' before in a context of lovingly contrasting myself with 'comics nerds' (though now I'm definitely both). I grew up devouring literary fiction and found comics relatively late in the game, especially compared with fellow cartoonists. For In the Sounds and Seas, I was interested in how mythology can be adopted to feel deeply personal, and how the personal gets mythologized. I looked to longform poetic sagas like Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, Icelandic eddas, and the Kalevala for guidance. Many epic poems open with an invocation to the story tellers, the singers or the muses-- “Sing, goddess, the rage of Achilles!” --and so opens S&S, with the singers creating the world. I love and often reread passages from the sagas, and found inspiration for S&S both for narrative structure and for permission to create an unapologetically grand and tragic adventure.
OPB: Can you tell us a little about your work process?
MG: Six years in to making comics, I'm starting to be at peace with the cyclical nature of my work process. I'll work obsessively for months, barely stepping away from my drafting table to eat or socialize (which is pretty unhealthy), and when the project is done I'll produce little or nothing for just as many months. I need that down time between projects to mentally and emotionally recuperate, to live a good life and read and rebuild my reserves. I'm also a freelance illustrator and cartoonist, so I use the time between personal projects to double down on paid work to build up enough of a reserve to carry me through periods when I'm inspired by a new book. I always have a few embryonic stories that I casually puzzle through when I'm on the train or taking a shower, something for my lizard-brain to work on when I'm doing other things, and without planning one will bubble to the top as ready to more consciously work on. From there I write rough drafts and outlines to determine the larger structure, but a huge amount of the work of telling the story happens on a page-by-page level, as I'm thumbnailing out the book. It's a kind of messy organic process.
OPB: Were you already familiar with sailing and the ocean?
MG: Not at all! One of my biggest fears about writing a story about building and sailing a ship is that it would someday be read by someone who knows a lot about ships, and my inaccuracies or shortcuts would take them out of the story. To do my best to avoid that, I did a lot of research. For instance: I knew the ship needed to be able to be manned by one person, so I based the design of the ship on Joshua Slocum's famous sloop The Spray; he was the first person to sail single-handed around the globe. (His memoir about the trip, Sailing Alone Around The World, is pretty delightful in a Victorian-gentleman-explorer way.) I also had no idea how to build a ship and books I checked out from the library about building sailboats were cumbersomely technical, so I bought an “Admiral-Level Difficulty” model kit of The Spray. I built a scale replica of the boat myself, steaming wood and carving it to match the plan laid out in pages of blueprints. My dining room was a mess of wood shavings and torn fabric for a month. Building the model ship gave me the added benefit of having a model from which to draw, and I sometimes bring the boat to book festivals as a table display.
OPB: Without giving too much away: S&S seems fascinated by the creative process, both with the obsessions and failures it entails. Could you elaborate on this? Did your own work on S&S influence it’s theme?
MG: Oof, yes. S&S is a kind of self-portrait, which is a little embarrassing. I wrote the major story beats of S&S after leaving two arts communities in as many years. I dropped out of an MFA program, which was slightly traumatic and extremely disappointing: of the 12 students who started with me, 10 of us left at the end of the first year. It was a disaster, an institutional failure. After that I was welcomed with open arms into a group of printmakers who were nurturing and supportive, but the longer I worked in the print studios the more I realized I was more creatively and intellectually engaged by narrative than image-making, so I left that community too. In the Sounds and Seas emerged from there. I felt like I would never find a way to make art in a sustainable way, in spite of my whole-hearted dedication at each turn.
OPB: Your are an organizer of CAKE? Can you tell us a little more about your work there, and about your involvement in the comics community?
MG: For the past three and a half years, I've worked on the all-volunteer staff of the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo. CAKE is an annual weekend-long celebration of alternative and small-press comics, hosting about 200 artists each year. Our exhibition hall, workshops and panel discussions are free and open to the public, and we've grown to accommodate over 3,000 attendees. I was a member of the core organizing team for the 2014 and 2015 festival years, and this year I'm focusing exclusively on growing and promoting our artist-services special projects, including a self-publishing microgrant for emerging artists called the Cupcake Award and a week-long artist residency for comic artists that we offer in partnership with Transit Residency and the Chicago Publishers Resource Center. All of the folks who put together the festival are working artists, and we try to use our insights as members of the community to create the most positive and welcoming experience for the cartoonists we host. I have gotten so much out of exhibiting at alternative comics festivals, both personally and professionally, that it feels like a moral imperative to do what I can to give back. I'm really proud of the work we do at CAKE.
OPB: Any future projects planned we should keep an eye out for?
MG: This fall I have a short comic coming out called “Particle/Wave;” it's comprised of two short memoir/poetics pieces about identity and grief. I think for a little while I'm going to work on short stories instead of novels, and give myself the space to experiment with new forms. In the Sounds and Seas was the first comic I ever worked on, and it took 5 years of inconsistent work (around day jobs and night jobs and unexpected life events) to finish it. I have learned so much through making the book and by reading more widely in comics, but because I've had S&S to work on, I haven't given myself much grace of time to play with new ideas. I'm really looking forward to pushing in new directions and failing in more interesting ways.