Cathy G. Johnson is one of those indie talents you trip over yourself to get to at a convention. Johnson’s work reads closer to poetry than to comic-pros and the sometimes abstract, sometimes loopy, always beautiful art expands upon that poetry. Johnson is not afraid to experiment. “Rabbit”, which was developed from freeform storytelling out of Johnson’s sketchbook, is a descent into a one-night stand that can be read in an infinite number of ways, when read digitally. Backwards, forward, right to left, the comic is more of an experience than a story. The artwork is a collage of images. Each face appears multiple times in a sea of dialogue, the story always driving forward. The only colors used are white, blue and red used to highlight the emotional swing of the evening.
Tell us about your latest work. Where did the inspiration come from?
I’m currently working on my next graphic novel No Dogs Allowed, which is about The Bloodhounds, a remedial middle school girl’s soccer team. The book is about losing a lot, and how to deal with that as a kid. It was mainly inspired by my scouts when I worked as an afterschool Girl Scout Troop Leader three years ago. I used to teach 100 different little girls every week, and they were all amazing. Who couldn’t make a book inspired by them?? No Dogs Allowed is coming out in 2017, but at CALA I’m part of a kid’s comics talk, so you can hear me talk more about it in person!
What makes CALA different from other conventions?
This will be my first year!
If this is your second year at CALA tell us about last years experience and what brought you back. If this is your first year, what are you most excited about?
I’m excited to finally meet a lot of LA creators who inspire me.
What will you be selling at CALA?
I’ll have the awesome reissue of my first graphic novel Jeremiah from One Percent Press, Dear Amanda, my Ley Lines issue Thank God I Am In Love, some other deep cut zines, buttons, and tons of posters! I love a good poster.
Who are some of your biggest influences, creatively?
I read shoujo manga voraciously as a kid, so my storytelling sensibilities really draw from them. I love quiet subtle moments as well as big emotional arcs. I also draw inspiration from punk, and anti-establishment themes are really important to me.
I love your page layouts. For example I think Rabbit is beautiful I like the way everything overlaps. How much pre-planning goes into the layouts for your comics?
Rabbit was developed from freeform storytelling in my sketchbook, small loose drawings of snippets and moments, so it felt important to not have it locked into panels. Same goes with my piece in Lovers Only. For longer stories I use a basic rectangular panels. I tried using my flowing layout technique on a longer work once and it’s actually difficult to read in a sustained way. I prefer comic layouts to flow with the story and not draw attention away. It’s a balance.
What would you like fans to know about you as an artist? And talk about your journey to becoming a comic creator.
Bryan Lee O’Malley, way before Scott Pilgrim, had some short comics online. They were drawn simply and always starred a miserable teen girl. I loved them, and it was while looking at one of them (titled Glorious You) that I declared “I’m going to be a comic artist.” I was 11. I had drawn comics before and read Archie and newspaper strips, but that was the moment I decided to be a comic creator forever. Here I am!
Did you have a formal education or were you self-taught? Is one better than another?
I’m a mix. I grew up in Minnesota, so in high school I took two extracurricular comics classes at MCAD, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Those classes taught me the very basics of bristol paper, rulers, inking tools. I then went to college in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art, MICA, and actually got my BFA in Sculpture. I chose sculpture in college because the culture of the major was really thoughtful and conceptual. I didn’t want an aesthetics-motivated education. I eventually made my way back to comics and did my first graphic novel Jeremiah as my senior thesis.
I think arts education is really important, but I also value that the majority of my drawing skills were self-developed and not taught to me through an illustration or comics program.
What other kinds of art do you create? Does that factor into your comics work at all?
I am also a printmaker so I create a lot of screenprints, and that definitely translates into how I color comics. I usually am thinking about limited pallets and overlapping possibilities, which is what screenprinting is all about. I’m also a set designer in theatres, which definitely sees its way into my comics. I’m always considerate of environments for my characters, exits, props, lighting, etc, and those are all skills I developed while working in theatre.
You tend to work solo, would you ever consider working with another artist or writer?
I’ve collaborated with my partner K Czap before, and they are coloring my upcoming book No Dogs Allowed for First Second. Lovers Only was a type of collaboration with Mickey Z and Sophia Foster-Dimino. But that project gave us the ability to make our own stories tangentially, rather than really weaving our stuff together. I’ve also done a few collaborations with my friend and poet Ross Hernandez, zines where he’s written and I’ve drawn, but again, it’s not the kind of collaboration comics first thinks of.
I don’t think I would ever want to draw another person’s script or have someone draw mine. It feels like it would go against my nature as a creator, writing and drawing go hand-in-hand for me.
I love your story Dear Amanda. It’s so rare to see trans representation/ gender queerness in comics represented as everyday. Usually it’s something to over come or adjust to, I like that you focus on relationship challenges everyone has to face. You do the same thing in BUTNOT exploring gender identity and how readers react to a man demanding space verses a woman demanding space. What implored you to explore these themes?
This is nice to hear, because I’ve had disputes with critics in the past who say Dear Amanda is about gender, and it isn’t at all. It’s a romance. I’m a queer person, so I do explore gender in my comics sometimes, because it’s something I think about. I also think about romance, which comes up in my work a lot, too. And when you’re gay your romances are gay ones. It just is everyday. Being queer is my reality. It’s the reality of my friends, it’s the every day life of millions of people. I make comics about people’s lives. It’s important to me that my work is true and reflective of the world.
I love Her Name Was Prudence. It feel eerily real exposing how fast we change our minds about every aspect of our lives and how quickly we forget who we were, but most importantly how much a simple piece of art can affect our lives. Is there a piece of art that inspires you like, God’s Sorrow inspired Soomin?
Thank you, Her Name Was Prudence is an older work that came immediately on the heels of graduating college, so it’s a bit about exorcising academia. I do like poetry, literature and fine art. My Ley Lines issue, Thank God I Am In Love, is about my deep, deep visceral adoration for Vincent van Gogh. It’s essentially a love poem.
If you could write in any fantasy world (Harry Potter, Avatar, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, ext), which would you, work in and why? [This is a personal favorite question. I realize many independent artists aren’t interested in bigger properties, so feel free to skip if you’d like.]
Doctor Who. Why do television properties think the people want comic adaptations with actors drawn realistically? A character is more than its actor. I’d want the BBC to give me full control over art and story, and it would be Nine and Rose drawn in a really loose, impressionist style. I miss Rose, she was this rude working class teenager who was equal to this amazing smart alien man. I loved her. I loved Nine, what a sweet adorable asshole he was. What fucking amazing emotional adventure shit they got into. I don’t think there are any other big properties I care about. I really care about Rose and Nine.
What tools do you use to create your comic and why?
I switch every comic because I get a bit bored with a style, but often it’s pencil. Right now I’m penciling No Dogs Allowed but it’s going to eventually be inked. Before this I finished GORGEOUS, which is coming from Koyama Press in May, and that was all graphite. It really busted up my hand, so I’m happy to be doing a more open style with No Dogs Allowed.
When you’re having a difficult time creating what do you do to help you push through?
I have a studio separate from my home, and I come to my studio every day. Sometimes I just sit at my desk and write emails, but I’m here. That’s important to my practice.
Do you have any new projects on the horizon? What should fans be looking out for? Where can they find you online?
Jeremiah is out now, GORGEOUS is coming from Koyama Press in May 2016, No Dog Allowed is coming from First Second in 2017. I have tons of handmade posters and more posters coming, so I hope people take a look at those. My website is http://www.cathyboy.com
Joelle’s heart belongs to Chicago but she’s living in Los Angeles attempting to make a life as a freelance writer. She’s the co-creator of web comic Harsh Mellow on Tumblr. She’s an avid fan of period dramas over three hours long and full glasses of wine. She can usually be found in between the pages of a comic-book or under a coffee spigot.