There are few cartoonists whose work can be described as both "surreal" and "semi-autobiographical," but as evidenced by praise from Peter Bagge, Michael Kupperman and Gary Panter, Leslie Stein isn't a typical cartoonist. A graduate of New York's School of Visual Arts, Stein received a Xeric Grant in 2003 for her comic "Yeah, It Is." Since then, she's been self-publishing issues of her series "Eye of the Majestic Creature," the first four issues of which have recently been collected and published by Fantagraphics.
With a meandering tone and structure reminiscent of Eddie Campbell's Alec stories, Stein depicts a relatable (but not necessarily realistic) slice of life tale, and the fact that the stranger, more colorful elements of her story -- from a female protagonist named Larrybear to anthropomorphic musical instruments to characters drawn as animals -- never overwhelm the realistic elements. It's a fun and thoughtful book that has its own tone and rhythm in a way that's a triumph for the talented, young cartoonist.
CBR News: Leslie, for many people this book is the first time they're coming across your work. Could just talk a little about your background?
Leslie Stein: I went to art school in San Francisco for a couple years. I realized I wanted to draw comics so I transferred to the School of Visual Arts in New York, because they have a good comics program. I started doing it seriously in college, won a Xeric grant my senior year and just kept going ever since then.
I self-published the first three issues of "The Eye of the Majestic Creature" comic book myself on newsprint, so it looked like an old sixties comic. I was bringing them to conventions and had kind of given up the hope of getting it published, because no one was publishing pamphlet comics anymore. I sent the fourth issue to Fantagraphics. I had known Gary [Groth] for a while because of conventions, and they said, "We can't publish it as a pamphlet comic, but we can collect the first four issues and then maybe collect them every few years." So that's how that came about.
While the title of the comic, "Eye of the Majestic Creature," is explained in first issue, where did the title actually originate?
It's kind of a psychedelic comic, especially at the beginning. Basically, when I started it, I was smoking pot. [Laughs] I was sitting in my apartment. I was beading and I had this crazy aurora borealis bead. I kept looking at it and was like, "I've got to name this bead." I named it, the Eye of the Majestic Creature. When I started the comic, I just thought it was a nice name. Even though it was long, I thought it was fitting. In the first issue, Larrybear's looking into an empty beer bottle and she says, "Inside is the eye of the majestic creature." It can mean anything to you. That's the point.
The book is described as both "semi-autobiographical" and "surreal," which are not descriptions we expect to be paired. Tell us a little about Larrybear.
She's based on me, which is where the autobiographical part comes from. The surreal part is because there's a lot of stylistic changes in the story. There's her and the anthropomorphic musical instruments that she hangs out with. That's probably why.
As the series develops, the setting changes and the stories get deeper and different as the four issues went on.
In the first two issues she's living in the country. I was making up a lot of that material. I was living in New York and I wasn't happy here. I think I was playing out what would it be like to live in the middle of nowhere. Then, my writing started to take off in a better direction. I started to really go into my own life more, and now that it's based in New York, it's way more autobiographical. I'm on the sixth issue, and that gets further into life in New York and also back in childhood, which are all based on my experiences.
The fourth story, where she comes back to New York, was a way to get her into New York and begin telling stories about what my life is now. The story is about her trying to get work. She ends up working at a cell phone decorating shop, which I did. It's a crappy job, but I thought it was kind of interesting because I don't know many people who have bejeweled cell phones for work. More than anything, I try to put a funny spin on mundane things in a way that other people can relate to.
You seem to enjoy ending the stories with these quiet, reflective moments.
Those are some of my most favorite moments. Alone and just appreciating what's around you.
One of my favorites is in the third issue, where she comes back from Chicago and goes dancing in the rain and says, "Thank you."
Exactly. Being thankful to be alive and just to have these moments. She goes to see her family in Chicago and she feels a little bit alienated, but instead of feeling bad about it at the end, she feels happy to be home because she's created her own world and life. She feels thankful to have that. It's a contrast between trying to fit in and trying to create your own reality so you can be comfortable in life. Which I guess is why I love comics. I can be in my own world and create my own adventures and communicate with people about what I feel.
I think the unfortunate thing with a lot of autobiographical comics is that they're all done by the same kind of people with the same kind of mentality. For me, what would be interesting would be to get an autobiographical comic done by the popular girl in high school. What her comic would be like would be way interesting to me. I don't know. I definitely have the introverted cartoonist personality. [Laughs] But I also have this other aspect of my personality that's optimistic and thankful.
Why do you utilize surreal and strange elements? Her friend Marshmallow is a guitar, for example.
Well, Marshmallow came about because this woman was in the country by herself and I didn't want it to be all internal dialogue. Adding him gave some external dialogue that I'm more interested in writing. In writing these things, you're spending so much time alone that you have to enjoy what you're creating, so I try to enjoy myself within the process and draw things that amuse me. I love guitars. I play guitar. I like to draw them, so I did.
And some of the characters are animals, Larry's father is a hippo, for example.
I've always done that. I've done a graphic novel out of construction paper and the main character was a badger. It's the one thing you can do in comics that you can't do in literature that I think should be taken advantage of if you're compelled to do it. It's visual, so why not create your own visual language and characters you wouldn't be able to do within literature? Also, it's fun to draw and it amuses me. [Laughs]
Do you think those elements make us read the characters and situations differently than we would if it were presented as a more realistic story?
It's hard for me to tell because I'm so close to it. It just seems so normal to me. I've heard from my friends, but they know me, so they have a little different take on it. I haven't heard back from a lot of people who don't know me yet, so it'll be interesting to hear what people think about it. I think I'm a little too close to it to even be able to read it.
Over the course of these four issues, your ambition seems to have grown. Are you interested in doing longer stories?
The way I think about this series is that it's ongoing and little tidbits and stories are presented for 40 pages at a time. They're all different lengths. Some are six, some are fourteen pages. Basically trying to show this one person's experience and internal life in tidbits, to create over time a deeper understanding of the character and the other characters in the book.
I really am sad that people aren't publishing pamphlet comics anymore, because I think they're really special. I still think about it in terms of issues, even though it's going to be collected in books. What's happened now that I know that it's going to be collected in books is that I've started thinking about the arc of the stories in the book. I want to an arc of stories that fit together well.
Independently published pamphlet comics have died, essentially.
They just can't sell them anymore. I know some of the publishers are sad about that, too, but what can they do? They have to make money to survive. They don't really have a choice. I was talking with Kim Deitch the other day, and he was talking about one of the first comics he did called "Corn Fed." He printed 29,000 pamphlets! At the time, he was selling them to headshops and people were buying them all over the place. Now, if you are doing pamphlet comics -- Michael Kupperman did through Fantagraphics, and I don't know how many they printed, but it was probably like 3000 or something. When I was self-publishing I printed 1000 and I have them all over my house.
You said that you're working on the sixth issue now. Has the fifth issue been released?
No. Fantagraphics said they would publish the book about two years ago -- it takes a long time for that to actually happen. I didn't want to publish the fifth issue when the fourth issue's not out, which I never published -- I saved it for the book. I'm going to see what happens. I was planning on maybe doing a self-published double issue of the fifth and sixth issues later this year after the book comes out, but I don't know. That may depend on whether they're able to put out the next book within a couple years so I can finish that without putting out the books. I wouldn't have to self-publish and have tons of comics in my apartment. In New York, space is really important. [Laughs]
Have you come to the point where you're happy living in New York City?
Definitely. I've been here now almost ten years. The first four years I was pretty confused, but now I'm happy. I don't know. I started a band. I made friends. I just became comfortable. I moved here when I was nineteen, so it was a difficult transition. But yeah, I'm pretty happy and comfortable here, now.
I suppose if you were unhappy, you wouldn't have had Larry move to New York.
How do you work? Could you talk a little about your process?
It's changed. What happens now is I write the book and then I go for it on the page. I don't make any money off these. I've worked a lot of different jobs. I work as a server in a restaurant at night now. So every day, I wake up and I try to do five hours of drawing. I treat it like a job. Sometimes I'll have to go work early and do less, but every day I try to do five hours. If I go over five hours, I've noticed that I have difficulty with my hands.
The stories write themselves. It's based on my life. I read one recently that I thought was really funny, but everyone was like, "Oh, that's so sad." [Laughs] I was like, really? I have a dark sense of humor, I guess.
I think that's what attracted me to comics. I wasn't a particularly happy teenager, but when I found those stories, I thought, these stories are really fucked up but they're really funny and they make you feel a connection with someone else. Sometimes people will say, "That kind of happened to me too." That's perfect. That's what I want to hear.
You mentioned that you're in a band...
I am in a band. I've been in a bunch of bands. I have one main band that I consider "my band" and it's called Prince Ruperts Drop. It's with my Friend Bruno who I called Boris in "Eye of the Majestic Creature". We met working at a record store when I was 19 and first moved the NYC. The drummer in the comic is the bird character. We're a really nerdy band, but it's pretty heavy rock. We have long meandering jams. It's really, really fun.
Many of the one page stories in the book have a very illustrative approach and a different style than the main stories. What made you take them in that direction?
I'd like to do some illustration. I think that's how most cartoonists make their money to do their comics. When I was first out of art school, I thought that I was going to get into illustrating right away and try to make money off that, but I realized that my style wasn't there yet. I mean, we're never formed, we're always changing, but I wanted to keep my artistic drive to myself for myself rather instead of starting to do work for other people. Then maybe my style would change with other people's expectations as opposed to being an organic thing that I'm working on in my own room. I know a lot of people who want to do comics get stuck in illustration and get used to working in static images.
So I'm glad that I didn't do that. I'm happy that when I get off work at the restaurant, which is somewhat soul-crushing... [Laughs] I'm happy to be at home by myself doing my own comics. I'd like to do some illustration. I think I'm ready for it now. I think I have my style and people can look at the book and choose to hire me for stuff that they think would be appropriate for that style. I think you have to be pretty self-motivated; it's more than ninety percent perspiration.
So, what's next for you? Besides more issues of "eye of the Majestic Creature," what would you like to do?
Right now, it's continuing on this series. I'd love to do painting and illustration and collages. Maybe after I'm done with the seventh issue I'll take a break. I don't know. I have a lot of stories to tell with Larry.
I try to say to people to read the book with an open mind. It's not a straight forward narrative. Don't expect that and be disappointed by the lack of a story arc. It's based on experiencing it like you experience life and hopefully you find it funny. Or charming.