This following interview contains frank discussion and artwork of a sexual nature.
For many, Erika Moen is known first and foremost as the artist behind "Bucko," the Jeff Parker-written webcomic turned print comic from Dark Horse Comics. For others, the member of Portland's Periscope Studio is known for her autobiographical webcomic "DAR." Subtitled "A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary," it stands as one of the most influential comics around for a generation of young cartoonists.
Or perhaps you know her for her current project, "Oh Joy, Sex Toy." A weekly webcomic about sex, it's funny and educational and there's nothing else like it, online or off.
In a candid discussion with CBR News about the strip, Moen explained how she approaches creating what she calls "a big cartoon gift basket of fun drawings and terrible puns," the importance of doing your own research into the topics OJST tackles, the role her husband plays in bringing the strip to life and being transparent about Kickstarter finances.
CBR News: "Oh Joy, Sex Toy" is a comic strip, but it's also much more.
Erika Moen: It's a weekly webcomic about the broad topic of sex. It provides reviews of sex toys, shares sex education lessons, interviews sex workers, and features guest comics from other cartoonists covering a wide variety of topics like gender stuff, the history of vibrators, and reviewing Korean Love Hotels. It strives to be relevant to large diversity of genders, sexualities and body types.
How much time and effort do you spend on making sure that the strip is educational and precise?
About a day. The thing about "OJST" is that it's not actually breaking new ground with the information it shares. All the educational bits are things a person could find on their own by Googling or looking at the Wikipedia article on that subject. In fact, "OJST" only has room for about 400-600 words per comic, so the reader is actually getting a very condensed version of that topic, and they'd learn a lot more if they did go straight to Wikipedia or Planned Parenthood or Scarleteen's sites. Likewise with the toy reviews, if you want to really know the full ins-and-outs of a sex toy you're better off going to a text-based blog like http://heyepiphora.com, who has an unlimited amount of space to walk you through each product.
I ask, because in reading the strip, the two aspects which really come out are the fact that you really want to share information, to lay out things factually and precisely, but also to make it clear to people that this is fun. Those are two things which sex ed is not especially concerned with.
Yes! While "OJST" can only scratch the surface of any given subject, the secret of its appeal is that I wrap up all that information in a big cartoon gift basket of fun drawings and terrible puns. The aim of the comic is to make the reader feel like they're talking with a friend and being included in the jokes, rather than being lectured at by an invisible instructor. A giant wall of text with out-of-context photos of anatomy can feel so dry and even alienating. Same goes for photos of sex toys -- sometimes you see one and you're like, "How does that even work? Which bit goes in which hole???" By drawing comics, I'm trying to make people feel included, giving pictures of anatomy and toys the context it needs to make sense, to demystify sex in a really approachable, friendly way. People are more receptive to learning when they're enjoying themselves and laughing.
One of the aspects of the strip that I know a lot of us really love is the fact that the main characters are you and your husband. But there are many other characters throughout, of all different races and genders and body types and proclivities.
Representing a wide variety of people is really important to me. People need to see themselves in their media; it's really important to your sense of self-esteem and feeling like you matter in society. Bigger people, disabled people, queer people, trans* people, people of color -- they all deserve to feel like they're sexually attractive and that they're entitled to happy, healthy, fulfilling sex lives, just like all the thin, white, able-bodied, cisgender people that disproportionately dominate those images in popular culture and mainstream porn.
I was wondering about your husband Matthew and his role in the strip -- by which I mean on the page and behind the scenes.
This project is very much an equal collaboration between us, and has been since we launched in April 2013, although originally he wanted to downplay his involvement since he wanted the focus to be on me. I'm the one who had been building up an audience with my comics for over a decade, and he was working full-time for another company doing web and app design stuff. He felt that throwing his name on there would somehow distract people from focusing on my name. But now that he's working full-time on "OJST," I fiiiiiiinally got him to give in and let me put his name at the top, next to mine.
We edit and insert our own jokes into each others scripts, so each comic is very much a blend of both our voices. I do all the drawing, and Matt colors, sometimes art directing me if I'm stuck on how to lay out a page. Basically, I handle most of the art duties, and then Matt handles the business side of "OJST." He recently wrote a blog post about how "OJST" makes money, breaking down the core of our individual duties.
Do you have a list of toys or a list of topics, issues and people you want to talk to that you want to make comics about? I'm just curious how you approach the strip and plan it out.
We have so many ideas on our own that we really don't have much room to take in reader requests, honestly. But occasionally, we take a suggestion from our audience! We're constantly talking about potential subjects, whether it's toys to review or educational topics. We have these blank magnets that we write down all the subjects on and then arrange onto the "OJST" schedule on our fridge. We plan comic topics out three months in advance, and let toy companies know they have a 4-6 month wait period before their review will go live after they send up a product. One of us writes the script and then the other edits it.
You've had a number of people do fill-in strips. In those instances, do you offer any oversight or guidelines, or are they free to take in whatever direction they want?
We do have guidelines, but that's just around format. We try to let them have free rein over how they talk about their subject. I ask that people try to use gender neutral pronouns, and we require that they turn in a script before they start drawing, just so we can make sure it's a message that fits the site's aesthetic. We pay a page rate for these comics (Typically 4-5 pages, the fewest pages we can accept is 3, otherwise it breaks our site because the comic is too short). The creator owns them 100% -- we just non-exclusively license them from the creator to put on our site and in the collection books.
You mentioned that you and Matthew are plotting a new Kickstarter. Is this for a second book?
Yes! The goal is to launch it in... May? But I've probably jinxed it by saying that. It'll collect the second year's worth of content, from April 2014 - April 2015.
Our Kickstarter for volume one went really, really well -- we even shipped the book out before I estimated delivery date. How many Kickstarter campaigns can claim that? Matthew did a post breaking down our numbers here.
You announced a little while back that you were letting "DAR" go out of print. Why? Is this for good?
I had "DAR" volume one in print since 2009, and volume two since 2010. They're a time capsule of my life from the ages of 20-26 and, until "OJST," that's the comic I was best known for. The thing about turning a period of your life into a story for the public to consume is that, eventually, you grow out of the person you wrote about. I'm 31 now, turning 32 in June. Early 20s Erika doesn't exist any more, but it's sort of like she still does because people are reading about her in the present day. I mean, last year I turned 30 and bought an actual house with my husband -- a pretty grown-up thing to do, right? And there, in the basement, were boxes of books chronicling my life as a stupid young adult. That's the Erika people think of when they haven't met me in real life. When my inventory of books was finally running out at the end of 2014, it just felt right to let that 20-year-old version of me go to sleep for a while.
Originally, I was going to let them stay out of print, but now Matthew is doing this One Great Big Collection book that includes not just the "DAR" comics, but also almost all of the other autobio comics I did since I was about 17-18, and I'm making some brand new essay-like comics talking about my life in my 30s. So "DAR" will eventually come back in one book, but it'll be part of a much bigger context. If "DAR" was a snapshot of my 20s, frozen in amber, this collection will show that people grow and change over time. Rather than being like this is who I am, it'll have more of a "People grow and change over time" feeling.
Is there something you have not discussed on the strip that you really want to cover? Things you feel are important and should really be addressed?
Oh, God -- so much. I wish I could produce two comics a week, there's so many subjects I want to cover. I want to talk more about consent (My consent comic covers the most basic concept of it and doesn't have enough room to talk about nuance), about responsive desire, non-concordant genital response, how to fist, how squirting works, the various kinds of abortions you can get, asexuality, how to lose your virginity, etc., etc.
And there's so many people I want to interview! I'd love to get some more guest artists to cover stuff I'm ignorant about, like kinky and fetish-y and BDSM-y things. I dunno, there's just so much. That's the great thing about the subject of sex -- it's such an incredibly broad topic.