An interview with New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck
New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck on growing up as an outsider and the bliss of cartooning
Words— Yang Shi
From a pack of miniature huskies to a woman offering a seat to a man in a wheelchair, nothing escapes the exceptionally watchful eye of cartoonist Liana Finck. Author of the novel Passing for Humans and the New Yorker advice-column comic Dear Pepper, Liana Finck partnered up with Frank And Oak to create Nice, a capsule collection in honour of the International Women’s Day.
As a part of our phone conversation, Finck explains the meaning behind our collaboration, speaks about the bliss of cartooning, and reveals how wandering on the cusp of strangeness became an underpinning aspect of her distinctive storytelling.
Hi Liana, thank you for doing this interview with us. We are really thrilled to have you for this collaboration. Can you tell us about the important female figures in your life? How have they influenced your journey as a woman and as an artist?
Very much my mom. She’s an artist. I grew up in the country so she was the only artist I knew and she is a representative genius in me. She introduced me to all the artist books that I found. Growing up, my favourite illustrators and cartoonists were Roz Chast and Maira Kalman and my favourite comic artist was Gabrielle Bell— they were all very important to me.
How would you define female empowerment in the context of the cartooning industry widely known to be male-dominated?
I feel like it has changed a huge amount since I started which wasn't a long time ago. When I started doing New Yorker cartoons, it was mostly men and now I really don’t think it is. I feel like the most exciting stuff happening in the industry comes from women and that wasn’t the case when I was starting. They were more seen at the margins and less accepted and it has flipped really fast since then.
In your novels, you deconstruct and reconstruct society through a female perspective. Your female protagonists are often confronted with difficult situations in which they have to embrace their vulnerability as their greatest strength. Do you view this as an essential step towards womanhood?
Yes, I think. I don't know if it’s innate or because of society, but I feel women have less confidence when they are starting out in a field than a man in the same place would because we question ourselves more. We are always told to be more like men and to just go ahead and do things—and not wonder if we are actually doing the right things, but I think that questioning yourself to some extent is a huge strength—it makes you create good art and not repeat things that have been already done. I think a lot of confident artists just redo things we have already seen. Questioning artists make something new. I wish that were seen more like a strength— not having a huge ego and only march on forward when you are really sure of what you are doing.
Can you tell us a little bit about each illustration you created for this exclusive collection?
On the first picture, it’s a man veering off a woman passing by the street. She has this kind of demonic grin on the back of her head and he yells at her “ Why don’t you give me a smile baby?”. I guess that represents how you don’t really know what you are asking for when you are asking someone to smile at you—why is it a common catcall phrase to smile with such facility? [laughing] Because when I smile it’s often from a place of power and often, anger.
On the next picture, there’s a bag labelled sugar, and one labelled spice and a box that says everything non-threatening. It’s omitted that the phrase sugar, spice and everything nice is really destructive to say about girls. We are not everything nice, we are whatever we want to be and whatever we are.
Stereotypes. It has little pictures of women faces and labels of a female stereotype. One is nice. One is bossy—if a woman is direct in what she thinks she’s labelled as bossy whereas a man would not be labelled as bossy in the same position. One is prude—because a woman who doesn’t want to make out with someone is seeing as prude rather than discerning. If you date someone rich, you are a golddigger. Emotional—showing emotions makes you weak and out of control. Shrill—if you want your voice to be heard. High-Maintenance—that’s a big one. Overbearing—like a mother figure would be always seen as overbearing when in reality, she has to be if she wants to keep her children well and alive. Irrational, rather than smart—if you say something that other people don’t understand. These aren’t all necessarily bad things to be called but they are things women would be called when a man wouldn't be called the same thing in the same position.
People always say that humour doesn’t last a long time but I think the funny thing is timeless and the serious thing delivers its message and then becomes heavy and corny.
I think it's very clear that there's a lot of double standards going on. When a woman is imaginative and creative, she is seen as irrational but a man is innovative.
Which one do you relate to the most at the moment?
Definitely sexy. [laughing] I used to be nice but I am not anymore. I think I relate a lot to emotional, nag, shrill, high maintenance… and overbearing… and irrational…
Like most of us, I imagine. [laughing] Let’s talk about the beginnings of your career as a cartoonist. When did you first start drawing and why?
I started drawing when I was really young because my mom taught me how to draw. I was a really shy kid so drawing became a necessity, it protected me as a young kid from being a nerd or someone without friends. I was appreciated by the other kids for my drawings and it was also something that I love to do—so it gave me a lot of confidence and drive.
That’s really beautiful. I wonder what are the perks and limitations of cartoons compared to other forms of art, for instance, fine art?
A big perk is that you don’t have to do the same thing over and over. With fine art, you are often taking hold as being the one who paints lines or the person who sculpts giant grails of fake flowers. With a cartoon, you can draw a line in five seconds, and that's your line, you can move on and do something else. And I also like the idea of drawing for a purpose. In fine art, you are judged on how you draw and your skills which always seemed really strange to me. It would be like if you said something and someone just concentrates on the elocution—whether if it were perfect—rather than what you said. So cartooning really has its own value. Cartooning is easy and quick, you don’t need anyone’s sanction, you don’t need any fancy computer equipment—it’s very democratic. Some of the drawbacks of cartooning are there isn’t a ton of venues or viewers, you can become a lot richer and more famous in TV and you would get more chances to get published when you are a writer-writer, rather than a graphic novelist. I like a lot of famous comics, but the comics I love the most don’t tend to get famous. But that’s a perk too—it’s a world you can make really wild work and there is not a ton of policing from the top down as it’s there in the book publishing world, you don’t have to follow a certain structure. I think a lot of cartoonists are squarely middle working class.
I can see how cartooning is more accessible than other art forms—an outlet to create uncensored and sincere work.
For me, drawing has always felt like shouting the things from your mind you wanted to say for a while. It’s speaking in a language you were born with, rather than taught, it feels like the purest form of self-expression.
Oh, I can relate. I remember when I came to Canada as a kid, I didn't speak the language at first, so I drew a lot in class and all the other immigrant kids spoke different languages so we would all communicate through drawings.
Oh my god, that's incredibly sweet and lovely. Do you still draw?
Yeah, not as much as I would like to. But I still keep a sketchbook around. What about you? How do you approach drawing?
I use a Muji 0.38 gel pen and a slightly glossier paper. I love drawing in cafes but they get too crowded and I am really bad with crowds. So I draw and work at home. For a graphic novel, I like working on a rocking chair with my pad on my lap. I reserve my computer for busy work. In the summer, I like to sit in the park. I am not a big fan of tables. I feel like sitting at a desk makes your brain turn off...
Have you wrestled with writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Oh my god, I have a lot of writer’s block. It’s anxiety. I am sure it’s different for everyone but I think that writer’s block is a form of deep-freeze response—when something scares you either fight or freeze. I get scared when I don’t know why I am working on something or when I think that no one will see my work. With cartoons, I often have writer’s block when there is something in my life I am ignoring rather than reflecting upon. With Instagram, even when I don’t have ideas, I would still post just because I like to show my work even the bad ones.
Talking about Instagram, with over than 238K followers, your posts certainly resonate with a lot of fans. What is your relationship with Instagram in regards to your authenticity as an artist?
I like to be able to put my work out into the world without it having to go through an editor or a publisher. I think the way it works is with quantity—with writer’s block, I am constantly judging my work, so with a book, I don’t want to put in anything bad, but with Instagram, I can put the good and bad together and not worry about it. But when I post something that’s accidentally offensive, it really affects me and I crawl into myself and don’t work for a while.
When that happens, how do you detach yourself from all the negative thinking?
I don’t really. I listen to criticism and I definitely learn from it, but it’s still very painful. Usually, I know it isn’t personal, but it’s still very hard to not let that negativity get you. I try to use it to spur me into putting out more work.
I think we all have been guilty of dwelling on the negative. How do you find the perfect balance between seriousness and humour in your tone?
Oh god, I don’t know. [laughing] People always say that humour doesn’t last a long time but I think the funny thing is timeless and the serious thing delivers its message and then becomes heavy and corny. I think funniness comes from confidence and with age, and being able to take a step back.
Do you think you need to be able to take a step back in order be a good people-watcher?
I do a lot of people watching but it doesn’t find its way into my art so much. I think that’s what novelists do, they just watch people and turn that into stories. I really envy their ability to do that. But I do love watching and listening to people and I hate talking to people—partly why cafés stress me out. I just want to sit and watch and pretend that I don’t have a body.
Do you think that people are in nature awkward or awkwardness is acquired socially?
Oh my gosh, I think it’s acquired socially, it’s knowing that there’s a set of rules that you are supposed to follow but you don’t really know the rules.
From your anthropological standpoint, have you gathered the rules of humanness by now?
I think a lot of humanness as something that I am not. I think as humans we hold ourselves to high standards of civility— this is how loud your voice should be, this how you should eat, work, act. Being a woman, you hold yourself to even higher standards than men, and as a self-employed person who works at home, I am not exposed to the standard social cues which creates a distance between me and the rest.
Some of the cartoons you share are very intimate, autobiographical and depict real-life struggles. How did you feel when they first got picked up by big publishers, notably the New Yorker, and presented to a large audience?
I feel really good when that happened and it’s a common feeling among cartoonists. But I feel I have never got my big break, only breaks that make me feel comfortable, understood and encouraged. There has never been a moment when I thought to myself: “Oh I can stop trying now and definitely won’t fall into the hole of oblivion next month.” My professional life is a series of waves of excitement—an uncertain roadmap for the future that it’s all going to end just the way it started.
Were you scared to publish some of the more personal stories?
No. Only scared for my family reading them. I do not write for people I know, I write for strangers. I am really private and guarded in real life, I don’t take personal questions from acquaintances or overly friendly strangers. But in my work, I like to be listened to—my main fear in my work is that I will be ignored and not understood.
One last question! What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a female aspiring cartoonist, writer or artist?
For someone at the very beginning, it’s important to find community especially if they are cartoonists— the community is so incredible in New York and Montreal. You feel less alone and less of a fraud if you meet other people doing the same thing from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. If you feel lost, it's important to pay attention to your own process and style.
Thank you so much Liana for your time—you were truly wonderful— that’s all for today. I wish you the best for all your upcoming projects
Thank you, this was really really fun! I am actually working at home right now and looking at old New Yorker cartoons that I might rework on.