Turn and Face the Strange: Cartoonist Casey Nowak's big life changes have invigorated her art


Carolyn Nowak

The two years since Casey Nowak last answered questions for Pulp have been filled with personal changes and critical success. Followers of Nowak’s on Twitter may also have noticed her using the platform to discuss her own experiences with sexuality, divorce, mental health, and recently a series of tweets discussing her name change from Carolyn to Casey. 

The Ann Arbor cartoonist feels these experiences, both good and bad, have influenced and increased her confidence in her work. 

In late 2018, Top Shelf released Nowak’s collection of short stories, Girl Town. These previously released stories, along with one unpublished work, secured Nowak some of her best critical reactions to date. Girl Town finished the year on numerous “Best of” lists, was nominated for an Eisner Award (akin to comics' Academy Award), and last month won Nowak her third Ignatz Award, which recognizes excellence among self-published or small-press creators.

Previously, Nowak had an acclaimed 12-issue run as the artist for the popular series Lumberjanes, and in 2017 she published Chad Agamemnon, an all-original comic for the Ann Arbor District Library's annual Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival (A2CAF). (AADL cardholders can download the comic here.)

Nowak has also released the first two volumes of her middle-grade Buffy the Vampire Slayer series and ventured into erotic comics with the release of No Better Words, which also scored an Eisner nomination for the cartoonist. Earlier this year, Nowak started a Patreon site, which allows fans to subscribe at various tiers to gain access to exclusive content from Nowak including works in progress and exclusive mini-comics like last month’s Duh! Ha-Ha! 

Nowak was kind enough to answer a few emailed questions for Pulp. 

Q: Since you last answered some questions for Pulp, you’ve gone through some changes in your personal life, and enjoyed critical and award-winning success with the release of Girl Town. Have these events changed your approach to creating comics? 
A: Yes. I'm much more confident in my process and I'm much more in touch with my values, creative and otherwise. I got divorced, moved in with my weird and wonderful friends, and committed myself to the small, dirty artist lifestyle I never knew I craved. I used to have so much crap, you know? Now I just have my room, which is too hot in the summer, and my books, and some cheap clothes. I'm free of the distractions of domestic bullshit, which is a great thing and an awful thing because now I just get to perpetually obsess over comics and stories. Therapy has also been great. I've gotten a lot of new material from it. It's allowed me to inspect and correct some of my serious emotional deformities. Fascinating shit. Have you ever felt like you weren't really a person? I've finally gotten over that feeling and it's wonderful. 

Q: Earlier this year you started a Patreon site, and last month released a mini-comic, Duh! Ha-ha!, on the site that I think really captures the spontaneous and awkward ways that relationships, whether we want them to or not, can start. Why did you decide to release it on your Patreon, and can Patrons expect more longer comics in the future? 
A: I've been completely devoted to the middle-grade Buffy series for the last two years, which is now over, and I was looking for something to blow my nose on. Yeah? I wrote Duh! Ha-ha! as a collaboration with an artist for Spitball back in January, but I ended up keeping it for myself when I realized I couldn't avoid being a control freak about it. I put notes all over the script with like five different font colors to denote narration vs dialogue vs imagery. What's the point of collaboration if one person makes almost every decision? I was also just too fond of the story, and it came out a bit personal too. Releasing it on my Patreon seemed like an obvious move! And I got a lot of patrons from it. I'm sure I'll do more longer PDF comics soon, what a great and easy way to release a thing to subscribers. And nobody telling me what to do. And PDFs, damn! It's like the only resources I need are time and talent and internet, isn't that great? 

Q: You’ve mentioned in other interviews the meticulous process you used to create the stories included in Girl Town. The art on your Patreon site feels very loose. Was this a conscious decision to use the site in this way, or a necessity in order to have a content flowing to your Patrons consistently? 
A: If my art looks loose these days I think it's just because I'm getting better at it, more comfortable, more excited. I try to keep my process kinda fresh. I switch from digital to traditional, I screw around with different programs. Comics can really take forever and I want to make SO MANY of them, so I'm always trying to tidy and optimize the sludgy conduit between my brain and the final product. I can't seem to figure out how to draw in a simple way, which sucks. I wish I could crank effective, natural, beautiful stories out with the speed and consistency of [Michael] DeForge but it just doesn't work for me. I always need more folds, more lines, I gotta make sweet, useless love to every panel. But I think consistency in output comes from loving what you do, you know? I'm only gonna make that much shit if I love it. You gotta find a way to draw that you really truly enjoy, and I'm figuring that out all the time. 

Casey Nowak

Q: The second installment of your Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, The Cursed Coven, was recently released. I noticed a copy of the first book in Target on Carpenter Road. As someone who typically sees their work in local comic shops, how does it feel to see your book reaching a wider audience in big box stores?
A: Ha! That's cool. How does it feel ... good? I don't know, it was a fun and stressful project, and I'm proud of it, but I don't get a surge of pride seeing my work sold at Target. I guess it's not a context I ever really saw myself being in. Plus, I'm staring real hard at my future work, Cursed Coven feels like a lifetime ago. Maybe I'm a bitch, but yeah, I don't reflect on the distribution, there are just so many more interesting things to think about. 

Q: I’m a little jealous that you met Lucy Knisley’s son, Pal, recently at SPX in Maryland. I’ve been a fan of Lucy’s work for some time, and Kid Gloves moved me like few comics ever have. Is Lucy’s work an influence on yours, and is Pal super cool?
A: I actually often say that I wouldn't make comics if it weren't for Lucy. Her LiveJournal was such a big deal to me. I was 21, I knew nothing about indie comics, I hated my office job, and I just like ate her comics all day long, over and over again. Her success showed me that there was a space in comics for the kind of work I wanted to do. She was also the reason I started attending festivals. I went to my first TCAF [Toronto Comic Arts Festival] because I wanted to meet her! I WAS TERRIFIED! How funny. I knew that she had printed French Milk on her own and that it had been discovered at a show and subsequently published, and I thought, “OK, that's what I'm going to do.” I'm going to table with my own printed work and I'm going to figure out how to do this thing.

Pal is one of the most glorious, enthusiastic, forward, friendly little kids I've ever met. I don’t know if motherhood is for me, but Lucy and Pal sure make it look fun, don't they? Um, except for the uh, almost totally dying in the process of birth bit. Lucy was enormously pregnant and overdue and then she vanished from social media for a bit. I remember I was keeping such close tabs on that bump. When she came back, wounded but with a beautiful baby, I burst into tears. I was so happy she was OK, oh my god, oh my god. It must be terribly weird for her to have almost complete strangers so invested in her life, but I can't help it, I feel like she's my sister. I definitely know her better than I know my own family, actually. Ha-ha. Or at least, you know, the cartoon version of her.

Carolyn Nowak

Q: Something I really enjoy about your work is how your stories end. There’s a bit of an open ending that I think allows the reader to conjure their own future paths for your characters. Was this something you tried a few times and liked how it worked, or do you have future stories in mind for some of your characters?
A: If something feels unnatural in a story I don't do it, and conclusions don't always feel natural. You can keep going on with anything, you can just keep rolling the snowball. Or you can just have a snowball. I'm also just, like, fucking ignorant and my writing process looks like sticky overcooked pasta being flung at the wall until I'm like, yes, that certainly is a compelling arrangement of wall pasta and I'm going to share it with my friends now. It's a snowball! It's pasta! I'm a writer! I like metaphors!

Here, I'm going to write a conclusion for Diana's Electric Tongue just for you: Diana never gets a better tongue but she learns to feel feelings again when she meets some ethereal nonbinary chimney sweep and falls madly in love. Diana's become really self-conscious about relationships, though, and the twee performative nature of her partner's chimney sweep business starts to make her uneasy. Something something, her partner genuinely loves chimney sweeping, Diana has to reflect on the performative nature of her whole entire life, they resolve their issues and start a co-op house with their friends. They have the cleanest chimney in all the land. Owen is elected president of the world even though he wasn't running. The end. 

Q: Some of your recent tweets mention work on a new graphic novel. How is work progressing with that and will we be seeing anything from it soon?
A: I'm done with the outline, but now that I'm doing the real work of scripting I keep freaking myself out. I need to just ... jump. It doesn't even have a publisher yet; I'm just trying to pitch it, it doesn't have to be perfect. I'm having the time of my life, though. It's definitely going to be my best, most interesting, vulnerable, and beautiful work yet. If you are a fan of my comics, you will be a fan of this comic. I'll probably put some of the pitch artwork on my Patreon in the next few weeks. Oh god, it's going to be so good, it's going to be so good, and sad and funny. I'm still trying to figure out how to keep it out of my parents' hands, but it's going to be tough because they listen to Fresh Air, and I'll probably be on the program because of my amazing, genius book. I worry about stuff like that a lot. I worry I will be too successful. 

Jeremy Klumpp is a freelance writer based in Ypsilanti.

Follow Casey Nowak on Twitter at @CaseyCaseyNowak and on her Patreon.