"I'm being so manipulative:" Cathy Malkasian's latest comic is a polemic against social media

Cathy Malkasian’s fourth comic, Eartha, is a tense and gorgeous journey. Reading Malkasian’s comics is perhaps the closest equivalent to dreaming that you can experience while you’re awake. The comics feel raw and mysterious and unsettling and more than a little dangerous.

The titular character in Eartha is a naïve young woman who sets out to return dreams to her society. The book feels entirely set in the subconscious — a world in which people read four-word news blurbs printed on biscuits and then perform their emotions of distress about the news in public.

This Saturday, to celebrate the release of Eartha, Malkasian will appear in conversation with Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown. We talked about Eartha and her work over the phone last week.

You’ve done a few books with Fantagraphics now. What’s it like putting a book together with them?

The editing process is pretty free. Gary [Groth] really wants the artist to have their own visions, so he'll just ask me if something isn't clear. Sometimes I would want to take out some narration, and he would encourage me maybe to leave it in. He’d just do certain things for clarity. For the most part, he's hands-off. Which is just amazing.

Did you have conversations about the look of the book? It's just a gorgeous book, in terms of production value.

Oh god, Keeli McCarthy's design is so beautiful on this book. Her cover graphic is like a walking labyrinth for the eyes. You could get lost in that world. All of her choices — for the endpapers, everything — it's just beautiful.

I had a bit of say, but I don't like to impose too much of my opinions because I think that kind of hampers the creative process of the designer. So I had comments now and then but I basically just wanted her to just take off and run with it.

One thing that I think that comics can do better than any other medium, including movies, is convey the dream state. I think they can show dreams in a way that no other medium can. This is a very sort of dreamy book to me. I was wondering whether you agree with that or if you disagree.

Well, my general feeling about books is that they're the ultimate interactive medium. When you are reading a book, you're bringing your own unconscious to it, so there's a little alchemy going on there between what you're reading and what you're thinking. Movies will never be able to do that for you because they're controlling the pacing and the editing, but when you read a book, you're in charge of the pacing.

So, yeah, I think for conveying dream-like states and surreal states, I agree. There's nothing like a book. Maybe the next best thing is painting, and some kinds of music, but books — they just do something to the brain that video games and movies just can't come close to, in my opinion.

Sometimes things have to be on-the-nose.

The part in Eartha about news being printed on biscuits and people publicly wailing over the news in a performative state really stuck with me. I'm probably bringing some of my own anxiety to this but, boy, it felt like social media to me. And it very uncomfortable but very appreciated. I don't imagine you probably want to talk too much about the meaning of your work or anything —

No, I think I was pretty insistent on that one. I was doing that on purpose. I'm really worried about addictive technologies and social media. I'm really concerned about what it's doing to people's brains and their outlooks. I don't care if people think I'm being obvious. That's okay. Sometimes the metaphor doesn't have to be very clothed.

Every time I do a book, it's like a time capsule of whatever is going on. There's this proliferation of addictive technologies, and the people inventing them are even saying that: ‘Yeah, we invent them to be addictive. We want you to be on your phone all the time.’

In your profession, you have to be connected all the time. It's gotta be crazy-making, don't you think?

I certainly feel that way right now, yes.


So you have a more of a hands-off approach to technology, then?

I've lived most of my life before all this but I've been working with Apple computers since the late '80s. I love all that stuff. But then around 10 years or so ago, I guess when the first smartphones came out, I just noticed things started to change.

People's attention spans started to change and then social media came on the scene and it just felt like this runaway train. I really think it's changed people. It's changed their outlooks, their sense of reality, a little too much. Then apart from social media you've got this proliferation of cable outlets and reality shows, so-called reality shows. When everybody's wailing over their biscuits in the book, they're all sort of in their own little reality show where they're the star.

I really felt it. I really appreciated that it felt like I was on Facebook watching somebody melt down over the news in front of me a little bit — that sort of neurotic feeling that I get from watching somebody demonstrate the performative angst that you see out there a lot. Did you worry that it would be too on-the-nose?

No, I didn't. Because sometimes things have to be on-the-nose. I'm not worried about being really, really clever and impressive and intellectually tricky with people. I don't care about that stuff. I care about emotion.

I love that the main character is not a traditionally attractive heroine — that she has a different body shape than many female comics characters. And there are, of course, people who are making comments about her body all the way through the book. Was she always the protagonist, and was she always in this form?

As a protagonist and a hero, I wanted her to be a very socially awkward person who didn't know her own strength. Because who can't relate to that?

I wanted her to be as ordinary as possible. I really like every protagonist in stories I do to be someone very ordinary — someone who is very reluctant about getting involved.

If you ever get around to reading my first book, Percy Gloom, he's very much in that mold. He does not want to get involved. He is really mouthy but he ends up affecting a lot of change just through no conscious action of his own. It's just kind of from being there.

Does that present any challenge for you as a storyteller, having your main characters start out that passive?

Yeah, it's really hard to plot for a protagonist that's kind of passive. It's a real challenge. With [Eartha], she's especially kind and passive. Like, what's gonna wake that giant?

So you’ve really gotta create an antagonist who is doing so much obvious damage to everyone around him that she just, as the main character, can't take it anymore.

Does that maybe relate to how you feel about social media and technologies addictiveness? Are you at a point where you can’t take it anymore?

Well, I don't know. Maybe. I think that everyone has to come to that point within themselves. And that's sort of the whole gist of the book is that you can shut off your misery at any time.

Everyone's addiction is voluntary in this book, even though they've been very much conditioned into it. I guess that's my attitude right now, is that we're inundated with stories from all directions — from TV, from blogs, from social media, we are inundated — and we're exhausted. But I think if you can just land on something that feels real and deep, at least for a little while, it takes you out of that addictive behavior.

Do you ever worry that you're adding to the inundation of culture with your books?


But I'm trying to work in a medium that consciously slows people down and gets them to focus. Because you just can't zip through any of the books I do. You’ve really gotta sit with them. You have to live with them and maybe read them a few times.

I know a lot of people don't want to do that, and that's fine. But for those that are looking for something to sit with and spend time with, then it can temporarily take them out of that.

The art is just gorgeous in this book, and it the sort of thing you want to spend time on every page because you put so much work into it, it's just very obvious.

Well, I'm trying to get people to slow down. That's part of the reason I did the artwork that way. I'm being so manipulative.

Is it moreso in this book that you're trying to get people to slow down, you think, or is that just your style?

Yeah, it is. Yeah, it's all of a piece.

I mean, the whole book is about people who are so fragmented to the point where they can't even dream anymore.

I know, from personal experimentation that if you have a day where you're on social media a lot or you have to be on the internet a lot, at the end of the day you are fragmented. It's really hard, for me at least, to concentrate or to even know what I think about anything because I've been taking in so many other stories. It's hard to know what my opinions are. It's hard to hear that still, small voice.

Can you tell me a little bit about what sort of techniques you used in the art to make people slow down?

Well, I'm trying to create environments and people that feel real to me.

You know, I can't spell it out for you, A-B-C. I'm not a trained artist. I'm more of a self-taught artist, so I go very much by instinct. And there's a stage — at right about the time when I'm writing and outlining and doing all that stuff — where I'm really envisioning the places and figuring out how the cities work and the countryside works and what the culture is and how the people treat each other.

I keep drawing until something feels real to me. And I don't even know what that mechanism is, but there's something that clicks, finally, and that's when it feels real to me. So I couldn't say, ‘oh, it's the composition,’or whatever. It's more like, ‘okay, I know I'm there now, I feel I'm there. Now the drawing's done.’

The same with characters, too. It just was really kind of a challenge to try and figure out how these personalities looked. Especially with Eartha. I drew so many versions of Eartha before I landed on the one that's in the book because she had to be powerful but very, very naïve and innocent-looking. She had to look very goodhearted and just open.

Finally, this is more of a personal note but I loved the character of Old Lloyd. I was wondering if it was based on a person or if it just came to you or what. I just loved that character.

Old Lloyd is my id. He's the character I relate to most when I get really disgusted about what's going on. He was very easy to write. Thank you for liking him, because he's my favorite character.

Oh, really?

Yeah. He is. He's crafty and he's grumpy as hell but real deep down, he's really kind. He's just worried.

I'm glad you liked him.