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Interview with Grace Desmarais

I’d like to start off by talking about your contribution in this issue of Solstice Lit Mag, your piece titled Tubes, about a recent hospital visit. What can you tell our readers about your experience and how it inspired this poetic piece of graphic lit?

My piece Tubes was drawn while I was recovering after an emergency nephrostomy. Just a little background: after my surgery I had a tube running from my kidney out my back to a bag where excess fluid would drain. When I got home the bag was an external and ever-present reminder of this really scary experience (being in the hospital). While at the hospital there had also been a series of increasingly scary complications that came up — at one point I stopped breathing on my own.


When I was finally released my lungs were incredibly weak and I was exhausted.  I was having a hard time articulating the sense of entanglement I felt. Both emotionally entwined with the hospital and physically with the tube still coming out of my back. The comic Tubes became this perfect analogy for that entanglement.

The colors of the comic were informed by the colors of my hospital room. The blue-black background references the color I saw as I was going under for the emergency procedure. I remember looking down at my hands—I couldn’t move without tugging on some part of me. “My body is a tangled mess” just kept rolling around my head as a start to a comic and then Tubes happened.

How has your art and drawing comics specifically helped you cope with your chronic illnesses?

I feel very seen making chronic illness comics, which makes the whole experience less lonely. Chronic illness is an incredibly isolating experience and sharing my experience through comics helps make me feel more connected. Art never leaves you. When I couldn’t walk, I could still draw, and that outlet was and is incredibly empowering for me. My auto-bio work lets me stand up and say “HEY I AM HERE.”


Was it difficult to begin creating auto-bio comics or did it evolve naturally as a part of your recovery?

Making comics feels and always felt very natural to me. I am always drawing little doodles of myself doing things. Mostly everyday things like reading or drinking coffee. My college thesis project at Hampshire College was semi-auto bio. My thesis helped me build technical skills—the how to of comic making. Then in 2017 as I started to get more and more sick (i.e. I started being unable to walk) I also started going to NYU Langone for experimental treatments. I found myself stuck in a chair for at least an hour while I participated in said treatment. I ended up drawing about all my anxieties around my diagnosis.


Do you feel it’s an asset in today’s comics industry to create niche work?  

In terms of marketing your comic or shopping your comic to publishers it helps to know your market. If a cartoonist or author can say exactly who they are writing for it shows competency, it shows that when you are drawing you are thinking about the answer to the question: who are you writing for?

As I said earlier though, niche markets are great when going to a publisher, an agent especially loves to hear you know your readers, but niche audiences also mean your pool is smaller. Books with themes that are able to be read by a variety of people and interpreted in different ways have a larger readership.


How has your work ben received in general indie comic and web comic communities?

The work I make about being sick started as something just for me. It’s been a total whirlwind to have seasoned auto-bio cartoonists like Kevin Budnik or Liz Bolduc engage with me and my work. I am sharing my work (Tubes, Spoons, Healing Year) to open up a dialog with those artists and other people who experience chronic pain (however you define that). As far as the receival of my work into the broad indie comics community, Spoons first demonstrated a kind of emotional vulnerability that many comics readers and folks in the community have been exploring since indie comics was started.

As far as webcomics go—I love reading them (shout out to Rachel Smythe) but my work often is made for print.

Spoons: a diary on chronic illness

from Spoons: a diary on chronic illness


How has your work been received by others with the same or similar illnesses? Do you get feedback from that audience?

I have met many people who stop by my table at comics festivals who stop because of Spoons and stay to share their own experiences with chronic illness. Even one person at one of those events who shares their story makes it worth it.


What can you tell me about your creative process?  Do you usually write outlines and thumbnails or work more iteratively?

The best part of making a book, zine, mini-comic, whatever-making for me is thinking about the final design. For me a piece isn’t done until it has been published. Whether that’s online or hard copy. As far as where that process starts? Usually the words and images come to me at the same time. With Tubes it was the phrase “my body is a tangled mess” that started me sketching.

I will make these really illegible pencil sketches in my sketchbook; I’ll write the words next to those messy thumbnails. These sketches are just for me and my own reference.

Then comes the fun part—bringing those thumbs into the pencils stage usually this means I am taking those messy little one-inch drawings and bringing them to scale. This phase is also where I am asking the people around me for their feedback. I’m constantly asking myself questions: does that panel need to be there? Is this text necessary and/or intentional?

After that its fine tuning and layout. This is when the book designer in me really goes crazy. I love some good endpapers. Last but not least the project is sent to the printer or publisher and ta-dah! You have a comic.


Do you work mostly on digital canvas or with traditional mediums?

from Healing Year
Currently an in-progress work being produced at Mass MoCA

I bounce back and forth between digital and traditional. The medium I choose is based on what would serve the narrative best. I always pencil my thumbnails first, for some reason I really struggle with doing thumbnails digitally. Right now, I’ve been doing more digital work because it saves a significant amount of time when work is in the pipeline.


Who are your comic Influences? And are there any new comic creators that are doing exciting things with the form?

I could go on and on about all the amazing people who have inspired me to produce work. When read Jillian Tamaki’s Super Mutant Magic Academy it totally blew my mind. The combination of the utterly normal with the utterly fantastical was exactly the kind of book I needed to read to encourage me to explore fictional narratives—you’ll see more of that in 2020 with some upcoming publications. I also feel like Anders Nilsen’s Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow was foundational in getting me through a hard time. That book was proof that you can make art about when things are bad, and the comic can still be tender.

As for artist who are doing exciting things with the medium? Natalie Andrewson is doing really incredible comics with Risograph. Nat totally understands the technical components of color mixing. She also has this really playful line work that is complimented by the textural components of the Riso print process. Rachel Smythe is also a killer story teller. As mentioned earlier my comics aren’t often made for digital reproduction or reading, but Rachel’s work Lore: Olympus integrates the scrolling platform and the RBG color scheme in really incredible ways. Rachel also writes some of the best cliff-hangers.


Raina Telgemeier, who rose to fame with her auto-bio comic, Smile, about her own medical story, has really redefined the YA/Graphic Lit genre and found an incredible amount of success with her work. You’ve lectured and given workshops about auto-bio comic making, so what are your thoughts on the current auto-bio comics genre as a whole? 

With chronic illness writing (at least for me) it’s constantly a push-pull between what I want to make and what I need to make. Do I want to be the person who writes about being sick all the time when I think I am capable of writing fiction or fantasy? But at the same time this really horrible thing just happened to me—like being in the hospital and not breathing. I NEED to draw and write to get it out of my creative system. Writing auto-bio can feel a little bit like I’m pigeonholing myself, but it also has given me incredible relationships with other cartoonists and readers.

The relationships within the comics community and the support you get when you are writing about what is going on in your life is unparalleled. I was at this comic panel with Carol Tyler and David Smalls during SPX and by the end of the panel everyone on the panel had cried. That isn’t really something you get on a Superman panel. I felt like I was part of something special.

Often times sharing your story can be the beginning of others sharing theirs. As more people feel empowered, as more people feel the need to share their stories, auto-bio will grow. For right now I still feel like there are more stories I need to share—for my own sanity. I still want to one day write about goblins and fairies.


Grace Desmarais self-publishes auto-bio comics centered around themes of trauma, dis/ability, chronic illness, and art history. Grace’s work has been featured in a variety of anthologies including the Votes for Women Anthology (to be published Fall 2020) and her editorial work has been featured in magazines, including Bright Lite. Her goal is to be a published graphic novelist with a committed comics publisher where she hopes to make comics about life and goblins. View more of Grace’s work at https://gracedesmarais.myportfolio.com/

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