Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Goddess of Comics

Written by Jesse Sposato
Illustrations by Lauren Weinstein
Who says you can't be the jill of all trades and master of all as well? Lauren Weinstein is a smart, talented, and savvy lady. She is a teacher at SVA, Parsons, and the 92nd Street Y. She is also a wife, dog-owner, and lead singer of kick-ass band, Flaming Fire, where she dresses practically in drag, complete with a blonde wig and platform heels. Oh, and she also somehow managed to find the time to write and publish a new sci-fi fantasy comic book, with PictureBox Inc. called The Goddess of War.

Before that, she was busy making comics about junior high and high school, and telling tales about Jewish girls like herself, occasionally sans some curly hair and the name Lauren. Through her world, we meet Latke Boy, (from Girl Stories), go to horse camp for the summer (“Horse Camp” from Stuck in the Middle), and remember what it’s like to have that perfect best friend that always makes us feel like our hair is slightly the wrong shade, or our jokes, just not that funny.

As kids, we are often afraid to admit our flaws, faults, and insecurities, but as adults, we can look back and take note of our younger selves with a newfound wisdom. Weinstein brings these adult sensibilities to her comics in the form of pure honesty and fearlessness, coupled with an equally and irresistibly appealing charm and wit. She treads sticky ground, but never loses her footing doing so, and with each panel, you either laugh out loud, or sort of smile to yourself as you take in the sentiment. In another words, Lauren Weinstein and her comics are pretty much amazing!

Jesse: So, tell me about your new book.

Lauren: It’s called Goddess of War, and it’s a sci-fi fantasy comic book. It involves the main character, The Goddess of War, getting really drunk off virgin’s blood because she’s having a bad day—her car doesn’t start so she can’t drive to work—and she’s just getting really fed up with her job of being the Goddess of War. She thinks it’s all kind of pointless, so she decides to take off work one day, and all this bad stuff happens on Earth. And meanwhile, she passes out and kind of flashes back to this time that she had with her boyfriend, the Apache Chief Cochise—who is a real Apache chief from history—he was a great military leader, and he started the Apache Wars.

I took this project on because I don’t know anything about war—I don’t know why people fight wars, how people win wars; what’s a good war, if there is such a thing, and what’s a bad war. This project is so completely different than anything else I’ve ever done. It feels like something I could work on for the rest of my life and never get bored.
Jesse: Oh, I love that feeling!

Lauren: But I also feel like, it’s just a comic book, so you have to know where to go with it too. It’s slated to be a four-issue thing, so I’m trying to make this very complete cosmology.

Jesse: Did you sign a contract for all four books with a particular publisher, or is this just your thing?

Lauren: This is being published by this awesome small press called, PictureBox. It’s this guy Dan Nadel—he actually won a Grammy for book design for The Wilco Book. He invests a lot of money into making beautifully printed books, which is why I went with him, and also because he’s a friend and I like the stuff he’s coming out with— he’s doing something different. He’s also easy on me for being so, so late!

So, this is a small press thing, and I have larger contracts with Henry Holt to do teenage girl style stuff, like the sequel to Girl Stories (tentatively titled, Calamity). I have to say that, however minimalist Girl Stories is, I tried to make a world there too, and so I’m applying the same kind of stuff, and the same kind of honesty about people—even if they’re fantasy characters. I just read the whole book, Goddess of War, over today, and I was excited that it was kind of coming together, but it’s so dense. Like, every sentence means something, you know, it’s just so different. I’m ready to get back to teenage stuff because it’s more immediate. There’s something fun about putting something on the page that people respond to right away, and I respond to. It’s not the same kind of slow procedure of research, although, probably if you interviewed me in a couple of months, I’d be like, ‘This is going really slow!’

Jesse: I totally know what you mean!

Lauren: Yeah, and also, I’m doing long form stuff. My sequel is not a lot of little things—it’s one big, long story about sophomore year.

Jesse: Is it harder or easier to do it in a long format?

Lauren: Harder! This is sort of based on my own life, so I know the basic trajectory, like the arc of the story because it happened, but also, the little details are what you get carried away with, and you want to make sure everything ties up.

Jesse: So, are you still friends with any of your junior high girl friends from Girl Stories? Did John really date Diana only three days after you broke up?!

Lauren: I am still friends with old people from junior high, yes, but I don’t like to bring up the book. When I’m thinking about writing the book, I don’t like to think about them because there’s actually a lot of fiction in the book.

And that ties into Diana, and John. John’s character is sort of based on a real person—the chronology of things is all completely out of whack—and Diana’s not real.

Jesse: Oh really? Diana was kind of too good to be true.

Lauren: But Diana is totally based on three different people. When I first wrote the Diana comic, I was living in an apartment with a girl who I felt like was Diana for me. So, that’s how I initially wrote those. I was living with this painter who I just thought was more awesome than me in every single way. Like me, but in every way just a little bit better. So then I was like, ‘Well, I sort of felt this way about this girl I knew in high school too, so I’ll just make a comic about that.’ Diana is an essential and true character that’s always going to exist throughout life, so she’s perfect for that. But she is really based on friends that become your best friends because they are such quality people…you’re jealous of them because they’re so awesome!

Totally! So, John didn’t date Diana because there is no Diana!

Lauren: I mean, I did have a boyfriend in high school who dated somebody who I kind of thought was better than me, but it wasn’t the same person, so, it’s like a couple of people mixed together.

Jesse: How did you deal with writing about people like Genine? She’s clearly the loser, and you refer to her as such throughout Girl Stories, but she must have read it. Were you worried about hurting her feelings?

Lauren: Well, all of this I take as extreme compliments because, if you felt like they were real, that’s the best job [I could have done]. But Genine is completely fictional—because, imagine writing about an actual Genine—it would just be so hurtful in every way. But I think she’s my favorite character in the book because she kind of has it going on even though she’s still the fat girl that nobody likes. But actually, at some points in the book, she has more friends than Lauren, and has more integrity than Lauren, so I like that about her.

Jesse: Wait, are you real then?

Lauren: Lynda Barry writes about her own work like it’s an “autobiofictionalography,” and I think it’s the same kind of thing. In the end, I wish I had changed my name. I just couldn’t think past myself, and now, as I continue this, that’s all I want to do. Because when you work with something that seems like fiction, but isn’t quite, you really have to be careful about hurting people’s feelings, and also making yourself look a lot worse and a lot better.

Jesse: Growing up, how did you first see your life as an artist…was it different than the way it turned out? How did you get to where you are today?

Lauren: Well, I’ve always drawn. Ever since I was a kid, I would sit in front of a gigantic pad and just draw and draw and draw. I used to do series’ of drawings, like “fashion ladies,” with tons of girls in different legwarmer outfits… I actually have a journal from third grade that I’ve saved, and it’s on exhibit right now at the Norman Rockwell Museum, which is really weird.

Jesse: Wow, what’s in your journal?

Lauren: It’s completely pictorial. It was the first time I ever blended words and pictures. There’s a story about every single member of my third grade class.

Jesse: That’s amazing. So, you were always a comic genius! How did the Norman Rockwell Museum get a hold of it?

Lauren: Somebody found Girl Stories and liked it; and they just got in touch with me and wanted to put me in this comic show. Before I knew it, there was a camera crew at my house making a little movie about me for the exhibit. I actually love Norman Rockwell even though it can be construed as American propaganda. But I think he’s amazing at it, and actually, he does do complex things, and he can paint and draw really well.

Jesse: So, how did you get to where you are today, besides the Norman Rockwell thing?

Lauren: It has not been a linear path at all. I got into doing my teenage girl comics because I wanted to be a cartoonist when I graduated from college…

Jesse: Where did you go to college?

Lauren: I went to Washington University in St. Louis, and I went there as a painter. If you interviewed me in high school or college, and asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I would have said, ‘I am a fine artist and I am a painter. I just know it. That’s exactly what I am forever and ever, no question.’ And, in art school, I gradually became more and more…I hated it…

Jesse: You hated art school?

Lauren: I hated not knowing what I was doing. I really wanted to tell a story and I liked drawing, and you couldn’t really do that with painting. And I didn’t really know comics yet, although I kind of did—I just didn’t realize I liked them so much. When I was a kid, I read Mad Magazine, and watched Looney Tunes and Monty Python, and was totally into Life in Hell, and I read a couple of Dan Clowes comics when I was in college.

And I loved all of those things, but I didn’t realize that women even made comics; I hadn’t seen any comics by women yet. But I graduated and I kept making paintings and never felt like they were doing what I wanted them to do…and it was so frustrating that it made me really depressed. And in college, it was really hard because, just the idea of more art faster was impossible for me. I just felt completely at odds with the whole process of critiques and making things on deadline…which is actually exactly what I feel at odds with now, and why it’s depressing me now that I haven’t finished Goddess of War faster. So, it’s not like things changed that much. But I also felt like there were all these things that you could put on top of your paintings to make them trendy, and I hated that.

But what’s funny about that is that secretly, I still really want to be a painter. I just feel like I still haven’t quite figured it out yet. And then, I went to an artist colony, and I was secretly making comics. Also, in college, my friend published my first comic—I actually made one comic in college in this comics magazine—and that friend turned out, many years later, to be my husband.

Jesse: Nice!

Lauren: So, yeah, all this stuff comes around. I actually met a really tight knit group of people that are still all friends from Wash U…my publisher is actually from Wash U. too.

So then, I graduated, and I was interning for this horrible art magazine, which shall remain nameless. It just really showed me all of the bullshit—every idea that people were fawning over and everything that cost a lot of money—it just all seemed totally fake. At the same time, I started to read Chris Ware, Robert Crumb, Lynda Barry, and Julie Doucet, and all these people just blew me away. I was like, ‘This is exactly what I want to do,’ and then my roommate’s girlfriend’s friend had just started up, and they needed a cartoonist. So I lied and said that I was a cartoonist, and at the time, I didn’t even realize that cartoonists usually work bigger and then reduce their work down small—I didn’t know anything about the process. So, I made my first comic, called, “How to Date a Skater.” And it was horrible!

Jesse: It sounds amazing!

Lauren: I just looked at it recently, and I was like, ‘This is really the worst,’ I didn’t know what I was doing at all.

Jesse: Yeah, but it relates to like every girl...

Lauren: Yeah, and that was the idea behind those comics too—they were all supposed to be semi-autobiographical, and they were also supposed to deal with issues. And so, I started writing and drawing for Gurl, and immediately got responses from people. And then—this is funny!—my friend, the one who is now my husband, was dating my best friend in college, who went to Seattle, and she was working at this paper, and they also needed comic strips.

Jesse: So lucky!

Lauren: So, she actually got me my first job at a newspaper. And that was like cartooning boot camp because I was on the same page as Chris Ware, who was, at this point, my hero. So, I was doing both weirdo underground stuff—really just whatever was in my subconscious that week—and then dealing with issue stuff for teenage girl comics. So, I had two completely different jobs at that point, which I still have to this day, like Goddess of War is like an extension of Inside Vineyland, which is what all these weird comics came out of and then, and then Calamity and Girl Stories are an extension of the girl comics.

Jesse: Do you have someone else edit your comics, or look them over?

Lauren: Yeah. Well, I have my husband, and I have certain special people that come along at different parts of the process, only when I’m ready. Actually, I feel like that’s the biggest problem with art school—and it’s funny because I now teach at college level art school—right where I hated the most. It’s a constant critiquing process that kills inspiration and makes people feel bad. Often, you just need to develop something by yourself, like go off into a mountain somewhere and figure it out for yourself, and then come back. I feel like that’s where the impulse of most artists comes from, is that solitary place where you can just make stuff on your own, and that’s where you get that thrilling feeling of making something new that’s not tied to anything else.

Jesse: Yes, totally! Okay, well, I feel like we sort of went over this, but how did you, or how does anyone, remember all the details from junior high?

Lauren: Well, actually, I find myself thinking a lot about memory all the time. I think your memory is incredibly unreliable because your mind will always just kind of fill in the blanks. And, depending on what’s going on in your life when you think about your memories, it may fill in different blanks. Like, if you’re feeling really good about yourself, then maybe you’ll be like, ‘I was doing great back then!’ I think that’s even proven scientifically.

Jesse: I totally agree!

On another note, I was also curious about the Jewish girl theme in your comics; obviously you’re a Jewish girl, so that plays a big part of it. But, what are your feelings or thoughts on it; how do you want it to translate to other people?

Lauren: I have very mixed feelings about religion, but I feel like I am just a classic reform Jew that is probably an atheist. So, I can’t shake the fact that I’m culturally—well, I don’t want to shake the fact that I’m culturally Jewish. And I also just love all beliefs too. I am really interested in different people’s belief systems, and I don’t begrudge anybody their beliefs because I feel like it helps people a lot. But culturally, this is where I’m from—my humor, my everything is from that—and even my complexion, my kvetching.

I’m married to a man that’s from Midwestern farmer stock. His family is forgiving and sweet, and they let things go. And my family is also sweet, but they don’t really let things go. And actually for Thanksgiving, my dad found this book called, Born to Kvetch, and he handed one out to like every member of our family, and he was like, ‘This is a wonderful…it’s so funny and it completely shows our heritage, born to kvetch!’ And I was angry at the book, like, ‘Is this your excuse for us kvetching all the time?’ So, I guess I feel like I can draw from it endlessly, and I do. And I can’t beat it, so why not join it, you know? Like, I have this comic in Girl Stories called, “The Chanukah Blues.”

Jesse: Yes, my favorite character is Latke Boy!

Lauren: I think when you’re young and Jewish, it really is a big deal. Christmas is awesome! It’s way more awesome than Chanukah because it’s all about immediate gratification. It’s not eight days—it’s one day when you get all your presents and there are so many beautiful holiday items. I’m just talking about this in a purely materialistic, cultural standpoint, not from any kind of deep, religious thing.

Jesse: Yeah, as a kid though, that’s the way you see holidays.

Lauren: Yeah, like that panel in the comic where I’m with my friend and she’s moving the little nativity scene characters a little bit closer to the manger, and I was like, ‘That is so awesome! She gets like fake Barbies, and dioramas to play with…’ And at the same time, you’re taught to kind of hate it, like Christmas trees are evil! No one says that, but… And so, when I published this comic on, it ended up going, at that point, on America Online because Gurl was kind of funneling. Neo-Nazis were like, ‘This girl is going to hell.’ But then, a whole Hebrew school worth of kids were like, ‘This girl doesn’t get that Chanukah’s really about the Maccabees,’ and I was just like…maybe they’re both right, but...

Jesse: That’s awesome to get such different feedback though, from something that you did.

Lauren: The best one of all was from a Morrissey comic, but that’s another story. But yeah, that was the coolest thing about being on Gurl, getting that media feedback about everything.

Jesse: Yeah, that’s awesome. So, who were your comic heroes while growing up? You sort of answered that one, but also, who do you admire now, comic or not?

Lauren: In terms of comics, I really admire my friend Gabrielle Bell—she’s another cartoonist and she’s amazing—she just plugs away at her work. I admire people in general that don’t let their egos skyrocket out of control, and just work on their work humbly—and do good work—I feel like that’s all you can do in your life.

I guess today I’m really admiring Stanley Kubrick for putting so much work into every movie, and doing so much research. He was going to do a movie that never even got made, Napoleon, and he did so much research about Napoleon, that if you asked him, ‘What did Napoleon do on this day?’ he had a little index card that said exactly what he did.

I admire Jean Luc Godard—I like all the movies I see from him, and then I also really admire Judd Apatow, the guy that did Superbad and Knocked Up—I think he’s great too. And I’m going to say it, I really admire Howard Stern. Whatever anybody does, I want it to be—to feel honest—even if they’re lying, so those are things that I end up really liking a lot.

Jesse: Amazing! On the honesty thing…Inside Vineyland has this really amazing sense of humor, and I guess what I also mean by that is honesty. You have a comic about celebrity zits, and one about a boyfriend wanting his girlfriend to be his grandpa… I mean, obviously they’re funny, but it made me wonder if everybody thinks about this kind of weird stuff? I mean, do they? I do!

Lauren: Well, I think that I definitely tried—I’m going to contradict myself—before I was like, ‘You should just go off into a mountain…’ but I think everybody’s thinking about an audience too and thinking about what else other people think. And sometimes the darkest, weirdest things to think about, or even just the pettiest things you can think about are things that everybody else thinks about, so why not just release them into the world?

I guess I felt like they were coming out of fast deadlines and just trying to find something in pop culture that I could connect with. But I do feel like there’s a thing now in popular culture where it’s just a string of really random stuff. I like random stuff that sort of strikes a chord with something deeper, some kind of feeling of alienation. A really good piece of humor, I think, is making you laugh and cry at the same time.

Jesse: Totally! Okay, this one is about Inside Vineyland too. As much as I hate to stereotype this, I felt like there were some comics in here that kind of had a masculine feel to them, like, “Car Fuckin’ Fuckfest!,” “Party In The Woods,” and “American Space Pornography.” I kind of had the feeling that if I read them, I might have thought it was a guy that made them. Maybe not...I don’t know. I just wondered if I would, and I wondered if you were aware of that at all?

Lauren: Yeah! Well, I was doing all these strips (that were compiled into this book) for this newspaper that was going out into the world, and I was one of the only women, and the other woman was doing stereotypically feminine stuff, like a talking head with a lot of words about something serious, some letter a guy wrote or something like that. And I guess I wasn’t consciously thinking masculine or feminine, but I was thinking, weird underground comics. And, I actually think that it’s really easy to get type-cast and I always want to try to think against what is supposed to be masculine or feminine.

That’s the same thing with Goddess of War right now. I’m doing an action comic—I had to learn how to draw fight scenes, and I never really thought about fighting before. I looked a lot at Jack Kirby and people that draw fights. Foreshortening figures and motion with impact, things I never thought about before. And I feel like it’s a comic, so you can do anything, why make it like a memoir, which is the most obvious thing in a lot of ways, but almost the hardest thing to make really good.

Just like being Jewish, I can’t help but being a woman either, so if that stuff comes out, then that’s true too. Initially, when I got the book deal to do Girl Stories, I didn’t want to put, “Am I Fat?” in it because I thought it was so frivolous…

Jesse: Yeah, I was wondering about that too. I think I remember you said a lot of girls responded to it...

Lauren: Yeah, I probably got like 10,000 emails for that comic. Everybody was insane about, “Am I Fat?”

Jesse: What kind of insane? Was the feedback good or bad?

Lauren: It was bad! Well, people weren’t complaining about the comic at all. It was every single sob story—the most common one was people would email me their weight, and then ask me if I thought they were fat. And then from that came heartfelt stories about being a bulimic…

Jesse: Wow, that’s amazing! So it was really effective.

Lauren: It was because it wasn’t an after school special. It was just a very honest feeling—you know, there’s this girl walking around and asking people if she’s fat or not—that had this incredible effect on tons of people because it happened to be at the right place at the right time.

But I felt bad because at that point, I knew that if you touched on different issues, boyfriends and fat at Gurl, people would email back, and so it was almost an experiment at that time. But also, I don’t write about things I feel really fake about, so that was all real stuff. The fat thing was very true—when I was young, I was always worried about if I looked fat or not.

Jesse: I think it is a big thing for girls.

Lauren: And it’s a big thing for adults too. The same stuff carries through. And it’s a surface thing—it’s often what you worry about when you’re really worried about something else. It’s important to exercise for your mental health, and for your physical well-being, but after that, what can you really do? But it would be ridiculous not to put something like that in the book. I read one review of the book where another woman discounted that. She was like, ‘Why are you putting in something so frivolous?’ But it’s such an essential thing of how girls and women perceive themselves

And you know, I wonder if things might be a little bit different right now because of all the other crises on Earth. Maybe people’s focus is slightly different because of all the other dire problems that are happening right now.

You mean, like global warming and the war?

Lauren: Yeah, the war. And, after 9-11 basically. Did people’s priorities change? And I hang out with kids, and I wonder about that. But as a teacher, I’m not going to ask a kid, ‘Do you worry if you’re fat all the time?’ because that is not appropriate!

Jesse: Yeah, totally. I would assume everyone worries about it, and that it’s one of those things where, no matter what is going on, it always stays an issue.

Lauren: Yeah.

Jesse: So, you talked about this a little bit, but what was your experience working with like? Are you still doing stuff with them?

Lauren: I really want to. They just contacted me to maybe do more stuff, and the woman that contacted me had the most wonderful, nice things to say about me. She was like, ‘I read your comics and that’s why I wanted to work on,’ which is amazing.

Jesse: That’s awesome!

Lauren: Yeah, when I originally worked for them, I loved working for them. The pay wasn’t amazing, but they were great editors, and just great women too. Like the fact that they had started this website right out of college, and it wasn’t pandering to kids, it wasn’t telling them lies, and it was popular! And, at that time on the web, they didn’t have to cater to anybody either. They were doing great on their own, so I was really impressed with that. I have nothing but really good things to say about them.

I think Gurl is actually doing well right now, it seems like they’ve kind of figured it out again, like they figured out how to still be relevant. So, they contacted me recently about doing a serial thing, but now that I have my contracts tied up with my book publisher, I don’t know if I can do both, but I’d love to!

Jesse: Yeah, that sounds awesome. Any advice for teens, or girls in general?

Lauren: I think a lot of times, all you can really do is just work a lot, and enjoy it. And draw a lot in sketchbooks so that you have it all in one place, so it’s not on a lot of different loose leaf papers that get blown around or something, and put stuff out there. That’s what’s awesome about the Internet now—you can just get a deviantART account, and put your stuff up.

And the other thing is, really go with what your heart desires, rather than whatever trendy thing there is out there. Because there’s always going to be a new, trendy thing…and it’s just whatever is really and seriously interesting to you [that is important].

Jesse: Any last words?

Lauren: This is weird, but I think that with art, a lot of times—and it gets harder as you get older—there needs to be this weird part of you that sort of has faith that, I don’t know of what exactly, but that you’re going to carry yourself through to the end of something. That you shouldn’t just give it up for whatever reason…that you’ve thought about every angle enough so that you can just put something to bed at some point. That sort of feeling of faith is really important for an artist. It’s something that I think about a lot because, with cartooning, you work with so many little details that you have to carry yourself over and see the big picture.

Jesse: Awesome! Thanks.

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