I first came across Maia Kobabe’s cartoon memoir Gender Queer at San Diego Comic Con in the summer of 2019. It was the title that grabbed me. I find one of the great joys of SDCC is wandering around the exhibition hall and discovering new queer authors and titles.
The book itself was really unexpected—whimsical, tender, and also deeply vulnerable. In Gender Queer, Kobabe (who uses e/em/eir pronouns), tells the story of eir long and winding journey to understand emself as a nonbinary and asexual person. Filled with beautiful visual metaphors and a tremendous longing to understand eir own experience, the book is a deeply personal queer coming of age story.
About two and half years after Kobabe published Gender Queer, the book suddenly became a national talking point after conservative school districts around the country began claiming it was “pornographic.” Today it is the most banned book in America—which would be just silly if it wasn’t so frightening.
But in the midst of all this is the work. Luckily, I had the chance to chat with Maia Kobabe to talk to em about eir work, eir process, and eir upcoming children’s book with Lucky Srikumar, Saachi’s Stories.
Popverse: Maia, how did you decide to become a cartoonist?
Maia Kobabe: It started probably with just the fact that I have always loved to both write and draw. But I was definitely first a visual artist and then needed to learn to write.
In undergrad I was really focused on children’s picture book illustration. I got a degree in illustration, and I was really thinking that I’d be the artist half of a writer/artist team. But I found that world is really hard to break into. It is not very welcoming to newcomers, I think partly because everyone looks at picture books and thinks those are so short, that must be pretty easy. It’s absolutely flooded with manuscript submissions, most of which are relatively mediocre. And indeed my submissions were relatively mediocre as well, being freshly out of undergrad.
"Children’s picture books also really frowns on self-publishing; it’s considered kind of embarrassing, whereas in comics if you self-publish that’s how you prove you’re serious."
Children’s picture books also really frowns on self-publishing; it’s considered kind of embarrassing, whereas in comics if you self-publish that’s how you prove you’re serious. So when I was trying to shop my portfolio around, I also started going to some comic conventions, and I realized that comics is so welcoming to newcomers. It seemed like comics was just this open-arms area whereas children’s picture books felt very closed off. So I was like, 'Well, maybe I’ll make comics for a couple years until I get famous enough that I can get a picture book published.'
So I started a web comic.
In terms of children’s picture books, were there writers or artists that really spoke to you?
I had a bunch of favorites. Of course, Maurice Sendak is one. But I also loved Leo and Diane Dillon, who are a husband and wife author-artist writer team. They both made art, but I think they also both wrote. I loved K.Y. Craft, her beautiful intricate gorgeous fairy tale illustrations.
I really liked Jan Brett, who did a lot of books that have art that feels like it’s kind of inspired by Eastern European craft, embroidery, woodwork and all of this kind of stuff.
I still have a huge shelf in my bedroom of all my favorite children’s picture books, the ones with art that I really love.
Did you ever think about your webcomic or Gender Queer as your version of doing a children’s picture book?
I wouldn’t say so, no. Gender Queer came from a really specific place. The earliest draft was actually a series of these little black and white diary comics that I posted on Instagram starting in 2016.
I tell the story at the very beginning of Gender Queer of getting an assignment to write a story about gender and me not being really comfortable with it. That was in 2013. Three years after that, in 2016, I finally had met a lot more queer and trans people, I had started to meet more people who used nonbinary pronouns, and I was starting to realize that I wanted to come out and I wanted to use nonbinary pronouns. But I was having a really hard time figuring out how to introduce that in conversation. And I realized, I have to write about this, actually. I think writing about it would help.
So these little tiny comics were literally a tool to come out. I wrote them to clarify what I was trying to say when I talk about gender and to come out to my extended comics arts friend group and community.
It was only after I had been posting them for about a year that I was like, 'Oh, maybe there’s a book in this material.'
One of the things I love about Gender Queer is the way that the narrative follows its own path, like at the end where people are using the wrong pronouns and your interior dialogue is all about whether to correct them…and you don’t. Like many aspects of the book, it’s very unexpected and not how a story like this typically works.
(laughing) That’s because it’s based on life.
Yeah, you really allow us to feel what it’s like to be on that journey with you, to be kind of lost and not sure and still figuring it all out. But as someone who comes out of screenwriting, I was constantly wondering how you managed to fight off all of the three-act structure programming in our pop culture.
Part of it is, because it’s based on my life, I wasn’t trying to force it into a more standard narrative arc. But a huge part of the difficulty of writing a memoir is what do you include and what do you not include. Also, are you going to present the scenes in exactly chronological order? Are you going to include flashbacks or a set of scenes that are all thematically inked even though they happened 5 to 10 years apart?
A lot of the work was honestly writing scenes and then moving them around. Does it go here, does it go here? Do I need this before this?
My undergrad degree, I did a lot of academic writing but I don’t think I had a single creative writing class. Then I went to grad school, where I did have some writing classes, but still it was more focused on really the mechanics of comics, like beats and panels, page turns, the almost page-level structure and not story-level structure.
So I feel like in some sense I’m actually relatively untrained in story structure, which means I just kind of do whatever I want. (Laughs) Which sometimes doesn’t work at all, and people are like, there’s no resolution here, and other times it is an interesting and satisfying different type of story than what you might see from somebody who is thinking more in that three-act structure.
Looking back at the book now, how do you feel about it as a memoir and a story?
I feel really good about it, mainly because I found it very cathartic to write. I also found that the writing of it also helped me figure out how to say things that I had been struggling with for a really long time. And by the end of writing the book I knew myself better as a human being, and that’s just a really good feeling.
It’s interesting, it’s been out for almost four years now, and I’ve continued to grow and learn. Were I to write the book now, I would probably write it a little differently. But I also look at it, and I’m like, 'This is the absolute best and clearest I could be when I was the age that I was.' So I’m very proud of it. It’s the highest achievement of my abilities at the time.
When you say that writing it helped you know yourself better, can you give me an example?
I spent almost my entire life, up until my late 20s, really struggling with how to articulate how I felt about gender. I didn’t have the language of 'nonbinary' or 'agender' or 'gender fluid' when I was young. I only knew about two options, and I felt so trapped between these two poles. I would say to myself, 'Am I, like, a gay boy in a girl’s body, or am I a lesbian but who likes men?' It was just very confusing, because I felt like there were only the two options and neither one of them felt right.
And through the writing of the book I came across some of the metaphors [that have helped me]. Like the metaphor of a scale, where I feel like because I’m assigned female at birth, and I’m read as female by most people who look at me in my day-to-day world, I’m always trying to lean towards masculine presentation things. But it’s not because I want to be male, or even be read as male. It’s because I feel like I have to balance out this very strong feminine presence that’s already in life. So that’s why I wear my hair short, and use non-binary pronouns, and wear very boyish clothes. I’m trying to get back toward this place of like, balance.
Also the metaphor of gender as a landscape, which many people point out as their favorite page from the book and probably the most meaningful insight: Thinking about gender as a landscape that you can travel through. I hadn’t thought of that until I sat down to write it. I was sitting down and asking, 'How do I explain how I feel about wanting to move around in gender?' And I thought, 'Well it’s like walking around a hillside, or walking from the ocean to the sea.' And then I was able to write it, and I was like, 'Ah, yes, that’s what I meant to say.'
But I don’t know that I would have got there, except that I was sitting in front of a piece of paper asking “How do I express this?”
You use so many wonderful visual metaphors in Gender Queer. And they often involve nature. Is that something you were aware of as you were writing the book?
Yes and no. I grew up in rural California. You know from the book, the first house I lived in didn’t have electricity, didn’t have an indoor bathroom. I grew up spending a lot of time outdoors and in gardens and learning about native plants. So nature metaphors just come really easily to my mind, because that’s sort of what I grew up with. It’s one of the frameworks that I look at the world through, much moreso than say technology or pop culture.
As you’re talking about the process of developing these different metaphors, it also sounds like maybe you had a specific audience you were trying to speak to. Is that accurate?
I was thinking often about my parents. I was very very commonly trying to think, 'How would I explain this to my parents?' I’m very close to my parents, I still live with them, they’re very loving and accepting. But they hadn’t really thought very deeply about gender before I started talking about it a ton.
I was also thinking about people who know me in real life. I was thinking about my friends, my family, my cousins, my aunts and uncles. I think that’s why the book has a fairly warm and compassionate tone. I was thinking that this book is meant to build bridges and deepen understanding with people who already know me and love me and support me and want to understand me but just don’t. So I was writing it toward a loving audience.
And I was trying to be as honest as I possibly could, and not hold things back, but also say them in a kind way. There are a few moments in the book where people say kind of mean or negative things toward me, and almost every time those speech bubbles come from off the edge of the page, because I didn’t necessarily want to draw the person who was saying that to me. It wasn’t like I was trying to call them out. It was more like this was said to me, and this is how I responded to it.
That kindness really comes across. But it’s also sort of brutal to hear you describe the book in this way. You and the book have been treated so unkindly the last couple years.
Definitely a piece of what it’s been like to be the author of this book in the last couple of years has been a lot of some pretty intense media attention. But even with the amount of book challenges and book bans and the lawsuit and all of this noise, underneath that I am still getting weekly and sometime daily messages from readers telling me how much this book meant to them. Even in periods where I have spikes of hate mail, the loving, heartwarming, moving messages tend to outweigh the hate messages, somewhere between 2-to-1 to 5-to-1, depending on the week.
I mean, it sucks that my book has become kind of the poster child of banning queer books in this moment. But I still feel like the response has been overwhelmingly positive and overwhelmingly really touching. The amount of people who have written me to say things like, 'This is the first book that I ever related to,' or 'This book is the first book that has ever helped me explain my gender,' or 'I gave this book to my parents and they understand me better now.'
Literally people will say, 'It’s like you read my diary, some of the things are so one-to-one with things that I thought or things that I feared or things that I question.' That’s really powerful. Those are the kinds of responses you dream of getting as a writer. And when you get them it’s like, 'Wow, I really hit on something here. I thought this was very personal to me but it turns out it is much more universal than I realized.'
I’m glad to hear that it’s been like that for you. From the outside it has seemed like a lot to take.
It is stressful, and it definitely has wasted a certain amount of my time. I definitely feel like I have to vaguely at least keep up with what’s going on, and it makes me deeply worried about the rise of fascism in our country. Whenever people start to ban books, especially by minority voices, that’s a warning sign, a canary in the coal mine of dangerous political times.
But the book has also been so widely and enthusiastically supported by so many people. I recently attended the American Booksellers conference up in Seattle. Loads of people who work at independent book stores were there, and so many came up to me and had these amazing stories about how the book sells really well in their shop or a staff member puts it in the hands of everyone who walks through the door.
I also attended the American Library Association’s conference, and it was the same thing, Almost every single librarian had a personal story about whether Gender Queer had or hadn’t been challenged in their district, and how hard they fought to keep it on their shelf, the students who wrote letters and the parents who stepped up.
So I am seeing it being challenged and banned and badmouthed in the press. But I’m also seeing an absolute wave of people who are stepping up to support it.
Do you feel like the reaction you’ve gotten to Gender Queer has changed the way you think about telling story or the next stories you want to tell?
At least a little bit. I always knew I wanted to write multiple books. I wanted to write memoir and fiction in many genres. My second book, Saachi’s Stories, which is the one I sold and announced in January, is in some ways kind of written in response to some of the feedback to Gender Queer—but the early feedback I was receiving in 2019 when I was on the book tour. I had many parents coming to my signings and saying, 'Oh I love this book and it was so helpful to me as a parent, but my gender nonconforming child is 10 or 8 or 6,' which is too young for Gender Queer, really.
And parents would ask me, 'Would you ever release an all-ages version of Gender Queer?' And I understood where that request was coming from, but I also didn’t want to abridge my memoir. That just feels weird, to abridge my life story. But I remember thinking clearly that there is a need and a niche for a book that interrogates a lot of these same questions and themes, but is aimed at younger readers.
So I’d written, like 90% of my second book before the challenges even started.You’re doing Saachi’s Stories with Lucky Srikumar.
Yes, I’m doing it with Lucky, a nonbinary cartoonist and a very good friend of mine. We have co-written the script and if everything goes well, I’ve thumbnailed it, and I’ll probably pencil and ink it, but they will do the colors. So we are co-authoring and co-arting.
What’s that process been like?
It’s been amazing. It’s been really good. I love working with Lucky, they are so smart and creative and thoughtful, and they bring a lot of different life experience than I have to the story. Also, because we wrote the bulk of it during deep lockdown, it was so nice to be having my main work project be also a collaborative project with a friend. We would regularly get on Zoom calls, be able to check in with each other, and then also work on our story. In that period when we were so separated from others, being able to work collaboratively was really a boon. Also having someone else be as excited as I was about my characters, who at this point no one had heard of, was just so great.
How did you two meet?
We met maybe eight or so years ago. Lucky was my sibling’s college roommate in art school. My sibling Phoebe, who’s in the book a lot, actually came out as non-binary about a month before Gender Queer was published and uses they/them pronouns now. And Phoebe called me very early into art school and was like, 'Oh my God, my roommate is so cool, you guys are going to get along so well. They’re like the closest person I’ve ever met to you. It’s almost like I’m getting to live with an alternate version of you at school and it’s great.' I was like, 'Wow, I’ve got to meet this person.'
I’d love to ask you a process question. Earlier you were talking about the challenge in your writing of figuring out what to include and in what order. How exactly do you go about doing that?
My process tends to be very non-chronological. The first thing that will happen is I will get maybe three to four ideas of scenes, and I’m like, 'These scenes are really important, these have to be in here.' But it’ll be like one from the beginning, two or three from the middle and then one from kind of near the end.
And I’m like, 'Okay, we’re going to need a lot of material in between these scenes and I don’t know what that is yet, but I know we have to hit these points, they’re the high emotional points or big turning points.'
Then I sit down, and I try to write the connective material between them from the beginning to the end. And then I’ll get a version that feels sort of like a skeleton, where I’m like 'Okay, at least we’ve got a little bit holding all of this together.'
Then I end up going over it and over it and over it again, and I keep filling in things, but it’s very non-chronological. It’ll be like one pass that I’ll get maybe another five to six scenes that are in between the ones that I initially wrote. Then somebody else will read it and be like, 'The jump from here to here is so jarring, we need something that explains how we get from here to here.' And I’ll be like, 'Oh my God you’re so right, and I’ll write another little scene to fill in between those scenes.' It’s been this very expanding process.
I actually like to use another nature metaphor: In some ways it’s almost like when a tree is growing and it puts out maybe three initial branches, but then each of those three branches puts out three more branches, and then each of those branches puts out an additional three branches. It kind of grows in that manner, where it’s like each key scene spins off five scenes and connective scenes from the sort of initial tentpole scenes. Both Gender Queer and Saachi have kind of grown in that sort of fractal-like manner.
And it’s funny, at points I’ll write a draft and think, 'That’s it, I’ve got everything I need.' Then two or three months later or maybe after someone else has read it, they’ll point out all these holes and I’ll think, 'Oh my God, I have to go back and fill in a bunch of things.' Then I’ll look at it and think how could I ever thought the story was done without these scenes? But now it’s done! And then there’ll be another pass and people will be like, 'Well we kind of need something here and here,' and I’ll fill them in and then I’ll be like 'Now it’s done!' But no, it’s another draft. (laughing)
Wow, I find that branches metaphor kind of overwhelming. There’s a lot of pruning that has to happen, right? Or is it more like, 'No, let’s have the full tree. It’s not about the plot as much as the overall lifeform'?
Yeah I think it’s more of an overall lifeform. Saachi has gotten shaped a little bit more because it is fiction which means we can make more choices. But the book has grown: I remember at one point I had some friends read it over when it was like 160 pages, and I thought, 'This is nearly done.' Then based on their feedback it grew to like 190 pages, and then in another round it grew to 215, and that was the size it was when we sold it.
Then my editor gave us a round of feedback, and so we’ve sat down and we’ve added to the script again, and it’s up to like, 250. And I’m like, 'Oh my gosh. I hope we are indeed getting very close, because I definitely don’t want the book to be too much longer than that.' And I still have to draw it.
When you’re developing these books, is it just script?
No, I’m drawing too. Gender Queer never had a written script at any point. I started with all of these little black and white comics. My first pitch to the company, actually, I asked if they wanted to publish all of the little black and white comics I’d already written. And they actually rejected that pitch. They said, 'We don’t want to do that, but would you be willing to take this same material and flesh it out and do a full length narrative and do it more of a comic book size instead of these little comics and do it in color?' And I said yes.
And what I did was I printed out every little comic I’d already drawn, I had about 160 of them. I laid them out on the floor in chronological order for the first time, because I had not written them in chronological order. And that was again this process of looking at it and being like, 'What material have I covered and where have I left gaps and how do I fill them?'
In that one, the first version of the new pages was thumbnails with drawings. And I never at any point turned in a typed script to anyone. With Saachi, we have made a typed script because we thought it might be needed to sell the book. And if someone else is doing the lettering, it is helpful to have a typed script for them to work from.
Also, having done Gender Queer and had the experience of having my book translated into multiple different languages, I’ve realized it would have been easier if there had been a typed script for translation. So I now see the utility of it.
When you look at the comics scene today, what’s your impression?
I’m so excited about so many of the comics that are coming out in the past couple years and things that I’ve seen announced. I feel like we’re absolutely in a renaissance right now of really amazing queer stories, nonbinary stories, trans stories. I really love reading memoir and people’s personal real-life experiences. I think comics are a really powerful media for that. Part of it is letting people portray themselves the way they see themselves in comics. Especially if you are queer or trans or any kind of minority person that has not been well-represented previously, being able to literally portray yourself is quite powerful.
There’s lots of good stuff. Ducks by Kate Beaton, I enjoyed it so much. I got to read an advanced copy of Roaming, which is the upcoming project by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, and that’s amazing. There’s also really great fictional stuff, too, I love Blue Delliquanti, specifically Across a Field of Starlight, that’s a big favorite from the last year.
Their O Human Star is so special to me.
O Human Star, I started reading that as a webcomic early early in the Tumblr days and followed it for probably, I don’t know, eight years?, until it finished.
¡Ay Mija!, by Christine Suggs is coming out in the next couple of months. I got to read that and blurb it. I loved The Third Person by Emma Grove, which I also blurbed—this is the other cool thing: now that Gender Queer is out and getting media attention, people have been sending me books they I think I would like, and I get to read them ahead of time which is a pleasure.
Last question: What advice would you give to young cartoonists about telling their own personal stories?
I definitely recommend beginning cartoonists practice with short stories rather than trying to make your first comic project a big 300-page epic story. I did a lot of short stories, specifically between 2015 and 2018. I was lucky, because that was kind of when there was a real boom of Kickstarter anthologies, there were constant calls for entries of short stories around specific topics. Sometimes having a specific prompt can help you think of a story to write. Also, doing stories that are 6-to-20 pages means you can try a slightly different art style and different media on each one until you find what really works for you.
But in terms of talking about something that feels emotionally deep and true and important, I think what you have to do is think about: What are the big questions of my life? What are those sort of philosophical or moral or ethic or identity questions that keep me up at night? What are the things that you can’t stop thinking about that feel really relevant and important and that you haven’t seen in other stories? Think about what those big questions are for you, and have you reached a point where you’re comfortable writing about them? Because it can feel very intimate and scary to write about that really deep stuff.
But whatever those deep, slightly scary questions to face are, if you can find a way to talk about them, that’s probably going to be the richest vein of your work and the thing that people will really respond to.
Did you find there were moments for yourself where that fear of what you might discover or reveal in your writing was hard to overcome?
I think I had worked through it by the time I had started the comics. That was the 3 years between the assignment that I write about at the beginning of Gender Queer that I was so uncomfortable with, and then the second time I sat down to face the same topic. And I didn’t start until I felt safe starting it.
But it takes quite a while to get to that place. Some people might need to do some therapy, some people might need to start, do a version that feels like, 'No, this is not working and then try another version.'
But I feel like if you feel really called to it, and you don’t give up on it, you’ll get there eventually.