Memories And Brushing Pinkies: A Conversation With Becca Kubrick About Mad Cave’s Benefit Anthology For Ukraine

by Rachel Bellwoar

Words like “legacy” tend to be associated with big deeds and accomplishments (and those deserve recognition), but sometimes it’s the (quote unquote) little things that say the most about a person. They’re the memories that never fade, even while other details get hazy, and it’s these kinds of memories that fuel Becca Kubrick’s story, “In Spite of It,” for Mad Cave Studio’s Lower Your Sights: A Benefit Anthology for Ukraine. Find out why Kubrick was inspired by Charles Foresman in this interview with the writer and artist.

Cover Art: Yev Haidamaka

Rachel Bellwoar: How did you first get involved with this anthology and what made you want to write about your neighbors?

Becca Kubrick: An editor reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in contributing a comic. Initially, I was a little worried I didn’t really have anything to say, or at least something worth saying. I’m fortunate enough to never have experienced the true horrors of war. I didn’t want to create something insincere so I tried to think about what angle I could provide, what unique perspective could I offer?

The concept of ‘war’ felt really vast and vague, it’s always been on the periphery of my life – I come from a military family and war stories were synonymous with family stories. I was told about the terrifying realities of war in place of lullabies. I didn’t want to tell one of these stories. Despite these brutal stories, ‘war’ just always felt so amorphous and incomprehensible- school was clinical; facts and figures, countless individual experiences reduced to broad brushstrokes of suffering.  I couldn’t possibly tackle capturing an insurmountable number of individual stories and circumstances in a four-page comic (or at all, probably) so I decided to go in the other direction and really focus in on a tiny part of a story of two tiny lives I had the honour of intersecting with.

It was one of those stories that I’d always known but wasn’t at the forefront of my mind, it took being prompted to shake it loose. My neighbours were my favourite people, they were my family when others couldn’t be and they just had such a great story to tell- I mean, they met in a camp. People talk a lot about the human condition and love and loss and that’s just the ultimate summation of those things. I wanted to share their story and immortalise them in some way, I think.

RB: Instead of leading the eye left to right, your layouts move downward. Where did the idea to orient the comic vertically come from?

BK: My memories are all from the perspective of me at three and five and ten, they’re all dreamy and hazy so I didn’t want rigid panelling. Everything I was thinking about flowed into each other and instead of trying to pick it all apart and force it into a structure, I just thought I should keep it like that. This is their story, filtered through my memories, filtered through my child mind. No matter how hard I tried, I was always going to be an unreliable narrator. I just sort of let the story flow organically when doing pencils and ended up viewing the pages as one big panel, instead of lots of smaller ones and ended up here; it wasn’t really intentional.

 

RB: Did you always want to have the focus be on your neighbors’ hands, instead of revealing their faces?

BK: I’ve been reading a lot of indie comics, like Charles Forsman – he’s really good at zooming in, slowing down time and focusing in on quiet moments amidst chaos. There’s a bit in EOTFW where one chapter ends with the protagonists driving away and the next opens with them looking at their car, destroyed, at the bottom of a cliff. We didn’t need to see the in between, we got it. The car crashed. That’s not the interesting part, really. In another of his stories, Celebrated Summer, the protagonist just watches a centipede wriggle for a whole page.

I wanted to tackle this project in that same sort of way, it’s not about what my neighbours looked like, or the specifics- it’s about their connection. These tiny moments of love; young hands brushing pinky fingers amongst barbed wire becoming elderly hands clasping each other. I didn’t need to physically show them in a camp, the reader gets it. That’s not the important part. Maybe it makes the story a little too saccharine for some, but that’s okay.

As much as it was an artistic choice, it was also logistical. I don’t have a very good ‘mind’s eye’, really- I think I might fall somewhere on the aphantasia spectrum. Trying to draw them and capture them felt like an impossible task, nothing would be right, the ink would be too permanent and wrong- I just couldn’t do them justice. I did, however, have all these pieces of memories- they’re not complete images, and they’re not totally accurate but they capture them more than any portrait could.

I think it also helps keep the story mine, the readers don’t need everything. Just the important parts.

RB: Was there ever a point when you considered coloring the story?

BK: This actually is the *coloured* version of the story; the line art is a really dark blue and there’s some pops of yellow throughout- the colours of the Ukrainian flag. I’d initially had it totally black and white but one of the editors asked me to add some colour so it matched all the other stories, ha. I didn’t mind.

I chose to keep it so limited rather than full colour for two main reasons; I generally just like the look of limited/ monochrome colour palettes. I think especially with an art style like mine that can focus on economy of line and simplicity it can be another way to keep the page really easy to read. As I said, I’d been reading Chuck Forsman, I’d also been reading Tillie Walden, Noah Van Sciver and Max De Radigues and they’re all so good at finding that balance of tones and detail versus blank space.

The other reason was, as I mentioned, I don’t really think in super clear visuals- I don’t really think in colour at all- everything is just hazy and grey. Colouring doesn’t really come natural to me because of this, I think doing full colour would’ve almost felt like a betrayal to the memories, or at least like I was making stuff up. This story is, ultimately, somewhere on the auto/biographical spectrum and this is how I think of it, so that’s how I wanted to draw it.

RB: One of the things I feel “In Spite of It” really captures is that sometimes what we remember first about a person is so specific, like “he made puppets out of wine corks and cocktail sticks,” but those memories are special and say a lot about a person. Were there any memories you were surprised stuck out the most?

BK: Despite my not-so-great visualisation capabilities, I do have a pretty good memory for general ‘things that happened’ to a sort of spooky degree. When we lose someone we’re suddenly in charge of the narrative, we decide what’s important to who they were and how best to remember them; even if we’re not actively thinking about it. I can remember tons of mundane things- like my first time seeing a polaroid camera with them; but there’s some things. Things our mind holds onto and decides are significant- when it’s a negative thing, it’s trauma, and when it’s positive (like these are) it’s whatever the opposite of trauma is. I wanted to focus on these memories because they’re things that are always there and can pop up whenever- they didn’t have any family outside of me so this comic and me is, in some weird way, their legacy.

I wasn’t so much ‘shocked’ about the memories that stuck out but it was interesting to try un-pick it all, trying to trace back the things that make me, me. Does that sound narcissistic? Wine corks still make me smile. Whenever someone gets a ring stuck on their finger; I think of her in her hospice bed.

I think one that I didn’t even realise was him was the phrase ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’. I’ve sent some risky emails and have always rationalised it with that phrase or something similar- some emails have paid off and others haven’t, but I had to try. I can remember that conversation so vividly, we’d taken them a box of treats from a local Christmas food drive for the elderly and there was some Maltesers (not sure if you have them in the US – they’re chocolate covered malt balls) I really wanted in there, so I asked if I could have some. My guardian was mortified but he just laughed and said, ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get!’ and I guess it was burned into my psyche from that moment.

Becca Kubrick

RB: Besides your story here, you also recently released a comic with Christof Bogacs called Meat 4 Burgers. How does that story differ from “In Spite of It”?

BK: Meat 4 Burgers is super different. “In Spite of It being sweet and sincere, M4B is a way drier and horrific – one editor called it ‘esoteric’. It’s…weird. It’s about a kid called Trace who wakes up in a fast-food restaurant with no memories of who they are and is told to get to work. It probably more closely aligns with my other work, too. I think I’m in a place where my art and voice is evolving and mutating pretty rapidly. A year ago, I was doing middle grade comics and now I’m working on this weird-slice-of-life-teenage-sci-fi-horror and pitching a horror OGN called ‘Dead Girls’ but I’m having a lot of fun.

M4B is really the culmination of fatigue from publishing and general trend-apathy and the desire to just get something out there. Publishing is great and wonderful but it can move so slow sometimes- I wanted to make something now. With “In Spite of It,” I was super aware of the audience and who it was for, M4B isn’t really *for* anyone.

I’d had a pretty successful Kickstarter (just shy of one thousand percent funded!) for a book called Coby, Alone and had burned myself out a little doing that, but now I had a little audience, some people knew my name and I even got an agent. I still felt like nothing was happening; things were and are, of course, happening, but I’m just young and impatient so I wanted more things to be happening!

I wasn’t drawing and I was freaked out about what I would do next- Coby was middle grade but it was also called ‘horrifying yet charming’ by Little Deer Comics – I didn’t think of it as a horror at all when I was making it! I really thought I’d messed up and had locked myself into middle grade and was just doing a bad job – I was trying to cram my stories into genres and markets where they didn’t necessarily fit. I didn’t draw comics for a while, I started reading prose again and did some freelance work. I started reading interviews with my favourite creators, I was drawn to rough and raw art like some of the artists I’ve already mentioned. Charles Forsman (I know, I keep talking about him, ha) gave this interview about how he started making mini-comics as a way to keep the pressure off and lower the stakes; he was inspired by Moose by Max de Radiguès, who did the same thing. I don’t know if he was inspired by someone too. I hope it’s cartoonists all the way down, though.

Then I got asked to be part of Lower Your Sights, they gave me this pretty structured brief, and I realised I could still draw comics. Then, I was invited to table at my local comic shop for Small Press Day in August and I think I told Christof sometime in mid-July I wanted us to make something for it with him. I could’ve written something myself but getting someone else to write it held me accountable, like the brief for “ISOI” did. I think from scripting to sending to print was a few weeks- I worked super-fast and loose, straight ink and wonky lines, whereas for “ISOI” I pencilled and planned the art a lot more. I like drawing for a story, I try not to be too precious. Christof and I brainstorm cool things and stuff I want to draw or he wants to write about and we just sort of do it, he writes these loose scripts and I just figure it out on the page- I’m working on volume two and there’s a sentient bathroom and some cathartic stuff about monetising your content ™. We both still have our more ‘commercial’ stuff we’re pitching, too. Right now, I’m just focusing on creating stuff I would’ve liked to read as an angsty (depressed) teenager.

RB: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Becca!

Lower Your Sights: A Benefit Anthology for Ukraine is available now from Mad Cave Studios. Money raised from sales of the book will be going to the Voices of Children Foundation.

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