X Marks the Spot: An Interview with Suzy X – Andrea Zeffiro

About a month ago, when NMP contacted me about doing an interview with Suzy X, a staff writer/illustrator with Rookie Mag and Bitch Magazine, I enthusiastically accepted the assignment.

There is something about Suzy X’s work and politics that I find deeply affective. In part, it’s because I see parallels between the queer/feminist struggles explored by Suzy X – in her illustrations and writings – and those of my own. Beyond my personal inclinations however, there is a politic at play in Suzy X’s work that has the potential to resonate for anyone who has ever questioned and/or loathed their queer and/or feminist allegiances and alliances.

As I learned from Suzy X, a sense of belonging – in whatever capacity one aims to belong – can be attained, in part, by building affinities, political or otherwise, that make one feel good. Becoming queer/feminist is a perpetual struggle and process of alienation that is also productive: when embodied, it can be transformative.

Andrea Zeffiro: Suzy, before we launch directly into interview mode, thank you again for taking time out of from your hectic schedule to chat.

So, let’s begin by talking about the comics. When did you first start exploring the form?

Suzy X: I started drawing very committedly when I was seven. My cousins and I were obsessed with Japanese Anime, namely Sailor Moon. We’d rent the videos and read the comic books in the back of the bookstore. I learned how to draw from manga. Pretty soon I started drawing my own knockoff manga about teen girls fighting crime. Then I just started drawing my friends. When I was eight, I was admitted to a school of the arts in Miami. I couldn’t draw comics for class work, so I kept diaries and sketchbooks full of them. I did this all through my teen years.

AZ: What led you to take your work online?

SX: At Parsons I met all these students who had Deviant Art accounts, and was told I should have some kind of online portfolio. I had been keeping a LiveJournal religiously since I was 14, but I never thought of scanning my private diary sketches until then. Those diary sketches were what got me accepted to art college in the first place. So, I decided it’d be fun to archive my drawings online, the same way I would archive my drama on LiveJournal, except it wouldn’t be nearly as embarrassing or make me as vulnerable.

AZ: In your first post, “Dear Viewers,” on January 7, 2008, you wrote: “In viewing this, you view my life as I see it.”

What you wrote in the first post is quite true. In reading your comics blog, I gathered that you’re originally from Miami but spent your formative years in Jacksonville, and that you moved to New York City after high school to attend Parsons. At the end of your second year, you transferred to Eugene Lang, which is now officially your alma mater.

In the in the midst of the insanity that is an art student’s schedule, you were engaged in a lot more: you were an active member of the Low-Income Student Alliance at the New School; you competed with the policy debate team; you worked at the anti-rape organization SAFER; you were part of a group that started a New School chapter of Take Back the Night; you formed the Feminist Collective, also at the New School, which was responsible for ratifying the college’s sexual assault policy; you started and fronted the queer feminist punk band, Shady Hawkins; and you became a staff illustrator at Rookie Mag.

As a reader, your work has certainly offered me a glimpse into your life. For you, what does it mean to communicate your life as you see it?

SX: I’d preface my answer with the anthem of all former bougie liberal arts students who ever took a class in postmodernist thought: There Is No One Truth. I exhausted this motto every time I got stuck in a journalism class with people whose idea of “good journalism” was a sterile, distanced objectivity. But the fact is that there is no objectivity. When you see something, you see it not as it is, but as what it is to you. It’s why various injustices go underreported; it’s why so many stories go without being told. The people we trust to see things “objectively” are actually very selective about what they see.

Now, that rant aside, drawing from life was fun, but sharing my reality eventually became too great a responsibility. I learned this after I finished my senior thesis, a 50-page graphic novella on radical student activism. I showed some excerpts from my thesis at a DIY feminist gallery opening in 2011; including scenes from political debates, protests, and even a black bloc. Most people really enjoyed it, but I caught some flack for portraying these things at all, and portraying them less gloriously than any Crimethinc manifesto would. I drew scenes in which people were just at the protest for fun, there for the social capital, there to pick up chicks. I know my politics weren’t fully formed when I drew those things at 21 – and they still aren’t, because I’m still learning – but I could still smell bullshit when people notorious for sexist behavior rolled into feminist events and spaces. And I smelled bullshit when people used me, a queer Latina, as a prop to meet their diversity quota, all the while turning their backs on me when I needed their actual support. I don’t regret drawing any of that – because if people didn’t want to be called out, they would have behaved much better.

But by the end of 2011, I got very tired. I stopped illustrating my life. Even the good things, like being in a band or a loving relationship. It seemed that for years, all my time had been spent on the offensive, and I was burnt out. I hardly drew anything for several months. The constant conflict was really toxic for me. I have many abandoned drawings from excruciating meetings at Occupy Wall Street, outlines of arguments had while organizing SlutWalk, doodles of things I’ve shouted to bros and racists at punk shows. Illustrating these conflicts felt a lot like rubbing salt on a wound, and actually showing them in public would come with a responsibility that I simply no longer cared to deal with. So that’s when I turned to drawing fiction.

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AZ: There is a burden that accompanies working through the personal publically – regardless of how much or how little is revealed. It seems that as soon as there is a thread of realism, we (the big social we) use that as an occasion to make judgment calls. And you’re absolutely right: the process of having to explain one’s intentions or defend one’s interpretations is exhausting.

Let’s talk a little about your more current work. There’s The League of Extraordinary Feminists, a series with different female characters in which you explore contemporary feminist stereotypes. Who are the members of this league, and how did they come to be, so to speak?

SX: Oh man, I haven’t thought of those strips in ages! My partner, Mike Funk, and I came up with the idea of The League Of Extraordinary Feminists in October 2010. We went to a pizza place after band practice and had a lengthy conversation about our feminist comic strip, which resulted in sketches drawn on scrap sheets of paper and even the greasy paper plates we ate our pizza on. Unfortunately it was a project abandoned in the wake of all that turmoil in late 2011. The only members who we actually illustrated were Radical Cheerleader, the zealous white feminist with dreadlocks; Lavender Menace, the gay soccer player; Riot Grrrrl/Katie, the 14-year-old baby feminist punk who ended up having her own spin-off called “Riot Grrrl Problems”; and Mike’s invention named Mama Grizzly, a conservative feminist bear.

The other characters would’ve been Mega Mom, the liberal have-it-all feminist; “Pomo,” her rebellious, postmodernist genderqueer child; and Wonder Womanist, a black womanist professor at Rad and Lavender’s college. I started working on an episode in which Wonder Womanist is threatened by the administration for her teachings, and students stage a protest. (A similar thing happened to a professor at Eugene Lang College, I think in 2008.) But sadly, I got too tied up with real life protests to finish.

AZ: What do these characters reveal about contemporary (queer) feminism(s)? Are you sympathetic to any character in particular? Or is bringing to life any one character most entertaining?

SX: I think each character served to poke fun at some of the archetypes in contemporary feminisms. Rad is the obnoxious student organizer, Riot Grrrl’s race and class privilege gives her a really myopic point of view. Pomo would’ve been a cathartic character, whose ambiguity in gender and sexuality served to aggravate and confuse the uber-liberal Mega Mom. Mega Mom, whose biggest concern was how to brand herself to the right people. I think I have more respect for Wonder Womanist and Lavender Menace, though; as a black woman and a lesbian, they represented people whose issues are never, ever prioritized in mainstream feminism. I mean seriously, I stopped going to feminist meetings because after a while, by the way they discussed issues of gender, you’d think people like me didn’t exist. I still think queer women of color are treated like mythical creatures in popular feminism. Which is weird, because I know so many.

But now that I think about it, it speaks volumes that I never finished Wonder Womanist’s comic. To be honest, I don’t think I even made race much of a priority in my analysis back then; at 21, I thought reading Angela Davis or Assata Shakur was enough. But I wasn’t listening to the black women around me very well.

AZ: I loved when Radical Cheerleader met Lavender Menace.

SX: Oh yeah, that comic was one of the most fun to draw. I had also recently come out as queer and started dating my partner around that time. It was just exciting to finally illustrate queer characters without feeling some sort of gay shame about it all.

AZ: So maybe then, coming out as queer enabled the queerness to fully emerge from your comics as well?

SX: Yeah, I think so. I was so much more uptight before coming out.

AZ: In many respects, your work has always been attuned to queering the status quo and navigating the politics of social encounters. Your characters are never submerged in any one ideology, and they are always questioning, being proven wrong, learning from their mistakes, pointing out the errors of others.

SX: That’s just how I try to live my life, as someone who’s in a perpetual state of in-between. I love traveling, I love talking to people and getting to know them, even if it’s for a short while and even if we don’t agree on everything. I also understand that most people change throughout the course of their lives and others remain stagnant, and they’re just more comfortable that way. But my favorite characters to write are of the former persuasion: curious, uncertain, totally inconsistent, and more vulnerable.

AZ: Political agency is positioned on a continuum: one does not become politicized because one is always becoming politicized. The process can be as equally thrilling as it is nauseating, especially when we’re oscillating between identification and misidentification in our political alliances and allegiances.  

SX: Right.

AZ: Has your work (comics, activism, music, zine) mutated as you have come identify and/or misidentify with political formations around you?

SX: Definitely. But I think it’s been necessary. I started out aiming all my political criticism towards sexist dudes. Now that I’ve pretty much eliminated men like that from my personal life, it seems most of my work comes out of an exasperation with the people I’m supposed to find more affinity with, like other women. But lately I’ve been putting more energy into art that’s about building affinities that make you feel good, like in my comic The Best Song Ever. It turned a year old this month, and it’s one of the works I’m most proud of.

AZ: You recently spoke at the Stop Slut Conference at the New School and in your talk, you highlighted the structural inequalities embedded in a liberal feminist event like SlutWalk. As equally compelling was how you grounded your critique in your past experiences as an event organizer, and conveyed your rethinking of not only the event, but also the symbolic violence embedded in the reclamation of ‘slut’ as a mode of sexual agency.

Can you speak about the experience? Did you experience a misidentification? What led you toward a reassessment of the event? And what inspired and/or encouraged you speak out?

Although you’ve published a version of the talk online, I’m hoping you can break it down here – not to take away from the urgency of the matter or the piece itself – but as a way of demarcating what you perceive to be as the crucial points.

SX: Actually, in my talk I felt it was important to identify the more radical roots of SlutWalk. It was initiated as a confrontation of the police – after a police officer in Toronto implied that survivors of rape could not expect justice if they dressed like “sluts.”

It’s predecessor, Take Back The Night, is now almost entirely limited to speak outs on college campuses. But in its earliest form, at least in Italy in 1977, Take Back The Night looked a lot more like SlutWalk. I think in the case of SlutWalk, liberal feminists worked in tandem with mainstream media to make it look much less formidable and more palatable to people who are NOT sympathetic to feminism. It was a struggle to organize this event with 50+ other people, most of who still trusted the police and prisons to adequately serve justice when it came to rape, despite the evidence that proves otherwise. It was no coincidence that almost all of these people were white, straight and cisgender. Most of the people who spoke at SlutWalk NYC did not belong to those identity groups (at least not all at once), and were openly critical of the police; but I still feel that their messages were lost in the retellings of the event. I took this conference to take the focus off of the reclamation of slut, which is not really important to me, and take it back to the structural ways those considered “sluts” are punished, by police and by feminists alike.

AZ: As a final provocation, I’d like to address your role as blogger/illustrator at both Rookie Mag and Bitch, and as a team member of the POC Zine Project

What are your responsibilities and/or contributions with each publication venue, and how did you become involved?

SX: I have been publishing my comics independently for several years, on my Blogger and Tumblr. Tavi Gevinson of Rookie Mag and Sarah Mirk from Bitch took notice of my work, and hired me as a staff contributor. I usually draw comics for them, but sometimes I write about music or contribute to the advice column.

I should note that POC Zine Project isn’t a venue for publication, but an activist project. All the team members are self-published, but not through POCZP. It’s a collective of people who speak at events and promote zines by people of color. The other members are currently on a speaking tour in the United States and Mexico, you should see what they’re up to!

AZ: Although seemingly congruent, the publications are also quite diverse in their engenderment and mandate. Rookie Mag is billed as a publication for teenage girls, and Bitch is known as providing a feminist response to popular culture.

What do each of these publication venues mean for you?

SX: What’s funny is that I actually started reading Bitch Magazine when I was 15. I discovered it in a little radical bookstore in St. Augustine. I didn’t really get half of the articles, but I was really excited by feminist literature, even if it was beyond my comprehension. If Rookie had existed back then, I definitely would’ve read it; it’s a much more age-appropriate gateway to feminist thought. (Although back then there was the gURL.com message boards, which functioned similarly as a space for young women and consciousness-raising.) In my work for Rookie, I try to think about the kind of work I would’ve liked to see and benefit from as a teen. With Bitch, I generally assume the audience has more familiarity with feminist politics.

AZ: How would you articulate your participation in Rookie Mag, Bitch and the POC Zine Project? As an extension of your queer-feminist trajectory? Or perhaps you view your involvement as something entirely different?

SX: I just try to draw and write the things I haven’t read before. Even if ten years from now, I look back at my work and think “Oh god, I was such a baby then,” I still believe it’s important to put my perspective out there.

Suzy X is an illustrator, musician and zinester living in Brooklyn, NY. She’s a staff contributor at Rookie Mag and Bitch Magazine, and has volunteered at the Willie Mae Rock Camp For Girls and SAFER (Students Active For Ending Rape). She sings in the feminist punk band Shady Hawkins. You can keep up with her on Twitter via @msmalcriada.

Andrea Zeffiro is a regular contributor for NMP. For more see: andreazeffiro.com