Non-binary, bisexual cartoonist MariNaomi’s graphic memoir I Thought You Loved Me, which will be published February by Fieldmouse Press, marks a continuation of their career-long fascination with the vagaries of friendships and identity. They also show off an expansive new visual repertoire. While clear, simple lines and uncomplicated backdrops defined their prior probing, nakedly honest memoir comics, this latest story is told through an offbeat, innovative mix of photo collage, prose, and comics.
The narrative takes a deep dive into MariNaomi’s friendship with a peer, Jodie, which began in their teenage years in the late 1980s and carried on into the early aughts. When Jodie suddenly cut Mari off without explanation in 2001, Mari was left bewildered. Years later, Mari discovered Jodie’s apparent motivations for ending the friendship, and their emotions shifted to anger and a sense of betrayal. Still haunted by questions of what went wrong, they began sifting through memories for answers, pored through old letters and diary entries, and eventually confronted some surprising revelations. MariNaomi employs a scrapbooky, mixed media aesthetic throughout. For example, on one page they pair the artifact of an old letter from Jodie with a backdrop photo of the flowering greenery that always appears whenever memories of Jodie take center stage.
“When you come right down to it,” MariNaomi, 49, tells PW from their home in the East Bay area of California, “this book is about memory—memory both true and faulty.”
I Thought You Loved Me endured a rollercoaster journey to publication. The book was first acquired by Amble Press and announced for a 2022 release, but in a familiar post-Covid pattern, the publisher ran into budget issues and canceled publication. Coming to the rescue, small independent Fieldmouse Press picked it up, successfully running a crowdfunding campaign to finance publication. MariNaomi describes the experience as fraught: “I hate asking people for money. I felt that if it didn’t fund, I would probably quit making books. It’s just gotten too hard. But then I watched as the community, including the publisher that had to let go of my book, propped me up on social media.”
MariNaomi’s community building has been a strength throughout their career. In 2014, in an effort to increase visibility and cross-communication for marginalized creators, they founded the Cartoonist Database for Cartoonists of Color, which expanded to two more databases: one for queer cartoonists and the other for disabled cartoonists. These resources are supported and utilized by artists, academics, and publishers. “I realized that if we're going to have any visibility, I didn’t want to wait for someone else to do it,” says MariNaomi.
They grew up in a tiny town in North Texas. “My folks told me that San Francisco had a park twice the size of where we lived, which blew my mind," MariNaomi says. "The town was surprisingly diverse, though. My mom had a Japanese best friend there, with a half-Japanese daughter like me. The first boy I kissed was Black. I played with Latinx girls. Race barely occurred to me.”
MariNaomi eventually moved to the Bay area and began to draw comics and self-publish zines “as a fun hobby” in 1997, inspired in particular by the autobiographical comics of Mary Fleener. Estrus, which catalogued MariNaomi’s sexual and romantic experiences, eventually comprised the bulk of their first published memoir, Kiss and Tell: A Romantic Resume 0 to 22 (Harper Perennial, 2011). “In simplest terms, it was all about my love life,” they say with a laugh. MariNaomi’s readership was bolstered by work featured online at Buzzfeed and The Rumpus, and by their joining Michelle Tea’s traveling road show of writers and artists, Sister Spit, in 2011, a “crash course on stage readings.”
“I became an overnight star in 14 years,” they joke. After debuting with a major trade house, their vibrant publishing career has since been built primarily through relationships with smaller independent presses. As MariNaomi puts it, “I’ve found Indies are more likely to take a chance on something different. They’ve been instrumental in pushing the medium forward.”
The autobiographical shorts in Dragon’s Breath and Other Stories (2D Cloud with Uncivilized, 2014) garnered an Eisner nomination. Turning Japanese (2D Cloud, 2016), a memoir about trying to learn Japanese by working in a hostess bars, had a longer gestation period while MariNaomi “found the narrative.”
“Eventually, I realized that the real story was me searching for the Japanese part of my identity, which I’d never embraced as a kid,” they explain.
I Thought You Loved Me picks up on themes of their fourth graphic memoir, I Thought YOU Hated ME (Retrofit, 2017), a lighter work which tracks the ups and downs of a childhood friendship that did, in that case, last into adulthood. “Aesthetically, the two books could not be more different, but I wanted to tie them together,” says MariNaomi.
In a break from depicting their own youth, MariNaomi moved into creating comics to be read by the young adult market. The Life on Earth trilogy: Losing the Girl (2018), Gravity’s Pull (2019) and Distant Stars (2020), published by Graphic Universe, explores the lives of a diverse group of high school students navigating romance and friendships, caught up in the mystery of a classmate’s disappearance. Though they received critical praise, the series ran into some unexpected trouble. First MariNaomi had to cancel all in-person promotional efforts due to the Covid pandemic, which deflated their momentum. Then in 2022, Losing the Girl was banned by a school board in Katy, Texas, due to relatively minor LGBTQ content. “I always joked that I wanted to be a banned book author—for the publicity—but when it happened, it was a punch in the gut.”
Warming up to the experimentation with form found in I Thought You Loved Me, MariNaomi drew each of the Life on Earth characters in their own unique visual style. And in detailing a painful collapse of friendship between two of the kid characters, MariNaomi confesses, “I was really writing about Jodie. I still wasn’t ready to write about her directly.”
Once they got going however, MariNaomi found working on I Thought You Loved Me fun, as they were finally ready to “excavate this one old wound,” adding “I wonder if I'd had a therapist back when I was going through all this, if the book would even exist today.
“You could turn to any page of I Thought You Loved Me and every image is a visual metaphor for something, everything has meaning. I took every picture in the book except for some of the ones that are of me. This lilac image that I used to represent memory…every time you see the lilac on a page, that represents my faded memories returning. In fact, I made a whole outfit of that lilac image that I'm going to be wearing on tour when the book comes out.”
The rocky road traveled by both their YA trilogy and I Thought You Loved Me took their toll, but MariNaomi remains cautiously optimistic about the future. “The arts have never been easy, but these pandemic times have felt especially bumpy and unsure. I've never felt so close to abandoning comics as I have in the last few years, but my beloved community and my love for the medium keeps pulling me back in.” They have several new projects on the horizon, including a return to a major trade house with a middle-grade graphic novel in collaboration with Trung Le Nguyen (The Magic Fish), slated to be published by Little, Brown in 2026.
“If not for comics,” they say, “where would I go?”