After establishing her voice with a series of self-published autobiographical comics and online comics journalism, Whit Taylor will make her trade publishing debut with Ghost Stories, a collection of old and new comics short stories, to be published by Rosarium Publishing this month.
Winner of the 2012 Glyph Rising Star Award for the best new comic by or about people of color, Taylor is a rising figure in the indie comics world. She has published comics everywhere from The Nib, an online political comics site, to the New Yorker. She is the coeditor (with Hazel Newlevant) of Comics for Choice, an anthology on abortion, and has edited online comics for the PEN America Illustrated series.
Taylor’s trade book debut features a collection of “ghost stories;” tales of transformation, memory and loss, as well as a story based on her personal experience of sexual assault. PW spoke with Taylor about her professional background in anthropology and public health, moving from self-publisher to a conventional publisher, and the rise of the #MeToo movement and the global conversation among women sharing their stories of assault.
Why did you decide to publish Ghost Stories as a trade book with Rosarium Publishing?
I self-published Ghost [an earlier version of the book] in 2015 and figured that would be it. About a year after, I met Rosarium publisher Bill Campbell and he reached out to me about re-publishing Ghost in a collection of short stories, so that it could find a wider audience. I was hesitant initially, but Bill changed my mind when he expressed that this was the type of work that he would want his daughter to read one day.
Ghost Stories contains three short stories: “Ghost,” “Wallpaper,” and “Makers.” All three are connected in the sense that they are non-traditional ghost stories that share imagery and represent different life stages: young adulthood, childhood, and adolescence, respectively. I didn’t make any major modifications in my previously self-published stories, as I felt the need to preserve the original spirit of the pieces. Bill wanted me to add a new story for the book, so I wrote “Makers” to round it out. I hope that readers will draw connections between the separate stories, but also be able to appreciate them independently.
What drew you into the comics scene in the first place?
I’ve been a lifelong comics reader and creator, but became involved in indie comics about ten years ago, after graduating college. The first show I attended was APE (Alternative Press Expo) in San Francisco. My most vivid memory was picking up a minicomic (Fleep by Jason Shiga) from Sparkplug Books, and realizing that I could tell my own stories through self-publishing. From there I started making minis, going to shows, blogging, building relationships, and reading as much indie work as I could.
How does your social sciences and public health background inform you as a cartoonist?
My backgrounds in anthropology and public health have definitely influenced what I choose to write about. Much of my autobio and comics journalism work explore cultural and identity related issues. I’m often trying to work things out for myself as well as take on the challenge of trying to break down complicated ideas/concepts in a clear, simplified way. When I was in college, I often took notes in comics form to help me understand things, so it’s a continuation of a learning process that’s been intuitive for me.
One of your best known pieces is “What is Race?,” published on the political cartooning site, The Nib. It’s a methodical and accessible explanation of the scientific basis for understanding race. The story got quite a reaction.
After Trump was elected, I became increasingly bothered and scared by the hateful “alt-right” rhetoric and decided that I wanted to make a comic debunking the racial pseudoscience they used to justify their ideology. Overall, the piece was well-received, but of course I was harrassed by trolls. Charles Murray, who wrote The Bell Curve, which I denounced in the comic, read my piece apparently, and tweeted something snarky about it. I consider that a marker of success.
In Ghost Stories you are portrayed getting a chance to interview dead idols, which include Charles Darwin, Joseph Campbell and, in a surprising turn, your former self, before your own experience of sexual assault. In light of the #MeToo movement, what does it mean to publish this story?
The timing has certainly been odd. I knew when I initially published Ghost that it would be risky, not only because it was personally revealing and socially taboo (at that time), but because I was selling it at comic shows amongst my peers, some of whom were aware of the true story behind it. At that time, I felt so powerless about things, that the only way for me to feel heard was to write a comic about my experience and hope that it reached those who had been through similar situations. I found this to be true as I received lots of messages from women who read the story and felt less alone in their experiences.
I am thankful for the #metoo movement, despite the fact that it is uncharted territory for everyone. It is giving a voice to many who have felt burdened and silenced for so long. Going public about abuse comes with the knowledge that one will largely shoulder the burden of the response far after that information is shared. It can be re-traumatizing and I have great respect for those who have come forward with their stories as well as those who are not in a place to do so.
You also recently co-edited the Comics for Choice Anthology, a Kickstarter-funded anthology of comics about women’s experiences with abortion. Do you consider yourself a social activist?
I don’t know if I’d call myself an activist, but I do like to make comics that tell important political stories. I view Ghost Stories and C4C as connected in the sense that they intend to humanize personal and difficult experiences, but the reasoning behind them is different. Ghost Stories was born out of my personal experience. I agreed to be a co-editor on C4C because of my background as a clinical health educator who used to work in reproductive health.
I think that making comics can be a form of activism in the sense that it is a communicative and expressive tool that has the power to inform and empower others.