In the world of
An Interview With Roberta Gregory
Roberta Gregory is the creator, writer and artist of Naughty Bits, published by Fantagraphics books. I’ve been a fan of Roberta’s for a long time, and it was great to finally get a chance to have her sit down and talk to Gray Haven about Naughty Bits, women in comics and the industry in general. Like the characters in her stories, Roberta pulls no punches during the interview. All you fan boys out there wondering why girls won’t kiss you, drop your chesty books and pick up Naughty Bits for a glimpse of what women are really thinking. AG: Tell us about yourself.
RG: Me? 47 years old. Female. Interested in way too many things, don't findenough hours in the day, find the world a benign place for the most part, have an optimistic outlook even though life has not been too easy. Check out my website at www.robertagregory.com
AG: How did you get into the comics industry? Why did you want to break into this industry?
RG: My father wrote and later drew comics for Disney, so it was something people did.... I read comics a lot as a kid as a result of having them around the house. I was writing and drawing my own comics back in school, but they were really different from the things I saw in comic books, so I figured nobody would ever read them unless they were discovered after my death or something like that. I hadn't seen very many comics by women until I got into college and discovered things like Wimmen's Comix, Pandora's Box, and other underground comics by women. Suddenly it seemed possible for my own comics to be readable by other people since there didn't seem to be any subject matter you could NOT do comics about. I didn't really think about breaking into the industry but it was more like I suddenly discovered that some of my comics were being published and people were reading them and letting me know they enjoyed them. Then I sort of felt like I had the right to have my comics in print like everyone else.
AG: Describe Naughty Bits and how the idea for the book came about?
RG: Well, Naughty Bits is my solo title. I just sent issue #32 to the printer today, so it is pretty long-running. The main character is Bitchy Bitch, and most of the stories revolve around her, though the format changes a bit. For a while it seemed to be a long Bitchy Bitch serial, and I never really wanted to do that with the comic. I didn't really like other comics that seemed to grind along with the same story line unfolding issue after issue.
There was a lot more variety in the earlier issues, and more pages by other cartoonists, so I am sort of going back to that. In the most recent issues I have been doing really autobiographical stories, and in this last issue I did a long biographical story about Doctor Mary Walker. Usually I have only a vague idea of what I am going to focus an issue around, when I have to come up with a cover idea and a few lines for a solicitation three months before the issue comes out. It is kind of a fun challenge, and I feel sort of lucky to have a title that keeps coming out. I am making a very minimal amount of money from it, but right now I have other sources of income.
AG: How autobiographical is the book? Do you feel comfortable sharing so much of yourself with the readers? If it's less auto biographical than one might think, did you base any of the characters on real people or are they all amalgamations of people you've met throughout your life.
RG: Well, the Bitchy stories are not all that autobiographical... I mean, if I get interested in something I may have Bitchy dealing with it, but the characters are not really based on specific people. Some of them are a bit inspired by some people's characteristics. Bitchy will get upset about some of the same things that make ME upset, like how this culture is so based around money, but then she is really homophobic also. She is a lot like those characters writers talk about that start taking on lives of their own.
I am not sure HOW I feel about her sometimes, but she doesn't really care! I have been doing some VERY autobiographical material lately, some very personal stuff about dealing with my father who has Alzheimer's and talking to the reader about someone who broke up with me.
I do have some mixed feelings about the autobio, though I always drew myself talking to the reader about the content of each issue from the very start. I never thought my life was interesting enough for autobio, but the little universal things in life sort of took on a fascination, dealing with an aging parent, having to put your cat to sleep, wondering why someone ended a relationship, and so forth. This last one, I did have mixed feelings about, but since I had this tradition of going on in detail about what was happening in my life, and dealing with this breakup was making the issue come out late, it seemed sort
of dishonest NOT to go into it since it had absorbed so much of my life recently. I asked some people if I should have it in this issue, and they thought it was all right. (I have never before asked anyone about the content of an issue!) and when it came out, the person who dumped me was really upset and shocked to see it, even though there is a tradition in independent comics to show people dealing with sometimes really painful
real-life issues. And of all things, we are back in a relationship, which I never saw happening in a million years, so I guess it was not a big mistake. People have written in saying how well they could relate to this one and others of my recent autobio comics, so people must like the variety. I'm not sure if I want to keep doing the autobio thing... I don't want to overdo it. I DID get an Eisner Award nomination for one of my first autobio stories, "Bye-Bye Muffy" from issue #28.
AG: Can you recap the whole incident with Kim Thompson and rumors of the book's demise?
RG: Oh, I barely remember that. Back around Issue #5 or so I think Fantagraphics
were threatening to cancel it with a wave of some of their other poor-selling comics, and I pleaded with my readers (with my little Roberta icon) to keep buying it and I think the sales went back up a bit. Things have dropped off more recently, and Kim Thompson was saying it could be because the covers were unappealing, and a lot of my readers wrote in to defend me. Kim had a reply in the following issue that they never intended
to cancel Naughty Bits.
AG:How does the book stand now?
RG: Well, I have never heard any more threats of cancellation. Fantagraphics isbugging me for a cover for #33, which is a good sign. The sales are not that impressive, and Fantagraphics have for now stopped putting together the paperback collections, which I am sort of sorry for, since they can sell in bookstores where the comics do not. I am hoping sales may go up if the animated cartoons become a success, but after a season on the Oxygen Network, I don't think sales have been affected much at all. I still like doing the book, and find it a challenge to come up with material on a regular basis, and of course, there are readers that would really miss me!
AG: Is there a particular criticism or 'label' on the book that you find particularly unjustified?
RG: Well, I used to have this reputation about doing stories about "Men getting their dicks bitten off" since the first story in the first issue had that going on, but after 31 more issues I think that is sort of laid to rest. I hear secondhand that the comic is anti-male, pointlessly negative or even anti-women, showing women in negative stereotypes, and I got a bit of flack for my Bitchy Butch character from some elements in the lesbian community, so I guess I have had a few labels I don't agree with. But if you are doing something so different from what people have come to expect, I guess you have to expect that.
AG: If you had to define the book, how would you?
RG: Hmmm... I guess it's whatever is going on with me at the moment and whatever appeals to me, subject-wise, along with the fictional universe of Bitchy Bitch. It doesn't get enough credit for the humor in it, and there is much more depth to the stories than what appears on the surface. It is the comic book I would love to be able to pick up every few months or so and get a great humor fix and follow-up on the life of the creator, and what went on in her life to make her write this particular Bitchy story, or whatever. It is the comic book I would like to read but can't because it doesn't exist, so I create it for other people to read. AND it is a lot of reading pleasure for your buck, not one of these things you pay three dollars for and read it through in ten minutes!
AG: What does the makeup of your audience tend to be? More men or women? Are you writing the book for a specific group or just trying to be entertaining, no matter who comes along for the ride?
RG: Oh yes, I don't really think of specific people reading it: I think it is probably evenly split between men and women: men because they are the majority of comic book readers, but I also get women who don't normally read comics but they read mine. It appeals to whoever finds my work appealing! Which makes sense when you think about it!
AG: Do you think the declining sales had more to do with the changing attitudes in the market place or more towards the overall decline of comic sales in general?
RG: I'm not sure: I'm not that familiar with the comic book industry lately since I have been working in animation for over a year, when I am not churning out the latest issue of Naughty Bits.
AG: What do you think of the state of the industry now?
RG: Well, I have a bit of time over the Summer and am going to the San Diego Comics Convention, so hopefully I can pick up some information about what is going on. I haven't even been up on the latest comics by people whose work I used to read all the time! I haven't even read a Comics Journal in awhile, and I can get free issues from Fantagraphics! I have been kept rather busy by life-issues, too, so have not given the industry much thought beyond the fact that I still do have a publisher!
AG: What can be done to change the decline? Can anything be done?
RG: I dunno. I was just talking to a few comics creators in Seattle earlier today and we didn't have any answers. It sounds like I should read this new Scott McCloud book about the state of the industry: I didn't even know it existed until I heard it mentioned today but it might be the talk of San Diego so maybe I oughta get my hands on a copy! My solution is to keep doing good material, even though it is not really economically feasible if that was my only source of income, so I think that is sorta heroic on my part. Besides the fact that it is fun and challenging and I really enjoy it! (Though I am SO glad to have the book sent to the printer! #32 just got sent off yesterday, which is why I now have time for this interview! When I start getting the ideas for the comic is when I first love an issue, and then when I get the stories blue-penciled with all the panels in place. When it is down to the last few days before it goes to the printer I positively HATE the damned thing but when it is in print finally I love it again!)
AG: After doing the book for so long, would it be hard to walk away?
RG: Oh, it certainly would. But I would have other creative projects, I am sure. I don't see any reason right now to walk away.... even when doing the work on the animation project I had time to get the issues done, though they were a bit late and I would stick an extra month between issues.
AG: Do you have an ending in mind for the story, or does it depend on your own life experiences to dictate that?
RG: Oh, I have no idea where the story is even going half the time, much less how it is going to end.... I presume you mean the Bitchy "storyline," such as it is!
AG: You recently featured a 'classified ad' for potential suiters for you in Naughty Bits. What prompted you to do that? How are the responses?
RG: Well, I just got dumped for the second time by someone and it was a pretty bewildering experience, not knowing where someone that you thought you knew was coming from. Since I have been doing autobio stories lately, it seemed natural to do a story about it. I had been talking to a lot of friends, sorta telling them what happened and trying to get some feedback to help me figure it out, so I just turned it into a story where I am sitting there sipping a cup of tea and telling the reader what happened like I was telling a friend. I had rather mixed feelings even though I did not go too much into personal details of this other person's life. And as I was working on it, was when they had that "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" show on TV and the scandal behind it, so I thought, what the hell, why don't I turn it into a personal ad. I had been thinking of running a personal ad anyhow, but I don't have all the qualities you need to have in Seattle to meet someone, like lots of money in a high-tech job. And on the surface I am not sexy or flashy or blonde enough to attract someone, and my income is so low I am practically at the poverty level, which is sort of the kiss of doom for someone over forty. But, hell, I know I am a phenomenal person, and so would the people who are familiar with me and my work, so I figured, if ANYONE would recognize this it would be one of my readers who have followed my work for so long and can see what a gutsy, talented, strong person I am. Maybe I had a secret admirer all these years who thought I was firmly attached to someone! It was worth a shot, and I put sort of a tongue-in-cheek spin on it, too. But I don't seem to have had any success so far. Heard from a few people who are married to someone else and sent their support. So, maybe all the good people out there ARE taken like they say! As it turns out, the person who dumped me, after being really shocked and angry at the piece in issue #31, now wanted to get back together. (HE ran a personal ad and wasn't happy with the people he got!) So I have kind of mixed feelings but things seem to be working out better with us, and it IS nice to be in a relationship with someone as long as you communicate about things. Perhaps there IS a secret admirer out there who loves my work and thinks I am wonderful and has such a decent income it won't matter that I am working hard but just getting by. (This person I am back with is pretty low-income himself, so money is always an issue.)
AG You write material other than for Naughty Bits. Tell us about your other projects.
RG: Well, the BIG project has been the Bitchy Bits animation: This company in Montreal has been animating Bitchy Bitch cartoons for one season: 15 three-minute long episodes that have been running on the Oxygen Network on cable TV. I am the model designer and script consultant and have been doing some of the storyboards: It kept me very busy last Fall through early Spring, while I was also working on the comics. It is a very low-budget project so I am not making a LOT of money on it (but enough to keep a roof over my head at the humble level I am used to! For me, this has been a steady income, though a lot of the money had to go to a lawyer to make sure my contract was fair.) I am hoping there will be more seasons and longer episodes and maybe there will be merchandising and I will make a lot of money! I can dream, can't I? I am keeping my fingers crossed: we won't know until this September if there will be another season or if this is the end of it. Most of the cartoons can be seen on the Oxygen web-site, www.oxygen.com, under X-Chromosome, which is the name of the animated cartoon show that has the Bitchy Bits cartoons featured on it. AND people can give feedback that hopefully will urge the network to keep doing Bitchy Bits and maybe it could end up as a half-hour series. The short cartoons are going to be shown on the Canadian Comedy Network in the fall. But I will not know until September if there is more work for me on this. I also have been working on smaller projects....an online strip for a web-site, Libida.com and last year I published the second half of my Winging It storyline. I am working on a novel, just words and not pictures, that is a spin-off of one of the Winging It storylines, but who knows if it will ever get published. Or even finished, at the rate I have been working on it!
AG: What do you do for fun/free time when you aren't writing?
RG: I love just kicking back, going out to the woods or mountains and enjoying the lovely scenery around here, Puget Sound, the islands and so on! Just the opposite of having to concentrate on creative work. I like to read and am way behind on movies, too. I can really waste time just hanging out with people, helping them with their yard work, fixing dinner together and so on!
AG: What would you be doing if you weren't writing?
RG: For a living? I have no idea. I don't have any other marketable skills, though I figure if I have to get a real job sometime, I would manage at whatever it turned out to be. I am really bad with computers but I am a pretty organized and detail-oriented and responsible person so I would survive. I used to be a production artist for magazine publishers, but all of that work is now computerized and being done by people who have been doing that a lot longer than I would be.
AG: Finally, who should be reading Naughty Bits and Why?
RG: EVERYONE should be reading it! Men! Women! Undecided! People who are easily offended probably wouldn't enjoy it very much, unless they were intelligent enough to see what I am REALLY saying below the surface, but as long as they bought the comic first, heck, I would want them to read it too. How's that for shameless self-promotion?
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