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Underwire by Jennifer Hayden

In the foreword to Underwire (Top Shelf, 2011), Jennifer Hayden tells us that she’s writing for women. She’s not only writing for women, since all the glossy magazines in the checkout line claim that, but she could be said to be writing for the everyday woman, the mom and wife. Most moms and wives are more aware of the glossies at the checkout than of what they might find at the local comic book store. Most adult women think comics are fodder for boys, of all ages. This is not true. (Comics these days are quite cerebral; one even won a Pulitzer!) The one area of comics totally under-appreciated is that of the adult woman.

There are plenty of coming-of-age stories from which to choose. A lot of these are just as good reading for adults. However, there are not so many comics or graphic novels written by and for “women of a certain age” range. With Underwire, Hayden reminds her reader, whomever that may be, that moms are people, too. They are imperfect, loving, individual people with dreams and hopes for themselves, their families and the world. That said, Underwire isn’t just Erma Bombeck with some pictures. Sure, there’s the sassy attitude. However, the book isn’t just about making light of loads of laundry or driving the kids to practice or class. Hayden presents us with slices of life, and some are poignant as well as hilarious.

Check out Underwire in its entirety through your local comic book store, order online directly from the publisher and get a taste of what the book is about at ACT-I-VATE. Jennifer Hayden’s new book The Story of My Tits is due out soon. See a preview at the publisher’s website.

Where women in comix are concerned, Jennifer and I were able to connect via e-mail and share thoughts on motherhood and art, creativity, work and women in the field. The Q&A below is an excerpt from our communications:

Kate: How has being a mother had an impact on your career, overall?

Jennifer Hayden: It’s funny. I always thought motherhood would be the end of my creativity. I thought I’d have no “self” after I became a mother, and certainly no concentration. But in fact, I think I became an artist AFTER I had kids. In this profound way, kids make you see yourself clearly—the good, the bad, and the ugly. They connect you at last with the world. And, they force you to tell the truth. You can bullshit everybody else, but you can’t bullshit your kids.

As far as my “career” goes, my kids were just at the right stage for me to have a little freedom and a little more of a work window by the time there was interest in my comix. So, motherhood didn’t hold me back from going to comic conventions and readings and getting to know people in the business, which was very important.

Kate: Do you think being a mom may be what drew you back to comix as a form of writing versus just prose?

Jennifer Hayden: No. Breast cancer did that. Breast cancer knocked the crap out of me, and I stopped wasting time with art forms that didn’t work for me. Art was this very “high” thing to me—painting, novels, poetry. None of it got down and dirty enough for me. I discovered graphic novels while recuperating from breast cancer in 2004, and realized that here, I could go back to where I started in childhood (when I read a lot of comix), and get really basic. I could be non-linear, foul-mouthed, highfalutin’, lowfalutin’, comic, tragic, and never have to worry about being consistent. For me, comix were the artistic equivalent of sitting babbling with a friend around a kitchen table while the kids scream around you and you ignore them (okay, so maybe in THIS way being a mom brought me to comix). I think I always felt that life was this soup, and comix allowed me to fully express this.

Kate: With regard to memoir in comix/graphic novels, is there a difference for family members since they are drawn versus how a prose memoir might describe a person? If you think there is a difference, what is it?

Jennifer Hayden: In some ways, because they are only cartoon-drawn, it takes a lot of the sting out of it. The character is clearly really not them, and it’s clear that you’re just fooling around. Hopefully you’re not being mean, drawing them with a big butt or something. I draw myself with a big carrot nose, and hopefully I depict myself more unflatteringly than everyone else around me. To me, that’s just good manners in autobiographical comix.

The interesting thing to me about drawing a memoir is that it can give you a chance to let other characters refute what your character is saying in the story. I’ve drawn some difficult memories about my mother in my upcoming book. Just using prose, I would have had trouble conveying what a pain in the ass I was being at the time, how I was helping to make things difficult. Drawing it, I can make it clear on my mother’s face just what she thinks of me and what a little creep I’m being. I was so relieved to discover this as I was working. But most importantly, the drawings make the relationships between characters crystal clear. And that, more than anything, is what I’m reaching for. Mind you, I haven’t shown any of this to my mother or the rest of my family and I’m pretty sure there will be hell to pay if they don’t get it.

Kate: What does your family have to say about your work?

Jennifer Hayden: My extended family hasn’t seen the longer memoir I’m doing, and they will kill me. Cement shoes, the whole thing. But right now I just have to get it down on paper. Then I’ll go over it all with them and they can take notes and there’ll be a quiz afterwards. And then they can kill me. My nuclear family is getting less amused about being the subject of my work. My husband wishes I’d never started this, though I’ve always handled his character with extreme delicacy. My son is barely aware of my work, and my daughter sometimes likes being a star in a comic. Really, they treat it as this thing that has nothing to do with them—proud of my success, giving me my space, allowing me to talk about it in front of them (while they try not to listen.)

Kate: The publisher with which you work is known for producing comix/graphic novels outside the industry standard of super hero stories. Has that caused their acceptance and promotion of your work to be the same as they might do for men writing/drawing for them? I’m curious whether you think comix publishers in general treat women author/artists differently than men.

Jennifer Hayden: My publisher did not treat me any differently than they treat their men author/artists, and I have to say I was touched by the quiet way they supported my book’s “femininity.” I thought Chris Ross’s book design was very sensitive to that, and I know Top Shelf researched the women’s market for me as they did their publicity. They supported my promotional efforts tremendously. Yet, they never called me a “women’s author” or in any way kept me separate. This is how I feel about my comix, that I’m both male and female, and that’s how they treated me. I absolutely love Top Shelf.

Kate: Do you hear from men about your work?

Jennifer Hayden: Absolutely! Men have been unbelievably supportive about my work. Underwire would never have happened without my mentor, Emmy-award-winning comix artist Dean Haspiel, who inspired me to create it for ACT-I-VATE, and Chris Staros, my publisher, who has been so patient and gentlemanly about giving me my creative space. So many men have come up to me at shows, buying my book, and not necessarily for their wives. I have humbly found out that we’re not so different, men and women, especially as parents. Especially as we stumble into middle age. And for those of us who make comix, it seems to me that all we want is another good comic to read, and we don’t care who made it.

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Kate Robinson
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master's in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family. Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women's health clinic.
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    […] Creators | Underwire creator Jennifer Hayden talks about drawing comics as memoir: “The interesting thing to me about drawing a memoir is that it can give you a chance to let other characters refute what your character is saying in the story. I’ve drawn some difficult memories about my mother in my upcoming book. Just using prose, I would have had trouble conveying what a pain in the ass I was being at the time, how I was helping to make things difficult. Drawing it, I can make it clear on my mother’s face just what she thinks of me and what a little creep I’m being. I was so relieved to discover this as I was working. But most importantly, the drawings make the relationships between characters crystal clear. And that, more than anything, is what I’m reaching for.” [Her Circle] […]

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