An Interview With R. Claire Stephens

Claire Stephens is a Visiting Instructor in the English Department at the University of South Florida. A cartoonist, designer, and writer, Claire tells stories with multiple facets of beauty. Her graphic essay, Lady in Ink, explores the connection between tattoos and identity, and was published by Sweet Publications in 2015. You can order it here.

Disclaimer: I know Claire from real life, and it’s awkward, because I thought we were best friends, but she says that we’re just really good friends. In the following interview, we discuss her tattoo experience, her writing process, one of her current works-in-progress, and possible face tattoos for Ira Sukrungruang, cofounder of Sweet and super-strict professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Florida’s MFA Program.

T.J. Murray: A running theme throughout Lady in Ink is questions about tattoos (from others and from within yourself). So I’m not going to ask you why you got your tattoo (people can read the comic to find out), but, seeing how beautiful this is and how long it must have taken to create, I’ll ask: why did you decide to write about getting a tattoo? What was the impetus for this comic?

Claire Stephens: The impetus for this piece isn’t all that exciting. Ira Sukrungruang was thinking about doing a tattoo anthology and asked if I had any tattoo essays. I had also just read 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh by Peter Trachtenberg – I think he came to USF that semester – so I was already thinking about how tattoos and identity intersect.

TJ: Why did you choose a comics essay as the medium for this story? Did the project start or ever wander into different mediums throughout your process?

RC: This was originally a prose essay, albeit a short one. It was under 750 words. I’m not entirely sure how it became a comic, but at some point I realized that because the essay was about bodily (and therefore visual) representations of identity, it made sense to have visuals in the essay. This was around the time that I started experimenting with poetry comics, so I was in the right head space.

TJ: I love the idea of things coming together in unexpected and surprising ways, especially in a comic that’s such a time-intense project. What was your process for making this comic? Can we get a timeline for how long each step took?

RC: It takes me a stupid long time to finish anything, but Lady in Ink was particularly difficult. The first problem I ran into, this was probably sometime in 2013, was one of format. As you know, one of the first things a comics artist has to decide is what size and orientation the page is going to be, as well as how many panels are going onto a page. I started off with a nine panel landscape format and spent weeks drawing four or five pages in portrait before realizing that I had way too much text for a standard size comics page (no one would be able to read the darn thing because the text would be so small), so then I went back to landscape and, to make sure it would be readable, went to a single panel per page, which meant I had to redraw everything. I also went from an almost entirely hand-drawn process to an entirely digital process.

Instead of sticking to the processes I was reading about in “how-to” books (or even reading how-to books, to be honest), I just tried a bunch of stuff.  This meant that I was making all the mistakes beginners make. I used the wrong pencils, didn’t scan my drawings well, didn’t save digital brushes, didn’t standardize a type or a page until way too late, etc, which meant I was constantly redrawing panels I had already drawn. C’est la vie. I am hoping that my next project will go much more smoothly.

TJ: I’m interested in what you said about tattoos being bodily/visual representations of identity. It made me wonder about you being an artist and deciding to put art on your body. How did you decide on the design of your tattoo? Did you feel extra pressure as an artist to have a certain style or aesthetic? Did you draw the design of your tattoo?

RC: So I totally forgot about this, but I didn’t draw the art for my tattoo! I had only taken a couple of drawing classes when I decided to get a tattoo, so despite the fact that I self-identified as an artist, I wasn’t confident at all about my artistic abilities. I wasn’t confident about anything, really, which is one of the reasons I got the tattoo. Radar (the tattoo artist) was fantastic. His portfolio was full of delicately shaded, realistic tattoos that looked like drawings – he has such fine lines – so I asked him to draw something for me.

People used to ask whether or not I drew the raspberries, but I haven’t heard that question in a long time, maybe because the tattoo has faded so much. (It’s lost a lot of the sharp lines that made Radar’s smooth gradations so beautiful.) For years, every time I heard the question, I felt like a poseur and a shitty artist, which is one of the problems I was trying to fix by getting a tattoo. I wonder why it doesn’t bother me any more.

TJ: I see shades of Alison Bechdel in Lady in Ink. Was she an influence?

RC: Alison Bechdel is my hero. God, she’s so smart.  I wrote a paper about Fun Home the semester I started Lady in Ink. I wanted to interrogate myself as much as she did in Fun Home, but I also wanted to figure out how she was able to get away with using so much text in a comic, which allowed her to provide so much content to the reader in a very specific and articulate way – this is something that I think the medium struggles with. It’s also often the case that comics with a lot of text get criticized because their images can be redundant to the text, but Bechdel’s images and text are inextricably intertwined. One adds meaning to the other. I wanted to do that, too. I don’t think I have, not really, but I wanted to. So yes, Bechdel was a major influence on this project. The other thing I thought a lot about was the essay form itself – how to meander in a really structured way.

TJ: We get a glimpse of the girl with a robot leg late in Lady in Ink as a sort of allusion to future R. Claire Stephens comics. Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

RC: I’m working on a project called Split City Blues. It’s this dystopic sci-fi murder mystery thing – Stella, robot-leg girl, is the heroine. I won’t say much, other than the fact that she lost her leg to a giant, underground jellyfish that’s bioluminescent and swims in the air. I’m hoping to have a publisher for that project by next fall.

TJ: Any new tattoos or plans for tattoos? If not, if I told you that you HAD to get a new tattoo right now (or something bad would happen, like I’d blow up the moon), what would you get? (No cheating by picking something small or hidden.)

RC: I don’t have any plans for another tattoo right now, mostly because 1) they’re expensive and 2) my boyfriend isn’t a fan of any of my ideas. If I was, however, going to get another tattoo, I’d get an Emily Dickinson line up the outside of my forearm (“inebriate of air am I”) — it’s the first line from a poem about bees and how drunk they are. My boyfriend doesn’t want me to get it on my forearm – he thinks I’d look like a poseur gangster. It’s lame that I’m letting him discourage me, I know, but there are other factors. The price, like I said, but also the fact that tattoos tend to fade and blur over time, especially those with fine lines or lettering.

TJ: Thanks for talking with me! This last question comes from Ira Sukrungruang: “I really want to get a face tattoo, but I’m having a hard time deciding on an image. What should I (Ira) get tattooed on my face? And will you hold my hand as it gets done?”

RC: Ira should get the silhouette of a fox or a dragon or a bear for his face tattoo in heavy, black, but curvilinear shapes – and the animal should stretch from one corner of his mouth, up his cheek, across his forehead, and down to the other corner of his mouth. And yes. I’ll be there. I will definitely be there.

 … return to Issue 8.3 Table of Contents.