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Underwire by Jennifer Hayden

Essay and Interview by John Seven

Jennifer Hayden’s “Underwire” is an entirely honest slice of life that probably benefits from first hand experience as a parent, but it isn’t mandatory. “Underwire” might even be revelatory in its depiction a typical moment out between a mother and daughter and the extreme tension that a watercress sandwich can cause on one side of the interaction, while on the other, a sweet and naive satisfaction mixed with hopefulness.

It’s through this small moment — and thanks to Hayden’s depiction of her daughter as a human being rather than an object — that a parent/child relationship is examined rather fully. It’s also a chance to get to know Hayden herself — that sandwich brings out parts of her personality that are equally sweet and snarky. 

Hayden is a convert from children’s picture books and “Underwire” is her way of investigating the cracks between the pages of that format — what goes on in the parents’ mind as the book is being read? Hayden is off to a great start and I can’t wait to see where she leads us.

Hayden is currently working on a graphic novel upcoming from Top Shelf about her experience with breast cancer.

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Materials: A rapidograph pen with black ink and Strathmore Bristol smooth paper.  I draw the panels individually, raw—no planning, no sketching—then scan them into Photoshop.  It was Dean Haspiel’s idea—the founder of ACT-I-VATE.COM where my webcomic appears—to run the panels one by one (one per page).  But the panels were originally intended to run six to a page vertically in normal comic book format.

Interview with Jennifer Hayden:

Q; What was it about comics that enticed you?
A: After college I worked as a writer for about thirteen years and I never could quite get my thoughts out that way.  Then, when I had kids, I went back to drawing, which I’d grown up doing all the time, and I illustrated children’s books.  But I wasn’t happy with the fine art aspect—spending so long on each picture.  And I wanted to tell my own stories.  And my stories definitely aren’t children’s stories, even though they sometimes involve children.  Then I had breast cancer and while I was recuperating from surgery I discovered graphic novels.  They were exactly what I was looking for: spontaneous drawing, essential text, autobiographical stories, humor, awkwardness, pain.  All for an adult audience.  And I was home.

Q: You mentioned reading Archie in your bio — is that your full experience with comics as a kid?
A: No.  I read a LOT of Archie comics, but also romance comics, and Peanuts, Doonesbury, Tin Tin, and Asterix and Obelix by Goscinny and Uderzo.  I still consider Asterix and Obelix to be the gold standard for comics.  While I was growing up I also loved the pen and ink art of early Maurice Sendak and Hilary Knight.

Q: How does your comic illustration style differ from your children’s book work?
A: My children’s book work is watercolor and guache with pen-and-ink laid on top.  It’s an insane technique, because if you screw up the ink stage you have to paint all over again.  It takes me hours.  There’s no cross-hatching and the texture is built up with color medium, not the ink.  Also, the faces are more typically cute-looking, which I think is silly, but I was asked to do this.  The tough part is that the drawing is not spontaneous, because I had to submit sketches, then execute the final art on a lightbox.  Execute is right.  In my last book, Liberty Cafe is Open! by Marcia Trimble (Images Press 2007) I included a single panel on each page that was meant as a slow comic strip showing what one of the characters is doing while she’s off camera for the first part of the story.  There, my comics were mysteriously seeping into my illustrations…

Q: In your experience, do you think comics have done much to explore parenting as a topic?
A: Not what I’ve seen so far.  The Sunday strips have done it, but in a very rated-G way.  I’m not rated G.  I think comics in this country have historically been for kids and adolescent boys and sometimes adolescent girls and sometimes young men.  Now we’re seeing great stuff from some young and not-so-young women, but it’s still directed to a younger age group.  Parenting would not be the right subject for this audience.  But as autobiographical comics take off, and as more people of all ages read comics and as the artists age, I think we’ll see more on parenting all the time.  My take on parenting is that it’s part of my development as an individual and it’s just as sick and twisted and off-color as the rest of my life has been.

Q: Has your daughter read the strip?
A: No way, man.  She knows she’s in it, but she’s not ready to go there yet.  She knows me too well.

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