Erin Nations is a writer and illustrator based in Portland, Oregon, where he creates work as diverse as zines with titles like Meow: A Collection of Cat Portraits with Descriptions and the fashionable, fundraising Transgender Trailblazers T-shirt. He also contributes to quarterly comics newspaper Vision Quest and published a stand-alone comic in the current issue of the trans masculine culture magazine Original Plumbing. The first issue of his new series Gumballs will be published by Top Shelf Productions this week, and Geeks OUT is lucky enough to talk with him about it.
Can you isolate the memory of the first comic that made you want to write and illustrate comics?
Yeah, I was in college. During my last term, I took a comic book class and we were assigned to create our own comic book. I made one about two identical twin sisters in their early 20s ready to break apart and seek their own individuality. It was loosely based on my own experience at the time. It was the first comic I ever made and I remember really enjoying it. At that moment, I realized it was something I wanted to continue pursuing.
Your visual style is genuinely unique — cartoonish, yet sculptural. What artists or design styles outside of comics inspire you?
As a kid, I was drawn to anything cartoonish. That's still true today, but as I got older, I developed an interest in street art, underground contemporary art, and illustration. Visually, I've always gravitated towards work containing bold colors, text, and characters.
Some of my favorite artists include Travis Millard, Michael Sieben, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Kashink, Stephen Powers, Morning Breath...the list goes on. I'm also inspired by people like Wayne White, Jim Houser, and Souther Salazar who take elements from their paintings or illustrations and turn them into sculptures or other 3-D forms.
Do you think it's important for comics artists to seek inspiration from diverse sources?
I think it helps, for sure! Anytime you broaden your awareness, you're welcoming a wealth of diverse ideas. It not only sparks creativity, but it helps influence a unique style.
Has coming out and transitioning changed the way you draw? Has that experience changed the way you see the world, or your place in it, and by extension, they way you create your art?
To some degree, yes. It hasn't changed my style or my process, but it has changed some of the content in my work. I create both fictional comics and autobiographical comics. After I came to terms with being trans, my autobiographical comics began to center around my transition and my experience with being trans.
Transitioning has definitely changed the way I see the world and how I fit in it. When you are socialized as one gender and then your body transforms to reflect a different gender (the gender you identify with), people's perceptions of you change and therefore they treat you differently. You're treated in a way you are not familiar with. Lately, I find myself wanting to address these observations in my comics. Not only because it's therapeutic, but because I'm hoping others will become more cognizant of how gender affects the way humans behave and interact with each other, the gender roles people adopt and assign, gender stereotypes, and male privilege.
And while on the topic of transitioning, how did you transition from zines and stand-alone illustrations to a sequential narrative?
I actually started making zines a few years after I made my first comic. I liked making comics, but back then, I lacked the patience. They're very time consuming, so I created single illustrations instead. Later, I started buying zines by some of my favorite artists because I couldn't afford their artwork. When I moved to San Francisco (temporarily), I frequented Needles & Pens and I was exposed to even more zines. I felt inspired by them and I began to create my own art zines. Making zines induced my interest in creating comics again. When I moved back to Portland, I wanted to learn more about comics, especially how to print and distribute them. I took a couple comic book courses at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the IPRC. I've been making comics ever since.
How much of the story of Gumballs is drawn from real-life experience?
The majority of my comics and illustrations are drawn from my own experiences. I make anecdotal comics about growing up as a triplet, short comics about being trans, and single page illustrations of encounters I've had with customers at a grocery store. Even the characters in my fiction stories are sometimes based on my own personality traits. One of my comics is about a socially inept teenager named Tobias. Even though the stories are made up, some of his odd quirks and anxieties mirror my own. However, I have created a few imaginative comics that were not written from, or inspired by, my own personal history.
The transgender experience can be tenuous and stressful and dangerous, among many other things trans people know all too well (and only some cis people are even aware of). How important is humor to you in the way you share your experience?
It's not something I try to enforce. It's something I've always done naturally, as a way to cope. It's kind of like a defense mechanism. When times get hard or when something horrible happens, I use humor to lighten the mood or to cheer up myself and other people. Sometimes it helps me move on.
I'm also aware that turning tragedy into comedy doesn't work in every situation. For example, as a way to deal with gender dysphoria, some trans folks who were assigned female at birth may decide to wear a binder to flatten their chest. It's an uncomfortable and sometimes painful experience, and the act of doing so can be depressing, but the mere struggle of trying to figure out how to put one of those things on is humorous to me. However, I don't know if I could use humor to alleviate the pain inflicted from a dangerous experience.
This comic will have immediate appeal to queer people, maybe especially trans people, but will also be attractive to anyone with a passion for comics. What are your hopes for Gumballs's readership and following?
I hope it has a universal appeal to anyone and that people enjoy it and want to continue to read more. To those who can relate, I hope they find comfort in knowing they are not alone. I hope cis readers don't feel like this is a comic book that is exclusive to a trans or queer audience. Yes, I talk about my transition and there are queer characters, but I'm sure they'll be able to either empathize and/or learn something from those comics. There are a variety of comics and illustrations in each issue that I'm hoping will entice everyone.
Beyond wide distribution and high sales (because, let's be honest), what would you consider to be a successful comic?
To me, a successful comic is one that I'm proud of, that I believe is illustrated nicely, is well written, and people enjoy it because something in the work resonates with them.