a+e 4ever is a large floppy volume roughly the size of my high school journal. Maybe this similarity struck me as the graphic novel became a near-constant present in my bag this winter. But it’s likely that sense of familiarity came from, not the binding itself, but what’s between the covers – a story about all the ups and downs of learning who you are and who you like.
(check out more of Ilike's beautiful work at She Waited on the Couch to Die)
GeeksOUT: So, when did you start drawing? How has your style, which can be both delicate and gritty, evolved?
Ilike Merey: I’ve drawn sporadically on and off since I was a kid, usually trying to meticulously copy images I thought were cool (mostly from comics or manga). When I decided to try to make a graphic novel, though, I realized I had no unique style. I had tried too hard to make it like other graphic novels I had read but, yeah right, I’m no Craig Thompson.
I drew a + e 4ever pretty much the whole way through once – and hated it. I had never done comic booking/Graphic Novel stuff, so I had no idea about storyboards and my whole approach was completely fool-hardy, by trial and error.
With version two, I started experimenting. I gave up the idea of uniform, even panels and tried to allow for a more freestyle flow – some areas with much text and some with very little. Instead, I drew ink and brush images that needed little computer manipulation. I focused on drawing the things I love—the human body, faces, hair, lips, eyes, expressions – and let go of the things I can’t draw (which is basically everything else). [Laughs] This brought me to the next version, which I was happier with: minimalistic drawings that suggested more than clearly showed.
GO: How did this story come about?
IM: Certain things that make a strong impression on me can knock around in my brain for literally years, waiting to get activated into an idea or an outright story…
I remember some years ago, I had read a book called Maximum City about modern life in Mumbai. A small part documents a female impersonator and their memory of almost getting raped in school once, because some boys refused to believe they were not a girl…
About a year later, I was standing on a train platform; near me, two teenagers were pushing each other around, having a good time. They had to be brother and sister (they were almost identical) but they had this weird/sweet/flirty dynamic between them. The kids were so full of life, they were beautiful. I got on the train thinking, huh.
The female impersonator and the siblings clicked — my own experiences and thoughts started to flesh it out. A boy with a girl’s face getting felt up in a school bathroom was the opening scene of the novella that became the basis for a+e 4ever.
GO: Asher and Eulalie are both loners, but for different reasons: Eu adopts a toughness and pushes people away, Ash doesn't seem to know how to get close in the first place. What do you think their lives were like before meeting each other?
IM: I think they were always both quite lonely people, but for different reasons.
Eu comes from a stable, musical family but her interest in art makes her the odd person out. She’s never been a traditionally feminine girl, but she’s not a tomboy either and that’s made it hard for her to fit in. A part of her craves to shock and provoke and she really wants a friend who isn’t freaked out by that…
Ash is pretty sure his life is a long sick joke, so Eu’s black humor can’t faze him. He would have loved to have been normal, but he was always the new, poor, strange kid. The problem became a cycle. He retreated to protect himself, and kids didn’t like that he was so aloof (or bullies would try to get a rise out of him.) When he was younger, he looked after his little sister and she adored him completely. She was the one source of positive attention in his life, but if he’s totally honest with himself, even that is starting to get weird…
GO: The story is about the making the big leap, being completely honest with someone about yourself for the first time - something that can be quite terrifying. Was the story inspired by a moment with an Ash or a Eu in your own life? Do you identify with one, the other, or both? How so?
IM: I figure, we’re not the same person every hour of the day or with every person that we know.
Part of me is insanely shy and wants to hide under a table all the time. Part of me is like screw y’all peasants, I do not care. In that way, both characters are a part of me; I think that dichotomy exists in many people, just like it does in the characters. Eu can be unexpectedly fragile at times and Ash can be surprisingly selfish and cruel.
There is one particular friend I had in mind when I wrote this, but I’ve been lucky. Many interesting people have affected and influenced me. I won’t forget those people and that feeling of happiness for having known them and sorrow for losing those times also definitely contributed.
GO: Eulalie is known as the school dyke, Ash the girlie boy, but they never willingly or directly take up titles themselves. Why not identify them as lesbian, trans, bi, femme, etc.?
IM: This has been so hard to answer – it’s a great question, it’s just so… complex!
The way I see it, labels can be useful, but they are very rigid things and I’m trying to explore the possibility of non-rigidity. There is this idea that sexual identity is fixed and once you figure it out sometime around your adolescence/early adulthood, you stay whatever it is for the rest of your life, but that’s not been my own personal experience. There have been years where I’ve been more straight, or more gay. I figure, throughout our life, there are opportunities where a door opens up and we have a chance to have an attraction/sleep with/ fall in love with someone who does not fit into our picture of our identity. When we’re teenagers I think the issue is even less clear.
I didn’t write this book like I was omnipotent; more like I was looking out a window, taking notes on what people out there were doing. I can’t say what they [Ash & Eu] are, nor do I think they fit neatly into a classification. Eu adopts the traditionally masculine role of their relationship, but would I call her ‘butch’…? Does Ash like boys because he wants to or because his whole life people have suggested that someone who looks like him must obviously be gay…? And, does it really matter? We’re people, falling in love with people.
[A note on trans: I could have identified them as trans, but when I was growing up (god, I feel so old having just typed that [Laughs]) transsexuals were people who changed their sex – nobody was talking about being genderqueer, transgender, etc. Only after the book was marketed as ‘genderqueer’ or ‘trans’ was I like, ‘Jesus Christ, there’s like… a word! For what I am! They have invented a word!”
GO: a+e 4ever has been described as a type of 'girl falls for boy who can't love her back' story. Would you describe this as one about "unrequited love"?
IM: Sure! The sad kid in me has always loved unrequited love stories. Arguably, he does love her though, but he’s so insecure, he can only be honest with a layer of artifice between them—a dance-floor, a sheet of paper or a stage. That’s what confuses Eu so much. When he kisses her for the play or when he draws her, the unrealness of the situation lowers his guard and she catches a glimpse of his feelings.
GO: There are so many ways to compare yourself to what's "normal" (sexuality, body type, etc. etc.), and god knows the teenage years are the time to do that, but I feel like class isn't one frequently mentioned. Ash has a moment of “coming out” to Eu about his homelife (poverty, unusual closeness with his sister) and I was wondering why you added that layer to Ash's back story. How do you think his home situation affected his relationship with Eu, for better or worse?
IM: Growing up and having confidence is difficult even in a relatively stable family (like Eu’s). Obviously, it’s that much harder for kids experiencing emotional or physical poverty.
How Ash reacts to his apartment reflects his general loss of faith in humanity. Experience has taught him adults won’t save you, it won’t get better, and that the only way to get through your day is to look away while you step through the dirt and get to a better place.
Eu likes him enough to not question how he lives. She tries not to judge and the place he associates with being alone and safe starts becoming a place he connects to being with her.
GO: And the same for Ash's haphephobia (fear of touch). Why did you explore that issue in a+e?
IM: To me, a major theme in the book is how we touch each other – emotionally and physically. What I wanted to express is the potential close friendship and understanding can have towards helping us deal with our issues. Music, art, dressing up, dancing, laughing – they’re all therapeutic and I think we’re not aware of the tremendous effect positive attention can have on another person’s psyche.
Ash doesn’t want physical touching from her, so Eu assumes there’s a wall between them. But she is touching him. All the time. All along. Sometimes negatively, mostly positively, with her words and her help and her attention. It’s obvious from the beginning that Ash has gotten under her skin; what neither of them realizes until the end is how much she’s gotten under his.
GO: If people take away only one thing from this story, what would you have that be?
IM: Don’t underestimate the power a good friend can have to make your life better.
GO: And finally, because this is for GeeksOUT: What do you geek out over?
IM: Oh jesus. Well, writing and drawing obviously. I can obsess over shading a nose perfectly or describing something as good as I can. But I also obsess over books and food and beauty and. Mmmm. Food.