ClaraEm is a Dominican comic book artist from New York who is obsessed with mashing cute shit and realistic/scary stories until they make a fucked up amalgams that you can’t seem to look away from. She usually makes fantasy and slice of life comics about gay characters, realistic or otherwise, but also enjoys dabbling in making porn and horror comics.
You can find Clara and her work on:
Tumblr at KnaveOfSmiles.Tumblr.com
Laura Houlberg interviewed ClaraEm.
Clara! Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. I’m so excited. Let’s start – what are you working on at the moment? Any comics, characters, stories, that you’re excited about?
Right now I’m working a few comics. Soon, I will be releasing a sketchbook zine with work that I’ve made in my sketchbook from February 2015 to March 2016. Next I’ve been writing an outline for the tentatively titled “Naga Girls,” about lamias living in the inner city having to deal with racism and discrimination because of their species. Lastly, I’m making a cartoony journal comics about “the good, the bad, and the ugly” – things that I have been dealing with in life lately. There are a few more projects planned but I’m not allowed to talk about them just yet 🙂
So much! I’m super interested to learn more about “Naga Girls.” What are some of the situations they run into? Was it inspired by any personal experiences? And more broadly, do your comics often have autobiographical elements to them, or do you allow them to be more fantastical?
There’s so much to say about Naga Girls. It’s a baby I’ve been incubating for a while. At first it was going to start as a gag comic but then I realized that most of the things I was joking about are things that my friends and I have gone through while growing up in the Bronx (which I very much consider to be New York’s inner city). I also have some friends from Detroit and Baltimore who have gone through similar things. Growing up in these kinds of places all you ever see while walking around are liquor stores, check cashing places, and beauty supply stores. Because of all the fast food places that are eeeeeeeeeeeverywhere, you get the sense of being in a food desert without really being able to describe it as such due to a lack of language. The world in Naga Girls is a similar one that is dominated by Harpies and other Avian creatures who have made the world in their image and haven’t bothered to make it accessible to non-avian creatures (like lamias for example). That’s how I feel about the white/poc dynamic in real life. The story centers on four roommates and their experiences hanging out and dealing with serious trauma in their inner city slice of life. Without spoiling too much, one of the characters finds out that she’s being exploited at work because her job involves providing harpies with snake venom so that they can make cleaning supplies. Which is ironic because the harpies see lamias as dirty “figurative snakes” (wicked, cunning, devious, etc). When I write it down it feels a bit heavy handed and…. Maybe it is. But I like having a balance between a heavy hand and a light-hearted touch.
As for whether I like autobio or fantastical….. Yes. Hahaha. What I mean is, I like making fantastical stories that are secretly autobiographical. When I was younger and first started to take drawing seriously, I would draw inspiration from the people around me to make characters and settings similar to the personalities of those people. I would spend so much time in my own head creating massive worlds that were really, really, REALLY out there but ultimately had something deep and personal about me at its core.
That sounds amazing! The avian creatures who built the world to be completely closed off and hostile to the lamias is absolutely a resonant metaphor for white supremacy – I think that’s brilliant. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but lamias are amphibious creatures, right? With a woman’s torso and a tail of a snake, usually? I love thinking of a group of badass lamias sliding around and fucking shit up and telling jokes.
You mention balancing a heavy hand with a light touch – I absolutely can understand that! How do comics allow you to play with that balance? In maybe a different way than a novelist or a poet?
Also, I’m nodding my head vehemently at the part about work being both autobiographical and fantastical. I think a lot of my own identity has been formed by writing characters that I felt really connected to, but was scared to embody in my own life. Do you consciously create characters that allow you to explore yourself, or do the characters appear fully formed, almost by magic, in your mind?
I didn’t take into account that Lamias were amphibious but yes. Hahaha. That’s about right. I usually call them nagas because I specifically based them off Hindu goddesses who came to people in the shape of lamias. In Hindu myth they were supposed to be hostile but that’s what I wanted. Like, harpies see themselves as so cultured and learned because they know how these creatures act in classical mythology but they can go outside, just talk to one, and ACTUALLY get to know them. And yeah, the premise of having them sliding around telling jokes and being bad bitches is what I was originally going for. It started because my then-partner was shorted a burger at the drive through and then went on this massive, epic rant that I wanted to make into a comic. (She starts being like “I know that this bitch knew how to count! It was not even that hard, Ima pull out the company PDF on them so they can learn! That bitch go’n learn!” I was dying from laughter.)
Usually what happens is that I draw something very cartoony and adorable that has a story that is anything but. So many unassuming people say “aww that character is cute, what’s their deal?” to which I respond, “he’s homeless”, or “she has depression”, or something along those lines. They always say “why would you write something like that?” but obviously it’s deliberate. I AM trying to get a rise out of people by showing them that the world they see as so cute and so precious can sometimes be…. Well, not that.
Well one of my characters is just me. Like, literally me. And funnily enough I was going to scrap myself from the comics for not being interesting enough (go figure), until I saw the anime Mai Nichi Kaasan (Everyday Mom). The creator of the manga series that spawned the anime was asked why she always draws herself as a frumpy middle aged woman even though she is an attractive babe. She replied something to the extent of “because that’s how I feel.” That response was pretty pivotal to me. So I kept myself in as a character and allowed myself to be uninteresting, shitty, an asshole, or what the fuck ever I was feeling about myself at the time. It’s a scary decision to be sure. But lately people praise my comics for being adorable and weirdly relatable. That’s…. a good feeling. I don’t know that the characters come out like magic but their inspiration could literally just be anything. The reasoning can range from “I had the most amazing epiphany” to “I was high.” (Though I seldom admit the latter because it tends to make people think that I value the work I made while I was high less for some reason. That is 100% not the case at all.)
Hahaha oh my god, I feel like I can hear your then-partner saying that (I don’t even know her)! That’s exactly the vibe I was getting as you described “Naga Girls”, hell yeah. Even though I know it’s a comic, I keep imagining the piece as a cartoon, like in motion. Have you ever animated one of your comics, or thought about doing that?
The idea that something cute and precious is actually not cute and precious all the way through is something that I am OBSESSED WITH. It makes me think of this tweet that Mitski posted the other day (Mitski, if you don’t know her, is an amazing musician and total badass performer): “sometimes I want to be gross + pull my guts out of my mouth while screaming, other times I want to be clean, with no organs or pores”. (Grimes could probably be put in this general ‘bubble’ of artists as well) I think about this concept A LOT, especially as someone who is drawn to cutesie things aesthetically, but who is also drawn to complication and confrontation and distortion. Or even just everydayness, like the “Everyday Mom” comic you mention! I’m totally going to find a copy of that, it sounds amazing.
I’m glad to hear that people pick up on the really true elements of your work, and that your intuition has paid off! How do people usually find your work? Do you sell zines at stores, or just online? Do you have a comics community here in Portland?
I like to think that’s deliberate since I do have a bit of a background in animation. So I’m used to thinking in motion and learning how to pitch things in a way that conveys the idea “kinetically.” Right now I’m the only person I know within my social circles who has animation experience that they want to use. Hell yeah I would want to make a cartoon but I’m too focused on the comics and I’m just one girl hahaha. If I could animate something though, without question it would be “Maxwell and The Fiends”. I wrote this story about a cute hero dog and a cute/creepy cat villain who are self aware about the fact that they are fictional characters. The series just looks adorable (*Clara horn goes toot toot*) but it focuses a lot on complex themes of community and of pitching in for the greater good. To be honest, it’s very much the kind of thing that I can see being on Cartoon Network, or some network like that. I actually want to pitch it to them! I LOOOVE cartoons! I feel like my brain has been permanently warped by them (hopefully for the better, hahaha). “Maxwell and The Fiends” is definitely a product of that cartoon-warped part of me. It still plays with the cute and heavy stuff but it’s definitely the most “kid-friendly” of the things I’ve written. Not that cartoons have to be kid friendly or anything but my taste in media ranges from adorably harmless to sick, perverted, and down right fucked up.
Ha! I can relate to that Mitski quote. Same. Also, yeah “Distortion” is definitely a good word to describe my work, I feel. Like, I DO mean to portray life as it happens but it really does tend to be distorted. I think that’s why I was drawn to Mai Nichi Kaasan actually. Because the show is cute. Almost to a fault. And it never gets creepy. The cuteness is played straight. And it’s such a fun kid friendly show until you realize that it’s all based in the author’s reality. When you look up the shit that the author of that show had been through, it’s sheer and utter misery. Her husband died because he was a raging alcoholic. She had to, on occasion, stop him from walking into traffic in his drunken stupor. She was broke, like, utterly broke, and had to draw porn to make ends meet (not that that’s a bad thing but it’s not something she prefered doing; she only did it to make ends meet). Her mom lived with her and gave her shit about how she raised her kids on top of being another mouth to feed. It really just goes on. Saibara Rieko (the creator of the show’s manga series) is a fascinating person. But in the show it’s very much “ooooh boy dad is drunk again hahaha,” or “oh grandma you’re so funny” *womp womp*. I feel like this show exemplifies distortion.
My stuff is scattered at the moment. I will readily admit that I am terrible at promoting my stuff. (I’m working on that.) That said, I finished a cute horror mini comic/zine called “Christy Might Not Be Real.” That is currently on sale at Floating World and at The Sprightly Bean. You can also buy it at Gumroad.com/ClaraEm (digital or print). I totally made the promise that I would make a comic once a month but I haven’t kept up with it yet (Sorry!). That said, I should have some comics finished soon (and in time for the Portland Zine Symposium!) so please check them out when they’re done.
On social media I can be found at instagram (@smileyart), on twitter (@smilesordies) and on tumblr at knaveofsmiles.tumblr.com. I’m trying to move away from Tumblr and Instagram in favor of having a website where my stuff is more organized but I’m currently planning how the site will look. I will definitely make announcements when the new site launches though!
Oh that’s right! I definitely knew that you had a background in animation, but I had forgotten. If you were to actually pitch “Maxwell and The Fiends” to a network, what do you think your elevator pitch would be? 😉 I have this video series called “It’s Plant Time” that I always joke about pitching to Adult Swim, but my elevator pitch would be like “My plants are actually alive and they talk about different themes every week” which is like… just alright. Haha
Wow, that’s fucking brutal. I know a lot of people in my life who have had similar experiences though (hell, I’ve had similar experiences too), so it doesn’t surprise me that with the right angle, that show and manga has been able to grab the interest of so many people.
I am so excited to read “Christy Might Not Be Real,” and also to give two copies to a couple friends I have who I know will LOVE it. I actually bought the comics from your online store and then got inspired that same night to read some Junji Ito (which wasn’t a great idea because I was home alone). I love the horror comic genre – it reminds me of my childhood of reading R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike books. Not that they’re too similar, outside of being creepy, but because I get to have more agency over the horror and how I consume it. While a movie moves along at a certain pace, and you have to kind of be in for the ride, I can go back and forth, or linger on a part, or experience the really scary stuff multiple times, with a book or comic. What got you interested in doing a horror comic?
Will you have your own table at Zine Symposium or can we find you sharing a table with another talented artist? I’m also excited to see your website eventually!
I also wanted to touch really quickly on this popular idea of cartoons being “for children.” But a lot of cartoons nowadays, like Adventure Time or, my favorite, Steven Universe, are totally entertaining and emotionally resonant for adults too. Do you think that’s been a recent trend, or have cartoons always been like that, but we didn’t realize because we were kids?
My elevator pitch of Maxwell and the Fiends…. I’m not 100% sure yet but the way that I describe it to people is that it’s a cross between the Powerpuff Girls and Godfather 2 (or was part 3…?). It blows people’s minds when I talk about it like that, but there’s a reason why I describe it that way. I feel like the characters I made are my own but are very much inspired by things in the Powerpuff Girls, whereas the story is close to Godfather 2 (3..?) because it shows the hero dog being compared with a predecessor who has done similar things to what they’re doing now and how they are trying to do things differently from their predecessor… but are they really doing things differently or are they unknowingly falling into the same traps that their predecessors did? To me, having cute cartoon heroes think about why they are doing things they typically do is fascinating. It was also inspired by the PPG episode where the girls get tired of always having to fight crime and instead try to force the people of Townsville to save themselves for once. (That episode blew mind when I first saw it, honestly).
Your idea sounds cool, by the way. 🙂
I like the idea of going back and experiencing horror moments multiple times. I’m always the one mad that I can’t look at the monster’s face for longer in a paranormal horror movie.
To be honest I’m new to horror as it pertains to comics. Well, somewhat new. I have always been a big fan of Charles Burns (“Black Hole” specifically) but I’ve never really delved much deeper into it. It’s only been more recently (a little under a year ago) that friends of mine started recommending books by Junji Ito, Hideki Hino, and the like. The more I read these books the more I loved them and wanted more. But these things never inspired me to draw horror comics. What actually got me to make horror was a combination of my fascination with storytelling in porn and the way my existing characters had already been. Why porn? Because I feel like the story structure tends to be really similar in both porn and horror and partly because I have more experience creating porn (comics, stories) than horror. To me, since they are so similar – if you make porn, horror is the next step, and vice versa. It’s not a fact or anything even remotely proven but for now it’s my trusty formula that seems to be working. Things like, withholding the “good stuff” until the (near) end, “telling” readers what’s going on as opposed to “showing” at times in order to build tension and anticipation, strategically pacing things to get readers in the right mindset for what’s about to happen…. It all seems pretty one to one when it comes to the things that make horror and porn so good most of the time. “Christy Might Not Be Real” is me trying to put that to the test in a two parter while also further developing existing characters.
Christy and Vida (the character of the book) are two of about six characters that I created for an SNL-type sketch comedy comic named “Lights Camera Action” where the characters were acknowledged to be actors with their own lives and stuff. Christy (or Suicide as she is referred to in “Lights Camera Action”) was the creepiest of the bunch. So I wanted to push her creepiness to its logical extreme. After this, I want to make something Yandere themed with other characters from Lights Camera Action. Yandere is a trope in manga where a character obsesses over their crush or partner to the point of committing heinous crimes on their behalf, whether the object of their affection likes it or not. I feel like Yandere, when done right, tends to be a combination of all the porn, sappy romance stories, and gruesome horror that I so dearly enjoy.
I will have a table by myself at The Portland Zine Symposium 🙂
My honest opinion is that goofy and cerebral/thought provoking cartoons cycle between each other in popularity. I feel like the cartoons I grew up with were soooooooooo goofy and stupid. Then Anime became popular and people loved cerebral (or in some cases, pseudo-cerebral) cartoons. Those inspired cutesy but serious shows like Teen Titans (though some would argue that they took “Batman The Animated Series”’ formula and Anime-fied it). Then I remember watching “FlapJack” and “Chowder” years later and thinking, “Wow this is fucking dumb, this generation is so stupid, oh my god!” But then I rewatched the things I loved as a kid and I had the exact same reaction hahahaha. It doesn’t make me love them any less though. I appreciate the more cerebral shows but I don’t think that cartoons need to be that way or that it’s somehow better to be a cerebral show. It’s just one of many methodologies.That said, I appreciate the cartoons, cerebral or otherwise, that get people thinking and shatter their expectation of what is supposed to be a cartoon. And I especially loooove when adults begrudgingly enjoy kids cartoons because it’s a sign of media working towards positively breaking the barriers of the norm. I also loooooove Adventure Time and Steven Universe (they are some of my current faves too) but, I don’t think they are the first nor last cerebral kids shows, nor are they the most groundbreaking, but they are this generation’s poster children of cerebral, thought-provoking cartoons. They are appropriate ones at that because they are so amazingly well written. Funnily enough, the shows that I think are the most groundbreaking in this generation are “The Regular Show” and “The Amazing World of Gumball” (also shout out to “Star vs The forces of Evil” and “Gravity Falls” as runners up). “TRS” because it’s so honest. So many of my friends hate it because it’s very bro-y but (and I’m not acquainted with J.G. Quintel) I buy that this show is his autobiography. I really do. He isn’t saying that he’s a good person or that he condones the things he’s done, just that he did them. It’s like, presented for your critique. “Gumball” because wow! How did they even make that show? Like seriously. It’s so goofy and out there but when I watch it I think, fucking how? How did you do that? How did you even animate this? That show’s production makes no sense to me. But to be fair, I heard it’s expensive to produce so there’s that. “Star TFE” and “Gravity Falls” have the special sauce. There there isn’t one good thing about them, they are just good. There are the shows that when people ask me how I feel I can only shout in excitement because I don’t know to articulate what it is specifically that I like about them.
All this said: me and Amethyst from Steven Universe are the same person. Hahaha. Just sayin’.
Oh my God YES I SEE IT. I love Amethyst. 🙂
The porn comparison is so real. There’s also that element of body-horror in both (usually), like the body being taken to strange limits, or made into an object, etc. I would love to see some sort of trailer-esque cut-up of a porn scene, making it look like the scene is from a horror movie. 😀 Your Yandere idea sounds awesome, I’m excited to see that come to fruition.
Clara, thank you so much for sharing your art and process and thoughts today! I’m so happy I got to chat with you.
Interviewed by Laura Houlberg