Drawing Attention: The Cartoonist Asking the Tough Questions

When drafting her comics on the off-hours of her numerous jobs, Narratively contributor Issy Manley aims to show how complex our lives really are under the surface.

Drawing Attention: The Cartoonist Asking the Tough Questions

Issy Manley doesn’t usually think of her work as personal – even when it’s about her own body. In her comic for Narratively, “The American Healthcare System Doesn’t Care About How Much My Vagina Hurts,” she describes her struggle navigating the healthcare field with chronic genital pain. Issy uses her life experiences to illustrate (literally) how health care structures, labor struggles, and other systemic issues show up in our individual lives, something she’s particularly invested in as a teacher and service worker.

Issy sat down with Narratively to chat about what makes comics perfectly suited for autobiography, how she maintains her creativity while working multiple gigs, and what she would make if she could devote all her time to  art.

The process of creating comics seems very mystifying for a lot of people. What’s your process when creating a piece, from beginning to end? Do images or writing come first for you?

I’m one of those cartoonists who generate ideas by starting with words rather than images. I usually start with a jumble of ideas and research that I find interesting, and start scripting out the text of the comic with notes about what kind of image should go in each panel; then I go back to figure out “the beat” of each page, and what the layout and panels will be. After that, I pencil and ink the images with a traditional nib, and then clean up, color and add the text digitally. 

I’ve mostly been making more essay-like non-fiction comics lately, and it’s important to me that the images don’t just “illustrate” the text – I really enjoy creating images that make a serious/dry situation more humorous [or finding a real-life example that perfectly captures an idea]. I think the most pleasurable part of comics for me is working out images on paper and getting to disconnect from screens for a bit. 

Issy Manley

Do you think the medium of comics has something special to offer autobiographical stories? Why not just write prose?

I think the drawing can make the reading experience more intimate, and also more specific and personal. I recently heard an interview with the amazing cartoonist Sarah Mirk, who was talking about how the drawn images in comics [center] the subjectivity and bias of the creator. There’s less of an illusion of objectivity or universality, which can make non-fiction comics more approachable. You’re very much seeing through the perspective of the cartoonist, and the comic doesn’t feel like it’s claiming to tell the authoritative version of events. 

I’ve been making a lot of comics about different aspects of work and wage labor lately, so personally I think a lot about the time it takes to read and make comics. Realistically, most working people don’t have much time for reading when your time is monetized for survival; I love reading prose too but there have been a lot of periods where I worked really long hours or multiple jobs and I was just too mentally burnt out or pressed for time to keep up with a book, but I could read a complete graphic novel or mini-comic. Cartoonists complain about how long it takes to make comics and then how fast they are to read, but I think there’s something generous about spending a lot of time crafting something someone else can experience or engage with quickly – I feel really appreciative when anyone takes the time to read a comic I’ve made. The time we are not working or preparing/resting in order to be able to go back to work tomorrow is so precious, and I like that the free time is less of a barrier to reading comics. 

Your graphic piece for Narratively records your painful experiences seeking medical treatment for your vaginal pain. Given the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, have you noticed any changes about how people with vaginas have been treated in the healthcare field?    

I’ve volunteered with abortion funds in the past, but my insight into the current situation is limited to my own personal experience. I live in Louisiana, which has banned and criminalized abortion and is surrounded on all sides by other states with similar bans. 

In terms of comics, I really appreciate how Graphic Medicine (comics about health and healthcare) can make private struggles visible. In our for-profit American healthcare system, I think a lot of us feel really isolated and frustrated when trying to seek care – especially when that struggle is compounded by systemic harms like gender discrimation, gaslighting, medical racism, the prohibitive cost of healthcare, or abortion bans. After I was able to share my comic about my vulva pain on Narratively, so many friends and strangers shared their own medical struggles with me. Before that, I hadn’t known how many people around me were experiencing similar issues, and could share resources with and offer support to each other. Sharing personal abortion stories has long been a strategy used by reproductive justice movements to destigmatize and assert the right to abortion care – it’s so sickening that people who do get abortions will now have to take extreme privacy precautions to protect themselves from criminalization.

From Issy’s piece “A letter to all the bosses I’ve begged for a job” in The Guardian

Do you feel pressure to visually represent yourself a particular way, especially when delving into such personal subject matter?

It’s funny, because I don’t think my comics are that personal. Usually when I draw myself in a comic, I’m kind of an avatar for describing a more generalized experience. When I draw myself, I’m foregrounding my perspective and the way my specific experience is shaped by my identity – but I mostly show myself in situations that are either really ordinary (like working in a restaurant), or absurd (to make fun of myself and the situation). To me, drawing myself naked or making a comic that specifically states how much debt I have feels way less personal than making a diary comic about what I talked about with my friend on a walk. My comics are more about the experience of systems than who I am or details of my life. 

The most gratifying thing about the kind of comics I make is when someone identifies with a comic and feels seen or acknowledged by it. It’s amazing, and I feel so grateful to connect with someone over a shared experience in that way. 

From Issy’s piece “A letter to all the bosses I’ve begged for a job” in The Guardian

You’re not shy about the fact that you’ve been a barista, a teacher, a server and more in order to pay the bills, and you’ve also said how difficult it is to maintain your creative practice while working these jobs. Though those experiences have led to work-focused essays (like your incredible piece for the Guardian), do you feel that these jobs have influenced your artistic practice in other ways?

I think the struggle to find time to work on comics makes me less precious about drawing, and I try to make the drawing and coloring process engaging and enjoyable (rather than just productive or efficient) since it’s something I do outside of my 9 to 5 job(s). As I mentioned before, comics are so time-intensive that I do think cartoonists can end up working in a really isolated way, spending months or years alone in their home cranking out pages. For the kind of comics I like to make, I do appreciate that, through work, I get to interact with lots of people on a daily basis and feel more part of typical daily life and community, which often does inspire an idea I want to think through more in a comic. Although I’d definitely like to work less, and would love to live in a world where everyone spends a little bit of time doing meaningful work and also has plenty of time to pursue creative projects, if they want!

If you yourself were given, say, a yearlong residency where you didn’t have to worry about financial troubles, what do you think you would work on? 

If I had a year to work on anything, I’d love to work on a longer form research-based or oral history comics project. At the moment, I’m actually working on a shorter comic illustrating other people’s descriptions about their time on unemployment benefits during the first part of the pandemic – it was a really scary time, but also a really unprecedented time in that a lot of people got paid (by the government) and didn’t have to work. People share such compelling and insightful thoughts about their own experience, and it’s been really fun to illustrate these anonymous accounts of how people spent their time when they didn’t have to work. This comic will be part of a collection of short comics about work I’m printing in the fall. It’s so much more interesting to me to be able to include and explore other peoples’ experiences of work — not just my own! — in comics. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.