By Ila Ananya
Originally published on 24 July 2016.
The first full Miss Moti comic that I saw was Miss Moti and the Cotton Candy, and I smiled my way through it. First Miss Moti was too tired to climb the stairs in the same way that I hate climbing stairs, until she floated away on a cloud of pink cotton candy, and so did I. There’s the grey of her dress that blurs into the pink of the candy that looks like clouds, and she walks around on it, making figures of men and castles in the way that you sometimes imagine it must be like to walk on clouds when you’re looking down from a long, boring flight.
Recently I spoke to Kripa Joshi, the 38-year-old comic artist and creator of Miss Moti, about her delightful character Moti, the process of creating her comics, the recent Comix Creatrix show she was part of in the UK, and what it’s like being a woman in the comics scene.
What did the road to Miss Moti look like?
I did my Bachelors in Painting from Baroda, and only took to illustration when I started doing an MFA in Illustration from the School of Visual Arts in New York. It’s here that I discovered that comics could mean much more than I had thought they had meant when I was growing up — I had always thought of it as a children’s medium, and with familiar names like Tintin, or superhero comics. During my MFA I had a course on the history of comics, and we’d spend a lot of time just going to bookshops and looking at graphic novels that all seemed to have more adult themes, and in class itself I came across Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo. So for my final thesis in 2007, the initial plan was to do a series of paintings dealing with body image issues.
Lots of people tend to call people by animal names — you’re as fat as a hippo, as old as a cow — but these animals don’t seem to see themselves as that. So that’s how the idea for Hippo was born, and I decided to base it on the Indian miniature paintings that have something in the centre, and a border. So I drew this woman in the centre, the human hippo, feeling uncomfortable about getting into a pool, and the border was of hippos having a really nice, happy time in the water.
Somehow the woman became Miss Moti after this. Miss Moti became the woman through which I could deal with these issues, and speak to others who felt the same way, because Miss Moti is okay with her body size, she isn’t a sorry figure who’s overcome by problems. So these two comics — Miss Moti and the Cotton Candy, and Miss Moti and the Big Apple — became my thesis, and I got into cartoons.
Where did Miss Moti and all the things she loves come from?
Miss Moti came to me out of my own body image issues. She is always managing to overcome her own inhibitions. Like in Miss Moti and the Cotton Candy, Miss Moti finds it hard to climb the steps to her apartment on the ninth floor. That in-between state of wondering whether the scenes in which she has a nice time with cotton candy is also because either way, at the end of it, she has reached the top. Miss Moti was also a progression from Hippo, because that was a flat picture — I couldn’t use a flat form to tell a story. That’s where my work was influenced a little by Chris Ware’s [an American cartoonist known for his Acme Novelty Library Series] work, and I was also influenced by Mithila and Madhubani art.
Miss Moti came from me and my experiences — even in my dreams I’d think about flying, and doing the things that she does. The anthologies that I worked on were always based on a theme given to me, so a lot of the ideas I have come from these themes, and from my interaction with editors. For Miss Motivation, I have to look for a quote — sometimes I spend a lot of time looking for this, because I don’t want it to become preachy.
You’ve also chosen not to use any words in your work, except in one: Miss Moti and a Modern Fairytale.
I don’t know if this was a conscious decision, actually. Windsor McCay, who I mentioned earlier, had a lot of text in his Little Nemo comic, and I remember thinking it was too much text, because it was doing the same explaining that the images already showed. I didn’t want to do this. And in the case of Miss Moti, it’s her internal feelings that matter, and I didn’t think words were necessary here. In this way people can also automatically put their own emotions onto Miss Moti, even if they don’t have body image issues, but some other insecurity — and language automatically stops being a barrier. I’ve never done a longer story, though, so it remains to be seen if this same format would work in that case, in the same way that it works for these shorter stories.
Instead, you use a lot of smaller squares, in which you sometimes focus on individual parts, like Miss Moti’s feet, her hands, a particular expression.
Yes, I guess it brings attention to smaller things, to the action itself, and even helps to indicate the passage of time. Also, Miss Moti is coloured in grey and her dress has polka dots, which for me signify the inhibitions that are weighing her down. When she imagines the apple tree [from Miss Moti and the Big Apple], or floating on the cotton candy, the polka dots fall away — in some cases they turn into flowers. The moment she becomes absolutely free, she also becomes naked. It’s an innocent kind of naked more than anything else; it’s about being true to yourself.
What medium do you work with?
When I first started, like my first two books, I would hand-draw the image and do the inking also by hand. Then I’d scan it and fill in the colour on the computer. Now I just use a Wacom tablet, except occasionally, when I do a most basic initial layout by hand.
Where do you work from?
I usually work from home. I don’t need a studio, because all I need is my laptop, and my Wacom tablet, so I’m happy just working from the corner of my room. I guess if I was painting, or doing larger works like that, having a studio would help. I imagine that someone like Amruta Patil, who makes such beautiful painting-like work like in Adi Parva, she would need a studio.
What time of the day do you work? How many hours do you put in a day?
My work hours are all around my daughter. I work when she has her naps, and thrice a week she goes to nursery for a few hours, so I get that time. I need to figure out these schedules, because when I’m working on the computer, and I get into the zone, I can work for hours. My husband works from home as well, so sometimes we take turns looking after our daughter while the other works. When we both need to work, we guiltily rely on the TV to keep our daughter busy. Basically, I just use all the time I have.
Do you sometimes feel like the piece you’re working on isn’t going in the direction you want? What do you do then?
I’ve been working with short stories in Miss Moti, so this doesn’t happen to me a lot. But when you’re making a comic, it isn’t only about the story and whether the story works or not. It’s also about the design and layout, you have to plan a page turn, and this is where I feel like I go wrong sometimes. You need to get the panel break-up just right for the story itself to work.
Do you often go back to work that you’ve already done and re-work it?
It’s funny you should ask me that, because I’m currently re-working the Miss Moti logo itself. I’d made it in 2007, and the idea was to have Miss Moti and the Cotton Candy and Miss Moti and the Big Apple as part of a 5-story arc. So I have three more to make, and while I’ve been drawing, I realised the way I’m drawing Miss Moti has changed, which is why I need to change the logo as well.
You’re from Nepal, studied in Baroda and New York, and now live in the UK. Have places influenced your work in any way?
I don’t think it is places as much as the people in these places, and the life events that happen in these places. I live in Surrey, which is an hour from London, and that cuts me off from a lot of activity, actually. But I have friends and my depression support group in Surrey, and I think people become even more important because we’re living away from family. In terms of influence, I think the School of Visual Art that I went to in New York taught me so much about how to make comics, the structure of it. My teachers always tried to bridge the gap between so called high art and low art, and for schools to be open to this idea is important. Different places bring different opportunities, and when I’d first moved to the UK and didn’t know anybody, going to talks like the Ladies do Comics sessions made a lot of difference. It was non-threatening, in that even though I didn’t know anybody there, I could begin to start talking to people in the audience, and approach the women who were talking about their talk itself. I’d also volunteered at the cartoon museums in London, and again I got to conduct and be part of workshops that made a difference.
You said in one of your interviews that, making comics can be a lonely pursuit.
I think this might be true for all artists — it’s always just you and your work, and sometimes this can be isolating. I guess this is why I like working on anthologies too. They’re nice because you’re not working alone, you’re interacting with people, and sometimes they give you themes you wouldn’t have ever worked with otherwise.
And what about the audience?
They make it less lonely, yes. I think this is also where my idea for Miss Motivation [from her series Motivation Monday’s] came from as well, because it became a way to reach out to people. I’ve had lots of people tell me they look forward to the Monday morning Miss Motivation comic. It might not be a big deal in your day, but we all lead stressful, confusing lives, and if Miss Motivation can make you smile for a few seconds, then that’s great. Miss Motivation for me came after my daughter was born when I went through post-natal depression, and for nearly two years, I didn’t work much, and Miss Moti definitely stopped happening. Now my daughter is a little older, and so this weekly rhythm of having something to motivate others, as well as myself has helped me.
How has your depression, and your depression support group affected your work?
A lot of people suffer from depression but can’t reach out to others when they’re worried about how they’ll be perceived. I just want anyone suffering to know that they’re not alone. I went to a support group with other women who were also undergoing post-natal depression. Many women suffer after the birth of a child, because it’s an overwhelming time. Sleep deprivation and anxiety can wreak havoc in the mind. For me, being away from home compounded the problem. My mother was here when my daughter was born, but could only stay a few weeks because she had to get back to work. I used to be terrified of being alone with the baby, and I didn’t trust myself to handle her on my own. So going to this support group and talking to women helped, and Motivation Monday came from this phase. After two years of being unable to do anything regarding Miss Moti, this was a project for me to rediscover her, and to help myself get out of depression as well. The support group itself was for three months, and because it was free, they also had to limit the time to three months for each person. I’ve remained friends with a lot of the women from the group, and they are very encouraging. Most of them are doing a lot better, but some are still struggling. They love Miss Moti. One of my friends saw my “leap and the net will appear” Motivation Monday, and has made it her motto. She told me it really helped her, and that’s amazing to hear.
Have you worked on Miss Moti after your depression?
Frankly, I haven’t done any other Miss Moti work after post-natal depression. Like I said, I was unable to work for two years after my daughter was born, and initially it was due to the depression. I remember telling someone that Miss Moti was a positive person, and I didn’t have any positivity in me to create her anymore. Motivation Mondays (and Miss Moti-vation, as she is called in the Nepali Times), is the only thing I’ve done since Miss Moti. Now I keep having ideas for a book on motherhood, but let’s see.
You mentioned anthologies earlier — which ones have you worked on?
I’ve worked on quite a few anthologies, and like I said earlier, the most interesting thing is working with the themes. It’s good to be a part of something and work on something bigger together. The first anthology I worked on was with some alumni from my university in New York, called Rabid Rabbit, and the theme was porn. I might never have made a Miss Moti comic with porn. I was also part of The Strumpet when I moved to the UK, which is an all-woman, transatlantic anthology.
What was it like working on an anthology and being around other comic creators?
You’re actually more in touch with your editor than you are with other people contributing to the anthology. The editor will send you your topic, tell you how many pages your comic can be, and they help you ideate as well, apart from looking at the comic and telling you what works. For example, the Miss Moti versus ultra-girl in Miss Moti and the Ultra Girl idea was given to me by my editor for a series in which we wanted to have Asian superheroes. I’d been the editor of one of the Strumpet anthologies, and being an editor is again a whole new situation, because now you have to chase people, manage budgets, raise funds, and constantly give feedback. I guess this learning paid off though, because in 2015, I was in Nepal with my daughter when the earthquake happened. I couldn’t do much for relief then, but decided to launch the Art Aid Nepal campaign. We would conduct art workshops for children in Kathmandu. A friend and I decided to do an anthology called HOME, which took a year to organise and create, and raised some funds for the victims. We got people from all over the world to create comics for us with the theme of what your home means to you.
What’s it like being a woman in the comics scene?
You must have heard about the Comix Creatrix exhibition in London, which showed the work of only women? [Read all about it here] It showed that it isn’t just a list of women, and that there really shouldn’t be any debate any more about how much women have contributed to the comic scene. There was also the Comica festival, and so many creative women came and told their stories about creating comics. If you want names, of course there’s Satrapi’s amazing Persepolis, but there’s also Vera Brosgol, who made Anya’s Ghost about a teenage girl with body image issues, Robot Dreams by Sara Varon, Isabel Greenberg’s The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth, and Philippa Rice’s Soppy. There’s no way you can read all these women and still say that there are no women making comics. They’re also making art about everything, not just one theme. The comic is just a medium, like novels are, and within it you have all sorts of genres that women are working in.
This is the first in a series of interviews with women writers
about the writing life and process.