By Frank Reynoso
Fly’s distinctive style and message came to my attention some years ago on a flyer for a political event at ABC No Rio. Her actions and works speak volumes of the enigmatic person: a consistent presence in New York City radical circles, a member of the World War 3 Illustrated collective (founded by Seth Tobocman and Peter Kuper), and an adamant supporter and teacher of DIY zines and comics. From the cover of the first issue of $pread, a magazine by and for sex workers, and PEOPS, her zine-turned-book by Soft Skull, which chronicles the lives of many downtown Manhattan residents, artists and activists, Fly hardly shies away from the controversial and the commonplace. The prolific cartoonist and illustrator took some time out to talk about the laborious task of making zines, her artistic growth inspired years ago by Sue Coe’s powerful work and Fiona Smyth’s techniques, and the transformation of the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
Frank Reynoso: If you weren’t doing comics or cartooning, what would you be doing?
FLY: Well I’m actually already doing all the things I would be doing if I wasn’t doing comics and cartooning, which is doing a lot of finishing work on my apartment — a Lower East Side Home(in)Stead — and doing a lot of networking stuff and teaching the DIY comix and zine-making class at MoCCA. And I really like physical activity so I just like to get out and go for long hikes. I used to skate a lot around the city until I broke my back skating in 1997. That put a little glitch in my skating routine. (laughing) I actually managed to bounce back from that but I’ve had several mishaps since then that I won’t get into detail but I keep getting glitches in the plan. But I would definitely spend a LOT of time skating if I could. I think I would like to do that. Skating and maybe some surfing! I haven’t surfed in a while so maybe I would do that.
FR: You can surf on the New Jersey shore, South Jersey or something like that.
“It was a happy surprise that comics could actually be an art form and that they can be very political and have this amazing message.”
FLY: I don’t want to say how long it’s been since I last surfed but it’s been a very, very long time and its not like a was a Surfer. I used to do a lot of extreme sports like running marathons, snow skiing, water skiing and I jumped out of a plane once and I got a bronze medal at the world rowing championships in 1984. But to surf again would really be fun. If I didn’t have to spend the time doing comics… skating and surfing. Yeah. That sounds good. (laughing)
FR: What is the biggest surprise you’ve had in comics?
FLY: Well it depends, I think, on what points you’re talking about. Maybe the biggest surprise when I first started doing comics.
FLY: The biggest surprise when I first started doing comics was how insanely involved it was to actually come up with a story, research the story, do sketches of the story, design the pages, do pencil sketches and then do final pencil sketches and then figure out how to do the inking and then figure out how to put all that together and then figure out how to copy it or produce it somehow and then figure out how to give out to people or sell it. If you look at the whole picture, I think, my biggest surprise was how intensely involved, how much work it took, how it was so back-breaking trying to work on this stuff and how I was never going to sleep again in my life. (laughing)
FR: (laughing) I’m sure that can go for all of us here.
FLY: Yeah. I think other surprises might have come along as I’ve gotten more deeply involved but that would stand out at the very beginning of doing comics. Exactly how involved it was but also maybe another thing I could say was I was kind of surprised at the potential of comics because I grew up more with mainstream comics.
When I was very young it was Casper (the Friendly Ghost) and Archie and all that stuff. And then it was the X-Men and Daredevil and then it was only later when I was out of high school that I realized that comics could be an art form. And that was also a little surprising to me. I mean it was a happy surprise that comics could actually be an art form and that they can be very political and have this amazing message. That was like when I got my early politics was… I was really into the punk scene as a very young teenager but I didn’t fully realize about the potential of comics being political until seeing Raw Magazine — not that that’s political — but the one artist that really struck me was Sue Coe and she was definitely political. She really affected me and my whole outlook. When I saw her work I realized that “oh, you can do fine artwork and it can be comics and it can have a really intense message that actually means something and is giving education to people in a positive way.” So that was a revelation. (laughing) I don’t know. I guess you can say surprise but it was more of a revelation. It was a really cool kind of thing for me to see. Oh, I also totally loved Gary Panter’s comics! Jimbo! So hilarious!
“I guess getting more respect for yourself is something that pushes people to get better material. You have more respect for the work that you’re producing so you want it to last longer.”
FR: What would be your dream collaboration? Living or dead.
FLY: Hmmm…. That’s a really hard one because there are so many people that I’d love to collaborate with… and lately I have been collaborating more… But I’m such a control freak. I think my dream collaboration would probably be not with another visual artist but with a writer. There’s so many writers that I really love so it’s hard to… I know: Kathy Acker. She died a while ago but I would love to have been able to work with her on a comic. (excited) Oh man, yeah. Kathy Acker. Definitely Kathy Acker. I first read her stuff in the 80s when my life was really chaotic and transient. I felt like the way she wrote was like the way I was thinking; it was like the voices in my head mixed with what was happening in the moment mixed with what already happened. It was like deconstruction or something… sorry I’m not much of a literary critic. Her writing to me was just really authentic — she wasn’t afraid to just put everything out there. I could feel it in my bones and the thing about it was that when ever I read any of her stuff I would get so inspired that I would end up doing a lot of writing and drawing myself and I would also have the craziest dreams — I used to do a lot of comics based on dreams too. I just think I could have done some amazing comics in collaboration with Kathy Acker! Hmmm maybe I should try to do a piece on her.
FR: That’d be intense. So what art supplies do you use to make comics? Supplies and techniques… talk us from the beginning of the cartoon to the end.
FLY: Well it’s gotten a lot more complicated for me. When I first started doing comics I would draw stuff in my sketchbook and use a pen to ink it and I always hated how the line was a bit fuzzy. But I was very influenced by hanging out with this amazing Canadian artist named Fiona Smyth and she was using a brush to ink her comics. She had a comic in the 80s called Nocturnal Emissions published by Drawn & Quarterly. And I thought “Ok, I’m going to try a brush.” So I tried a brush and really loved it because it’s different from a pen in the way that you get a really fluid stroke and it’s a clean line! Without the fuzzies! It’s more painterly in a way than using a pen. [With a pen] you’re more restricted in your movement well at least for me. And then I started doing my final artwork on more illustration board. Not so much illustration board but more like smooth press, acid free Bristol board so it’s a little thicker. It was looking a lot better on the actual board than on paper. Also it’s a lot more durable that way so if you’re doing a lot of ink work and you’re working on paper it can start to disintegrate so you have a lot more life with the thicker paper. And I started doing that after I started doing work with the World War 3 [Illustrated] people. I saw them bringing in their stuff to be printed or pasted up and their stuff was always on really nice paper. (laughing) At the time I was this crusty squatter and didn’t really have nice materials so I was doing everything in these gnarly old sketchbooks and then having to try copy it out of them. I looked at their stuff and I just thought “wow. I gotta get more professional or something.” I specifically remember that Eric Drooker’s originals looked really good!
FR: These are real artists.
FLY: Yeah, they’re real artists and I’m this crusty person and they’re not going to respect me. Also I wanted to do that because I felt like it would give a longer life to my artwork. On paper it disintegrates faster or it doesn’t hold up as well — the ink fades. I guess getting more respect for yourself is something that pushes people to get better material. You have more respect for the work that you’re producing so you want it to last longer. You want it to be nice. Now the way that I do my comics is I’ll do really rough sketches on paper and then I’ll do better sketches on paper as I am working out the page design and then I will transfer the final pencils using a light-box or using my window. I’ll transfer that onto Bristol board, which is very smooth and then I’ll use a brush and ink to do my final piece. Then I’ll usually scan that and then I’ll tweak it in Photoshop. Maybe add some grayscale or color and fix up all the rough edges. I love Photoshop. I have a Wacom tablet, which you plug into your computer and there is a special pen that goes with it. It’s like drawing but it’s on a little tablet and I love this thing. I’ve had it for over ten years.
FLY: Yeah. And to me it’s so essential. I don’t know what I’d do without it at this point. Now when I’m inking, I know I can scan it and fix all the glitches so I’m not so nervous when I’m inking. I used to get so nervous sometimes when I was inking really tricky places that my hand would shake so hard. I would have these little spasms because I was like “oh man, I’m gonna fuck it up!” and thinking that I wouldn’t be able to fix it. And now I’m so relaxed when I’m inking that I do a much better job inking. (laughing) I’m faster and more confident just because I know it can be fixed so I actually make less mistakes now than when I was trying to be careful. (lauhing) Which is kind of cool.
FR: What she makes of the transformation of the Lower East Side?
FLY: That’s a big question. The LES has been transforming for so long! It’s sort of the nature of the place. People have been fighting [the latest wave of gentrification] since way before I arrived here in the late 80s. There was of course the real estate boom of the 80s that sort of went bust. Anyway, when I got here it was still pretty rundown and crazy in good ways and bad ways. I have to say that I do not miss the drug dealers or the people shooting up on the street but I do miss all the insanely talented artists and performers and just general characters that used to populate the area and I also think it is very unfair that so many people who were born in the Lower East Side now cannot afford to live here. It used to feel a bit like a small town around here but with all the options of a big city. Now if I am out in the evening, especially on the weekend, I am horrified walking along the sidewalks — even on avenue C! — to see the multitudes of loud drunken idiots making so much noise and making a big mess. I don’t know what the hell they are doing but its just so boring! I think a big problem with the Lower East Side is that it used to be a neighborhood and it had real character — and you can still find that here but it is seriously threatened by the dorm mentality of some idiot developers and the fancy restaurants and hair salons that no one living here can afford to go to. With the whole clean-up of the area of course it became safer and so suddenly since it’s considered so “edgey and hip” everybody wants to live here and the rents have become ridiculous. So what happens in the long run is that the real neighborhood gets displaced because people can’t afford to live here and they are slowly being replaced by a very transient population, NYU students and other high priced renters who are not interested in working on a connection to the real soul and history of the place. The LES is just a stepping stone for them, a place to sleep and to use as a background for pictures — oh — I could rant for hours about this. I know I am generalizing but hopefully you get the idea. There are some books I could recommend for your further edification like the recently published Resistance, edited by Clayton Patterson and published by Seven Stories
FR: Where in New York do you look for the kind of iconoclastic rebels who used to populate the neighborhood?
FLY: Well, I don t really go out on a search for “iconoclastic rebels.” Basically I do my work and I just seem to get connected to amazing people. There are still some great places in the LES for art and culture like ABC No Rio — www.abcnorio.org — Bluestockings Books on Allen St — Bowery Poetry Club — www.bowerypoetry.com — St. Marks Bookshop 31 third avenue — Sixth Street Community Center — The Lower East Side Girls Club — the Times Up Space on Houston close to Lafayette (don’t forget Critical Mass! Last Friday of every month! Just google Critical Mass NYC) — the MoCCA. Life is so virtual these days. There are a lot of amazing groups that don’t have offices or stable spaces to meet but they have websites like the Icarus Project.
FR: Where can folks find your comics and cartoons?
FLY: Well, that’s hard to say because I get published in a lot of different publications. I do a monthly thing in MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. There’s a zine that comes out called Slug and Lettuce that comes out quarterly and I do comics in that. And I do stuff for The Villager, which is a Lower East Side, New York City publication that comes out weekly. As for my comics probably the best thing to do is to email me at [email protected] and just ask me because my comics can be found in different places at different times. If you are in New York City then you can find my stuff at BlueStockings Books (Allen St. at Stanton) and St. Marks Bookshop (31 3rd Ave at E 9th St) and Jim Hanley’s Universe (33rd St near 5th Ave) I just put out a new issue of Dog Dayz, which is my illustrated novel in the works about these crazy squatter punk kids in the Lower East Side 1993 and all their shenanigans and travels. I am about to put out a new PEOPs zine and maybe a new PEOPs book (collections of portraits and stories). I also have a PEOPs Show DVD out (produced by Killer Banshee Studios in Oakland CA — they are amazing!) and I will be working on a new PEOPs Show DVD soon! I sell a lot of stuff through the mail. People write to me from all over the world just because MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and Slug and Lettuce go all over the world and I have stuff in them in every issue and I’m always writing “email me,” “send for comics.
FR: Thank you so much, Fly.