One of the positives that came from being locked down during the "Stay At Home" order was all the free time I had,which lead to a LOT of reading. During that time I also discovered a lot of new creators and some really great books. One of those creators was M.S. Harkness.
It was her project, TINDERELLA from Uncivilized, that was my first entry into her work. A story that, as you can imagine from the name, is both hilarious and at also honest as hell. I highly recommend the book and I hope you guys all check it out. By the end of this interview I'm sure you won't be able to help yourself.
RYAN: As a new fan of your work, and those not familiar with your work, can you tell us a little about yourself?
M.S.: My name is M.S. Harkness and I'm a cartoonist that lives in the Midwestern United States. Most of my work is autobiographical, so my comics are largely stories about me in my twenties, doing stuff that you do when you're young and dumb, trying to figure stuff out. There's humor and lots of sloppy moments of life that usually end up being little cautionary parables about dating and drugs and stuff.
RYAN: What made you decide on cartooning as a profession?
M.S.: I think my stories are best told as comics and I've been drawing my whole life in some way. Animation and film require a lot more moving parts and I hate using computers to draw. All of my work is traditionally made with pretty minimal Photoshop, so I'm able to do all the parts of the process more or less solo. When I was younger, drawing was the only thing I was really okay at, and for some purposes it was a good distraction from how shitty my childhood and teen years were. I didn't know that there really wasn't any money to be made until I was too deep in, so I have this other life as a personal trainer to make the money to feed myself.
RYAN: Who were some of your artistic influences growing up?
M.S.: There was a good stretch of time in the early aughts where my mom was bringing me to the library and letting me check out Calvin and Hobbes and Farside and a lot of collections of newspaper comics, but I think it just gave me the concept of comics as a medium more than anything. Millennials were all just spoon-fed the same mass produced shit, so growing up we all just watched the same Disney movies and all read Harry Potter, and so it's never anything that interesting. When I was a teenager, I was super into Jhonen Vasquez's stuff and got into the now defunct line of SLG comics, plus that Invader Zim show on Nickelodeon. Then there was anime too in there. But that's what everyone was doing, just like tracing Dragon Ball Z and Naruto manga.
Then you go to art school and they really try to crush all of that out of you, which is good to some extent I think. Mostly because you really have to think about what kind of style is going to benefit the story you're telling and then you have to stand behind your decision.
RYAN: My intro to your work, was Tinderella, which was hilarious and the type of slice of life book I love to read. Is it really based on your life?
M.S.: Thank you, yes.
RYAN: If so how accurate was it, did anyone you depict in the book have any issues with the way they were portrayed?
M.S.: Everything I do is pretty straight out of life, which I've somehow pulled off okay. I'm getting better at lying, or at least figuring out how to stay with the spirit of the thing before the letter in order to protect the innocent. Nobody has ever accused me of portraying them inaccurately, but I've had conversations about boundaries and I welcome that. I don't want to cause undue anxiety on anyone, so I withhold names or change appearances when it's appropriate.
RYAN: It seems like there has been a huge surge of female creatives in the comic industry over the last few years. Have you noticed any differences behind the scenes?
M.S.: I've more or less had the privilege of coming up in a scene where I haven't really had to think about it that much. If anything, it's majority women wherever I go, and other people want to promote me because they want to support women and stuff. There's a lot to be thankful for, considering just years earlier you seemed to have to do a lot more to justify the fact that your work was good and people should give a damn about it. There's always the potential for awkward moments or whatever, but you get that everywhere. I'm white. It's not that hard. I have a lot of appreciation for the women ten, twenty and thirty years before me that probably had to kneecap someone else to be included in conversation. They suffered so I didn't have to.
RYAN: You have another new book coming out soon, Desperate Pleasures, can you talk a little about that project?
M.S.: Yeah, that book should be out this fall. The pre-order is open for it now. Desperate Pleasures is the sequel to Tinderella, though you don't necessarily have to read them in order. The story is basically just about dating and human connection with the backdrop of trauma. It's a lot darker and harder than Tinderella. The story hops around a lot and there's also a bit included that I did in graphite where I tell a story from my mom's perspective. Sort of like a multi-layered lasagna of complications, sex work and drug use.
It's a good story, and it's the most cohesive, well drawn thing I've made yet. If you like really heavy stories about people making dumb decisions, you should read it.
RYAN: Uncivilized has been putting out some amazing content, how did your project land over there?
M.S.: From a geographical perspective, it made sense. Tom Kacynski runs the publishing imprint and lives in Minneapolis, so we met when he taught at the college I went to. It's a good fit alongside Gabrielle Bell, Craig Thompson, and Julia Wertz's stuff and it was a step up distribution-wise from what I was doing with Dan Stafford at Kilgore.
I can't stress the importance of going to shows though and just being a cartoonist before you pitch a book. Even if you are really talented, I don't think that most indie publishers are going to give a damn unless you show that you have the ability to market yourself. Most of these imprints don't have publicists or money for Facebook ads, so unless you're making minis and getting yourself out there already, there's no reason for anyone else to stick their neck out for you.
RYAN: What books or cartoonists are you currently following?
M.S.: I love my autobio friends all over the country. Sam Szabo is making hilarious comics about her family and transitioning, she's out of Chicago I think and she mostly just does mini comics. Nate McDonough lives in Pittsburgh and has been making his GRIXLY comics for years and I just ordered a quarantine stash of his work.
My friend Sean Knickerbocker made a really pitch perfect book called Rust Belt that came out with secret acres, just a series of vignettes of people who are sort of trapped in poor financial situations, struggling to deal with a horrible set up. I think Alex Graham is making some new comics, but she's also been doing great painting these frantic, super jarring colored paintings of alien figures. That might be paying better at the moment. She did one of the best comics I ever read called "Angloid", which Kilgore Books put out.
And then, my friend Pete Faecke doesn't do as much autobio as everyone else I just mentioned, but he inserts himself into this work in other ways. I won't do it justice describing it, but he's like if you took all the love and appreciation for golden age comics storytelling, and then made it gay and fucking weird, he's your guy. There's like, Gary Panter and Pee Wee's playhouse and Professional Wrestling and weird crying skeletons. It's great.
RYAN: What are your preferred tools when illustrating?
M.S.: Kuretake pens.
RYAN: For all the readers out there, where can they follow you to learn about any projects you might be working on?
M.S.: Patreon is a great place to find me. If you follow me on Instagram and then donate a buck each month to my Patreon, I give you access to my cool feed where you can watch me work on whatever the latest thing is. My website is msharkness.com and you can find the down low on everything there.