LJ Talks with K. Wroten, Artist and Author of 'Eden II'

Brooklyn-based artist K. Wroten discusses their creative process and the concepts explored in Eden II.
A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute with a BFA in illustration, K. Wroten is a Brooklyn-based artist. Their work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Vice, Them, and many other publications. Cannonball (2019) won the Lambda Literary Award for Best LGBTQ Graphic Novel, and their graphic novella Crimes won the 2019 MoCCA Arts Festival Award of Excellence. They talk with LJ about their creative process and the concepts explored in Eden II (Fantagraphics).

Describe your typical workday while creating Eden II. Do you keep a strict writing/drawing routine?

The process for writing and drawing Eden II was a very long and winding road. I believe I started writing it as a series of short stories with no connecting narrative other than tonality and mood. Eventually, the stories started to “talk” to one another.

Drawing is much more straightforward for me. I draw the whole book straight ahead from beginning to end without jumping around. So, where the writing involves a lot of shifting and malleability, the drawing is more concrete. I start with thumbnails and draw the whole book in tiny sketchbooks; they are about five inches tall. I have a small stack of them for any book I’m working on. Then I do the entire book again in digital pencils, working off the suggestions in the thumbnails. Then I print each page out, take it to a light table, and do the final art with a brush and ink on bristol board. All told, the inks for the book weigh a total of about 25 pounds! I drew most of the book during the lockdown, so my whole life was Eden II for a while there.
How does the finished product compare to what you envisioned when you first conceived this project? Did you make any interesting discoveries along the way? Does anything about the final product surprise you?
I am completely surprised by Eden II. I am not an outline writer, I’m much more of what is called a “discovery writer,” meaning that I just start writing and see where it goes. It requires a lot more uncertainty and a lot more editing, but I find that it most easily replicates the experience of reading. There are “aha” moments with discovery that I find to be so much fun, as opposed to making a plan on day one and strictly adhering to it. The most interesting discovery about Eden II is its length. If I had known I’d be making a book that is over 450 pages on day one, I don’t know how I could have done it!
How would you describe your artistic style?
My style is always developing, and much like discovery writing, I like to experiment and see what I can do rather than try to replicate past work. My first book, Cannonball, was full-color and very different in approach. I used strict grid layouts and character designs that were far more simple. Cannonball was also entirely digital. Eden feels akin to that book but more direct, messy, and ambitious. I used brushes, pens, colored pencils, Sharpies, etc., to make Eden. Whatever I wanted. I hope to continue this trajectory as I move forward.
What do you hope your readers take away from this book?
When I started writing Eden II I was really obsessing over the ability of synthetic/replicated experience to be preferable to real/authentic experience. For instance, I believe at the time I was playing The Sims a lot, and I was creating versions of close relationships I had IRL in the game, and then trying to make them as immersive as possible. The thought of just texting that person and asking to hang out was not the point. It didn’t satisfy whatever I was trying to achieve. This became even more evident during lockdown. I was having FOMO about not being asked to hang out on friends’ Animal Crossing islands! So I asked myself, What is this about? A character in Eden that lives in a fully immersive content room, which is referred to sarcastically as a “skinner box,” exemplifies this. B.F. Skinner was a behavioralist who attached nodes to rats’ brains that would simulate pleasure each time they hit a button. The rats would adapt to the pleasure-button and then need more and more of it. It took up all their time! So much so, that they would forget to eat and starve to death. I don’t need to state the obvious on how this relates to now.
The book also covers the epidemic of loneliness. The pleasure-button is often used for relationships as well as a way to kill time. It covers the gig economy, crypto, depression, Gnosticism, the myth of limitless growth, late-stage capitalism, etc., all told with a sense of humor and sincerity. There are a lot of takeaways. One major one is the implications of a total rent-based existence. In Eden there are landlords of everything, and no one really owns anything but themselves. The story is about the struggle for ownership of something previously unrentable, a final frontier, your soul/consciousness. The implication is, you never own what you rent. It’s a never-ending payment siphon that more and more people are being lured to adopt.
Each time I read it, I come away with a different “takeaway” so maybe that’s my answer. I hope everyone gets something different out of it, that the book is able to speak in many different ways.
Are there any recent or upcoming graphic novel releases that you’re particularly excited about?
A lot of friends of mine are working on great books. Deb JJ Lee’s book In Limbo is coming out soon. My friend Alex Krokus also released a new collection of his wonderful webcomic Loud and Smart and is working on another exciting project I can’t wait to read. Rosemary Valero-O’Connell is hard at work on many exciting projects that I can’t wait to see in the flesh. I’m feeling really grateful to be surrounded by such talented people!
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