An Interview with Talia Dutton | 'M Is for Monster'

Graphic novelist Talia Dutton drew the cover art for our April issue and will release her debut this June. She talks with LJ about art, influences, and M Is for Monster.

 Graphic novelist Talia Dutton drew the cover art for our April issue, focusing on graphic novels, and will release her debut this June. She talks with LJ about art, influences, and M Is for Monster.

Your debut graphic novel, M Is for Monster, takes inspiration from pop culture. Which fandoms/literary pieces inform your work?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, but only in the loosest sense. It’s certainly not my favorite book, but I fell in love with the basic idea of the Frankenstein myth that’s ingrained into our society. This idea of the created monster who is wrong, who is rejected and unloved and lost. Honestly at this point M Is for Monster has more ties to [Studio] Ghibli movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle—both in the visuals and just the overall feeling. Ghibli movies always feel small to me—little pieces of the world that make us smile, like a cool cloud or a pretty rock.

I get told a lot that M Is for Monster is a horror story, but to me it’s more of a fantasy family drama. It’s probably because I love my characters too much to be scared by them. I read a lot of Eva Ibbotson’s books when I was younger, and I always adored the little families that she created around monsters and imperfections—approaching this idea of difference with hope and a very frank sense of humor. M Is for Monster has changed a lot, but it has always been [about] a misshapen imperfect family in the same way.

You have written that your comics are “thinly veiled autobiography.” How does that inform M Is for Monster and your creative process?

Honestly, of all the stories in my head that are autobiographical, veiled or otherwise, M Is for Monster is less proper autobiography and more a patchwork quilt of little things about friends and family around me. It’s about all of my friends in college changing their major from pre-med to anthropology, about sewing my Halloween costume instead of writing my art history paper, and about my parents suggesting that I could combine art with engineering. It’s about my little sister following in my footsteps and it’s [a] story to tell her she doesn’t have to. It’s about a monster, but it’s about all the pieces of humanity that I could fit into her.

How do webcomics and traditional print works differ in terms of publishing and what do you value in both?

They’re incredibly different. I honestly don’t consider myself much of a web cartoonist, because for people who do it well it’s an entire job of commitment to consistency, self-accountability, and managing all forms of social media and audience engagement. I always thought I would end up being a webcomic artist, but I don’t really have the self-discipline for it. I need editors staring over my shoulder to make me work and pat me on the head and tell me I’m doing a good job.

The big thing about webcomic publishing is accessibility, in my opinion. It’s far easier for someone to get started, get their work out there, and develop an audience. That’s the ideal anyway. Unfortunately, it’s dependent on the whims of the internet, so there’s tons of amazing work out there that doesn’t get the attention it deserves because it hasn’t reached the right audience or been circled through people’s line of sight.

Traditional print is harder to get started in. I still feel like I just sort of tripped over air and fell into Surely Books’s lap. It ends up being a lot more insular, and about knowing people and knowing how to reach out to agents and appeal to what they like. That being said, once your foot’s in the door there’s support built in! I have a whole team of people working with me on M Is for Monster and they’re all wonderful. Knowing that there are people who like my work and want to tell their friends about it from the very beginning is incredible. In a far more shallow sense, I’m so excited to hold a physical copy of M Is for Monster in my hands and see my name printed out.

How do you describe your visual style?

I call it “eclectic.” Style is one of those things that all artists have but it’s nigh impossible to see most of the time internally. I like to bounce all over the place between mediums and tools. I work digital, watercolor, ink, crayon, gouache, whatever floats my fancy for the project. I think that’s why I was drawn to cartooning—it lets me bounce around. I have to develop a consistent style for a project, but I also get to do so many different parts of the process—write, pencil, ink, color, even lettering is growing on me!

In terms of M Is for Monster, I would say that my style is a balance. I really like thinking about things in big chunks of black and white, swapping back and forth between thinking of what I’m drawing as three-dimensional objects in a space, and flat lines and shapes on a surface. My style, and everyone’s really, is made up of all the art they’ve ever liked and tried to emulate. Mine currently has a lot of influence [by] cartoonists such as Isabelle Melançon (Namesake), Faith Erin Hicks (Friends with Boys), and illustrator Julia Lepetit.

Do you have any recommendations of games, graphic novels, film, and/or television?

I love so many things in so many little ways. I know it hardly needs an introduction, but Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has my whole heart. In a different way, there’s an indie game called A Short Hike—it’s just so sweet and kind. Playing it feels like sipping a hot cocoa by a bright window on a cool day. It makes me want to go outside, which is impressive [in] a video game. I also adore the Dungeons & Dragons podcast, The Adventure Zone, by the McElroy Brothers. The first arc, Balance, begins as a total mess, but becomes this story of unwavering hope and joy in the face of despair.

Last, I would recommend the Drawfee channel on YouTube. Watching artists work so intently on silly things that become incredible works of art is probably more inspiring for young artists than anything I’ve done as a teacher. A lot of artists on the internet hide all the things that go wrong with their process, so hearing the Drawfee crew speak so frankly about art block and what they’re struggling with, and just watching them play, is brilliant.

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