Talking Comics with Tim: Esther Pearl Watson
Esther Pearl Watson‘s Unlovable Vol. 1 features an artistic style that reminds me of Lynda Barry. Clearly I’m not the first to see the similarity (and in fact Barry offers words of praise for the book). As described by Fantagraphics: “Loosely based on a teenager’s diary from the 1980s found in a gas-station bathroom, Unlovable details the sometimes ordinary, sometimes humiliating, often poignant and frequently hilarious exploits of underdog Tammy Pierce … In the epic saga that is Unlovable, Tammy finds herself dealing with: tampons, teasing, crushes, The Smiths, tube socks, facial hair, lice, celibacy, fantasy dream proms, gym showers, skid marks, a secret admirer, prank calls, backstabbers, winter ball, barfing, narcs, breakdancing, hot wheels, glamour shots, roller coasters, Halloween costumes, boogers, boys, boy crazy feelings, biker babes, and even some butt cracks. Tammy’s life isn’t pretty, but it is endlessly charming and hilarious.
Originally (and still) serialized in Bust magazine, Unlovable includes over 100 new pages created just for this edition, which is handsomely packaged in a unique hot pink hardcover format with sparkly blue glitter that would make Tammy proud.”
One great thing I learned in this interview is that this is only the first volume of Unlovable. Next year on Valentine’s Day will mark the release of the second volume. Volume 1 covers from fall of 1988 to 1989 and Volume 2 is set in 1989. Be sure to visit the book’s page on Fantagraphics, for another of its great Flickr videos, allowing one to “flip” through the book virtually. And in a literal sense, Fantagraphics has a 20-page preview of the 416-page Volume 1.
Tim O’Shea: I have to know–“I walked around with a red lollipop stuck to my butt”–was that a direct quote from the found diary that inspired Unlovable or a total (incredibly hilarious) creation of your mind?
Esther Pearl Watson: Well…I made that up.
O’Shea: The book getting picked up by Urban Outfitters, had you known this was possible or did the development pleasantly blindside you? What was your reaction when you found out?
Watson: This was a surprise. I put so much love into this book, I really hope people find it any way they can…and love it too.
O’Shea: The diary that inspired Unlovable was found in 1995, but you set the fictional version in 1987–was that an effort to distance the work even further from the inspirational source?
Watson: The diary was old (from the 80’s) when I found it.
O’Shea: Have you ever heard from women who think your work is based on a diary that they lost?
Watson: So many people come up to me and tell me they are Tammy…even guys.
O’Shea: Did the diary you initially found have any art in it?
Watson: None. But it should have. That’s why my version is an illustrated diary.
O’Shea: Can you give me a timeline of how the strips transitioned from your self-published minicomics to Bust magazine and then ultimately to this collection? Just seeing the time it take for the journey might give aspiring creators an idea of how long and hard you’ve worked to get to this point.
Watson: I did a bunch of drawings that made me crack up…showed some friends. Then forked over $1500 to have it off-set printed at a Christian print-shop down the street. When I went to pick up issue #1 they all said I was a very strange woman. I took that as a good sign. Sent out a bunch of copies to magazines. Bust called a few months later and had me do the back page comic. I had never illustrated a panel comic before. Each year, I save my pennies and published a new issue until 2008. Jordan Crane showed Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics one of my Unlovables. And then I had a contract and created a 700-page book dummy that we decided to split into 2 volumes. Working on Volume 2 now.
O’Shea: How much did your own teenage years serve as fodder for Unlovable (if at all)?
Watson: A lot. I was a lot like Tammy and still am. It’s everything I fear.
O’Shea: What was the thinking behind using a green tint on the pages (as opposed to straight black and white or another tint)? And in that same line of thinking, who can I compliment for the great 1980s hot pink cover with sparkle nail polish?
Watson: I wanted it to feel like I photocopied it. Full of flaws. As for the cover, crazy hot pink and glitter is exactly what Tammy would have chose! I also wanted it to stand out on Fantagraphics table at Comic Con so I could find my book real easy.
O’Shea: Looking through the collection as a whole, do you have certain entries that stand out as your personal favorites?
Watson: I love drawing Tammy 3/4 view or profile. All deformed.
Many of the stories are my favorite. I try to write work that makes me laugh and spit all over the paper while I’m inking.
O’Shea: What really appealed to me about these diary entries was Tammy’s penchant for fantasy versus her teenage failure to perceive reality. How hard was it to balance the theater of the absurd juxtaposed against her reality (for example, when she dreams of having a guy’s baby, but his only interest is to borrow her bike)?
Watson: I don’t know for sure if she picked her nose during a phone call or what she was thinking when a guy called her…but I tried to guess it out. I figure, I’m pretty close.