If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The cartoonist on her new book of comics, embracing intensity, and returning to her artistic origins.
Liana Finck’s cartoons, collected in her new book, Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, and Notes to Self (Random House), consistently manage to capture the irrationality of life, finding clumsy transcendence in a world that isn’t easy to inhabit. At the heart of Finck’s work is the notion that all of our frustrations and jubilations are connected through their absurdity. How we respond to that absurdity (typically with lunacy of our own) spirals into different channels—the idiocy of love, the farce of identity, the madness of entitlement. In one drawing, a self-conscious mermaid weeps, expounding “But what if he has a foot fetish?” In another, a bourgeois couple watches the sunset with the caption “Douches gazing into infinity.” The book ends with a section of imageless cartoons, long anaphoric daggers to the heart. Both in the laugh-out-loud cartoons and the heartbreaking ones, Finck nods to the cosmic joke of our helplessness. Here we are on this massive blue planet, sitting in a coffee shop or riding a bus, attempting to make our finite time meaningful, while outside a Park Slope mom barrels down the sidewalk wielding a double-wide stroller and a man sits close by, boring holes into us with his eyes.
— Wallace Ludel
Wallace Ludel I want to start by asking about a scene from your last book, the comic-memoir Passing for Human. There’s a moment where your character draws a mean comic of her middle school teacher which leads to the teacher quitting. Did that really happen?
Liana Finck Yes, though I used a fake name in the book. Her real name was Mrs. Held. She was a revolutionary 1948 Israeli royal. She was brilliant—she spoke something like twelve languages—but she was also very sad and bitter as a result of a family tragedy and a life of trauma. She was old school, she would’ve hit us if she could, and she almost did.
WLAnd she saw the comic?
LFI drew comics about her, and they made me popular. Then the inspiration dried up because my anger dissipated after I’d let it out, and I started to see her as more human. I felt so bad that the one thing the other kids liked about me was gone, so I needed to find a way to remain naughty. One day, I made a mixture of soap and margarine. The margarine was from the school lunch and the soap was from the bathroom and I had mixed the two in a bag. I became embarrassed because I realized it wasn’t an appropriate thing to be holding, so I squeezed it out on Mrs. Held’s chair. The other kids saw and approved. Suddenly it was too late to take it back; I was mortified. She saw it before she sat down and, in my memory, she left that day and never came back.
WLWhile we’re on the subject of schools, you went to Cooper Union. What was that like? What kind of work were you making?
LFI really wish I could go see my college self, because I think of her as a completely different person. I was depressed and lonely. I cried a lot and was volatile in the sense that I loved sunsets. I could care less about a beautiful sunset now. I was a terrible artist but I thought I was good. There was ego there—I was trying to paint like Cézanne, but I was a horrible painter. And besides, why paint like Cézanne in 2005? I was adorable though, I had a buzzcut and I was kind of chubby.
Before college, I made cartoons and comics, so I went to a portfolio day at Cooper Union for prospective students. I didn’t take art classes in high school and I didn’t know there was a difference between comics and fine art. They refused to even look at my work. They told me, “We don’t take those here.” But I wanted so badly to attend Cooper Union that I transformed myself—I became this weird zealot painter and my work went downhill; there was a real compulsive element to it.
WLObviously you weren’t that bad, you got in.
LF I was tenacious. I sent them a ton of work. I was never entirely terrible, there are still areas of my art where I don’t know what I’m doing, but I can fake it and pretend that I’m decent. The one thing I did well regarding my application was I decorated the envelope. I added wings to it and made it into a steampunk object.
WLDo you think of yourself as a humorist?
LFNo! Oh no. What a crusty word.
WLOne thing I admire about your work is your ability to balance levity and depth. Passing for Human, your last book, is humorous, but it’s a serious book. Excuse Me also does everything, it’s earnest and vulnerable but remains very funny. And I do think of you as an enviably good writer.
LFI think I’m too heavy to be as funny as I could and should be. That’s a failing of mine. I’ve gotten a lot lighter since college, but I look at someone like Roz Chast and she’s so funny in a way that I’m not. As long as I keep going, I think I’ll get funnier with age. Humor is like a good eye for design, it comes when you have a strong sense of proportion along with the grace to step back and not take every little thing too seriously. Right now, I think of myself as direct. I wish I’d been able to step back more when writing Passing for Human, but it was so personal and took a long time to make. It could have been funnier and more direct, but it’s sweet that it wasn’t; it means that I cared.
WLI don’t think that being funny means you don’t care.
LFBut if you care too much, then you can’t tell a story that moves. You can’t be funny. If you’re too close to something, sometimes you can’t make it light or snappy.
WLIt becomes stagnant.
LFOr a seething, emotional, intense thing, which can also be wonderful. I don’t think I’m stagnant anymore. I’m intense and emotional and myopic. I can’t look at a tragedy and take a step back until it’s comedy, I take a tragedy and dive right in.
WLIn the last section of Excuse Me, titled “Notes to Self,” there’s one cartoon with no image, it’s just text that reads, “Two ways to make a thing worthwhile: 1. Step backward and find the humor in it. 2. Step forward and find the meaning in it.”
LFI think both methods are very good. I fall much more on the side of stepping forward, and I envy people that are able to take a distance and make things funny.
WLIt’s peculiar for me to hear that you don’t think of yourself as funny. I think your work often has a laugh-out-loud quality.
LFI think I’m funny on a scale of funny-to-not-funny. Among The New Yorker cartoonists, some are people who can’t say anything that isn’t hilarious. I have the ability to be funny, but I’m not like that.
WLHumor is something you value though, I assume?
LFOh, yes. But I value other things too. I’m not one of those people who will only date someone who makes her laugh. I’ve also dated people who really weren’t funny. My boyfriend now is hilarious. I love the funny ones and the not funny ones. I don’t know a lot of cartoonists who laugh a lot. I think when we hear a joke we just get still like a dog who smells an animal. It becomes about isolating the part that’s funny and unexpected and thinking more about that. You get spiraled into the nuances of what makes something funny and who thinks it’s funny.
WLBut it doesn’t stop your enjoyment?
LFIt stops your enjoyment of some jokes, because some aren’t funny when you think about them.
WLWhat makes a successful cartoon?
LFA good Instagram cartoon, like the ones in Excuse Me, is something that is a strong emotion, that is relatively universal. Let’s say one out of three people can relate to it, rather than one out of fifteen. It’s sharp but not bitter. It can be funny, it can be direct; I think those are interchangeable. I make my New Yorker cartoons more universal, they’re funny but they’re not about you necessarily, while for the Instagram cartoons, you have to feel like they’re about you.
People tend to write nasty comments when I do something obscure. If people look at something obscure very quickly, they just read it as an attack; I think they’re prepared for an attack. But I don’t really try to make successful Instagram cartoons, my focus is on making ones that express how I’m feeling and what I’m dealing with at any given moment. Sometimes those are universal—the dating-related ones usually are—but the neurodiversity ones aren’t. Being terrified of a stranger who walked two inches too close to me on the street; I think people often get annoyed and think I’m overreacting, but it’s how I feel and I need to put it in a cartoon. I had to stop posting things about Park Slope parents and their huge strollers because people got so up in arms about that.
WLI lived in Park Slope for four years, I understand. Is it because they don’t know what Park Slope is?
LFSometimes I think it’s people who live in other cities, who think, I need a stroller, why are you saying it’s bad to have a stroller, and they don’t understand the dynamic. And sometimes it’s because they’re a parent who does live in Park Slope, and they are that parent, and they don’t have the nuance to know it’s annoying when you have an enormous stroller and ram a stranger with it. I don’t hate parents, I just think entitlement is funny and in Park Slope the entitled people happen to be young parents with huge strollers.
WLI’ve heard you describe cartoons as similar to sonnets. My theory is that they share a sense of the unexpected, a sonnet requiring a volta, where there’s some kind of redirection or subversion. They also share a sense of economy, a sonnet being fourteen lines.
LFI was talking about New Yorker cartoons when I said that. I also compare them to playing scales—the limitations are very clear and you know how to do it. If I’m commissioned to do a page-long comic in a magazine, I’ll spend days trying to start working and there are just too many options; I can’t narrow it down and I get frozen. But with The New Yorker, I know what I’m doing and which way to train my brain to think. If it doesn’t come, at least I know what I’m failing at.
I don’t think of the Instagram cartoons as sonnets, I think of them as haikus. They come in a flash and they’re not usually one-two punches like The New Yorker cartoons; they’re just a single punch.
WLWhat is your process like when you sit down to draw?
LFI’ve drawn compulsively all my life. I think Instagram is the format that comes closest to my natural tendency of drawing as a means to process things that bother me in real life. Part of why I had such awkward years with my art in high school and college is because I was trying to train myself to use the thing that I was good at—drawing—in the context of being a useful member of society. It was hard to figure out, because I wasn’t naturally a fine artist, or an illustrator, or a comics artist, or a cartoonist. I just liked to draw. It took me a long time to figure out how to draw for others—for an audience.
WLThe drawings that make up Excuse Me are divided into sections: Love and Dating; Gender Politics and Politics in General; Animals; Art and Myth-Making; Humanity; Time, Space, and How to Navigate Them; Strangeness, Shyness, Sadness; and Notes to Self. Did you look through your work and find the threads, or did you consciously make work to fit into the categories?
LFThe former. It was really a collaboration with my editor at Random House. We went back and forth with a list of chapters. I winnowed down probably 3,000 cartoons to about 1,000 and he brought that down to 500. After that, I added more and we put them into categories. Then I redrew all of the comics. When I draw for Instagram, I draw on random scraps of paper and I don’t scan them. You can’t be a compulsive worker if you’re also treating your work so well.
WLYou redrew every single cartoon in the book?
LFYes. It almost didn’t feel like a creative project. The cartoons feel creative but I felt like I was plunging into the design world; doing page layout and making things look decent, which is not my natural skillset but I learned a bit about it. I’m really happy with how the book came out.
Something I learned about myself is that I really like to draw tiny. For Instagram each drawing is an inch or two, so I scanned them very high-resolution and blew them up. It’s a strange way to work, but I think it makes sense because I’m saying intense things in a very tiny voice, which describes my personality.
For most of these I printed out the Instagram drawing that I made and retraced it. It’s not the most creative or confident way to work, but I think a lot of this book was me faking competence which is what you have to do when you have a huge amount of work ahead of you.
WLI feel like that’s all anyone is ever doing, barring maybe surgeons.
LFIf you’re a gentleman and you’re wandering around in a garden and you’re inspired and you write a haiku, that’s real creativity. But if you have to make 1,000 cakes to sell, you’re not going to put your soul into it. It’s a matter of scale. I think great art is often the gentleman writing the haiku, but in order to be an artist you also need to be able to make 1,000 cakes in an afternoon.
Wallace Ludel is an artist and writer. His art writing and poetry have appeared in Artforum, BOMB, Narrative, Triangle House Review, and elsewhere. He recently received his MFA from New York University, where he also taught creative writing. He is the editor of art writing at Triangle House Review.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.