Award-winning author Ebony Flowers’s first book, Hot Comb, which she brings to the Tattered Cover LoDo on June 20, is a graphic novel. But Flowers isn't just a cartoonist — not that there’s anything wrong with that. She’s a storyteller, a writer and artist, an educator. She holds a B.A. in biological anthropology and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction. She just happened to write her dissertation as a comic. Mostly, she says. Mostly a comic.
Hot Comb is all comic, but it’s also all story. It’s memoir. It’s cultural commentary. It’s American history through the lens of African-American experience. It is, as legendary cartoonist and Flowers role model Lynda Barry says, “fresh and absolutely groundbreaking.” We caught up with Flowers, now a Denverite, and talked about her work, her life, her art, and all the stories that encompass them.
Westword: Start us off by telling us what to expect at the Tattered Cover this week. You're going to be there in conversation with educator and librarian Julia Torres, yes?
Ebony Flowers: My conversation with Julia at Tattered Cover LoDo on Thursday will be a celebration of creative and visual storytelling. It’ll be a great event for fans of indie comics, for people who read graphic novels, for readers who appreciate diverse narratives, and for anyone who enjoys a good story.
I’m a former public school educator — I taught high school biology on the Southside of Chicago, and I was also a middle school science and math teacher in Luanda, Angola — and have always appreciated the wisdom and perspective of librarians. I first learned about Julia Torres through her work with Educolor, a movement among public school educators of color who advocate for equity and justice, as well as her work leading #DisruptTexts, an initiative among educators to challenge the literary canon and create a more inclusive and diverse literacy curriculum. I’m really inspired by Julia and both of these efforts! When my publisher, Drawn and Quarterly, suggested that I do a local event for my book launch, I immediately thought of Julia. I’m thankful that Drawn and Quarterly reached out to Julia and worked with Tattered Cover to organize the event. I’m very happy this all worked out.
So how does one go about doing a reading from a graphic novel?
When I publicly read my comics, I want people to experience an immersive form of storytelling. I’m introducing people to a new world, to words and images paired together, to a life that may be different from their prior experience. When I read comics, I’m helping people to appreciate the power of pictures with words, and of words with pictures. Reading a comic, or a graphic novel, is different from reading a novel or describing a picture book. I care about pace, setting, tension, and the lives of my characters. I need to let my drawings speak for themselves while also narrating a story that benefits from this interplay of picture and verse. Sometimes I read my story panel by panel, sometimes page by page. It depends what I think works best for the story.
How did Hot Comb come about? There's clearly a lot of family connection working as the root of the inspiration for this book, yes?
I started creating fiction comics while completing my Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had an amazing set of mentors at UW-Madison, including leading researchers in early childhood education, literacy studies, the learning sciences, and also Lynda Barry, the first-ever Chazen Family Distinguished Chair in Art, my former boss, and then-director of the Image Lab. These mentors taught me about the power of storytelling — whether for academic or popular audiences. Nonetheless, I spent years drawing and writing a dissertation, and I needed another outlet for my energy and ideas. While I was trained as an ethnographer and was telling stories based upon research data, I needed to also tell stories based upon my life, my curiosities and my own imagination. My first drafts of stories included in Hot Comb were drawn while I was finishing my dissertation. The short story “Hot Comb” came from watching black women YouTubers talk about their first perm and their “big chop,” or the moment when they cut off their perm and started growing their hair without any permanent chemical manipulation. My first perm experience was a little different from how these YouTubers reflected on their own experiences. I decided to make a comic about it.
Is it all autobiographical, or are things fictionalized so that you can tell the stories with the characters you want?
My book is a mix of fiction and creative nonfiction. Some of the stories are autobiographical, like “Hot Comb,” “The Lady on the Train” and “Fieldwork Follies.” Others — such as “Big Ma,” “Sisters and Daughters” and “Last Angolan Saturday” — draw from my life and my friends and my family experiences while also adding elements of fiction to emphasize particular hopes, fears, dreams and questions. These intentional changes help me confront and address standards of beauty, racism, classism, as well as notions of community and belonging.
The use of interstitial mock-up advertisements is one of my favorite parts of the book. They work not only as separations for each story, but also to reinforce the cultural reinforcement of some of the ideas of beauty and image brought up in the stories themselves. How did you come up with those, and with the idea to use those ads in that way?
I’m glad you liked the parody ads! These fake ads were recently featured as an excerpt in the New Yorker in which I explained my personal history reading magazines like Ebony, Essence and Jet as a young girl while getting my hair done. Reading these magazines, years ago, I never questioned what the many hair-product ads were really trying to sell to me. Now I’m much more critical of the messages, beauty standards and corporate appeasements to whiteness that were (and continue to be) entrenched in these advertisements. You likely noticed that my parody ads play upon various pop-culture tropes and topics, like Black Panther and Game of Thrones, as well as Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy. I consider these fantasy and futuristic visions as absurd as me acquiescing to someone else’s ideas about what counts as acceptable, attractive and beautiful. These parody ads are my attempt to envision a different future, in which black women inquire and inspire while loving their hair.
There's a lot of Lynda Barry that comes through in your style and storytelling, which makes sense since you thank her in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. What did you take from Barry's work specifically? What works of hers specifically affected you, and how? How do you see Barry's influence showing up in your own work as a writer and artist?
Lynda taught me how to make comics and how to be a more curious person. I met her in the spring of 2012 when she was the artist-in-residence at UW-Madison. I applied to be in her course "What It Is, Shifting the Manual Image." At the time, I had no idea who she was or what the class would be about. I was looking for alternative ways of representing ethnographic research, and I thought her class sounded interesting. Prior to that time, I had never read any of her work. I didn’t know she was a cartoonist until she mentioned it on the first day of class.
Her class was great and transformative! I used a lot of what I learned to get me through my Master’s thesis. I kept in touch with her over the summer of 2012. She returned to UW-Madison the following fall and eventually became faculty. When I decided to pursue a Ph.D., I enrolled in every class she taught. Her influence trickled into my Ph.D. work in curriculum and instruction. When the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery opened, the co-director hired Lynda to run a research space that operated at the intersection of science, education and art. She called it the Image Lab and hired me as a project assistant. I worked there until I graduated in 2017. We did a lot of amazing work together, both in Madison and around the country.
Lynda has also influenced me as a teacher. Anyone who has taken a class or workshop with her has experienced the distinctive energy, rigor and genuine curiosity that grounds all of her courses. Whenever I facilitate workshops or teach as a visiting scholar, as I recently did at the University of Toronto, where I taught “Making Comics for Research,” I emphasize the importance of timing, spontaneity, materials and sharing — all of which I learned from Lynda and our work together at the Image Lab.
Forgive the question about definitions: Hot Comb is a graphic novel, but you also describe them as short stories. Do you differentiate between the two terms? Are graphic novel stories just another type of short fiction?
I’m not too keen on defining terms like “graphic novel” or “short story.” I make comics — short, long, full of images, full of words. Certainly there is overlap among these forms, genres and experiences — for both authors and readers. In my current work, I don’t differentiate much between these terms, as my storytelling includes both narrative and image in multiple arrangements and juxtapositions.
So what short fiction authors — in the traditional sense — have influenced your work?
I like the work of Octavia Butler, Alice Munro, Dan Chaon, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Adrian Tomine, Vanessa Davis, Jillian Tamaki and Ivan Brunetti.
Of what other graphic novels or even comic books are you a fan? What's your opinion of "mainstream" comic books in the graphic medium?
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I’ll be honest: “Mainstream” comics aren’t really my thing. I make fun of my husband for reading them. I like reading comics that are about the everyday, the lived experiences of people who seldom have the privilege of telling stories or having their stories told in graphic form. While I appreciate and read a lot of Afrofuturistic-themed stories, I am trained as an ethnographer. I know how to study, draw and tell stories about the everyday. The beauty, complexity and pain of my comics is in the nuances of the everyday. There’s a need to look closely at what can too easily be missed. There’s a need to listen, with care, to what can too easily be misheard or ignored. My hope in making comics is to tell stories that others would never notice or perhaps disregard, and also to allow those who feel that they have been overlooked to be seen.
You grew up in Maryland but call Denver home now. What brought you to the Mile High City? Any favorite places in town?
About five years ago I began bouncing back and forth between Denver, where my husband relocated for a job, and Madison, Wisconsin, where I was finishing my Ph.D. We’re now settled here in Denver. I enjoy spending time at Kilgore Books and Comics, eating at places like The Plimouth and Beet Box, and looking for antiques at the Annex. My husband and I also spend a lot of time in City Park walking around with our newborn. We certainly appreciate the sun and the winter snow that melts in a matter of days and not in months. (Sorry, Wisconsin!)