Leah Wishnia is an artist, cartoonist and editor who’s behind the comics anthology, Happiness. We were first introduced to Leah at C.A.K.E. and have been keeping tabs on her ever since. Leah was kind enough to answer the plethora of questions we had about her experiences running her own publishing endeavors.
You can get your very own Happiness HERE! For those interested in checking out Leah’s comics, we suggest starting with Sister We Must Persist.
You’ve just released, Happiness #3, a “biannual comic art anthology”, can you talk about how the project came about?
I’ve been putting together DIY comic anthology-type things since I was a kid, so it’s something that seemed not only inevitable but necessary for me to do. The question was really when, and that happened in September 2011, shortly after having discovered the internet (and with it tumblr) and suddenly learning about all the amazing different comics, cartoonists, and anthologies going on today that I was previously unaware of. It was like an all-at-once information orgasm and I just HAD to produce something that would share all of the happiness I had quickly accumulated. It was only after the successful launch of the first issue that I felt that Happiness was really going to be this thing that I put out twice a year.
How has Happiness changed or evolved since it’s conception?
I’m much less ‘OK’ with work that I feel may undermine or mock the pain experienced by oppressed groups of people. For example, a story that makes light of rape or a story that is “ironically racist” because the cartoonist feels the need to assert their position of power over the oppressed groups via satire, irony, indifference or extreme aggression isn’t fucking unique, interesting or funny. It’s lazy.
When I was putting together Happiness #1, I was still in this mindset that was conditioned to think such mockery was ‘OK’ and I was a baby if I reacted negatively to it. Then I realized that I was really not cool with it, but feared retaliation if I spoke up. Now such lazy humor infuriates me so much, I can’t hold my tongue any tighter. Because really who is to blame for these offensive comics if an audience doesn’t denounce it but applauds it? (Remember, offensive = punk rock and cool in comics.) Gotta at least QUESTION the work, right? Because really, do I want to support a male cartoonist who consistently does work about women getting brutally beaten/raped/murdered (even if displayed ‘as a joke’)? Do I want to support the publishers and distributors who support this kind of cartoonist? And who told the white kids that the swastika isn’t an oppressive symbol anymore and that blackface is funny again? Psh.
How do you view the current situation of comics anthologies? As a model for putting work out there?
There is a really amazing crop of art-object type comic anthologies out there right now. Mould Map, WEIRD, Nobrow, Dimensions, Kramer’s Ergot
, are just a few that come to mind. My personal models for Happiness
, however, were the cheap newsprint antho magazines from the 70s-90s, like Action Girl, Short Order, Raw, Zap,
, which I grew up reading.
As much as I’m into the art-object as comic anthology thing, I’m also really into the idea of getting Happiness
into as many hands as possible, which means doing larger runs at a cheaper price.
Aside from featuring comics, the current issues of Happiness also includes abstract contemporary works and comics criticism. In a way the anthology is it’s own ecology of independent effort or a snapshot of the collaborative aspect of comics creation that feels really prevalent right now. Do you see Happiness as an extension of this philosophy or independent publishing zeitgeist?
Sure it is! I’m all for collaborating with other artists and cartoonists to showcase our collective hard work and efforts to a willing and excited audience. One of my goals has been to expose traditional comic-lovers to the world of more abstract and conceptual art, and to expose traditional fine artists to the crazy world of comics. It especially excites me when someone who typically reads only mainstream comic books gives me positive feedback on Happiness, or when someone out of touch with the contemporary underground comix scene tells me how excited they were to stumble upon it. That shit makes my day!
What is Collective Stench?
Collective Stench is the comic gang that I’m a part of. We all went to RISD together and joined forces as some of the only weirdo comics-makers in our class. We did our first indie con (MoCCA) together in March 2009. We’ve been doing tons of other indie comics & art events together since.
One of the things I really appreciated about Happiness was your content guidelines for submissions. How often do you get art submissions that you have to turn down?
I’ve only turned down 2 submissions so far, and one was because it was submitted too late. I try to make an effort to invite only people who I trust will give me quality work, but I do make really clear submission guidelines to avoid any conflict.
I basically added the “your comic should be sorta age appropriate” thing with the last submission guidelines because I’d rather not have to reject a piece based on moral grounds. I also try not to be too dictatorial about it. This doesn’t have to be approved by the comics code or anything, I just don’t want to publish any comics that make me or any other readers feel threatened (as a woman, trans, queer, person of color, etc).
You play the part of curator, artist, comics critic and designer. How do you see these different roles interacting with one another?
They all certainly inform the other. If I wasn’t so gosh darn critical, would my work be any good? Or the work that I curate for publication? If I wasn’t constantly seeking inspirational material and knowledge to write stories for, to draw images from, I think I’d crumble and die. Everything always works together.
Switching topics! Your comics tend to feature some pretty intense lady leads. Can you tell us what these ladies are doing?
Can you give a specific example? I feel like my leading ladies fluctuate between being strong/bold/sexy and weak/sad/desperate, which I guess is a reflection of how I can see myself and others. My comics often feature ladies rather than men because they are just damn underrepresented as key, protagonist characters in comics! (rather than just as the desirable object-to-be-won by the protagonist, or whatever).
Most of your characters emanate femininity and sex as a site of anxiety – to the point of being comical dark caricatures. Where do your characters come from? And what compels you to draw these kinds of stories?
There’s so much garbage romance comics and other mainstream-oriented dreck out there that has featured some poor girl who can’t survive without a man to hold her up – I just can’t stop mocking the stereotype! Really I may have even gone overboard with the mocking in that people think I’m really being serious, but so god help me.
Has gender played a role in how your work is received?
Honestly I’m not really sure what most people think of my work. At least not in any in-depth, evaluative kinda way. I get positive feedback from my friends who know me well and from strangers on the internet, but the most specific feedback I’ve received recently is that my work has a ‘raw, intense energy’ to it, which I don’t think is a comment that relates to my gender.
You are also involved in the New York DIY poster scene, can you speak to that?
Am I? I suppose I am, but not as much as I’d like to be. If you’re referring to the (single) show flyer I did for a local hardcore punk gig back in September (which depicts some lady prisoners with chain leashes walking the conservative politicians who imprisoned them), I can speak to saying that the local NYC punks scene really thrills me, and I’m happy to be somewhat involved. I got really positive feedback from friends and strangers at that show, and especially from the members of the bands playing (half female-fronted bands, Hysterics, In School, and Nuclear Spring and The Guts), which definitely made me feel alright.
Unfortunately I don’t get invited to do gig flyers too often, as much as I’d like to and have offered to do so for several show-bookers in the punk scene but alas, most of the bands have their own talented artists in the group doing flyers for themselves instead. So clearly the resolution here is for me to front a punk band AND THEN get to do the flyers for them.
What are you working on right now, now that Happiness #3 is out? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I’ve spent the last month and a half expanding my knowledge of sculpture (that is, when I’m not at my 9-5 job), experimenting with some mold-making, metalsmithing and ceramics, all of which I hope to get much better at in the coming months. Also I’m just trying to stay organized: keeping up with Happiness & Jeans orders, doing an occasional comic page for an anthology or a gallery show, and getting into some other publishing projects. Plus, staying on top of the news and such is always good for informing my every-day outlook.