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Sean Edward Watkins, PhD

Section I: Comics in the Age of Todd McFarlane

I grew up a 45 minute drive from the closest mall. The journey involved speeding up hills and around curves on a narrow two-lane highway that bordered dairy farmland. The return drive was often perilous due to tall snow drifts causing instant whiteouts and the unanimously despised deer population. My father, for complicated reasons, didn’t like to leave our small town too often. He had hitchhiked all over the country, but agoraphobia had finally caught up with him in his 30s. Occasionally, we could convince him to take us if we promised to leave him alone in the record store for a few hours.

In the 1990s, even northern NY couldn’t avoid the comic book boom. My town of around 3,500 people eventually had its own comic shop called Pegasus Two - a small dimly lit shop with some of the most stereotypical collectors imaginable. I remember going in and wanting anyone to validate my existence and to encourage my comic book collecting, but that was not their deal. This was the time of elitism in comic shops. During this period, you could still buy comics at drug and grocery stores. I would occasionally pick up mystery grab bags from our video rental store that was a few blocks from our apartment. Comics were ubiquitous, and yet still somehow not very cool. 

On a rare trip to the mall with my parents, my dad headed straight to his record shop and my sister and I were allowed to just drift aimlessly until he was done. Of course, I found a pop culture store that also sold comics and on the back wall behind the register was a mint copy of Spawn #1. As a working class kid, I didn’t have a ton of money to spend, but gosh did that beautiful comic call to me. I must have stared for 30 minutes until my mom found me. She tried to convince me to treat myself, but that comic book was 17 dollars! I had the money on me, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was SO expensive.

A few months later, I was sitting in my room admiring my Vicki Vale Batman 1989 poster when my father barged in. Dad was a bit of a wildcard, so you never really knew what he was up to or capable of. He was a passionate man who loved to be celebrated, but you just really didn’t want to catch him in a bad mood. And yet, he was the one who often bought me comics when I was young. Dad like to remind me that his mom threw out his well-loved copy of Fantastic Four #1. On this day, he thrust a wooden picture frame into my hands and promptly left. I held a beautifully handcrafted frame juxtaposed with the image of Spawn’s glowing green eyes and red cape - the price tag still on the plastic sleeve. 

Section II: Athenaeum Comic Art

For a long time, whenever I would receive a piece of comic art from a cartoonist, I would carefully cut out their handwritten address and put it in an old folder. It was an important ritual - almost as important as actually looking at the page. I don’t really know why I kept those addresses - maybe it was because I felt some sort of additional connection with the artist or because it felt like an original unto itself, a kind of secret artifact shared between the artist and me. Regardless of the reason, I secretly stored them away - one after another - and that folder kept getting bigger and bigger. It felt a little embarrassing, but collecting often feels embarrassing.

A year plus into the pandemic, my original art collecting had kicked into high gear again. The stress of being stuck in my home with my two kids, spouse, and mom while trying to work remotely, provide support for our autistic daughter, and just not die caused me to spend a lot of money. In my world, stress equals spending. I needed to find a creative outlet. I tried to focus on building picture frames - a failed attempt to slow down my original art purchasing. Woodworking was satisfying, but it was also fairly isolating. The first year of not seeing anyone outside of my family was pretty great and then something shifted. 

For years, I had been building relationships with different cartoonists. I got into the habit of writing back and forth with them, sometimes for years. When I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I started to connect more with a local cartoonist, Casey Nowak. Their book Girltown completely blew me away. One day, they posted that they were looking to sell their originals via Twitter. I quickly built up the courage to ask them if I could help, totally expecting Casey to say absolutely not. Within the first 3 months of posting Casey’s art, we had sold thousands of dollars of pages. New artists started to approach me to ask if I could represent them and their art. 

In August of 2021, my wife’s extended family had planned on meeting for a reunion in Stowe, Vermont. I had scattered my father’s ashes there about five years before, so it was a return to my family as well. It just so happened that Tillie Walden and her cartoonist partner Emma Hunsinger lived a few hours south. Tillie and I had written back and forth for years at that point. I had purchased the cover to one of her first comics, entitled “I Love This Part” and she was such a wonderful soul, that I found myself writing to her semi-regularly. Tillie always wrote back - telling me about her journeys all over the world and her several changes in professions. Can you imagine if Tillie had quit cartooning to become an EMT? 

Plans were made and there was some talk of me representing both Tillie and Emma. I didn’t really believe it though - these folks were big deal cartoonists and I was just a Twitter account. I remember being nervous in our apartment in the Von Trapp Lodge the night before we drove down to King Arthur’s Baking Company. I thought I would be more brave, and less crazy looking, if I brought my entire family for the visit. Deborah, Athena, Atticus, and I fastened on our masks as we walked into the bakery. We had a wonderful time, but we didn’t talk about original art at all. I felt ok about it - it was something that we could figure out later. But, as we were walking back to our cars, Tillie told me to wait. She ran to her trunk and pulled out a llarge Dick Blick box of originals. In that moment, I became a real original art representative. And then I needed to figure out how to get that priceless box back to Michigan in one piece. 

Athenaeum Comic Art was a space I created because I felt the need to give back to the comics community. Over the past year and a half, we have grown from being just a Twitter account to having over 15 artists - with folks including Tillie Walden, Noah Van Sciver, and Nate Powell. My goal from the very beginning was to put money directly into the pockets of artists that I loved and we have accomplished that. We have also created microgrants to support up-and-coming cartoonists, run charity original art campaigns, and traveled all over the country to network with collectors and artists. This year, I am working with the Ann Arbor Public Library to hold the first Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival: Small and Indie Press (wait till you hear about the headliners!). We are also partnering with Silver Sprocket to do a gallery of Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s original art for her book opening in San Francisco in February. There is an energy in the air around small press and indie comic art - I encourage you to join us! 

Section III: An Interview with Tillie Walden and Emma Hunsinger

When I recently joined CFA-APA and heard that the topic for the upcoming mailing was comic and fantasy artists who are family members of comic and fantasy artists, I got a little stuck. It took me a minute to remember that I represent two fantastic cartoonists that also happen to be married. Tillie Walden is an Eisner Award winning cartoonist who has written graphic novels such as Spinning (2017), On a Sunbeam (2018), and most recently Clementine: Book One (2022) which is part of the Walking Dead Universe. Emma Hunsinger is a talented cartoonist who gained critical acclaim with her outstanding piece in The New Yorker entitled, “How to Draw a Horse” in 2019. She is currently working a graphic novel for Greenwillow Books (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

What follows is an e-mail interview with Tillie Walden and Emma Hunsinger:

  • If you are able to, could you both tell us a little bit about the projects you have most recently been working on? For someone that is new to your work, what books/comics would you recommend as a good starting point? 

T: I’m currently working on two series - one is a trilogy, Clementine, set in the Walking Dead universe, and the other is Junior High (a duology) which is written by Tegan and Sara Quin and drawn by me! So I’m very busy. For someone new to my work, you can really start anywhere! 

E: I’m working on a graphic novel for Greenwillow (part of HarperCollins). I haven’t made much else in the last two years because I’ve been working on it for so long! It will be out in summer 2024 so it will be a while before anyone sees that. I guess the best piece to get to know my work with is a comic I did for the New Yorker called “How To Draw A Horse.”

  • Why do you both make comics? What inspires you about the medium? What do you find to be challenging about comics? 

T: I love the act of drawing and writing together, comics are really interesting because they never really are easy to make, so I constantly feel challenged. It’s just so much work to do this! I’m really inspired by people who use the medium to its fullest extent - using layouts, dialogue, narration, pacing, all of it, to really express something. 

E: I feel like I make comics ‘cause I’m kind of good at drawing and kind of good at writing but very good at putting writing and drawing together. That’s one of the things I really love about the medium is that your work is more than the sum of its parts. I love fantasizing about all the different ways to use this medium and play with people’s expectations of “text and image.” It feels like there is a lot of room to play around in this medium which is one of the things that makes it fun. The thing that is challenging about it which T said and I’m sure any cartoonist would say is that it can take soooo long. Which not only requires a special kind of artistic endurance, but also a lot of patience with yourself and with your work. 

  • During the past few years, the world has been especially struggling with events like the pandemic, violence against people of color, climate change, and other catastrophes. For some artists, it has been a time of great inspiration while others have struggled themselves to find the motivation to put pen to paper. How have you both responded to these difficult times? Has it changed your relationship with your art? 

T: It’s been hard, but luckily making comics has been the consistency that I’ve needed. Because there is always a comic to work on, the work is never done, despite what is going on around us, I feel drawn to continue my work. It’s a tough question, though! I don’t know the exact nature of how my art coincides with the current world turmoil. One day at a time, I guess. 

E: When we first locked down I got semi-laid off so I just stayed home and drew and exercised and as a result I was in amazing shape AND I got so much better at drawing. Those first two months, I didn’t realize it but I ended up developing a practice of just sitting down and doodling that ultimately led me to get exponentially better at drawing. In terms of stories and the state of the world, I’m grateful to work in a medium that allows a lot of time for deep thought. It’s totally true we have to wisely regulate how much bad news we ingest everyday, it’s hard to make a full story when your head is buzzing with sadness and anger. However, it’s also important not only to not look away, but to think hard about what we’re witnessing. Drawing and thinking go hand in hand. idk ……maybe pass on this question for me lol

  • I talk a lot to cartoonists about the business of making comics. Most folks are working full time or part-time jobs to be able to afford to create comics and survive. How do you all see the economics of being a cartoonist? Do you have any thoughts and/or tips about how folks can make it in the business? 

T: My biggest piece of advice, and how I’ve made it work, is to just make a ton of work. Never stop putting something new out there. Eventually, one of your books might do ok. But there’s a lot of barriers to making money in this field, and the money you can make is often not enough. 

E: pass! 

  • Often, cartoonists put a lot of themselves into their work. Some of them quite literally place themselves at the center of their stories. How has your identity(ies) affected the way that you create art? 

T: I’m always drawing myself, and I’m always drawing my life, even when the book isn’t about me. Who I am is inextricably linked to every line I’ve ever drawn. And I guess being gay has certainly shown up quite a bit, haha. 

E: I definitely find it really hard to not project my identities/life experiences onto every character I write. I feel like all of my characters could be read as some kind of queer mostly because I’ve never been straight and can’t fully understand the straight experience. 

  • One of my favorite parts of the cartooning world is the small community vibe, but this can also be a challenge as well. What does your comics community look like? How do you see this supporting your work? And is there anything that you would change or improve about the comics landscape?

T: Our comics community very much revolves around the Center for Cartoon Studies, where we both went and now teach. So we’re always surrounded by people who are excited about comics, and who are learning more about them. It keeps us fresh, I think. 

E: Same as Tillie; CCS is a big part of my comics community experience. I feel like I haven’t spent that much time in the wider comics community because I really got my comics footing right as the pandemic broke out and I couldn’t go to cons and meet people. I don’t feel like I’m in a position to pass judgment on the larger community 1. Because I haven’t been to a con since 2019 and 2. Because I’m not online and don’t really know what’s going on…but I can say I feel really called to be a positive member of the community which means being nice, reading other cartoonists work, being generous, and trying to lift up as many people as you can. 

  • This interview is going to be used for an article that is about comic families. You both are well-respected and accomplished artists. How do you all navigate being in a family of cartoonists? How has your partnership affected your art? 

T: It’s easy for us. I love Emma’s work, I feel like I’m her number one fan. And it’s nice having someone you can talk to in depth about the particular agony of having to draw a panel with a wide shot and tiny characters in it. 

E: It’s really amazing being attached to someone who understands the work you do. I have learned so much from Tillie and she has helped me out of so many ruts as I’ve worked on my book. I think something important in our relationship is that we are NOT competing. We are reeeeeally different kinds of cartoonists so it sometimes feels like we’re in two different fields. We both love each other's work and celebrate each other's accomplishments. When good things happen to Tillie it feels like they are happening to me and vice versa. And I’ve definitely gotten WAAAY better at drawing since I’ve been with Tillie, she’s an incredible artist and amazing teacher and I’m really grateful I get to learn from her. 

  • Tell us a little bit about your process. How have the ways in which you make comics changed over the years? Some folks that I work with are fairly precious about what they create and have a hard time letting go of their work. What do you think about a piece after it is complete? Do you find it hard to finish a drawing/painting/etc? Or are you able to jump from project to project. 

T: Sean this is a LOT of questions. I will hone in… my process is to draw the book first to discover what it’s about, and then edit the living daylights out of it. Draw it again, edit it again, etc. And eventually I make a book that’s pretty good, then I draw it traditionally! I’m also very keen on hand lettering, too. 

E: The biggest change for me over the last few years has been working on shorter stuff to working on one loooong project. My book right now is 300 pages, and I wasn’t really prepared for how when a story is long, it’s more complex and it takes a lot of brainpower to keep the story together. It changed my process a lot to work on something longer; before I would work pretty quickly and draw pretty quickly. I like having deadlines and obligations, it makes finishing things a lot easier, I love the feeling of working hard and being done and that is enough to get me to finish things. I wish I could jump from project to project but I really can’t! I think the way I work is all of my creative thoughts and energy goes into whatever project I’m working on. I usually don’t like whatever I’ve finished and often cannot even bear to look at it, but I think that is more because by the time something comes out, I’ve already improved at drawing a lot. 

  • Is there anything else that you think would be important for folks to know about you?  Where can we find both of your work? What are the best ways to support your artistic endeavors? 

T: Nothing helps an author more than buying their books, or asking your local bookseller to stock our titles. If you’re looking for more great comics, check out the work of Robyn Brooke-Smith and Jarad Greene! 

E: Agreed! 

Cover from I Love this Part by Tillie Walden (Avery Hill Publishing 2015)


Page from Clementine Book One (Image Comics 2022) by Tillie Walden

Page from Are You Listening? (First Second Books 2022)

Pages from “How to Draw a Horse” (The New Yorker 2019)

Page from “She Would Feel the Same” (ShortBox 2020)

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