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Feature Tue Apr 20 2010
Lucy Knisley published her first book in 2008 -- French Milk, an illustrated journal detailing a trip to Paris with her mother. Lucky for Chicago, the School of the Art Institute graduate's interests and inkings also lean local. She continues to chronicle her experiences in autobiographical, often food-centric comics, and is currently working on Relish, a graphic novel about growing up in a family of foodies.
Name: Lucy Knisley
Job: Cartoonist, Teacher
Education: Art Institute of Chicago (BFA), Center for Cartoon Studies (MFA)
Awards: ICPA award for Excellence in Illinois College Newspapers (for exceptional cartoon or comic strip), finalist in the Scripps Howard Foundation's Charles M. Schulz College Cartoonist Award
Location: Logan Square
Hometown: Originally from Manhattan, but my parents split up when I was 7. My mom moved about two hours north to a little town called Rhinebeck, which is where I spent most of my childhood.
Favorite place in Chicago: Wicker Park, five years ago. Maybe Fox and Obel.
You grew up reading comics?
Yeah, I did. I sort of got really into them when my parents split up. My dad is a writer and literary professor guy, and my mom is more of an artist and visual person. I think comics became this sort of melding of my mother and father's influence on me -- which was interesting, because they both hated comics, they thought that they were really stu- well, they didn't hate them, they bought them for me and let me read them and stuff. My mom thought Archie comics, which were my favorite, were really sexist and demeaning. My dad thought they weren't literary and scholarly enough, so I had to kind of read them and defend them and look at them critically, so I could convince my parents to buy them for me. So it was like Archie comics, and Calvin & Hobbes, and TinTin, and Astrix and Obelix. But yeah, I would read anything -- I was one of those kids who would pick up the New Yorker and read it if it was there. I babysat for a lot of New Yorker cartoonists that moved upstate.
Nice. When did you decide you wanted to make comics for a living?
I sort of toyed with the idea when I was a kid, but I always thought that I'd have to choose between being an artist and being a writer. I really wanted to do both...I ended up at this high school where I had a really, really awesome art teacher, who took me under his wing, and got me into art school and stuff like that. At that point, the decision was kind of made for me, that I would be an artist.
But when I got to art school...I started making comics as a way to communicate with these people I felt unable to breach that border with, and I started publishing them.That's when they were seen by a fellow student at the school, Hope Larson, who's a professional comic book artist now. She contacted me via e-mail and was kind of like hey, I really like your work. She introduced it to me as something you could make a living doing. That was, I think, the point where I really seriously considered it.
When did you start drawing comics about Chicago?
Like the first week I was here. I didn't know what else to do with myself, I had a bad roommate. She was a really loud Korean girl with lots of friends who were always over and speaking Korean. I already felt really isolated and alone at the school, and I was like oh, I'm here in a room where I don't speak the language. I moved my computer up into my loft bed and lived in this coffin-sized space for a whole year.
Do you think your comics changed a lot from being here?
I was really inspired by the city this whole time, but at first it was about being in a city and being isolated, surrounded by people and having this sort of inner life that is invisible to the giant crowd around you. I was fascinated with the huge buildings in the Loop, and how you can look outside at night and see all the lights, and be like "all of this stuff is going on that I'm never going to know about, because I live in my little loft bed."
Then I got my bicycle sophomore year -- it was like suddenly the whole city opened up. It's been layers and layers of discovering the city.
You talk about Chicago's food in your comics, and food in general. A lot of your comics are about food -- you have a new one coming out, Relish -- and French Milk is partly about food too. Where did you get the focus to write about food -- why does that make its way into your comics so much?
It's definitely my mom. She worked as a professional caterer almost my whole life and still sort of does that, when people can make her do it. That's sort of what Relish is about -- it's about my mom, and experiences growing up with this woman who was such a powerhouse in the food world. She worked at the first Dean & DeLuca in New York City, and she was a cheesemonger. I got inundated with this cheese love in the womb. It was always really present in my life.
What's nice about being in Chicago during the time I've been here is that I really think it underwent this great food renaissance. It went from this real steak and potatoes town, to suddenly all these amazing great restaurants and awesome chefs moving here.
My mother has a theory about this -- the time we were living in New York City, the 80's and 90's, New York was really having its food renaissance, and turning into this cultural bastion of art and food and music. Everybody lived in New York, and all the artists and sculptors and musicians worked in the food industry to supplement their art -- it brought all this really great culture to the restaurant industry.
Most of the food jobs in New York now go to culinary students, they're creative but only in a certain way. Everybody who's getting these jobs are either trained professionals or people who will do it for less than minimum wage, which isn't an artist or a musician.
It sounds like what you're saying is there's still some of that in Chicago still, with creative people working in the food industry?
I definitely do. You can support yourself more easily here as a dancer or a writer or an actor. Chicago is so spread out, and you can get anywhere on the El. You can live out by IKEA and still work into the city. There's such a great art scene here, such a great creative scene. It's also not as renowned yet for its culinary prowess.
Do you think that gives it a freedom, in some ways?
Yeah, definitely. Because it's not like all of the culinary students in the world are flocking to Chicago and stealing all the jobs.
Do you think that freedom extends to the comic book scene as well, or is it more competitive?
It's definitely a nice, small, intimate scene here in Chicago. I think that's changing -- there's comic artists moving here and coming to live. I think it's a good amount of competition right now, but growing.
Last question, not totally related to comics. Where do you like to eat here?
The thing that's really changed for me here is the hot dog situation. So when I got here I was like, Chicago hot dogs -- whatever. I remember the first time my friend took me to the Wiener's Circle and was like, get a char dog. It totally blew my mind. I love Chicago hot dogs. I think they're transcendental.