The discomfort of memoir: a conversation with cartoonist

German cartoonist Ulli Lust's new comic from Fantagraphics, How I Tried to Be a Good Person, is a memoir about a relationship. But this is anything but a love story. After the reader grows to care for a younger Lust as she establishes a free-range open relationship, they can't help but watch uncomfortably watch as Ulli ignores all the red flags and marries a Nigerian man who slowly draws her into a cycle of horrible abuse. Person isn't afraid to ask complicated questions about race and power and love and identity. It's a prickly book, but a beautiful one.

I met up with Lust last month as she was preparing for the Hot Off the Press street fair at Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery. Person is the second of Lust's books that Fantagraphics has translated and published in America, and the love between publisher and author is palpable. What follows is an edited transcription of our conversation.

I love the new book.

Great to hear.

I first would like to ask a very dumb question that I've always wanted to ask a cartoonist with a book like this, a black-and-white comic that's accented only by one single color through the book. May I ask how you chose the color for the single color?

I always ask, 'what is the vibe of this story?' It's not a very big choice. You don't have so many options for a second color. It has to be a not-too-intense color. It has to be a bit light. And sp then, what do I have? I have and warm and cold, like blue or pink.

For the first book I wanted something more military, adventurous. That's why I went with green. For the new book I needed something warm, tender. Pink is also very fleshy. So it was the perfect match for a love story.

You write about yourself in a way that feels very honest. At this point, do you think twice about sharing details of your life or is it something that just happens?

The question is not, 'Do I share details of my life?' The question is, 'Are these details interesting? What do they add to the story?'

My life is like the source. I'm not really interested in myself. It's just I'm a woman living in this time. Because it's my experiences, I have access to the inner thoughts, and reflections of the person in this story, and I use them.

I am just the model. And if I tell about myself I don't need to care about personal rights. I can tell everything, as long as I am okay with it. My interest as an artist is to be honest and intense.

There's a lot of literature which follows this model. And my main goal is not to look good, but to be a good author. And these are two very different targets.

In America and in Canada, there's a tradition of autobiographical cartoonists like Joe Matt and Seth, and Julie Doucet.

Yeah, big inspirations.

You write about a lot of the same subjects as them, but it feels there was something in those books to me that felt like there was a little bit of a moral edge to their work, an 'oh, I'm being so bad,' sort of transgressive vibe to their work that I think is missing from your work.

I'm happy to hear that!

Do you agree with that assessment? Not to call anybody out by name, but do you think there's a performative aspect to memoir comics in recent history?

I really like those Canadian guys. They are a big inspiration. I really like how Joe Matt talks about himself.

But there was a confessional vibe to earlier comics that doesn't show up in your books. Your work doesn't feel confessional to me, in that way.

I am not interested in the confession aspect. No, no.

I'm inspired by these type of autobiographic comics, but in the end, I'm much more inspired by literature. Like the Beat poets. They are very old but their attitude is great, you know? All these artists from the '60s, '70s were very open about their mindset. That's what I find inspiring.

That's why my books are big, also, because I'm more inspired from the novels more, than from the comics actually.

You also think a lot about rhythm, right?

Yes, rhythm and comics are bound together.

You're doing something different in this book than your earlier work, where you have these beautiful, usually silent splash pages that pause the story.

One interesting aspect for me with new stories is always to think about, 'How can I bring this work to life? How can I materialize it?' Maybe the changes are small between the first and the second book, but they are very targeted. I think about which type of coloring and layout fits the best to this story. Every author or cartoonist or filmmaker is thinking about how to do that.

But I really enjoyed it, that aspect, in this book.</p>

You've always been a very good artist, but it feels like you were able to do a little more illustration, does that distinction make sense at all?

I get better with the drawings all the time. But I don't do illustration anymore, because it sucks.

Why does it suck?

It sucks to do jobs drawing images which other people would love to draw themselves. Then they tell you what to do, and then they are...

[Here, Lust makes a face that's exasperated and more than a little annoyed.]

Yeah, I just want to draw whatever I like.

Some artists enjoy very much to just develop a beautiful image, but I am not interested in the aesthetics that much.


I am, of course, because it's part of the language. But not only to make a beautiful picture, you know?

But the splash page in this book with the giant penis—I thought that was very beautiful. It's a beautiful illustration.

That's because it has a big energy for the story. You have to get this energy, so you need the beauty, of course. The beauty is in service of the story.


Sometimes I do some short projects where I can experiment. Like at the moment, I'm doing a project about the Berlin Mauerpark. It is a park in Berlin where there was the Wall, and now you have a lot of street musicians, and parties, and colorful people. And the project is to blend in the past with the present. And the pictures are quite interesting.

It seems like that would be very good for comics, too.

Yeah. At the moment it's a serial. You can observe it at Instagram. It's called "Ghosts on Mauerpark," and it's just a fun project to do something short on the weekends when it's too tight for to make a comic. You know, comics take a lot of time, and also concentration. It's difficult always, with the comics.

Something I wanted to ask about, specifically in the art that has always interested me about black and white comics, is the illustration of different races. It seems difficult to depict multiple races in black and white comics.

Yeah, it's very difficult. It's very difficult to draw black people in black and white because any line you put in the face, it makes an expression. And you need to add color, you have to make the face dark, but it suddenly creates a sinister atmosphere. It's just a visual problem with light and dark.

The way you dealt with that I thought was very good. Kim's face was completely white at certain points when you needed to see the expressions and things like that, but it didn't feel artificial.

I'm happy that you say that, because it was a big struggle. I realized later that if I would have put only a gray tone, that would have made it more easier.

Do you think? Because I've seen that before, and that feels not quite right. You know, and I've also seen very tight hatching and that just comes across as a little visually static. The way you handled it was very good, but depicting nuances of race in black and white comics has always been difficult and I think it makes covering racial nuance difficult, I think, for a lot of artists in the form.

Very, very, very, very difficult. Yes. I was afraid of the racist aspects, that there would be something wrong or that people would be upset. But people understand that this figure is not speaking for all black people in the world, but for himself as an individual. So it worked out well. I was a bit afraid because it's tricky.

I think having that space helped. If it were a 12 page story it would be very different, but you established the character.

Yeah, and I was in love with him, so I hope that this comes through too. Some readers said 'oh, I hated this guy from the beginning.' But I didn't.

Was it difficult or enjoyable to get into the headspace of a very passionate young woman in that way?

It's just nice to relive intense times. I didn't like to draw the violence part. I'm not good with beating and I'm not good with fighting, drawing fighting, you know?

The dynamic action things?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You have to like it. And I don't. So this cost me a lot of energy.

Does the translation process take a lot of time or a lot of work?

Actually the English translation is the only one which I can control. Because the other translations — I don't speak Spanish or Finnish, or whatever. But the English one I can read and I found a lot of mistakes, because German is also a very complex language, and some words change their meaning when they are put on another spot or something. It's tricky to get the right meaning. So I had to send some corrections.

The most exciting thing for me is to be published in America.

Oh yeah?

It's just fantastic, because iI feel like a, you know, like a newcomer from somewhere in the outback. And they think I'm my work is good enough? That's just cool. That's really cool.

Yesterday, when Eric Reynolds was telling me, how much he likes my book, I'm just like, 'Oh my god. This guy knows so much about comics!'

It's funny because they started out as the young punk radicals, and now it feels like they're the mainstream.

I mean, they do so many good comics.