I wound up going to four different high schools, because when I was in middle school I drew a lot in class and my teachers decided that I had a learning disability – that I had Attention Deficit Disorder and was unable to learn. To this day drawing is a real compulsion for me, and it’s something I can do and process the world at the same time. I had this really mean teacher in fifth grade who used to teach by having us just take turns reading aloud from a textbook. It’s still so galling to me that this was her teaching methodology. She would wait for the exact moment when my attention would wander from my book over to my notebook and I would start to draw, and then she would say, "Lucy, you read the next line," and I would go, "I’m sorry, I don’t know where are right now." Every single time – and this would happen four or five times a day – she would take me out in the hallway to yell at me. This went on for an entire year.
I wound up going to a high school for kids with learning disabilities, which I didn’t actually have. I was just an artist and nobody had really known how to teach to me until then. There were kids there that really had a lot of trouble in school, and so the teachers were trying to put out fires left and right with these poor kids. And they were like, “you can read and you’re capable of learning and writing and you just like to draw. You just stay over there, you’re fine.” I totally fell through the cracks at this school, and then I started at a public school where I had come from this school with kids for learning disabilities, so they put me in special ed because they didn’t know what to do with me. I’ve always loved reading and I’ve always been able to write and I just didn’t understand what was happening to me. So I just started leaving school, and I would go down the street to a café and I would draw in my sketchbook.
My mom yanked me out of that school halfway through the year and she put me into this super, super preppy school that required I wear a uniform and do sports and stuff that I was also not very interested in. I was really frustrated with this school. They were like, you need to be part of the community. And from what I’ve come from, no one has ever required that of me. So I managed to get kicked out of there in half a semester.
So this was the situation I was in when I started making comics and writing about my life. A lot of my comics were very angry and very aggressively discussing the hypocritical aspects of education and the adults around me that didn’t really know what to make of me. I think that’s very fertile ground for a comic artist – this angry, aggressive period of your life.
A lot of my comics were very angry and very aggressively discussing the hypocritical aspects of education and the adults around me that didn’t really know what to make of me. I think that’s very fertile ground for a comic artist – this angry, aggressive period of your life.
I was doing the comics all outside of school. No adult would get to see this work. It was always really for me, which was nice, and I think why I still do it to this day. I’ve burned a lot of my high school comics, as a ritualistic cleansing. It’s very cathartic!
After that, I was at this art high school where finally there were educators that knew how to teach to artists and had a great art program that our teacher would take us every week into New York City to go to the galleries and show us working, living artists. Art wasn’t just this thing that people did in olden times. It was a real revelation for me, and that was the point where I was like, I’m going to do this!
The artists that I became really fascinated with at that point were studio artists. I remember one day we saw an Elizabeth Peyton retrospective and a John Currin retrospective, and they were both fine artists who did beautiful figurative work that was very appealing to me as a teenager because it was, like, sexy people. And they were also these art superstars. And I loved the idea that you could be a traditional painter and be a successful artist in modern times. It hadn’t occurred to me – even though I was reading Art Spiegelman, I was reading Lynda Barry, I was reading all these really great comics at the time as well – it just didn’t occur to me that, oh, these are also people that are living and making art and writing.
In the art school, I met this other artist who was similar to me, who always kept a sketchbook and always processed the world through drawings. We had very similar habits, and we became good friends and fell in love, and we would collaborate on sketchbooks and switch back and forth with these sketchbooks and trade in between classes. We started a comic that then the next person was expected to continue, and it was this really awesome, instinctive art-sharing that we did that pushed my art so much just because we influenced each other and were so excited about each other’s work and encouraged one another. Knowing another artist and collaborating with another artist at that period of my life was a major thing for me to understand myself as an artist and see myself as an artist, and see being an artist as a positive thing rather than having it reinforced so many years of my life that it was not what I was supposed to do in school, and not what I was supposed to be, and not how I was supposed to learn. To meet another artist and be like, oh, but I think you’re brilliant, and the work you’re doing is really exciting to me, and it makes my work better. It just was such a change for me.
Collaborating with another artist at that period of my life was a major thing for me to understand myself as an artist, and see being an artist as a positive thing rather than having it reinforced that it was not what I was supposed to do in school, and not what I was supposed to be, and not how I was supposed to learn.
I was making comics in high school, and then when I got to college I was super shy. I was in a new city and I went from this teeny tiny little art high school to this giant art school where everybody was an artist. And I had a lot of trouble connecting to people, so I started making these comics about my experiences, and I started publishing them in the school newspaper. It was an interesting way to connect with classmates and have people recognize experiences that they’ve gone through. That’s when it really clicked for me that I could do comics as a profession, as a career. It wasn’t until college that I started seeking out teachers that would allow me to make comics for credit.
I made little funny drawings and comics when I was younger. I teach comics workshops to various ages, and I find it really interesting because everyone starts out in kindergarten, telling stories with drawings. We read these illustrated children’s books to kids and – it’s cave paintings, it’s telling stories through pictures, it’s this really instinctive thing.
I teach young kids and then I teach 8-12 workshops and I find it really interesting that towards the older end of the 8-12 workshops, kids come in one day like, this is a rocketship, and then the snake spaceman comes out of the rocketship! And they’ve got these incredible ideas and they’re drawing them out and telling me stories. And then a switch flicks and the next day they come in like, I don’t know what to draw, and I can’t draw anything, what do you want me to draw, I don’t knooow. This self-consciousness grows, and I think that for a lot of comic artists, myself included, there was this lack of self-awareness that lent itself to extending this period of childhood where you instinctively draw and tell stories, and it’s not something that you feel self-conscious about.
Lucy Knisley grew up in New York, reading comics despite her artistic and literary parents' mild objections. To Lucy, comics have always combined these two inherited loves: the written word and the drawn image. After years working for her mother in a catering kitchen, waiting tables and manning a booth at farmer's markets, she decided to pursue the lucrative and glamorous life of a comic book artist. She attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago , followed by The Center for Cartoon Studies.
Her books include French Milk, An Age of License, Displacement, and Relish, which was featured as a New York Times best-seller, a Goodreads top book of the year, and an American Library Association award winner in the YA category. It has been translated into five languages.
Lucy continues to crank out the comics. Presently, she is at work on two graphic novels; Something New is the story of her romantic adventures and traversing the confusing path towards getting married. (To be released, Spring 2016). New Kid is the story of her high-school years, and the frustration that arises when one is constantly switching schools.
She lives and works in Chicago, where she cohabitates with her husband, John Horstman, and their fluffy, orange cat.