I was first introduced to Leah Hayes‘ work with the arrival of her 2005 Fantagraphics debut, Holy Moly, a loosely connected collection of sketches done during a dull college class. Unsettling, funny and compelling all at once, these were no mere doodles, but instead suggested the arrival of an artist with a unique style and vision that could produce a formidable body of work if given the chance.
Though not quite comics, her new book, Funeral of the Heart, a collection of illustrated short stories, further builds upon the promise of that first book. Add in the fact that she also is in the midst of constructing a viable music career under the band name Scary Mansion (now out on Zum Records) and you’ve got a resume that gets more impressive by the minute.
I talked to Hayes, 27, over the phone from her home in Brooklyn about her new book recently. Here’s what she had to say:
Q: To start off with, give me a little bit of your background. Where are you from and how did you get interested in art?
A: I’m from the Boston area originally and I’ve been drawing my whole life. I’ve been interested in art since before I can remember. Both of my parents draw. Not professionally, but they’re amazing artists. I’ve been drawing since I think I could walk. I always felt like I wanted to be an illustrator. I used to read a lot of my dad’s old Society of Illustrator volumes. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those.
Q: I don’t think so.
A: They’re hardcover volumes of illustration annuals. As a kid I used to read those all the time so I became really interested in becoming an illustrator. I’ve been wanting to do that ever since. I went to art school for that.
Q: What school did you go to?
A: I went to Parsons.
Q: Are you an illustrator by profession then?
A: Yes, I am. At this point. Freelance, but I also teach at Parsons now.
Q: Now you are also pursuing a music career at the same time you’re doing comics and illustration. I imagine juggling all those careers can be difficult. Does one tend to take precedence over the others?
A: Not so much. At this point they’re both happening simultaneiously. There’s times where – usually when I’m doing a bunch of illustration work – my music dies down a little bit and vice versa, when I’m doing a lot of music stuff and not working as much on illustration. Right now I have help on both ends. I have a little bit of help doing promotional things illustration-wise with Fantagraphcs and I also have a label now for my music so I can handle doing them at the same time. But I’m pretty much always doing illustration and I’m always playing shows. It gets hectic but it’s possible.
Q: How did you get interested in comics?
A: Like I said, I’ve always been interested in illustration ever since I was a kid. More so than fine art. I think what interested me about illustration is it’s art that tells a story. I think my interest in editorial illustration as a kid grew into an interest in comics because that’s very basic storytelling.
I became interested in comics in early high school. The thing that’s funny is I don’t still buy a lot of comics. When I got into college I started doing a lot more illustration work and design. I certainly wasn’t writing comics and I wasn’t really buying comics anymore, but my interest in comics and illustration was still there. A lot of people ask me who my favorite comic artists are and I don’t really have a gigantic list at this point. I don’t even think of myself as a comic artist right now. Although I am, sort of, getting used to that title because I’m hainging out with a lot of people who are comic artists.
Q: How did you get hooked up with Fantagraphics?
A: I just sent them something. I drew this book when I was still in my senior year of college. I drew this little book of doodles during class and the month after I graduated I sent it away to them. And they called me six months later and said they wanted to publish it.
Q: And that was Holy Moly?
A: Yeah. I just sent them the whole finished thing basically.
Q: How did Fantagraphics get on your radar?
A: I do know about comics and comic companies. They were a company I had known was really great. I love Robert Crumb and I had read a ton of stuff on Fantagraphics at that point. When I went to send it out I didn’t think anyone would pick it up so I was thinking who’s the biggest company I can think of. Because I didn’t think anything would come of it.
Q: It’s interesting, since you say you were primarily interested in illustration and didn’t think of yourself as a comic artist, that you would send it to a comics publisher like that.
A: That’s true, but also around that time and especially at Parsons, there was a lot of outsider art narrative drawing going on, not just in school around me but with illustration in the world at that time. I think now comics and illustration have become huge. It’s had a real comeback in terms of things being used in campaigns and the New Yorker is constantly featuring comic book artists. It’s much more in the media now. But it was just beginning when I was graduating. I was starting to pay attention to comics as a field. I thought my book would be in that category. I wasn’t even really sure why I was sending it. I could have sent it to The New York Times or something. But it just felt like more of a comic thing.
Q: I want to talk more about Holy Moly but first I want to ask you what are some of your artistic influences?
A: I grew up reading lots of dark things. I definitely was influenced by Charles Addams and Edward Gorey and those sorts of things. I didn’t have much of an attention span for sequential art that was panels with just regular panels and text. I was more attracted to things that were illustrations but also had a story but was less linear. Like Edward Gorey sometimes.
I was also reading a lot of weird indie underground stuff in high school. Now some of my favorite comic artists and influences are people I know, friends of mine. My friend Paul Hornschemeier – I don’t know if you’ve heard of him – but he’s a great influence on me. I’m totally crazy about Gary Taxali’s work. He is not a comics person but he’s an illustrator. He does illustration but uses text and font and typefaces a lot, which I love. I like weirder things. I love Gary Baseman, his darker stuff. I’m trying to look through my collection here. I was super influenced by Dr. Seuss when I was little. I love a lot of Robert Crumb. Chris Ware is a big influence on me, storytelling wise.
Q: So Holy Moly, was this just a sketchbook or did you set out with a theme in mind?
A: It didn’t have any direction at all. It was a collection of doodles I had literally drawn during class. I had this teacher who was very quiet interesting but there was a lot of time where I was spacing out during class. It was a fairly boring class. It was senior year and it was a portfolio development class. It was stuff I felt I already knew and had a bad attitude about the class.
So I started drawing this book. And it just started out as some doodles but then it had reoccurring characters and I liked the idea of having a compositional notebook full of all these weird things that didn’t have any connection to a story. Then I had so many of them I thought a mound of them it would make more sense to be a book. I can’t really explain it. It was train of thought. It was a weird time in my life. Lots of really weird things eneded up going in there. Friends I knew ended up going in there.
Q: What was the reaction when it came out? Did people seem to notice it?
A: It’s funny, I didn’t believe it would come out at all. I didn’t think it was something that people would understand or want to read ever. So a) it was weird that it was published and b) the reaction was not what I expected. A lot of people hated it and a lot of people thought it was the best thing they’d ever read. No one felt “whatever” about it. People were really weirded out by it in good and bad ways.
Someone wrote a comment once where they said it was their favorite book in their bathroom. I was proud of that. That’s where it belongs. It’s not something that … you have to take it for what it is. I don’t think anyone takes much out of it. I think they just look at it and say wow, weird.
I did get some really strange, bizarre jobs from it, which is really funny because it’s out everywhere but not a lot of people bought it. So I was surprised, but I got a ton of work from it in really weird ways. The weirdest job being someone in Canada bought it and showed it to Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies. And then he hired me to draw his album cover that year. That was bizarre, but that’s extreme.
Q: You have a unique and striking art style in both Holy Moly and Funeral of the Heart. How conscious are you of it?
A: I grew up drawing really realistically. I’m actually drawing a comic book for work right now for another project where I have to draw realistically and it’s been interesting. I drew very realistically and did a lot of figure drawing in college. I do remember there was a point in college where a friend of mine said “You know, you don’t have to draw an arm like that. You don’t have to draw that hand. We know you’re a good artist. You don’t have to actually draw it. You can explore making things look contorted.”
For whatever reason I just never felt like I was allowed to do that and when my friend said that to me I was like “Oh, that’s amazing.” I started fooling around with distorting faces and things I drew these really weird people that became my thing. I had a turnaround where I went “Ah, I don’t have to draw people exactly how they are in life.”
Q: You definitely draw the figures in a rather unique way. You have them always in profile with their mouths disturbingly open, which I like, but it’s a striking choice in terms of conveying a scene. I was wondering if there was something specifically you were going for.
A: For Funeral of the Heart I was trying to have a style that I had started to develop in the first book but I was trying to apply it to these actual stories. I didn’t want to do likenesses. I was still wanting to maintain this eerie structure for all of them. I think I’m attracted to people’s faces who look very desperate or ugly. These are two things I notice all the time in people’s faces. I wanted to have all the characters be really expressive but in this similar scary looking way. I’m not sure about where that came from but as soon as I started drawing certain aspects of the face like that in Holy Moly, the teeth looking the way the do, it felt really great. I wished people’s teeth looked like that. It sort of morphed a little when I started drawing Funeral of the Heart. There was a point where I stopped drawing eyes. I can make the eyes look more sadder and desperate. This is really great. That was my goal, to make these people look as scary and desperate and ugly as possible.
Q: Let’s talk about Funeral of the Heart. Why scratchboard?
A: Oh god. I didn’t really mean to do scratchboard in the beginning. I had a contract with Fantagraphics. I did Holy Moly and then over the next year they said “We’d like to do another book with you.” I think they were expecting me to come up with a bigger concept book this time and a longer book, but I didn’t really have any ideas. I don’t remember who introduced me to it but I had just for fun started doing scratchboard at the time. I was using it with an exacto knife and fooling around with it.
Fantagraphics coincidentally called me again and asked “What’s the concept for your next book?” and I was like “Oh, I”m doing this great scratchboard book, don’t worry!” I had not started it yet but I wanted them to think that I had. But of course I didn’t know what I was doing and scratchboard is really tedious and takes forever and it’s also not great for you to breathe in all the dust from it.
Q: How long did it take to put the book together then?
A: Two years, almost three.
Q: What was the intention with Funeral? Why the short story style as opposed to doing straight prose or straight comics?
A: Again, when I found myself in a position with Fantagraphics where I was being asked to do a longer book that would be my sophmore attempt, I had an opportunity to make whatever I want and I have money to do it and people who want to see it and that’s really new and great. When I faced that I still had no interest in doing sequential art at all. I assumed that I would at that point. I thought I would be ready to draw a comic with panels but even the thought of that bored me and I just wasn’t interested.
Q: Why not?
A: I don’t know. I definitely don’t. It’s not how I express what I’m feeling. With music, songwriting is easy to express how I’m feeling but for wahtever reason, if I’m feeling an emotion about something, drawing it in panels with word bubbles doesn’t get it out for me for some reason. I know it does for some people.
I was just reading Jeffrey Brown last night. Stuff like that is so moving and amazing and he is able to express himself and it’s so beautiful. It just doesn’t work that way for me for some reason. I can do things with full-page illustrations and stories and songs but I can’t do it with comics. So again I just decided that I would not do a sequential panel thing but I would write short stories, which I had never done before either.
Q: So what was the inspiration for Heart then? What did you want to convey or get across? There’s a real running theme of not just dread but guilt in the book.
A: I’m the guiltiest person ever. I feel guilty all the time for no reason. People always tell me to stop apologizing. I think there’s been a lot of weird things that happened to me in the last 2 years. There were a couple of really intense deaths in my family. When I started writing the book I chose the title before I even started writing the book. The title was almost a joke because it was a very dramatic, gothy-sounding title that I came up with one day “Wouldn’t it be funny if I named it this” While I was writing the book two people that I cared about a lot really did die and I did end up going to two really intense funerals, so it made this book having much more meaning and I ended up dedicating the book to those people. I was more just narrating and working throgh some stuff that had happened. Not only the two deaths but every single one of those stories is aobut me and how I feel about the world.
Q: Would you call them autobiographical?
A: Yeah! Totally. Yes.
Q: There’s guilt and unease and also a sense of horror. You talked about being interested in horrible, weird things. Not to categorize the book, but where do you think of these stories fall under? Do you consider them horror stories?
A: A little bit. I do love ghost stories and I’m a horror movie fanatic. I think of them more as sad stories, which I also love. I love stories that end with you feeling unresolved and sad as opposed to happy in the end. That was what I loved so much about Edward Gorey where there was this dark upsetting endings. That’s something I’m so moved by. I would purposely write these stories and have them end on a really upsetting note. Not that everything that happened to me in my life was upsetting, but I am very attracted to things that have upsetting endings.
Q: What ties these stories together then? Is there a running theme for you?
A: I think there is actually. The one theme I thought of was I felt all these stories were about people being unappreciated in the world for whatever reason or not having a place in the world and the sadness that comes along with it. Guilt is another theme that came up.
The thing that my friend came up with that is way better is that every story has a couple where their love for each other is the sure thing in the whole story and never changes and is undying and conqures everything. It’s a pure love. That’s really positive. I wouldn’t have thought of it, but it’s true. I sort of believe that in my own life. I love stories where the couple in the story is the constant and you’re sure that they’re meant to be together.
Q: You do subvert that a little in the story with the duck.
A: That’s true, except that its supposed to be especially upsetting because you’re supposed to have the feeling that they are meant to be together and he sort of fucks it up in the end.
And the twins story as well. I am a twin so that …
A: Yeah, identical. They’re all really about me. What can I say? I’m actually curious to see what other themes people will find because I definitely didn’t go into the book with a theme in mind that I wanted to connect in all of them. I think there’s things that popped up that ended up being true to me.
Q: Have you gotten any feedback yet?
A: Yeah. It’s not really out yet so I haven’t gotten any initial feedback. A lot of friends have read it because I had a release party in New York before it came out. A bunch of friends and acquaintances bought the book, so a lot of people have been coming to me telling me what they think of it. So that’s been really interesting and great. My first review ever was when I was down at South by Southwest. I was playing some shows and had a release party for the book there as well and they reviewed it in the Austin Chronicle. They said, “This is the saddest book I’ve ever read.” I thought that was nice.
Q: What do you have planned for the future? Are you going to dip your toe a little more into comics?
A: Yeah, I am. I very much want to do another book with Fantagraphics. I’m assuming I will. I’m actually hoping to start it soon because the time lapse between Holy Moly and this book was so big — three years — cause I didn’t know anything about being published. I was waiting for them to come to me. I’m going to start my new book right away.
Q: What’s that going to be about?
A: I don’t know if I want to get into that right now. But I am going to try to do it more sequential this time. So after all I just told you I have an idea to try to do a slightly more sequential book. I don’t know if it’s going to be panels. I don’t want to do another book of short stories. I want to change it up every time. And it’s not going to be scratchboard.