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SDCC 2016: Jennifer Hayden Talks About The Story of My Tits and Her Career in Comics

Cornelia Tzana ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Executive Comic Books Editor

 

After working as a writer, illustrating children’s books and finding her way into comics, Jennifer Hayden narrates her own breast cancer survival story in The Story of My Tits. Hayden revisits in this book her life, the significance that her breasts held throughout it and the women in her life that were touched by breast cancer. Emertainment Monthly had the chance to interview Jennifer Hayden at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con about the making of The Story of My Tits , the comic book industry today and her own future projects.

Emertainment Monthly: What made you decide it was time to put this story out there? Which was the moment that you thought this experience needed to be told?

Jennifer Hayden: I don’t remember any one moment. I know that I wanted to tell the story of my mother-in-law, my love affair with my husband and certainly the experience of having babies and my parents’ marriage deteriorating. All those stories had been brewing and I had tried to write about them but it had always come out wrong, angry or bitter. It seems to me that as soon as I knew I was all right, immediately I had the sense that I had to write about this, probably being half selfish, half selfless. I thought “Oh, so many women go through breast cancer and I’ve been through it and I have things to say to them to help them,” and I wanted to share that. But this is also what I do with trauma and experiences, I just vomit them back out after thinking about them.

EM: The book starts from your childhood and goes all the way past you recovery from breast cancer. What has the process of revisiting these memories been like?

JH: Crazy. It turned out to be so much more painful to revisit my mother-in-law’s story than it was to revisit my own and that surprised me. There was a lot of closure that I was getting on a lot of chapters in my life and I appreciated that. But it was painful. This book took me 8 years and part of it was because I took breaks. I would just be crying off in a corner somewhere and just had to say “all right, I’m not gonna touch that for a couple of days. I gotta get past what it is and get to what it meant and right now it hurts too much.” I think that can happen. You have a major thing happen and there just isn’t time to process it and that’s a wonderful thing about being an artist, you can do it later on.

 

EM: Was the title “The Story of My Tits” something that came to you immediately or was it a work in progress and how have other people received it?

JH: Well I always come up with titles by starting to madly list them in my notebook. And then one will pop out and I can’t think of another. That’s when I know it’s the one. So that’s what happened and I said “Well, that’s a little outrageous, but you know what? Make it a working title.” When I initially had publishers looking at this book they didn’t take it. They questioned the title. Top Shelf never did. I even asked Chris Staros if the title will fly and he said “This is the title of the book, we’re gonna do it”. I have appreciated that so much. I’ve only had a few people, and they are usually men, disapprove of the title. I think without realizing it, I chose the title because it was both funny and real and it was not a dehumanizing or glib way of being funny about breasts. So it really gave the flavor of the humor of the book. As I think about it, the word “tits” is equally sexual and humorous, and also a throwaway word, so if you lose them it’s not as dreadful.

Image Credit: Top Shelf.
Image Credit: Top Shelf/Jennifer Hayden.

EM: You mentioned that you had tried to write this story before with little success. What was it about comic books that made you decide it was the right medium?

JH: I think in my case, where it was really an amputation, to draw it with such simple lines makes it less harrowing. The minute I’m drawing I’m starting to get funny whereas I don’t necessarily do that with writing. The graphic novel to me is able to hold all the emotion. I realized I can be as funny and as silly and as tragic as I want to be with this medium and I couldn’t do that with writing, or any other medium.

The way I stumbled on it was after three years of writing – and I’ve written three really bad novels that thankfully never saw the light of day – and after rediscovering drawing when my children were born and working my way up to be a children’s book illustrator. Neither of those things alone had satisfied me. As for illustration, the kinds of drawings I did lent themselves to children’s books and with that there is no swearing, no adult stories and it really drove me bananas. I need both words and art to tell the truth. If it’s just art I’ll be silly or self conscious, if it’s just words I’ll also be very self-conscious but overly serious. The two were a perfect blend.

“Draw the human figure in motion and draw the life in the human and you have just drawn the hardest thing there is to draw and it is not done by making it perfectly.”

EM: What was the process of making the book like?

JH: It was pretty simple because I didn’t know anybody who was doing comics and I had never taken a class. I had a notebook and I would write the lines I wanted. Then I would draw the picture that went along with it. Although I knew where I was headed in a general way, I never wrote a script, I never drew in pencils, I never did thumbnails. Part of that was that I’m bored easily, I want every day to be surprise. From the moment I started to draw with a rapidograph my soul started to come out through that pen and I’ve never questioned it. When I was a children’s book illustrator it got more and more depressing to see the life strangled out of the drawings, that had some spontaneity in them, by several phases of drawing. This to me is the whole point of drawing; draw the human figure in motion and draw the life in the human and you have just drawn the hardest thing there is to draw and it is not done by making it perfectly. It’s done by channeling life and channeling it directly to the page. The not penciling for me was the most important decision in order to keep the drawing as true and life filled as possible.

 

EM: Did you ever think that you would receive an Eisner nomination for The Story of My Tits?

JH: Never in a million years! I got into this and I was a newbie. Early on, ACT-I-VATE, which is a group in Brooklyn, took me on as a member. Dean Haspiel has been my champion and my mentor. These people were very supportive of my work and they were never remotely sexist or ageist which they could have been. I was the worst nightmare. I was a suburban mom in her forties and they were nothing but welcoming and encouraging about my artwork. But I always felt that there was this club of people who would win Eisners and would got to the cons and be guests. I just got in at the right exact moment to be included in the indie and female surge. This is a historic event because so many women were nominated for books this year and I think a lot more of us have been guests of shows, which is incredible.

The Story of My Tits page 54. Image Credit: Top Shelf/Jennifer Hayden
Image Credit: Top Shelf/Jennifer Hayden

 

 

EM: What has the response from the readers been?

JH: It has been very satisfying. I was afraid that we hadn’t marketed the book enough to the breast cancer community. But I’m realizing that the individuals find it, they seek it out. And I’ve had such nice notes from people, people coming up to me at shows. I’ve had young men buying the book for their moms or women buying it for sisters, aunts, grandmas, women buying it for themselves or a friend, husbands buying it for their wives. In one case a married male couple coming up and telling me a story of a family they knew where the mother, the father and son had had breast cancer. I just hadn’t realized how many men do get it. That is the ultimate moment when someone says “your book really hit home” or “my mother had it but she never talked about it but now I feel like I had a conversation with someone” and that just feels great.

EM: What new projects are you working on?

JH: I have three projects in the wings. I kept a daily diary in comic format, a page a day, and I kept it for three and a half years while I was finishing my book and through the production process. I’m about to hand that in to Top Shelf and I don’t know what they’re gonna do with it because it is 1340 pages. That is in many ways a companion to The Story of My Tits, so I do feel like it should be the next thing I publish.

Then I’m about to do a book proposal for a funny non-fiction book. It would be sort of like Underwire, a more lighthearted book. And then I have a very mysterious project that’s brewing and it’s dipping into further Goddess spirituality and things like that. I fully expect no one to read any more of my work because nothing will ever be like The Story of My Tits. Hopefully it will be even better but it will not be as topical and as accessible. But I am very happy with what I’ve done and I now feel free to play and explore what’s in my head through this medium.

You can find more of Jennifer Hayden’s work on thegoddessrushes.blogspot.com and www.activate.com.

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