Our contributing writer, Alexis Emily, sat down with illustrator, writer and cat enthusiast, Rachel Dukes to talk comics and cats. She holds an MFA graduate degree from The Center for Cartoon Studies and self publishes on her website Mixtape Comics. Her most popular cartoon strips feature her mischievous and adorable cat, Frankie.
How did you get into comics? Was it an interest that started when you were young?
Yeah! When I was four The Little Mermaid came out and I decided to be an animator. Once someone described to me how laborious that process was – that I had to draw twenty four pictures for one second of animation – I was like “That’s too much. Is there something else I can do?” I read comics in the Sunday paper so I decided to draw comics instead. This was the late ’80s/early ’90s and Nick’ Magazine was coming out, Disney Magazine was coming out… even Highlights for Children had ‘Goofus and Gallant.’ I was just always drawing. As a teenager I was into Sailor Moon and manga… I was always drawing and learning how to make it into a career as I went.
What was your favorite comic as a child?
I was just reading newspaper strips, really. So, honestly, it was Garfield. I wasn’t allowed to read comic books until I was a teenager because “comics [were] for boys.” Then it was Sailor Moon and Strangers in Paradise. When I was a little older, Runaways came out though Marvel and I loved that… Also Wet Moon by Sophie Campbell and Blankets by Craig Thompson. Those all turned me onto graphic novels.
What comics do you feel inspired your comics the most?
For a long time I was drawing pseudo-realistically – I wasn’t drawing cartoons – so the best answer would be Strangers in Paradise. The under-sketches for my realistic work always looked how my cartoony work looks now. It’s so hard to say my influences for my cartoony work because a lot of that is my peers doing webcomics and animation now. It’s creators like Pen Ward, Natasha Allegri, and Madeleine Flores who have that really simple weighty style that harkens back to the the anime/manga animation style of the late ’80s and early ‘90s… There are a lot of difference influences so it’s hard to name more than a couple. It’s all good stuff.
What part of your work do you find most satisfying?
Definitely the initial drawing. There’s something meditative about it. Drawing, inking, and coloring… I don’t really think about them as separate processes, but penciling feels much more natural to me than any other part of the process.
How did you and Frankie find each other?
We were living in San Diego in a busy college neighborhood. There were always packs of stray animals moving in and out of the complex. A pack of stray cats moved in. We could only hear them, as they set up camp in an area between our building and the next building. All day long they would yowl and fight… they were just really loud for nearly a full week. I worked from home and would hear them all day long. I finally broke one day, “I’m going to find these cats and see what their deal is!”
I went behind the building, climbed a fence, scrambled halfway over another. I saw four or five cats: a red one, a black one, a tabby… After a week of listening to their arguments, I was so proud of myself when I found them. I couldn’t quite get to them but at least I knew what they looked like. When my partner Mike got home that night I proudly told him I found the cats. He asked me, “Did you see the white one?” I’m like, “There’s no white cat. You’re a crazy person.”
He took me out to the parking lot and showed me underneath a car. Sure enough there was this small white cat, that had come along with the rest of the pack. She was just chilling under the car, cat-loafed, keeping warm. We said our hellos and I tried to coax her out. She wasn’t having any of it so we said goodnight and went back upstairs.
The next day she was going door to door meowing. I had left my door open and she walked right in, “Hey. What are you doin’,” and sat down with me like it was no big deal. She would hang out for like half an hour, make herself at home, enjoy herself. So she started doing this, daily. She would visit around lunchtime and at nighttime. Every night I would be like “Hey Mike, we should keep this cat.” He would say, “No. You’re allergic to cats,” and I would say “No, I’m not!” But I am, hahaha. I’m very allergic to cats. I argued that she visited twice a day but I had no problem with her. So we let her stay in one night for 20 minutes as a test, the next night for 30, the following for an hour, then overnight… Very quickly, she just stayed in and decided she was family.
Pretty shortly thereafter, our building manager found out that we were keeping this cat. Which we weren’t supposed to do. Her husband started being incredibly passive aggressive. Leaving us notes, confronting us as soon as we walked up to our front door. We kind of just shrugged it off, “If you don’t want our cat here, we’ll just move. No big deal.” We had already lived in the building for five years, longer than anyone else on the property, and were paying month-to-month. Because we had lived there for so long, they didn’t want to lose us as tenants though. So there was a lot of wishy-washy weird behavior coming from the building manager and her husband.
This went on for a month and he was finally like, “I talked to the building owner and he said that if you sign a five year lease you can stay.” I was like, “Well… I’ll sign a one year lease. I know we’ll be in San Diego for at least another year.” He insisted it had to be a five year lease, so we moved a block away to another apartment that was pet friendly. We found out the day after we moved that the reason that the building manager was being so passive aggressive was because they were also secretly harboring a cat! Now, because they lost us as tenant, that building accepts pets! That’s how we found Frankie.
What are you working on right now or planning to start working on?
There are two separate things I’m working on now. The thing I’m working on today is an online project. I’m running a Kickstarter to print Frankie Comics #4 and create a run of plush Frankie dolls. So I’m writing promos for that now. I’ve been on a hiatus from Frankie Comics for a few months working on my graphic novel; which is the other project I’m working on right now. I just finished the pencils for that a couple of weeks ago, I’m moving onto inks to finish that up. I’ve been working on that off and on for about a year now. That should be coming out this fall or next February. That’s been really interesting. It’s called Let Me Walk You Home.
Do you ever get stuck while you’re creating a comic? How do you get the ball rolling again?
More often I get stuck before creating a comic. I’ll have ideas… something like “Frankie stole my keys” or “Frankie’s foot in my water glass.” You know, silly things that she does. And I’m like, “Okay, I could make a joke out of that.” Then I’ll sit here and be “Okay, wait…How do I make a joke out of this?” Sometimes I have four different ways I could tell it. It’s getting through that very first step that I get hung up on. Once I figure that out it’s pretty easy to thumbnail out a bunch of different versions and get to drawing.
What is your favorite piece of work? Why?
There are a couple of different things; all cat related. I did a comic called Adventure Story in 2011 and it’s a teeny, tiny six page comic about a cat whose teapot was stolen and he goes on an adventure to get his teapot back. I still look back on that and smile and laugh. I did a children’s book about Frankie called Frankie’s Busy Day that I loved doing. My art has changed so dramatically I would like to go back and revisit that because it’s one of my favorites. There are a couple of Frankie Comic strips that are my favorite but the whole series is wonderful to work on and I’m really excited to get back to it after a long hiatus.
Do you have a motto that you live by?
This is going to be comics related because it’s the first thing that popped into my head. It’s maybe more advice than a motto but it’s always something that has stuck with me.
When I was working during college I was doing caricatures at Sea World. I had just started – I was really young, like 18 or 19 – I was really frustrated with the job because when I’m looking at so many people in a day, doing caricatures, everyone starts to look the same. I was frustrated about drawing for free (demos), quickly in ink (drawing a person or a group of people, then coloring it within 10 to 15 minutes), and I felt like I was drawing the same thing over and over again (which is partially true, as the full body poses and backgrounds are repetitive).
I expressed my frustration to one of the managers at the time, Rikk Davis. He was also a caricaturist and an artist in his own right. “Man, I’m frustrated. I feel like I’m drawing the same things over and over and the same person over and over. I want to draw stories and comics and maybe go into animation… I don’t want to be drawing illustrations. I want to be drawing stories.”
He turns to me and says, “Rachel, every illustration tells a story. Even if you look at something like a caricature or a single illustration in a magazine there’s always a narrative. There’s always a message to be told. Whether it’s a singular message or several themes, there’s always a story there.”
It stuck with me and changed the way I approached what I was doing. Being that young, I was so focused on drawing something that looked cool or good. But I realized how the piece looks, the style of it, is less important. It’s most important that image has a narrative or impact to it.
What are three things that make you incredibly happy?
Frankie. Frankie. Disneyland.
words by Alexis Emily | illustrations by Rachel Dukes
“Gender In the World of Comics” Talk
Nov. 24, 2015
Comic Arts Los Angeles
Dec. 5-6, 2015
Los Angeles, CA