Executive Content Editor
Photo by Parisa Mirzadegan
Ramsey Beyer certainly makes a splash with the publication of “Little Fish: A Memoir from a Different Kind of Year,” her debut graphic memoir. The art school graduate began venturing into comics in college, and her passion shines through in this autobiographical tale of Beyer’s transition from living in a small town in Michigan to attending college in Baltimore, Maryland. The result is a delightful book that you won’t be able to help but become immersed in.
Although I will admit that I am not typically drawn to graphic novels, “Little Fish” had me hooked from the start. Beyer’s story is a relatable one, and the compelling narration, fun artwork, and inviting format draw you into her novel. Propelled by her infatuation with creating her own zines (self-published magazines with a small circulation), Beyer shares tidbits from her life at that time, such as notes and lists titled “Things I Can’t Wait For” and “Ways that College Might Change Me.” Thoughts like these endear the young character to readers, and they will resonate with anyone who remembers stressing out over beginning college.
Beyer is a self-proclaimed “goody goody,” which can admittedly be grating at times; her character in the novel is very clearly an innocent Midwestern farm girl. But somehow, as she rocks braided pigtails and an unexpected love of punk, she manages to remain incredibly likable and relatable to readers of different backgrounds through her sincere, open narration. Beyer’s frank style of narration also makes the book feel like a peek into a personal journal in a sneaky, guilty-pleasure kind of way.
Compared to “Year One,” Beyer’s first major work, “Little Fish” is more polished and organized. “Year One” is a self-published comic book that follows Beyer’s move to Philly after she graduates college, so the character herself is markedly different. She still worries about relationships and her career, but she’s lost a bit of her naiveté and knows herself better. Some of the gritty, honest feel of “Year One” does get lost in the move toward the more polished format of “Little Fish,” though. However, this may also be a result of the different audiences that the novels are geared toward, as “Little Fish” was created for Zest Books, a young adult publishing house. If you’re not completely feeling the “Little Fish” vibes, or if (like me) you’re absolutely hooked and looking for more, I’d highly recommend looking to “Year One.”
“Little Fish” hits the shelves Sept. 3, 2013, but for those of you who can’t wait, you can check out Beyer’s other work on her website at www.everydaypants.com.
I was also lucky enough to speak to Ramsey Beyer about “Little Fish,” “Year One,” and more:
Why did you choose the graphic novel format in particular to tell your stories?
I’ve always been interested in sharing stories and personal experiences, from the really personal (but public!) livejournal that I kept all through high school and college, to the long letters I would write with penpals who were near strangers. At the same time, I was interested in art and painting. I never made a connection between the two interests until I discovered autobiographical mini-comics. When I started art school, I was there to be a fine art painter, but I had little interest in painting in abstractions and wanted to make more literal artwork. However, I wasn’t finding an interesting way to do that with fine art painting and started to feel like that world just wasn’t for me. When I switched my major to animation on a whim, almost out of frustration, I realized there is an art form to telling stories and that it can be taken just as seriously, even if it’s more whimsical and that felt more fitting for me. I loved drawing storyboards more than I actually liked animating, though, and at the same time, I started reading my first mini-comics. I started drawing little strips on the side, just for fun and in my zine. It was just a thing I did as a hobby for a few years until I realized I was getting good at drawing them just because I had unintentionally been “practicing” all that time. I never set out to make good comics, or a novel length book. The better I got at drawing, the more fun it was for me and then I started to tell longer stories through it and accepted that it’s the perfect medium for me.
How do you think your experience in art school compared to that of your friends in more traditional universities or with more traditional majors?
Art school is an interesting environment because everyone arrives full of passion for what they’re doing. Everyone is out to prove themselves because most of them have been told for a long time that you can’t make a career out of art and should think about another path. We spend our first year working as hard as we can to prove that we’re supposed to be there. I think that’s almost directly opposite from a traditional university experience, where many people use their freshman year to test the waters and try to figure out what they might be interested in. My freshman year of art school really set the foundation for me in terms of self-motivation, productivity and time management. It was really fun, but it was a lot of hard work and everyone around me was working just as hard. I think freshman year for many people is less focused on work and more focused on socialization.
My school was also really small and tight-knit. We had critiques almost every day, so we had to defend our work to rooms full of people, and I think that creates a pretty unique atmosphere of mutual respect, but also the competitive nature puts a lot of fire in the air. There’s definitely a buzz that comes from being part of an intensive art community.
After putting so much time and effort into creating “Year One,” your longest comic by far at the time, what was it like going back and starting on your next big project, “Little Fish”?
“Year One” was an interesting experience for me, because it took up, almost literally, my first year in a new place. As a result, I didn’t get to experience as much of the city of Philly as others might in their first year there. I spent a lot of time holed up in my studio or in a coffee shop trying to crank out pages to keep up with myself. It was really a lesson in time management and willpower to stay on track. When I was done, it was a bit of relief. I thought I would jump into the city headfirst and start to really engage with it in a new way, free of weekly deadlines! Instead, Zest got in touch with me about drawing a book with them and I decided to ride my wave of productivity and jump right into another book. I had hesitations, especially because the deadline for the book was so tight, but I figured what’s another 6 months of crunch time if I get a published book out of it?
“Year One” was the perfect primer for “Little Fish” because it sort of wet my feet to the realm of longer story telling, but in a really manageable way (I drew the book in weekly chunks as it went along) that didn’t feel so intimidating. As I drew “Year One,” I encountered different challenges for longer narratives and tackled them as they came up (Are too many characters being introduced? Does this panel remind you of the one I drew four weeks ago that references the same thing? Are these story arcs feeling consistent? Does this set the emotional tone I’m looking for? Etc.) So when I got to “Little Fish,” I had a starting point for understanding what kind of challenges would be presented for a novel length story. I kind of knew what to look forward to.
What audience did you have in mind while writing “Little Fish”?
Zest is a Young Adult publisher, but they said they liked my style because it’s relatively universal. While it’s pretty family friendly, for the most part, I think people of all ages can find themes they relate to. I tried to stay true to that, while keeping in mind that this would be marketed toward a slightly younger audience (teens, rather than the 20-30 year olds that I usually think I’m reaching). With that said, the first person that pre-ordered my book was a 60-year-old man who said it resonated with him because his daughters had both gone to college in the past few years and it reminded him of that.
You seem to have had a lot of clean, wholesome fun during your college years. Did you edit out any experiences that you didn’t think would be appropriate for a young adult audience?
Of course I did some editing, but for the most part, it was a year filled with good, clean fun. I don’t drink and never have, and I stumbled upon a social group that didn’t do much drinking either. As a result, we didn’t get into that much. As I mentioned above, our freshman year at art school (the Maryland Institute College of Art, or MICA) required a lot from us, so a lot of the fun we had was what we could squeeze in between long hours working on art. Everyone was pretty driven and focused on that. The book also only shows my freshman year. As I got older and a little more outgoing, more radical and politicized, and more punk, things got a little less tame. But I did edit out some elements during my freshman year. A lot of what I attempt to do as an autobiographical comic artist is tell just enough to make it interesting, but not so much that I’m crossing boundaries of people I’m writing about. It’s tricky writing about my own experiences because they involve the experiences of others, and I do what I can to be respectful of whose information I’m putting out into the world.
Did you learn anything about yourself or your relationships during the process of creating this graphic novel?
I did! Thanks to my livejournal, which I had never really gone back and revisited. It was really fascinating to read back through and make some interesting connections about my relationships and myself. I was a surprisingly self-reflective 18-year-old. I had a lot to say about my feelings. But I was also a funny, typical teen. There were a lot of livejournal entries where I would write about specific boys and how cute I thought they were (knowing that they read my journal!). It was really funny to read and see how much better I’ve gotten at direct communication. I think games like that are so silly now. I also had forgotten about the fact that Daniel had introduced me to comics. He introduced me to so many things. I’m pretty grateful for that.
How do you think your connection to punk and zines has shaped the direction your life has gone in?
They’re directly correlated. As a 28-year-old pursuing comic books as a pseudo career, working a day job as a nanny, spending all my free time working on community projects, supporting my friends bands, producing work on my own (self-publishing still!), nothing about my life is the sort of “textbook version” of what a successful 28-year-old should be doing with their life. Sometimes I stop and think about the fact that I don’t really have a “career” or “real money” in my future and that’s a little daunting, but I feel more fulfilled than ever because of all the things I participate in within my DIY community. Many of my hometown friends outside of punk are getting married and having kids, and that still feels so far off in my future, or perhaps isn’t in my future at all, and I know that’s because punk has set me on a different path. I’m really happy for my friends who are doing those things but they don’t really feel like they’re for me any time soon. Punk (and probably art school) instilled a really proactive work ethic in me and I’ve applied that to most areas of my life.
Both “Little Fish” and “Year One” seem like very cathartic, intimate experiences. How has the personal nature of your work affected the processes of writing, editing, or publishing?
Surprisingly, I don’t really think twice about putting out intimate or personal work. I think that’s what makes it successful. If I were just writing about relatively mundane life events without the personal element or intimacy, I think the stories would fall flat. It’s that aspect that makes them feel easy to relate to or speaks to someone going through the same experience. None of my experiences are especially remarkable. For the most part, I live a pretty average life for a relatively privileged, white woman. If my stories didn’t include that level of introspection, I don’t think I would even feel very good about putting more stories like my own out into the world. I try to write in a way that captures a human quality that many people can relate to. I try not to edit myself too much regardless of the reach (whether I’m just drawing it for friends to see, self-publishing it, or working with a publisher with a wider audience). I used to think it would be scary or weird to put all my feelings out into the world, but making work for books is less scary because there’s a built-in degree of separation. I make it in my room by myself where I can pour myself into it. I send it out to be printed. Then someone reads it on their own. If I had to say all of these things face to face to that same person, I would be way more nervous about it. But since we both do our part on our own time, it doesn’t bother me.
Do you plan to begin any other projects like this in the near future?
I haven’t decided what project I’ll be working on next. I’ve been taking the time to make short comics to post online and to submit to anthologies, but I’m sure I’ll try to work on something longer within the next year.
What advice would you give to freshmen who are entering their first year of university?
Figure out how to be by yourself and be happy with that time. My freshman year was hard because I found a lot of happiness by being around other people, and when I couldn’t or when friends started to naturally couple off, I felt pretty lonely. When I was younger I think I measured my self-worth in how much time I spent with others or how many friends I had. I wasn’t happy being alone with myself. The best thing I ever learned was how to be content on my own and not compare myself to others or rely on others to validate me. When you find out how to live without that stuff, your confidence will skyrocket.