Queer comic artist Kate Leth (“It rhymes with ‘death’ and ‘meth’”) is someone you would be friends with if you knew her in real life. She likes to draw, she likes to talk about her cat and pretty ladies, and she loves discussing sex in an open, positive way. You’re basically best friends already.
You almost certainly know her from the internet: Posting her work on Tumblr and writing a regular column for Comics Bulletin, Kate has achieved an increasingly visible level of internet fame by drawing and writing about her personal life for the entire world to see and criticize. The subjects of her work are sometimes controversial, sometimes heartbreaking, and always on-point.
Despite her grouchy, injured cat’s protests, Kate talked over the phone about being queer, drawing for women (and herself), and what makes a comic worth reading. She even drew Autostraddle a sexy comic! It’s at the very end. No peeking, just keep reading. All good things to those who wait, including gentle bondage drawings. (Especially gentle bondage drawings.)
Let’s start with an origin story. How did you get to where you are now, comic-wise?
I started about a year ago, a little more than that, just sort of drawing one-off pages on the internet at the behest of my boss at work. I work in a comic book store called Strange Adventures, and I was being really pushed to draw about comics and about working in the comic book store, and I thought, “Well, I do like writing about that sometimes, but there are a lot of other things I want to address.” So I started writing more autobiographically and writing more personal strips, which ended up being a lot more popular. That’s how I got started, and now I’ve been promoting my things through Tumblr and getting involved with other people in comics, and it’s been progressing since then.
It’s weird. I really hadn’t expected it to go beyond my circle of friends, and I’m still honestly shocked when anyone knows my stuff or my website or me. I always find it really strange, even though I know my stuff is out there for everyone. It never really feels like there are real people at the other end of the internet.
What do you think originally sparked your love of comic books and drawing?
I’ve always been drawing. It was sort of a nervous habit when I was younger. In class, I was always the person who doodled and drew on things and got into trouble for that. When I graduated high school, I went to art school, NSCAD, to pursue art in general because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I tried to go into photography, but it didn’t really take because I don’t think I’m very good at collaborating. I think that’s why comics work so well for me right now — because I write and draw and color and promote everything myself, I get a lot less anxious.
If you were to give a state of the union address about women in comics and their place within the comic community, what sort of things do you think you would say?
The only downside about the conversation about women in comics is that it still has to happen. It still seems, even though there are so many women working in the comic book industry in every field and on every level, it still always seems to be a big deal. And that’s a shame because it shouldn’t, but it definitely is a hard thing to break into. I think it’s easier in webcomics and in indie comics, but when it comes to superhero stuff and big companies, there are definitely a lot fewer women. It can be very unwelcoming, especially when you’re dealing with comics that don’t always depict women in the best way. I like where I am in the indie comics, in the alternative press community. It’s pretty much half men and half women, and that works for me really well.
What kinds of problems are there in the way women are often portrayed in comics? Why do you think things like that persist?
There is a really good post on Comics Alliance where they were talking about how a lot of men, not just men but creators in the Big Two [Marvel and DC] in comics, don’t understand the difference between being sexy and being objectifying, and I think that can be really hard. You know, they make a comic, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, girls are going to read it. It’s starring a female lead. It’s a strong female character!” And then they put her in a thong, and she’s got her tits falling out everywhere, and girls are like, “I don’t want to read that. That’s not what I want.” Like, you’re making this comic about a strong female character, but it’s clearly aimed at men, and I think that’s a problem for sure.
There are good female characters out there, and I think people need to look at that and the fact that they’re doing really well. The new Batwoman series is awesome. A great lead, a great character, really well-written. And the new Wonder Woman! You know, she’s badass, and she’s tough, and her boobs aren’t falling out! It’s great. I love that.
Ok, well, what if you’re just the average reader? What can you do to combat misogyny in comics?
Don’t buy shitty comics. [Laughs] I try to do my part at the store. When girls pick up Catwoman I say, “Hmm, maybe this isn’t the best title for you. You maybe don’t want to see that. You maybe want to try these older issues of Catwoman that Darwyn Cook did that are really, really awesome without being super gross.” Don’t buy the things that bother you, and tell people. You’d be surprised what you can do with social media. People will listen after a while. Seek out more positive role models, not even necessarily created by women. The Buffy comics are really great. There are lots of awesome female characters in other comics, and you can find them if you look. You’ve gotta dig them out, and that really sucks, but they’re there. You have to sift.
Would you say it’s getting better?
I think so, and maybe it’s becoming increasingly a part of the women in comics community, but it feels very hopeful. Especially with books like Womanthology coming out and the crazy, rampant enthusiasm that that created, it’s just… obviously, there’s a market for it. Obviously, people want it. We’re at a point where it’s not a guy’s world anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time. It feels very positive, despite what maybe the numbers are saying, it at least feels good.
Do you have any recommendations for someone who wants to start reading comics?
If you’re looking to get into an ongoing series, something you can pick up at a comic book store every month, Batwoman and Wonder Woman are my top two. They’re really great stories. Batwoman is loftier in terms of its ambitions. It’s really, really well-drawn. The art is beautiful, even when the story gets confusing, it’s so good looking, it really doesn’t matter. Wonder Woman has a really good story. They sort of changed her origin around, and people got mad because, you know, her whole thing originally was that she was made out of clay. She was the daughter of no man, but now they’ve changed it so that she’s the daughter of Zeus, so people got really mad and were saying that it’s very against her origin that she came from a man, but what they’re doing with it is actually really neat. I think it’s a cool story.
If you’re just going to pick up a book or something you don’t have to commit to once a month, Batwoman’s origin book Elegy is awesome, and you can read that totally self-contained. You don’t have to know anything, so it’s a really good story. If you can find it because it’s out of print, check out Batgirl: Year 1, which is the origin of Barbra Gordon as Batgirl. That one’s really, really good.
Let’s talk about sex for a minute.
That’s so funny, I was driving home, and I was like, “When I talk to Autostraddle, I bet they’re going to ask me sexy questions.”
I mean, you have to ask a sexy question to get a sexy answer. Well, why don’t we start with Chester 5000. What do you think makes that a successful sexy comic?
Chester 5000 is sexy because it’s fun. Jess Fink has a really fun approach to sex in general where it’s not exploitative. She’s looking at sex as being silly and naughty and joyful as opposed to being extreme and where everyone’s drawn very disproportionately and unrealistically and no one is connecting on a real level. In her comics, the characters are in love, they’re in relationships, and they have feelings for each other without being a paperback romance. Because it’s filthy. [Laughs] It’s really filthy. So I look to her all the time as the model for when I draw filthy comics, which is to straddle that line between keeping it fun and keeping it dirty without making anyone feel bad.
Why do you like writing filthy comics?
Because I don’t find a lot of stuff that I like in terms of filthy comics. I think it’s really difficult, not just for girls but for everybody who likes writing sexy stuff and who is into that sort of thing but wants it to matter to the characters. I like writing it. I think it’s fun, but I was really hesitant. Even when I started doing comics, I always wanted to do more adult comics, more erotic comics, but I wasn’t very good at drawing bodies. [Laughs] My anatomy was not so great, and nobody wants to look at that. So I gave myself some time, and I do a lot of sketching, and now I’m to the point where I’m more comfortable drawing, not necessarily wholly realistic but fun, sexy comics.
I wrote about how I’m conflicted about drawing sex in comics right now or putting sexy stuff on my website because a lot of teenagers read it, but at the same time, I’m not putting anything out there that they haven’t seen in way worse incarnations that aren’t sex positive or feminist on any level. I don’t feel bad about it. I could add that to my resume: sexy and fun but not horrifying.
You should totally do that. How do you identify, sexually? Wow, that sounded a lot less creepy in my head.
[Laughing] No, that’s ok! I think the best word for me is “queer.” I don’t have a gender preference. I never have. I came out as liking both girls and boys when I was 10. It doesn’t seem strange to me. It seems more strange to have to have a label for it, so “queer” works for me.
How does being queer impact what you draw and how you draw?
Well, I don’t draw for the male gaze. I don’t draw the women I draw to be sexy for men. I draw them to be sexy for me, if that makes any sense. I think some women will draw for the male gaze, especially if they’re trying to fit into a world where women are drawn that way, but I kind of can’t because that’s not what I find attractive. So I think that’s different for me. When I draw erotic comics, I think it should be more than “naked man and woman have parts put together.” I feel like I’m open to trying a lot of different things.
I like drawing comics about queer topics, especially because I think that as much as it’s in the news and people talk about it, parts of it are still nobody talks about. Like when I did the bisexuality comics, they seemed so shocking to a lot of people, but I was like, “This is just my take on it. There’s more out there.” It definitely affects the stuff I do when it’s autobiographical and when it’s erotic. The silly stuff I do, I don’t know if it really has any effect on that. Except Spiderman and Deadpool. Together. They’re my favorite gay couple that doesn’t exist.
Does being a queer lady impact how you’re treated within the comic community?
I don’t know, because I don’t know if everyone cares. I’ve never had anybody say anything to me about it at work. I’ve never had anybody make any negative comments. I think part of that comes from what I’ve seen referred to as “bisexual passing guilt,” where you’re a bisexual woman and you’re in a relationship with a man so everyone forgets you’re queer, which I definitely have. I don’t know, the comic community is pretty accepting, at least where I am.
What about on the internet?
Well, Tumblr is super gay. I feel like Tumblr has a large community of isolated teenagers who don’t have a lot of outlets, and that’s what initially drew me to it because those are my people. I was that kid. I’ve had a lot of people send me some really heartfelt messages, especially in response to comics I’ve done about sexuality or self-injury or about depression, and they’ll say things like, “I’ve never had anybody say this in a way I could identify with,” or I’ve had people send me messages that were like, “I came out to my friend because of your comic.” That’s the reason I do everything.
I’ve never had anybody be really mean about it. I’ve had people accuse me of the bisexuality comics being exploitative and for doing it for shock value, but I was never saying all people are like this. I’m saying, “This is my perspective.”
The whole thing I’m trying to do with my comic is to create a space where I’m very honest about myself, and there’s so little that I filter, and I want to have honest, open dialogue with people. Sometimes I say the wrong thing, or I use an un-PC term, and people get really nit-picky, but I’m trying to get better. People will tell me when I mess up.
Mhmm, the internet is really good at that. What sorts of things are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m finishing reading proposals for an anthology that I’m working on with Megan Gedris, who is another lady who draws sexy comics, and we’re doing a book called Drawn Out, which is a big anthology of coming out stories, which we were shocked didn’t already exist. I mean, I’m sure it has in novel form, but not in comic form.
I’m really hoping over the next couple of months to start a more regularly updating webcomic. I also sold a massive number of prints to help with my cat’s vet bills, so that was fun.
Is there anything else you want to talk about?
My cat is trying to eat a fork right now. Also, I have a big crush on Autostraddle.