Close Up: Georgia Webber

Comics artist Georgia Webber talks about crowd-funding her comic series DUMB, her process, and being unable to talk for six months.

You might say Georgia Webber is the strong, silent type. But not by choice – the silent part, at least. In October 2012, the normally outspoken, loud-laughing artist was diagnosed with a throat condition that rendered her speechless for six months.

Where some might see a dreadful excuse to study mime, Webber saw another creative opportunity. She decided document the surreal experience in comic form. The result is DUMB, a comic in several parts that she is self-publishing through an Indiegogo campaign.

While Webber has written about comics for The Rover and edited the comics section for Carte Blanche, DUMB is her first major foray into creating them herself. And with her campaign fully funded just one week, it appears the comics community is returning her support tenfold. She expanded her goals for the project, with plans to take the first four issues of DUMB to comics festivals around the country.

I spoke with Webber about her process, the lessons she’s taken from her silence, and her plans for DUMB.

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Excerpts from DUMB #2 are featured throughout the interview


The Bygone Bureau: How did DUMB first come about? What were you going through when you started drawing?

Georgia Webber: I actually decided to make DUMB immediately after deciding to go silent. I was all too aware of the challenges ahead, and my only thought was, Record everything. Not to mention, it was a compelling challenge — how to portray the significance and presence of sound, of something as unique as a voice, in an utterly silent medium.

What was different about making a comic when it was your only means of communicating? Did you experience that thing where you lose one sense and your others become amplified?

Well, I didn’t actually use comics to communicate with people around me. It takes way too long! My process changed very quickly, though. Suddenly I had an overwhelming amount of material to work with, and no choice but to finish everything I started.

Before that, I really struggled with my own judgments of my art. I rarely finished anything that I was proud of, and I didn’t actually have any discernible “process.” I would just try to hold a story idea in my head while I drew straight to ink, never thinking too far ahead or planning anything. It was exhausting.

As for my other senses being heightened… no, I would actually say I got worse at things like listening to people unless I was making eye contact. So I got really good at making eye contact. I did develop a whole new way of using body language and bigger facial expressions. People started to tell me I moved like I was in a silent film.

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What was your process like? Were you taking notes throughout your day and looking back at them? What were the main points of inspiration?

I was writing down my part in all the conversations I was having, so I have those to refer back to whenever I need. I also write to myself to solve problems, keep myself calm, and to think critically about what is happening to me. It’s not hard to find inspiration when you’re in such a peculiar situation. Even going to the grocery store became something unique, worthy of documenting. All of it could be used to make the comics better. But I was going so slowly, and eventually I thought: maybe there’s something to this “penciling” thing after all…

When I ceased making the art to be as pretty as possible and started looking at it as doing a job, I became able to set my logical mind to the task of making sure that job was done quickly and well. My creativity has a direction to flow in, and I can relax about the aesthetic stuff until after I’ve got things like the script and loose layout on the page.

Wow, that’s amazing. I totally had the same epiphany about penciling about a year ago.

It’s an important one!

Seriously.

Penciling allows for editing to happen, which is actually the most important step. Do your edits before your inks, and you can make the comic better before you spend a bunch of time on it looking pretty.

Seems so basic, but it’s hard to learn that!

Definitely. Always gotta learn the hardest way possible, too.

It’s the best way. Or at least those of us who have to learn that way say it is.

Well, hopefully you only learn it once. There aren’t many things in life that you don’t have to learn over and over.

A lot of people talk about how therapeutic comics — and I think especially autobiographical comics — can be for the creator. I know this is very literal, but would you say that’s true for you?

Absolutely, but art-making, or making of any kind, holds that power. No injury necessary. There’s a lot of relief in bringing what is inside of you to the outside; it’s the only way to connect to others, to feel heard and understood. If there’s anything that this experience has solidified in me, it’s my understanding of what it’s like to not feel heard, and how desperately bad that can get. I have so much more empathy for those who are chronically misunderstood — I have only glimpsed their pain, but it runs deep.

My worst moments have come when I let my frustration get the best of me. Intention and attitude played a huge role in my ability to communicate with people, despite not having my voice, and it continues to play the most significant role in my recovery. I needed an open and present-minded approach to life to get by without being miserable all the time, and that really effected how I approach making comics as well.

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It’s awesome how much support you have in the comics scene. Getting your start, have you found it pretty welcoming?

Oh, comics has been the most welcoming art scene I’ve ever been a part of, and the fact that I was a part of it long before I was really serious about making them says a lot! The positivity, groundedness, and incredible support is what keeps me coming to conventions, trying to meet more cartoonists and comics lovers, etc. Every year I go to [the Toronto Comics Arts Festival], my life changes for the better. Last year was a particularly huge year — I basically met my entire friend group (of comics buddies) at last year’s TCAF and they totally altered my path. I’m not even sure I would have had the strength or courage to start drawing again if it weren’t for them!

But I’ve always been involved in some way, usually in supporting other people’s work. When I discovered comics, and really felt that they liberated me from a dismal view of art practice, I just wanted to facilitate that same liberation for anyone and everyone. I wrote a blog post about it almost a year ago that goes into a little more detail.

This is a silly question, but people always ask, “If you had to lose one of the main senses, your vision, your hearing, or your voice, which would it be?” After actually experiencing voicelessness, what would your answer be?

That’s actually an interesting point: people regularly assumed that I was deaf because I wasn’t speaking. But the senses are bringing information in from the outside. I never lost that experience of the world, the way that someone going blind would, but I did lose my ability to reach out to the world that I was still perceiving just like everybody else. It was immediately clear that I had been taking this for granted, as we all do, and the little ways in which that becomes a problem were constantly unfolding in front of me. The idea of living without hearing or sight is far more frightening to me than living without my voice, but maybe that’s just because I’ve never experienced them before. On the other hand, I appreciate my voice more now than I ever have. Going through this trial separation has made me all the more attached to a happy ending.

Do you sing more now?

I can’t sing yet. I still have a lot of healing to do. Now and then I steal a phrase or two, even though I probably shouldn’t. And I have these singing vocal exercises that I do every morning, but it’s a far cry from self-expression. I used to be a singer, a few years ago, but I gave it up mostly because I was too afraid. Since losing my voice I have resolved to gain it back, and to pursue singing once my body is ready.

Yeah, it seems like maybe a threat from the universe.

Absolutely! I was well-known for being a talker before the injury, laughing really loudly and singing to myself. It was joy, but it wasn’t respectful of my body’s capabilities and needs.

And as you’re waiting to sing, you’re becoming an amazing cartoonist.

Thank you! They are the two things I want to be spending most of my time on: singing and cartooning. If I can make both of those things part of my life on a regular basis, I’ll be content. Even happy!

It sounds like you’re on your way. You’re currently raising money to debut issues one through four at several comics festivals. What’s your plan for the story after that?

If I get the funds for a fourth issue, that’ll be way beyond what I ever expected and I can’t imagine going back to crowd-funding a second time. Since issue four will only bring us up to November on the timeline of my story (about a month after my initial diagnosis), there will be too many small booklets to print them all myself. I’d really like to partner with a publisher at some point to release the whole collection in one unit, and I don’t want to put out too much before then — I don’t want to sell the same thing to people twice! But I can’t know the future. So far, I’ve only got plans until September (the release of #3 and #4) and I’m expecting that life will continue surprising me on the way. I just need to find a way to keep focusing on the project without too many other things on the go. I’m an infamous everything-ist, but for once I have a real sense of focus and direction. I want to see it through, and everything else can take a back seat until I do.

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Go a few generations back in Hallie Bateman’s family tree and there are just claw marks left by a family of bears. She sometimes drinks paint water by accident and once drew a series of portraits of her friends as potatoes, which can be seen on her blog. She is the art director of The Bygone Bureau and also tweets.