“Life is nonlinear and that takes a lot of courage to cope with,” writes Leslie Stein in her new book, Bright-Eyed at Midnight. Stein coped, in part, by sitting down at a blank page each night for a year to draw comics. Fueled by insomnia and prompted by characters she encountered while tending bar or traveling the city or by bittersweet childhood memories (her insomnia stretches back to juvenile night terrors), she produced twelve months’ worth of microstories that build a larger narrative through accumulation. In addition to diaristic recollections of everyday events, she meditates on collaged aphorisms and observations snipped from Jules Renard’s Journal, offers up doodled portraits of teen crushes, and returns again and again to the moment just before dawn, when she is alone, awake, and contemplating her art and her existential questions.
In Bright-Eyed, Stein has foregone traditional comics panels, leaving her dreamlike watercolor scenes surrounded by white space. Dialogue between the book’s impish figures is handwritten in colored pencil and linked to its speakers not by conventional word balloons but by small, unobtrusive squiggles. Some nights seem to get the best of her: a handful of pages are dense, wildly rendered paintings with anxiously scratched self-portraits and recriminations peering out from between brush marks. The Globe and Mail described these as “Kandinsky illustrating Virginia Woolf.”
Seasonal headers are the only organizing devices in the book, which has been edited down to 224 drawings. According to Stein, her publisher wanted page numbers, but she resisted, not wanting to interrupt Bright-Eyed at Midnight’s magical quality. “How does this book even exist?” she told me. “It’s unique—it’s a comic book and an art book, it’s a diary. You could open it to any page to begin.”
Stein and I met at a bar in Brooklyn early one evening in late August to discuss her nightlife. It was hot, so we sat under a tree to talk.
When you decided to draw every day for a year, were you making the work for yourself instead of readers?
I didn’t actually anticipate having any readers. I started drawing the series on New Year’s Eve—it sounds so gimmicky, but it really wasn’t on purpose. I had had a difficult year. I was either bartending or alone all night. I wanted something new and different to play with, to get color in my life. New Year’s is symbolic. I wanted to think about what a new year meant in my own life rather than people’s expectations of it. I didn’t want to go out to a party. I did a bunch of terrible drawings that evening and then went out drinking anyway, because I felt discouraged. When I got back to my apartment, I did a scratchy comic about my night and threw it up on Tumblr. The next day I woke up and there it was. I took it down, because posting it was kind of an accident, but then started the next in the series right away. Since I was playing around with materials, the style changed often but turned into something concrete. By the end of the year, I was laying down my lines in a specific way before coloring, and the spatial relationships between images and the design of the characters had solidified.
The book’s title refers to your insomnia, and you often draw yourself laying in bed sleepless, with a bell-jar-shaped line over your body.
That’s supposed to be the blanket! But I suppose I do draw it like I am hiding, under a weight.
It’s also a book about living in New York. You’re a bartender and you have a band—the double life of the cartoonist-rocker. But the character you create seems like a traveler seeing the city for the first time.
I explore every day—that’s why I spend a lot of time alone. I like to walk into a local bar, see who’s there, let an urban-cowboy experience take over my night. Who will I talk to? Where will I wind up? That’s easiest to do when you’re alone. I like control, and I have that at my drawing table, so when I walk out, I let go of control.
One of the strips in the book is about going to meet someone for dinner in Manhattan and getting stood up and so just roaming the city instead. I ate at a fancy restaurant and made friends with the waiters and manager, walked by a club I didn’t know my friend worked at and saw a pop show for free, and then met a bunch of guys from an Australian ad agency and went out drinking with them.
My band, Prince Rupert’s Drops, made a record last year and played a bunch of shows. I tend to think the least action-packed part of these nights make the best stories. I mean they aren’t even stories, really, just these moments that are part of the grind of it all, like showing up late for sound check because I fell asleep in the middle of the day, or eating Cheetos for dinner afterward because no restaurants are open.
Did you have a process for making the drawings?
At first, it was more stream of consciousness—I attacked the page and let the story take me where it wanted to go. Later in the year, when the comics became longer and more nuanced narratives, I would start with an idea and draw thumbnails for reference, a scribble sketch that no one but me could interpret. That was the extent of my writing in advance. That prep would take like ten minutes—they’re short comics! Then I would finish several pages over the next couple days.
I like that some of the pages mimic the look of a preteen scrapbook, with magazine cutouts or a snapshot framed with colorful doodles and remarks.
Those were influenced by my love of folk art, like how Adolf Wölfli used to make collages from newspaper clippings and magazines and draw insane borders around them. I also didn’t want to limit myself to a list-like version of my day, which would have been boring.
Your earliest minicomics were all collaged.
That work really taught me about composition. I would make the background first, and then the characters, and then move them around until I found where they needed to go. Then I would make the speech bubbles, and if I wanted to change the dialogue I’d just tear that piece of paper off and make a new one. I like the physicality of art, cutting things out and moving paint around on the page. I don’t use the computer for anything except scanning.
Bright-Eyed is very much about self-discovery, and the excerpts from Renard’s diary play a big role in that theme. One of the excerpts reads, “I find when I do not think of myself, I do not think at all.” What attracted you to Renard?
I started reading him when a friend of mine gave me his journal last year. He has a way of writing a sentence or two that totally sums up what life making art is like. “The true artist will write in, as it were, small leaps, on a hundred subjects that surge unawares into his mind … One does not provoke: one waits.”
I like using literature to highlight some aspect of my comics. There is an issue in my series Eye of the Majestic Creature where I dissect Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and sprinkle the sections throughout the comic. His book follows a shopgirl in the city in the early 1900s, and at the time I was making that comic, I was a shopgirl in New York in the early 2000s. I liked the juxtaposition.
Another Renard quote reads, “I desire nothing from the past, I do not count on the future. The present is enough for me. I am a happy man for I have renounced happiness.” Did you approach the drawings with this very zen attitude?
Definitely. There was a bit of emotional turmoil in my life while I was making these drawings, and in doing them I was able to forget, to focus on something else. Not to sound like a total hippie, but I think the mundane aspects of a day can carry just as much weight as anything else you experience in life, it’s just a matter of how you look at them.
Also, I was allowing myself to experiment, and that kind of problem solving keeps me in the moment, keeps me focused. Many of the drawings are based on mistakes, and because I wanted to post the work exactly as it appears on the page, I had to improvise around accidents. I had to put a thick black line over a word I misspelled or cover something with a watercolor splatter. Then in trying to fix things or make them look intentional, I’d be surprised to find a new set of colors that worked together—how cool a light turquoise word looked over a black-and-yellow smudge. As the year went on, I also experimented with different kinds of art supplies. I’d go to the art-supply store and pick up a pen and think, What can this little guy do? Then he did what he did!
It’s how children play.
That is exactly how I think of it—I’m playing. I’m having a good time.
Your character in Bright-Eyed is childlike—she resembles a doll or a thumbprint with big hair. But I was struck by how dark her thoughts could become. There’s a palpable pain on the page. Was that contrast calculated?
People need to respond to the art in order to want to spend time reading it. I wanted to make it inviting and rewarding to look at, and I think the cuteness balances out the heavier emotional component. I also just enjoy drawing the figure that way. When she looks happy, I feel happy. I was working nights at the bar and so wasn’t seeing daylight at the time. I brought light and color into my life through the drawings.
That contrast comes through in the writing, too—both what you write and how you render it. Lively dialogue, written in different colors, sits alongside very bleak lines, often written in black, as if to say, Just a reminder, we are all going to die. They are literally dark lines in a light scene. Who is that voice?
Well, life is nonlinear, but we do know where it’s going to end. That voice is me, on the page, talking to myself. I used color to create different tones—from light visions to serious moments. I knew what I was doing, but at the same time I did a lot of it without consciously thinking about it. Since I’m drawing the words on the page, there’s probably some emotional reaction to the word itself that comes out in the lettering.
It’s interesting to hear interpretations of the book. This was my first time putting work on the Internet and getting immediate feedback. The reactions were so odd. Very positive—We love these. And I thought, Don’t you know what these are? “These are visions of a sick house,” as the voice in the book says.
I also feel like it’s a gift to readers to let them feel like their pain is acknowledged through the realization of another’s pain. We’re not alone—that is what art is supposed to give you, and what it means in my life. When I was a teenager and started reading indie comics, I liked them because I realized that those guys are all bummed out! It’s a total cliché, but at the time it seemed like a discovery. I hated school. I was the kid who was sad all the time. I couldn’t relate to anyone. That’s why I liked art comics. There were people all the way across the country who felt like I did. And I just stuck to guys I thought were perfect—Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, Jaime Hernandez. I wanted the comics I was reading to have a high level of craftmanship and writing, otherwise I was completely uninterested. I still have that bias. When I read most comics, I am rarely impressed, which is unfortunate for me.
When I was younger, I was very shy, and things like that would happen. I guess it still does sometimes. But the idea for this book was that I would draw in whatever state I was in. Sometimes I’d work at the bar for eight hours and then come home and say, Here we go. I would be a little drunk and the drawing would get a little crazy. I used to feel embarrassed the next day, as though the art was symbolic of some negative aspect of myself. But I don’t feel that way now—these diaries capture a moment, and no one moment is more valid than any other.
A few years ago, I ran into my friend Gary Panter at a convention, and I asked him what he had been drawing in people’s books at his signing. He said, Oh, it doesn’t really matter what you draw, I was just drawing Godzilla with my eyes closed. What a great, rich sentiment! That’s what popped into my head when I was painting last year—Draw your monster with your eyes closed.
Meg Lemke is editor of MUTHA Magazine and chairs the comics and graphic-novel programming committee at the Brooklyn Book Festival. You can find her online @meglemke and more about her work and writing at meglemke.tumblr.com.