How Comic-Book Artist Megan Kelso Makes It Work
'Girlhero' artist Kelso balances creative life, parenting
Editor's note: As part of ParentMap's 2015 "Making it Work" theme, this is the first of a new interview series on how Seattle-area parents in a variety of professions balance work, home and creative life.
Sitting at the dining room table in her cozy south Seattle Craftsman home, comic-book artist and writer Megan Kelso evokes the very visual of the intimate, black-and-white illustrations she produces. She is petite and dark haired with huge blue eyes, and her surroundings showcase a life in graphic arts: bookshelves stuffed with comics anthologies, art books and classic memorabilia such as Tin Tin figurines.
The comics and editorial illustrations Kelso is known for are not meant for children, yet the style of her work has a child-like, approachable, even warm style. Megan Kelso is a woman working in the male-dominated field of alternative comics, and has been a pioneer of creating successful comics from a woman’s perspective. She gained fame with her Girl Hero minicomic in the early 1990s, and has since published three original graphic novels, contributed to numerous comic anthologies and produced a 20-week comic strip series for The New York Times Magazine titled Watergate Sue.
Motherhood – Kelso has a 9-year-old daughter – created both a challenge and a muse to her work, and she shared her thoughts over a cup of tea one February afternoon.
How did you come to this profession?
When I was a child I loved to draw and make up stories, but could never quite figure out how to put it all together and then when I was in college I had a boyfriend who loved comics and kept suggesting that I try making comics. It just clicked for me – I'd been a frustrated artist looking for the right medium of expression and comics were it. I think comics work for me because I love making up stories and writing dialogue, but I hate describing things. In comics, you don't have to describe – you just draw a picture of it! I also do freelance illustration, which pays better than comics, but comics are what I am known for. I was 30 when my first book collection of comics was published.
What’s your favorite current project?
I'm working on a book collection of comics stories (each about 30 pages long) on the theme of motherhood. It is going to be called, Who Will Make the Pancakes? One is set in the late 40s and is loosely based on my grandmother – but the character is much crazier than my actual grandmother.
What professional or personal achievement you’re most proud of?
I am most proud that so far I have published three books of comics over the course of my career.
Do you work from home? If so, how do you manage?
I work from home, which became more feasible once my daughter entered elementary school. School gives you six-and-a-half hours of time to do your work. Unless I am on a deadline and have to throw over everything else to get my work done, I probably only do about three hours of drawing during the school day and the rest of my time is spent on housewife/mother stuff. Then I try to do about two hours of work at night after the kid is in bed. So my work day is anywhere from three to six hours a day depending on how intensely on my grind I am.
What is the best advice you got when you started down your professional path?
When I was about to graduate from The Evergreen State College, I remember having a meeting with my independent study advisor, Tom Maddox. I was nattering about what to do after college — to pursue comics, or to look for a more conventional job. Tom said, “Give the comics a try. The conventional job will always be there if it doesn't work out.” I am glad that I was given that little nudge of permission to take the riskier path. I also think the promise I made to myself that I would be making comics until I was an old, old woman has helped me stay on my path.
What are 2-3 solutions or strategies you use for “making it work” – balancing creative work and family life?
A) Timing of different types of work: I try to do my most creative and difficult work first thing in the morning after my daughter gets on the bus. That is the time when I begin new drawings and write stories, when my head is fresh. I save errands, shopping, cooking, cleaning and planning for the afternoon. At night I do the more automatic parts of my job – inking, coloring and computer work.
B) I commit to being available to my daughter and husband between 4:30 and 9 p.m. After that, back to work!
C) My husband and I negotiate how the weekends will go – sometimes he needs work time, sometimes I need work time and sometimes we are all free and go do something fun together as a family. But weekends definitely have to be part of the mix in terms of available work time.
If you could change one thing about your family/work situation, what would it be?
Sometimes I think a live-in grandmother would be nice! I wish that it was easier for me to get away for a few days here and there because since I am an artist, I have opportunities to go to residencies, comics conventions, book tours, etc. But I have to be very careful about planning and taking that time because it impacts my husband so much, so I don't do as much of that stuff as I would like to.
Who manages family meals in your family? What are two of your family’s regular stand-bys?
I cook about five nights a week, my husband usually does it once or twice and then we do takeout or go out to eat one or two nights a week. I try to plan what we're going to eat for dinner each night at the beginning of the week. I'm more likely to cook a real dinner if I've written it down ahead of time. It's like a promise I make – “We WILL have spaghetti on Thursday.” We generally eat a cycle of chili, tacos, spaghetti, stir fry, chicken noodle soup and fried rice ... over and over and over. Cooking for a picky child has made me a less creative cook!
What helps your family get out the door in the morning?
The best thing we can do is get up early enough so that we don't feel rushed. We all like to be slow, quiet and inward in the morning. We usually don't talk much and read while we eat breakfast. If my daughter has that time to slowly emerge from her shell, she's usually pretty perky and ready to go by the time we have to be out the door. HUGE change since kindergarten days, when it was hell getting out the door every morning.
What are a couple of favorite outings that you do as a family?
Our favorite thing to do on a weekend day is take the dog to the off-leash park at Luther Burbank on Mercer Island, then go have lunch at the Burger Master drive-in in Bellevue and then go to the big King County Library in Bellevue, which is, in my opinion, the best library in the Seattle area. Doggy naps comfortably in the way back in the dark, cool parking garage.
What is your “just for me” indulgence, and how do you find time for it?
I like to walk in Seward Park and then go get a pastry and coffee at the Columbia City Bakery and read for awhile. Since I have a dog, I make time for the Seward Park part of that indulgence at least once a week, but the bakery/reading time is more infrequent. Sometimes when I have to get some really difficult work done, I go to the Columbia City library because there are fewer distractions than at home. Then I definitely treat myself to the bakery.
Who inspires you?
I am most inspired by women writers: Alice Munro, Sarah Waters, Lionel Shriver, Meghan Daum, Ann Patchett and my friend the writer Myla Goldberg. Myla and I have long detailed “Making It Work” conversations because she has two kids and a heavy workload. It helps to hear the details of other people's struggles to parent and get their work done.
Have you ever reached the point where you realized you had to do things differently as a working parent?
I was a stay-at-home mom before my daughter began school and at different times depending on my workload I had varying levels of part-time child care. It has been a constant process depending on the kind of work I am getting (or not getting) and how old she is.
The older [my daughter] gets, the more aggressive I have become about seeking freelance work and carving out time for my own comics and basically just getting my brain back in gear after the fog of the baby/toddler years.
However, I have noticed that I sometimes have periods of getting very preoccupied with work and stop paying much attention to her, like I'm only half-listening when we are chatting. I would like to always be available to her after school, even into her teen years — but I also know that I will have to be flexible depending on our financial situation. Occasionally, I must have a little talk with myself and remind myself how short her childhood is.
Meet Megan Kelso
Megan Kelso will speak in Olympia as part of a Washington Humanities series on Saturday May 2 at the Tumwater Timberland Library as part of a Comics Day event (intended for tweens and above).
Megan will also speak across Washington State as part of this same series throughout 2015. For more information visit humanities.org/programs/speakers.