Emily Flake has been illustrating our comic complacence with our own bad thoughts and behaviors for nearly a decade. Lulu Eightball, her alt-weekly comic, has been compiled into two anthologies (2005 and 2009, Atomic Book Company) and syndicated in as many as 10 different papers. In addition to those two books, Flake has an illustrated memoir, These Things Ain’t Gonna Smoke Themselves: A
Love, Hate, Love, Hate, Love Letter to a Very Bad Habit (Bloomsbury, 2007), and has recently joined the prestigious ranks of cartoonists at the New Yorker. I met Emily on a cold, wet Monday afternoon in Park Slope’s Ozzie’s Coffee and Tea to ask her about her work, her favorite reads, and how she plans to make us laugh at our many shortcomings in the future.
Allegra Frazier (Rail): There’s a line in These Things Ain’t Gonna Smoke Themselves: “Today, we all know better. And we go ahead and do it anyway.” It refers to smoking, of course, but I could apply this phrase to a lot of Lulu Eightball’s adventures, too. It seems to me that one of your grander themes is how aware and complacent we are in terms of our own mundane badness. It isn’t critique so much as mere observation, in and of itself a little complacent (this is a significant source of the humor, I think). Is this something you intended from the get-go or is it more the way your voice and work developed?
Emily Flake: I think it’s one of the richest veins for comedy. And it’s just been such a running theme throughout my whole life. My best friend told me years ago that my epitaph would probably be, “So I ate it anyway.” I would say that one of my most frequently felt feelings is: Christ, whatever. I mean, I know better. But what are you going to do? I mean, I know I’m supposed to pay my student loan on time. But I certainly do not.
Rail: One of the strongest points of These Things Ain’t Gonna Smoke Themselves is that we struggle to give up our vices because without them we’d become strangers to ourselves. We don’t necessarily want to become healthy, happy people. And that’s not very good news. Does it seem to you that discovering what jerks we are is eased at all when we discover it through a graphic format?
Flake: Yeah. I would think so. Especially—it’s an easier coating on things, I think. It makes it relatable, it makes it cuter. It makes it less like you’re being sort of lectured to. If the book had been populated by rainbows and cartoon bears, it would have been even easier.
Rail: Well, easier to ignore, at a certain point.
Flake: Yeah, that too. But I think any format that makes people feel more like they’re being related to or understood will help the message sort of get in there easier.
Rail: It also seems like its being relatable doesn’t have entirely to do with the graphics. It doesn’t come off as a lecture. Even without the graphics it might be effective. Though much shorter.
Flake: I put the pictures in to make it longer. But it’s not a prescriptive book. It’s more like: I have this problem also, and I battle it. And totally haven’t won it. I don’t know if that necessarily helps them win whatever battle, but it might give them some comfort while they’re fighting it.
Rail: These Things Ain’t Gonna Smoke Themselves is not your only book, but it is the only book that was written with the intention of being presented in that format. What challenges did that present?
Flake: I’m a freelance illustrator, so I’m really used to deadlines. But I’ve never had a deadline that long—like a couple months. I almost found that amount of time sort of paralyzing. I was like, oh, I should get to work on that book, but what if I fuck it up? Once I had the thing written, it was pretty clear-cut what I had to do with the pages. It wasn’t as hard as coming up with cartoon ideas. But it was definitely an interesting experience having a long term project like that. Not entirely unpleasant. And I did like the money. Money is fucking great.
Rail: How difficult is it for you to come up with cartoon ideas?
Flake: Pretty difficult. There’s a lot of staring and despair, and, you know, doodling little chickens and stuff like that. I mean, it’s not working in the salt mines—but it can be quite challenging. I’m also a massive procrastinator. So there’s also an element of: I need to have this idea right now! To the point where I find it hard to come up with stuff if I decide I’m going to be really virtuous and start on these things, like, a week early. Nothing happens. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Rail: I’ve read that Graham Roumieu, Edel Rodriguez, and Edward Gorey are some of your visual and comedic inspirations—Lynda Barry is in there too. Are there any non-graphic books that have really influenced your sense of humor or otherwise inspired you?
Flake: We always had National Lampoon around the house, which I loved. I really loved the Airplane! movies when I was a kid. I loved that coarse, stupid humor. But it terms of books—you know, I liked a lot of heavy shit when I was kid. I learned to read pretty early, which made people think I was smart—boy, were they disappointed—but I liked apocalypse novels, like 1984. Dystopian stuff about the destruction of mankind. I wasn’t so much into humorous books when I was a kid. I loved stand up comedy, and I still do, but in terms of literature, I always—well, as a kid, I punched fairly high in my weight class in terms of reading stuff. There were a lot of things I read and I didn’t even get. You know, no 14-year-old understands Nietzsche, but they think they’re super cool if they know who he is. Luckily I went to art school, where they were just happy we even knew how to read.
Rail: It’s interesting that you say that about the kind of literature you were drawn to, because a lot of the Lulu comics refer to pretty heavy topics. Post-apocalyptic and otherwise.
Flake: Yeah. I don’t know how to deal with heavy shit other than joking about it. It’s sort of a knee jerk reaction. I think Joan Rivers might have said something like, “There’s nothing so bad you can’t make a joke about it.” And you have to, cause if you don’t laugh you’ll die crying.
Rail: Do you have a favorite Lulu?
Flake: A very early one. “Every time you fuck up, God punches your guardian angel in the face.” That was before I’d even settled into the quarter format. I also like “Dirty Little Girl Scout Cookies.” There’s one called “Improving the Cooter,” which I think everyone hated but me.
Rail: How does it feel to be inducted into the pantheon of New Yorker cartoonists?
Flake: Kind of awesome. It’s pretty great. It helps my parents understand that I do a thing. They seem fuzzy on exactly how it is I make a living. They don’t read the New Yorker, but they have heard of it. And they know those cartoons are a big deal. It’s fantastic. I’m still kind of like, wow. It’s a good calling card for things. When I send out for illustration work, it makes me look like slightly hotter shit. Hotter than my filthy alt-weekly comic, you know? I’m a lucky lady.
Rail: Though some cartoonists for the New Yorker do have a great deal of text within their frames (Roz Chast comes to mind), you generally opt for the more standard single caption format.
Flake: I feel like Roz Chast is one of a few people who can get away with the text in frame. They definitely go more for the caption kind of deal, and I think it’s a rare cartoonist who breaks out of that format. When I started sending stuff in, I did play more to that aesthetic. I actually sold one to them that had text in the frame, but it was sort of topical and they didn’t run it, and then it was too late and they sent it back. It was a joke about Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and I was really hoping that Woody Allen would see it and, you know, invite me over for tea or a game of squash or something. ‘Cause that’s how that works.
Rail: Do you have any new projects in the works, or is the New Yorker keeping you pretty busy?
Flake: The New Yorker does keep me pretty busy. I do a lot of editorial illustration. But major new projects—I have some ideas percolating. I probably have one more Lulu Eightball compendium in me. I kind of always said I’d quit after 10 years or when I ran out of ideas, whichever came first. But, you know. You could argue that I ran out of ideas years ago.
Rail: You can write a book about struggling to quit Lulu Eightball.
Flake: I know. She’s going to give me cancer. But, yeah, I have a friend who’s a writer, and we’ve been talking about working on some projects together.
Rail: That’s actually really interesting, because I was going to ask if you had ever considered a collaboration.
Flake: Oh, yeah. It can be a lot of fun to have someone to bounce ideas off of, especially if I’m doing more of the drawing work and she’s doing the writing work. I’ve worked on proposals with friends and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I think it’s always nice to at least have someone around to creatively bat things back and forth with. It’s a good relief from the solitary nature of drawing and cartooning.
Rail: Early in your career, what advice was given to you that you found particularly helpful?
Flake: Tenacity. Professors were like, it’s pretty rare that anything happens over night, so you’ve really just got to stick with it, keep plugging away at it. They might have been casting a particular eye in my direction, like, you might have some trouble.
Rail: So the best advice you ever got was people not believing in you.
Flake: Well, yeah. I work a lot better with a stick than a carrot. I feel like, I’m gonna show you jerks. But, yeah, I guess tenacity and don’t fuck up deadlines. If someone is asking you to do something in a professional capacity, if you fuck it up, you won’t be asked to do it again. That was pretty helpful.
I quit my day job to freelance full time four years ago, which has been fantastic. But I worked for a lot of years. I was a very bad secretary; I was decent waitress. I worked in the music industry for a long time. But I was always freelancing on the side. What I always had in the back of my mind was that no one gets there over night. Well, no, some people do. But fuck them.