THOUGHT BUBBLE 2023! Back in the early days of the pandemic cartoonist Rachael Smith brought people together in those darkest of days with her powerfully relatable Quarantine Comix. Over the last several months her autobio work has been reaching new audiences online with Nap Comix, her short strips about life as a new mum. With an exhibition of Nap Comix at Thought Bubble this year we’re opening our TB fortnight of coverage today with an interview with Smith who talks about her autobiographical comics, interacting with your readers, and a year that has seen no less than four books from four different publishers featuring her work…
ANDY OLIVER: Nap Comix is the latest in your long line of autobiographical comics but because of its subject matter it may be pulling in a whole new audience to your work. So for the uninitiated who are the cast of characters – both real and representational – that readers can expect to see in the strips?
RACHAEL SMITH: Well, there’s me (the mum), Rob (the dad) and Henry (the baby). Those are the characters that I think are pretty self-explanatory, but new folks MAY be confused by the two big talking dogs. The black dog is Barky – he represents my depression and anxiety, and the white one is Friendly – who represents my positivity, logic, and common sense. They are both just a part of my brain – so they only ever interact with me, although they will make their opinions known on other people!
AO: How therapeutic is it for you as a new mum to be able to put down these reflections on motherhood as short comics?
SMITH: Very! Being a new mum can often be quite lonely, so it was really wonderful to put comics out there to connect with others who are in my place, or have been in the past.
AO: What have the reactions to Nap Comix been like so far, particularly in regards to those readers in the same situation? What have been some of your favourite interactions with readers?
SMITH: I’ve had a lot of people say they really relate to my comics, which is lovely. My favourite interaction so far was at the Lakes comics festival; my friend (I won’t name her) came to my table and told me she’d really been enjoying following the comics, and went on to explain that while her baby was Henry’s age she was trying to escape an abusive relationship, so didn’t feel like she had been present for a lot of her child’s babyhood – but my comics were reminding her of so many things, so she felt like she was catching up. It was so humbling to hear that my little, scribbly comics could be such a comfort to someone like that. We both cried!
AO: What are the advantages of releasing the strips online in terms of establishing a fanbase and generating discussion?
SMITH: It’s been good I think! Getting to grips with Webtoon has been a learning curve for me – and I’m still not convinced it’s the best home for Nap Comix as a lot of the readers on there are much younger than me – so maybe not that many parents – BUT it has been really good to have a place to send people to easily read all the episodes at once. When I did Quarantine Comix I just popped them on my different social media accounts so sometimes folk had to scroll through my political rants and cat pics to find the latest comic! I still put Nap Comix on the social accounts too of course, I probably get the most engagement on instagram, I’ve had some very kind comments.
AO: Has it crossed your mind that in years to come you’re going to have a baby album quite unlike any other?
SMITH: Someone said to me the other week: ‘Henry is going to love reading these when he’s older!’ and that was actually the first time I’d considered it, haha! I think I’m very ‘present’ when I make these comics, or any of my autobio comics, so it’s hard for me to think of them being read in years to come!
AO: Are there any plans for a collection of Nap Comix?
SMITH: Yes! I have no idea where or when or what it will look like – but again, at the Lakes fest – SO many people came to my table to ask about the Nap Comix book! Some were even LOOKING for it to buy then and there! So…now that I know there’s definite interest I will be finding a home for the comix in book form as soon as I’m ready.
AO: The idiosyncrasies of publishing schedules mean that in the last ten months or so there’s been a *lot* of Rachael Smith work hitting the bookshelves at the same time. Firstly can I ask you about Glass Half Empty (Icon) – your autobio comic about your relationship with alcohol – which is perhaps your mostly intensely personal work to date. How vulnerable did you feel untangling so many complex emotional threads on the comics page? And how important do you feel it was that such a rarely covered subject in comics should be tackled in such an honest and uncompromising fashion?
SMITH: That was a really odd one because when it came out Henry was only 3 months old so I was still buried in very early motherhood. It was like being in a bubble! So I sort of missed the conversations about that book coming out. I’ve had some really lovely emails and messages about it though. It’s the book I’m most proud of so far. I only feel vulnerable when I read it back, and I don’t really do that with my work very often so I think I’m alright! I do feel a little bit weird about it though because I’ve actually given up alcohol altogether now – and in the book I say that I still drink occasionally…so it’s sort of a lie now…but it was true at the time so maybe it’s fine…
AO: You’ve also had Isabella & Blodwen (Cast Iron Books), the second volume of The Queen’s Favorite Witch (Papercutz) with Ben Dickson, and the “how to” guide Snippets: 52 Weeks of Diary Comics (David & Charles) released in recent months. Can you tell us a little about those projects in terms of different approaches and collaboration?
SMITH: I’m still so proud of Isabella & Blodwen. I think it’s my best storytelling ever, and it’s the only one of my books that (and I’m going to sound like such a diva here…) I think deserved more success. It’s partly my fault though because, again, it came out when I was drowning in nappies and muslin cloths, so maybe it would have done better if I’d put my whole self behind the marketing. I put my whole self behind the creation of it though – and if you have to choose one, then I think I chose right. Perhaps there’s still time for some celeb to endorse it out of the blue on Twitter and suddenly it’ll shoot up the charts, haha! I had a ball creating it though, I got to research old English folklore for weeks and also gallivant around Oxford taking shedloads of reference photos – good times!
Snippets was a lot of fun to create with the crew at David & Charles. I did some comics and explained my process and came up with some layout ideas for the bits that the reader fills in – but the editors at D&C did a lot of the work for me after that. It was a joy to work with such talented, passionate, creative people.
The pages for Queen’s Favorite Witch Vol. 2 were finished right up to the wire – I started my mat leave right after I’d sent the last one in! It’s been wonderful to bring Ben’s characters to life. He really has a knack for writing loveable, flawed, messy people and I love drawing them!
AO: There’s a Nap Comix exhibition in Harrogate for Thought Bubble. What can attendees expect to see at that?
SMITH: We have the original artwork for 24 of my favourite Nap Comix episodes on display at Destination Venus/the Everyman Cinema in Harrogate. The open evening is on Friday 10th November at 6-8pm where I’ll be interviewed by comic shop owner and comic aficionado Regie Rigby. We’ll also have some limited edition prints available – and there’s a bar! You should come say hi and hang out! Henry will even be there for a bit of it! After the open evening the exhibition will be open to the public for two weeks.
AO: And finally, if it’s not a ridiculous question in the circumstances, what else are you working on right now? What can we see from Rachael Smith in 2024?
SMITH: I’m working on The Queen’s Favorite Witch Vol. 3 – the final instalment of Ben’s saga (for NOW anyway), and I’m also putting together a book about being pregnant, as I wrote a lot of comics in pregnancy but didn’t get a chance to draw them. I read through them the other day – they’re quite funny! So hopefully other people will think so too! I’ve also got a space opera type thing that I’ve been picking away at for AGES which I hope to release as a webcomic sometime…that might be a little while off though. You’ll be the first to know when there’s any news of that though, Andy 😉 Other than that I’m just wrangling Henry, which is the best job in the world. x
Rachael Smith is at Table K11 in the Bubbleboy Hall at Thought Bubble 2023
Interview by Andy Oliver