Graphically Speaking: Kris Dresen



(Interviewer: Alex Odom, GS Editor for SPACES)

krisdresenpicKris Dresen is an Eisner-nominated comics artist and writer living in Chicago. She is also a Xeric Grant recipient, has an Ignatz nomination, and  was recently mentioned by the New York Times. Her comics include: She Said, Grace, She’s in the Trees, Gone, Every Part of You is Familiar to Me, Max & Lily, and Manya–written by Jen Benka.

An often stream-of-consciousness ride of fun, flowing lines, Kris Dresen’s work is introspective and unabashedly sexual, exploring subtleties of relationships through visual metaphor, and the left unsaid.  


Alex: A lot of your comics are wordless; would you consider yourself an artist before a writer, or simply more of a visual storyteller?

Kris: I think visual storyteller works, but if I break it down, I’m really an artist who writes. To me, drawing and writing go hand in hand. I remember, as a kid, I would spend hours drawing and crafting stories in my head of what I was scribbling on the paper. Even in school, if I could do a drawing to accompany a writing assignment, I would. My attitude was “Why describe a tree when I could draw it?”

Alex: Would you talk a little bit about your process?

Kris: For my graphic novels, once I get the story straight in my head, I type out a formal script. It’s basically dialogue and simple scene descriptions. I do everything in my head first–writing, sketching, drawing. I have sketchbooks galore, but I never use them. When I’m ready to put something on the page, I want it to be fresh, not something I’ve worked over and over. I’ll occasionally sketch or write something on a scrap of paper to quickly see it, but other than that, what it is on the page is the first time it’s left my head.

The scripts are guidelines. I will edit as I go along because, as I draw, the characters will develop their visual personalities. Who they are on Page One may not be who they’ve become on Page Thirty. With Grace, I followed the script pretty faithfully. She Said had several chapters removed, and then for the print edition, I tweaked and changed a lot of the dialogue.

I then do my rough drawings, usually quick and loose at fifty percent or so of final size. I blow those up to print size, use them to do my tight pencils, and then I do the final drawings. So each page gets drawn three times. But I work quickly, so it’s not as time-consuming as it sounds.

As for drawing, I work mostly with pencil. When I was inking, I used Rapidographs. Now I ink digitally. I color and letter digitally as well.


Alex: The Manya comics were written by Jen Benka; how does your process differ working with a writer, as opposed to wearing both hats?

Kris: I very rarely work with writers, but those I work with best give me their script and say “Do what you do.” I’ll read the script over and over, visualizing it in my head, getting the pacing down, and make notes or scribbles here and there as visual guideposts. Other than that, everything else in the same. I do run the thumbs and pencils by the writer for approvals and revisions. But in most cases, they are happy with what I do. 

Alex: I really enjoyed reading the Max & Lily: Lets Begin Again, the commentary reminded me of a director’s cut; what made you decide to go back through Max & Lily like that?


Kris: Last year I was surprised when Max & Lily came in at #29 on a list of influential gay comic book characters. In the article, the author lamented that it was a shame that the comics weren’t online anywhere. I thought, you know, he’s right. I had been planning to resurrect the Max & Lily website for years, but building a website is a big job and I just didn’t have the time. Then I thought–Ooh, Tumblr! In order to flesh out the strips for those who are long-time fans and give some context to new readers, I thought adding my commentary would be cool and of some interest. Max & Lily comics all have some basis in my life at the time they were created. I’m finding I remember more about that period in my life than I thought I would!

Alex: Given all of that reflection, what advice do you have for comic creators?

Kris: I recently gave a lecture at the University of Wisconsin – Stout called “Shut Up & Draw” where I talked about my work in comics. My best advice is that if you really, really want to create comics, you need to stop talking about it and actually do it. Understand that it takes time–lots of it. That every comics creator I know live for doing their work. Hard work and patience have never NOT paid off.


Alex: While it seems all of your comics are online, many of them are also available in paperback; in this world of squinting evening commuters peeking over real pages, across the L-Train, at a sneering grin, glowing in the Kindle light, where do you stand on the web versus print debate?

Kris: Web, tablet, print – I love it all. I will always favor print. My day job is in publishing and I have always loved books, magazines, and newspapers. But I also enjoy digital because of its immediacy. I can buy and download a book at 3AM. I can read uncountable webcomics online everyday. My Kindle has replaced the pile of books on my bedstand, but I’ll still take a paperback to read in the bath. Who cares how people consume media as long as they are consuming it? By having my comics on the web, anybody in the world can read them. If they were still only in print, then maybe 3000 people see them. And not many of those would be outside of the U.S.


Alex: Do you think that it has it become necessary to do both?

Kris: For some, yes. As this generation who knows nothing but reading on a screen ages, print, I think, as a means of mass distribution will fade. It won’t disappear, though.  As print becomes more and more boutique, I think we’ll also see more books treated as art, as objects to be admired for their beauty as well as for their content.

Alex: What inspires you?

Kris: Inspiration can come from a word, music, artwork, anything. But I don’t consciously seek out anything with inspiration in mind.

Alex: So, who’s on your bookshelf these days?

Kris: On the bookshelf I can see from here, I have books on Hopper, Degas, and books by Shaun Tan, and Maira Kalman. But I have lots of comic strip collections of Doonesbury, Calvin & Hobbes, Cul du Sac… y’know, the classics. And countless graphic novels and children’s books.

Alex: The first few pages of Broken Birdhouse look great; what can readers expect from this comic?


Kris: Well, it’s not really a comic. It’s more of a picture book with sequential art storytelling. There is a story, and it becomes apparent as more and more pages are posted. So, be patient! Consider it me posting lots of pretty drawings for now.

Alex: When we first talked, you mentioned liking Pixar and the movie Blade Runner, and here at SPACES, we like things mixed ‘n matched, scrambled, and conjoined, so I devised a little essay question, SPACES style;

If Wall E the robot, and Rick Deckard, Android Hunter, were to share the big screen, what would the plot of the movie be, and, more importantly, is Rick ruthless enough to retire an escaped Wall E?

Kris: Oh, man. This is what I imagine writing fanfic is like. The only thing that pops in my head is a series of scenes from Bladerunner with Wall E “hiding” from Deckard disguised as various characters – the guy behind the noodle bar, the guy who makes the eyes, Pris….Come on, Wall E cartwheeling down the hall? Hilarious.


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