KELSEY WROTEN IS A freelance illustrator and comics artist in KC, MO. She has worked with clients like The New Yorker, Nike, Nick Magazine, Hershey, Warby Parker, Vice and Bitch magazine. She has been self publishing comics under the name Jukebox Comix since 2008. Her work has won several awards including 3 Society of Illustrators Student awards, an AIGA award, 3 Gold circle awards, an ACP cartooning award, and a Jay Kennedy National Cartooning Award finalist nomination. She loves coffee, craft beer, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
WAS CREATIVITY A BIG PART OF GROWING UP? WHEN DID YOU KNOW ILLUSTRATION WAS WHAT YOU WANTED TO DO?
I DON’T COME FROM A VERY CREATIVE FAMILY. My parents don’t know where I came from! I think I started writing creatively when I was very little. My dad had one of those dot matrix printers with the perforated paper, and I would print my stories out on that and then illustrate them. Usually I was just copying characters from a book I had read like Poppy or My Father’s Dragon. Basically proto-fanfiction. I mean the illustrations from My Father’s Dragon are pretty kick ass. I probably just wanted to draw like them, I still want to. I didn’t know I wanted to be an illustrator until I was a year or so into community college. I was studying computer programming at the time, and I sucked at it. One of my elective art professors said I should transfer to KCAI. I didn’t take drawing super seriously until KCAI. I did it as a hobby (very poorly) but I never thought I could actually make a career out of it. It still blows my mind that there are kids who go to Arts high schools and preschools and whatever, like they have known their whole life it was possible to be an “Artist” when they grew up and had families that encouraged it. I just found out like 5 years ago and took a gamble!
“MY DAD HAD ONE OF THOSE DOT MATRIX PRINTERS WITH THE PERFORATED PAPER, AND I WOULD PRINT MY STORIES OUT ON THAT AND THEN ILLUSTRATE THEM.”
MANY OF YOUR COMICS DEPICT BADASS FEMALE CHARACTERS WHO ARE COMIC ARTISTS. WOULD YOU CONSIDER THESE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL IN ANYWAY?
WHEN YOU PUT IT THAT WAY, I guess there is no denying it. I try to switch it up, but I like writing about creative queer women. That’s my experience, so I like to share it. I also feel like lots of folks identify with it in some way, I hope my comics make that kind of connection with people. However, the specifics are largely made up in all my stories. Every now and then I use a snippet of a conversation I had or overheard someone having into the stories, but they are not autobiographical. I have actually written a few D&D style high-fantasy comics, but that appeals to a different audience I guess? In short, I don’t aim to be autobiographical, it just ends up feeling that way. I aim for a good story.
“I LIKE WRITING ABOUT CREATIVE QUEER WOMEN. THAT’S MY EXPERIENCE, SO I LIKE TO SHARE IT.”
WHO OR WHAT DO YOU LOOK TO FOR INSPIRATION? HOW DID YOU DEVELOP YOUR ILLUSTRATION STYLE?
I CAME TO DRAWING THROUGH WRITING. Eventually the writing and the drawing merged, that’s where the comics stuff comes from. I made Captain Underpants meets Invader Zim style comics with a friend of mine in middle school. We probably have at least 100 pages of those comics. Then I read Ghost World when I was 18 and it changed my world. I realized you could make compelling, literary, comics. They didn’t have to be superheros or gags. Like I said, I came to this late in the game—ha. Honestly, most of my work is just an homage to Ghost World.
Nowadays, I keep a little notebook in my backpack at all times that I write my thoughts for comics down in so I don’t forget. This is actually a tool that a lot of writers and creatives use, I believe it’s called a common place book. I write down factoids and memories, and lines from songs that inspire me. Anything that gives me a gut feeling that it should be written down. I know a story is hidden in my notebook, if I connect all the scribbles.
“I DON’T AIM TO BE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL.
IT JUST ENDS UP FEELING THAT WAY. I AIM FOR A GOOD STORY.”
WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST GUILTY PLEASURE?
OHH. I LOVE REALLY BAD TELEVISION AND MOVIES, real mind numbing stuff. Even better, I love watching that stuff and critiquing it like a great film, as if hilarious decisions were made intentionally with some lofty concept in mind. I also eat a lot of gas station nachos. Like a suicidal amount.
The work you have contributed to Vice is incredible. Do you approach this work differently than you would a personal comic or zine?
THANK YOU! I FEEL LIKE I’VE GROWN A LOT as an illustrator and storyteller since the last comic I did for them. The comics I’ve done in the past year have all been “spoken for” by publishers so I haven’t been able to share them online as much. That being said, the comics I did for Vice were zines I just made for myself. I got a little encouragement from my illustrator friend John Malta to just send them to Vice and see what happened. Nick Gazin liked them (for the most part, he hated the way I drew noses, now I agree) and said he’d put them up. Simple as that!
HOW OFTEN DO YOU COLLABORATE WITH OTHER MAKERS? IS THIS AN IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR PROCESS?
I LIKE COLLABORATING WITH OTHERS, but I honestly don’t get to do it very often. The only exception to that is when I’m working with art directors and editors, which happens very often. I do ask for others’ opinions fairly often when I’m working on a large project, especially a comic. It’s hard letting people read stuff you know isn’t quite there yet, but it usually helps you get there. My friends become de facto editors on personal projects. I’m also terrible at spelling, so this is super necessary!
WHAT ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT TODAY?
I AM WORKING ON A PRETTY LARGE DIGITAL comics project I hope a lot of people will like. It’s different than the Vice work, very fantasy driven. I can’t tell you a whole lot about it other than it comes out early Summer. I’ve also been doing a lot of editorial work recently, which is something I want to get more of. I just did my first Illustration for the New Yorker that should be coming out soon. I think a lot of people see me as a comics artist only, but I also do a lot of editorial illustration. That’s exciting for me because you only get like two days to make a killer piece, concept to completion. If you can do that well, then it’s kind of magical considering some folks have the luxury of spending months on one piece.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH IN 2016?
I FEEL LIKE I CAN’T SAY TOO MUCH HERE or I’ll jinx something. I would really love to work on a graphic novel with a print publisher. I’ve had a lot of people asking for an extension on Cannonball (one of the comics on Vice). I’d also just like to do more work with bigger and bigger clients. I love my life! I just want to keep up the momentum.
WHAT ARE THREE THINGS YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT?
CAFFEINE, caffeine and caffeine.
IS THERE A DREAM PROJECT YOU’D LIKE TO WORK ON EVENTUALLY?
I FEEL LIKE EVERYTHING IS JUST BEGINNING for me. Everything is a dream project, I’m still just stoked to get to be an illustrator for a living. I’d love to work with a great team on a cartoon at some point. Any sort of animation. I’m not an animator, but I see so many comics artists working on cartoons now. It would be awesome to someday pitch a show or something like that.
DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK? IF SO, WHAT KIND OF MUSIC OR TRACKS DO YOU LISTEN?
YES. SO MUCH MUSIC. I blast it. I legitimately listen to all kinds of music. At this moment I’m listening to Camera Obscura, one of my favorite bands. I don’t just stick to that sort of indie tender core music though. I listen to tons of pop punk, folk/americana, 50’s crooners, Britney Spears, lounge music, yeye, video game soundtracks, classic country even speed metal occasionally… whatever suits my mood!
“EVERYTHING IS A DREAM PROJECT. I’M STILL JUST STOKED TO GET TO BE AN ILLUSTRATOR FOR A LIVING.”
UNIQUE TO KANSAS CITY, WHAT IS ONE LOCAL RESTAURANT, STORE, OR SPACE YOU LOVE?
WELL THERE ARE MANY! I spend a lot of time (read: loiter) at several local establishments. My faves would have to be Maker Goods, because you can get all the best pens and pencils there and Ben and Felicia are awesome. Filling Station because the coffee and the environment are great (I also designed a t-shirt for them!). I also love having white russians with friends at Harry’s in Westport. There are probably a lot more places, but I was supposed to only list one…