We found out about Leah Wishnia via the impressive exhibition Fear of Punk//Fear of Art, held in Ontario last year. We got in touch with Leah to ask if she would like to do a cover for MRR, as her characteristic punk-meets-comics style won us over. While we were at it we picked her brain about a couple of things… Interview by Kyle Canyon and Lydia.
You got into comics at a young age. What originally drew you to them?
My dad was an avid comics reader (he had to get the latest issue of The Sandman every month) and would take me to the shops with him when I was as young as five or six. I really liked Ren & Stimpy, Roger Rabbit, and The Simpsons at the time, so I would get the comic versions of those titles. My interest was cemented though from my uncle’s then-girlfriend who was a cartoonist (she had work published by Fantagraphics and in Wimmen’s Comix) and we would draw comics together in my room. She encouraged me (along with the rest of my family) to “go against the grain” and follow my true freak self (to paraphrase), and I did so ever since.
Are there any comics you liked as a kid that you are politically/morally/ethically opposed to now?
For the most part, no. My favorite comics growing up were often those featured in Sara Dyer’s Action Girl, an anthology made by and for young women and girls alike. I did really dig the dark humor that cartoonists Edward Gorey and Charles Addams brought to the table—there is definitely racist imagery in some of Addams’ work, such as his “witch doctor” gags, which I uncomfortably took in, even then aware that the work was dated. Other than that, I think the most offensive stuff I experienced as a kid was from television, not comics.
What is the connection between punk and comics for you?
For me, both punk and underground comics are very much about working together as a community in addition to being in control of one’s own work. I don’t find that there’s much of a hierarchy in underground comics, so you can say what you want without fear of “losing your market audience” or getting fired, thus stuff can get pretty radical. Everyone’s kind of on the same level in the underground comic community, helping each other out, volunteering their time for each other, and often choosing to barter over strict monetary transactions. While most punk works outside of the mainstream music industry, underground comics work outside of both the extremely exploitive mainstream comics industry and the increasingly elitist, pandering-to-the-rich mainstream art market.
You do comics, prints, paintings, ceramics and video just to name a few. Are there any other mediums you aren’t doing now that you would like to be doing?
Hah, I’m actually thinking of going back to school to get a BA in political science for the spring 2015 term (preferably at CUNY Hunter—I currently hold a BFA from RISD). I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction to try to self-educate, but it’s not enough, I really want a solid liberal arts foundation, which I didn’t really get at art school. Plus, they have sculpture and ceramics studios I could use!
So you’re on Tumblr, what are the pros for you, especially in visual media, for online image sharing? Do you feel that it takes away from art show attendance or the demand for you physical releases because you can see it on the Internet?
No I don’t think it does. I only post excerpts of my comics online, so I expect if people want to read the whole thing, they’ll probably buy it, and I try to make my physical work pretty affordable. Many of the illustrations I post online are large-format prints (often screen-prints) in real life, and my original comic pages are also quite large and detailed, so I think that a tiny digital image pales in comparison. Ultimately I feel that having a strong internet presence makes more people aware of my work, so if someone happens to stumble upon it in a shop or at a festival, they’re more likely to recognize it and want to buy it.
Are there any bands that you would want to do art for? A specific favorite band of yours that you would love to collaborate with?
I really love La Misma, and would be totally down to do a flyer for them. Really any contemporary punk band with a kick-ass female lead (or all female musicians) I’d say yes to. The first punk show flyer I ever did was for Hysterics, Nuclear Spring, and In School, and I gotta say I’m pretty proud about that.
Who are some other punk-centric artists who you admire?
Sam Ryser, Eugene Terry, Tara Bursey, Jess Poplawski, and Heather Benjamin for flyers, and Anya Davidson, Abraham Díaz, Noel Freibert, Suzy Hex, Mike Funk, O. Horvath, and Nate Doyle for comics.
Punk music has lyrics, an easy way to convey a message. Do you think that with visual punk art it’s harder? Do you think it can really impact people in a serious way?
Yes! It definitely can. Comics are their own unique language, not just a story with pictures slapped on, or a series of pictures with words thrown about, so like any new language it can take some getting used to at first. Obviously some cartoonists convey their messages better than others, but when a powerful message is presented in a comic narrative, the resulting emotional impact can be very strong. I personally enjoy the emotional immediacy of Julie Doucet and Sophie Crumb’s work, and more recently Cathy Johnson, Suzy Hex, and O. Horvath’s work have really been resonating with me.
Last year you were part of a very neat exhibition in Canada called Fear of Punk // Fear of Art. Tell us about that, how did it go?
The show was hosted by Tara Bursey and Ben Needham (of School Jerks) and took place both in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, neither of which I was actually able to attend in person. But it sounded like it went well, and I enjoyed working with Tara and Ben. It was definitely exciting to be part of such a cool lineup of artist, including fellow NYCers Sam Ryser, Heather Benjamin, and Alex Heir.
Tell us a bit about your comic and art zine Happiness.
The first issue of Happiness came out in November 2011 and started strictly as a floppy comics anthology, with its intended purpose to give underground and up-and-coming comics artists a better platform for exposure. Since the release of the third issue in January 2013, it’s evolved into more of an all-encompassing comics, art, and culture anthology. With the format having almost tripled in page numbers, it now includes writing sections, reviews, and a “spotlight” arts section outside of comics. I’m currently wrapping up issue #4 (expected release is early June), which has a special “spotlight” on “art, music & community,” including a flyer art section, interviews with bands and artists who make or are involved with music, and a comp CD.
What do you have in the works right now? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Once I wrap up Happiness #4 production in a few weeks, I’m going to be working on a six-page comic for Karissa Sakumoto’s RUDE COMICS anthology. It’s going to be about a group of spoiled raver-type teens that go to see a performer named DJ FVCKTW∧T (Hijinks ensue). After that, I hope to work on a longer-format comic of my own to self-publish, maybe in a year or so. Keep your eyes peeled!