Georgia Webber on Dumb, Self-Publishing and Cartoonist Communities

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In 2012, Georgia Webber couldn’t use her voice for more than a few minutes a day. Searching for a viable mode of communication, Webber turned to comics, leading to the creation of Dumb—a self-published series that follows Webber’s journey as she navigates life without a voice. Webber is poised to release three new issues at this year’s TCAF (Toronto Comics Art Festival).

Since its inception, Dumb has grown beyond Webber herself. The cartoonist serializes the work digitally at GeorgiasDumbProject.com, but the print editions feature introductions from cartoonists like Whit Taylor and Julie Maroh, as well as professionals in sound studies. In these writings, the idea of voice is abstracted and expanded, and it becomes applicable in matters of race, linguistics and even physics.

Georgia sat down with us to discuss Dumb’s past, present and future and easing anxiety through the arts.

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Paste: Dumb looks completely different from any other comic I’ve read. How did you arrive at its unique aesthetic?
Webber: My aesthetic is not something that I chose. It’s more something that I had to discover as I was trying to tell my story, because I wasn’t drawing all that much; I hadn’t drawn in a long time when I started. And so I knew a lot of comics that I really liked, and I knew how beautiful a really honed technique could make a story. But I didn’t really have that, so I was just trying to make it as clear as possible, because I knew I didn’t have that much control.

So the aesthetic that I chose was mostly guided by storytelling devices—or to make it easier on myself. I was like, “If I get really invested in accuracy or beautiful backgrounds, it’s gonna take me so long, and I’m gonna discourage myself.” So the way I chose to draw it was chosen partly to make sure I would sustain drawing it and partly to make sure the things I was saying were as clear as possible. I’d say that the biggest influence that exists in the whole thing is Bill Watterson, and I’m doing my best interpretation of that whole style of expressive and somewhat-simplified drawing.

It’s so minimalist that it can change a lot, and that was another way that it could be easy on me—to make sure that, story by story, it would work. But it could also change if the story needed something.

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Paste : You talked about not having drawn comics in a while. As a kid, were you drawing a lot of comics and then you fell off for a while?
Webber: I drew incessantly as a child, because—well, I don’t really know why. My parents had a hard time getting me to stop. I’d go to bed after a day of drawing for six straight hours and be upset because I couldn’t draw more: “I wasn’t done! Why are you making me stop?” But I was also not that social as a child. It was a good way to keep myself engaged. And then taking that very comforting and natural practice of drawing all the time into art class in school—that’s kind of what killed it for me. In high school I kind of dropped it all together, and I was more focused on my external world, as opposed to my internal one, because friends and identity forming and all those things were more important to me at the time.

I only picked it up again when I had a project in a non-traditional art class in my last year of high school. But it was only in that last year, so I was like 16-17 at the time. I had this unit in class on comics, and I was like, “Oh! I love writing. And I used to love drawing. This is something I could probably do.” And so I drew for a little while there for a year or two in this independent study. But I got so excited about it then that I decided to run a publication for a little while. And running the publication really took a precedence over drawing things. And by the time that I got to drawing Dumb it had been, like, five years since I had really done a comic.

Paste : Were you still involved in comics between the periods when you were making them yourself, or did you move away from them completely?
Webber: I still loved them. I still thought they were where I would end up, and where I needed to be. But I was very invested in and working in small-press publishing at the time, so I was very overwhelmed by that a lot of the time.

But I was doing things here and there, like volunteering a little for TCAF, and picking things up to read them every once in a while. Not as much as I would’ve liked. I actually felt pretty daunted when I would read a comic, where I’d get so overwhelmed by the sense of awe at this person having done all this work and the beauty of the art. I would just get so overwhelmed by it that it felt like something I could never do. So I was very heavily involved, but I was very lightly invested.

Paste : Obviously Dumb is a really personal story, and I’ve been curious why you chose comics to do it, why you thought comics was the place to express this.
Webber: I’ve thought about it more since [starting], because it was a good excuse to push myself to make the comics that I’d always been wanting to make. I’ve thought about it more, and comics makes more sense for this, because it’s a very particular and interesting challenge for me to think about a story that is entirely about something audio based, something audible—and intangible in many ways, except for your own sensation of vibrations in your body. Those are all things you can’t easily convey in comics. It’s this big challenge for me to make this silent medium speak to people.

I’m still in the thick of really picking that apart in the issue I’m working on now. And also there’s this element to autobio that I love. In writing, if you’re writing about yourself, you reveal yourself slowly through your voice, through the words that you choose, through the events that you show. But in comics, the first drawing you do of yourself tells the reader so much about what you think of yourself that isn’t going to come through in just words. It’s not conscious. Like, when I’m drawing myself, I just need some signifiers so that everybody knows this is me whenever I appear in the comic: it’s these things. It’s the hairstyle that I have, and it’s the dots for eyes, and the lips have to be defined because I have to be able to put lipstick on them later. I wear a lot of similar clothes, and the boots that I wear. And those are the identifiers, and that’s all I was focused on. Thinking about that later, I was like, “It’s so interesting that I didn’t think I need to convey myself with any more complexity than that,” and I wasn’t concerned with making myself look really pretty or, like…anything specific. I was just like, “Give these basic, iconic things that people can grab on to and that’s enough, okay, move on.” In doing that, I didn’t realize how much I was saying about how I thought I should be represented to other people. I like reading other people’s autobio work, where they chose to make their head an animal head, or convey themselves with a sort of childish air about them, or with their imperfections really exaggerated. I think that’s really revealing and works really well for me and the things I want to say.

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Paste : And has that realization of this unconscious way that you draw yourself forced you to rethink about this time, or your personal identity?
Webber: I’m not sure I have a better answer for that than the comics themselves, because all my self-reflection is then whittled down to things that I think are the most important there, and how I’m trying to tell the story.

Paste : Do you think that would’ve been different if you had produce these issues in rapid succession, if you had to just churn them out without getting a moment to stop and reflect on what you were doing?
Webber: I think I’d have to be a different person for that to happen. I’m really not good with imposed instructions. I really can’t listen very well to anyone else’s ideas about what I should be doing, because I have such strong and loud ideas myself. I can’t envision a scenario in which I would actually feel the pressure to push out a bunch of comics with a deadline that forced me to compromise the quality of the comics, because I would probably quit if that was something being imposed upon me. I’d probably just say, “No, I’m not gonna do that.” So yes, I do think they would be very different…I think they would be worse. There would just be such a thin quality without multiple layers of thought going into every one of them and the time that that requires. So I just don’t get into those situations; even for myself, the deadlines I uphold for myself, I still check back in and say, “Here’s what I want to do, and there are all these reasons for it, but is this going to mess with the work itself?”

Paste : People talk about if you’re not doing it every day, it’s really easy to fall behind [on the craft, on momentum]. Do you find it difficult to maintain that motivation and that momentum to continue to make Dumb?
Webber: I mean, I’m balancing my whole life, right? It’s not like I just have comics to do all the time. I certainly wouldn’t be able to survive if that were the case. And that’s constant. I haven’t figured out any method or formula that works for me. I’m really just everyday being like, “How can I do the things I would like to do?” Maybe the things I would like to do aren’t going to serve me the best, they’re not gonna serve the work the best. Maybe my body needs other things too that I have to take care of first. I really don’t understand how people are drawing all the day all the time.

I’ve spent some parts of my life doing that, some parts of Dumb doing that, where I just made it this very intense, long workday, but I don’t think the work I produced out of that was actually better. I think it was just as good as it would be if I just worked for a week or two at a time and then took a bunch of time off, which is what I’m sort of focusing on now. Because those times that I’ve spent drawing more, I’ve hurt my body. Like, my hands are quite delicate now, and I have to be more responsive when they start to hurt and more careful with the times I chose to draw or not draw.

Paste : How big a role does the cartooning community play in your work and your personal life? How important that is to being a cartoonist?
Webber: I’d say it’s critical, because, as a human being, I can’t function outside of all communities. I was very lucky to find comics and feel it to be so warm and welcoming. I’ve been interested in other areas and found them to be too intimidating. Like trying to get into music when I was younger and—oh god, everyone is so cool and there’s so many crazy politics things and, y’know, they’re so cool. Too cool for me. And that’s such the opposite experience I’ve had with comics, and I have a real feeling of gratitude towards this industry’s openness and enthusiasm and the supportive nature of most relationships. And so to me, being a part of that is paying it forward to whoever is around.

The people I’ve met have been so lovely and encouraging, and I don’t know that I ever would’ve been making comics without them there saying, “You can totally do this, don’t be so hard on yourself, don’t take your own self down before you’ve even put something out, and we all go through this. And this is really worth it. It’s difficult but let’s do it together.”

Paste : Do you think you’d still have those same relationships if you weren’t self-publishing?
Webber: I don’t know. Because there is a closeness and a connectedness that you end up with when you’re the person who’s physically there interacting with people. If I was just handing off my work and saying, “Someone else takes care of all my publicity, or all my printing stuff,” it wouldn’t feel as much mine, maybe? I just wouldn’t know the people who are on the other end of that…I just think that a lot of good things can come out of humans connecting with other humans in an open and positive way. Which isn’t to say there’s no place for negativity or criticism, it’s just like, I definitely don’t want to be sitting away from all of that. I want to be sitting close to it and in the middle of it. That’s maybe just a personality thing. I know lots of people who are much more introverted, and they require much more alone time to take care of themselves. There’s nothing wrong with it, I just also want to be someone who makes them feel comfortable stepping out of that when they’re ready. And maybe doing everything myself is a just another [thing] to connect with people over. Or maybe I’m just a big control freak and I can’t handle other people touching my work. [Laughs]

Paste : A lot of people talk about how difficult it is to self-publish. But it seems like you really like it, and you get a lot out of it. What’s the plan for after Dumb ?
Webber: That’s a good question. I really can’t answer for sure, mostly because I’ve been having so many problems with my body not reacting well to the things that are required of it just to sit and draw or sit and be at a computer. That’s been really painful for me. I love comics, and I have some more ideas that I’d love to pursue and projects that I’d love to get into. I’m just kind of wary committing to anything just because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to physically do it without really damaging myself. So I’m feeling it out, but the next burning project that I have is not comics at all, so I’m gonna go check that out and see where it takes me.

Paste : What is that?
Webber: [Laughs]. It’s a podcast. Dumb is going to be a podcast. And that’s because the project itself led me through my own experience of voicelessness and the ways that can be both a physical and immediate thing and also an abstract idea, a presence in the world. The term “voice” really stands in for lots of different words, like “identity” and “autonomy,” and it’s all stuff I haven’t had—I’ve had this experience, this one I’ve been writing about, and there are so many more. So I got into making these comics and I got into putting introductions in each one, because I wanted to include more of these stories, more people’s experiences, and then I realized that wasn’t enough.

And also I want to actually use voices in my creative expression. It seems perfectly suited. That’s the next thing I’m looking at. I’m not even sure what comics are gonna happen. I have a couple more of the anxiety-based comics that I put on The Hairpin, so I’m going to finish that—I think I’ve got, like, two more that I’m going to put up. And then [I’m going to] see if anything else is feasible for my physical state and just kind of go day by day.

Paste : Regarding The Hairpin comics, they’re clearly something you have a personal connection with and you’ve dealt with anxiety first hand. What has that relationship been like and how has it affected your life?
Webber: Anxiety is a deep, deep part of my identity and existence. I don’t even a have a full understanding of it at this point, which has a lot to do with the physical pain that I talked about earlier, just like generalized pain or a location in my body becoming extremely painful but without any real explanation. I’m often going to doctors and they’re just like, “Your body is great. You’re like a textbook! Everything looks perfect. You’re so healthy.” They kept testing my body, like “everything is great! Don’t worry so much!” And they always say it’s probably stress. I’ve been working very hard to reduce my stress just because I want to enjoy my life more.

But even in all the work I’m doing, it’s uncovering how deep that anxiety has gone. And it’s probably just from being a very sensitive kid and all the stress that you build up and live with as some kind of normal when you don’t know better. So I’m trying to work with it now, and writing about it is part of working with it. It’s just like…this is so big and so intense in me sometimes, I should probably look at it from another perspective. And the artistic perspective is an interesting one for me too, because it’s very rooted in imagery, because my mind is what I use to see things before I can produce them. And I’m strengthening those images all the time, intentionally, because I want to be able to see them more clearly, so I can draw them. And then, when I have anxiety-related images, and I’m seeing things that I don’t want to see, that are scary or awful or just really gross—I can’t often make them go away. And I realize that I just had these things linked so strongly, that image generation and anxiety and fear, so it just made sense to start doing comics about it.

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Paste : Do you find it difficult to write and draw these stories dealing with these personal real-life things, or do you find it easier addressing them through art?
Webber: What’s hard is the translation. It’s not difficult emotionally for me to talk about these things, but it’s difficult to feel like I’m actually pinpointing the exact thing that I’m feeling. With regards to voice stuff, with Dumb, I’m mostly writing things that have happened, and they happened in a way [where] it was an interaction between me and someone in front of me, people outside me. There’s a clear way to draw that image. And with the anxiety stuff it’s 100 percent in my mind. And 100 percent in my body. And so I’m trying to convey [a] very physical thing that is invisible and then making it in this purely static and silent medium. So, that is hard. That is really hard.

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