One of my favorite things I read late last year—too late to get it on year-end best-of lists—was Thee Collected Cyanide Milkshake, a compilation of Liz Suburbia’s zines self-published between 2010 and 2016, while she was working on Sacred Heart. Published anew by Janelle Hessig’s small press Gimme Action, it’s a full-hearted, full-throated and sometimes full-figured dreamboat of a book, just the kind of thing that can help brighten up dull winter months and dispiriting times. If you ever saw the Ramones play live, you know that, although their recorded tempos were pretty speedy, the in-person version was something like double as fast. Cyanide Milkshake has that kind of relationship to its more polished sibling. It’s not that it’s faster, although it is. It’s more that it’s less-well-thought-through, but not in a bad way. The lines feel thicker. The word balloons blob all over the place in some panels. You might encounter a hairy nutsack as you flip pages. It’s loose and goofy and full of jokes, none of which detract from its visual appeal. But let’s hear from its author.
Thee Collected Cyanide Milkshake Cover Art by Liz Suburbia
Paste: First off—how are you doing? I probably don’t ask that question enough in interviews!
Liz Suburbia: Thank you for asking! I’m hanging in there. How about you?
Paste: I’m doing okay! Maybe a little burned out with holiday parties and end-of-year activities. Having read this compilation of Cyanide Milkshake and The Complete Julie Doucet back to back, I’m thinking a lot about zines. Do you think they’re on their way back?
Suburbia: I don’t think zines ever went anywhere. I still see them for sale in the better comic shops and record stores, people frequently contact me to ask if they can send me their zine or trade, and of course there are zinefests like CAKE, Brooklyn Zinefest and Richmond Zinefest all over the country all year round. A lot of writers and artists are selling them digitally now too, in PDF form through places like Gumroad. Zines are everywhere!
Paste: Maybe they didn’t exactly go away. There does seem to be a hunger for print, whether or not it’s profitable. Maybe it’s just part of that human desire to make things because we no longer have to use literally every available moment of our time surviving.
Suburbia: Right on. I think maybe there’s an intimacy to print too, especially something self-printed, that a lot of us find kind of moving. The personal touch.
Paste: Could you talk to me about your experience with zines while you were growing up? What I remember (having been in high school in the early to mid-1990s) was this feeling of weird pre-Internet community. I never made any, but I sent letters and poetry (oh dear god) to some.
Suburbia: Haha, I’m guilty of foisting my terrible teenage poetry on my friends too. I had never seen or heard of a zine until my senior year of high school, where I met Kevin Czap (my best bud and publisher of my next comic, Egg Cream #1, via their Czap Books imprint). Kevin’s big brother Matt had a zine called Aftermath, which really blew my mind as this object he just made and handed out to all his friends. It was so immediate, and so funny and cool to me. Matt gave me a few tips and a lot of encouragement while we were in college together, and eventually I started making my own.
Paste: Was working with Sharpie on cheap paper stressful? Or was it liberating? How much penciling did you do first?
Suburbia: I feel like it helps keep the stakes low in a way that’s liberating. When I use more expensive materials I can get a little precious with them, which definitely leads to more uptight-looking artwork I think. I do always pencil first to make sure everything’s going to fit on the page, but I’ve been trying to loosen my pencils up with fewer and fewer details as I’ve developed, so a little more spontaneity can come through during the inking process.
Paste: How did that working process compare to that of Sacred Heart, which you were doing at the same time, right?
Suburbia: Yeah, I think I was working on Sacred Heart during most of my zinemaking. I saw doing the book as very high-stakes, since it had been picked up by a big-deal publisher and was going to be seen by a lot more people than I had ever planned for. I was super self-conscious the entire time (which unfortunately I think comes through in the work, at least as far as I can tell). Cyanide Milkshake issues were a much-needed break from that mindset, since they were always intended to be goofy and sloppy… I was also cranking them out as quickly as I could, since it was time taken away from my deadline for the book! Maybe it helped me keep a little sanity during that kinda marathon process, I dunno.
Paste: I don’t think Sacred Heart feels precious or overly self-conscious at all! It’s just more professional. But I think the punk aesthetic sometimes has a hard time with anything that’s more polished. What do you think about that?
Suburbia: Well, I don’t too much want to open the can of worms that is trying to define “punk” right now, because we’ll be here all day… but I think one of the reasons the D.I.Y. approach (which tends to be less polished by nature ) is such a big part of that aesthetic is because there’s the feeling that we can trust it more, you know? If you’re listening to a song some kid in your town wrote with their friends, or reading a comic your roommate’s drummer’s weed dealer’s girlfriend drew in her own bedroom on her night off, you feel more sure that they’re not selling you something. I mean the word “authenticity” I feel has kind of become commodified as a just another buzzword that’s used to sell shit, but it’s still something that we crave. We’re generally pretty aware of how steeped we are in corporate culture, and how hard it is to opt out and still survive, and how badly those entities are exploiting human beings and the environment to make a profit. So I think your average punk’s lack of trust in anything that seems overly marketed comes from that. Though I’m going to contradict myself here and say that in spite of all this punks are still pretty susceptible to being pandered to, and a deliberately unpolished aesthetic can be part of it… I’ve definitely been accused of it by whatever angry teens or bitter old dudes keep sending me hatemail, ha.
Thee Collected Cyanide Milkshake Interior Art by Liz Suburbia
Paste: How much did you draw as a kid (and what)?
Suburbia: All the time, every day. Mostly horses. Horses, wolves and Animorphs fanart.
Paste: Did you draw comics when you were a kid? What did your parents and/or teachers think about your focus on art?
Suburbia: A little bit, mostly just to imitate the newspaper strips I was reading a lot of at the time. I really liked Foxtrot. Man, my brother saw me making a comic once and did his own, I wish I’d kept it, it was so good and he’s had zero interest in drawing comics since… I always got positive feedback from my teachers, which might have actually made me lazier than I would have been otherwise as far as pushing my artistic limits! Everything else was such a struggle, so I definitely developed this attitude like, “Oh, here’s the one thing I don’t have to try at.” My parents absolutely encouraged me to draw and paint and take photos and all that, but they also emphasized to me from an early age that it’s a hard way to make a living. I think they were afraid I’d grow up into this dumb stereotype of like, someone who burdens others without participating in their community because they’re focused on their art in a really self-absorbed way, which I think is a real misrepresentation of artists and of how society should work, but here I am sweating blood trying to make comics around a demanding-ass dayjob, so it certainly looks like some of what they were saying got through. Score one for the puritan work ethic I guess.
Paste: Did you read MAD Magazine growing up? All your ad and movie poster parodies suggest yes.
Suburbia: I actually didn’t! But I think it must have been pervasive enough that I absorbed its influence secondhand.
Paste: Your work, both serious and less serious, always feels to me like it’s really suffused with sensation (sound, touch, etc.). Everything is kind of intensely felt and communicated (sort of the opposite of Nick Drnaso’s work). Do you experience the world that way?
Suburbia: I’d say so, yeah. I definitely have some sensory issues, on a purely physical level—I experience sensory overload a lot. Smells, bright lights, ambient noise, all that. It might also come from my background growing up, with all the moving around my family did. Our environment was always changing; it was new and exciting, but you also needed to pay attention, otherwise adjusting was going to be a lot more difficult.
Paste: Tell me more about your migratory upbringing. Why did you move around a lot? Did it make it easier or harder for you to make friends?
Suburbia: My dad was military, so I was born overseas, and we moved pretty much every two years until I finished high school. Making friends wasn’t easy for me at all. I still feel even now like my social skills are pretty underdeveloped, which makes me really awkward and weird in settings like comics conventions.
Paste: Do you think that focus on sensation relates to your relatively expansive vision of what constitutes beauty? You draw a really wide array of body types, but you present them all as sexual beings.
Suburbia: Uh oh, beauty politics… I could talk a LOT about this. I think my artistic exploration of expanding ideas of beauty is probably overcompensation for how much brainspace I give to a standard that I KNOW is constructed and insidious and white-supremacist and a million other terrible things, but that I’m still very vulnerable to. I spend way too much time feeling bad about how big my nostrils look in photos or whatever, you know? My comics characters can definitely be a way for me to work through that sometimes, but honestly I’m first and foremost concerned with how I depict their sexual agency—what they do with their bodies, how they feel about their bodies—over how the reader feels about how their bodies look. If people find my characters hot, that’s great, but because I hope the readers identify and empathize with them, I want them to exist as more than just vessels of hotness. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I want that hotness to be something the character possesses for the sake of their own pleasure, in their own embodiment (even if it is fictional), and not because it sells more books or gives other people something to fantasize about. I’m not sure how much of this intention is actually coming through in my work, but I hope so—and I hope all this doesn’t sound too half-baked!
Paste: Nope. It comes through, just subtly. Maybe it’s part of another overarching theme that seems to be in your work, about the (imaginary?) line between animal and human—e.g., Ulster and Penny often behave like humans, but then humans also behave like animals. Why do you think you might be interested in that?
Suburbia: This is a great question! And thank you for the validation, haha. I was totally one of those kids who only wanted to play with animal toys, not human-representing toys of either gender. I definitely think of humans as members of the animal kingdom. I think a lot of humans emphasize the difference between us and other animals because they like to think of themselves as being hierarchically above another living thing, or maybe because they’d rather find a way to justify the cruelty we inflict on animals than confront it, and ask why we do that. It’s also a justification for being shitty to other humans: to categorize them as animals. It’s fucked up. I look at a bird or whatever and feel a connection, you know? It’s easy to see what we have in common, even though our experiences are different. I look at other people on the street and feel the same, and I don’t want to forget that connection just because my ego or my anxiety is being especially loud that day. When I hold my dogs in my arms and look at all the horrible things going on in the world my heart feels so tender, like, we’re in this together. I’ll defend you to the death. I can try to do no less for any living thing, even if it’s way easier said than done. That’s the intention.
Thee Collected Cyanide Milkshake Interior Art by Liz Suburbia