Cartoonist Jen Lee on Anthropomorphic Animals, Crossbows & Her Evocative Graphic Novel, Garbage Night

Comics Features Jen Lee
Cartoonist Jen Lee on Anthropomorphic Animals, Crossbows & Her Evocative Graphic Novel, Garbage Night

If you drew a Venn diagram of “things cartoonist Jen Lee is great at” and “things publisher Nobrow Press focuses on,” it would overlap a whole heck of a lot. Lee casts a beautiful color palette, which graces her evocative graphic novel Garbage Night, released in print last month. The story revolves around a pack of teenaged anthropomorphic animals trying to find food and shelter in a vaguely post-apocalyptic urban environment. It also serves as a semi-sequel to her earlier comic Vacancy, which Nobrow has helpfully included at the back of this volume. In the midst of a move and summer convention surfing, Lee answered Paste’s questions over email and revealed that she does, indeed, own a crossbow.

Garbage Night Cover Art by Jen Lee

Paste: Tell me your story. Where’d you go to school? What did you study? What are you doing now?

Jen Lee: I grew up in Naples, Florida—a rich tourist beach town and everything is extremely green, peach and teal. I went to study illustration at the School of Visual Arts, but I think my most formative classes were comedy writing and graphic design classes. Right now, I do a little freelancing and raise some animals for food. I’m moving to LA, though, in a few weeks, so this is all going to change, haha.

Paste: What’s your drawing process like? Do you mostly work digitally?

Lee: I only work digitally now. I love to just undo lines instead of dealing with erasing/whiteout. It’s so convenient for me. It’s weird thinking about how I go about drawing, but I either throw down a shape or negative space I like and go from there.

Paste: How do you go about developing a color palette?

Lee: I go about picking one or two colors I love to look at and then just make sure any additional colors look good. This sounds so trite, but I’m honestly not well versed in color theory language to articulate it any better. I guess the colors I love and use the most are ones I see in nature a lot; how greens and browns change depending on the lighting was always so cool and puzzling to me.

Paste: Why animals rather than people [in Garbage Night]?

Lee: It was always easier for me to draw animals than people; also I like to look at animals more than I do people, so my level of observation between the two is pretty extreme.

Garbage Night Interior Art by Jen Lee

Paste: Do you feel an affinity with other cartoonists/comics artists who create anthropomorphic animals (e.g., Jason, Diane Obomsawin, etc.)?

Lee: Oh, of course! I’m a huge sucker for all cartoon animals. From the “professional” stuff to your regular internet furry art, it’s just so cool to see all the different ways an artist can present an animal way beyond “weasels are sneaky murderers.”

Paste: Garbage Night has some similarities to Liz Suburbia’s Sacred Heart in that both seem to be about teenagers trying to create their own society (as well as just survive) following some kind of apocalyptic event. Is that a topic that’s close to your heart?

Lee: I think so! I think generally stories about kids having to (usually very unfairly and tragically) deal with a dangerous world where there are no adults to care for them will draw me in from miles and miles away. Throw in an animal or make them animals (every Don Bluth movie) and I start to soar.

Paste: How do you think you’d do in that kind of environment? Do you have a plan, just in case? A disaster kit ready to go? A group of pals with whom you’d forge a new world order?

Lee: I wouldn’t do well to be honest, haha. I’d be a huge baby and die from eating the wrong leaf—like Into The Wild. My anxiety would be so hard to be around I’d probably isolate myself, hahah. I love to be comfortable and have access to food whenever I want. I mean, I know the basics on processing an animal and tanning its hide. I own a few knives, a crossbow and a shotgun—so maybe I’m a teeny-tiny step ahead of a few?

Garbage Night Interior Art by Jen Lee

Paste: I can’t think of a ton of comics about post-adolescents that deal with the theme of friendship. Why do you think that is?

Lee: I’m not sure [why] there aren’t a lot of published/in-print comics with the theme. I do know with webcomics, a lot of peers explore the nuances in interpersonal relationships.

Paste: Talk to me about spaces. Your diary comics for The Comics Journal focused a lot on different effects of light, which seem to be important to the look of (although not explicitly discussed in) Garbage Night. Do you pay a lot of attention to your physical environment?

Lee: Hmm, I think I just realized I may think too much about my environment. Usually I feel so extraordinarily misplaced because any little thing (usually the way the light hits, as shown in the TCJ comic) throws me off. I really look up to my chickens, who seem to adjust to any new environment so, so easily. I wish I could enjoy the present as much as they.

Garbage Night Interior Art by Jen Lee

Paste: Thunderpaw, Vacancy and Garbage Night all deal with nature, or at least places outside the traditional home environment. Are you a camper? An urban explorer? What interests you about that space/environment?

Lee: I do love to hike and wish I could camp more, and I’m too lazy/scared to do much urban exploring. I am interested though in the relationship people have with nature. I think it’s funny how into dominating nature humans are. For example, there was this guy from a small town who wanted to befriend the bears, because I guess who doesn’t, but he started to feed them which is hugely irresponsible. The whole town started to, too. It’s like everyone forgot what happened in Yellowstone. The entire story really grinds my beans. I think it’s selfish to want to “befriend” wild animals. To me, it’s a fluffier form of dominating nature. So to me, the wilderness is a world I’m fine to never be a part of, and I love to explore the mystery and fascination we have with it along with the troubles we as humans can stir up.

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