An Interview with Fiona Smyth
"Keith Haring was a huge influence, not only stylistically, but also as an example of an ethical artist and social justice activist."
I had the pleasure of meeting Fiona Smyth at the Graphic Medicine Conference in Toronto this summer. Fiona was kind enough to overlook my initial starstruck demeanor while getting Somnambulance signed and even shared a delightful lunch with a few of us. For those unfamiliar, Fiona Smyth is a feminist painter, illustrator, and cartoonist. Her comics have graced the pages of magazines for years and now include award-winning children's books. Her induction into the Doug Wright Awards’ Giants of The North Canadian Cartoonist Hall Of Fame in 2019 is a testament to her enduring legacy. Today, we dive deep into her comics journey, her inspirations, and her contributions to the world of art and cartooning.
1. Describe your comics journey–how did you get into making comics?
I grew up, in Montreal, reading Asterix and Obelix–although today with a critical read it’s full of racist stereotypes and misogyny. I especially loved the Cleopatra volume, the parodying of Liz Taylor, and the itemization on the cover of what it took to create the book. It blew my kid’s mind that humans had created this book. When I visited my cool cousins, the Campbells in Lachine, I got to read Mad Magazine, Peanuts, and collections of British cartoonist [Carl] Giles. Giles taught me a lot about drawing characters and environments.
Later when my family moved to Toronto, while in Central Tech’s high school art program, I drew some comics for the school newspaper Blow Up. This was followed by drawing comics for my art college’s (OCADU now) newspaper Fish Wrap and had work in published in zines, like my sister Sheila Smyth’s Babble and Hal Kelly’s Trash Compactor. When I graduated from art school in 1986, I would make zines to sell at my painting shows. The zines were an affordable way to get my art into the world. Eventually I had a four issue run of a solo comic Nocturnal Emissions through Toronto’s Vortex Comics and appeared in anthologies like Twisted Sisters Volume 2, the Portland based newspaper/zine Snipehunt, and Canadian mags Vice and Exclaim. My comic Cheez in Exclaim ran for about 121 installments. I brought Cheez back as weekly online through Toronto’s Ocean Pounds and it’s up to 834 installments. I’m currently back in Exclaim with a four panel comic titled Cheezies.
2. How did you develop your voice/unique comics style?
While I was at Central Tech I aspired to be a photo-realist artist but in college I had an epiphany. All my art work was visibly created by my hand, I didn’t have the skill for exacting realism. So I dropped the pursuit of perfection and embraced a more cartoony style.
Keith Haring was a huge influence, not only stylistically, but also as an example of an ethical artist and social justice activist. Other influences I had as a young artist were the illustrator Trina Schart Hyman and the National Geographic painter Ludek Pesek. Illustrators in Omni Magazine were top of the list too!
During my years at OCADU, when it was still the Ontario College of Art, I was reading Daredevil and New Mutants until my schoolmate cartoonist/illustrator Maurice Vellekoop introduced me to Raw Magazine. Mark Askwith of Canadian tv and comics world fame was manager of the Silver Snail comics shop at the time in Toronto and introduced me to the Hernandez Bros and Dan Clowes’ comics. And I found Chester Brown’s self-published Yummy Fur, which opened the flood gates to the Undergrounds and other alternative comics.
My personal comics are mostly stream of consciousness, autobio, dreams, and sci-fi. I created a sci-fi graphic novel for 10 year olds titled The Never Weres, published in 2011 by Annick Press. I have a new graphic novel on the back burner. It’s a sci-fi for adults titled “Spinnbarkeit.”
The ground-breaking books that sex educator Cory Silverberg writes are nonfiction material with narrative content. The greatest part of my collaboration with Cory is sharing this information in comics form and cartooning language. I also co-write some of the comics and narrative parts, and help develop the characters.
3. What are some of the joys and challenges of making nonfiction comics?
The greatest challenge for me is getting the science and anatomy right in the books with Cory. Thankfully Cory does the heavy lifting of research. Cory connects with a huge team of advisors, experts and activists. They get input from parents, guardians and kids too. There are usually at least 3 or 4 iterations of our books before the finished version.
Ultimately the goal is to make our books accessible and visually engaging. Part of how I do that, with the science-y stuff, is to draw it in the same style and palette as the character driven parts. The nonfiction parts are in the same voice as the narrative parts.
There are other challenges like working on emotionally difficult material like the chapter in You Know, Sex about trauma. We are both mindful to make space and time in these moments to deal with it.
The joyful part for me is the drawing, inking and coloring of the books and having readers connect with it. It’s joyful but also stressful to meet deadlines! The pandemic times were especially brutal.
4. Are you working on something now?
Cory is currently working on our next book and I will be jumping in soon to create sketches.
I already mentioned I have my own sci-fi graphic novel percolating. I also have an idea for a middle school graphic novel about being fat.
I received a Koyama Provides grant in 2022 and next year I plan to print a riso zine of the paintings I created.
I have my art practice, and teach cartooning at OCADU in the illustration stream and the continuing studies program. I’ll be in a group show at OCADU’s Onsite Gallery in January 2024.
I had the honor of being the General Programming Artistic Curator for TCAF 2023, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I’m excited to continue for one more year in this role for TCAF 2024.
Fiona Smyth is a Toronto-based feminist painter, illustrator, and cartoonist. Smyth’s comic Cheez was published in Exclaim! magazine for almost ten years (and the newer Cheezies since 2022), and her comic Fazooza was in Vice for eight years. Her first graphic novel, The Never Weres, was published by Annick Press in 2011. Smyth has collaborated with Cory Silverberg on the award-winning kids’ books What Makes A Baby, Sex Is A Funny Word, and You Know, Sex. Somnambulance, a thirty-year collection of her comics, was published by Koyama Press in 2018. Fiona was inducted into the Doug Wright Awards’ Giants of The North Canadian Cartoonist Hall Of Fame in 2019. Smyth’s work has been exhibited in countries around the world, including the United States, Mexico, Germany, France, Italy, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. Smyth teaches cartooning at OCAD U in Toronto.
Check out more of Fiona Smyth’s work here:
Thanks for reading Autobiographix! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.