“What Is Memory But A Story You Tell Yourself ?” : Four Color Apocalypse Interviews Mara Ramirez

I’ve been championing the work of Mara Ramirez to anyone willing to listen since first stumbling upon it in the middle part of last year. An undisputed master at conveying what I would call, for lack of a better term, “emotive memory,” Ramirez’ debut graphic novel MOAB resonates in ways both entirely new and oddly, even comfortingly, familiar upon successive re-reads. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Ramirez on subjects far and wide, and it was such a fascinating exchange that I honestly feel I’d probably be doing you all a tremendous disservice by loading you up with a heavy preamble rather than turning the floor over to the artist with all due haste, and so, with that in mind —

Four Color Apocalypse : First off Mara, thanks for agreeing to this interview — it’s no secret that your book MOAB was one of my favorite comics of the past year, so I’m delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you you for my site. Let’s start with the most basic question of all : how long have you been making comics, and what was it that got you interested in the medium in the first place?

Mara Ramirez : Hi! So, I have always been a drawer. (Draftsman? It’s wild to me we still don’t have a word for it). It’s been my love since I was a kid, and I just never stopped. As I got older I thought I wanted to be a painter, (and then a sculptor, and then a printmaker) but I kept finding myself returning to drawing, even in those other mediums I tried out. Always. It is my one true love. But I started getting sort of bored to be honest, I didn’t feel like, challenged, by drawing anymore. I noticed myself drawing the same things over and over in succession. Like, elongating moments. I started embracing this, I did this a lot. I remember my first thing I called a comic; it was 3 drawings I did in high school, of a person smoking a cigarette in panels the shape of rear view mirrors, drawn in sharpie on some cardboard. The image of the person shifted in the composition, as if the viewer was in a car moving past the person who was smoking’s car. 

I then saw this type of thinking reflected in a comic. I stumbled upon Study Group Comics web page in like 2013 or something, and I remember following along with Aidan Koch’s comic, The Blonde Woman. My mind was blown. I never thought about longer format comics as being about quiet moments like I was making! I didn’t grow up reading comics so my understanding of them was quite limited (Garfield and superheroes and the like). So when I saw Aidan’s work, I was hooked. From there, I got really into Ida Applebroog’s paintings and made some static work inspired by that. I started reading graphic novels. Pretty soon, I found myself wanting to make longer format work!

4CA : Does MOAB represent your first attempt at long-form comics storytelling, or did you start in on — possibly even finish — other projects that simply didn’t see the light of day for any particular reason?

MR : Before MOAB, I published a shorter book called Freaks!, it came out in 2017 I think, one of Freak Comics’ first publications. It’s something like 40 pages long, on cream paper, standard 8×11. There’s probably 50 copies out there somewhere. It’s an autobiographical story about one of my first gay awakening/self actualizing moments, a time I had sex with two other people. Turns out, we were having sex in one of the people’s mom’s beds (I was not aware!) and she came home, and was not happy. She called us freaks, hence the name. Spoiler alert. 

4CA : My own thoughts on the book are available for folks to see in my review, but I’d be curious to know, if you had to condense it down to the proverbial “elevator pitch,” how would you describe it?

MR : Hmmm. It’s a story about elusive love in the emotional landscape of the south western “US” desert.

4CA : Are you comfortable letting readers know which elements of the story — if any — are autobiographical and which aren’t?

MR : Oh, everything. 100%. Or as close as I can get it. I’m really a stickler for being truthful to events in my autobiographical work. Down to what clothes I was wearing, the order of events, every tiny little detail. I really only take out small things if they hinder the story’s flow. I like to say that the reason that I make autobio work in the first place is because I like to take my memories and clarify them for myself through the filter of my emotions. Like, as I meditate on it and tell my story, the story always changes a little bit. It’s bound to. I’m human. Even the way I draw (and WHAT I choose to draw) changes the meaning. But that’s still my truth, if not EVEN MORE my truth than the raw data, because; what is memory but a story you tell yourself? Did you know every time you remember something you are conjuring the memory and re-rememebering it? So every time you are remembering something, you are rewriting the memory? Because of this, I’m obsessed with the idea of finding my truth. The real reason I think I do this is in part due to my absolute shit memory, I hold onto my truth really strongly, because if I don’t, things get very jumbled for me. I start to confuse my dreams with memories and so on. Telling my stories are as much for me as for anyone else.

4CA : The art in “MOAB” is incredibly evocative and dare I say even enthralling? What went into your drawing process in terms of photo reference, etc. or was it all drawn freehand from memory? And, piggybacking onto that, what pens, brushes, or other tools did you primarily use to illustrate it?

MR : Awww, thank you Ryan. I used all Blackwing pencils. I get very obsessive about materiality. I actually started this book on the day after the hike took place while we were still in Moab, Utah (the one thing on the timeline that I left out because it held no weight in the story). We drove to the big rocks to say goodbye before we hit the road and I started drawing them, in my sketchbook, with a Blackwing pencil (the softest one) that one of my friends had given me because they knew I loved B pencils. I became entranced with drawing the rocks and drew all day until my pencil became a nib and we finally left. That’s why we ended up driving home at night…..my bad. 

When I got home, I made a list of all the things and thoughts I had in order. And started drawing in my sketchbooks and got a lot of those same pencils. I wanted to capture the feeling I had while there. I used references on some things, for example, the rock that looked like a hand was drawn from a photo that he took while we were there. But a lot of it was from my memory and imagination! (maybe like 60/40 imagination to reference photos.) Mostly I really was just digesting this trip. It was such an emotionally heavy trip, in an emotionally heavy time for me, so the best thing for me to do was truly put my head down and draw my feelings out for the next month or so after the trip, as the relationship was truly ending.

4CA : The book’s moleskine cover and physical dimensions are, I feel, an integral part of the overall aesthetic experience that is MOAB — in my opinion, reading it digitally from a screen simply wouldn’t do the work justice. Were you involved in the design and production process yourself? Because it feels very much like a labor of love.

MR : Thank you for noticing! I think of books as art objects, for sure. I originally made MOAB as a single edition of a five-book series. All handbound, false accordion style, with soft green covers. The books were split up by the chapters (prologue, sun-up, eclipse, etc.) and all fit into a little box. There was only one of each! I bound them all in one night and it literally took me about 18 hours. Ugh. As I tried to figure out how to make it more affordable and distributable, I really didn’t want to lose the feeling of the original intention. I always held that it should feel like a valentine, intimate and small, and pull your nose into the book. I love a chunky little digest book. And printing on the cream I think really makes the graphite look drawn on the page instead of printed in some places. I really love all of the options that Gorham Printing offers. They do a great job of helping artists see their vision through. 

4CA : Are you able to describe for readers what it felt like to finally hold the book in your hands after spending so much time on its creation?

MR : I’m honestly surprised I don’t hate it since I made it a while ago. In the back of the book on my thank you page I mention that this book feels like a time capsule. I made it at a very specific time in my life, and I feel like a completely different person. Reading it feels like time travel to me. I don’t think that would come across to readers who don’t know me, but hopefully it feels like you are transported through time and space to Moab, Utah, on the day of the eclipse. 

4CA : What lessons did you learn as an artist from making this book? What will you carry forward from it, and what — if anything — do you wish you’d done differently?

MR : Once I printed it, I promised myself I would never sit on a project so long before printing. After I handbound all the books, I had been digesting this trip and the end of this relationship for months. I needed to have some fun (That’s when I drew the comic about the threesome haha!). MOAB lived as a five-book artist book series, and traveled to different book shows in this incarnation. At the Open Book Show (an annual book show a friend organizes and I am in every year) I found some people reading it, sitting on the ground criss- cross applesauce, in the middle of this sweaty crowded warehouse show, and crying! It was deeply affirming to see other people engaging with the books in this way, and I decided I wanted to get it in a format that could be more easily distributable. This took years literally for me to figure out, (working on it in the background as I bumbled my way through other projects, animations, freak anthologies, school, work…..) Until finally I realized I couldn’t in good faith print the book myself and bind it how I wanted to with my resources available. Once I fundraised enough, I could finally print it. Literally years after I finished it.

From now on, I am thinking about printing methods as I’m working. I’m inputting the pages into Indesign as I make them, so that I can visualize and not have to backtrack on all of that later down the line. Just thinking more long term about it. And more logically, I suppose.

4CA : For readers who may be unfamiliar, how does the Freak Comix collective work? What is its mission, which cartoonists are involved, and how are the collective’s publications financed, distributed, and sold?

MR : Essentially it’s me, Cristian Castelo, and Miles MacDiarmid. We each are just good friends who love comics and once we figured out we wanted to do this, we all sort of naturally fell into roles that pretty simply keep Freak afloat! Everything sold that’s “freak” (anthologies) goes back into the freak fund. We also self publish our own work under freak. We mostly sell online or when we travel on our tabling circuit, which is where we grow a larger comics community as well. 

We began with the idea that we saw a hole in the art world and comics scene here in the Bay Area that we and so many of our friends would so naturally fit into. We felt sorta lost, like there was no comics community we could fall back on, talk to, bounce ideas off of, etc. Especially with San Francisco’s history of underground comix, this was really depressing to us. We wanted to bring some of this energy back (minus the gross misogyny and racism of the 60’s) and hold space for comics as an art practice and simultaneously comics for fun’s sake. We ask friends mostly to be in anthologies, trying to create interesting conversations within the books and reaching a large range of mindsets. We also ask folks who don’t always work in the vein of cartooning, in order to encourage a love of comics in everyone. We look for a large range of approaches to the definition of a comic (what makes a comic a comic?) “We challenge and oppose gatekeeping, inaccessibility, and pretension. Comics for the people! Comics for fun and comics for love and comics to be funny!”

4CA : Finally, the question I’m sure we ALL would love an answer to — what’s next for Mara Ramirez? What exciting new projects are on the horizon, both within the field of comics and outside of it?

MR : I am working on a few different big projects in between teaching gigs in pandemic times. My goals are 3 projects this year. One, finish a music video that’s been in the works for a while. (took a break…..I lied on a question, I learned nothing from MOAB….) It’s going to be synced with a song by a good friend of mine, who makes music under the pseudonym Slow Fast Hazel. Its all hand drawn animation. Two, a short story comic called Heavy Rescue. This is my first non autobio work I’ve ever made, and it’s been very liberating! It follows a person driving through Northern California during what is now known as fire season. And finally, an untitled work that is at about 170 pages at the moment, about having a body and sharing your body with the world, as we all do. 

4CA : Thank you Mara for your candid and thoughtful responses and for crating such an amazing book!

MR : Thank you Ryan!

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MOAB is available for $25.00 from the Freak Comics website at : https://www.freakcomix.com/shop/moab

Also, this interview — and all everything else around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you took a moment to check it out and, should you feel so inclined, join up.

Oh, and I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse