"Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air."
Sylvia Plath's Lady Lazarus is one of a long history of powerful, often magical women with long, red hair. Meags Fitzgerald is one too.
The 28 year-old illustrator, designer, and graphic novelist based in Montreal has been obsessed with witches, magic, and the occult from a young age. Her new book, Long Red Hair, was released in September through Conundrum Press. The graphic memoir explores her earliest experiences with feminine magic: Experiments with witchcraft that freaked out her classmates, anger and confusion at menstruation, and the announcement to her family over dinner that the 16-year-old Fitzgerald had realized she was bisexual. We talked to the Edmonton-born storyteller and performer about witchcraft, adolescent sexuality, and growing up as a queer nerd.
Broadly: This is your second graphic novel. Your first, Photobooth: A Biography, came out a year ago. How did you get started so fast on the next one?
Meags Fitzgerald: In 2012 I set out to make a short comic on the history of photobooths, I was hoping to preserve something of these analog machines before they disappear forever. I travelled across North America, Europe, and Australia in search of rare and old photobooths. Soon I had enough research to fill a 280-page graphic novel. The book was a huge undertaking but it was worth it! I don't know how true this is, but I've heard that 18 months or so after giving birth, a woman will forget how painful labour is. It's nature's way of erasing her memory so she'll make more babies. That's sorta what happened with my second book. I had a seed of an idea, and my publisher and I were both sorta riding a high from the success of the first book. We talked about the idea over wine one evening and next thing I knew, I had a signed a book deal. Shortly thereafter, I was reminded of how treacherous book making can be.
How did it feel to write about your awkward childhood in such detail? Was there ever a point where you felt like, "I don't know if I want to share this information?"
There's only one chapter that I was afraid could be interpreted in an unwanted way. (For curious readers, that's the chapter where I'm playing dress-up with Lily.) Aside from that, it didn't bother me to write about my childhood or early teen years because I know that the readers know that I have grown since then. The uncomfortable part is converting your family members into characters and writing speech bubbles for them. It feels odd to flatten really complex relationships into snippets of dialogue and small moments.
Your family seems incredible. So supportive and sweet and gently geeky. Can you talk a bit about the experience of coming out to them? That scene in the book was so touching.
Yeah, my parents and family in general are great. I remember the whole "coming out" process super clearly but I was curious to hear how they remembered it, so I talked to my mom before writing that section. At the time, my parents acted pretty unphased—they weren't/aren't homophobic so that was a non-issue. But my mom told me that they were actually super freaked out because they had no clue as to the best way to react. They didn't want to fuck it up and scar me forever, but they also didn't want to make a big deal of it and make me feel abnormal.
You were an artist before you were a graphic novelist. How did you get into the graphic novel as a form?
The dream was always to make comics—as a teen I was a huge of early alternative comics by people like Adrian Tomine and Chester Brown. I had a few false starts on big book ideas before making Photobooth: A Biography. It's such an incredibly time-consuming medium that you won't finish the project unless you really want to get it done. There's a huge difference between having an idea for a book and actually making a book.
How have you found the graphic novel community? It's not known as a particularly woman-friendly environment, although that seems to be changing.
There are two pretty large communities that both fall under the comics umbrella. There's the superhero comic world and the more literary, alternative graphic novel world. I've pretty much only interacted with the latter. For example, I've tabled at lot of comics arts festivals and alternative press expos but never a Comic-Con. In my experience of the alternative comics world, I haven't seen or heard of much sexism. I'd guess that almost half of the creators and industry folk are women. I could be wrong though, that's just my experience!
Long Red Hair seems to have a strong Alison Bechdel influence. Is that fair to say? Who are some other comic artists you admire?
Yes, absolutely. Fun Home is my favourite graphic novel but I didn't realize how much it had influenced me until I was about halfway finished making Long Red Hair. Another large influence was Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. Both those books are must-reads!
Did you have any other artistic reference points that you returned to throughout your writing process?
Most of my other influences were not books but documentaries and podcasts on subjects like the resurgence of witchcraft in the 70s or "Satanic panic" in the 80s. The witch, as a popular figure has re-entered the spotlight in recent years and I'm curious to investigate all the reasons why.
Did you have a particular reader or type of reader in mind when writing this book?
Definitely, I wrote it knowing that it would likely resonate the most with women about my age, who grew up in North America. However, I wrote it with a young adult audience in mind. (An earlier version of the book included more sexual content, but we edited it out so it could qualify as a YA book. That material will surface someday, somewhere else.) It would mean a lot to me if the book could provide some comfort to questioning youth. I have a friend who works for Planned Parenthood in Toronto and he told me that they'll be recommending it to teens, which is great!