‘Shuteye’ takes a page from ‘Twilight Zone,’ Gabriel García Márquez
Sarah Becan's self-published graphic novel "Shuteye" weaves together six eerie stories about dreams and dreamers.Link
A page from the story "Fetch" in Sarah Becan's graphic novel "Shuteye." (Sarah Becan)Link
A page from the story "Fetch" in Sarah Becan's graphic novel "Shuteye." (Sarah Becan)Link
A page from Sarah Becan's graphic novel "Shuteye." (Sarah Becan)Link
Two issues of Sarah Becan's food-and-health Web comic "I Think You're Sauceome." (Sarah Becan)Link
Sarah Becan's self-portrait. (Sarah Becan)Link
In her graphic novel “Shuteye,” released earlier this year, writer and artist Sarah Becan weaves together six mini-comics that explore themes of dreams and reality. Each eerie story seems to wake up from the last, giving readers a glimpse of the fuzziness experienced right after a deep sleep filled with vivid dreams.
“Shuteye,” which found life after a successful Kickstarter campaign, is Becan’s second novel. Her first, “The Ouija Interviews,” was produced with the help of a 2009 Xeric Grant and depicts cute and humorous conversations with dead people. But Becan is best known for her artistic forays into the world of food. She has been regularly publishing her food-and-health Web comic “I Think You’re Sauceome” since 2010.
Hero Complex caught up with Becan to talk about “Sauceome,” “Shuteye” and the surreal blur between dreams and reality.
HC: “Shuteye” is pretty eerie. Any one story would make a great “Twilight Zone” episode. Was that at all an influence?
SB: “Twilight Zone” was definitely an influence; I love the old Rod Serling series with a passion. I love the magical realists too, authors like Borges, García Márquez, Murakami, Rushdie — anything with slippery realities. Adding just a touch of magic and madness to a familiar realistic setting makes it seem so much more present and possible to me. I love the feeling of getting really lost in a labyrinthine story, and finding yourself questioning everything you’ve accepted as real.
HC: You write in the notes at the back of the book that some of the stories are inspired by dreams you’ve actually had. What is it about dreams that inspire stories and make us question our realities? Why did you choose to write about dreams?
SB: I tend to have pretty vivid dreams, and if I spend some time thinking over a dream, really examining and parsing it, I can usually find a kernel of meaning to it — a moral, almost. So I’ve always been kind of charmed by the idea of my subconscious not only telling me stories while I sleep, but telling me stories with a point, with a message. What’s always struck me about dreams is even if they’re completely impossible, if their premises are utterly ridiculous, they seem absolutely, unassailably real while I’m dreaming them. It’s easy to lose your footing, and — at least in the moment — accept the dream as reality, which is exactly what a good story is supposed to do for you, too.
HC: How do you want people to feel when they read “Shuteye”?
SB: I guess I hope that people would get lost in this book, and that they’d enjoy that feeling. I tried to deliberately leave the ending of each of the stories open and mostly unexplained, because I want the stories to stick with people, I want them to mull over their own explanations for what happens to the characters. I want the stories to sort of tumble around in people’s heads for a while after they read them.
HC: Your artistic style is so clean and very pretty. Can you talk a bit about how you developed that?
SB: Thank you so much! My style is on the simpler side, definitely. When I started making comics, it was simpler just because of my own technical limitations, but I’d like to think over time I’ve honed it a bit. One of the things I really adore about comics is how much information and emotion you can convey with just a few lines. I love that you can pare an image down to just the simplest lines and shapes, but people will still understand that this is a person, he’s the story’s protagonist, and he’s holding a phone and he’s angry. I think my goal with the artwork style of “Shuteye” was to try to keep that simplicity, to let the readers’ brains fill in the rest of the details, but also in an effort to keep the emphasis on the content of the stories. As detailed as your dreams can get, they don’t often include all of the unnecessary peripheral details that surround you in your waking life; so I tried in these stories to only draw the most pertinent information in each panel.
HC: Who are your influences, as a writer and as an artist?
SB: One of my earliest influences was Crockett Johnson. When I was very young, we’d spend holidays at my grandparents’ house, and my grandfather had a hardcover edition of “Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley,” and I’d squirrel myself away in a corner of their house and read that book cover to cover. Johnson’s style is incredibly simple, almost mechanical, and it definitely stuck in my head. So did the concept of a very realistic-seeming childhood world that also happened to be populated by fairy godfathers and leprechauns and gnomes.
I’m also a huge fan of Neil Gaiman‘s work; from his work on “Sandman” to his short stories and novels. In fact, one of the stories in “Shuteye” came from a very vivid dream I had after reading his collection “Smoke and Mirrors” right before bed. I’ve always loved how fluidly and casually Gaiman infuses his stories with magic and mystery. He makes it seem so easy, and so imminently possible for something to come along at any moment and upend everything you’ve always trusted to be reliable and solid.
HC: Which of the mini-comics in “Shuteye” is your favorite and why?
SB: That’s such a tough question! Instinctively I want to say “The Fetch” is my favorite, but I’m worried I’m only saying that because it’s the most recent and I’m the least embarrassed about how it looks. But I think if I’m being completely honest, “Castling” might be my favorite story. In that one, even though all of the evidence tells her not to, Rochelle wants so badly to trust her father in that story. He’s always let her down, he’s always let everyone down, but she trusts him anyway, and with tragic results. There’s something heartbreaking about that misplaced trust in an unreliable parent. …
One of the interesting things about self publishing, and maybe about comics in general, is emerging from your cocoon where you’ve been working alone on a project for years, and seeing how the project is received. I feel like with “Shuteye,” I thought I knew what kind of a book it was, but everyone reads it a little differently. Everyone considers the stories in the light of their own experiences and their own context, and sometimes the feedback surprises me.
It was so much easier to talk about each story individually when they were self-contained mini-comics. I could tell people, “this one’s about a drifter who starts telling lies to a bartender, and what happens when those lies start coming true,” or “this one’s about a man whose recurring nightmare comes to life and visits him in his waking hours.” From the start, I always planned to put them together as a single, flowing, circular narrative, but now that they’re in one volume I feel like even I wasn’t entirely aware of what the finished book would say. I’m learning all sorts of new things about my own work.
HC: I understand that you used Kickstarter to fund “Shuteye.” What are the pros and cons you’ve experienced with self-publishing?
SB: The greatest benefit to self-publishing is having complete control over your project. I know I would have benefited from having an editor look over “Shuteye” before sending it to print, but I love the fact that that book is entirely mine. I designed the cover, I laid out the pages, I chose the paper stocks and the ink colors and approved the proofs at the press checks. It was hard work, but it’s immensely rewarding to hold the final product in your hands and know that you were responsible for every piece of it, for better or for worse. And the whole experience of funding the printing with a Kickstarter campaign, that was amazing. It was a lot more hard work than I was expecting, but to know that there were people who believed in it enough to support the project financially was energizing and motivating. It was phenomenal to be able to communicate directly with those people as I put the book together, to show them all the steps in the process, to put together reward packages to thank them for their support. It’s so much more work, but you can’t get that kind of direct connection with your readers if you’re being published by someone else.
Of course self-publishing comes with a lot of challenges too — getting wide distribution for a self-published book is nearly impossible, and doing all the marketing and promotion yourself can be exhausting. It’s an uphill battle getting it reviewed, or getting any press at all. You call comic book stores, you do conventions, you do signings, you’re constantly emailing people, you hammer away at the Internet to try to get people to remember you and to buy your books. And, honestly, I probably could have used an editor. I’ve been working on the stories in “Shuteye” for almost six years, each one entirely self-published, with no one editing or proofing them as I did them. So they’re very personal, they’re very intimate, but I would have benefited from having a fresh pair of eyes looking at the project and giving me some constructive criticism.
HC: Your food comic “I Think You’re Sauceome” (rhymes with “awesome”) has developed quite a following.
SB: I think most people who know me at all probably know me for “I Think You’re Sauceome,” at this point. Which makes sense, since it’s a free webcomic, and since the subject matter is so accessible. But I think it always surprises me a little, because I was making minicomics for a number of years before I started “Sauceome.” “Sauceome” is an autobio webcomic; it started out as a food diary, and a very hopeful weight loss plan. Over time though, I ended up using it to dissect and deconstruct all of my deep-set feelings and preconceptions about health, food, and my own self-image, and I ended up exorcising a number of unhealthy thought patterns and destructive habits. It was great self-therapy. And now, the comic is mostly about food and recipes.
I’ve been doing it for about 2-1/2 years at this point, and I think I’ve always used it as kind of a sandbox for experimenting with different materials and techniques and layouts. It’s taught me a lot about my own style and sensibility, and it’s kept me drawing nearly every day, which has helped to refine my artwork a lot. It’s also taught me that my body-image-related neuroses are hardly unique to me — that almost every woman I know, no matter what size or shape they are, feels the same sort of crushing doubt and insecurity at least some of the time.
HC: What projects do you have coming up?
SB: I’m working on a third graphic novel right now. It’s going to be a book about my grandparents and a giant tornadic supercell storm they were caught in when I was a child. It’s about how they survived the storm, the damage and the aftermath, and the psychological ripples a tragedy like that made in successive generations of our family.
— Noelene Clark
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