Q&A with Breena Wiederhoeft
Local Graphic Novelist Explores The "What If's"
I recently met up with Breena Wiederhoeft, comic artist and author of Picket Line, in her home in North Portland. After receiving a friendly nip on the hand from her roommate’s black 2000 and white Boston Terrier, Knuckles, and meeting her fiancée, Zech, we sat down over some chips and salsa to discuss comics subjects like the Midwest and her morbid imagination.
bePortland: Have you always been passionate about comics?
Breena Wiederhoeft: My relationship with comics has definitely evolved, but I’ve always loved them in some form. As a kid I liked to read the Sunday comics, especially the really sentimental ones like Family Circus and Rose is Rose. Calvin and Hobbes was a consistent favorite. As I got a little older I began to prefer the “smarter” comics like Fox Trot, Far Side, Overboard, and Ernie. Actually, my favorite thing about Ernie was that the characters had a meeting to change the name of the comic to Piranha Club, and then the comic strip actually did change its name to Piranha Club. I loved how reflexive and self-aware that was, and began to really enjoy that side of comics – the side that didn’t mind poking fun at itself.
When I was in 7th grade I created my first comic strip, a series about a bumbling but good-hearted super hero named Bud Ralphy. Like the characters in my favorite comics, Bud knew that he was a cartoon living in the confines of a comic strip, and the humor relied heavily on that point. I continued to draw that comic through high school and college, though it evolved quite a bit. In high school I also read some Batman and X-Men comics, but it wasn’t until I read Maus that I realized comics could tell a more serious story, in a cruder, grittier style. It was my introduction to the graphic novel, and I definitely wanted to align myself with that form of storytelling.
Still, I considered comics “hobby” material, so when I started college at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee I decided to study fine art: first film, and later drawing and painting. I continued to draw Bud Ralphy for the school paper, but I painted to be taken seriously. The emphasis in my program, though, was on concept rather than narrative, and so I found myself really wrestling with my desire to tell a story. Of course it’s entirely possible to tell a story through painting, but as a medium it’s a huge investment of time and money to create one image, that would hang on a wall for only a few people to see. It didn’t feel like an effective way to tell a story, and I didn’t like how inaccessible it was. I wanted to tell stories that people could easily get their hands on.
When I returned to comics after college I had a new appreciation for how accessible they are. There are so many ways that comics can get out in the world: zines, web comics, self-published books. I wanted to make stuff that everyone could read, for much less than the cost of a painting. I reentered the comics world with a diary web-comic called Easel Ain’t Easy, and after about a month of that I began work on my graphic novel Picket Line, which ended up being a three year project but one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on.
Can you tell me a bit about the graphic novel you’re currently working on?
Since it’s my second book I am trying my best to fend off the sophomore slump. I actually started a different second book which I have put on hold, but I may develop both simultaneously. One is a fable-like tale about woodland animals confronting their mortality. The other is an autobiographically inspired coming of age story that draws on a lot of my childhood memories of summer vacations at the lake. Both are aimed more specifically at a Young Adult audience. With Picket Line, I didn’t write for a specific audience, which has made it more difficult to market, so this time I am trying to be more conscious of who I am writing to.
Is Picket Line autobiographical or fiction?
Picket Line is fiction, but the emotional core is autobiographical. Certain events are autobiographical, such as the main character moving to Northern California and feeling conflicted by the local politics, but those events served more as a jumping-off point than a plot. That’s kind of my trick when it comes to writing, is starting with something that is true, and exploring the “what-if's.” What if things had worked out differently? I tend to think that way anyway, in real life. Something will happen and I’ll immediately imagine the alternate, often more morbid, outcomes. Like if I was nearly in a car accident, I might imagine what it would be like if I had been? I do this a lot. Sometimes that thought process can lead to some really interesting stories. And then sometimes it’s just therapeutic, like, that’s what I would’ve said if I’d been quicker on my feet at the time.
The Rex character in Picket Line is so interesting. Is he inspired by anyone in particular?
Rex is the character who set the whole story into motion. He came to exist one afternoon when I was drawing in my sketchbook, before I had seriously set out to write a graphic novel. I drew this towering bald man with sharp teeth and stunted arms and I thought, “This guy kind of looks like a dinosaur! Who is he? What would he look like if I put him into a story? What would he do?” So I started writing a story around him, and tried to let his character unfold as naturally as possible, creating a world and a personality for him. As I wrote, he definitely began to resemble my Dad in some ways: optimistic, hard-working, and compassionate. In a way, he was also very Christ-like, which was intentional and something I really leaned into. After an initial draft, my friends said he didn’t seem real, that he was a little too perfect. So I rewrote him a bit and made him more flawed, more believable. He’s definitely an invented person, but he’s inspired by men I admire.
You describe yourself as being a “Midwestern at heart.” What characteristics do have that you consider to be Midwestern?
Haha, well, I’m nice. Maybe too nice sometimes, like, to a fault. And I think I’m pretty hard-working, which is another Midwestern stereotypes that I hope applies to me. I think there is a perceived naiveté to Midwesterners that’s not really true anymore – we’re less sheltered and less behind in the trends in the internet age - but I do think that a lot of Midwesterners arrive out West with a kind of wide-eyed wonder. I see that in myself, and it’s a quality I definitely wrote into Beatrice [Picket Line’s protagonist]. We feel this excitement at the energy and possibility and the kind of untamed quality of the West. We feel 1ed2 this mix of hope and trepidation as we set out to find our place. I don’t know if I could write from a perspective beside a Midwestern one, actually, it’s so deeply my roots.
I’ve never been to the Midwest.
You should go, it’s beautiful! There are certain times of the year to avoid -- mostly winter. I can’t stand the winters there. But the summers in Wisconsin are amazing. That’s what my new graphic novel is about – it’s kind of a love story to summer in Wisconsin.
Visit Breena's website at: http://www.easelainteasy.com/. You can also read the first chapter of Picket Line here.