Erin Williams’ graphic novel Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame (Abrams ComicArts, October 8, 2019) gives an inside look at her past sexual experiences while offering an analysis of the way society looks at, and interacts with, women. Her cover, which features a woman wearing only a t-shirt and underwear standing on a platform in front of a crowded train, invites readers to explore the content within and holds meaning to Williams.
“I worked on the cover with the amazing team at Abrams, specifically, [art director] Pamela Notarantonio. We wanted something that conveyed the creepy feeling of being watched and the self-consciousness that results, like you when feel someone’s eyes on you and double-check you’re wearing pants or there’s no toilet paper stuck to your shoe.” This uncanny feeling is meant to be pervasive throughout the graphic novel and hits at the purpose of the work.
She explains, “I had a lot of shame and other complicated feelings about my sexual history and what it meant. I was triggered by them on my daily commute to Manhattan from Westchester on MetroNorth. I ended up taking a lot of notes on my phone about what I was seeing and feeling and thinking about.” Eventually, she brought together these notes and images into 25 pages of writing and photos for a zine that she then showed to her friend and writer Emily Gould, who suggested she turn her story into a graphic memoir.
Williams, who had never before read a graphic novel, had no idea what she was doing, but began researching graphic novels, starting with Alison Bechdel [FUN HOME, DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR] and then “read every graphic book by a woman I could find. There aren’t enough out there.”
Despite initially feeling lost navigating the creative process of turning strictly written prose into graphic novel format, her passion drove her forward. Much of creating COMMUTE involved a learning curve; she shared some of these struggles with Spine, offering advice to other aspiring graphic novelists.
“I did all the art on Procreate, an iPad app. I wouldn’t recommend it because I had to export 300 enormous files that ate up the whole hard drive. I liked that it was easy to learn. An iPad is much more flexible than a desktop with Illustrator or something. It’s hard for me to do anything at home because I have a young daughter who doesn’t enjoy sharing my attention. I went on vacation to Jamaica with a friend and drew up the first 100 pages in a week while sitting in front of the ocean. I recommend that.”
She also noted that when creating a graphic novel, it’s important to take into consideration what future publishers might desire. Originally, her graphic novel started in only one color because she assumed that no one would pay to publish it in full color; full-color pages often cost exponentially more. Once she sold the book, she “added in more colors … and full color was negotiated.”
Williams said she used one color with particular purpose: yellow made its appearance throughout in significant ways. "Yellow is my favorite color: daffodils and egg yolks and pee. Lots of interesting things are yellow. I think I used full color when a little beauty or relief was needed.”
Williams hopes her graphic memoir helps others dealing with their own experiences and is proud to add to the limited number of female graphic memoirs currently published.
Find Erin Williams on Twitter @Erinrwilliams2.
Mercedes is a lazy reader with an interest in postcolonialism, graphic novels, and anything cat related.