Photo by Marty Umans / Interview by Adam Sullivan
Cartooning for titles like MAD Magazine and The New Yorker (both high-water-marks in their respective fields). A hilarious comic (Lulu Eightball) that has been running steadily for 14 years, and a debut book (These Things Ain’t Gonna Smoke Themselves) that’s a breakup letter to cigarettes. And yet to hear her say it, you’d think Emily Flake practically fell ass-backwards into her own life.
But that’s bullshit. Flake’s just humble. But she’s also razor-sharp, and uniquely poised to show you the twisted, depraved, and fantastically witty angles to any given situation. Her second book, Mama Tried, shows what happens when you give a person like that a baby.
Are you a people watcher? I feel like the perspective you have stems from some sort of voyeuristic tendency.
Oh heavens, yes. I stare. I take notes. I also tend to hold people’s gaze a beat longer than I probably should, which has been taken as everything from an invitation to see if I want to have some sex, to creepy and intrusive, to a sign. I once had a homeless guy look me square in the eyes, press a few photocopied sheets into my hand, mutter, “you look like you would understand,” and shuffle away. The sheets turned out to be a manifesto about the terrible things done to him by an evil ex-girlfriend and her flower-harvesting machine. “At night,” in ends, “they go into my face.” This sort of thing happens to me all the time.
What were some of your early inspirations? Are you a Beetle Bailey kind of gal, or was Hagar the Horrible more your thing?
I read the Sunday strips almost ritualistically, saving Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield for last. But the two first things I remember really blowing my tiny mind were Edward Gorey and Gahan Wilson – my folks brought a couple of their respective books home from the library when I was, I want to say, five or six.
When people ask “what do you do,” what is the most succinct answer? Do you adjust it based on who you’re talking to? For instance, at a child’s birthday party you might say “cartoonist,” whereas at Christmas dinner you’d explain to your elderly aunt that you “illustrate for the New Yorker.”
At a child’s birthday party I always say “murderer for hire.” But at cocktail parties, I tell people I’m a cartoonist, then I make an awkward little face and say “and an illustrator. And a writer. And I teach. FREELANCE, DUDES! FOREVER IN PJs!” And then I’m usually asked to leave that cocktail party.
Let’s talk about Mama Tried. Was Tug all just part of an elaborate business plan? At what point did you decide “Hey, there’s a book in this”?
At conception. Possibly during. Tug is pretty good as far as ancillary benefits go, though.
For that matter, how did you parlay a career out of this? Art school? You seem to have a lot of carve-your-own-path-ery to what you do. At what point did it start feeling like a legit “career”?
I think that question should be phrased “at what point will it feel like a legit career.” I sort of clumsily clawed my way up to a point where I could quit my day job almost 10 years ago; I’ve been freelancing ever since (with varying degrees of credit card debt). I still feel like I’m somehow getting away with something and will shortly be called out as the fraud that I am. Is that what this is, Adam? Does it happen now, in this interview?
No, Emily. Your secret is safe with me. You list “performer” as one of the things you do. What, and where, do you perform? Tell me about this panel-podcast thing that you’re doing next week.
I read comics and say stuff. I use PowerPoint, which is probably the least money-involved way PowerPoint is ever used. I’ve rounded up a bunch of like-minded jokers and we’ll all be doing this at the Nerdist Space in LA on 1/22.
How do you fine-tune the lens through which you see the world? That is to say, you could be at the park with 10 other moms, and watch a kid plummet from the top of the slide. Nine of those moms will rush over and call 9-1-1, but you’ll see it as a metaphor for natural selection. Is that an active or passive thing?
Both. It’s an inborn tendency I have that I try to strengthen and hone by exercising it. Which basically I think I just described what everyone who’s even remotely good at anything does. Other than that, I steal.
You and your husband both work from home. How do you structure that? Do you actually work, do you actually have dedicated workspace, or is it just answering emails while binge-watching Netflix all day?
Can’t all of those things be true? But for reals, I do have a dedicated workspace, and so does he. Mine tends to bleed out into the rest of the house, because I am a slob and also the closets and the laundry is kept in my workspace. I do tend to work in pajamas more than is really good for me, though.
All right, for anyone who aspires to be just like you, what are the best and the worst things about the freelance life?
The best is the flexibility, the feeling of being my own boss and working from home. And let’s not discount the fact that I get to draw pictures and write jokes for a living. In my pajamas, mostly. The worst is the heath insurance, and also the fact that I have to draw pictures and write jokes for a living. That’s a glib way of expressing that, but the truth is that it’s easy for me to lose sight of the joy of creating, and do it because it’s my job. That’s a terrible cart to put before the horse, and it leads to a pretty fucked up relationship with my own work. I’m working on that.
Emily Flake will be at the Nerdist space Jan 22 in LA to talk and move her arms along with fellow cartoonists Matt Diffee, Mimi Pond, Jose Arroyo, Wayne White, and Dan Piraro. TIckets are free. Reserve them HERE. Read more about Emily HERE.