"Confronting internalized homophobia and femmephobia in the gay community, it felt like a badass move to reclaim the 'hungry bottom' insult for my own cause!"
Although the winter brings us gloom and grey weather, we’ve found a highlight of colour to punch up your January. Having just launched his newest graphic novel, ‘Babybel Wax Bodysuit‘, Toronto based artist Eric Kostiuk Williams dazzles his viewers with a twisted mind melt of queer technicolor bliss, all wrapped up and dripping from paper like a melting colouring book. Loverboy’s Justin got to sit down and pick the brain of this artist, who can only be best to describe as a Disney in heels, and discuss art, queerness, and pop goddess.
So for our readers who are just being introduced to you tell us a bit about yourself.
Hello, readers! I’m a 26-year-old comic-making, picture-illustrating homo who’s been living and working out of Toronto, Canada for the past eight years. In that time, I’ve self-published three autobiographical comics and worked on a variety of freelance illustration gigs, including a bi-weekly column for Xtra (Toronto’s dearly-departed gay magazine), posters for queer parties around town, and a couple of illustrated programs for the Art Gallery of Ontario’s monthly First Thursday event – to name a few! In the past year or two, I’ve reined in my focus towards making new comics. This time around, I’m putting them out through a few different publishers, which is something I’m really excited about.
What pushed you to want to pursue illustration and storytelling as a profession?
A stubborn compulsion, for better or worse! I’ve been making comics for as long as I can remember. As a weird, introverted kid, I felt like it was the only thing I was good at, and the opportunity to conjure up new, imagined worlds was such an important outlet for me.
I find illustration and storytelling to be a great way to engage with, analyze, critique, and satirize what’s going on around us. I think graphic storytelling is the most potent medium we’ve got, and you can see that through the presence and punchiness of political cartoons; the subversive early years of MAD Magazine; the enduring legacy of superhero franchises; and the confessional work from cartoonists like Art Spiegelman, Justin Brown, and Phoebe Gleckner. Comics are just the best!
Interesting! and what’s the first thing you remember drawing as a child?
Cats and Sailor Moon (two things I’m still very fond of!)
Your ‘Hungry Bottom’ series included a lot of stories about yourself in it, and now, your new book ‘Babybel Wax Bodysuit’ features you as well. Is there a reason you like to incorporate yourself as a character?
Well, the ‘Hungry Bottom Comics’ series was taken pretty directly from my first few years living in Toronto and navigating the male gay scene (at a really special, intense time when club culture was still bumpin’, and Grindr was becoming popular, but hadn’t quite reached its current ubiquity).
‘Comic-Me’ appears a bit in ‘Babybel Wax Bodysuit’, a new collection of short stories I put out this past fall with Retrofit Comics. Babybel feels like a bit of a transitional work, a bridge connecting my old comics to the newer, more surreal stuff, so it felt appropriate to include myself for continuity’s sake. That being said, I feel like my autobiographical work has run its course. I’ve said what I wanted to say with it, and my personal life is actually really lovely right now, which isn’t nearly as juicy to write about! (*laughs*) I’d consider coming back to autobio stories down the road, from a different perspective, but for now, I’m really enjoying looking more outwards and exploring fiction, where the sky’s the limit.
The surrealism is really strong in your more recent work. Each panel plays with and against each other and mashes together in such queer mess of beauty, where is this inspiration coming from? Are there artists that have inspired your work and have made you want to play with lines and connection?
Ooh, that’s a great question. A lot of the fluidity comes from listening to a ton of music while I work. While I owe inspiration to a bunch of cartoonists who’ve mastered expressive line work (Jack Cole, Joe Sacco, J.H. Williams III, Jim Woodring, and Moebius, to throw a few names out there), I’d say music is actually one of my biggest inspirations. In my work, I hope for it to bounce, flow, and melt in a way that can match the energy I get from listening to a great pop or disco song. I have so much fun using those morphing, flowing lines to lead the eye through a sequence in a comic page, even if it’s a bit more challenging to follow than a strict and straight-forward nine-panel grid. Why walk, when you can dance?
Interesting that you mention music cause there are a lot of female pop icons in your work. Bjork, Britney, Kylie, The Kardashians, what about them speaks to you? Why the use of them in your work?
Well, women are the best. I grew up with so many wonderful women in my life (as many of us do!), and I also had them in pop culture as beacons of strength, grace, and fabulousness whenever I’d feel guilty or ashamed of being a little sissy-boy. I still feel so empowered by feminine energy, and so grateful for it. I think it’ll be what saves us as a species.
Your books and your individual illustrations have a heavy queer/gay focus. Do you find your work naturally gravitates that way or is it a conscience thing you do? If so, why?
I’d say it was pretty conscious at first. It took some years for me to get comfortable in my own skin, and I think making work that was overtly gay and sexual (the ‘Hungry Bottom’ series in particular) was a way of faking it ‘til I made it, confidence-wise. Those comics may seem bold and strident, but I was still so young, and so insecure, when I was making them. The title actually came from an old lover referring to me as a ‘hungry bottom’ in a dismissive, derogatory way. When I was putting together these stories about coming into my own sexually, and confronting internalized homophobia and femmephobia in the gay community, it felt like a badass move to reclaim the ‘hungry bottom’ insult for my own cause!
Now, I feel like a queer, sexy spirit is more implicit in the work I make. You can breathe your identity into your art without always spelling it out. I was trying to veer away from outright queer content in ‘Babybel Wax Bodysuit’, but I ended up with a story about me browsing comic book message boards as a closeted teen, one about sexy cheese figures, and one about a cyborg Britney Spears escaping her Las Vegas residency one hundred years in the future. I think, one way or another, everything I make will be sprinkled with queerness. If I drew my own graphic novel about the history of Canada, Louis Riel would probably be drawn with a nice ass!
Have you found that queer representation is becoming more and more active and promoted in the graphic novel world?
I think it is, slowly but surely. North American comics have a history of being such a boys’ club (more specifically: a cis, straight, white boys club), and I think women, queers, and people of colour still don’t feel completely welcome in that world. That being said, every year I exhibit my work at TCAF (the Toronto Comic Arts Festival), I notice a broader representation of folks showing their work, and I think publishers are way more welcoming of different voices than they have been. There’s still more work to be done (always!), but I think it’s headed in the right direction.
I remember seeing a poster you did where it was a Nativity scene but Mary was aborting baby Jesus out of her in the manger with a vacuum. I laughed for a solid 15+ mins after seeing that, but have you gotten any negative critiques/reviews on your work?
Oh my God, I was scared to make that poster at first! For a few years, I collaborated really closely with Judy Virago and Igby Lizzard, making the posters for their monthly drag party, Bad Tuck. There’s a fine line between irreverent and outright fucked-up, but I think we pulled off having a fun, joke-y vibe in that poster.
The poster was received pretty well, I think, and if anyone took issue with it, they didn’t come to me about it! The same goes for critiques and negative feedback on my work in general. Both the queer scene and the comics scene are so small, that I think people are too shy about offering up criticism. We all want to support each other, and to not burn bridges, but sometimes I feel like it’d be refreshing for someone to come up to me and say, “I don’t like your work, and here’s why!” Though that’d also be kind of intense!
Other then working and releasing your new book what other projects have you been working on? And which projects from your past are you the most proud of?
I’ve got two new books coming out this spring! One is ‘Condo Heartbreak Disco’, a graphic novella to be released by Koyama Press. It’s a magical-fantasy, queer superhero story about gentrification, and it’s the most challenging and rewarding project I’ve done so far. It’s a really strange, wonderful synthesis of everything that’s important to me – I really hope people like it!
The other comic, ‘How Does It Feel In My Arms?’, is a smaller one, exploring Utopia by way of Kylie Minogue’s music and aesthetic. I’m actually working on it right now, and it’s proving tough to make something joyful while all this turmoil is going down in the world. But that makes it all the more important, I think, and hopefully the process will cheer me up a little!
As for the future, I have a couple of very smart, lovely friends who have brought up the idea of collaborating on new comics, with them writing stories that I’d illustrate. Making comics tends to be such a solitary practice, and I’m excited at the prospect of having someone else’s brain thrown into the mix.
Since you’re based in Toronto, is there anywhere our readers who are in different countries could order your work?
Definitely! The newer books are available immediately, or by pre-order, through our Sauron-like global retailer-master, Amazon. ‘Babybel Wax Bodysuit’ is also available through Retrofit Comics online store, and ‘How Does It Feel In My Arms?’ will be available on the Ley Lines online store. As for ‘Hungry Bottom Comics’, it’s out of print at the moment, but I have thoughts of just throwing it all online for folks to read for free…we’ll see!
Our magazine is named after a hymn by our lord Mariah Carey, and you seem to have a love affair with that pop goddess. Which one of her songs is your favourite and why?
Oh God, that’s so hard!! There are so many Mariah songs I’m fond of, but I will say I’m extra-fond of the ones that incorporate her signature upper-register whistle-singing…a sweet siren song on its own that can shatter glass and set off car alarms! There’s this one song ‘Bliss’ from her Rainbow album that has all whistle-singing in its chorus. When I listen to it, I feel like I’m a dolphin receiving a message from Dolphin-God. And it’s a sweet, sweet message.