Visual Storytelling: A Conversation with Marnie Galloway

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Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Marnie Galloway is now a Chicago-based cartoonist and illustrator. She received a B.A. in logic and philosophy from Smith College. She has worked as an assistant printmaker in several studios in Chicago and a designer for Muse and Cicada magazines at Cricket Media. She currently works as a freelance illustrator.

Her 2012 Xeric award-winning wordless comic In the Sound and Seas was self-published in three volumes; it was collected and re-published by One Peace Books in 2016. She has published other comic books including Burrow, Particle/Wave, and Slightly Plural, along with shorter comics, including Pisces: What’s Your Sign, Girl?, Medusa, Mare Cognitum, and many others. Galloway illustrates the column “Ask Ask” for ASK Magazine with science writer Elle Braaf. For four years, she served as an organizer of Chicago’s Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE). In 2015, she co-hosted a podcast about comics and other artists, called Image Plus Text.

In 2018, her work was exhibited at Harold Washington Library, Chicago’s public library flagship, in late May and early June. In August, the New York Times published her comic about the Thai soccer team cave rescue. In addition to her freelancing and comic work, she is the mother of two children, a two-year-old and a two-month-old.

Her work is intricate, even Escher-esque at times. I spoke with Marnie Galloway about comics and poetics, the humor of Moby Dick, and the impact of motherhood on the creative process.

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The Rumpus: How did you decide to become an artist?

Marnie Galloway: I’ve always drawn since I could hold a pencil and I’ve always kept visual journals and sketchbooks. When it came time to apply to colleges, I specifically didn’t apply to arts colleges because of my mom. She really wanted me to go on and be an academic of sorts and follow in her footsteps. She was the first person in her family to go to college; education was a huge deal to her. And honestly, I also didn’t know how being an artist worked. I didn’t know that it was a thing that you could do. So I followed a liberal arts path and I was really good at quantitative stuff.

Fast forward to graduation. I didn’t have anything to do. I moved to Columbia, Missouri to be with Tom, a brand-new boyfriend, now husband, for a year of figuring things out. I dutifully studied for the GRE and took the GRE. I was going to go and pursue an advanced degree in logic. When I was on my walk back from the GRE, I had a huge panic attack and it just felt like such the wrong thing that I was setting myself up to be doing. I went on a long walk and talk with Tom and finally admitted to myself that what I’d wanted to do since I was a kid was what I should try.

I followed Tom to Chicago; he got into a PhD program at Loyola. I was excited about Chicago as a place where I knew there was an arts community. I still didn’t really know what being an artist was beyond painting. I tried painting for a while but I’m a really bad painter. I went to grad school for a year for Book and Paper Arts because it felt close to what I was interested in doing. I’ve always been more of a book nerd than a comics nerd or art nerd. I like thinking about the book as a structure, but it was a bad program. I learned a lot about how not to be an artist in that program.

I worked for two years in addition to working a bunch of day jobs to pay off my student loan debt. I worked at a print studio for a while, putting away six point type with tweezers and setting tiny letters for business cards. I learned that wasn’t for me either.

When no one was looking, I was still making books and I returned to that with In the Sounds and Seas. I still didn’t know that I was really making comics until I met a local cartoonist through the print shop named Jeffrey Brown. He suggested that I apply to Zine Fest and other comic shows. That changed my damn life. I learned that there were other people who were doing what I was doing and I found a community and audience and haven’t looked back. I’ve been committed, focused, making comics for years.

Rumpus: Could you talk about In the Sound and Seas, your wordless comic about a sea voyage? What made you decide to tell this particular story?

Galloway: It wasn’t until about two years after I published the first one that I did a kind of self-analysis about leaving grad school. This story is at its core about obsessive creative production and what happens when that fails. It’s also about a certain kind of search for creative voice and creative community. When I was writing it, I didn’t have much distance. The feelings were so raw. I was just trying to find a thing to write and I was fighting with it. Then when it took the form that it did, it felt like such a relief to have to said it.

I’m also interested in the mechanics of reading visually and thinking about how a spread works, and how the density or openness of an image can move your eye across the page. I’m interested in visual storytelling and telling the story without words, and the power of mythology and art to give meaning. Those were all the constituent elements that got blended together into making the book.

Rumpus: In other interviews, you’ve talked about the influence of Homer and Melville on your work, and on In the Sound and Seas in particular. Can you talk about some of that influence? There aren’t a lot of women in those stories. And Homer isn’t kind to women. I can’t speak to Moby Dick since I haven’t read it.

Galloway: Moby Dick is absent of women. It’s a commercial whaling ship, so it’s all these burly dudes being mopey. I think about those pillars of literature a lot because… they reflect on us as a culture and how we think about stories. Right? If you ask someone what was the most tedious thing they read in high school, they’re going to name The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Moby Dick. I love those books ferociously and will defend them. Moby Dick’s hilarious. It’s full of jokes and nobody knows that. It has a chapter that’s just about how delightful it is to cuddle with a friend when it’s cold outside.

Why do I look at those books? It’s not insignificant that they’re both nautical voyages of some internal self-discovery. Narratively, I’m interested in spaces where scale is an element. Space, the sea, and the wildness of nature appeal to me because they makes our humanness so much more apparent. Powerlessness isn’t quite the right word. But like all of the things that we do to construct our world, all of the brilliance and power, are, in this context, very, very small. That’s what always drew me to those stories in particular and to In the Sounds and Seas being a nautical tale.

Rumpus: You won one of the last Xeric awards for In the Sound and Seas. How did that happen for you and how did it impact your work?

Galloway: The Xeric award had been on my radar for a little bit. I was in an MFA program for one year and then dropped out. One of the things that I did get out of the program was thinking about how to be savvy about grant writing, even just realizing that grants were something that I had grounds to apply for. I’d always thought that I needed more experience and more background. But there are plenty of grants out there for early career artists. I had done some looking for early career grants that would maybe be appropriate for projects I was working on at the time. I had done the first two chapters of In the Sounds and Seas as a self-published mini-comic, with a letterpress cover. When I learned about the Xeric award, my plan was that when I finished the entire project, I’d apply to the Xeric award and maybe I’d be lucky and get it.

But in the way that the world is very, very small, I went to a New Year’s Eve party hosted by a college friend, in Ann Arbor. I ran into another cartoonist there and mentioned that I was thinking about applying to the Xeric. She was like, “Oh, you should probably do that this year because it’s closing after this year. This is the last round.” I didn’t think I had a shot, because I’d only finished a third of the project, but I applied and was really grateful to be in the last round of recipients.

With that, a couple of things happened. First with the grant money that I got, I was able to publish a much larger run of the work. Second, I got a distribution deal with Diamond Distribution, the major comic distributor for mainstream comics, because they picked up Xeric-winning comics. Their system is set up for working with major publishers. I had this completely surreal experience of sending a box of books to Diamond and being in the catalog. Third, I got some publicity from being one of the last round of Xeric winners. That announcement got me a little bit of a blip of awareness in this community that I’m now very proud and grateful to be part of. I’ve also gotten to be really close friends with other folks who won Xeric awards in that last class.

As much as anything, it was encouraging for me at a time when I didn’t feel like I knew how to keep moving forward. Just that little bit of recognition was motivating. I don’t think that I would have stopped working if I hadn’t gotten it, but it definitely was fire to work faster. 

Rumpus: Could you talk about your recent works Burrow, Slightly Plural, and Particle/Wave where you talk about the experience of motherhood?

Galloway: Particle/Wave was published after In Sounds and Seas. It was half about the experience of pregnancy and thoughts about writing about motherhood. It was something that I was hesitant to do at first. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed, because the work that’s in my bones and in my heart is about questions of fiction.

Burrow is a more like short poetic fiction, where I’m trying to visually and narratively express the experience of profound sleep deprivation that comes with a caring for a newborn. But I didn’t feel like it was quite scratching it. There were a lot of other things that I needed to think about and write about. I think that the call of misogyny was coming from inside the house. I don’t want people to think that I was diminishing that experience myself. The more that I reflected on it, I realized that it’s such bullshit. This is a huge transformative event that happened in your body, you’re creating life. And it’s also on the boundaries with death. There was a essay that was published in the Paris Review recently called “Mothers as Makers of Death” by Claudia Dey, about how motherhood is also the creation of death. You’re creating a new life that will die. There have been changes and it’s this massively transformative thing. And yet it’s so culturally diminished. The more that I thought about that, the angrier I got and the more I wanted to write about it.

There are practical reasons for that, too. As of our speaking right now, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old and a two-and-a-half-month-old. The time that I have to work is more scarce and also more precious. I want to be more bold and brave with what I make given how scarce the time is. I now work and write during nap time and after bedtime and occasionally with a baby in my arms. That affects the stories that I want to tell, the stories that feel vibrant to me. I don’t know if the next project that I work on will be on the same thing, but I definitely feel like my systematic interests in narrative are as transformed as I’ve been through the experience of having children, even if what I’m making isn’t specifically about the experience of giving birth or caring for a baby. I’m deeply changed by it.

As an addendum to the thematic questions of embodiment and motherhood, I’m really interested in poetics. Each of those three books engage with the idea of poetics and comics in different ways. In Particle/Wave, there are two stories that kind of collide in the middle spread and they’re in conversation with one another. The structure of the book lends itself to a more political reading much more than if they were linear stories.

Burrow cuts and play with texts. The last third of the book is exclusively cut and pasted text from the first two thirds to recombine and create new meaning. Slightly Plural is a collection of short comics that bounce between kind of literal memoir, autobiography, and more reflective poetics. I was thinking: what would a collection of poems look like if it was comics?

Rumpus: Recently, you had a piece in the New York Times about the Thai cave rescue that happened in August 2018. Could you talk about how that piece came to be?

Galloway: I’m in a critique group—which has turned into a support group—with three other cartoonists, all women at about the same career level. We all started around the same time. We’re all dealing with similar professional challenges and realized that we had shortages of resources and could use each other for support. Two months ago, one of the women in that critique group wasn’t able to take a job that was pitched to her in the New York Times lab and offered my name as someone who could take that. It would have been a small, three-panel comic that would have been more like a personal story. I reckon that’s how I got on the art director’s radar.

When they had a project that they thought that I would be a good fit for, they reached out. The New York Times specifically said that they liked the water scenes and high contrast and heavy blacks from In the Sounds and Seas. They were interested in something that emulated that style and would maybe be appropriate for telling a story about the Thai cave diving rescue.

It was a really great experience and also really challenging. It was a tight turnaround for the amount of information that needed to elegantly, narratively fit into a relatively small amount of space. I also was with working with rough copy and having to do a bunch of iterations before the final art. From beginning to end, it was about four workdays, which is a pretty quick turnaround for that kind of project. But it was a really great experience there. I’m still so pumped that I got to do that.


Elisa Shoenberger is a freelance writer in Chicago. She is the co-editor and co-founder of the literary magazine The Antelope. She has written for the Boston Globe, Curbed, Ozy, HelloGiggles, City Creatures blog for the Center for Humans and Nature, iExplore, TouringBird, The Reset, Sonderers, Rebellious Magazine, and Our Urban Times. She makes cheese, plays alto saxophone, and stiltwalks in her spare time. You can find her @vogontroubadour or at bowlerhatfox.squarespace.com. More from this author →