Even if Maggie Brennan and I hadn’t gone to school at Oberlin College together, there’s no way in hell I’d have missed out on her gently freaky sci-fi comics and animations. The first one I read was 2016’s Upgrade, an unsettling story set some time in the ambiguous future when technology allows for swapping lives. It’s like a meditation on grass is always greener angst — in this case, a man with a crappy job wants to switch with a man who’s tired of his high power career. Maggie tells her pastel-hued stories with eerie ordinariness; she focuses on the fact that in the future, we’ll all still have the same social anxieties we do now. Think Black Mirror, but even scarier because of Maggie’s patient, no-fuss pacing. I was hooked.
So, of course, I asked her to make one of her beautifully creepy comics for The FADER’s Earth Issue, for which six cartoonists thought up their ideas of what a “future earth” might look like. Maggie’s is stunning, subtly apocalyptic, and downright gloomy. And, honestly, probably pretty accurate. Her vision of the future is one in which the trees have died, but harassment and misogyny have not.
Emailing in some free time from her very busy school schedule — she’s currently studying for an MFA in Digital Animation and Motion Arts at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute of the Arts — Maggie told me about the winding path she took to discovering her passion, her extensive range of influences, and why she’s so into speculative fiction.
Tell me a little about yourself, and how you got into art. Why you do comics and animation? What are the kinds of things you like to express in your work, and why? How do those formats suit you?
MAGGIE BRENNAN: Like most people, I doodled, played music, and wrote little stories as a kid. As I got older, I started reading comics and would make sort of diaristic ones of my own, but I rarely showed them to people. Once I got to college, I started taking comics more seriously because I was surrounded by people who were also into them. I took this great comics class my freshman year, and my friends from it subsequently formed the Oberlin Comics Collective. We made our own zines every semester on a cheapo risograph printer.
Besides comics, I also studied English and Opera, made some bad attempts at experimental music, and acted in like, two plays. I'd randomly take computer science or psychology classes, partly out of interest, and partly looking for a more practical calling — clearly I did not know what to do with my life! It took me a long time to figure out that animation was a good solution for me, since it combined all the things I loved, but, yeah, I am now doing an MFA in animation. Phew.
I still really love drawing comics and I think they are better suited for expressing certain things. For example, it's easier and more elegant to show stillness, or the simultaneity of events, spaces, etc., on a page versus something in constant motion. But the added element of sound in animation really excites me.
What's your process like? What are your tools?
For comics, I draw everything in non-photo blue pencil and ink mostly with Micron pens. I use a brush for more organic shapes or larger areas. I then do a wash with diluted ink. Usually, I will do this on a separate page, but if I'm rushed I will sometimes do the wash directly onto the line drawing. I then scan and color everything digitally.
For animation, I was originally doing everything extremely old school — pegboard, light table, everything penciled and inked by hand, then photographed or scanned. This proved to be the most torturous thing a person could possibly do without any assistance. I now do all the character animation completely digitally, mostly in ToonBoom, and will make hand-drawn backgrounds to try to keep the analog aesthetic — this speeds up the process very slightly. I've also been doing some stop-motion animations with both paper and armature puppets.
Who are you inspired by?
Sally Cruikshank, the Hernandez brothers, Seiichi Hayashi, Phoebe Gloeckner, Peter Foldes, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O'Connor, Octavia Butler, J.G. Ballard, Anna Moffo, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Delia Derbyshire, strangers' conversations, pop science, websleuths.com, and my family and friends.
Recently, I liked Perfect Discipline and Unbending Loyalty by Tommi Parish, and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood. I've been listening to "Anna Wintour" by Azealia Banks on repeat and, relatedly, read a kinda old op-ed called "Azealia Banks and the Double Standard of Mental Illness" [by Morgan Jerkins] that I think is important to read with regard to mental illness and women of color making art.
Congrats on getting your comic “Your Summer BodBot” in the New Yorker! What was it like to see that?
It was very exciting. It wasn't the first time being published, and it was only online, but it was definitely the most well-known publication, I'd say. Emma Allen, the cartoons editor, reached out to me via email and said she liked my work and invited me to submit some stuff! I submitted a few different storyboards and they wound up liking that one. I hope to get back into submitting things, but school has kind of taken over my existence.
I've been asking everyone: what's your biggest fear right now? Greatest hope?
Well, I am incredibly anxious so I have ~5 billion fears, but my Main Fear oscillates between thinking the world will end suddenly via nuclear war, the world will end fairly soon via environmental damage, or the world doesn't end at all but all my loved ones die.
My greatest hope is that people one day will not have to live in a constant state of fear of gun violence, war, police harassment, bigotry, or whatever specific evil is currently looming over them.
I love the futuristic relationships and identity motif you've got going on in your comics. Why do you think you're drawn to those ideas?
I've always liked "speculative fiction," especially at its subtlest. I want to tell stories that tap into your emotions in ways you weren't expecting, and I think crafting the story around a reality that is only partially familiar is the best way to do that. As someone who grew up on the internet, all of my relationships beyond familial ones were forged largely through technology, so I like to think about how technology will continue affecting people and their connections to others.
What inspired this particular comic?
I had been reading an overwhelming amount of people's #MeToo stories and was feeling kind of hopeless about the possibility of a future in which men aren't predatory. I wanted to show a moment in time where something as eternal-seeming like a tree doesn't exist anymore, but objectification does.