Joey Alison Sayers on the shore of Lake Merritt. Jean Melesaine
Joey Alison Sayers on the shore of Lake Merritt. (Jean Melesaine)

Bay Brilliant: Joey Alison Sayers

Bay Brilliant: Joey Alison Sayers

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Welcome to KQED Arts’ Bay Brilliant, a series celebrating 10 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2018. Driven by passion for their own disciplines—music, dance, theater, visual art, performance, writing, illustration and more—these artists are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.

Joey Alison Sayers has been drawing comics as long as she’s been reading them.

One of the first comics she remembers working on was a short-lived strip made in collaboration with her father; they called it “Play on Words” (or “P.O.W.” for those in the know). “They were just really terrible puns, essentially,” she says.

Today, Joey’s comics are far more than one-liners. She addresses issues of anxiety and depression, the current political climate, gentrification, technology and her own life as a transgender woman with flawless comedic timing and an empathetic, kind-hearted humor that leaves readers smiling broadly and hungry for more.

Sayers posts new work three times a week on GoComics, draws a political strip every other week for the The Nib (an online comics publication that just wrapped their second season of animated shorts, which Sayers also contributed to), takes on occasional freelance projects and authors nonstop hilarious observations on Twitter.


Add to that list being a mother, with her wife, to a three-year-old and a six-year-old, and a day job at the Oakland Public Library, a place she describes as "boisterous."

Despite the fact that she draws on troubling aspects of contemporary society to inform her comics (transphobia, the tech bubble, bonkers conspiracy theories, white privilege, sexism, the list goes on), Sayers is optimistic about the future. "I think we as a society are becoming more empathetic," she says.

That's a bold outlook, considering life in America, 2018. But with Sayers' keen observations, and her ability to turn those observations into much-needed comedy, how could you not believe her completely?

Joey Alison Sayers, "Doubt."
Joey Alison Sayers, "Doubt." (Courtesy of the artist)

What does the process of making one of your comics look like?

Well, the idea stage is really spontaneous. Often I'll come up with an idea right as I'm going to sleep, in the middle of the night, or in the shower. As I'm saying this, I realize the one thing they all have in common is that it's quiet time, which I don't have a lot of in my life.

Depending on the length of it, I'll script it out. And then from there, I'll draw it up in pencil. I'm pretty low-tech for many of the steps. I ink it by hand, and then I scan it into the computer and color it on the computer. I do a lot of my drawing here at the library when I'm on breaks. I've learned to find time where I can make it.

Do you think you can describe your style of comics in three words?

Maybe if I had an extra word I could do so much more.

Do more!

“Cartoony, but not stupid.” I feel like my art sensibility is really similar to old-school newspaper strips, but I try and add a little something more, because I'm not as beholden to having such a broad audience that a syndicated strip does. I like to sort of push the limits.

Who is the audience you picture as you’re working on a comic?

My wife. She's the person I think of when I'm writing. But other than that, I guess adults. Ages 20 to 106, and after that, you're on your own.

Joey Alison Sayers, "Joanie Appleseed."
Joey Alison Sayers, "Joanie Appleseed." (Courtesy of the artist)

Does the Bay Area influence your work? I noticed you have one strip titled "How to heal yourself with crystals" and in another you depict property owners looking down on renters. These seem very Bay Area specific.

Yeah, a lot of the stuff I do, especially for The Nib, I think is influenced by that. I often take shots at technology or tech companies and that massive wealth that we're all surrounded by.

But just being here—I've lived here for 22 years or so now—there's just something almost tangible about the energy and the creativity and the diversity of people here. It's just easy to draw from that, because there's just so much going on. I love it here.

Your Just So You Know comics (two books about coming out as transsexual, transitioning to living as a woman and simply being trans) are so poignant and funny. What was it like to turn a comedic eye to the experience of coming out as transgender?

Well, that was probably the only way I knew how to explore it and how to express it. There wasn't that much back then—it's been almost 10 years since I did the first one and the whole genre's exploded in that time, much to the benefit of everybody, I think, trans or not. But a lot of it was really ... I want to say negative. Or not negative, but it reflected the reality, which is a lot of pain, a lot of sadness and hurt and isolation. Those are all real things that unfortunately most of us face to one degree or another, but it's not the whole picture, so I wanted to bring in the humorous side of it.

I wanted to show people that it's not a terrible thing. Being trans isn't something that I would necessarily sign up for if one were given that choice, but it doesn't mean that there aren't parts of it that are interesting or funny or weird.

A page from 'Just So You Know #2,' published in 2010.
A page from 'Just So You Know #2,' published in 2010. (Courtesy of the artist)

Has your style of comedy changed over the years?

I think it has changed a lot. I don't know how much of that is just getting older and how much of that is striving for more empathy, or how much of that is transition-related. I feel like I give a lot more thought to what I'm saying. I used to just be a little bit more off-the-cuff and say things that maybe are less sensitive to the way other people feel, in the name of comedy.

I like to think I'm a better writer. Comics is 90 percent writing. They look short and they look easy, but sometimes I labor over the phrasing of a sentence because I want it to sound a certain way. I want the rhythm to be a certain way. I want it to lead into the next thing in a certain way. I definitely put a lot more thought into that. And I think it pays off.

What does your ideal future look like for artists in the Bay Area?

We're really lucky that we live in such an arts-focused environment, but I think there's always room for more. It feels like we're living in a time when the artistic and creative freedom that we've built over the last several decades could be something that is not always available to us.

I think it's also just a continued cultural shift towards appreciating art of all different types. TV is suddenly a respected art form and comics is a respected art form in ways that they weren't always. I want to see more marginalized art forms get voices. I want everyone who has something to say in their own way to find a place in the community.