Did you ever make a friend when you were a kid in a way that just felt fated? You locked eyes across the playground—or, maybe a little later on, noticed that patch on their backpack and realized you had the same favorite band?
That’s as close as I can get to describing the feeling of reading Liz Suburbia’s comics for the first time. A flash of lightning: this is just the kind of neurotic, hilarious, possibly crazed genius I want to be around.
Thee Collected Cyanide Milkshake, the first-ever collection of the Virginia artist’s self-published zines from 2008 to 2013, is packed with moments like this—some of them poignant, serious and vulnerable. In Suburbia’s black-and-white, clean but urgently drawn work, fantasy, memoir, raunch and punk rock collide. A catastrophic, zombie-plagued earth serves as the backdrop for a surprisingly realistic on-and-off romance. There's street harassment, fear of intimacy, and fear of death. Not everything has a punchline.
But there is also whimsy, and joy. Anthropomorphic dogs: going to shows, getting arrested. There’s a recipe for a DIY Indonesian-style ramen with peanut butter and broccoli. The first bit that really got me, in particular, is a three-panel one-off on a page full of MAD magazine-style gags and fake ads. A stand-in for the artist appears and asks, “Ever get the urge to just call up every guy you ever wanted to bang and just like, make zoo noises at them?” And then the next panel, eyes widened: “Uh... me neither.”
I laughed out loud at this, surprised by how much I apparently needed it. Then I thought a bit on the value of stupidity during tough times. It had been a long week. And it had been years, I suddenly felt, since I’d seen anyone deliver such a gleeful excavation of the private, sometimes idiotic places our brains go when, say, we’re zoning out on the bus—let alone give them real space in a book.
Suburbia, a self-described Army brat who grew up in the D.C. punk scene, is pleased when I tell her about my playground moment. “The biggest joy of making Cyanide Milkshake, the most liberating part, was being like, ‘This is going to be stupid,'” says the artist, “'and that’s why I’m doing it.’”
We’re talking on the phone in October, a week before preorders of the softcover book ship to readers, thanks to Gimme Action, otherwise known as Bay Area artist/one-woman publishing house Janelle Hessig (who, full disclosure, also works at KQED). Suburbia published a full-length, award-winning graphic novel called Sacred Heart on Fantagraphics in 2015, and she’s currently at work on a follow-up. Her style is confident and punchy, immediately calling to mind the work of elder comics artists like Los Bros Hernandez, and it’s earned her critical acclaim. But for an anthology of Suburbia’s earlier, more raw work, the ethos of a woman-owned, DIY publisher like Gimme Action just felt right.
"[Hessig]'s faith in the book gave me a lot faith in it," says the artist.
Created over a period of about six years, each of the 24-page self-published issues begins with a letter from Suburbia that’s one part motivational speech, one part honest expression of the self-doubt and insecurity that goes into her process. (The book includes issues No. 2 through 8, she explains right off the bat, because No. 1 was just too embarrassing to include—including expressions of gender politics she no longer feels represent her, for example. The dramatic reenactment of its creation depicts our narrator mixing vodka with Arizona iced tea, then literally drawing the comic with her butt.)
“I had my circle of friends, and that’s who I was making these comics for at first," says Suburbia, noting that she never anticipated them finding a wide audience. "I was in the punk scene, and it was just making something to give to my friends at the show.” That scene’s influence is obvious throughout Suburbia’s work, as many of her opening letters serve as a sort of "rage, rage against the dying of the light" call-to-arms for those who might think punk rock—its politics, its way of life—is only for the young.
“It was very similar to the way bands start—hey, we’re friends, we know how to play instruments, let’s put together a band,” says Suburbia of her early work. “That DIY ethic has always stuck with me.”
The result is sort of immediate intimacy between reader and writer—the kind that’s hard to fake.
“Her work is more polished than the comic trash that usually catches my eye, but I immediately felt that magical tingle of familiarity you get when encountering a kindred weirdo,” says Hessig, recalling the night “in a seedy back alley of the internet” where she first stumbled across Suburbia’s work.
“Her comics are full of all the of the elements that make life worth living: angst, comedy, pathos, sex, barfing, and dogs… [plus] that amazing combination of hilarious and intelligent and unhinged storytelling that I’m always hoping to discover at the comic shop over the years, but rarely do,” adds the publisher. “Maybe never have?”
The book does feel stuffed to the gills in the places. But the feeling that comes through Suburbia's characters and vignettes is consistent—as is her encouragement to the reader to pick up a pen themselves. For those of us who weren't athletes in high school, it's sort of a locker room pep talk—only instead of a football coach, she's a smart, self-deprecating friend. Suburbia evangelizes about the simple joys of making comics: not only the idea that it has saved her at times—but the idea that it just might do the same for you.
“I think everybody should make comics if they feel moved to,” she says. “It’s such an easy and inexpensive way to communicate—especially in this day and age, when everything good feels so in danger. It can even be a small way to resist capitalism.
"But that’s always been my main thing I want to tell people: don’t be afraid to take time out of your day to make something," she says. "Even if it’s just for you.”
A book release party for 'Thee Collected Cyanide Milkshake' takes place at 1-2-3-4 Go! Records in Oakland on Friday, Nov. 10. at 7 pm, featuring The Bananas, Don't Ask and Twompsax. Details here.
Emma Silvers is a writer living in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter here.