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Cartoonist MariNaomi Goes Digging for Closure in ‘I Thought You Loved Me’

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a book cover with hand-drawn lettering of the title, and a headshot of an author in red lipstick and a black and rainbow top
MariNaomi's new graphic memoir 'I Thought You Loved Me' wrestles with the sudden loss of a relationship. (Geoff Cordner / Courtesy MariNaomi)

For much of 2016, MariNaomi sat in front of a corkboard, trying to piece together a friendship that had ended 15 years before. Their memories of this friend, Jodie, had mostly disappeared, with only a few ghostly details remaining via old journal entries. The two bonded during their formative adolescent years: exchanging notes and letters, partying, hooking up with boys and figuring out what they’d do with their lives as young high school dropouts in Mill Valley.

So why couldn’t MariNaomi remember any of it? What was left was a deep, lingering chasm of resentment and confusion.

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The corkboard was filled with Post-It notes and no answers. “Goddamn Jodie!” the artist exclaimed.

In their latest memoir, I Thought You Loved Me (Fieldmouse; $30), the cartoonist documents this process of excavating buried memories as they attempt to figure out why exactly Jodie ended things over a curt phone call in 2001. The book uses colorful mixed media collages — like drawings overlaid onto email threads and postcards — to walk readers through the emotional disarray of an author “re-forming” their memories. MariNaomi acts as writer, illustrator and personal historian, at one point rifling through calendars and diaries to quantify how many times they’d mentioned or spent time with Jodie in their 14-year relationship (316 times).

But these numbers ultimately don’t fill in the blank spaces of MariNaomi’s memory — they only create more questions.

a corkboard with a drawing on it and words that read "I spent so much time with her. How do I not remember any of this? Who are these people?
A page from MariNaomi’s book, ‘I Thought You Loved Me.’ (Courtesy MariNaomi)

“There was a period of time where I was just like, ‘I’m sick and tired of thinking about this!,’” says MariNaomi, who now lives in Alameda, in an interview at a Berkeley cafe. “I’m sick of not forgiving her. How do I let go of this?”

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It’s a week before they head out to Iowa to kick off their tour for I Thought You Loved Me, which includes Berkeley and San Francisco events in March. (The book’s publication, initially scheduled for February, was pushed back to May 3 due to an international shipping issue; copies will be for sale exclusively at their events before that.) As they mull over potential questions for their first upcoming event, MariNaomi wonders how the memoir will be received and whether or not it’s too dark.

a portrait of an Asian person with short black hair wearing a black shirt with a rainbow across it. They are smiling and looking off to the side while wearing red lipstick
MariNaomi, who grew up in Mill Valley, has built a career out of raw, emotional graphic memoirs that push the boundaries of the form. (Geoff Cordner)

It’s not a brand-new question, exactly: MariNaomi has been making comics since 1997, and they’ve grown accustomed to using the art form to process complicated life experiences. In their first graphic memoir, Kiss and Tell, they documented their romantic and intimate relationships from ages zero to 22. In their follow-up book, Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, they brought readers into moments of their tumultuous upbringing and other pivotal relationships that shaped their youth. And in Turning Japanese, they chronicled three months spent in Japan in their early twenties, working in hostess bars and learning the language to connect with their mother’s side of the family.

But for the artist, I Thought You Loved Me immediately felt different: While previous memoirs included personal, complicated ponderings around identity, race, sexuality and attachment, they were all written years after the events had occurred. There had been time to pause — to look at the past with more objective eyes.

“I’m not a fan of using art as catharsis if you’re going to show it to other people,” says MariNaomi. “I think that’s not bad to do, but I don’t think it makes for very good art a lot of the time because you’re not out of it. A lot of that stuff tends to demonize people, which is fine from a personal perspective. But from an artistic perspective, it’s really boring to read someone who’s just angry or putting someone on a pedestal.”

Still, they decided to try the project that ultimately became I Thought You Loved Me, even though they couldn’t clearly map things out from start to finish — and quickly found the process frustrating and unsettling.

green grass with a collage over it, a line drawing with a blank notebook and the word 'nothing'
A page from ‘I Thought You Loved Me.’ (Courtesy MariNaomi)

It also produced highly visceral art and writing: By beginning to work in the midst of their grief, the hurt they had bottled up became present in each page. Rather than edit out the pain and unknowing of how they would write the book, they allowed the doubt to breathe and set its tone. As a result, the reader is able to journey alongside the writer through an emotional whirlwind that doesn’t minimize the disorienting and unpleasant parts of healing.

The memoir begins with photos of Post-It notes. In one, a hand holds a pen to a blank page with the word “nothing” scrawled beneath it. In another, a doodled MariNaomi asks “Why won’t it come?” as blood leaks from their eyes and mouth. In the next, a blue note simply states “Think, Mari, think.” Looking back, they laugh at how stuck they were in the beginning.

a pink collage made of a postcard and handwritten notes
A page from ‘I Thought You Loved Me’ by MariNaomi, out May 3 from Fieldmouse Press. (Courtesy of the artist/Fieldmouse Press)

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna write about it…any day now. Alright. Here it goes. Here’s me looking at a piece of paper. I’m gonna write about it…now! Now. Any second now,’” recounts MariNaomi. “It took a while before I was like, ‘OK, this isn’t going as planned.’”

For the reader, the memoir is a bit like reaching under a bed and discovering someone’s secret box of memories: bit by bit, you uncover the puzzle pieces of moments frozen in time. You wander through photos of dead leaves juxtaposed with silhouetted figures, slightly crumpled memo pad pages with musings from the past, old letters written in pink, purple and blue ink, torn journal excerpts, pictures and drawings that mean nothing to you and everything to someone else.

Stylistically, I Thought You Loved Me also departs from MariNaomi’s previous work. In their earlier memoirs, visual structure is fairly cohesive and uniform; each story is told through a series of black-and-white comics, with panels that are inked with neat clarity. This isn’t to say their artwork is simple — even as they adhered to a more traditional comics format, their use of perspective and humor created dynamic and immersive worlds filled with angst, lust, love and rebellion.

a black and white comic panel
A panel from ‘Kiss and Tell,’ one of MariNaomi’s earlier graphic memoirs. (Courtesy MariNaomi)

This new memoir, by contrast, takes a more experimental form, discarding panels in favor of one long, unfurling journey. But the artist’s emotional depth remains. At times, the aesthetic lack of boundaries seems to mirror MariNaomi’s unresolved exploration of the past, a mental and artistic voyage that begins nebulously and only expands as dormant memories come back into focus.

As memories returned, MariNaomi began to wonder if the Jodie they remembered was ever real or a figment sculpted through yearning.

“We’ve been estranged for so long, whoever she was, she could be a completely different person now. I’m probably very different than I was back then. This person ceases to exist at a certain point,” says MariNaomi. “Were they ever three-dimensional to begin with? Or was I idealizing them? How much of that was me projecting my thoughts onto them or things that they would show me or what did I not show them?”

a line drawing of a smiling woman and another figure in a mask outlined in red
A page from ‘I Thought You Loved Me.’ (Courtesy MariNaomi)

Now, over six years since they first stared down the corkboard in their dining room — trying and failing to will their memories back — MariNaomi is finally ready to put their book out into the world. At its core, I Thought You Loved Me is a heartfelt reflection on the past, the fallible nature of memory and the ways betrayal can impact a person’s sense of self and the world around them. While the memoir began as an attempt to rationalize a persisting, gnawing grief and upset, it ultimately became an opportunity to move on.

As MariNaomi enters the thick of a book tour and kicks off their next project, they are constantly drawing and writing, chewing on old stories with retroactive wisdom. “That’s kind of the fun thing [about comics and memoir]: you could write about it today. And then you could write about it again tomorrow. And then you could write about it again 50 years from now, and it’s completely different viewpoints.”

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‘I Thought You Loved Me’ is expected to be published May 3, 2023. MariNaomi will appear with copies at San Francisco comics shop Silver Sprocket on March 4 and at Berkeley’s Pegasus Books on March 23. More information here.

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