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Instagram is unleashing a new wave of social and creative potential in comics

Image: First Second

Over the past decade, Lucy Knisley has become a preeminent nonfiction cartoonist, creating charming, heartfelt comics about travel (Displacement, An Age Of License), food (Relish: My Life In The Kitchen), marriage (Something New), and motherhood (Kid Gloves). Her profile has also grown thanks to her savvy use of social media—specifically Instagram, where she initially published many of the comic strips collected in her latest nonfiction graphic novel, Go To Sleep (I Miss You). Knisley is part of a growing group of cartoonists taking advantage of Instagram to distribute new content and build connections with readers, and the platform has only become more valuable as quarantine closes bookstores and wipes out convention season. Our comic writers delved into the social and creative opportunities of Instagram and the lessons aspiring creators can take from Knisley’s example.

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Oliver Sava: Social media is a way for people to invite others into their personal lives, and it becomes an especially powerful tool in the hands of someone whose career is built on sharing herself with others. Lucy Knisley has released several graphic novels and a picture book in the last 10 years, and she uses Instagram to stay on her audience’s radar with diary comics chronicling the highs and lows of parenting.

Image: First Second

I first discovered Knisley’s work through her self-published graphic novel, Radiator Days, which I found in a library’s graphic novels section about a decade ago. As a recent college grad living in Chicago in my early 20s, I deeply connected with the work of a Chicago cartoonist only a few years older than me, and found her storytelling immediately welcoming and engrossing, like I was catching up with an old friend. She finds humor in life’s challenges by being vulnerable and honest about her struggles, and it’s a strength that has really come in handy as she constructs concise, entertaining, and emotional comic strips on Instagram.

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Caitlin, I know you’re a fan of Knisley’s work. How do you think her strips on Instagram compare to what she does on the printed page? Is anything lost in translation when those Instagram strips are printed, like in Go To Sleep (I Miss You)?

Caitlin Rosberg: A lot like you, part of what really appeals to me about Knisley’s work is how relatable I find it; Something New came out while I was in the throes of my own wedding preparations. Knisley’s work isn’t consistently comfortable or funny or sweet (though it’s often all three), but it is always intimate in a way that a lot of creators can’t or don’t want to reach. Seeing her diary comics on Instagram rather than in a printed book does lend a sense of immediacy, but I don’t think the core substance changes when the medium does. What is missing from Go To Sleep (I Miss You) is the broader context of the rest of Knisley’s Instagram profile.

Image: First Second

Like a lot of parents, many of her pictures are of her child, whom she calls Pal both online and in the book for privacy reasons. That’s a remarkable and important boundary that Knisley has been very intentional and successful with, especially since so much of her work has featured very personal details. Seeing diary comics alongside day-to-day photos and videos adds additional layers of understanding, but the comics aren’t less meaningful without them. I would argue that reading Knisley’s other work to understand her journey from young adulthood to motherhood is just as important and adds just as much, particularly An Age Of License which grapples with family roles and aging. The context of her previous work or her Instagram presence enhance the experience of reading Go To Sleep (I Miss You), but they’re not strictly necessary.

Right now Knisley’s Instagram isn’t just recording her day-to-day life with her family, but is also serving as an outlet to promote her new fiction book Stepping Stones in an online book tour. For a creator that’s worked exclusively from her own life in the past, what new challenges do you think Knisley might have faced, or still has to grapple with, switching to fiction?

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Image: Random House Graphic

OS: It’s a pretty seamless transition, largely because this specific work of fiction is so heavily rooted in her own real-life experience. She breaks it down in a comic she posted on social media, explaining how she created the kind of story she wishes she had as a kid dealing with her parents’ divorce and a move to the country. Stepping Stones doesn’t push Knisley too far outside of her comfort zone, but it takes her into a different storytelling lane as she moves away from strips and documentary comics. The result is something more active, and after spending so much time analyzing the details of her life through comics, Knisley can step to the side and let original characters live in a world of her own creation.

You brought up the content surrounding Knisley’s comics on Instagram, and I’m fascinated by how social media allows cartoonists to build immersive multimedia experiences around their work. Photography, video, and comics all converge on Instagram, providing a lot of different ways for artists to express themselves. In terms of format, Instagram provides a combination of Webtoon’s vertical scroll with optional horizontal movement if the cartoonist posts a series of images. Michael DeForge’s Leaving Richards Valley (collected in print by Drawn & Quarterly last year) is one of the best uses of this format, telling a long-form story in easily digestible strips designed for Instagram’s square layout.

DeForge has separate Instagrams for his longer comic stories, and he launched Birds Of Maine earlier this year. This is something we’re seeing more and more; during his break from superhero comics, Stuart Immonen launched a sci-fi comic, Grass Of Parnassus, on Instagram with his wife, Kathryn Immonen. (The profile has since been taken down, so I’m assuming it’s probably going to see life in some other form in the future.) Knisley joins the club with Condiment Raccoon, where she imagines herself and Pal as bumbling raccoons, adding an extra layer of cartoon comedy to her slice-of-life stories.

Image: Instagram; Birds of Maine art by Michael DeForge

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As someone who has seen the world of webcomics evolve drastically over the years, where do you see Instagram comics fitting in the larger digital landscape? Are there ways that creators can take even more advantage of the medium?

CR: Instagram is in a really interesting position, and you’re right to wonder how comic creators can leverage it more: As Tumblr shambles along like the living dead, Instagram has become one of the most comics-friendly social media platforms. The algorithm is far from perfect, but tags are useful and the Discovery page is helpful for finding new comics to love (though it’s not as targeted as Webtoon, as we discussed last time). There’s a really healthy fanart and fancomic community too, which gives creators a way to build up their audience. Some of the most engaging comics leverage the ability to use video as well, like Kat Swenski’s, which imagine scenarios leading up to funny or adorable animal gifs.

Image: Instagram; Condiment Raccoon by Lucy Knisley

One of the biggest challenges with Instagram is the image quality and shape limitations that the platform imposes, which is true of any webcomic platform that isn’t custom designed. Instagram formatting doesn’t always lend itself to print or even other platforms, so committing to, and intentionally working within, those restrictions is important. Go To Sleep (I Miss You) is a great example since the comics are all simple black linework and rarely have panel boundaries. Many of the comics are just one or two panels, easy to read in a small format but that translate well to the printed page. Condiment Raccoon also works in part because of its similarities to newspaper style comic strips, though it relies on readers to scroll laterally from one panel to the next rather than displaying them in a line. This scrolling has the added benefit of allowing for “page turns” to surprise or deliver a punchline, which Knisley does to great effect.

Some thought around medium and planning can help set up even inexperienced creators for success; different types of comics are best suited for graphic novels versus monthly issues versus Instagram. Go To Sleep (I Miss You) and Condiment Raccoon work very well on Instagram, but the former translates smoothly to print, while the latter might be a fun zine but probably not cohesive enough for a graphic novel. Stepping Stones, on the other hand, would be very poorly served by being put on Instagram.

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Knisley’s skill with storytelling and her talent as an artist have been on display for years, but perhaps the most powerful lessons to be learned from her now involve the savvy choices about medium and style for different projects, working with color or social media in ways that benefit that a particular comic the most. A lot of advice exists about how to make comics focus on craft, but Knisley’s work proves it’s important to consider the audience, medium, and production process as well.

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