Mita Mahato shapes dark, contemplative, and chuckle-funny comics using collaged strips of newspaper. Aside from looking really cool, the medium allows her to repurpose commercial color to meet artistic ends and to incorporate broken sentences from news stories into her own work, which often explores loss and disconnection.
When she's not letting the images speak for themselves, her background in 19th century British Literature (she's an associate professor of English at the University of Puget Sound) seems to inform some of her language choices, as she often folds rhyme and lyrical phrases into her narratives.
In addition to producing her own work, Mahato is on the board of directors at Short Run, the big comix and art festival coming up on Halloween. Plus, along with Eroyn Franklin and Kelly Froh, she edits Bloody Pussy: A Feminist Rag. Bloody Pussy is a fun one to read in public places. When someone asks what you're laughing at, it's hard to look them in the eye and say, “Oh, it’s just this primer about ass maintenance.”
Since Mahato's got so much going on related to Short Run and comix and Seattle in general, I decided to hit her up for an interview. We talk about whales, woods, the dead, and some of the challenges a woman of color faces in fields that are traditionally dominated by dudes who think they are white.
Why do pine trees show up so much in your work?
My mom died in 2007 and all of a sudden I started making those cut paper trees. I felt lost in the woods. But in a way I was re-figuring what "home" meant for me.
I was going to say that a lot of this work leans elegiac. Lots of stuff about loss, death. In this context, even your poop jokes seem less about poop and more about what we leave behind. Was the death of your mother the wellspring for these comics?
At least to start. When my mom died, it sorta forced my need for creativity in order to deal with her death. It was an ugly death—I wish people talked more about how ugly death can be. And making those cut paper trees and the comics helped me to express, organize, and make sense of my thoughts. Not all my work is directly related to that, though. I've moved more into looking at loss generally, and even loss of language in my new comic, “Sea."
But why cut-ups? Why paper on paper? I don't see a lot of that in the world of comics.
There was something about taking this dying form of newspapers and re-making it into new images that helped me to approach loss in a recuperative way—to see the potential transformation that comes with loss. I love that comics are so tactile! You're touching something that someone folded and bound with their hands! Somehow you're touching their stories. And using cut paper helps me to emphasize that.
I see that there’s diving whales on the cover of your new comic, “Sea.” Will that be ready for Short Run?
Yes! "Sea" will be debuting at Short Run. Since I was little, I've been obsessed with whales (okay, well, with all animals), and I've been thinking about all kinds of questions related to language—how we communicate with each other, how whales communicate with each other, etc. This is a long term project and "Sea" is the opening piece of it.
What's the one whale fact you can't stop thinking about?
Currently, that sperm whales are the LOUDEST animals on the planet!
In addition to making books, you’re part of the editorial team for Bloody Pussy: A Feminist Rag. Could you tell me a little bit about that project?
Yeah! Kelly Froh, Eroyn Franklin and I edited this paper. We wanted to provide a forum for comics artists to respond to assumptions we were hearing about how men draw and how women draw. We thought these gendered characterizations were really reductive for a number of reasons. So we brought together 12 artists who identify as women or non-binary gender to make comics that allowed them to get gross.
Is the assumption that women comics don't like to get gross?
Or can't? That there's supposed to be a softness or sweetness when it comes to women's comics. My work often gets characterized as "sweet" when, as you've seen, it's actually pretty dark.
I could see people focusing on the softness of the paper and not the fact that paper can fucking cut you.
I use a scalpel!
You’re a woman of color in several fields that have traditionally been dominated by white men. Has that fact shaped your path at all? Have you felt any resistance?
That's a big set of questions! With a lot of contexts. And a lot of complicated answers depending on what you're looking at.
I haven't felt any outright resistance. I once read an excerpt from a longer work-in-progress that had to deal with a childhood experience with racism. After the reading, someone in the audience came up to me and said basically that he hoped I didn't feel badly about the color of my skin because ... well ... he was trying to compliment my looks. It was really awful! I tried to make it a teaching moment, but then I also felt really small.
There's more here of course. Lots more. It's complicated—and I keep starting to write stuff and then deleting it because it's complicated. But, yeah, mostly the Seattle comics community has been INCREDIBLY supportive of me and my work. I feel truly a part of this community. And Short Run has done a lot of work toward inclusivity.
What's some inclusive Short Run stuff that gets you excited or that you'd like to see more of?
Definitely International Comics Week, which is coming in February.