Mara Ramirez is probably most recognizable by their loose graphite drawings, which appear in both their animations and their comics. Mara is a co-founder of the Freak Comix collective, and their critically celebrated graphic novel MOAB, which tracks the near-death of a relationship across a desert road-trip, is currently on its third printing.
Mara’s drawing practice bends images of biological life (moths, fish, whales, orchids, and human kids/adults) away from both the fantasy of objective observation and the fantasy of childlike innocence. Their comics depict children in all of their unsettling, fumbling, resonant efforts to understand the things that happen to them. In a recent poem-comic, “whale fall,” they bring questions of gender and reproduction to the scene of a whale’s death; decomposition at an alien scale becomes an occasion for estrangement and abundance at once.
In October, I had the pleasure of talking to Mara about iterative processes, trans figure-drawing, and their love-affair with an inkjet printer—among other things. They curated a small folder of drawings to share and discuss; those images can be found below.
pages from "whale fall," 2023
Tony Wei Ling: There’s a motif I’ve been seeing in a lot of your work this past year—a pattern like netting or gridding, mapped onto three-dimensional forms. Can we start there? How have you been exploring it, and where does it come from?
Mara Ramirez: This will be a long, roundabout answer, but I promise it’s connected.
I didn’t grow up reading comics, and came to comics from a “fine arts” background. Starting out, I found that paneling was actually the hardest for me; my first real, long-form comic, MOAB, didn’t utilize panels much at all. I was treating the page as a panel, drawing a lot from kids’ books.
Before I drew MOAB, I made some books inspired by board books, including one entirely made of wood, with pages shaped like little houses—you know those X-rayed houses that kids draw? I included abstract images telling almost-stories from my childhood and imagined childhoods grappling to understand adult life: for example, a panel of a drunken caregiver, throwing up in the toilet, and the kid closing the vodka and putting it away. That board book was sequential art, even though it didn’t matter what order you read it in. It was stories sitting next to each other in images, and that was one of my first “comics.”
"home," laser-cut wooden book with metal hinges, 2017
I was always obsessed with the relationship between repetition and time. In figure-drawing sessions, I often redraw the same pose multiple times, overlapping on the same page—honestly because I get bored spending too long on one drawing. Moments in comics can be as close together or as far apart as possible; I’m interested in the ones that are really, really close together. There’s this brilliant Ida Applebroog triptych, Sweet Smell of Sage Enters the Room, where the three panels show the same exact thing: a man with his hand raised and a woman on the floor. Nothing changes between these three moments except the text in the second panel: it’s almost like time has stood still, like the panels are the moment being extended. I have goosebumps thinking about it.
Maybe it’s a product of disassociation, but for me, sometimes it feels like moments are just gone. So I like the idea of playing with time, cutting up time and rearranging it. And to get back to the question—that’s what I’m doing with the mapping and the grids. I’m thinking about all of these little squares as panels, and as so many layers. The grid is life as humans organize it, because we’re overwhelmed, and fear makes us want to control and map everything. As an agender person, I feel constrained by this; it feels akin to borders or mapping. I like playing with time, and playing with control, too, especially in the worlds we create as artists.
pages from "ladders," 2023
TWL: I love this idea that the grid, even when it’s wrapping around a form on the page, is still an instance of paneling, of panels twisting and deforming time. And what you were saying about slowing down time with repetition is interesting, since as you said, having a quick hand/brain is what lets you slow down time.
Mara Ramirez: Yes, and that’s a way that I’m experiencing time differently than somebody who’s literally right next to me, drawing the same thing. I love figure drawing for that reason—we have a communal experience, we are all in the same space, but what each person does is vastly different. I don’t know, I love this mushy stuff, I love the amorphous, and I’m interested in working with the grid—or working with control to understand how other people do. I’d like to explore how that’s been put onto me as a person.
TWL: That makes sense, since biological cycles and bio-rhythms are another recurring thread in your work. One of the pieces you shared with us was “Luteal Phase,” and I remember your “RIP Eric Carle” comic in Broken Pencil with the hungry caterpillar crawling around the border.
Could you talk a bit about these bio-rhythms, or metabolic rhythms, that recur in your images? And how it relates to metamorphosis—all your butterfly-moth imagery. Metabolism and metamorphosis are often thought of as opposite poles of life processes, like you either change from one thing into another or have this cyclical maintenance. That also feels very related to care-work and caregiving.
page from "whale fall," 2023
Mara Ramirez: Bro. That’s wild, I didn’t think about that. When it comes to metamorphosis, it’s really as simple as having a trans experience. And in the same way that I’m fucking with time, I’m also fucking with gender. Within any day, I might feel one way or the other, always somewhere different. I like the idea of depicting a cycle, because it’s all of these moments and stages, all existing at once. Especially with my ocean drawings—it’s a subject that’s always turning, coming out and going back again, always moving, right? It never stops, and it’s always happening all at once. It’s part and parcel of being a comics person, and I came to being a comics person by way of being interested in time.
When I was trying to fit myself into the “big finished pieces” idea of an artist, drawing didn’t feel like it could be enough. But really, I’m in love with the unfinished qualities of drawing. I’m obsessed with letting my drawings be impulsive and be just what they are, letting my hand do what it wants. Personally, I love observation, but I’m not interested in making something that looks like a photo. In comics or animation, drawing becomes about time in that way, allowing the marks to talk about each moment passed in making it.
TWL: When you’re doing animation, as opposed to comics, does the relationship to time feel very different?
Mara Ramirez: If you think about it, animation is really shrinking the closure between images, as if the moments between panels are nothing. There’s only a little bit of time between frames, just enough to trick your eye. Thinking back to the Ida Applebroog, it’s truly elongating time—through my body, through the process of doing it. I’m feeling in my body that it’s taking forever, because animation just does take forever, and I’m aware of slowing down time more there.
With comics, I feel like I draw differently. There’s a different part of my brain being accessed. I don’t know how to explain it.
"moth," animation (left)
"luteal phase," comic (right)
TWL: What does that part of your brain feel like? And conversely, what’s hard to focus on or do when drawing comics?
Mara Ramirez: Well, when I'm doing animation, it lets me draw fast and just move on. There's so much work that has to be done, so I don't obsess. I'm like, just go! Meanwhile, there’s a meditative quality I can access in a painting and in comics, because each panel feels like a little piece. I can zero in on it in a different way.
TWL: That sounds like repetition, too. Drawing something over and over again does something different depending on the reason for it, though. In The Making of MOAB, you show some of the times you redrew a page until the mark-making or composition was the way that you wanted. That’s a very different relationship to repetition than when you're animating something, and you need like sixty frames for a perceptual second.
Mara Ramirez: And it's funny, because when drawing MOAB, I had never really made a “real” comic before. The biggest thing I wanted to communicate was the truth of my experience. You can hear from how I'm talking that I think about drawing very much as a bodily experience. The reason I redrew some pages a million times wasn't to make it look how I wanted it to, but to be able to channel the feeling that I had experienced on the trip it was based on. Looking back, and that was four years ago now, those different drafts all look the same! But redrawing helped me retrace my steps through the feelings.
TWL: How would you know when you’d hit it? In MOAB, it feels like emotion filters through very physical feelings: nausea, pain, cramps, and maybe a floating discomfort. It's emotionally very atmospheric or muddy, not so much defining a sharp edge to a feeling.
Mara Ramirez: I’m interested in that muddiness. I would know that I hit it when I felt it in my body drawing it, or when I looked at it afterwards, and—there’s no word for it. Even more than painting, drawing is so immediate, especially graphite. Graphite literally picks up so much idiosyncrasy and the way you're moving, and so graphite and drawing are really capturing the feeling in your body. That's how it works for me.