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Using the Printer
Like a Painter

An Interview with Mara Ramirez

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.


Maras 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.

Sketchbook pages, 2023

TWL: I love that about graphite. I don't know if you follow Angela Fanche, but sometimes she posts photos of a drawing where you can see the shiny grooves where the paper got indented. I’m obsessed with that.

Mara Ramirez: That's what's so beautiful about it. Graphite is the love of my life, truly, but I've been struggling against it a bit right now because I'm struggling with the feeling of things feeling too unfinished. Part of that is the netted pattern and the idea that “graphite is for drafts!” But there's something I'm seeking that I haven't been hitting with graphite. The material is doing it, but something in my pieces isn’t. They don't feel finished. Or maybe that'll always be like that.

TWL: And when you say that, are you talking about the book you’ve been working on about childcare, bound?

Mara Ramirez: It’s an overarching feeling. I think part of it is in the backgrounds. I don't think about space as much as somebody trained in cel animation, right? You're literally painting backgrounds to animate on top of—or if you’re working in the cartoon tradition, usually you have a space that the characters are operating within. I don’t, so I've been trying to experiment with putting my animations on top of video. Honestly, it's been stumping me.

TWL: Let me know if you figure it out. Related to backgrounds and layering, there was one image you shared of a zine spread layering multiple comics pages on top of each other. One page becomes the background to another, and it all becomes somewhat illegible, but in a tantalizing way.

spread from "body becomes,"  zine, 2023

Mara Ramirez: It's interesting, because I'm realizing that I also sent you graphite drawings that make up that page, before they were Xeroxed. And, you know, it’s a comic, it looks like one of my comics, I'm happy with the drawings. But it goes through this process, and I bring it into the zine—maybe it has to do with that trans kind of transformation. It becomes something else, and I like it a lot better.

TWL: I don't know what it is about Xerox itself—it’s not like a Xerox is a super finished-looking thing. But it does somehow digest the marks in some way, and in reproducing them, it gives a very, very different effect.

Mara Ramirez: Part of it is another live process of me responding in the moment—using the printer like a painter. This zine was originally a long, scroll-like image that I made by clipping pieces of paper together. It didn't feel finished, so I turned it into a zine.

You get some pages multiple times—layered with others underneath, then without—so that when you see them again, they're transformed. You already know that image. You don't have to see it again. But you know it, you know what the feeling was, and it's underneath these other images.

TWL: What's your relationship to the printer, the Xerox machine, and the process of printing a zine?

Mara Ramirez: I am in love with my printer. She recently got a little broken, and that was how I realized that I'm obsessed with it. So often, I’ll draw something in my sketchbook and like how it looks, so I'll copy it, trace it on my light table, and turn it into an animation. Or I’ll have a drawing in a sketchbook that I love, but it's not finished, and it becomes a zine. A lot of what I do, I don't even share—like copying two pages of my sketchbook to see how they interact.

Thankfully, my neighbor had a fix-it fair the other day. Just a group of people who come together and fix stuff for free. The guy was like, “Are you okay with the possibility that she doesn't make it out? Sometimes we do lose a patient.” And honestly, when I left, I was feeling so nervous about it; I realized how much she mattered to me in that moment. And then they fixed it, and it was fine.

I do prefer to print my own zines. I’ve found that it’s a key part of my process, because I change so much of the image as I go, just by changing the opacities, or enlarging, or overlaying things. I also really like the texture of my printer. It’s an inkjet, but it has a Xerox quality because the ink doesn't stay on perfectly. It smudges off a little.

The zines that I don’t print myself are generally printed by Tiny Splendor. I go to them when I want something a specific color or if I want it to have a Risograph quality.

TWL: Tiny Splendor is really cool—I got their new anthology Fun Size that Sanaa Khan put together, and I know you’ve got work in that. But the zines you print yourself do texturally feel much more identifiable as your stuff.

Mara Ramirez: Yes, and until I moved into the house where I live now, my printer didn't have space to be out all the time. Having it out all the time really incentivizes me to just use it. I find it’s getting to the core of what I want to be doing. One of my recent zines was, legitimately, something I made in a day because I was so sad after my rat had died. I couldn’t be in my room because he just ruled this room. So, I went to a café, drew my feelings, and came home and made a zine with them. It's so immediate in the same way that the drawing is, which is why I’m drawn to it.

Though I'm kind of struggling with how to reconcile the two processes, the graphite and the inkjet. I do love zines, but I'm also wondering how can I make something that feels more finished, more published, in a way that comes from my more DIY ad-hoc scanning-shit-for-fun process?

TWL: The way you use the printer is also iterative, a way of riffing on your own drawings. The instant of the drawing is different from the reproduced instant, and when you layer that, when you fuck with it, you’re processing it more.

Mara Ramirez: It’s one version of how it feels to make a comic—delving deep into the concepts that I'm drawing and translating it through different things. With the printer, I get to do that in another way formally.

I'm realizing right now, how much of these images I shared for today go back to this idea of iteration, to doing things over and over. It's kind of obsessive. Like, looking at this fish image––that’s one way that I’ve been playing with material to make it feel more finished. Basically monkeying around with it on Photoshop.


"fish," graphite drawing and digital color, 2023

TWL: Yeah, it’s very clearly digitally colored. The fish is visible in the linework, and repeated almost until it becomes nonsense. And then the new shapes created by the digital paint-bucketing are giving, like, neurons instead. It's not the same as the form that you observed and redrew so obsessively; it’s something else coming out of that.


Mara Ramirez: You know, I never actually considered until right now that I didn't color in the fish. I just dropped paint where I wanted it to go. And honestly, because I'm not super proficient in digital art, I just kind of let it do what it wants to do. And I liked the result.

Another example of that is this one here. The weird texture that came in when I dropped the paint bucket all comes from a bleed-through of marker from a different sketchbook page, which wasn't even visible to me. When I tried to fill the body with pink, it only picked up on the marker bleed-through. I was like, oh my god, it's incredible, I love that, why is that happening? Something to do with tolerance levels, I know that much. It's just the material doing what it wants to do, even when it's digital.


"body," sketchbook drawing and digital color, 2023

TWL: I like the idea of the material itself having a say in what gets taken up or saturated. The texture there is just nuts; it looks like a digital map of some ecological dataset.

Mara Ramirez: When I was doing more sculpture, I remember thinking that I could sculpt a reproduction of this object—or I could just use it. The material sometimes holds more weight, right? I did a series called Family Portraits where I filled little thrift store frames with different body memories. I made one of my partner at the time, who was in the hospital a lot and always had EKG stickers on him. I sculpted his skin with latex, but then I just attached his old EKG stickers and an IV to that skin. It means more that those were actually on his body, you know what I mean? Kind of dark and weird, but that was my abject college stuff.

TWL: It seems like you're still interested in building skin, just with a different set of processes.

Mara Ramirez: You asked earlier about cycles, maintenance, and biological themes in my work. I don't know if I've told you this, but when I was a kid, after some time becoming miserable working at Safeway, my mom went back to school to study Kinesiology. So I grew up surrounded by Grey's Anatomy and similar books, and she would come home and tell me about dissecting a body that day. I was seven! 

Bodies are still infinitely interesting to me. It also returns to gender—exploring a body that doesn't always feel embodied, something that experiences dysphoria, euphoria. I'm just very clued into my body, both as a gender expansive person, and as someone who's chronically sick-y. 

TWL: Chronically sick-y would be a great band name. Also, I don't know if this is always present in your mind from your work as a nanny, but I’m always amazed that kids’ bodies are literally different on a day-to-day basis. They're still in the process of decoding what's being assumed about them from their bodies. But it’s not just a free, happy relationship to the body, and a lot of attentive, relational work goes into both taking care of a kid and teaching them to attend to their own care, or maintenance. 

Like, we’ve commiserated before about how young kids will sneeze or cough directly into your mouth. Their relationship to embodiment isn’t straightforwardly abject, maybe, but it’s definitely weird.

Mara Ramirez: No, for real, that was something I tripped out about a lot. Physically, I was making sure they don't die, but also making sure they feel good in their body, feel autonomy over their body. I’d try and sync up with them—zip up my coat when they did, take it off when they did, so I’d have a hint of what they were experiencing physically, and what they might need. A kid is just a little creature too.

TWL: Kids are creaturely, and your style is pretty creaturely too. It’s easy to misread that as instinctual, or not thought-through, or not requiring any effort at all—the fantasy and the insult of “raw” experience. But I feel like what you're actually always insisting is that there’s a type of thinking that’s done through a creaturely mode, and it’s related to that physical attunement.

Speaking of which, do you want to talk about your experience in a trans figure-drawing group this past year?