“If you have a human figure, to me that’s automatically a story,” Sophia Wiedeman said as we casually sipped coffee on a Monday afternoon. “You can say it’s an abstraction, but it’s impossible as human beings to look at a depiction of a human form and not think of a story. We have an expectation that there’s a story there. That’s a person, they came from somewhere. They feel something.”
When I asked where she grew up, her chuckle indicated there is no simple answer to that question. A product of Foreign Service parents, Wiedeman’s family hopped to another corner of the globe every couple of years, but one of the things that stayed constant in her life was drawing and the desire to tell stories. Her parents supported her interests when it came to traditional artwork and doodling, although their notion of comics was relegated to newspaper funnies.
“I didn’t start thinking about comics until I began reading superhero comics when I was twelve,” she explained. “I was really into X-Men – like, obsessively – when I was a pre-teen. And I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. This thing. Pictures and words together.’” When she told her parents about her aspirations, they were convinced she was joking.
Her quiet compulsion continued, tucked away in her head, then later unfolded on reams of paper until she was able to find an outlet for its dissemination. In Honduras, where Wiedeman attended high school, there was little room for alternative culture, let alone access to comics. When she later enrolled at the College of William and Mary to pursue dual degrees in English and art, she found little support from her professors for work deemed as untraditional.
“Why do adults in France read comics and nobody looks twice at them?” she asked. “Why do adults in Japan read comics and nobody looks twice at them? It’s really only in America that it somehow has an association with a lesser form, a more childish form of art.” Wiedeman speaks with an air of curiosity to her words, comfortable with not having the answer, but fascinated by the chance to find it.
After graduating, she went on to earn an MFA from The School of Visual Arts in New York, an experience where she learned “to tell a story from beginning to end.” Following that, she stayed in the city another six years working at a publishing house (and drawing comics, of course) before deciding it was time to relocate. Six months ago, Wiedeman and her husband moved to Charlottesville when she took two teaching jobs, one at James Madison University and the other at Piedmont Virginia Community College. She may have a new day gig, but comics are still what she’s really all about. “I have a whole life that revolves around taking them to comic festivals, getting them around,” she confided, “They have lives of their own.”
Her work is familiar, like comfort food from a stranger that adds a new dimension of flavor but reminds you of the love your grandmother put into her own cooking. Wide open faces, often the focal point of the frame, accent meticulously sketched backdrops of environments and clothing. Her most expansive work thus far is a four-part series that re-imagines the story of Rapunzel called The Lettuce Girl, the final installment of which came out last year. Born and Raised, her most recent book, explores adolescent relationships between sisters and their father, artist and pencil, and vulnerability crushed under another’s indulgences.
“I pursue what I’m interested in whether it’s a particular shape or idea, and then I realize half-way through I’m writing about my mom, or sex, or that it’s about Catholicism,” Wiedeman explained. “Or – oh god – this is about my mom, sex, and Catholicism at the same time,” she continued with a laugh, the same enthrallment in her voice as when she questioned the priorities of America’s art culture.
That openness to an organic evolution of theme as well as the lack of male characters in The Lettuce Girl (or simply the fact that Wiedeman is a woman in a genre perceived to be dominated by men) have led some critics to consider it a feminist retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ original. By extension, she is frequently identified in commentaries as a feminist cartoonist. Though she doesn’t reject these labels, they also don’t define her. “I have a story to tell. I have something I need to draw and I draw it,” she explained. “I’m not a lady cartoonist. I’m a cartoonist. I write comics that I would enjoy.”
Wiedeman is steadily settling in after moving from the “hyper-competitive” atmosphere of New York to Virginia, which she describes as more of a “lovefest.” Since her relocation, she has found ample creative camaraderie and an environment saturated with talent, full of inspiration motivated more by community progression than personal gain. It’s a dynamic she appreciates, saying, “I’m a firm believer that if my peers do well, I’ll do well. If I can help somebody, it never benefits me to shoulder out the little guy because we’re all little. If you have any sort of creative ambition at all, guess what? You’re the little guy.” And like Wiedeman says, even little guys have a story worth telling.
Sophia’s next publication, Semi-Solid, will be released at the end of May. See more of her comics at sophiadraws.com.
Photography by Brandy Somers