Katy Rex’s “Strange Wit” is a graphic novel biography of queer icon Jane Bowles

Katy Rex has been writing for places like Comics Bulletin, Bloody Disgusting and other genre sites, but now she’s working on her own book that is relevant to queers and graphic novel fans alike. Strange Wit is a graphic biography of queer writer Jane Bowles. Jane’s most famous work was her novel Two Ladies, published in 1943. Ten years later, her play In the Summer House debuted on Broadway and fans included Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote.

Jane was married to her husband, Paul, but had many female romances and relationships throughout her life, all of which are detailed in the beautifully drawn and narrated Strange Wit. Each chapter will include one of Jane’s short stories adapted into graphic novel form, and 15 different artists from all over the world are contributing their perspective to Jane’s words.

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We spoke with Katy Rex about finding inspiration in Jane Bowles, and how Strange Wit came to be.

AfterEllen.com: How did you first become interested in Jane Bowles?

Katy Rex: I found out about her because about 10 years ago, I was doing a really awful job at a call center and I spent a lot of my time at work doing online queer activism. And I ran across some list about marginalized queer artists and she was on the list and she, I guess, caught my attention. I bought every thing she ever wrote and have been obsessed ever since.

 

AE: What did you connect with? What was it about Jane?

KR: For me, we just have a lot in common, personally. And not always good things. She has a lot of flaws I see in myself as well. It really connects for me, emotionally. 

 

AE: What kind of research did you do?

KR: There’s one biography of her that exists. So I read that, obviously. And then I had to try and find all of the rest of her life, the things that didn’t make it into the biography, so I ended up reading biographies of a lot of her friends and her husband. I read all of her letters. But she’s a tangential figure in the biographies of Marty Mann, who was one of the first women to be in AA and she’s a tangential figure in the biographies of William S. Burroughs and Truman Capote, so I could find out more about her through the people she knew.

 

AE: In putting Strange Wit together, how did you decide what you wanted to include? How much is it about her queerness?

KR: For me, Jane’s sexuality is a huge way in which she comes to terms with the world. And I think that’s a really crucial thing to show. Her work was another way that she came to terms with the world. And so they’re both very important to characterize who she is. It’s very central, her serious relationships and sexuality is incredible central to the book.

 

AE: I haven’t read the biography, but how much did it explore her queerness? There’s been so many times where biographies try to de-gay historical figures.

KR: It’s an interesting question because the biography seems to be very open about some of the women that she was involved with. The biography indicated that she only slept with her husband Paul, that he was the only man she ever slept with, and that doesn’t seem to be the case either. It seems she identified as a lesbian but was probably bisexual and either she didn’t know that word or she just didn’t choose to use that word for whatever reason. I don’t know, it was 1930, I don’t know what we were using in terms of slang. The biographer wrote in her affair with Helvetia Perkins, and I say affair because she was married to her husband Paul at the time. And she wrote in her affair with Cherifa, but she did not include that in the 1950s, Jane actually slept with Marty Mann, the AA woman I mentioned, while Marty was in a longterm relationship with a woman named Priscilla and it was sort of a big issue in their relationship. Because Marty was an alcoholic and she was not drinking, but she was falling off the wagon by sleeping with somebody who was not her partner.

Exclusive panel from Strange Wit: “This is Jane with Marty Mann. They met in 1950, and this picture reflects Jane is about 13 years Marty’s junior. They were in Paris at the time.”

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AE: It’s so salacious when you find out these lesbian histories, isn’t it?

KR: Oh, yeah. Well, lesbian drama goes back to forever.

 

AE: It’s kind of comforting in an odd way.

KR: It is. It really is.

 

AE: Was there anything that surprised you to learn about Jane?

KR: I guess I expected there to be more unpublished work. Because I know that she was always writing, but she had this really painstaking style. So if she was going to write a story where a couple walks down the street and passes a little boy selling newspapers, she needed to know the familial structure of that little boy’s household. She needed to know his mother’s maiden name and his father’s profession. She had to know every thing of every detail of everything she wrote and it became really overwhelming for her, so she didn’t actually produce that much.

 

AE: I love the cover of Strange Wit. It’s gorgeous. Can you tell me a little bit about how the artwork came together?

KR: The cover is by Marguerite Sauvage, and she is this really incredible artist that had been doing illustrations for designers like Louis Vuitton and Sony Playstation and now she’s working for DC Comics doing their Bombshell series. It’s really cool and fans of Batwoman are saying it’s the best she’s been portrayed. The biography has art by Tyler Jenkins, and then each chapter of her life is accompanied by a short story adaptation in comic form and each short story adaptation has a different artist. … This team is, I’m going to say there are 16 of us now, we’re all over the globe. I think we’re about 50 percent [queer]. I didn’t want to do only queer creators, I didn’t want to do only straight creators. I wanted to have a mix of everybody.

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AE: So now you’ve got a Kickstarter.

KR: I’ve been paying for this out of my pocket for a while and I kind of ran out of money so now I’m Kickstarting to get some more. Because paying artists is priority number one for me.

 

AE: What else are you working on right now?

KR: This is my first published book. I have a few other things that I’m working on at the same time, because that’s kind of how comics is. I think with prose you get a little more lead time. But I’m editing this really cool book right now called Kim & Kim by Brian Visaggio who did Andrew Jackson in Space. And Kim & Kim is a story about two intergalactic bounty hunters. They’re best friends and both named Kim. They kick a lot of butt and have a lot of sass and energy, and one of them is a trans woman and it’s really cool because it’s not a story about being a trans woman, it informs her experience and it’s a part of her but it’s not the only thing about her. And it’s just a really cool, fun bet friend story set in space with lot’s of guns.

 

AE: Are you planning on doing graphic biographies of other women, too?

KR: Yeah, I would like to do a biography of Marty Mann. The more I read about her through Jane, the more I want to do something with her. There’s a beat era author named Mary Butts. She self-published a lot of stuff about her so I’d be really interested in wading through her version of herself and finding out the reality. Also, the creator of Wonder Woman, his wife and their girlfriend ended up together or kind of left him out of the relationship. There’s a pretty good chance I want to write about that, too. The other big project I am working on is the web series The Chanticleer about a bar and it’s done in the pulp style of the 1950s and all the main characters are lesbians. The creator just reached out to me and we’re going to start doing some graphic novels as supplemental material of some of the side characters.

Follow Katy Rex on Twitter for more updates on “Strange Wit” and make sure to visit their Kickstarter page. The perks are worth it!