Jeff Pearlman

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Tess Stone

#363
Just when you think you've got it all figured out, the friendly neighborhood Starbucks barista turns out to be a preposterously talented transgender horror comic book artist with a life-affirming outlook. POSTED June 7, 2018

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It’s April 23, 2018.

I enter the nearby Starbucks to redeem my birthday drink coupon. Only my app is telling me I can’t redeem my birthday drink coupon, because my birthday is April 22. I’ve missed it.

The barista looks at me and takes pity. “I’ve got you,” he says.

Three words, and my sorta crappy day is transformed.

We chat briefly. He tells me he’s an artist, and I ask whether he’s on Twitter. I start following him here and—holy shit—he’s talented and funny and just warped enough to make me smile. He also happens to be transitioning, and announced such with a marvelous pinned Tweet.

And, just like that, we’re here. Tess Stone is the 363rd Quaz Q&A.

Life is good.

Tess is the genius behind the horror comic, “Not Drunk Enough,” which is just really sharp and edgy and fun. You can purchase his stuff here, and visit him on Twitter here.

Tess Stone, you are officially Quaz material …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Tess, you draw the horror comic, “Not Drunk Enough.” And, to be honest, until discovering your work I didn’t know “horror comics” were a thing. Sooooo … what, exactly, defines a horror comic? And how big is the genre?

TESS STONE: Comics are at a point right now where there’s so much good stuff being made that it spans all sortsof genres. Stories of all types are being told, even within the superhero format. Drama, horror, fantasy, sci-fi—you name it! A horror comic is defined similarly to any other media, though I do wish the genre was a little bit bigger in comics, just so I could have more in my grubby little hands. I’m a fan of horror of all types and consume it on a regular (if not somewhat aggressive) basis. I always consider “Not Drunk Enough” a horror comedy. It’s primarily defined by the body horror, monsters, setting, and a little bit of gore, but with the wish that I make you chuckle along the way.

J.P.: So in October of last year you used a comic to announce that you were transitioning from female to male. You wrote, “It’s all pretty scary … but I’m happier now than I have ever been in my life, and I wanted to share that.” First, bravo. Second, how did you make the decision to announce this huge change via a cartoon?

T.S.: Thank you so much man! As previously mentioned, it was a darn scary thing to announce, but cartoons are where I’m the most comfortable. In my work, I’ve always been myself no matter what the circumstances were, so it honestly felt like an incredibly natural choice. I started to write a blog post or a Tweet, and it just felt clunky. Wrong. I was abusing the backspace key like crazy. Kept second guessing myself. Then when I sat down to draw it out, it just came so easily. I was able to articulate that I was more happy than I was scared, and hoped that this format may also have a further reach. Maybe it could get to someone who is more scared than happy, just like I was before. It felt like a good way for me to express myself and try to offer a hand to someone who might need a little tiny bit of picking up–or just to know they’re not alone.

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J.P.: Along those lines—how did you know you wanted to transition? How did you know you were ready? And what has it been like this far?

T.S.: I was in the closet for a pretty long time. When I dig back into my past, I realize it’s been something I’ve wanted since my teens but had no way of knowing what my feelings meant, or if they had any validity. I pushed it aside until I was 30, and it really wasn’t until one of my friends started his own journey that I was really forced to look at myself.

I’m lucky to have some really great friends who really encouraged me, some of them pioneering the way for me, and offering their advice and support. I don’t know how else to say it, but it was so buried that I didn’t realize I was trans until several tearful conversations with my friends drug out every thought and every fear I never wanted to say, even to myself, and it clicked. I made an appointment for hormonal therapy, and it suddenly was the clearest, easiest decision in my life. I woke up already feeling like something massive was lifted off my shoulders.

So far, it’s been great. I’m not that terribly far in, less than half a year, so I’ve yet to see the biggest changes, and there are definitely ups and downs. The fear of how society and people will view me definitely exists, but being able to be myself makes standing up for myself a lot easier. I’ve seen my confidence grow monumentally since the transition and I try to use that boost to work on making myself a better human as much as possible!

J.P.: You are an amazingly skilled artist. And I wonder—how did this happen? Like, were you the kid doodling around the house? Were you a natural? Did you have a lightbulb artistic moment?

T.S.: Aw, shucks! My parents are both creative people. My mom was a painter and my father went to school for music composition. Heck, they met at CalArts! They always were supportive of me, and I definitely doodled everywhere. I used to draw my own paper dolls for toys and cut them out and laminate them with my sister. I can’t remember ever not drawing. I held a Sonic comic in my hands from the grocery store when I was in the first grade and decided I was going to be a comic artist. I was lucky to have so much clarity in my dream, to be honest!

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J.P.: We met when you were working at the neighborhood coffee shop, and you were kind enough to help me when my app acted up. We chatted a bit, and you mentioned that you needed the health insurance afforded via the gig. And I wonder—how hard is it to make it as a cartoonist? What’s the battle like? What are the successes? The failures? And what’s the ultimate goal?

T.S.: It was a pleasure, man! Being a cartoonist can be tricky, and I think every creator I meet along the way has varying ultimate goals, but the most common one that I find in others (as well as myself) is a desire to just be able to do what we love and live comfortably. Unfortunately that isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish, since I think (like most media) success requires a bit of talent, and a bit of luck. There’s hard work involved, but there’s also being in the right place at the right time with the right idea or the right story.

I’ve definitely had ups and downs. I’ve had some really rough times where lack of confidence made me susceptible to getting incredibly low rates, bad contracts, and just really cruddy situations. But lately? I’m lucky enough to have a great manager to make sure that stuff doesn’t ever happen again and amazing co-creators to help inspire me along the way!

The best successes I get are when people take the time to tell me how much my work has impacted them. Cheered them up, been there with them through a hard time, or just gave them a good feeling when they could relate to a character. When that happens, it feels great. I know it’s kind of cheesy but it’s a feeling that’s really hard to replicate any other way.

J.P.: Earlier this month you got your first tattoo—an eyeplant from the artist Neitzke. Soooo … why? Why a tattoo? Why there? And how bad was the pain?

T.S.: I’ve always wanted tattoos, but never had the confidence to get one! So I just decided to stop worrying so much and just do it. The only thing I knew was I did not want my own art on my body. So I drew up one of the eyeplants from my comic “Not Drunk Enough,” and handed it to an awesome local tattoo artist who then drew it up in his own style! (@neitz_1 on Instagram) I chose to have it by the base of my neck because in the comic, the plants always have a constrictive theme and primarily hover around the head and neck area. As far as the pain goes, it kind of just felt like when your hand tingles and falls asleep a little bit, but in one concentrated area for a long time. So actually—not bad at all!

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J.P.: So what are you thinking when you draw? Where are you? What are you listening to? What’s running through your mind? How do the ideas arrive?

T.S.: Oh man. Music is a huuuge part of my process. I make playlists based on characters, settings, or just a whole story. I pull them up depending on my mood, what I want to accomplish, how I want to think. When I draw I generally think about the people I’m writing or drawing. It’s even beyond just “who are they and what are they feeling?” I try to slip into their shoes—see the world the way they would, whatever world it may be, and think like they would. And when I get that way, I honestly just feel like the ideas come by themselves.

J.P.: You have a comic called, “Seen Nothing Yet,” which you describe as the story of “two boys attempting to be amateur ghost hunters and finding more distraction in each other than anything else…!” OK, so I’m riveted. Where did the idea come from? How did you develop it? When did you know it would work?

T.S.: Thank you! First off, I definitely want to point out that “Seen Nothing Yet” is 18+ adult erotica, just in case anybody unsuspecting starts a search for it. I was lucky enough to be able to work with Slipshine to release some short 14-to-16 page comics on their site while I was working on “Not Drunk Enough,” so I wanted to come up with something that I would be passionate about. So the obvious choice to me was ghost hunters.

Depending on the different stages of my work, I often have TV playing in the background in order to keep my mind stimulated. During writing or sketching or anything hyper creative, I stick to music. But inking, lettering—I gotta find me a show to watch. In this way I became very addicted to ghost shows. I’m obsessed with the paranormal and the people who are on a constant search for what is beyond. After watching dozens and dozens of shows and dozens and dozens of different seasons I just kept thinking to myself—the people who do this are so fascinating! I want to make my own! And so I did. And then they fell in love, because it’s an erotica.

I had no idea it would work, to be honest, but I was really touched by the responses. People really connected with the characters despite the nature of the book, and that’s what I really wanted. I’ve had people return to my table during a con after purchasing it to tell me how much they really actually just were surprised by how easy they fell in love with Owen and Nash. It probably helps that they’re reaaaally chatty and exceedingly dorky.

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J.P.: You’re a transitioning artist with this wild, dazzling approach to your work. So I ask—how are you surviving the Donald Trump years? Because I’m losing my shit …

T.S.: Oof. It’s difficult. I’m doing okay because I have an amazing support system with my friends and family, but every day I do feel like I’m fighting off a headache from the state of the news. Mostly I try to make a difference if I can. Donate when possible, put out positivity. That sort of thing. I know it sounds weird coming from a person who makes a horror comedy comic, but I try to put important messages in there, too. Tolerance, representation. One of my major goals with “Not Drunk Enough” and honestly any comic that I do is to have a cast that is identifiable with everyone. Not just one group. It’s not perfect yet, and I have a lot to learn along the way, but that’s just it. I want to learn, I want to grow, and I want to help others to, too. There’s no shame in realizing you weren’t as educated about something as you could be, as long as you’re ready to listen and learn. And there’s no shame in being wrong. We’re all wrong some of the times, it’s only bad when your pride makes it to where you’d rather feel right than actually do the right thing.

J.P.: When I was a kid my mom wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer—and I wound up a sports writer. So, Tess, what do you parents thing of your life path? Are they supportive? Skeptical? Both? Neither?

T.S.: I think the sports writer is working out pretty darn well for you! My parents are incredibly supportive, actually. My poor mother doesn’t love horror at all, but will read mine. They both do. They check my Twitter, my website. It’s great, and honestly I couldn’t be luckier.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TESS STONE:

• One question you would ask Paul Ryan were he here right now?: How can we be better as a country in practicing tolerance (of all sorts) and supporting minority groups?

• Five all-time greatest superheroes?: Oh gosh these are always so hard … but off the top of my head—Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, Andreas Deja, Naoki Urasawa, Junji Ito

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Mike Trout, Stan Lee, Whitney Houston, Burger King, B.B. King, Ellen, Oprah, Dan Zanes, the short guy from Backstreet Boys, “The Quiet Place,” safety pins: Whitney Houston, B.B. King, Oprah, Ellen, Stan Lee, Safety Pins, Mike Trout, Dan Zanes, the short guy from BBoys, and sorry Burger King but you are definitely the last one.

• Three memories from your high school graduation: I actually got a GED at 15 and went to college the moment I turned 16! So I’m weird.

• What’s the greatest coffee beverage known to humanity?: Iced Americano. In my humble opinion. With nothing in it.

• Three reasons one should buy your T-shirts: 1. You like horror. 2. You like weird typography. 3. You like me?

• On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the quality of Jack’’s nude sketch of Rose on the Titanic?: I give it a 8. I think I’d make her look like a weird cartoon and I probably wouldn’t have managed to seduce her, that’s for sure.

• Do you think the Mets made a mistake dealing Matt Harvey to the Reds for a backup catcher?: I had to Google all that, I’m very sorry.

• What’s the greatest physical pain you ever endured?: I got the very inklings of a kidney stone and let me tell you nobody’s lying when they say it’s incredibly painful. Drink lots of water, everyone.

• What’s your go-to artistic tool?: I actually really enjoy drawing with ball-point pens. But if I’m doing work professionally, I use a WacomPRO!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life