It feels like everyone is rooting for Allie Brosh. The 28-year-old Hyperbole and a Half artist and writer has holed up in her bedroom for the past four years, churning out unique webcomics that have come to define a modern style of internet storytelling. Brosh is both extremely talented and wildly self-effacing—she surprises millions of readers with how deep a punch her colorful stick figures can pack.
Now, Brosh’s favorite comics and some new, unpublished ones have been collected in a book from Simon and Schuster. I talked with Brosh as she rode in a car through San Francisco, squeezing in interviews while her book tour hits the road.
SARAH MIRK: One thing I really like about your work is that it doesn’t look or read like anyone else’s. It’s seems like you’re really making up for yourself how you want to tell a story and your approach has come to define a style that other people now copy. Are you really making your work in a cave by yourself or do you have a lot of role models that you look to?
ALLIE BROSH: It’s mostly just me sitting in my room working by myself. Every once in a while I will go refuel by watching a bunch of funny stuff or reading things. It’s mostly that I need to put things into my head because my brain will spin it around and learn it and something will come from it. Picking up a pattern of speech or a funny idea, it will go in there and gestate a little bit and might come out totally different and new. But, yeah, I work totally by myself. I pretty much just show my work to my husband before I publish it. It’s tough because I don’t always know if I’m making the right decisions.
What’s your process for writing?
The early parts of writing a post are gathering as much material as possible, so I have as much stuff to work with as I’m trying to figure out the storyline and the structure. Working out the structure is the hardest part, because there are a thousand ways to tell a story. It’s sort of like putting together an 8,000-piece puzzle and there are 6,000 extra pieces and you’re not sure what the puzzle is supposed to look like until you’re halfway there.
Do you get nervous about publishing your work?
Not really, because I know how much time I’ve put into it. I know it’s the best I can do, it’s the funniest I can make this. I don’t get nervous then. I get most nervous about the uncertainty of the structure-building part, I always feel like I’m missing opportunities. I have to rely on instinct about the best way to do things. For example, in the depression post, at the end I compare depression to a fish. I had a bunch of other analogies for depression. There were so many more I could have chosen.
You really softball it with your work. You put a lot of time and energy into it but then the style is so off-the-cuff, like you just threw it together.
I enjoy the crudeness of the art, because I feel like that’s what I’m really like inside. The way that I illustrate things is the best tool that I’ve found to communicate the nuances of what I’m trying to say.
Have you done work that’s looked more conventional? Did it not feel right for some reason?
Oh yeah, a lot. I grew up with art and drawing. People will give me a hard time about how they see my art as shitty. And I’m like, “I spend a long time drawing each picture.” You’d be surprised how much of a difference changing the size of an eye or shaving a little bit off the end of a mouth can make and how those small details affect the feeling conveyed by the art. Really a lot of work goes into this simplistic-looking drawing. I have the ability to draw things more realistically, but I feel like the simplistic style is more useful to what I’m trying to do.
I think that helps take your readers by surprise. I’m always like, “How can this stick figure be making me feel so many feelings?”
Yeah! A lot of work goes into that.
How does working online as an artist feel different than publishing your comics in a book?
There are benefits and drawbacks to both. I really enjoy book writing because I get better at writing with each post that I work on and I can go back and use the things that I learned to improve another one. It’s pretty isolating, but it’s something I enjoy. As for writing online, I like being able to converse with my readers. I often will go into the comments section and talk to people. It’s just really fun to engage in a conversation afterward.
When you look back on your older work, how do you feel about it?
I used to go a lot more for the low-hanging fruit. Every time you try to learn something new, and comedy is no exception, you go for the easy stuff first. So some pieces I look back on and I’m like, “Dang it, I could have done a lot more with this.”
Your recent comics, like the ones about depression, have been so deep, sincere, and vulnerable. It feels like it’s a different tone than a few years ago where it felt like you were just having fun.
I definitely use humor as a coping mechanism. It was kind of an organic way to deal with that.
How did you approach writing about depression?
It was tough. I wanted to approach it in a way where there was a lot of levity. I think there’s a lot of comedy in tragedy. You have to walk this very fine line between levity and treating the subject with respect. It was a hard job of finding where that line is and staying on the right side of it.
How much of the time working on that were you thinking about the audience and how they would respond to it versus just thinking about what you wanted to say?
You have to think about the audience because that’s who you’re trying to communicate with. What I do is essentially just communication. I use pictures and words to take the things in my head and put them in other people’s head. How do I communicate this thing that I’m experiencing and share it with people who may not be experiencing it? I had to think about the parts that were unclear. It’s a very vague generalized audience. It’s not like, I’m trying to say this to this type of person, I just think about how I can best show how something looks and feels like. I do that whenever I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll imagine specific people, like how I would tell a story to my best friend.
Which of your comics are you the most proud of?
I really enjoy “The God of Cake.” I think I wrote that one pretty well. And “The Party,” those are two of my favorite older pieces. That was the first time that I was making a foray into writing a story that isn’t necessarily a story on its own. I was happy with how I was able to do that. Both of those stories could be very much “you had to be there” stories: “there was a cake and I really wanted it and then I ate all of it” or “I got anesthesia and I woke up in the dental chair and was acting all weird.” It took a lot of work to really flesh out how to tell a story. That was one of the first times I really had to do that. Before, I had an arsenal of stories I was drawing from that had a natural story structure of their own that I could lean on a little bit and that let me be a little lazy. With those ones, I had to dig deeper and find something else. I think that’s one of the reasons I still respect myself for them.
I wonder how your career would have been different 20 years ago, without the internet as a platform for thousands of people to see what you’re making in your cave. Would you have sought out a book deal or a job at a traditional comics company?
I don’t know! I really enjoy the challenge of making people laugh, so that was the impetus for doing this whole thing. I’ve never been good at self-promotion so I don’t know if this would have been able to happen without the internet—the internet created a place where other people could share my work. I don’t know if I’m too shy to do it myself, but I owe a lot to the internet.
That’s something people talk about a lot, how women in every field feel less confident about promoting themselves.
It creates this weird dynamic with comedy when you have to self-promote. It’s almost defiance when you say, “I made this thing that’s funny, come look at it.” People almost want to prove you wrong because you’re, like, bothering them. Humor and self-promotion is a very strange mix of things, where you have to do a lot of things to create an environment for laughter.
The fact that your style is so crude and it’s just on your blog makes it feel like, “This person doesn’t know how funny they are. I discovered this.” How will that change now that it’s a legit book?
That’s awesome. I hope it doesn’t change too much. I think there’s a similar aesthetic to humor and punk rock. You have to not sell out. People get angry, like, “You’re not like us anymore!”
Do you get pushback for being popular?
Not often, but a little bit when the blog started to take off, I got some angry emails being like, “This is all going to go to your head.” But I don’t feel any different and I have the same goals now that I’ve always had, which is to be as funny as possible. Most of the difference stems from me having done it for longer. I know when I’m doing something that’s not funny more often now, the quality control is better and I know more what I’m doing. The comments help, too, and the criticism. They’re not always pleasant to read, but they do help me see the holes in my writing.
Does it feel different to publish a piece that’s very personal, like about depression, than the ones about, like, your dog?
There’s a lot more nuance to the personal ones, describing what the emotions are like. I always get self-conscious, like that I’m “me me me” just writing about myself. I write about myself because I’m the best target for my humor, but I get a little bit of a complex about being a narcissist. I know the most about myself, I have the most dirt on myself, so it’s easiest to make fun of myself. I’ve played around with writing about other people. I want to write a post about my husband, for example – he has a lot of idiosyncrasies. But I never really feel comfortable writing about other people with the same scrutiny as I write about myself.
What choices do you make about how you represent yourself online, both visually and in what you write?
I feel like the character that I draw of myself is a much more accurate representation of me than I am. I’ve done a couple YouTube videos and, watching them, I feel like I’m never getting myself off across as well as I can in drawing. I’m not one of those people that you see and think, “This person’s funny.” That’s an advantage of drawing myself as an absurd little squiggle. I can be a thing that people look at and thing, “Oh, this is funny.” My physical shape, whatever that is, makes people doubt that I have a sense of humor.
What’s behind that?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. Their first impression is often totally not how I am.
When did you come to realize that you’re funny?
I’ve always appreciated humor and I can laugh at sophisticated humor, but I wasn’t always able to create it myself. I wrote some stuff on Facebook, I had some flu and I did a picture diary of that because I was super bored and sick, so I was taking pictures of myself being sick. People commented on that about how funny the captions on the pictures were—that was one of the first times that I was like, “Maybe I can actually do something with this.”
Is it easier for you to be funny online than in real life?
I think so. My friends and my husband tell me I’m funny, but I can more easily project what I’m trying to project online. I can more easily sculpt exactly what I’m trying to communicate and not have any cross-talk with the assumptions people make about me in person. There’s nothing, like, “Oh, she looks like this so she’s obviously this type of person.” It’s much more easy to communicate when there are fewer assumptions.
What sort of assumptions do people make about you that are not accurate?
I’m allowed to be a bit sillier online. I get the impression that when people first meet me, they think I take myself seriously and that’s not true at all. So online, I can be like, “I don’t take myself seriously” and that’s the starting assumption rather than having to prove people wrong. If I’m writing about something online, I can convey my tone more accurately with the pictures. I can draw the facial expressions more accurately.
I should let you go, but just to double-check: this is your first book, right?
Yes. Well, technically, I wrote a quote unquote “book” when I was eight but it was never published. It was about a guy fighting things. I need to find it—it’s in my parents’ basement somewhere. The lead character was named Jacob and he was this very stoic Aragorn-type character and he would wander around finding something to fight, then he would wander around until he found something else to fight. It was horrible. But it was the first time I was like, “Maybe I should write a book!”
Related reading: Female comics shop workers create their own group, Beware the Valkyries.