‘New Yorker’ Cartoonist Liana Finck on the Pros & Cons of Instagram Stardom

If you’re not familiar with Liana Finck’s work, you must remedy that: her shaky, delicate line holds a mean punch. Finck has over 105k followers on Instagram, is a cartoonist for the New Yorker, and the author of “A Bintel Brief” and “Light and Shadow,” coming out in 2019 from Random House.

As a cartoonist myself, I admire the strength and the vulnerability in Finck’s work. She addresses sexism and the desire to take up space as a woman, as well as the wish to protect your own private space and inner world, in an honest but sometimes fantastical way, like with this manspreader calendar or this brutal poses strip. Finck also manages to make life’s mundane and unbearable moments seem poetic, like in this strip called “Life on Hold.” In her Instagram account, you feel like she gets you to your core with a simple diagram. I find myself often haunted by her drawings for hours and days, rethinking them, feeling comforted by the fact that someone can so eloquently express what it means to be a woman and awkward and scared and full of aspirations in the world.

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I e-mailed Finck some questions about her life and art and she answered them with the same candid openness so apparent in her art:

What do you listen to when you draw?

I listen to Cecile Mclorin Salvant’s CD over and over, also a few songs by Dave Van Ronk. I listen to podcasts way too often. I think they blunt my mind, which is good and also bad. (I’m listening to the back catalogues of “Retail Nightmares,” “Another Round,” and “Call Your Girlfriend” now.) When I’m really anxious I’ll listen to an audiobook. The last one I listened to was “The Bell Jar” and all of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, which were wonderful.

How has this election changed the way you create?

I think I’ve gotten quieter. I’m drawing more of what I see and disappearing into my longer graphic novel project more. After the election I went back on Tinder, from grief, so now I have a boyfriend. That’s changed things, too.

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Who are your favorite artists, from any field, and how do they inspire your art?

Roz Chast, Maira Kalman, Saul Steinberg, Jules Feiffer, and William Steig are my favorite cartoonists. (I fell in love with cartoons when I was young and everyone I heard about was Jewish.) The writers I love right now are Elizabeth Hardwick, Roxane Gay, Elena Ferrante, Stacy Schiff, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and Vladimir Nabokov. I like poetry (lately: Tracy K Smith) and old texts.

My favorite artists are Louise Bourgeois and Henri Matisse.

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Do you have a favorite Jewish holiday? Food?

No favorite holiday, I don’t think–I miss them all, and dread them all. There are a ton of them. I think I could handle two or three holidays per year, including American holidays.

As for foods, my favorite are schav (sorrel soup), cabbage soup, and smoked whitefish. I have a love-hate feeling about Jewish foods; I think my grandmothers have tried to escape from the way their immigrant mothers cooked, so I’ve inherited the culture and also the suspicion.

Let’s keep my grandparents out of this

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What’s your ideal date?

I used to love first dates and hate the aftermath (rejection, or ambivalent sex). I like douchey bars a lot. My favorite drink is a dirty martini. But I haven’t met a ton of men who share my tastes–I like bars best with women friends. I also like very quiet sports bars.

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What’s your ideal bagel?

Scooped out, with tuna fish–I have one every few years.

How do you feel that being a female cartoonist has made things different or harder for you, if at all?

It was hard to enter the cartooning world–when I doubted myself, I felt like there were men coming at me from all directions telling me I wasn’t a real comics artist if I didn’t like Neil Gaiman (maybe I stopped reading because I’m avoiding the type of men who give me things to read? A terrible truth). And I was very self-conscious starting to draw cartoons to submit to the New Yorker, since I felt like such an outsider there, and the self-consciousness held me back a few years. But I’m doing fine now. Also, things have changed so much in the past five or 10 years–there are a lot more women cartoonists at the New Yorker, and a young woman cartoon editor–and the graphic novel works seem very robust now and not beholden to superheroes anymore.

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What’s your relationship with your old art? How often do you go back to it?

The stuff I made as a teenager and in my early 20s sucks so bad. I made these drawings of people, in which I went over each line a hundred times, added many layers of muddy, tentative color, and finished by cutting up the paper or canvas and gluing it back together incoherently. You can tell I didn’t relate to the materials I used or the subjects I was portraying. There was nothing intelligent or funny or frank there. Just fear and deep gloom. I blame art college for its crusty ideals, and Hebrew Day School for treating a shy girl like she didn’t exist. I did write a lot when I was in high school and college, and read a ton; that was what saved me.

I was listening to a bit you did on the “New Yorker Radio Hour” where you said, “My ideal would be to be a ghost,” and I couldn’t help but empathize. How do you reconcile your “social self” with your “drawing self”? What are the ways you’ve found that make you comfortable about being with people in the world and putting up healthy boundaries?

I hope this is the year I figure it out. I just bought a clipboard and want to carry it with me all the time and draw instead of retreating into my phone. I retreat all the time and it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m like an ingrown person.

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What is your favorite response that you’ve gotten about your art?

My favorite singer (Cecile) friended me on Facebook a couple of years ago–unprompted. Amazing.

Your first book is an Ab Cahan’s advice column in the Forward. What’s your favorite advice column now?

I love Esther Perel’s 10-episode podcast, “Where Should We Begin.” I also listen to and love the “Savage Love” and “Dear Sugar” podcasts, and I love the dating podcast “Why Oh Why,” but don’t know if it counts as an advice podcast.

I don’t read advice columns because of the flurry of things to read. But I would like to.

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My editor Molly calls you an “Instagram Star” and I tend to agree! How has having this big Instagram following affected you or your art?

Instagram hasn’t really affected my life in concrete ways–I make a little money from selling originals, but not enough to make a difference in my life–and I haven’t tried to make a book of the Instagram drawings because you can only have one thing in the publishing pipeline at once, apparently, and I have a graphic novel.

But it’s pretty amazing to reach so many people, especially without having to go through the usual gauntlets of scanners, Photoshop, editors, rejection, publication. It makes me feel heard. It’s been a big deal for me.

What I don’t like is that anyone can see my feed–ex boyfriends, needy people. And because my drawings are autobiographical, and the medium of Instagram is so personal, I think people expect me to be their friends. That part is a tiny bit overwhelming. But I’ll stop writing snarky answers to people’s comments soon.

Regret: greatest hits

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You mentioned that you’re working on a longer graphic novel project, is there anything more you can tell us about that?

It’s called “Light and Shadow,” and I think it will be out in 2019, with Random House. It’s drawn all in the same pen, in an even, 3×4 grid, in five chapters. Each chapter is called Chapter 1. The premise of the book is that I lost my shadow in my early teens, and each chapter gives a different reason for why she left. I need to keep starting over because each chapter is a dead end, and the shadow won’t come back unless I get it right. Still kind of hard to talk about. I’m worried it won’t be good. I’ve been working on it for a while.

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