There is a persistent trope about great ideas: they are scrawled drunkenly on the back of a cocktail napkin. The following morning they reveal themselves as the spark of some divine madness that uplifts the author. But in the case of Robot Hugs, it was a forest of post-it notes, and less of an uplift than a very normal struggle with the darker corners of their mind. Which makes the whole proceeding a little less mythical, and a little more plausible.
“I was alone one summer in a little house, and I was drawing them as a kind of coping mechanism.” RH explains this to me as we sip Red Stripe on a rooftop patio looking east towards Toronto’s iconic CN Tower. The reply is in response to a question about the one-panel animal mash-ups that pop up frequently in the early years of the strip. “When my room-mates got back, the house was practically covered in these post-its. Kind of like when you look into a serial killer’s room and the wall is covered. Only with post-its.” They laugh.
Robot Hugs is a special kind of web comic. Running in a variety of formats since 2011, its genesis lies earlier in the above-mentioned summer. The comic consistently updates twice a week, though the precise days may vary. Topics include struggles with mental health, discussions of queerness and body diversity, interspersed with cats. Lots of cats.
We started off with a conversation around issues of voice – how it is appropriate to discuss struggles that don’t affect you personally, as well as being mindful to articulate yourself in language that is accessible and respectful.
“I wish I could talk more on my site about figuring out what I can add to a conversation, when there’s so many people who say much better than me,” RH explains. “So if I can’t think of a unique way of putting it, or showing it, that’s OK because there’s really smart people with good voices and excellent ways of putting things.”
They can do the talking – I don’t need to add my noise to that. But we were talking earlier about not appropriating voice – so while I have strong views on issues of race, I think they’re better articulated by a person of colour. I think sometimes about issues with adding your voice is maybe you’ll be heard where an oppressed person wouldn’t, but at the same time, I don’t want to add chaff to a conversation.
They explained that their social circle acts as a kind of safety net where they can check in when they are concerned about speaking on behalf of others when they mean to be amplifying the voices of the oppressed. They describe the need to respect their audience as a major subject for reflection.
It’s OK to fuck up. We all do. The important thing is to be accountable.
They mentioned a pending project about the experiences of a trans friend working in the tech sector as an example of amplifying voice. Concerns around voice and representation are also a factor in the diversity of comics characters, RH explains. Race is simple to illustrate, but questions of technical skill make differentiating body types challenging.
When asked about the prevalence of penguins in the comic, RH expresses a kind of characteristically wry, anecdotal ambivalence. “I guess my affinity for penguins is because they’re my father’s favourite animal. But thinking about it, he probably just got so many penguins over the years that he’s likely sick of them by now. Like buying ties, he acted pleased so we kept buying him penguin things whether or not he actually likes them. My family has a history of penguins – they’re cute, and stoic.
It definitely takes a certain stoicism to publish web comics, given the climate of harassment and intimidation that pervades the internet.
“The weekend when Robot Hugs picked up a lot of traffic was very stressful. I was at a kink event geared to women and gender minorities; I was doing workshops and stuff. Then my comic blew up. I couldn’t reach my partner, I was getting ALL THE E-MAILs… So now I have the incredible MZ, who screens my e-mails and does most of my FB. I put up a harassment policy and negative stuff dropped pretty much to zero. I put something up to the effect of ‘If you threaten me, it’ll get forwarded to the police’ so now people just say horrible things on their sites. This was something very concerning to me at the beginning, and while it’s diminished, the echoes remain.”
But there are positive aspects to working in web comics, particularly the evolving community of artists who co-promote and organize events together. With regard to the broader community, RH explains:
“I follow a lot of comic artists: Erika Moen, Ryan North (I had a crush on him forever). People just do this incredible work, and the larger answer is that I look up to a lot of creators, but I haven’t quite broken into knowing them as people. I’d love to, though. For now I am happy to follow their work and learn from that.”
At times, Robot Hugs can be a very personal comic. Asked about the comic catching on, RH replied “More people visit my comic than I could ever know IRL and that’s great – but I am happy just doing what I am doing, and glad to know people appreciate it. I’m doing well. They give me positive feedback, and sometimes they buy my stuff.”
They do have one concern about a personal anecdote that might be taken as indicative of bad politics:
There’s one comic in particular I always worry about people getting to. It says “being a whore was harder than she had thought.” I worry people will think it’s anti-sex work, that I’m anti-sex work, and no, just no. I was dating a woman at the time who had started doing sex work and she literally said that, which I thought was the funniest thing ever.
With fame, such as it is, comes rewards. “What’s been cool about the feedback, especially around challenging things like mental illness, dermatillomania, depression, general world frustration, is the countless e-mails I’ve gotten and, holy crap, somebody else feels like this?! And that’s really, really, really good. I haven’t felt alone; I’ve worked in mental health support and know the feeling of isolation that defines mental illness. I don’t feel ashamed or upset talking about the inside of my head. Given that I have that particular outlook on my own head-space, and that other people are connecting and feeling less isolated because of it, sharing it with their friends, I think that’s great.”
At this point, I discovered that the laptop RH had loaned my broke ass to conduct the interview had reverse scroll on. When I exclaimed in dismay on this point, they replied.
Yeah, it’s part of my depression. Though it makes more sense for it to be part of my queerness – I even scroll backwards.
Returning to the subject of mental health, RH elaborates.
“I got a great e-mail from a man whose son had hard times in his head, and he showed ‘Nest’ to the kid, and the kid connected. So the father wrote to say that, and now I know about making safe spaces for him. Getting that kind of e-mail makes the risks associated with sharing personal content totally worth it. I don’t think sharing any of my personal life has backfired at all.”
Somewhere around here I all but hurled the laptop over the edge of the roof. A wasp had buzzed a little too near me, sending me into a flailing panic. As I struggled to regain my composure, I inquired about the name of the series.
“In high school I had a friend who thought I was totally emotionless, and I asked if he wanted a hug, and he said ‘No! They’re robot hugs. They mean nothing’.” I stifled an objection at this point; by all accounts, RH seemed genuinely warm to me, not robotic in the least.
Instead, I asked about how they conceived of Robot Hugs in terms of the internet zeitgeist. The past few years have seen a proliferation of social justice activism in digital spaces, challenging the traditionally very hostile culture of the internet towards diversity. Did RH see themselves as part of this rising tide of resistance, or as a lone voice shouting in the wilderness?
“Depends on where you’re shouting. Sometimes I get stats on people who post my comics, and sometimes I see them using me as points in arguments, in debates online, which is one of the really flattering things about making something that people feel they can communicate – it’s good to feel like you’re able to help in that struggle.”
“There are large sites mentioned earlier, and it’s always good to fight, and it’s always good to make sure these are voices that get heard. If my comic is part of that, amazing! I think the net has potential to be inclusive, and some places try to accomplish that, and some places fail miserably. As long as someone’s standing up and saying, “Don’t be an asshole”….!
“Kind of related to this – do you know Metafilter? It’s a link aggregator, but it’s heavily moderated. You can only post good stuff. The link has to be worthwhile, conversations are moderated so you can’t jump in and say problematic shit. If you’re being an asshole you’ll just get your comments deleted. That makes me feel like it’s the rare place on the internet you can read the comments. Recently I looked at the earliest Metafilter, and I found a lot more problematic stuff – racist apologizing, fat-shaming, slut shaming. But over 12 years it’s turned into a community that’s prioritized the inclusivity and safety we want to see in other spaces, where you can’t come in and say awful shit; you have to be a human being. There’s models for change that I’d like to see implemented. Looking at those old archives, if I’d gone then, I wouldn’t have stayed – I would have been like ‘fuck this’ and jumped ship. But it’s not like that now. It’s a model of a place where you can have critical discussions but can’t be a jerk about it. It’s one of my favourite sites.”
On the note of inclusion, I was curious about something: a few comics reference a conflict with a ‘Pregnancy Care Centre’. Were those true stories? Would they be up for talking about this?
They replied without hesitation.
“That was bullshit, I’ll tell you, it was fucking bullshit. You can print that. They have ads for that shit in the TTC, these stupid ‘Know your options’ ad. I get so mad, I put post-it notes on these ads.”
“I used to work across the hall from this pregnancy crisis centre. I’d leave research studies on their walls, but they caught on so it didn’t last. But people would come in looking for it, and I’d be like ‘I know where it is but you should know it’s anti-choice and they’ll give you medical misinformation and not give you all your options. Here are a few other places you can go if you need help and want someone to be straight with you.’”
“And I’d give out cards. I told people where it was, but I wanted them to know. The centre didn’t appreciate it – they didn’t know they were anti-choice, they just thought people should ‘know the realities’. Fuck them. In reality, it wasn’t that dramatic – I was polite and smiled a lot, while trying to keep people away from the wrongness that is Pregnancy Crisis Centre.”
I missed my mark with a question about influences, guessing at the Far Side, Parking Lot is Full and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.
“If anything influenced me, it was XKCD. Everyone is influenced by it, people realize, ‘Hey, simple art can convey complex ideas. I was very taken away by its early whimsy. I was reading a lot of that during the dark summer of post-it notes, (which is actually what that’s called). I was trying to reach for that non sequitur style niceness. I’m also compared to Invisible Bread and Buttersafe, which is great, because it’s the perfect combination of weird and optimistically sweet. Those were concepts I was influenced by when starting out, starting to draw. Now I’m tackling more challenging things: mental illness, gender issues, general life shit. That’s what you do, right? You see what you like, try to get your own shit going, still refer to them fondly – everyone gets their own voice in the end. …I liked Far Side growing up.”
Influence is not entirely an aesthetic question, of course. As far as inspiration goes, RH had this to say:
I wrote a bunch of academic papers about kink communities, web communities and what they mean. Fascinating and challenging spaces which have a lot of possibility. I’m alternately fascinated and frustrated, enamoured and enraged. Any community that you identify with can have that effect.
I get angry. There’s a lot of frustration in me, and in the people around me. As I’ve continued to do this amazing thing where people follow me and I get to put up my work on this site, I have an opportunity to vocalize that frustration. I’ve had the advantage of doing that more, and getting feedback. I guess it’s that voice-finding stuff we’ve been talking about. As this comic develops into a whole “thing”, I’ve been able to put myself and my opinions out there more, and develop them as I get feedback.
I’m very lucky. I have a great space. People that want to see what I have to say do, and give feedback. People in my own circles that support me give me feedback, tell me when I’m being stupid, which is the most important thing someone can do for you. And I’m excited to see what happens.
Without gushing too much, I don’t mind saying: Me too.