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When Will Betke-Brunswick sat down to draw a comic scene about the day their mom died of cancer, they drew her as a penguin. It was the first year of Betke-Brunswick’s MFA in Comics, and though it had been nine years since she had died, they were having a hard time depicting their mother on the page. “I just needed a little bit of emotional separation,” the 34-year-old artist explains. But what started as a practice of self-care transformed into the manuscript of the Boulder-based artist’s debut graphic memoir, A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings.
The book, which was released in November 2022 by Tin House, tells Betke-Brunswick’s story of their family’s experience through their mom’s terminal cancer and Betke-Brunswick’s coming out as genderqueer. All the characters are depicted as a type of fowl sketched in expressive orange or blue. “I like birds because [they’re] more awkward and funny,” Betke-Brunswick says of the creative choice—something they hoped would add levity and an easy entry point into the book, which explores vignettes of their relationship with their mother and their final 10 months together, alongside flashbacks from their youth.
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Betke-Brunswick has a penchant for seeking answers through their work—though, it was initially a love of mathematics that drove their pursuits, graduating from Carleton College in the years following their mother’s death and going on to teach precalculus at the experiential school, Maine Coast Semester. Betke-Brunswick was also passionate about creating comics, however. And after teaching high school math for six years, Betke-Brunswick says they felt ready for a career change, and asked themself, “If I could do anything, what would I do?”
Their answer would lead Betke-Brunswick to pursue art full-time, receiving an MFA from the low-residency comics program at California College of the Arts in 2020 while living in Boulder. Beyond their graphic novel, their mini-comics have since appeared on Autostraddle and INTO, in books such as IN/WITH/FOR THE PUBLIC, How to Wait: An Anthology of Transition, and Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, as well as in countless zines, which you can find them distributing at local zine festivals. Betke-Brunswick still tutors precalculus and works at the Boulder Public Library. Also an active runner, Betke-Brunswick says they often stop on their runs to stare at birds and other creatures, drawing inspiration from the animals they say opened a wider artistic and emotional practice for them.
“Nobody’s assigning genders to birds,” Betke-Brunswick remarks, “you can’t really put clothes on them.” They felt they could also create their “own visual language” using birds in their illustrations. While a reader may associate certain human facial expressions with different emotions, bird beaks don’t have that same shorthand, and required Betke-Brunswick to figure it out artistically. “I [was] just a penguin who [was] in college trying to figure out what I [was] feeling, and having a bird beak gave me the space to figure that out.”
Deeply curious and happy to admit when they are not sure of something, that sense of “figuring it out” still pervades Betke-Brunswick and their art today. I first met Betke-Brunswick back in 2016, when I was their pre-calculus student and half-marathon training buddy at Maine Coast Semester. And as I interviewed them recently on a bright and cold February morning, they were easy to laugh—even drawing a comic about our interview afterwards—and peppered me back with questions while enthusiastically sharing their winding path to comics.Unlike some of their peers, they didn’t have a plan for post-graduation. All they knew was that they loved making their own art and reading graphic novels. “I just wanted to learn everything I possibly could about comics.”
LGBTQ+ community especially, was a big part of their draw to comics. “There’s so much queer comics history,” Betke-Brunswick says, explaining the sense of belonging they felt through the art form. “So many queer people making comics were welcoming and loving and encouraging.” Betke-Brunswick is actively involved with Denver’s queer art scene themself, listing the Denver Zine Library, Zines and Cereal, and Homos and Homies as some of their favorite community spaces and events.
Many of Betke-Brunswick comics are inspired by their LGBTQ+ community in turn, using the medium to navigate various facets of queer life, including trans healthcare and legislation. Inspired by their own struggles to find accurate information, they work to research the topics thoroughly and then share the information widely through their evocative online comic series. “It’s important that we as a community have answers. They just need to get spread around as much as possible,” Betke-Brunswick says.
In terms of future projects, Betke-Brunswick is unsure. “People are asking, ‘What’s next?’ And I’m like, ‘I literally don’t know. I just survived getting my book out,’ ” They smile, a bit sheepishly. “I feel really proud of myself. I made a book and sent it out into the world.”
In the meantime, Betke-Brunswick will continue appearing at book events and zine fests. They will be reading at the Longmont Public Library on June 14th from 6:30-7:30 pm, as part of the library’s pride week celebrations. You can find them on Twitter @WBetkeBrunswick and Instagram @transboycomics or at the Boulder Public Library, excited to help you find your next great read.