Comic illustrator, Natasha Natarajan is addressing topics such as race, sexuality and mental health through refreshingly honest dialogue and relatable character drawings. Citing an awkward drunk moment with an old crush she found herself obsessing over as the catalyst for her picking up a pen five years ago, Natasha is due to release her 5th edition of FML comics. Using her artform to share stories, Natasha tells Sassy where her ideas have stemmed from and what she's learnt along the way.
What were your reasons for starting the FML comics?
I think it started out of angst, self-awareness and humour. I hardly drew. I hardly even read
comics. I didn’t know about paper types or pens but I found myself drawing my anxieties and thoughts. It helped me. Enabled me to laugh at myself and sometimes other people laughed too. When I printed my first issue in 2016, it was like I’d conquered my fears - or something.
The purpose of my comics is to explore the brutally honest truth of my existence in the hope that people feel less alone in their deepest darkest experiences.
The themes and stories that you create feel very autobiographical – are they often based on your own experiences and/or does an element of fantasy come into play?
Truth and my specific personal perspective are really important to me. Everything in my comics is based on personal experience. I describe them as autobiographical. I sometimes explore more conceptual or philosophical ideas, for example, my 'Who's Exotic Now' comic is an imagining of an exchange that never happened but is a conglomeration of experiences, drawing on emotional experience rather than a lived one.
How do you find other people respond to your stories – especially those close to you who may seem to appear in the narratives?
The main reason I keep printing and publicising my comics is because of the way people respond. I’m no big deal, I don’t have 1000s of followers, most people in the comic world wouldn’t have heard of me, but every now and then I get an email in my inbox with some woman pouring her heart out to me. I can’t tell you how rewarding it’s been. I’ve never felt so heard.
My comics have become a powerful way for me to relate to people, women especially, and share in the experience of being an anxious, self-deprecating, thoughtful and somewhat funny 20-something navigating the 20th century.
The people I portray come in two categories - positive and negative/questionable. Of the positive, it’s usually close female friends and they're chuffed. I keep it as surprise and then we both have a giggle when they see it. I think it’s nice for them to see how much a particular moment has touched me or cracked me up.
Then there’s the negative/questionable portrayals. These are mainly of male lovers. But when I'm writing something negative, I really think twice about where the feeling is coming from, whether it’s for something bigger than myself, plus I don’t name names. I want to be sensitive to other people but I also want to speak my truth. To keep being acutely aware of
how I am describing something and make sure I do everyone justice.
For many people, creativity can be a cathartic and therapeutic process. Do you find this is the case for you?
100% yes. I started making comics because of an obsession I now know you could describe as anxiety. It was definitely cathartic. I felt relieved by the process of creating and putting down my thoughts. I’ve always been that way, writing diaries and what not. My zines are all public diaries really! Even if nobody ever read my comics I think I would still make them. They allow me to think deeply about something while stepping away from it at the same time. I literally look at myself from the outside and I’m strangely satisfied by seeing cartoon Natasha expressing herself on a piece paper. Maybe it’s a way for me to accept myself? The most therapeutic part is when people resonate with what I have made.
Your comics carefully exploring mental health, sexism and racism in ways that feel insightful and open. Have you always felt capable of discussing these topics/experiences?
I have always been a very open person. I am obsessed with honesty. Maybe too much. I challenge you to ask me something I don’t want to answer. I have to say that I owe a lot of it to my parents, my father in particular. He’s obsessed with honesty too. He’s very emotional and raw. He’s also bi-polar and very reflective. His personality and the way he engages with the world has definitely shaped my personhood.
I must also give credit to the meaningful relationships I share with honest, intelligent and open people. I’ve really been able to explore my thoughts and my truths with them. Over the years they’ve built up a confidence in me and empowered me to discuss these topics and share my ideas and confusions. At the end of the day, I think I mostly express confusion. And I’m happy with that. It is my truth and I’m glad I have the confidence to share it. I think it inspires more dialogue than doctrine.
Sharing has made me feel less alone. I feel so empowered to write about the most shameful/embarrassing/therapy-needing topics now because I am confident that someone shares my pain and experiences.
Your comics can be seen as a tool to help other women express themselves, especially through the dialogue you create. Are you aware of how you may be encouraging a sense of confidence in others?
That’s a lovely thing to say. Without meaning to sound arrogant I do have an inkling that I positively affect people. Readers and friends have really reached out to tell me. I’ve collaborated through FML Comics and I’ve even made friendships. And it makes sense to me - hearing people talk about hard things makes it easier for you to talk about hard things. And that’s what I really want from my art.
Whilst exploring these themes with sensitivity and honestly, there is often an added element
of humour. Is this intentional and if yes, what role does comedy play in your work/life?
Humour is definitely intentional but it’s interesting to see how my humour has developed in my comics. When I started, humour and a good punchline was the goal. I’d call my friend Ayesha and be like - give me a funny line to end this comic or please say something funny so I can make a comic out of it. I mean even the title FML Comics is a self-deprecating joke. But as the years have gone by my comics have become less funny. At some point, I even worried that they were too sad and I tried to intersperse the heavy mental health material with some light-hearted female friendship. I even made a whole meta comic about that.
This shift marks a real development in my personal journey. I moved to the countryside in 2017 and ‘found myself', then in 2018 I became unemployed, quite depressed and started therapy. In 2019 I began to see that a lot of the early humour in my comics was a reflection of the fact that I was accustomed to laughing at my pain without really dealing with it. I try not to do that anymore.
It would be easy for me to believe that women are taking leaps and strides. That racism, mental health and sexual discourse have come along way...But that’s not really the whole picture
Don’t get me wrong, I still love a good punchline and think humour is a powerful way to communicate difficult subjects. It’s more digestible. Self-deprecating humour and acute self awareness is at the heart of my favourite relationships. My closest family and friends love to laugh about anything and everything, especially painful things. There’s nothing wrong in that, as long as you also have equal parts acknowledging and mourning. I take it more seriously now.
The ways that you depict naked bodies in your comics, drawing them with body hair and
celebrating diverse body shapes and colour, is truely refreshing. How important is it for you that your work encourages these body-positive ideas?
Thank you! You’re right, it is really important to me. I’m sometimes asked why there’s so much nudity in my comics. And it’s true, I often portray myself naked. To be fair I talk a lot about sexuality. But it’s more than that. To me, we are most human and vulnerable, perhaps even most relatable, when naked. And at my most human I also want to be honest about my body. Not only for the sake of body positivity but also because, symbolically, it's a test of whether I really accept myself.
Diversity is really important to me; I am aware that my brown body is an uncommon voice and for that reason I have always been very particular about creating and printing my comics in colour. Only once have I let myself be black and white and that was in a comic anthology ironically called ‘Full Colour’ for comics of colour.
To me, we are most human and vulnerable, perhaps even most relatable, when naked... I am aware that my brown body is an uncommon voice and for that reason I have always been very particular about creating and printing my comics in colour.
How important is it for women to talk more openly about their experiences of sexual relationships, mental health and racial/sexist discourse?
It’s so important. My heart was opened in university when my friend set up a womens’ discussion group. I think that’s when I started seeing ‘the light’ or maybe ’the patriarchy’ is a better word for it. I felt so relieved to hear my fears and anxieties echoed by others. I had been so alone in the hard truths of my womanhood. I also learned so much about the diversity of experiences. So I definitely think it’s really important for women to talk more openly about these issues.
At the same time I have a fear. It would be easy for me to believe that women are taking leaps and strides. That racism, mental health and sexual discourse have come along way. That’s what my circles, and my social media echo chambers would have me believe. But that’s not really the whole picture. I fear we’re all in our own worlds and a lot of this discourse actually get’s trapped amongst similar people. I know it’s not supposed to be my job to educate anyone, but I’m starting to think - well how’s anyone gonna understand then? We’re all being polarised. I want to make more accessible work. Make conscientiously about difficult topics but in a way that transcends race, class and gender. To this end, I’ve changed the language of my expression - I’m not so angry anymore, there are less culprits, there are less punchlines at the expense of particular groups (eg. white people/men). There’s more nuance, more complexity and more open-ended questions. Let’s see if I can do it!
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Keep up-to-date with Natashas work @fml.comics