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Baker's Dozen
Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

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BAKER'S DOZEN for 05/07/2008
Innocence Lost
Kevin Boze and Stasia Kato on The Virgin Project

I've not had the pleasure of meeting either Kevin Boze or Stasia Kato, and I wasn't really familiar with their work until a mutual friend told me about The Virgin Project. However, after reading their first collection of true-to-life tales of innocence lost--which are by turns hilarious and horrifying, incredibly moving and chilling--I knew I had to talk with them about their ongoing investigation into one of the least explored, yet truly universal, experiences which help define the lives of each and every one of us.

Virgin Project

Bill Baker: How do you describe The Virgin Project to those who've never heard of it?

Kevin Boze: The subtitle, "Real People Share Real Stories" gets right down to the meat of it. My personal "quick version" goes something like "It is a collection of first-hand stories from people on how they lost their virginity, re-told as comics pages." More formally, I describe it as, "Part interactive art experience and part sociological experiment, The Virgin Project is an on-going endeavor to capture the breadth of a universally shared human experience--losing virginity."

Stasia Kato: I see the loss of virginity as a rarely acknowledged, yet important rite of passage, so in this way the collection is an homage to this hyper-personal, yet universal experience. They're funny, painful, secret, and most of all potent--it's a great mix: "True first-sex-stories."

BB: Where did this the idea for this project come from, and how did it develop from that moment of conception to today?

KB: In September 2004, I was at Seattle's Bumbershoot Arts Festival, the biggest arts festival on the West Coast, volunteering with my friends at Cartoonists Northwest. We were doing an event called "Comic Biography Theatre" where visitors were welcome to write down a true event from their lives, and we would magically turn them into comics before their eyes! Wow!! Real, live cartoonists at work! It was very popular.

I sifted through the submissions, and one of the stories that caught my eye was about a one-night stand that was interrupted when the girl's drunken ex-boyfriend kicked down the front door. No one else wanted to touch it. I was reading this guy's story, laughing until my sides hurt. It was great. I sat down and did the story. Then I did three more. I was hooked on the concept of taking true-life adventures and telling the stories in the comics format. From there, it was a short road to doing stories exclusively about people's "first time."

SK: Kevin came to me with the idea and asked if I'd like to join in. Of course, at the time, I don't think either of us realized how intense things would get, how many stories would flood in. It's been a trip.

BB: Kevin, what lead to your decision to share the creative chores, and what about Stasia and her work made her the perfect woman for the job?

KB: When I was still developing The Virgin Project, I showed it to John Lustig (of Last Kiss Comics fame). He had solid praise for the storytelling and liked my layout skills "But ..."

"It's OK," I told him, "You can go ahead and say the art sucks."

"I wasn't going to say that!" he protested (he's a good friend, but he's an even better diplomat). He went on to "suggest" that I find a good, strong artist to do the inking and finish work. I was pondering a list of possible candidates, when I had a forehead-slapping moment: "I live with a really talented artist!!" Stasia happens to be my niece, and she was rooming with us while attending Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts and studying comics. I took her the pages, made my pitch (a little something for a full-time art student to work into her spare time, ha-ha).

I was thrilled when she agreed. I've always admired her pen-and-ink stuff, and her ability to work in a range of styles was exactly what The Virgin Project called for. So, I guess the moral to that story is "get advice from people you respect, and then listen real hard to what they tell you."

Virgin Project

BB: Stasia, what about The Virgin Project caught your interest, and why did you decide to join in?

SK: Kevin brought me his first penciled story, "Mark," and asked me if I'd like to ink it in. The frankness and courage this guy had to tell his story of being raped by his wrestling coach was really brutal, was really immediate; after realizing these stories were out there--the quantity of which we didn't know, yet--we really had no choice but to try and tell them.

The intimacy of this project really sucked me in, too. This could be your best friend, your grandfather, the shy kid in class, your boss. I was taking a comics class under cartoonist Ellen Forney at the time, so I thought, "Hey, I know at least a little about this process!" Kevin is a superb writer, luckily. Drawing has always been about the only thing I can do well, so this collaboration is really working out.

BB: I was wondering if you ever get embarrassed when hearing these incredibly intimate stories, and how do you deal with it when it arises?

KB: I'm there to listen, not to judge, and that makes it easy to simply take notes without letting your own value system intrude on the process. And people pick up on our sympathetic energy. We treat the interview process professionally, like doctors. If our subjects felt we were somehow "grading" them, they would stop talking. We are the guardians of people's secrets; it's a trust we take very seriously. That said, I'll admit to a slight twinge when a woman I knew well confessed to me that she screwed her brother.

SK: I figure if people are willing and comfortable enough to lay their stories out in front of me, I have no reason to feel embarrassed. It's really intimate, however--sometimes confession-like. The fact that most of these people are complete strangers, though, makes it easier both for us and the storytellers. There is a little protective distance.

BB: There are also some really terrible things that have happened to some of these people whose stories you tell. How do you deal with those aspects of the project?

KB: I have had more than one person break down and weep in the middle of telling a story. What do you do when that happens? I stop writing, set down my notebook, reach out and hold their hand, and usually say something like "Take your time," or "You don't have to do this if you aren't comfortable with it." Hearing people's innermost secrets, especially if they involve digging up painful, shameful moments, can be emotionally draining. Committing them to paper can be just as hard. One story about betrayal and rape, "Ellen," took me seven weeks to draw four pages. It was just so hard to share her pain on paper. The effort was worth it, and "Ellen" remains one of the most talked-about stories we've done when we display these stories at events such as the Seattle Erotic Art Festival.

SK: At first I was rather unprepared. Of course there is a premise to this project, but when someone chokes up at remembering old feelings, it becomes a different scenario: the notebook does go down and there are quite a few people I've hugged afterwards; it's almost impossible not to become emotionally involved with that person for those minutes.

Virgin Project

BB: Does that act of sharing those horrible moments seem to help some of them, to act like a catharsis and perhaps grant them some kind of freedom from those awful memories?

KB: Absolutely. I've seen people wipe away their tears, smile, and say, "Wow! I didn't think telling you that would make me feel so good! I suddenly feel great!" We sometimes hear things that are being shared with another human being for the very first time. [The words] "Cathartic" and "closure" come up quite a bit.

SK: Without a doubt. It's interesting to see how people view their stories in retrospect. Often, even if the story could have been really traumatic, they can look back and laugh, or at least put it in perspective. Some people haven't yet found a resolution, but I think this process definitely helps.

BB: Have you used every story people have shared with you, or are there some that you've decided not to include...and if that is the case, why?

KB: We've had hundreds ... literally hundreds ... of submissions, and no, we haven't used them all yet. We're always looking for more, and we've never heard the same story twice. If volume one sells well, there's always volume two, and unlimited sequels, because the scope of first-time experiences is so incredibly diverse.

What's the best way to make the cut and end up in one of our books? Rule number one: don't try to impress us. Just take a deep breath and tell the truth. The honest, simple stories are the best ones.

SK: Yes, an embarrassing pile of un-drawn stories. Not because of a lack of good ones; they're all good. I do lie awake at night and think about the ones yet to come. For a story or two, people want us to use their real names, they have an agenda, they have a point to make, and that isn't really what we're after.

BB: So how do you two create the art and stories for the project? And do you always use the same method, or do you sometimes switch roles, so to speak?

KB: Typically, I'll take the notes and think of how the story can be told best. Often, the subjects themselves will set the tone with their word choices and what they do and don't emphasize in their stories. I find the right angle to approach the story, write out all the narration and dialogue, design the characters and the settings, and pencil in the layouts. Then I send them over to Stasia to work her magic.

SK: A person's occupation says a lot about them. Kevin sometimes makes stylistic and storytelling choices to emphasize this: a puppeteer's characters are all socks; the magician whose first time is literally replayed as an act, for example. Because these are anonymous we get to invent the physical appearance of the characters, which is really a lot of fun. What makes these stories interesting is all the little personal quirks and imperfections, and we try and communicate that. Some pages are more serious, some more light-hearted, obviously, and my inking can be influenced by that as well.

And it helped my inking when Kevin would send a note, saying "This is being done in color." Allowing for color to be added later dictates a whole different style for executing the line work.

KB: We've both done "solo" pages where we create the whole story ourselves from start to finish, but the best pages are the collaborations, and we've come to depend on that approach. Neither one of us is as good as both of us together.

Virgin Project

BB: How did you decide on the order of presenting these stories for the collection, and what kind of criteria, if they're anything you can articulate, guided your decisions?

KB: I knew exactly which two stories I wanted for beginning and ending the book. From there, we organized our stories into male and female, gay and straight, and "fun" and "not fun." As we worked on the story order, we made sure the reader was always experiencing something new.

BB: I noticed that there are three distinct color sections in the book; what about those particular tales, or sections, lead to your decision to color them.

KB: The story from "Patty" (or "the lesbian sock-puppet story", as my friends affectionately call it) cried out to be done in color. When you read "Olive," it's important to see her world as beautifully as she sees it. For "Mary," I really wanted to show her trapped inside a glass bottle, and color was the best way to do it.

BB: What's been the most surprising aspect of this project for you?

KB: Most surprising, and gratifying, is the reaction of people who mistake this project for an adult sex comic and are hesitant to read it. These are the people who later thank me for sharing these stories. When they see that this project is not about titillation or exploitation, skeptics turn into advocates. Even my mother and my mother-in-law are fans.

SK: People have come up to us and described what we're doing as a social service. At first, our work may seem a little light-hearted and casual, but the deeper we and our readers get into it, the more I believe that we are taking a real educational angle on the subject. It's honest, and I guess it all boils down to the fact that this would have been a pretty cool supplement to my sex-ed class.

Virgin Project

BB: Have you learned anything after embarking on this journey?

KB: I've learned that there's a lot of hurt out there, and that's been another surprise. When I started this, I thought it would be all goofy, ironic, good-time juvenile ineptitude at its best. And I heard plenty of those stories, too, especially alcohol-fueled college friskiness. But I wasn't prepared to deal with the subjects of rape and abuse. Lucky for me, I learned quickly, and I've come to admire the ability of people to survive and even thrive sexually after going through their own personal hell.

SK: Kevin pretty much said it. I really had no idea what kind of atrocities people have been through, that they were also willing to share with us. Truly mind-blowing.

BB: What do you get from doing this kind of storytelling? And about creating art, in general? What do you get from doing that?

KB: We have become the caretakers of people's secrets, and handling them with their due reverence and respect has been its own reward. We use real ages and occupations, but we're careful to change the names and any identifying details in order to protect the privacy of our subjects, and their partners.

And I love gallery and art festival events where we get a chance to display our original drawings and interact with the viewers and storytellers. It is so fulfilling to see people react to the art, laughing at the funny stories, shedding a tear for the sad ones. There's nothing like it in the world.

SK: The stories spark a real dialogue between people, even strangers, who wouldn't normally discuss what still can be seen as taboo. This can be really tricky ground to walk, and when we can succeed in communicating what brought us to the stories in the first place, it's really great. Hearing people laugh out loud at the stories is intensely gratifying, but also seeing people brought to tears, and... That's really what art's all about.

BB: What do you hope that the many people who share their stories with you get from that experience?

KB: A lot of that depends on the story being told. For the people with stories of hilarious ineptitude, I hope they got a kick out of sharing and letting others know they are not alone. For people who needed to get closure, I hope they get a little closer to healing. For people who needed to get something off their chest, I hope they feel relieved. For people who wanted to share a secret, your secrets are safe with us.

SK: Everyone has a history. For some, I think the knowledge that someone is taking note and making sure others know--it's really empowering. It's secret, but it can be laid bare at the same time. Telling the story is sometimes about defining themselves and their place in the world. It can be really profound. I hope people can point themselves out in the comics to their friends, say "that's me!" and not be afraid.

Kevin Boze
Kevin Boze, Self-Portrait

BB: How about your readers? What do you hope that they get from reading The Virgin Project?

KB: I hope they'll learn something and spread the word. Not to sell more books (although that doesn't hurt), but to get more of a dialogue about sex going. It's the one thing we all do, but we don't learn through observation (porn isn't realistic and doesn't count). I would like people to adopt a more sex-positive attitude in their lives, to get over their own repression, to stop judging other people's preferences. For all of our national prating about "equality," we still treat gays and lesbians like sexual lepers and unfit parents. There is so much ignorance out there, and it breeds fear and misunderstanding. Maybe this book can share some empathy and put a dent in that.

SK: Compassion, understanding, a good laugh. I really hope this is a place to spark dialogue, to connect dots. Sure, we learn about respect and diversity, but under the surface there still are these huge black and white ideas. The gray in-between areas are there, too. I hope we can see not only that it's okay, it's necessary and needs to be embraced.

BB: Can anyone contribute their own personal tale of "losing it" to the project, and if so, how?

KB: If we're doing an event, come sit down and share.

SK: You can email your stories, too: Make sure you include a fake first name, your age today, and your occupation.

BB: And how can interested readers get a copy of The Virgin Project of their very own?

KB: If you live in the Seattle area, support your local bookstore! You can get it at Comics Dungeon in Wallingford, Jackson Street Books in the Central District, and Zanadu Comics downtown, with more stores being added. If your local retailer doesn't have it, complain. Loudly.

SK: You also can get it delivered directly to your home by ordering it through the website: Copies also will be available soon at bookstores around the Flathead Valley in Kalispell, MT.

Sastia Kato
Sastia Kato, Self-Portrait

BB: Anything else you'd like to add before I let you get back to work?

KB: I'll be at the Emerald City Comics Convention May 10 and 11, 2008, in Seattle; Olympia's Comics Festival on June 7; and at Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival during the Labor Day weekend. Drop by, talk, share a story if you'd like, and I'd love to sign a book for you. We also are planning other signing events, so check the our Facebook page frequently for updates.

SK: We'll see if we can be at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival again in April of 2009. If they invite us back, it will be our fourth year running! The display will feature all new stories, and the book will be for sale in their gift shop as a fund-raiser for the non-profit organization.

<< 04/23/2008 | 05/07/2008 | 11/26/2008 >>

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