Silly Interview with Naomi Rubin and her brigade of robot, synthetic, and AI characters

Happy woman raising her hand

Self-Portrait by Naomi Rubin

Rachel Swirsky: You lived in Japan for a while, doing things including translation and a television show. What’s the most glamorous story you have?

Naomi Rubin: I guess I tend to compartmentalize glamour as something other people seek and not something that I can experience for myself, but maybe I can reconsider what feels glamorous to me.

There are two experiences that come to mind: The first was when I joined in on a TV-shoot for the French channel “Canal Plus” with my friend and co-producer La Carmina shortly before we started working together formally. La Carmina was hosting a special with a French comedian named Antoine de Caunes that focused on a broad range of Japanese sub-cultures, and included a scene where De Caunes dressed up in a strange outfit for a colorful cyber-scene party in Tokyo. In the show, I was one of three “scene kids” who, along with La Carmina, cajoled De Caunes into becoming part of the party. Having a somewhat rote part of my life (dressing up and going to this party) now treated as urgent and specialized had a certain awe to it. I pushed my outfit further than I would usually, and inhabited a more specifically extroverted version of my personality.

The other time was at Dr. Sketchy’s in Tokyo (Dr. Sketchy’s is a life drawing event that exists in many major cities around the world). I was a translator and organizer for the event at the time, and always revered the art-models, who came primarily from Tokyo’s burlesque community, as paragons of personal style and body-positive showiness. At my last event before leaving Japan, the Sketchy’s crew asked if I would do a short modeling session, and I still feel empowered that I could even reach toward the type of self-assured presentation that the other performers had.

RS: You have an amazing sense of fashion that includes combining patterns and styles that aren’t often paired. How do you think about assembling outfits, and combining patterns?

NR: Why thank you! As a trans woman, I basically started over with all clothing in my mid-twenties. Shortly before this, I had studied abroad in Tokyo and spent a lot of my time with women classmates who were digging deep into Harajuku fashion brands, specifically gothic lolita – both the very cotton candy and brit-punk sides of that spectrum. I would like to say that I took this and combined it with an elegant, modern-utilitarian goth chic that I needed for more day-to-day work, but I’m still working on it. Even though I really love fashion, for me clothing still often feels like something I don’t have enough time for. I’m still working on letting myself take that time.

One thing that I still don’t know how to do is dress for my height. Tall femmes who like shopping – get at me.

RS: Your work combines text and art to create narratives. what about sequential art appeals to you more than working in one medium alone?

NR: I would say I’m a visual artist first, but I don’t think the stories I can tell with just images are enough for me. I want jokes, sweetness, and hurt that characters can convey with dialogue. I like languages and in a fantasy setting, the way characters talk is a big part of the environment for me. Even in compositions themselves, I like to think graphically about the interaction between text and visuals.

RS:You recently gave a lecture on robots and the ways they can be used to express trans narratives. I wrote a story like this in 2005 which I didn’t end up publishing. (At the time, someone noted my story could also be read as a metaphor for body dysmorphia, which I think has an insightful edge, since body dysmorphia is a part of the common trans experience that strongly resonates with my life.) I realize you can’t replicate your entire lecture here, but can you give us a tantalizing precis?

NR: Sure! Robot, synthetic, and AI characters basically give us the opportunity to reevaluate gender from scratch, and question how and why we use gender as we apply it to these characters and, increasingly, real-life inventions and intelligences. Can a robot choose their gender, or is it pre-programmed? How does finding gender work with a character that can completely reformat themself as many times, and as quickly, as they like? In a recent panel at Queers and Comics in New York, Eric Alexander Arroyo and Hunter M also brought up the idea of robot mechs/avatars that can also act as disempowering constraints on the users’ identity, depending on how they might be used in an authoritative setting.

These and many more topics are explored on my talk that you can watch on YouTube!

The most recent panel should be up in video form soon, too.

RS: Your parents are television writers. What would their proposal be for a tv sitcom based on your life? (Alternately or additionally, what’s yours?)

While my parents have done a few writing projects together, I think they would play to their strengths to come up with unique premises:

Mom

There is no doubt that my mom would do a wish-fulfillment story about being a grandma. However I would like to throw two wrenches in the air: I am already a grandma at heart, and my mom flourishes when writing in a very unfamiliar setting, so the pitch I am green-lighting is: Two (Or More?) Grandmas On a Spaceship.

Dad

If my dad had the right consultants on the team, I think he would write an excellent workplace comedy about a Japanese comic company trying to create the next big series, and failing spectacularly in most episodes. Each episode could have a humorous new title that the company is trying to get off the ground. I would be the beleaguered translator who is inexplicably doing like 3 other jobs, and is always told to “make it more funny!” instead of going for accuracy. My catch phrase would be “You’re reading it wrong!”

RS: You sometimes do comics on personal topics, and sometimes on fantastical ones. What do you get out of the different approaches? Are they the same, or different, or both?

NR: They are mostly the same. At first, I thought I was exploring fantasy because I was interested in myth and bending the boundaries of reality to create new types of stories, but I mostly just want to write about self-discovery, gender, and relationships. Rather, I use fantasy to create settings and magic that I either want to exist (or want to draw), but the themes are really similar.

RS: What projects are you working on?

Painted Comic Cover that reads “Moonsprout Station, Story 1 Only Echoes, Naomi Rubin”. There is a covered bus stop, with two people standing on a balcony in the distance.

Cover art for Moonsprout Station

NR: My ongoing queer fantasy series is Moonsprout Station! It’s free to read online, but on Patreon you get access to a weekly art blog with three or more drawings per week, the chance to get a portrait commission, and more!

In addition to some secret comic pitches that I can’t really talk about, I’m also working on a few digital art tools that will be announced more formally soon, and “Rise of the Eagle Princess!” an upcoming feminist JRPG (for PC/Mac and iPad) in the post apocalypse future Mongolian empire, for which I am a background artist and character designer.

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