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Magic as science: Illustration faculty talks comics

The cover of M is for Monster by Talia Dutton.

Talia Dutton, “M is for Monster,” 2022.

A queer, young adult, Frankenstein-inspired exploration of identity, expectations and family: this is the crux of Talia Dutton’s new graphic novel, M is for Monster. Dutton, assistant professor of Illustration at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD), talks comics and representation and shares how teaching influences her own art.

M is for Monster follows a scientist’s attempt to resurrect her sister after a tragic accident, with unexpected results. “It’s not an adaptation of Frankenstein, it’s my take on the Frankenstein mythos,” explains Dutton. “I let myself have more room to play with the idea of creating a human being. That’s kind of like being a parent, and what those expectations are.”

Created as part of her graduate thesis, Dutton’s 2022 graphic novel explores themes of family, identity, grief and expectations through a science fiction and fantasy lens. “I love magic that makes sense,” says Dutton. “A little bit of magical realism where it’s rooted in our world. Magic as science and science as magic and mixing everything in between—that’s part of that genre that I like.”

Representation is a vital and intentional part of Dutton’s comics writing process. Surely, which published M is for Monster, is dedicated to expanding the presence of LGBTQIA creators and content in the comics world. “For me, it’s very simple. I’m not trying to make good representation or bad representation or make any judgment calls on anything,” Dutton explains, herself a queer, biracial Chinese artist. “But growing up reading comics, reading books or watching TV shows, maybe you would get one Asian character, who was the Asian character.”

As a child, Dutton loved (and still loves) Halloween costumes. “I would want to dress up as this character I like, but I would look at myself wearing the costume and think, I don’t look right wearing this. I look wrong, I have the wrong hair color, I just don’t have the look that a lot of these characters all converge on. And it was really frustrating!”

As an adult, Dutton strives to include a wide range of characters in her writing and illustration. “The default is not white,” she explains. “[T]here’s no such thing as default or regular. I’m just trying to get more people into stories to see some part of themselves.”

In some ways, teaching at MIAD has helped Dutton develop as a writer and artist. Although she studied art, Dutton did not attend an art-focused college for her undergraduate degree. Now an Illustration instructor, Dutton finds that putting words to skills she had developed intuitively helps her to further her own practice. “Trying to explain what I’m thinking about has made me so much more aware of my own artwork and how I’m creating stuff,” she says. “That makes me better at it.”

“I think you can’t be a good narrative artist without meeting more people and living interesting lives and talking to different students and teachers and staff and faculty,” Dutton continues. “Every person I talk to gives me a better sense of the people that live in this world and make me a better writer.”

In collaboration with Lion’s Tooth Comics Lab, Boswell Books will host Dutton for an author talk on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024 at 6:30 p.m. Register for the free event here.

Keep up with Talia Dutton on her website and learn more about MIAD’s Illustration major!

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