Interview: Katie Skelly on her new comic TONYA

Last week I got the chance to chat with Katie Skelly over email about her newest comic, TONYA. Released through the digital content delivery site Gumroad, this book immediately caught my attention because of its protagonist – the infamous
Tonya Harding. Katie and I talked about the conflict between Harding and Nancy
Kerrigan, isolation and desperation, and themes in Katie’s work.

This
will be the second interview this year at Sequential State, which is double
last year’s record. Let’s hope for many more.

Thank
you Katie for taking the time to talk with me – you can get a copy
of TONYA on Gumroad here
, and find more of Katie’s work at her
tumblr calicocomics ​.

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 Alex Hoffman: One thing I was wondering off the bat was whether or not
you were interested in printing TONYA? 

 Katie Skelly: No, I’m not at the moment.

 So is this kind of a Gumroad type of experiment? Trying to figure out the financials etc. on a digital only comic?

 Definitely. I think I hit a wall with print for the
time being, so I’m stepping back from it and seeing how things go with selling
work digitally. So far, so good.

 What do you think drew you to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan story?

 I’ve been really interested in this idea of what I
call the “Only Woman” occurrence in fiction—a plot conceit that there is only
space for one woman to be on top, and she has to continually eviscerate any
competition for that spot (Helter
Skelter has a great example of that in Liliko). Tonya’s story is
the perfect example of the Only Woman in real life. Her physical frame was
maybe, what, 2 or 3 inches off of what was considered ideal for women’s figure
skating, and she suffered for it. I looked at these Muybridge-type breakdowns
of the triple axel and it should be physically impossible. Anyone who can
compete on her level is an incredible athlete. But that wasn’t enough to make
her a “winner.” There was only that space for one, and it made her desperate.

 You’ve decided to call TONYA a “figure skating fantasy
comic.” Why specifically fantasy?

 From my research on Tonya Harding, it seems like
she has an altered version of reality in her mind. So I wanted to get to the
emotions and sensations instead of the straight history. We all (kind of) know
what happened, but I don’t think anyone can really answer quite why it happened
other than in some tabloid, sensational way. It’s not normal to see any athlete
get cracked over the knee because they were too good- either you train harder
to try to beat them or you accept fate. Tonya would not accept fate. This was a
revenge fantasy come to life, on a national scale. Nobody plans for the
aftermath in a revenge fantasy, and that’s what she had to deal with.

 I feel like there’s a theme that you are playing with here that pops up in TONYA and in Operation Margarine, this idea of a woman with limited options and dysfunctional family/relationships. What do you think attracts you to this
theme?

 It’s me working out personal history, I think. I
hate feeling powerless but I like to explore that feeling. Desperation is a
great motivator. I like to play around with the idea of writing “bad girls,”
but it’s really about writing fed-up women. And I am a fed-up woman, Alex!!

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One thing that strikes me about the Tonya Harding story is how isolated
she was. Not only was she stripped of her achievements after the attack on
Nancy Kerrigan, she also wasn’t allowed to take advantage of the skating boom
that you could argue was generated or influenced in part by this very public
feud with Nancy. And I sense that isolation in your comic too.

 That’s a really great point about the skating boom.
Tonya was already the black sheep of skating for daring to be less than 6 feet
and skating to rock music. I think it was all too easy to cast her out after
the scandal. Also, Tonya was a loser, and America might have turned a blind eye to a winner. She got swept in
the 1994 Olympics, and you can blame it on the pressure and the attention, but
when it came down to it, Nancy Kerrigan got back on her feet in 6 weeks and
gave the strongest performance of her career. She still didn’t take the gold,
which could have been political on the part of the Olympics, but despite
everything, Nancy proved herself the better athlete that day. I was really
impressed to find out Nancy wore the skating dress she was attacked in to
practice in Lillehammer. You have to admit that that is hardcore. That must
have really shaken Tonya.

Tonya seems to have very toxic relationships with other women – both
with Nancy, her main competition, and her mother.

 Right: that goes back to the Only Woman idea. But
Tonya has toxic relationships with everyone in the comic. The only positive
relationship I could find in digging around on her was her former skating
coach, who was maybe the only person to take a firsthand look inside the
turbulence of Tonya’s home life. She couldn’t rely on any of the people she was
supposed to have been able to rely on. Skating was her only friend, really.

 I like this idea of men as wolves; the idea that there is an inhumanity
to these men Tonya has surrounded herself with.  And the bite marks as a
part of that – a metaphor for the physical and emotional damage these
“wolves” have caused.

 Definitely. Wolves are hunters, of course, and they
can sense when another animal is weak or vulnerable. That same thing happens in
toxic relationships, on this tiny scale, where people give off these
frequencies that predators can pick up on. Tonya was conditioned by her mother
to understand a certain type of abuse as love, and so a hunter was able to pick
up on that vulnerability and tear into her mind, as she didn’t really have any
tools to defend herself with. I couldn’t bring myself to draw it literally so I
had to do it metaphorically. I’ve borne witness to that type of damage and it’s
too horrible.

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 In some ways I think that the only thing that has been left to Tonya is
her own hatred. That’s the only emotion she has access to, in some ways? Even
her reaction to her success is less joy and more relief?

 I don’t think there could have been a satisfying
ending for Tonya. All of her self-worth was based in external things, like
getting the impossible approval of her mother and husband and a committee of
judges. The cycle never really ends when you’re living like that. There would
always be another competition, another enemy, another threat. Tonya’s survival
was in skating and in order to ensure that survival she had to be the best at
it. I don’t think she’s the type of person who could just kick their feet up
and enjoy a nap on a Tuesday afternoon. I relate to that.

 Do you see Tonya as a victim, or is she complicit? The ending of the
book seems to suggest that she is being “offered” a choice –
something she accepts, but is perhaps compelled to accept. That she doesn’t
have the ability to say no.

 I think Tonya is a person who treats truth as a
moving target, which makes it really hard to know what I think of her. There is
so much myth surrounding Tonya, and I wanted to include that in the ending. The
way I wrote it kind of makes it seem like Tonya’s the one who actually hit
Nancy with the crowbar (that’s the weapon you always hear about colloquially,
but it was actually a baton) so that does seem to make her more implicit. The
only thing she plead guilty to was knowing about the conspiracy after the fact
and failing to report that information to the authorities. That opens up so
many more questions. I don’t think we will ever know the whole story.

 What would it mean now if Tonya just came out and
said, “You know what, I was complicit in this, and I’m sorry”? What is there
left to lose?

 And I wonder if Tonya would have
said no to the crowbar/baton even if she wasn’t compelled by her circumstances?
I’m not sure that she would have said no. It’s a murky thought. 

 Impossible to know. It was a murky moment for
America, when it happened. I remember this sort of, “My God, now even the
figure skaters are beating each other” attitude on the news. It was such a
shock and breach of sportsmanship, I think it threw everyone into a tailspin
for a moment. It definitely rocked the annals of my second grade. We had to
have a big talk about sportsmanship and honesty in class!

Do you think you will keep on expanding on this story or doing a
sequel/follow up? It feels like there are a lot of angles this narrative could
be pursued from, and plenty of backstory.

 I’m not sure. It feels like I got it out of my
system and worked out the ideas I wanted to, and can bring that experience to a
new project. I’ve never worked off of a true story before. It was worthwhile.
The best Tonya fact I found is that she landed the triple axel in the 1991
Womens’ Figure Skating Championships to the theme from Batman (1989). I think about
that a lot now.

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