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Drawing for empowerment

Meet transman Sam Orchard – the artist behind Webcomic “Rooster Tails – who has been drawing since he was a little girl. “When I started drawing comics, I decided I really wanted to tell other stories about our communities that reflected people like me and people around me,” Sam says.

Sam Orchard

Life in doodlesSam Orchard has been drawing since he was a little girl. “When I was about 10, I wrote something for school that said I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up. I’ve always drawn doodles on my school books when I was supposed to be studying; but I really only started drawing proper story comics when I was in my mid-twenties.”

Sam’s career with drawing took off with an autobiographical Webcomic called “Rooster Tails“, a strip that is “mostly about the funny things that me and my partner get up to, and what it’s been like as we both transition.”

Drawing, said Sam, serves as an outlet.

“For me drawing feels like a really helpful tool to stay sane. I often have lots of feelings, and don’t really understand why, or what they’re about. But if I let myself draw, then usually I can figure out what is going on, and how to deal with it. Drawing is a way for me to reflect, process and empower myself. And I really love telling stories, so drawing also makes me feel good,” Sam said.

Sam’s more recent effort is the comic series “Family Portraits”, which tells the stories of different queer and trans New Zealanders. Here, he said, are “stories about being gay and Christian, about exploring queerness in different cultural contexts.”

In one of the stories, for instance, the protagonist is a first generation New Zealander from Thailand, and how she explains her sexuality to her mother. “In Thailand, the most common story about LGBT people is (that of) a trans one, and so she has to explain to her mum that she is a lesbian, and not trans,” Sam said. And then there’s another story about growing up takataapui (a Maori word to describe someone who is LGBT); and another story about an older couple who got together before it was legal to be gay in New Zealand.

“I really wanted to tell a range of stories, because I wanted to show that we all have different experiences, and to celebrate that difference,” Sam said.

How did Sam end up drawing LGBTQ-related work, in particular?

“When I was growing up, I watched a lot of movies and television, and tried to find people who I could connect to. I got so interested in it that I studied film and media in college, and I found that a lot of the time, characters who were LGBT were either used as punchlines for jokes, or were sad, or were serial killers. That sucked. So when I started drawing comics, I decided I really wanted to tell other stories about our communities that reflected people like me and people around me,” Sam said.

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Sam added: “Drawing myself in comics was something that really helped me with exploring my gender identity. I got to draw myself as how I saw myself (as a man), long before I started looking like a man. So it was really empowering for me.”

Sam’s influences include other LGBT comic artists like Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, and Erika Moen. “I think they all tell really complex stories about gender and sexuality, but do it in a really loving and celebratory way, and I really like that,” Sam said. “I’m also just inspired by people – all the stories in the ‘Family Portraits’ books are based on real people who I know (I’ve changed names, and places, so they can be kinda anonymous), but they’re all people’s own stories and experiences.”

No, this line of work is not exactly financially rewarding.

“I love this field of work. It doesn’t bring in a lot of money, so I have about three other paid jobs, but I couldn’t stop doing it even if I tried,” Sam smiled. “I’ve also been really lucky in the last year, when I did a Kickstarter and got enough funding to print the books and get over to America to do a tour.”

But Sam is happy with what he is doing. “It’s a vulnerable field, because I feel really connected to these stories, some of them are my own, and some of them are just really important to me – so it’s hard in that I feel like I want people to enjoy them, because it is really personal,” he said.

Going into this line of work has also “given me more opportunities than challenges. I have managed to carve out a little niche, when I first started ‘Rooster Tails’, there weren’t many trans Webcomics, and even less about people who were transmasculine (there’re more these days, so I’ve got some good competition!), so I felt like I was filling a gap – and lots of people responded really positively to that,” Sam said.

And his message to young LGBTQ artists who want to go into this field, too?

“Do it! Find stories that you’re passionate about telling, draw them, and keep drawing them! The more stories we have that celebrate the differences in our communities the better!” Sam said. “Also, don’t be too precious about your art – just keep drawing and drawing and drawing. There are heaps of my comics that I look back on and think how badly they were drawn, but someone told me recently that that’s the sign of a good artist, always critiquing and looking to improve. So just draw and draw and draw and draw! And write and write and write and write!”

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