M.S. Harkness continues to draw her life one page at a time

The artist, who relocated to Columbus last year, spearheaded a comics block party set to take place at Blockfort on Monday

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
M.S. Harkness

When M.S. Harkness started attending school at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she initially envisioned graduating and becoming a comics illustrator for Marvel or DC. 

“Meanwhile, I’m this 22-year-old with a bunch of tattoos who hangs out with all of the local pro wrestlers, having crazy, weird, drunken sex experiences,” Harkness said recently during an interview outside of an East Side coffee shop. “And usually what would happen is I would tell these stories to people and they would be horrified or amused, depending on how close they were to me.”

While participating in a 24-hour comics event, during which artists inked a page an hour, completing a 24-page book in a single daylong sitting, Harkness decided to transfer one of these wilder tales to the page, illustrating a retelling of the time she almost had sex at Orlando International Airport with someone that she met in the security line. “And then we critiqued it in school, and everyone was like: ‘That was really funny’; ‘This is amazing!’” said Harkness, who got her start making comics as a child when she would draw scenes from “Titanic” with Beanie Babies subbed in for the actors. “No one had ever reacted that way, so in a way it creates this feedback loop, like, ‘Oh? I have a lot more of these.’”

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

In the years since, Harkness has continued to illustrate her own life, releasing a pair of autobiographical books — Tinderella and Desperate Pleasures — with a third due in 2023 via Fantagraphics.

Even in conversation, there’s an illustrative quality to Harkness’ language. When she described her move to Columbus from Minneapolis, which took place amid the pandemic last year, she recalled the U-Haul as a battered, “Mad Max”-style retread “with a crack through the windshield and graffiti all over it.” Harkness’ Minneapolis neighborhood, meanwhile, central to where protests kicked off after local police murdered George Floyd, was described as erupting “in a ring of fire.”

Of course, Harkness has yet to turn her pen to either of these tales, saying that she usually requires at least two or three years to pass before putting her life on the page, which allows time for her to process events and figure out what, if anything, she has to say about them. (She’s also not in a rush to explore the COVID era, already exhausted by comics about people self-quarantining at home.)

“And even [waiting a few years] still feels dicey in the way that my friends or people in my family will be like, ‘Oh, so that’s how you feel about this,’” Harkness said. 

A page from "Desperate Pleasures" by comics artist M.S. Harkness

The decision to move to Columbus started to take root during Harkness’ first visit in 2015 and was given extra urgency by an approaching 30th birthday and a pandemic-related layoff.

“It was really asking myself, ‘Where do you want to set down roots and be an adult?’” said Harkness, who has always lived and worked in the Midwest, a sensibility that carries over into her comics, in the modest way she illustrates even her most sordid stories. “Usually, with my best comics, I’m not drawing all of the crazy shit. It’s just my little head explaining it or reacting to it in some way.”

Harkness was also drawn to Columbus by both the strength of the local comics community, citing the presence of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, as well as the relative newness of the scene compared with cities such as Chicago, which perhaps allows more of a chance to leave her own imprint as the comics world here continues to flower. 

“I wanted to come here and be part of the growth coming out of here,” said Harkness, who recently organized a comic artists’ retreat that will culminate with a public event at Blockfort on Monday, Sept. 6. The comics block party takes place outdoors from noon until 5 p.m. (masks are encouraged) and features artists representing what Harkness described as a snapshot of the current Midwest comics scene, including Brian Baynes, Sean Knickerbocker, Sam Szabo, Audra Stang and many more.

“During COVID … people had this time to invest in their art and really work on it,” Harkness said. “So a bunch of people are debuting books that they wrote during the pandemic, or at least haven’t sold in person yet.”

Following the retreat and block party, Harkness plans to continue work on her next book (she said she’s about 100 pages in) while also preparing for the next step, which could involve a shift away from autobiographical work.

“I’m thinking I might be at the point where I want to hang up my hat on telling these super-personal stories because I have a boyfriend I really like and I don’t want to [mess] it up,” Harkness said, and laughed. “I don’t want to keep being a weird, sad clown. … Whether I do biography or fiction, at some point I can take all these drawing skills I’ve developed and apply it to this other thing, which will still be interesting and equally as cool.”