By Erica Stratton

(Credit: Photo by Seth Thompson; all images courtesy of Megan Rose Gedris)

I first discovered Michigan artist Megan Rose Gedris’s work when a friend recommended YU + ME. An epic comic Gedris began while still in high school, YU + ME features a lesbian protagonist who discovers her girlfriend is a figment of her imagination. Instead of the story ending there, the protagonist plunges back into the dream world to rescue her girlfriend, and Gedris’s art morphs from straightforward comicstrip into a bewildering array of styles encompassing everything from collage to clay.

This was the start of a trend that would define the rest of Gedris’s projects: a dedication to telling lesbian stories coupled with a hardcore work ethic that had her turning out hundreds of pages of everything from sci-fi stories drawn in the same style as the pulp comics that inspired them to mermaid smut to musings about periods. I contacted her looking for insight into how she did it all and discovered her method of finding peace when her life became too chaotic: burlesque.

Erica Stratton: So you're a comic artist, a burlesque performer and cheesemonger all at the same time?

Megan Rose Gedris: Yeah, I'm really busy. I've been doing comics for over a decade, and cheese mongering and burlesque took off about a year ago. … I did some burlesque work for a few years, got the cheesemonger job and then was made an official cast member of Super Happy Funtime Burlesque a couple months later.

So this all started with me asking you about your inner peace comic. I found it really interesting, particularly in what you've said so far about being so busy and the level of "obsession" that seems to be part of a lot of your projects. It sounded like you didn't have inner peace very often, whatever that means to you.

Totally! I used to get really stressed out by everything all the time. I'd make myself physically ill because I let everything get to me and my first reaction to things would be to get upset.

Looking back on those days, I was not all that busy compared to how much I've got going on now, and it seems silly that I would let all those little things stress me out. I decided to try to consciously reduce my stress, but struggled with it for years, not quite knowing how to control it. It wasn't until my house burned down that I was able to finally get on this different path that I'm on now.

"I achieved inner peace through my house burning down" is a turn I didn't expect this interview to take.

Haha! But it's so true! Seeing my house in flames was the ultimate feeling of powerlessness. There was nothing I, as an individual, could do to stop it except call 911 and sit in a snowbank tweeting about it — which people thought was very silly and trivializing, but what else could I do? I live tweeted my house fire. And since most of my stress was coming from having to be the one in control of everything, being powerless was good for me.

People thought I was being metaphorical about my house being on fire, like it was just hosting a really cool party or something. That whole night was a lot of crying and a bit of laughing, because things were awful but also so surreal, and watching the events unfold from outside myself, as a spectator, it seemed almost slapstick. Like if there was just some Yakety Sax playing over it, it would be a great comedy. I've got a bunch of pictures of me standing in the rubble covered in soot and smiling, because what else can you do but smile?

Does burlesque give you inner peace because it has the same lack of control? Because a lot of things seem to happen on your tours lately, like murder hotels!

Yeah, being on tour, being part of something so much bigger than me as an individual, collaborating on stuff, traveling in a small space with other people and no independence — I get very little say on where I am or when or what I do. So having no opportunities to take control, I can relax the way little kids relax because their day-to-day destinies are more or less controlled by other people.

At one point, I took a nap in a stranger's house and woke up to find myself completely alone. Everyone else had gone to a movie without me. I didn't know where I was or when everyone would be back. I was hungry, but didn't know where to find food. I was powerless, but it was stressing me out more. I found myself getting angry at everyone else for leaving me behind, even though I told them to go on without me. So even though I was mad at them, I kept it to myself until I realized I was being irrationally upset, and within a few hours, I was completely over it.

This sounds kind of like exposure therapy: You wanted to get over things getting to you all the time, so you put yourself in an environment where "anything that can go wrong does…."

Plus I've found that dwelling on bad things can make more bad things happen, just because being so distracted by the bad things causes you to miss out on some good opportunities for good things. Like, I recently had to take down one of my comics (I Was Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates From Outer Space) that I'd been working on for years because of disputes with the publisher. I'd been going through all this conflict with them, and it was upsetting. I'd cry for a half hour, and then I'd get up and do more work, looking to the future, getting my mind off the misfortune. And I set up some good work, so that literally one hour after I took my comic off the Internet, I got an email saying I'd been accepted into Smut Peddler, an award-winning comic anthology I'd been dreaming so hard of getting into. But if I'd let myself fall deeply into worrying about the loss of this other comic, I'd never have submitted to Smut Peddler.

So this has basically been a journey helping you learn to manage your depression?

I had the twins: depression and anxiety. I've found the anxiety much easier to get rid of, and the depression is something that will probably always be here, because it's a chemical thing, but I've learned to control it and not be consumed by it.

But yeah, being on the road has done so much more for me than therapy ever ever did. I'd talk to counselors who would ignore the things that were really bothering me in favor of talking about things they felt more comfortable handling even though I considered them minor problems. I'd try avoiding the problems, which only helps for so long. I had a period of time, right before I started working with SHFB, where I went completely numb. The house fire didn't really magically get rid of my anxiety overnight, and it was a really “up and down” time for me emotionally.

I found myself living in a motel for months, and it was the worst time of my life, even more than the actual fire itself. I couldn't be loud because the other occupants would complain, so I just got quiet. The bed was uncomfortable, so I was barely sleeping. The motel was in a part of town that had no trees and just asphalt and cars and shopping malls as far as the eye could see. It was at a point in my old day job at a TV station where I was very unhappy with the work I was doing. I would go from my small, windowless hotel room to my small windowless office to work and then back to my small windowless hotel room. … When I was in the motel, I very much had this feeling that everything would be better once I moved back into my own house. It didn't quite work out like that. It helped for sure, but there was still a lot to fix.

I got laid off from my TV job, which was another thing I couldn't control that gave me peace in the lack of control. I'd wanted to quit, but I felt like if I did, I would come to regret it. Being laid off meant it was completely out of my hands and there was nothing to regret. Super Happy Funtime decided to start shooting some real music videos, as opposed to taking video during shows, and they needed people who knew the ins and outs of production, and they'd heard I did good work on that front. So I was helping out behind the scenes with the burlesque, learning even more about how they operated and what they needed. By the time I joined up as a permanent cast member, they knew how hard I could work, they knew what I could do.

This is a really nifty origin story. "I worked in a grey office, and now I twirl tassels on my nipples and sing about sex." Kind of like Fight Club, only without the violence.

I end up with a lot of bruises, though! I got stabbed by so many stiletto heels during group numbers over fall tour that my legs looked like a leopard. Sexy!

Hazards of burlesque the public never hears about!

Two words: nipple dandruff. Pasties are rough.

I didn't know you could get nipple dandruff until that comic! I've also gone to a few pasties classes, and no one mentions the pain involved [when you remove them]. I feel like this shouldn't be a hazard they leave out of the intro courses … but it's all part of exposure to difficult situations, right?

Anytime something weird or scary happens on tour, I just add it to my tour diary and it's that much more exciting! Doing diary comics has been a huge part of managing stress. I've got about 200 pages of diary comics that I need to scan and finish inking. I'm hoping once I'm done working on the YU + ME Kickstarter project and Smut Peddler, my next project will be those journal comics.

Last question: What’s been your greatest burlesque moment so far?

Doing the Michigan Burlesque Festival. It was my first performance without my Super Happy "family," and while I had a few friends there, I was mostly performing with strangers, many of whom were famous. … I got the most intense bout of stage fright, and I was really ... gassy that day. I was doing an act that had bombed the last time I attempted it and was having a hard time remembering all my dance moves. But right before I went on, same inner peace: I realized that there was nothing that would be accomplished by being scared or anxious, aside from running away, and I wasn't going to do that.

I stepped onto the stage after a very flattering introduction from the host and gave the best performance of my entire life. In my memory, I see it happening from about two feet away from my body. I had not a thought in my head aside from being completely in that moment as that character.

Erica Stratton is a D.C. freelancer who has crashed a parade and rowed a Viking ship. She also rants about sci-fi and fantasy on Twitter under @meanderingwhale.

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