There’s a moment near the close of Time Under Tension, the remarkable new graphic novel from Columbus cartoonist M.S. Harkness, during which her character boils over following an aborted session with a judgmental therapist. “Why can’t anyone understand me?!” she fumes, standing perched atop a coffee table and prepared to take a hit from a 9-foot bong, which she describes as a means to cope with her “nine-foot problems.”
At its core, Time Under Tension exists as Harkness’ search for connection – with the outside world, with her romantic partners and most importantly with herself. And in a mid-October Zoom call in the midst of an ongoing book tour, the artist noted that the act of creation has long served as a means of helping to forge these types of bonds.
“I’m doing a tour now where I’m basically staying with people I met through comics – and I’m doing 23 cities worth of it – and that really speaks to that idea,” said Harkness, whose graphic novel released today (Tuesday, Oct. 24) via Fantagraphics. “There’s another line in the book where I say something to the effect of 'all art is sort of that entrance fee to having that loving, supportive community.' … And that’s absolutely what I’ve found living in Columbus and having people that I know are cheering for me from the sidelines when I’m out and away.”
This is something of a shift for Harkness, who existed in relative isolation after first relocating to Columbus from Minneapolis in the early months of the COVID pandemic. , the artist described the U-Haul she rented for the journey as a “Mad Max”-style retread “with a crack through the windshield and graffiti all over it” – her use of vivid language reflective of the visual way in which she takes in her surroundings. (In the same interview, she referred to her Minneapolis neighborhood as having erupted in a “ring of fire” amid the protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd.)
While Harkness’ graphic novels are largely autobiographical, the cartoonist said she’s conscious of her deficiencies as a narrator and the way memories can skew with time.
“I’m very aware of how not reliable I am in getting to the bottom of things, and I think that’s everybody,” Harkness said. “When you look back, you want to have this through-line, like, ‘Everything was ramping up to this one big thing.’ But when you’re in it, you have no idea. You’re just living in the moment. So, it’s a little bit of taking into account what I thought was going on and then going back to the record of what was actually going on. And then also knowing I’m not going to drag everyone through the dirt for the sake of narrative, and I might amp this part up a little bit and then downplay this other thing. … There are plenty of things I’ve artfully concealed and lied about. I’m not about to pull the thread out of the sweater and show people everything.”
It helps, of course, that Harkness is now six years removed from the events in Time Under Tension, a bulk of which take place in 2017, three years before the artist moved to Columbus. At the time, Harkness was preparing to graduate from Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and the book follows the cartoonist as she adjusts to this reality while navigating everything from a romantic relationship with an MMA fighter to the lingering effects of early childhood trauma.
“Making this work is a chance to not only engage with tricky things but also just being in your 20s again, and how fun it can be to just grab your water bottle and keys and run out of the house to go see your friend in the park,” said Harkness, who is now engaged to be married and teaches comics classes as an adjunct professor at the Columbus College of Art & Design. “There are times when I miss Minneapolis, and the fact that I can go back and draw it is really fun. And most of the people in the book, I don’t really see any more in person, so it’s a chance to connect with them, and to have phone conversations about what was going on in those years. … I get to come back to my past in a way where it's not weird or traumatizing.”
Over the course of three books, Harkness has improved as an artist – witness a staggering, multipage scene in which she deftly captures the tension and violence of a brutal MMA cage fight. It's a development that enabled the cartoonist to better pull readers through the text “since they don’t have those moments where they’re like, ‘That car looks like shit,’ and it pulls them out of the story,” she said, and laughed. “It’s more about the way where I can make everything work in symphony now, where there aren’t opportunities for people to jump off because they think, ‘Oh, her style’s bad,’ or something.”
In the process of revisiting her earlier life – a path the cartoonist intends to continue in future long-form comics – Harkness said she has gradually learned to view those earlier versions of herself with greater empathy, including the artist and writer she was at the time she crafted her 2020 debut, .
“As much as I’d like to redraw it wholesale, and as much as there’s self-deprecation throughout it, which is something I wouldn’t do anymore, I’m not about to dismiss the path I’ve been on,” Harkness said. “I’m not ashamed of the choices I’ve made, because ultimately, everything has worked out.”