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INTERVIEW: Jamila Rowser & Robyn Smith Talk Hair, Art, & Inspiration in ‘Wash Day Diaries’

Writer Jamila Rowser and artist Robyn Smith in between a copy of Wash Day Diaries. Image: Chronicle Books.

After reading Nubia: Real One by LL McKinney and illustrated Robyn Smith, I looked for more from these talented creatives. That’s when I came across the (then) upcoming graphic novel Wash Day Diaries. Together with artist/writer Jamila Rowser, they expanded Rowser’s webcomic to a full-length graphic novel now available as a stunning story.

For the past few years, they’ve been working on bringing this story to many people with a 2018 Kickstarter campaign and now an indie publisher, Chronicles Books, picking them up. In this time, they’ve been recognized for their talent together and separately, making Nerdist‘s Very Best in Comics 2021 and AdWeek 2021’s Creative 100. Additionally, Smith became a 2021-2022 fellow at The Center For Cartoon Studies and Rowser’s Black Josei Press, earning a prestigious grant from Oolite Arts.

Wash Day Diaries by Jamila Rowser & illustrated by Robyn Smith (Image: Chronicle Books)
(Chronicle Books)

Wash Day Diaries follow four close friends through a series of vignettes that center on their relationship with their hair, friends, and family. All living in the Bronx, we get portraits of Black sisterhood through Kim, Tanisha, Davene, and Cookie as they blow up the group chat and go through their hair day routines.

In celebration of the graphic novel’s publication (out now!), I interviewed Rowser and Smith via email.

NOTE: Some questions were asked to Rowser and Smith, while others were asked individually.

Alyssa Shotwell (TMS): What was the most challenging aspect of telling this story? (As opposed to previous work or even this story back when it was a smaller online project?) 

Jamila Rowser: When I wrote the Wash Day mini-comic, it was never intended to go beyond that one-shot comic. So I had developed anything much outside the story. So when the opportunity came to expand on the story, it was challenging to figure out how to make what was never intended to be longer, long. The way I decided to work through that challenge was to create a series of short, interconnected stories. That way I could introduce new characters, new hairstyles, themes, etc. And it not feel forced. 

Close up of hair wash. Image: Chronicle Books.

TMS: What was your favorite panel [or page] to see brought to life, and why? 

Rowser: I love the panel in Group Chat when Kim is peaking behind the panel as if it’s a curtain, and interrupting Nisha’s flashback story. I really wanted to push myself with that story and try to use the comic medium to its fullest potential to evoke the energy we feel when our group chat has some exciting drama.

Panels showing a flashback. Image: Chronicle Books.

The physical interruption from Kim, who is in the present, interrupting the past flashback that Nisha was telling was illustrated perfectly by Robyn. It was better than I imagined in my mind. It always makes me smile, I think it’s really freakin’ cool. 

TMS: What was your favorite panel [or page] to draw and why?

Robyn Smith: One of my favorite pages to draw was where Davene pulled out the Jamaican flag. Def my favorite just because I got to draw her representing the black, green and gold.

Panels showing the women dancing. Image: Chronicle Books.

TMS: I read in y’alls interview with Nerdist that Archie was a big influence on Robyn and (recently) josei manga on Jamila. What are other art and media influences your work?

Rowser: Josei manga is a huge influence on me, I mentioned it all the time, haha. It’s manga aimed at adult women, which are the kinds of comics I mostly want to create. Manga like Nana and Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa, Suppli by Mari Okazaki, Helter Skelter by Kyoko Okazaki, Sakuran and In Clothes Called Fat by Moyoco Anno, Blue by Kiriko Nananan, Between the Sheets by Erica Sakurazawa, Solanin by Inio Asano, and so many more are huge influences.

Image: Viz Media.

They really inspired my writing style and pacing a lot and expanded my love for slice-of-life comics. I’m also really inspired by musicians as well, particularly folks like Missy Elliot, Tyler the Creator, Outkast, Kid Cudi, Vince Staples, Solange, and more. Their storytelling, style, and commitment to staying true to who they are what really inspire me. 

Smith: Living Single by Yvette Lee Bowser is one of the best sitcoms to ever exist and one of my biggest non-comics influences. I just love the way we learn about the characters through their relationships with each other and within such a formulaic format.

(Living Single/Warner Bros. Television)
(Warner Bros. Discovery)

TMS: It’s been several years since the last “peak” of the natural hair movement online, how do you feel that this story fits in the wider dialogue? 

Rowser: What we really wanted to show with Wash Day Diaries is that we are celebrating all kinds of Black hair types and styles, not just natural hair. We both have and love our natural hair, but we don’t want to put supremacy over certain styles. Wigs, weaves, silk presses, braids, etc. are all beautiful, and we wanted to emphasize that. We know how society often sees certain Black hairstyles as ugly and unprofessional, and we think it’s important for Black folks to style their hair in the way that makes them feel most comfortable.

Davene looking in her closet. Image: Chronicle Books.

TMS: What do you hope people take from Wash Day Dairies after reading it?

Rowser: I hope it shows the importance of slice-of-life comics about Black women and Queer folks. We don’t always have to play superheroes. Our regular life is just as fascinating and important as a comic about saving the galaxy. 

Smith: I hope that people read and feel comfort.

Wash Day Diaries by Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith can be ordered online or picked up at your local comic book shop.

(Image: Chronicle Books.)

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(she/her) Award-winning artist and blogger with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. Starting as an Online Editor for her college paper in October 2017, Alyssa began writing for the first time within two months of working in the newsroom. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3, Apex Legends, and CS:GO. Still trying to beat Saxon Farm on RCT 3 (so I can 100% the game.)