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Briefly, illustratrix of 'Lulu' is back in town

The Baltimore Sun

Emily Flake is growing up. True, it's in a kicking-and-cartooning, still-gonna-smoke (but not as much) kind of way. But 30 is 30, Ms. Flake. These mile markers do something to the soul. The onset of adulthood. Talk of, well, a family.

If she's not careful, Flake could end up happy and just might have to tone down or retire her comic alter ego, Lulu Eightball. Our dear, plump heroine, Lulu, could face extinction or happiness herself!

Wait, who is Flake? Or, for that matter, Lulu?

Emily Flake is the self-described illustratrix of the Lulu Eightball comic strip that runs in City Paper and other alternative weeklies. For five years, the Lulu strip has converted the achingly personal into the universal. Her observational humor ranges from, "And that's how I got sued by Apple," "Why Aren't You Eligible for Sainthood?" ("Hairshirt makes you look fat") and "The unpleasantest make-out spots," to "Reasons I cannot be a go-go dancer" ("Tummy flubber"). Self-loathing, pie-loving, vice-riddled, utterly human Lulu Eightball is - how could this be? - one of us.

Atomic Books, Hampden's funkadelic bookstore, published Flake's Lulu cartoons in 2005. The book made the No. 1 spot on Entertainment Weekly's "Must List."

Now Flake is back with another book, and another Entertainment Weekly mention. Fleshed out from her piece in City Paper in 2006, Flake's "These Things Don't Smoke Themselves" is out in pint-sized hardback. It's an autobiographical ode to smoking - "a half-valentine, half-Dear John letter, it's a personal history of a difficult relationship with a vice in its waning days of popularity."

As her story goes, a 21-year-old Flake had promised a stranger in a coffee shop that she would quit smoking by the time she was 29.

Flake, who flipped over to 30 in June, missed her deadline.

"Time flies when you're ruining your health," she writes in her book. The Maryland Institute College of Art graduate was back in Baltimore earlier this month to promote the book. Flake took the bus in from New York for the book-signing, fittingly in Hampden - a homecoming for not exactly a hometown girl but close enough.

"I taught myself how to be me in Baltimore," Flake said that Saturday night. Despite the "Smoke Free" sign in Cafe Hon's window, Flake had swallowed her vice and stepped in for some late-night conversation about life, Lulu, knitting and, oh, yeah, drawing cartoons.

"I'm not a genius. I can't draw like an angel," Flake said. "I'm just a lady who likes to laugh."

After an enthusiastic book-reading at Atomic Pop, Emily Flake takes a seat bar-side at Cafe Hon. Maker's Mark, is it? It is.

Three things off the bat:

1. Flake is her real name.

2. Her eyes are so blue, they show up in black and white photographs.

3. Dead-on, her face looks just enough like Ingrid Bergman's to justify the outrageous comparison. Either way, neither Flake nor Bergman resemble Lulu Eightball.

From 1995 to 1999, Flake made art at MICA. Her tenure was also marked by her job delivering Domino's pizzas, where she traveled to colorful parts of Baltimore, her headlights interrupting drug deals. But she delivered. School was tougher at times. Flake has never forgotten her sophomore year and Whitney Sherman's typography class. The study of letter forms. Be still Flake's creative heart. Flake the student did not excel.

"I've been trying to make it up to Whitney ever since," Flake says.

But Whitney Sherman knew Flake was a smart student, a real thinker, a non-conformist stuck in a conforming subject. She just had to buck against everything for awhile.

"Emily is a fine observer of the human condition. She's a writer first - then a cartoonist," Sherman says. And Flake has managed in her illustration work to illustrate life at its most vulnerable.

"Everyone," Sherman says, "needs some kind of suffering or a cross to bear. If you don't have some struggle in your life, you are missing out."

Flake even apologized to Sherman a few years ago.

"I told her, 'That was then. Look at you now!'" says Sherman. She and her husband remain Lulu Eightball groupies.

Ken Krafchek is a fan, too. He was one of Flake's illustration instructors at MICA. Krafchek was surprised, touched, that Flake mentioned him to The Sun as one of her influences. Teachers never think they will be remembered for anything.

"She struggled mightily to find herself and trust herself - and she did," Krafchek says. Artists make themselves public, exposing themselves to the world. "Her work reflects her experiences and viewpoints. A real artist can't fake it. And Emily has the courage to keep putting it out there."

For a teacher, it's that moment when the light goes off and a student turns a corner, gains confidence and takes off. It's also those rare moments, when years later, an accomplished art school grad speaks reverently of a teacher who never lost his faith, patience and interest.

"I'm thrilled I got to witness one act in a very long play in an artist's life," Krafchek says, pausing. "I'm sorry. ... I'm tearing up."

In her senior year at MICA in 1998, Flake interviewed for an internship at City Paper. On the day of her interview, she crashed her car in the magazine's parking garage. A prime pre-Lulu moment. But Flake got the job and went to work for art director Joe MacLeod. The new recruit made silk-screened greeting cards for the office crew - depressing, self-loathing cards.

"Emily is all about self-loathing, and that's why we love her," says MacLeod. "She's funny, man. Not a lot of eye contact. She's busy calculating what she's going to say. She's the Sarah Silverman of cartoons."

While living in Chicago in 2002, Flake created Lulu Eightball. If readers could recognize something in themselves and laugh, they would automatically care about Lulu, Flake believed. City Paper was the first publication to carry the strip. To her magazine bosses, the naivete and almost artlessness of her drawings were as appealing as her underdog humor. Andy Markowitz, then City Paper's editor, green-lighted the strip. While alternative magazine strips can be angry or snarky, Flake's Lulu was something to respond to, something human. Like the artist.

"She had me at 'hello,'" says Markowitz by phone from Prague, where he's an editor for an online newspaper. "There's no vanity about her. Emily is trafficking in all these things we are feeling ourselves, and it resonates with my personal neuroses."

Lee Gardner is the magazine's editor now.

"I plan to run her comic as long as I'm sitting in my office."

"I always said I would end Lulu after 10 years or when I really did run out of jokes," Flake says. "There's only so many drunk jokes you can do."

Although Flake's illustrations have appeared in Forbes, The Nation and The New York Times , she is perhaps best known for the four-paneled, double-decker captioned Lulu strips. With her Orphan Annie eyes, Lulu continues to channel Flake's take on the human condition, which could be summarized by the following: The Whole World Knows I'm Not Cool. Or, according to one of her strip's headlines: "Things to do with your fat other than poke at it morosely."

Don't laugh - or do laugh - but it's the 13-year-old in all of us that just won't go away, as Whitney Sherman says.

But art doesn't always have to imitate life. We can lose our baby fat.

"I have the capacity to be content," Flake says, almost apologizing.

Flake is feeling content - and lucky and successful. She has a serious boyfriend ("He taught me to be an adult") and a serious artist's life in New York. She wants a family. Flake was holding and nuzzling her friend's baby boy after her book signing in Hampden, where a room full of fans showed up. Some followed her outside to share a smoke with her on 36th Street. There was no self-hatred, just group affection.

Emily Flake hadn't expected all this fuss for her Baltimore weekend. Thought she'd sign a few books, see old friends - and perhaps their babies - and then get back on the bus home to Brooklyn.

"I hope your photographer picks a picture that doesn't make me look fat," she says.

Lulu is never far behind.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

Emily Suzanne Flake

Age: 30

Born: Manchester, Conn.

Home: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Job: Illustrator; creator Lulu Eightball comic strip in City Paper and other alternative weeklies; author of Lulu Eightball (Atomic Book Company, 2005) and These Things Don't Smoke Themselves (Bloomsbury, 2007)

Self-description: "Size 7.5 shoe. Has freckles, dark blonde hair, blue eyes. Myopic with astigmatism."

Education: Bachelor of fine arts in illustration, Maryland Institute College of Art, 1999

Formative Baltimore experiences: Domino's Pizza delivery person/art student person

MICA influences: Instructors Ken Krafchek, Ken Tisa and Whitney Sherman

Influenced by: Comic strip pioneer Winsor McCay; Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie; Shel Silverstein; The New Yorker's Bruce Eric Kaplan

Boyfriend: John Pastore ("Mr. Eightball"), 40, a Canadian who has appeared in the Lulu strip. Fourth panel, usually.

Astrological sign: Gemini. At 18, Flake gets two Gemini tattoos in Baltimore. "Thought I'd look super tough. It didn't work at all."

Favorite hobby: Knitting.

Favorite vice: "I totally still smoke."

Favorite curse word: City Paper can print it - we can't.

Lulu's possible last words: "I'm sorry."

Online: To see Emily Flake's work, go to eflakeagogo.com.

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