If you live in a big city, you'd be familiar with - before the pandemic, at least - passing a thousand people in the street or enduring local transport with local yet total strangers. Every of those faces seen fleetingly in the crowd carries a story or two, and a new graphic novel shares some of those tales in a candid, charming fashion.
In Biscuits (assorted), Jenny Robins takes a look at a handful of women’s stories in the city as they defy and comply with our expectations, each stepping out of the cookie-cutter mould of what it means to be a woman today.
The comics creator has already won the Myriad First Graphic Novel Competition in 2018 for a taster of the book, and this November sees Biscuits released in all of its 288-page glory.
Speaking to Creative Boom, we learn from Jenny that the book evolved very organically, having "no idea" it was going to be a graphic novel when she began initial sketches of female identifying-Londoners way back in 2016.
"I drew six of them for a poster about feminism, and how it's complicated. Then I just fell in love with the format and I wanted to do 3.52 billion of them, which is a slightly unachievable goal, but is the approximate number of women on the planet."
"I was drawing more of them and giving them these captions that implied the stories of these women's lives, and posting them on Instagram. Then I thought I was going to do one-page comics to go with some of them to make a book - kind of just snapshots into the lives that were implied. But then that didn't seem to be enough either."
"There was a crunch point, where I chose between this and another project I had in mind to develop into a graphic novel pitch to enter into the Myriad competition in 2018. I ended up choosing Biscuits, but at the time I submitted those 30 pages, it was still a project that could be almost any length."
"After I got the book contract, there was an intense planning and writing period over that same summer in 2018; most of the book was sort of planned from that point, although some things didn't really come together until the end. For example, for a long time I wasn't sure whether I wanted to show Helena's wedding or not, but I'm really glad I did and now it's one of my favourite scenes."
Helena's story is just one of those explored in Jenny's narrative, which features a relentlessly positive supermarket employee, a strong-minded mother with a secret, a mistress of distraction (and oversharing), and a 'miss-adventurer' in bi-sexual dating.
Over one long summer, these women come together learn from each other and from the colourful cast of women (and the occasional man) with whom they share the big city of London with. All their stories feel very personal, and Jenny confirms a lot of the book's settings are ones she's familiar with.
"I worked in a supermarket and as an events waitress when I was younger, done live drawing at burlesque shows and weddings, worked in an office, and a number of schools. I get asked a lot whether the characters are based on real people though and they aren't really - I worry they're all just versions of me!"
But Jenny worked hard to make sure her characters are not all the same, doing the reading and the work "to back up or challenge my assumptions about living under the umbrella of identities different to my own." There are certainly no clichés to be found in Biscuits, a book which very much fights against any cookie-cutter constructions.
"The cookie-cutter itself is a bit of a farce isn't it?" Jenny argues. "Because, although sexism is definitely STILL A THING, the expectations each of us face in day-to-day life are very different depending on factors that are mostly out of our control. The expectations of society may be different to the expectations of your family, or your partner, or yourself. And sometimes you will meet those expectations, sometimes you will fall short, and sometimes you will surpass them or sidestep them entirely."
"I'm interested in the ways that all of us both fit and do not fit the stereotypes that apply to us. You don't have to be what the world seems to want you to be, but it's also OK if you are. There are stereotypes of women that I would like to subvert - especially that we all want to look younger than we actually are, and probably spend a fortune trying to achieve this. But I also really do like shoes, and chocolate, and wine, and pretty dresses. It's a balance."
"And it's easier for me as a white, middle-class, naturally confident woman married to a man (which hides and neutralises my queer identity unless I make a point about it) to navigate the waters of not meeting people's expectations, because I already ticked a bunch of boxes just showing up with my unextraordinary face and figure. And when I confuse people with my opinions about aging or fancying women, I mostly get to enjoy their surprise in a safe way."
"If you keep your mind just a little bit open, you get used to your new friend's identity quirks pretty damn quickly. I guess what I mean is that I wanted to give the characters of Biscuits the chance to be the reader's friends, and help remind them that normal is an always movable feast, if it exists at all."
Biscuits (assorted) by Jenny Robins is out November 12 2020 on Myriad Editons.