Artist Jon-Michael Frank Examines Extreme Human Emotions With Dark Humor and a Distinct Style

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Social media has undeniably impacted what a modern-day artist is expected to be, including how to share their work and self-promote. It’s been equally influential on the ways audiences engage with art. Certain artists have styles that are especially suited for modern-day online platforms and strike a chord with social media audiences, in particular. Artists like Jon-Michael Frank.     

Jon-Michael Frank is an illustrator, poet, comic artist hybrid whose uniquely quirky point of view and drawing style has captivated an avid Instagram audience. Their mostly autobiographical comics dissect extreme human emotions and experiences with a dark sense of humor and crude, child-like aesthetic. These comics tap into a communal feeling of unhappiness and ennui, sagely grappling with issues related to mental health, relationships, and loneliness, all with a singular wit and charm to make this subject matter palatable. 

Thoughtful, wise, raw, and hilarious, Frank has carved out a brilliant artistic style that has resonated with thousands on their Instagram. When I came upon their work myself, I was immediately mesmerized by how they worked through emotional turmoil within their pieces and knew I had to hear more about their background and practice. 

Below is the conversation we had together, in which Frank charismatically shares how they came to their singular style and worldview.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

Can you describe how you came to your unique perspective and style?

I feel kind of new to art, but I drew growing up. That was my main thing when I was little. I was home recently and going through old childhood stuff, and I found all these little books that I had made. I asked my dad about it, and he said, “You’ve always just kind of made books.” And that’s what I’m doing now.  

I drew through grade school, and then when I hit middle school, I stopped advancing technically. I was never the best technical artist, which, I think, is very clear in my work now. 

So when I stopped advancing with other people, and they could draw a tiger really accurately, I just stopped at that point. I just felt like I sucked, so I pivoted into writing poetry. I didn’t draw in my early 20s. I got super involved in the modern poetry world and did a reading series in Austin, and was an editor at a few places. I was really committed and married to that, but I burned out on it. I don’t think I was very successful at it. 

Then I was making this book of poems that was pretty dark and serious about my sister’s addiction and someone close to me who died, and I started making these silly comics to offset that very grave territory. People responded to those, so I feel like that put a leash on me and led me rather than my own intuition. 

Your art seems to defy genre; it’s a blend of poetry, illustration, and comics. Do you attempt to categorize what you do at all?  

No, I don’t think about it too much. I also make other stuff that I don’t share online. I do whatever feels fun, and I’m also usually working on a graphic novel that I don’t share any of online. It’s similar to the Instagram stuff, but maybe a little more serious.

The subject matter of the pieces you post feels so incredibly vulnerable and personal. What’s it like to mine those emotions for all of Instagram to see?

It doesn’t feel personal to me. It’s funny. I don’t know how to rectify that when people say that. It is, but it isn’t because I’m done with it at that point. I’ve already been through it—once I put it online, it’s not mine anymore. So however people interact with it is fine. I try not to read too much into it. People definitely will pathologize me and say I have this DSMB thing, and I just kind of ignore that stuff. It’s not really relevant to me.

Many of your pieces are about your relationships and how you interact with others. What has that material been like to navigate?

Dating me is horrible in this context. It’s hard to get around. To some extent, I have to choose between a dating life and making comics. Dating has been horrible. It’s something I’m still learning how to do—it’s very difficult. It’s tough with just anyone in my life, like if I have a conversation that gives me an idea for something. I definitely have upset people that don’t like to be portrayed in a particular way, which I try not to do. 

I try to focus more on my own fuck-ups. Because I know that better than where someone else is necessarily coming from.

Where do the ideas for your pieces typically originate? 

I’ll go through periods where I write notes on my phone when I have little ideas. I definitely get more when I’m in a relationship or dating, and there’s a whole file of ideas that I write down. 

It’s a lot of emotional labor. If I’m going through something and I keep thinking about it, I make a note about it. There’s no difference between me and other people in that regard—I just find that I dump less on other people and put it online.

What I admire so much about your style and point of view is the way you marry intense emotions with humor. You bring levity to ideas that might otherwise feel too hard to talk about. Can you share a bit about how you balance those poles so deftly? 

It’s just kind of natural. I don’t know! It’s just the way that it comes out. Whatever I’m drawing or writing about is very cathartic. I move my arm really fast in color to create blobby characters. I don’t consciously think so much about it. It’s just my personality, I guess! 

It probably comes from decades of undercutting the gravity of my emotions with jokes. I’m trying to get better about that personally, but I think it makes for good comics. It’s like, how else do you cope with any of that stuff? 

Whenever I review my closest friendships, they’re built on humor. Even though I’ve always had this serious side that I’ve cradled and nurtured, I feel like, for me, it does come down to levity.

You have this very distinct way of making sense of things. Where do you think this worldview comes from? 

Do I really make sense of things? Because it doesn’t feel that way at all. 

I had a great creative writing teacher in high school when I was 16 who really saw me. When I was growing up, older people were like these different creatures. This teacher talked to me like a peer rather than this hierarchical age thing. It was very nourishing for a long time in my life. 

He was a poet, and he wrote Haiku mostly. I knew no one like that growing up. I grew up in a small town outside of Philadelphia, and I knew no artists—no one creative. That was not in my world at all. So that was really big to me. 

I think anyone who saw me for me—which has been pretty rare in my life—that shapes your worldview. It lets you experiment and be yourself. Those people that don’t judge you right away are super rare. 

What has your popularity on social media been like for you? 

I guess it feels good! The things people criticized about my personality are now the things I’m connecting with people about. My parents told me to be less negative and less sensitive my whole life. And I’m like, cool, I’ve tried. But now, I’m finding positivity, growth, and relatability through it. That is more important than anything to me. 

I think we all feel the same crap, and sometimes that’s nice to think about. But sometimes, it doesn’t really make it any better. The idea that you’re not alone doesn’t always make you feel less alone, unfortunately.