The cover of Beth Hetland's Tender

Tender-Hearted: Beth Hetland Discusses her Gruesome New Graphic Novel

Professor, Adj. Beth Hetland’s (BFA 2009) new graphic novel Tender is not for the faint of heart. Out this month with Fantagraphics, the body horror thriller follows the life of Carolanne, a woman obsessed with crafting the perfect marriage, family, and life. When things don’t go according to plan, Carolanne falls into a gristly pit of madness, accentuated by Hetland’s vibrant colors and gruesome illustrations.

Hetland has spent her career producing an impressive number of zines and comics—but this is her first release with a major comics publisher. She has exhibited at comics fests all over the country, and received several awards for both teaching and comics, including a DCASE Grant from the City of Chicago in 2022. Here, Hetland discusses her new book, her draw towards horror, and what she learns from her School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) students.

A photo of Beth Hetland holding one of her comics


What inspired the subject matter of Tender?
I started making short-form work that was exploring my own anxieties about my body. What does it mean to be a person that has a uterus? What does it mean to be asked, as a married person, when am I gonna have kids? I see my friends who are having children—that deep-seeded, passionate need or desire or pressure or whatever you call it to have children and have a family. And I have always been kinda split with that mindset.

A lot of the origins of this story are me grappling with what it means to have a meat body, what if that meat body goes horribly wrong. What if you can’t control the things that your body does.

What surprised you about this process?
The entire act of making work can be surprising sometimes. In the early drafts of this, I was surprised at how I felt about the main character. For a long time, I felt like she wasn’t really somebody you could empathize or sympathize with. She wasn’t really eliciting the kind of compassion I wanted her to have. And in her relationship with Lee, her husband, I didn’t want him to necessarily be a villain. I wanted it to be a little more nuanced than that.  

The way that the color scheme shifts right at the end was something I didn’t expect. I knew I wanted to have really vibrant colors, and I really wanted it to ramp up at the end, but I wasn’t really sure how I was gonna execute it. And I don’t know if this is just because I am tender-hearted, but I was really surprised how sad I was when it was done. Spending five years going back to the drawing table, being with these characters, as grotesque and horrific as they are, there's comfort in the ritual and the schedule of it. And I was just like “Wow, it’s done. What do I do now?”

A page from Beth Hetland's Tender


You’ve taught comics and comics-adjacent classes at SAIC for 12 years. How does teaching affect you as an artist? 
This book is done entirely digitally, which is a first for me. A really big push from teaching is that the students are working exclusively with iPads or exclusively digitally. Not that I don’t think that it’s effective to work traditionally, but I felt like I was hitting the limits of my own knowledge and experience.

That was really a direct result of teaching. I feel like there are still things I’m learning from them. I’m always asking, “Wait, how’d you do that?” But I also feel like I’m at the place where they ask, “Wait, how’d you do that?” I’m trying to pay attention to what they're doing in their work and making sure that I’m still in a position where I can be useful as a faculty, instead of just brushing them off like, “Oh, you crazy kids.”

12 panels from Beth Hetland's Tender


What draws you to the horror side of things? 
There's a sensation that I feel is hard to articulate: the desire and joy of being terrified and fascinated. I feel like they're two sides of the same sword. It’s the draw of wanting to know but also not being able to not know. Like, you gotta check for monsters, but it’s also really horrifying to look. The anxiety of that is really intense. Some of it is kind of a release, I think. There's that tickling sensation that's kind of laughing, kind of fear, kind of wanna cry, run away.