Fine artist, zinester, and comics creator Christa Donner is quieter and smaller than you’d imagine: Her humungous wall-sized drawings protrude from corners, chandeliers erupting violently from body interiors, shapes spindling wildly into esophageal forms and escaping their owners. Her comics describe equally wild maladies: a rash erupts into a medical mutation, disgusting disfigurations peek out from under a short skirt, lovers speak in the language of organs. These are tropes we expect from serial killers and mad scientists. They are not what we expect from feminists. Donner’s women are beguiling because they are strong, because they retain control of their leaking intestines, because their reproductive organs have plans of their own. Her colors are bold and plain and striking and the black lines that contain them impassable.
Your early work tended toward the cute, a concept we’ve discussed personally in terms of our own approaches to working in a predominantly masculine environments. But your recent work has become messier and more violent, and is moving away from the immediate approachability I’ve always associated with you.
I got really fascinated by people’s stories about their bodies and the way they were imagining them and how they could be used in a more productive way. Like how you could imagine and create for yourself this whole alternate system that you could understand in a non-medical context. I have had my own health things come up, like there’s this question about if I have endometriosis, a disease that doctor’s don’t really understand. If you look it up in any health book, it says, “No one knows that cause, no one knows how to cure it.” Basically the only thing you can do is go on the pill, which seems to be the cure for every female health issue. I feel like with most illnesses, especially those having to do with women’s reproductive organs, medical science doesn’t necessarily cover it. So why not come up with your own explanations?
This stuff is a little darker, although people have always seen my work as sort of creepy. I don’t mind that at all; I think my sensibilities are very creepy.
So with that in mind, how would you describe yourself physically?
I’m a small person, I am cute—or so I’ve been told—and until recently I’ve thought of myself as frail and fragile. [But] these huge wall drawings that I do, that makes me feel kind of tough. It surprises people to see a tiny little person make this thing that fills up an entire room. I’m very petite.
I’m not trying to put you on the spot: I’m just trying to underline that, while your work addresses some crazy, disgusting, and jarring things, you’re actually very approachable.
Oh, I’m very friendly. I’m very approachable. I mean, I used to be a model. I was a Sassy cover model. I think that informed a lot of my ideas abnout the media. It led me to my zine, it led me to the work that I’m doing. It definitely helped me get my priorities straight as far as what I wanted to do after high scool. I wasn’t all that popular, and it was like, that would really show them if I was a model and I got into this magazine and then they’d think I was way cool. I’d never had a boyfriend. And then once I did it I realized that I wanted to become known for something that I had accomplished, something that had to do with me as a person.
Reviews of your work refer to you as “comics-inspired” or as using a “comic-book style.” How do you feel about that?
I dunno, I mean it’s funny because I’m obsessed with comics, right, and I became obsessed with comics after I started drawing like that, because people were saying, “You should look at so-and-so’s work.” So I started reading more and got really inspired by what was out there. So I’m sort of comics-inspired now,, but that’s not really where it comes from. Also now I do comics. It was really important to me once I started doing this work that I not be comics inspired, but that I contribute something to the form as well. So I’m a comics artist. . .
. . . and a real artist.
[Laughs.] Yeah. A gallery artist that uses that kind of iconography in my work.
But what do you think of that distinction? Some would say it’s the difference between Roy Lichtenstein and Peter Bagge, for example.
I’m adamant about placing myself not as someone who’s commenting on comics as popular culture, but commenting on them as an art form that I’m involved in, and art form as its own medium. I don’t want it to seem like I’m just co-opting them, like Roy Lichtenstein did.
Your gallery work takes more from your comics than the outlined forms of the figures: the sense of space implied by panels, the graphic language. Also, you do zines. So you work in three mediums that seem distinct to most people.
In my grad program, if I show the full range of my work in the same critique, it becomes a discussion about which one I should focus on. Which is not even an option for me, because the completely inform each other. They’re all aspects of the same thin, but represent different ways of approaching the same thing.
I address the media with them and I address the body with them. Zines are more on the media end of things. Ladyfriend is my approach to not being satisfied with mainstream magazines, so I’m making my won. Also, feminism—zines are my way of directly interfacing with this amazing community of women and meeting new friends. Then the visual art—I include comics in that category—is criticizing the media on a different level, presenting alternative images of women and their complexities in a more abstract way.
This interview is excerpted and edited from its original appearance in the May/June 2005 Punk Planet magazine.