Leela Corman: Women At the Gates of Life and Death

Leela Corman’s 2012 Unterzakhnunderthings, in Yiddish, so of course we’re going interview her about it—is one of the most compelling graphic novels published since that term emerged. A fictional tale of twin sisters in New York City at the turn of the century, Corman’s deft hand weaves intense research with chilling visual concision in a tale grounded in truth yet gut-wrenching. It’s a remarkable book.

This won’t surprise fans of Corman, who in addition to creating comics, is also an illustrator, a belly dancer, and an educator. She moved a few years ago from her beloved NYC to Gainesville, Florida, to establish the Sequential Artists Workshop with her husband the educator and comics creator Tom Hart. Shortly after their arrival, the couple lost their young daughter Rosalie. (Hart’s incredible work on her life and loss can and should be read here.)

Corman, in other words, is also a remarkable person. Strong, thoughtful, and intelligent—as you’ll be able to read for yourself in her responses to my questions on Unterzakhn below.


Interviews, reviews, and casual mentions of the book all hint or state outright that it’s an “eerily contemporary” story of womanhood. Were there women’s issues you came across in your research that surprised you? Any that didn’t?

I did begin [the book] with an intention to talk about the gruesome results of not having a choice in our reproductive lives. There’s very little that surprises me, in history or contemporary life, but I’m often shocked. Most of that came not so much from what I discovered about women’s lives, but about the ways people in general lived in New York City and presumably other cities in that time period, and a bit earlier. The lack of sanitation, of public infrastructure that we all take for granted now. If you didn’t live in a rich neighborhood …

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is that you unite a couple of different modes of mark-making: the result comes off in its best moments as barely controlled havoc. How did you settle on a visual style for this story, and what were you intending it to do that the narrative might not otherwise accomplish?

When I first had the idea for this book, I knew I had to develop my cartooning style away from what it had been before. In Subway Series I was trying to get away from all of my training, and draw in a very cartoony way, not representational. Afterwards, I looked back at some of the minicomics I did in college, and realized that I actually liked some of that style, and wanted to bring it back. Other than all that, what happens in the process of drawing is more organic than most would seem to realize. It’s not like we think really long and hard before we work about EXACTLY how it should look. If we did that, we’d never draw a line, and whatever we did draw would be contrived and terrible.

The Unterzakhn characters first appeared in Scheherezade, Megan Kelso’s brilliant 2004 anthology that, due to an uncorrected printing error, limited broad support for and readership of the book. The history of comics is riddled with such minor occurrences that, when stacked, limit women’s visibility in the form. How do you feel you reflect/reject/respond to those moments as a professional cartoonist? As an educator? As someone who’s deeply gender aware? And did the first appearance of these characters in this frustrated project influence the mode in which you wanted them to appear thereafter?

For specific answers about whether there was a gender component to the problems with Scheherazade, I’d ask Megan. I’d be curious to hear her answer, actually. But I’m more concerned with the way the comics industry and the world of media, conferences, and conventions treats us than with the way some piddly little book press does. I just got an email update from the organizers of SPACE in Ohio next week, and the first item on it was a promo for an exhibit of female cartoonists’ art called Panels In Pink. I am so disgusted by that name on so many levels. It’s not that it sounds girly—I LIKE girly. It sounds grandma, and not in a good way. It sounds like doilies and pink frilly toilet seats. It sounds dismissive and vaguely gynecological.

I’m also disturbed by the ongoing assumption that women all do autobiographical work. I am beginning to find it very sexist. I am thinking now of that traveling show of Jewish cartoonists—they excluded everyone who doesn’t do autobio, like we somehow don’t know our proper place, which is parked in front of the mirror, apparently, and not budging from our own gaze and internal monologue. This is not to dismiss the artists who are doing strong autobiographical work. All the art in that show is unassailable. It’s the organizational ethos that I object to.

You are—and Unterzakhn underscores this—strongly identified with New York City, but you live in Florida now. What precipitated the move and how does the school you opened there, SAW, fit into your creative practice?

We got burnt out on NYC, and when the economy went to shit we really felt it, Tom through lowered enrollment at SVA (which meant fewer classes per semester) and me through a severe drop in the amount of illustration work I got. We’d spent a lot of time here in Gainesville, had a lot of friends here, and really liked the lifestyle here. Tom had the idea to open the school, and spent a couple of years making it a reality. It’s taking off beautifully. In NYC the answer to most questions is “No”. Here it’s yes. Here, I have a cheap private studio space a short walk from my house, Tom has a great space for the school, we both have radio shows. There are certainly tradeoffs. Because of the horrible thing we went through soon after we moved here, it’s very difficult for me to parse out what problems I’m having that are due to that, and what comes from missing or being away from NYC. As a dancer, I’m having a harder time finding my footing, but again, that is partially due to personal circumstances. Although I really do legitimately miss certain things I can’t have here.

A lot of artists are leaving New York. It’s no longer a good place to be a working artist, though it is certainly a great place to be a creative person or a lover of the arts. But there’s absolutely no support for artists at the individual level there. If you’re an institution or a famous artist with a lot of money and backing, you’re set. But if you’re just one of the army of individual artists who lives there, you can really have problems. Studio space costs a lot of money and is usually inadequate – $200/month for just enough space for a desk?! Not to mention the rest of the cost of living? Forget about painting, or anything else that requires a little more room. Typically what happens is that you find your projects become longer and more demanding, and less remunerative in the short term, which means that you quickly begin to fall behind the 8-ball. This seems to be a pattern once you get a little older and have a real life, not the kind of stuff you do in your 20’s when it’s easier to work for The Man all day and then go home and burn it on your own projects all night.

When you live there, you’re under the illusion that it’s the best place to be an artist, because there’s so much culture there and because it’s the media capital of America. But then you go to Seattle, Portland, almost any other good city in the U.S., and you see that the support for the arts is so much better outside of NYC. It’s infuriating after a while.

As a bellydancer, cartoonist, and educator, do you feel your career has been influenced by your own comfort with or interest in femininity, or the gender roles you may have been placed in by others? How and why?

I feel like I’m becoming more and more of a feminist as I get older. Getting older, becoming a parent, all these things have played a role. And just observing the world. I’d have to be fucking blind not to move more in that direction. I grew up in a very egalitarian family—gender was truly a non-issue with us, and still is not [an issue]. So it took me a long time to see how far behind the rest of the world is. My parents made it look effortless. Now I think they must have given it some thought. Because look at the rest of the world. I’ve come to believe that most people on this planet hate women.

Unterzakhn presents a complex relationship between femininity and maternity. I responded to it as someone who’s essentially uninterested in maternity, but is very invested in femininity. How do you feel those two notions overlap, in your life and in the world?

Ugh. I don’t even know if I can properly answer that question except to say that women deal in blood and guts, literally and figuratively, whether they have kids or not. We are at the gates of life and death. As far as the story itself goes, much of it is about the characters having to really fight and buck expectations of their time in order to have the lives they want, or think they want, or even just the lives they can live with. It was always a given that neither of the sisters would want to marry or have kids. It would get in the way of their plans.

Although underpants apparently played a role in the marketing of the book, I haven’t come across anyone asking you about them in particular. In my mind, underthings are a continually relevant metaphor for the hidden labor of women, made clear to me during, you know, the riot grrrl days we both came up in, when wearing slips as clothes was a visual way of demanding recognition in culture without abandoning sexuality. Why did you choose Unterzakhn as your title, and why do you think underclothes are so persistently associated with femininity?

Have you looked at men’s underwear? It’s so boring! We get so many more choices, bits and bobs and lace and sparkles, or plain and simple, or really whatever we want. Women’s lingerie has always been fun to look at and to draw, although not always fun to wear. Actually, this makes me think of something that DID surprise me in my research. The underthings that women wore in different time periods are sometimes shocking! Sleeves packed with horsehair! Metal corsetry! Can you imagine shoving yourself into that crap? In an early 20th century clothing catalog, I came across a page of nursing corsets. Having nursed a child, I can tell you that wearing any of those things would be hell. So I think these items are not just a metaphor for the hidden labors of women, but for all of the contortions and miseries our ancestors had to put themselves through just to be allowed to exist in public. We’re really fortunate now to be freed from all that garbage.

Of course, this is just in the so-called “West”. I don’t know what women wore beneath their clothes in Asia and in the Islamic world. In the latter, I think the emphasis was more in what women wore OVER their “inside” clothes. Certainly in the Ottoman Empire you did not just walk out the door in your indoor clothing. But I don’t know what went beneath it. I need to research that.


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