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.

Mari Naomi: Raunchy and Animal-loving, but So Much More

Ladydrawer fave Mari Naomi launched a new webcomic today, “Said While Talking“. Her other online work, “Smoke in Your Eyes” on The Rumpus and “Frisco al Fresco” on SF Bay‘s website, display a range of skills as the explore local culture (she lives in the Bay Area) and serious, literary memoir. This last is the artist’s forte, as evidenced in her Harper Perennial book, the sexy-but-cute Kiss & Tell, a skill honed over years in the self-published series Estrus Comics.

I asked Mari Naomi to answer a few quick questions about the new project over email.

When Tapas Media approached me, I had a whole school of pitches swimming around in my brain. I took a look at the comics on their site, the stuff their audience seems to respond to, and opted to share my more relatable stories. “Said while Talking” is a collection of conversations I’ve had with various people, and it jumps back and forth in time. The stories have a wide range: cute/weird/gross/humiliating/funny/thoughtful. When put together, I intend to paint a deeper picture of my perception of humanity. It’s a concept that has been brewing inside of me for a while. I’m really excited that it found a home.

I was never a big fan of reading comics online, so I stayed away from the web comic thing for a while. I finally opted to try it out so I could promote my book, Kiss & Tell. I was surprised at how addictive it can be. Every day I post a new comic, I wait with bated breath to see what people’s reactions will be. Will people like it? Will they comment on it? (That type of instant feedback is my favorite.) Will it rile people up? Will people be silent about it but pass it around? I find the whole process fascinating. Whether or not an online comic is a success depends on so many factors, and timing seems to be a big one. If a story is relevant that day, it’ll get passed around like crazy, whether it’s a great story or not. But if I post a great story (or what I deem to be a great story) on the wrong day, or even at the wrong time of day, it will fade away into the ether. It’s kind of like book publishing, but on a much faster turnaround. A book gets three months to “make it,” but a web post gets 24-hours, if you’re lucky. But then, if a comic makes it, it can be passed around indefinitely, just like a book. I haven’t figured out the alchemy just yet, but I’m working on it.

You’ve also joined the faculty at CCA and taken a comics editing gig at The Rumpus. Why is so much coming together now?

So much of the stuff that’s been happening has been in the works for a while. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of 2012 just waiting for things to happen. It was hard after the excitement of 2011 (when my book came out, I did the Sister Spit tour, for example.). Fourteen years of nothing, and then BANG! 2011! When the craziness died down it wasn’t a relief, it was maddening. I was still pumped up and ready for more. So I made a conscious decision that 2013 would be my year to settle back into my comfort of obscurity. And then all this stuff happened. I guess my lesson learned is that I have to just go with it. But that’s easier said than done, huh?

One of the best things about Kiss & Tell was that it presented fairly raunchy material as comprehensible—desirable—and even “clean” for most ages. By which I mean, you didn’t revel in dirtiness, although you could have. Something about this approach felt decidedly queer. Is that an identity you feel is evident in your work?

I’ve got a raunchy sense of humor, but my making stuff clean is probably more a testament to my shyness about sharing the details of my sex life than anything else. My most explicit comic to date is going to come out this fall in Rob Kirby’s anthology, QU33R. It’s a sixteen-page, full-color story about a threesome I had with two ladies (although really it’s about how emotionally unavailable I was at the time). Even that sex scene is a little tame, I’ve since been told, but showing how it all happened, well … I couldn’t stop blushing, especially when I was water coloring nipples. I wanted to be respectful.

As for my identity, everything I write is dictated by who I am: bisexual, promiscuous-when-single/monogamist-when-coupled, feminist, Asian-American, raunchy, squeamish-about-violence, San Franciscan, pro-choice, Atheist, animal lover—not necessarily in that order. It all goes in there, whether I mean it to or not. That said, relationships and sexuality have been favored subjects of mine. I should probably try to avoid focusing too much on any of those things, though. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as “that raunchy, animal-loving cartoonist,” you know?

You’re in a long-term relationship with a very nice man—Hi Gary!—Does it feel strange to make comics about other sex partners? Do you ever find yourself not wanting to explore something in the immersive narrative that comics creates?

Gary is so cool with that stuff. This is a question I/we hear most at my readings, directed at him: “How do you deal with the content of your wife’s stories?” But the funny thing is, the comics are the whole reason we connected romantically in the first place. We were work pals before that, and when we were catching up over LinkedIn, I sent him links to some of my comics. He later told me that the honesty I exhibited in these stories was what intrigued him, and it went from there.

But I do occasionally worry about making him feel weird in some of the details. Like in that threesome comic with the ladies, I was a little nervous showing it to him. But I do make a conscious decision to not let that affect me. And that nervousness is for nothing, since it never seems to bother him at all.

How is this new project funded? Tell me about your economic stability. Also: what means of support of your work feels the most meaningful to you?

Tapas Media signed me up on a twenty-episode contract, with a payment advance and royalties if their revenue exceeds what they’ve already paid me. They’ve got a good vision for their product. I hope it really takes off.

As for economic stability, I have another career in the writing field that’s flexible enough to let me do what I want most of the time. Lately the comics work has been edging out that other career, though, which is pretty awesome.

But comics are a lot of hard work, whereas my other job was easy money. I literally can’t remember the last day I didn’t work, which has led me to make my new year’s resolution: Take at least one day off per month. Gary is very excited at the prospect, although I must admit it makes me a little nervous. What will I do with my hands if I’m not holding a pen?

My favorite support is when people take the time respond to my comics, either by comments, emails, letters or whatnot. It means so much to me when people go out of their way to do that, as the whole point of this endeavor is to connect with other people.

And of course, when they buy my books and zines, or leave a review on Goodreads or Amazon, I’m over the moon.

Dorothy Gambrell

Dorothy Gambrell
is the creator of the long running and overly educated webcomic “Cat and Girl” that successfully straddles the line between knock-knock joke and philosophical dialogue. Gambrell also produces humorous/sad infographics at Very Small Array, keeps an ongoing document of how she spends other people’s money at Donation Derby and drew another strip (now dead) called “The New Adventures of Death.” One of her bands, The Basement Apartments, has a song about Jacques Cousteau. Another one is called Jenny and the Holzers.  They sound like Barbara and the Krugers. What follows below is a Gmail Chat/interview from February 23rd, 2010.
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Gabrielle Bell [from Punk Planet]

Gabrielle Bell speaks incredibly deliberately. Slowly, pronouncing each word carefully, as if weighing its application to each sentence as she utters it. It’s jarring, but she doesn’t want to miscommunicate, be misunderstood, or lose her audience in a rush, with too complicated a word or image, or by dazzling too fantastically.

It’s the same quality that defines her comics: sweet simple tales of everyday creative urban underclass life populated with tall, deliberate people—self-published for around a decade and now released through Drawn & Quarterly.

Born in London, Bell moved stateside at two and eventually started her career at San Francisco Community College. She taught herself cartooning and started drawing and publishing the well-respected “Book of . . .” series in California before moving to New York in 2003. That year she won an Ignatz for “Most Outstanding Minicomic” for Lucky #3. These first Lucky stories were collected and released in book form by Drawn & Quarterly in 2006, and she’s since contributed to Fantagraphics’ Mome and the Drawn & Quarterly Showcase anthologies, with a driving ambition and to great acclaim. Although, as you will see, to little financial reward.

So it shouldn’t surprise you to know she’s always working. Slowly, deliberately. Because she doesn’t want to confuse you: she wants to inspire you.

Interview by Anne Elizabeth Moore

What’re you working on now?

I’m working on Lucky pamphlet comics, Lucky #2.

Going back to pamphlet comics? How do you feel about that? How does Drawn & Quarterly?

Pretty good, I guess. It’s an experiment at this point. It was definitely my decision. [They’re] not too excited about pamphlet comics, I think, but it’s something that I wanted to do. I think it’s a thing that all cartoonists want to do at some point. The regular series. I don’t know that I have the wherewithal to do a whole graphic novel. I like the idea of piecemeal. Small bites.

But you don’t mind stories being collected into a longer narrative.

No, not at all. That’s the ultimate goal. I just don’t have the attention span. I’m still in my short-story phase. It’s quite a lot of work to write a seven-page story for me now, but I’m still working on it.

Although you have been doing longer and longer stories.

Yeah, I just don’t want to rush it, force it, I guess. Maybe I should force it. I just haven’t had a major incentive to yet.

How long have you been cartooning?

Probably a little more than 10 years. I always put out my own minicomics. And that’s why I wanted to do the series. I wanted to feel like I have a place to publish my stuff as I go along. I mean, it takes such a long time to publish. The whole process is so slow.

Although less so when you publish your own work. Are you going to stop making minis as you do these pamphlet comics?

Yeah. I think so. There is a need to get things out there as soon as possible. Maybe I’m just impatient. I look at some old comics—especially with comics. Everything is so new. We’re still sort of discovering all these things that comics do. Like, I’m looking at all these old Arcade comics I just got for my birthday, and they came out in 1976. It was all this crazy stuff and it was sort of novel just because a comic—these underground comics, with all this sex and drugs, there was political stuff—it was all kind of new and exciting. I still think it’s got this new and exciting thing to it, now. Only with different subject matters. It gets deeper now.

What subject matters do you think are being broached now that weren’t at the time? Because a lot of that underground stuff was like, “Waaaah! Whatever! We can do whatever we want! Let’s write about—sex!”

It just seems more subtle now. There’s an exploration. In a way it’s simply exploring comics as a medium, so it’s more about how can I express the thing in comics, rather than what shall I express in comics. Personally, I’m just trying to get some clarity. I’m just trying to tell a story as clearly as possible. Paring it down.

This may explain why your comics are so personal. They don’t necessarily reveal a ton of journalistic facts about your life, but they’re emotionally revealing. How do you feel about sharing those kinds of things?

I’m not really very excited about sharing those things, actually. It’s kind of painful and embarrassing. But I think that it somehow seems necessary for the story. One thing I remember being particularly embarrassing—my god, all these comics. Every single one of them seems painful and embarrassing.

It seems more naked when it’s autobiographical. For example, I recall being cheap at one point, where I’m stopping at the turnstyle because I have to pay five dollars and I start thinking about all these different [things I can get for five dollars]. It’s embarrassing to even admit that I’m cheap. I want people to think that I don’t care about money. But, doing autobiographical comics, it’s kind of like doing a still life in art class, where you have to draw just exactly what you see. Only it’s more writing. So I’m just trying to write what I see in my immediate experience. And for me to leave out the fact that I’m cheap, it would be lying. Trying to make myself seem cooler. And I don’t want to do that. Because then when people will meet me they will discover how not cool I am.

But people know that self-publishing cartoonists don’t make a ton of money. And in fact, they should know that, because they should be aware of the economic realities of the people who work in this crazy art form that’s becoming so popular.

Well, on one hand that would just be complaining. Or maybe it’s because I’m just entering my 30s, and in my mid-20s it was OK to be poor and cheap. In your 30s, you’re not poor anymore, you’re cheap. [Laughs.]

Unless you don’t have money. In which case you’re poor.

No, I think even when you don’t have money, it’s considered more cheap than poor. Because you’re expected to have it together by the time you’re 30. So you’re either a starving artist, or you can’t get a real job. Basically I don’t really want people to think I’m poor or cheap.

Would it make your life any easier, though, if people thought you were rich and magnanimous?

No, I don’t want them to think that either, because then I will be expected to pay for other people’s drinks and stuff. [Laughs.] I would like to be a neutral party.

It does come back to the question of how you finance your comics. Which, when you’re making minicomics, is money you have to come up with on your own. But now that you’re 30, and have a publisher, how does money play into your life as a cartoonist?

Well, I am still really just scraping by. I make a little from comics and a little from illustration and stuff. But I sort of made this concerted effort not to be a starving artist, and not to be cheap or poor, but to simply be what I am. ¶ I don’t know. I can’t figure out money. At one point I was very,very broke, and all I could think about was money, and I thought money was everything.But now I have just a little money and I feel like the difference between no money and a little money is a big deal because now I sort of see that money isn’t everything.

Has it begun to affect the kinds of stories you can tell?

Yeah, in my next issue of Lucky, it comes up a couple times. I do speak about money a little bit, making minicomics and selling them and being very very economical. When I wrote it I was extremely broke, and I was talking about how . . . well, you know how they say, if you do what you love, eventually the money will come. It’s sort of debunking that whole idea, because actually the opposite is true. If you do something you hate, then the money will come. In my case, doing comics is what I love and doing business is what I hate. Like selling my comics, basically. That’s the unpleasant thing. And that’s where the money comes from.

So are those days over as you work with publishers?

I don’t know if it’s ever resolved. But it’s not as dire as it was when I was writing that comic.

You have discussed in other interviews being a self-taught artist, and learning the craft by reading the work of other cartoonists. But now, people are graduating from colleges with cartooning degrees.

Yeah, my generation of cartoonists—maybe they went to art school, and they graduated with a Liberal Arts degree or something, but they still had to figure out cartooning by themselves. As for cartooning schools, I think that’s great. It seems to me that cartooning is so difficult that whatever help they can get, I would say go for it. I would just love it if I had a teacher that would challenge me and show me lots of shortcuts [Laughs].

What do you do to find those shortcuts now? Do you call up one of your cartooning pals and ask, ‘hey, how do I do this?’

No. I should. I tend to be very separated. Generally I feel like I do everything the hard way and I have to do everything wrong a hundred times before I do something right. I guess it’s a sort of process of elimination. Try this, doesn’t work. Try that, doesn’t work. Eventually you fall on it. But I look in books and I ask people occasionally. But speaking of technique, I don’t think about it too much. I just think about what I’m trying to say in the clearest way I can, I think.

So, in your mind, are you struggling with writing issues?

Well, comics, you’re sort of writing with your drawing . . .

So more of a struggle with narrative issues.

Like if someone’s excited in a book, you could say, “he was very excited,” or you could say, “his eyes lit up.” Or something. But with drawing, it’s not even a writing issue, it’s a drawing collection, and it’s possible to show someone being very excited. So I’ve been thinking about that lately because I always thought of it as a writing issue but now I see that writing is actually drawing most of the time.

I want to ask you a bit about being a female cartoonist: I’ve heard you state before that you wanted to create more women characters.

Well, I have a big theory about that. When I was on my tour I realized something while traveling with [Anders Nilsen and Kevin Huizenga]. And it is the process that the guys go through. Not even just comic-book artists but men in general have told me this, like, ex-boyfriends have told me this. And that is, as a young boy, they would fall in love with comics and fetishize them to an intense degree and copy the drawings and reread and collect the comics and at some point try to draw their own comics, which would be like superhero comics like the ones that they’ve fetishized. Then at some point they would grow out of the comics and discover more mature comics like Eightball or Hate or something. And then they would try to remove themselves entirely from the superhero genre.

I’m sorry, I’m sounding kind of condescending.

No, actually, I don’t know if I agree.

And then there’s this process they go through. They will try to disown it and do these very sensitive comics that will have nothing whatsoever to do with superhero comics, and try to prove that they’re not into that, right? And they’ll do that for many, many years and then one day they’ll look back and remember the love for superhero comics and reexamine it and be secure enough in themselves to embrace it. ¶ I think women do not go through this process. They don’t fetishize comics. I think that this is kind of a touchy subject, but it does seem like women don’t go through that process. It’s more like telling stories and drawing pictures, or something. I hope that’s not too strong of a stereotype.

I feel it’s sort of liberating that I didn’t have to go through that process. I didn’t have to fall in love with superhero comics and then fall out of love with them and then go back and reexamine them.

Did you have things you had to fall in love with and then fall out of love with again?

That’s a good question. There were plenty of people that I always look up to and then become disillusioned by. But then you continue to have a respect for them. Like with superhero comics. You don’t entirely fall out of love with them, you continue to carry a sort respect for them. You might be ironic about it, or make fun of it, but you know that part of you is formed from it and there was a reason you fell in love with it at some point.

Well I ask because it describes a bit of my relationship with early girl autobio comics. Like Julie Doucet, Ellen Forney, all the black and white stuff that was coming out at the time. Any woman making comics about their own lives I was very excited about. And now I feel like, I don’t want to hear about your life.

Yeah, that’s the evolution of comics too. The novelty of things. Shocking things.

You mentioned before about your need to do things wrong a hundred times before you can do them the right way, and I’ve also heard you mention how coming across minicomics was very inspiring, and how you were enchanted by the unprofessional nature of them. In some ways you’re talking about them being accessible objects, objects that show their flaws. Is that decreasing some as more professional publishers get involved in comics?

Hmmm, I think it may be, yeah. I’m not entirely in touch with how things are now. But it seems that people are continuing to publish minicomics a great deal. Maybe because pamphlet comics aren’t being published as much, minicomics are continuing to blossom. They’re still quite a big forum for experimentation . . . although the standards for minicomics seem to be going up. They have to look more screenprinted, or nice. But I think with any art form that looks easy and accessible, it’s inspiring.

Do you want to be inspiring?

Oh, certainly. I don’t know if I ever could succeed, but I really would just like people to feel good about themselves, even if it’s just by making myself look like a fool. I mean, I would just be happy to make people feel better than me.

Is that why you’re doing that series, Be Happy You’re Not Me?

[Laughs.] If Schadenfreude is what they want, I’ll give it to them. I don’t know, it’s easy to say, “I want people to feel good about themselves. I want to inspire.” But I don’t know what my comics really do.

But your drawing style is an attempt to be clear and simplistic.

Yeah, I guess I kind of would like to have a really slick drawing style, too. I’d like it all.

Christa Donner [from Punk Planet]

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.

Julie Doucet [from Punk Planet]

Ask most people to name the greatest working female cartoonist, and they’ll reply, “Julie Doucet.” They’re wrong—Doucet stopped cartooning close to seven years ago—but their hearts are in the right place. Her comics are uniquely expressive, immediately recognizable, and provide instant, easy access to a compelling moment in history. Perhaps unfortunately, the greatest female cartoonist description follows her around US cartooning circles today. Ask most people to name the greatest working cartoonists, and you might hear Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Peter Bagge—men to whom Doucet’s work has often been compared. It is only when you add in the issue of gender that her work receives the recognition it is due.

This is partially because Doucet’s comics, rooted in autobiography, are uniquely feminine—and by that I do not mean frilly, pretty, or giggly. They are dark and rough and bloody. They depict drug use, psychosis, cutting, sex, and even motherhood as visceral, bodily experiences replete with complexities and deep emotional tolls. Also they are hilarious. Created in the unbordered, barely definable milieu of the Riot Girl movement, her 12-issue Dirty Plotte series captured Fuck You, Fuck Me Feminism in a manner only rivaled by the slip-dress/Doc Martens outfit pairing. The wildest and most prescient of these Dirty Plotte strips were always the dream sequences.

In these, Julie-the-character was constantly enacting the fantasies of my generation: to meet Mickey Dolenz and Nick Cave; to have a penis, just for a little while, to see what it was like; to birth a baby that was actually a pet kitty; to experience the life of a shoot-‘em-up cowboy; to masturbate on a space ship; and to be handed someone else’s cut-off penis, just for a little while, to see what that was like. These stories were originally collected into My Most Secret Desire in 1995, and the recent reprinting of this collection, in April of 2006, serves to remind readers how ahead of its time Doucet’s comics were.

Foretelling the recent hot-topic issues of gender dysphoria and cutting, Dirty Plotte—regrettably, the Canadian artist’s only major contribution to the medium—even earned Julie- the-cartoonist a spot in the 1999 Le Tigre song “Hot Topic.” Alongside artists as diverse as Yoko Ono, Faith Ringgold, Gertrude Stein, Carolee Schneeman, Angela Davis, Dorothy Allison, and Joan Jett, Julie Doucet is honored as one of our most beloved cultural revolutionaries, even as the media proclaim the death of feminism. “You’re getting old that’s what they say but / Don’t give a damn I’m listening anyway,” Kathleen Hanna sings, underscoring that, while the days of a comprehensive women’s movement may be past, the vital work of individual women still demands our explicit attention.

It is in this context that Doucet’s comics must be viewed. (And really, they must be viewed.) Sure, the work fits into a feminist movement—quite easily, in fact, even despite her protestation that her aims were never specifically feminist—but it also explores more resounding artistic questions. “How important is physical health to art?” her comics ask, and, “Do successful portrayals of sexuality rely on the gender of either the artist or the main character?”, and “How important is success, if it impedes personal happiness?” Like the questions raised by the work of Gertrude Stein, Angela Davis, and Joan Jett, these are universal concerns, not feminist ones. And so we come to the second reason most people are wrong when they proclaim Julie Doucet the greatest working female cartoonist: because she was simply one of the great cartoonists. No further description necessary.

Yet the reasons Doucet left cartooning are not widely discussed, probably because the isolation she felt in the field, partially due to being a woman in the masculine world of comics, may be a point of shame for other cartoonists. But also, she’s fairly shy, a pretty, quiet-voiced, French Canadian-accented woman not quite as bold as her linework (and with hair not quite as messy). Moreover, she’s left cartooning for the less nerdy and more gender-aware environs of the general art world, and she’s happy there. She’s also successful, in part because her cartooning past gives her current work a strong narrative and autobiographical root people seem drawn to.

Doucet spoke with me over the telephone on the eve of the rerelease of My Most Secret Desire by Drawn & Quarterly, the Montreal-based comics publisher that got its start by putting out Doucet’s work. For the most part, we limited our conversation to comics, which may seem a strange choice since she no longer works in the field. However, she’s profoundly influenced by her experiences with the medium, remains a strong influence in it, and as you will see, still makes a living from it. She just isn’t going to go back. I was honored that she opened up to me about her former work and current passion.

Julie Doucet won’t be lured back into drawing more comics—why would she be? Her recent work is too compelling, and she loves doing it—but those of us who still work in the field can still learn from the experiences she had while she was there.

Interview by Anne Elizabeth Moore

As I was rereading Dirty Plotte the other night, I realized that we had corresponded in the mid-‘90s. I came across a note you’d written in one of my books: “Anne, This is the one I was telling you about. Julie.”

That’s funny. Were you drawing comics or anything like that?

I was not, but I was reading them voraciously: everything by you, Chester Brown, Ellen Forney,

Peter Bagge, Mary Fleener. But you aren’t drawing comics anymore.

No, it’s been almost seven years. Six years and a half.

What was the last comics work you published?

The Madame Paul Affair. That was the last thing I did pretty much. It was running in the newspaper. And the last of it was published in November ‘99, something like that.

Do you miss anything about it, or are you simply glad to be done?

Oh, I’m glad. I’m so glad. I was sick of it, I mean, it took me three years to find a way to get out of it. Because I was making just enough money to be able to live, but not enough to be able to take a break. You know, I spent [exasperated sigh] 12 years drawing comics and only comics, not even a sketchbook. So I’d be working like a dog all the time. And it was just no fun anymore. And the crowd, it started to drain. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Your particular fans, or the readership of comics in general?

Oh, no no. It’s about—it was like an all-boys crowd. Which I was really comfortable with when I started. But then it changed. I guess I changed. You know, all they talk about is comics, comics, comics. And they are not interested much in anything else. Not very open-minded, I feel. I had enough of the comics-nerd attitude.

Hmmm. I’ve experienced that, too.

So I’m not crazy? I don’t think I suffered from sexism, like I never had problems to be published or anything like that. Was I being paid less? Who knows—certainly not by Drawn & Quarterly.

Then how did the all-boys crowd come to affect you?

Most of my problems came from the love relationships, the fact that I was the successful one. Since I was in a men’s world it took me quite a long time to get to talk about that with other women who had the same type of experiences. I can tell you, that really poisoned my life. And in a way that is what I am most resentful of, when I think back, of those comics years.

And what have you been working on since?

I’m mostly writing now. When I quit comics I became a member of a printing studio. My specialty at the university was printing, and then when I quit the university I never ever thought about it again, until now. And so, when I quit comics and I did my first print, I was completely shocked. It felt like, “That’s what I was supposed to do all that time.” So I did Melek, a linocut book, and the Long Time Relationship book. And then I did some screenprinting, objects and books. Mostly variable experiments. Collages. A lot of collages. I write with—I cut out words in magazines and I have been writing small text parts to go under the collage. Then I wrote my autobiography from zero to 15 years old with cut-out words.

Has that been published?

Yes, It’s 208 pages, it’s been published in France. That is a really funny one. The way I did it was, I had a general idea of what I wanted to say, then I’d look around in old magazines for the words that could express what I had in mind. Or segments of sentences. I’d use old French ‘60s magazines, Elle, Paris Match . . . because the typography is more interesting, and the vocabulary more colorful . . . Now I’m writing poetry with cut-out words. Bad love poems. [Both laugh.] Yeah, they are pretty funny. Very cynical, but cynical and funny. All in French . . . I am sorry, French is my first language!

So I’ve been doing a little papier-mache sculpture and woodcuts. So, I’ve been doing quite a lot of things, in the past seven years. There is also the journal project. It comes very close to comics. For one year, I drew/wrote one page per day. Comics people would say, “Oh, this is not comics.” But modern art people would say, “Oh, this is comics.” I didn’t feel I was drawing comics when I did it. Probably because I intended to do something closer to a sketchbook. No penciling, lots of texts, and no narration between the images.

Is this how you are making a living?

Well no. It’s very, very ironic. I’m making more money with comics now than when I was drawing them. Because of the royalties and also from selling comics originals. I’ve been doing some illustration work. Somehow, it’s amazing, but I’m able to make a living out of that.

Well, this doesn’t surprise me terribly much. Your renown as a comics creator is fairly overwhelming. You’ve been compared to Crumb . . .


You sound surprised, but you must have read these reviews, too.

Yes but, it’s always, uh. I dunno. I still can’t believe it. I will never get used to that. The other day I was in a bar with a friend and when we got out, this guy comes out and he wants to talk to me, and he was like, “Are you Julie Doucet?” It turned out he was a guy from Chicago, and he just wanted to say, “I love your work.” That doesn’t happen too often, though.

How does it feel to be placed among the comics greats? You’re obviously still flattered by it.

Uh-hmmm . . . yes, of course, it is very flattering. Especially Crumb, he is such an amazing artist.

Your renown as a feminist in the wider culture, however, is almost stronger than your renown in comics. It sounds like your status as a comics icon still surprises you, but does your status as a feminist icon?

Yeah, in a way that surprises me even more. Because I never intended to create that identity. Like I said, in those days I didn’t hang out with women. I had such a low self-esteem. I thought I was ugly, not feminine enough, that I didn’t fit . . . and saw the other women as competition. That’s why I was more comfortable with being with men only. So I was very far from thinking that any other women could relate to what I was doing! I did whatever came to my mind, I was just being myself. And obviously, I am a feminist. It’s very strange to see what people see in my work.

Do you feel like you were a part of Riot Girl? And what did you think of the Le Tigre song?

At the time I was not very interested in things like that . . . I knew Riot Girl existed, but had no idea what they did exactly. Of course, I did hear the Le Tigre song. Once again very flattered, but that is very, very weird to be in a song of a well-known band. I didn’t buy the CD, I can’t deal with it. I mean, I love it when I hear it, but wouldn’t listen to that at home. Too much.

Has your work has been misinterpreted?

No, no. But I didn’t really mean anything special [by it], like I said. I don’t know. When the work comes out, it’s not my business anymore. I mean, people should . . . everybody should have their own interpretation, their own experience with it.

As you prepared for the rerelease of this book, what struck you about this work now?

Oh, I didn’t know it was out of print. [Drawn & Quarterly] proposed it, thought it could be a nice edition because it was first published 10 years ago, sort of an anniversary . . . It was a popular book. I guess I don’t have a notion of how popular I am.

Do you want to have a notion of how popular you are?

Not really. Well sort of, but I am rather naive about it, I think. That’s what it is. [Laughs.]

What was it about collecting the dream comics that appealed to you originally? I mean, some of them were done 15 or 16 years ago now.

It was not my idea.

It turned out to be an interesting way of compressing some of your most feminist work into one single, dream-like narrative. Throughout Dirty Plotte’s entire 12-issue run, in fact, you addressed issues that have really just come to the fore in recent years. Transgender issues, body image issues, cutting. Can you talk about those some?

Oh. The cutting stuff. Well, very quickly I realized I was not alone. There were quite a lot of people doing that around the same time. I guess it was in my surroundings. I mean, it was strange, but I didn’t make it up.

How closely did your comics mimic your real life, and how much were you exaggerating for the sake of telling a story?

Ah [laughs] . . . it was fairly realistic. Yeah, that was my way of life at the time.

So do you honestly think that your appliances hated you?

Oh . . . well . . .

I mean, they might have . . . like that damn iron.

Oh, I didn’t even have an iron. Maybe it was not that realistic.

The other question that arises when we talk about realism is, was it difficult entering the all-boys’ club of comics while attempting to represent your own sexuality?

I never felt like it was a problem. They all loved it. [They] were uncomfortable with the periods stories, which I thought was funny, silly. But told a lot. At first I could never imagine I would ever be published, so it was not a big issue. It was very much about myself, my own sexuality . . . exploration, acceptance. You know I have my own limits, of what I would never put in my work, I have my taboos. You can say it was also a little therapy for me.

Speaking of exploring yourself, epilepsy was a big issue in your life while you were drawing comics, and a subject for your autobiographical pieces. When did you fi rst realize you had epilepsy?

I had my first seizure when I was about 14. I didn’t realize it because I lost consciousness and when I woke up I was walking on a dirt road with one of my aunts. I didn’t know; she didn’t tell me anything.

Did she know something was going on?

Yeah, of course. But nobody told me anything. So when eventually I went to the doctor’s office with my mom, the doctor told me, “So, you lost consciousness.” And I was, “Whaa?” [Laughs.] My mom said, “Of course you did, Julie.” So that’s how I learned.

That’s a pretty fragile age to be told you have a serious health issue.

Yeah, but at the time they said that I would be taking medication for four years and after that there would be a good chance that it would change back. My reaction was like, “Oh, this makes me special!” My mom cried. I was really shocked, at the same time, but it made me special and I loved that.

But you ended up taking medication for much longer than four years.

Oh yeah, I’m still . . . At this point, I’m 40 years old. It’s going to be for the rest of my life.

And you are back in Montreal now.

Oh, I lived in New York and Seattle and one year back in Montreal, then in Seattle once again. Then I lived in Berlin for two years. Then I came back to Montreal in 1998.

Montreal is probably the only place in the world I could live and be able to live off my comics. `Cause it’s so cheap, compared to the States and also to Europe. And it’s French-speaking here. It’s a very comfortable place. The only thing is that I don’t meet that many people who have this emergency of doing things, who are very passionate about what they do here. Which I miss, but at the same time, it is a very good place to work. I am a member of a printing studio which is very cheap and I would never find that anywhere else.

You’re more comfortable in a French-speaking environment, it sounds like.

I guess so, yeah. I’m also able to buy French books. Very important. And I have friends here I can talk to about literature and exchange books.

And those grants . . .

I got one in 1999. I was able to quit comics when I got this second grant . . .

The first you had used to support your work in comics. What was that like?

[Chortles.] It’s nice . . .

Did you get the check and just laugh for six months until the money was gone?

Oh, you’re not really supposed to do that. The first one I used to get out of Montreal. [Laughs.]

I have this Swedish cartoonist friend, Gunnar Lundkvist, who got a lifetime grant! They had that sort of thing in Sweden. They give you money every year. Can you believe it? It’s crazy. But it was bad for him because he couldn’t work anymore, he lost all his will, couldn’t get himself to sit down and draw. It took years but now he got over it. Yeah, when people are too comfortable, it seems they lose all motivation.

Here in Chicago we tend to have the opposite problem. We work and work and work, and often fail to seek recognition when we should. It’s equally unhealthy, but at least we’re getting stuff done.

Yeah, I couldn’t live without work. That’s one thing. I became so passionate about what I’m doing since I quit drawing comics . . . I didn’t think I had it in me, to be that passionate about—anything.