In comics in the US, there is a prevailing stigma of creators being misanthropic shut-ins. A stereotype that afflicts not only content but creators’ self-hood alike, and an identity which is defensibly bunk.
I first met Lyra Hill during a class we had together at the School of the Art Institute. Hill is a filmmaker, cartoonist, and the producer behind the experimental comics reading series Brain Frame. Since it’s conception in 2011, Brain Frame has served as a storytelling platform for a mash-up of emerging and more established artists (myself included).
Every other month audiences are invited to a celebration of strangeness and a showcase of eccentric ambition. In it’s many iterations, the event has become a beloved happening among independent artist communities in Chicago. What began as an exploration into what a comics reading could be, has become a site of social engagement within a medium still haunted by rigid versions of its self.
Lyra and I sat down recently to draw upon and reflect on Brain Frame’s final year.
Chicago-based artist and musician, Anya Davidson, has recently debuted her first full-length comic book, School Spirits. Up until now, her modest print editions make her work difficult to come by outside of the defiantly small world of alternative comics. Davidson is probably one of the few artists for which it is appropriate to combine words like brush pen and bad-ass in the same gust. Her stories are often eclectic mash-ups of metal fantasies, female overlords, science fiction, collected vernacular and whatever else gets whirlpooled away into her consciousness. Her newest creation, a high school story that follows the friendship of two teen girls and their fanatical love of a metal band, is a keen understanding of comics as an art form synthesized with Davidson’s own radical tendencies.
She graciously took the time to give me a tour of her studio and working process and shed some light into the zany world(s) of School Spirits.
How do you describe School Spirits to people unfamiliar with your work?
School Spirits is a story about two very unusual girls. Most of the narrative takes place over the course of a single school day. There’s a large supporting cast of characters, some fantasy and some inter-dimensional travel as well
Why did you want to make a high school narrative?
I wanted to examine the friendship between women. I had done a zine called School Spirits years and years ago and it was basically the same idea. The comic was pretty crude. I was still figuring out how to draw and cartoon but the idea was very similar. It just didn’t go away – that desire to explore gender and female friendships. That’s something that has always felt alien to me. In terms of gender, I’m happy to be a woman I just feel like it was really hard for me to relate to other women growing up. I don’t know how I missed a lot of the messages that other girls were getting. I grew up in rural Canada and I was always out riding horses and stuff. Really being confronted with, oh this is the norm, this is how women are supposed to behave. It just didn’t jive with my personal experience. I think the friendships that I had as a kid, really intense friendships with other weird women, were very formative. So I wanted to delve into that.
Do you think of your characters as surrogates for yourself?
In fiction for sure. I’m not interested in making autobiographical work. They definitely are all surrogates for me. When it comes to making characters, part of it is because it’s cathartic and part of it is that I don’t know anyone else. I’m curious to examine all aspects of my personality and delve into them, create nasty characters out of the nasty parts. I heard George Saunders lecture and someone asked him if he wrote the characters of young girls so well in his book, the 10th of December, because he had two young daughters. And he said, “no, that young girl is an aspect of my personality.”
How long did you work on School Spirits?
I have a good friend of mine from high school who always wanted to be a Latin teacher. She’s in a masters program right now to teach, but I watched her get thrown into a couple situations while she was in undergrad. She had a couple teaching jobs that were really really stressful and didn’t feel ready or supported to teach at that moment. So I was thinking about her a lot too when I wrote the teacher characters.
Did she form the basis for the art teacher in the book?
Yea. Loves to teach, loves her subject, and loves her students but doesn’t feel equipped to do the discipline stuff. I really like teenagers. I really care about them. In addition to not ever feeling that comfortable with gender norms, I really don’t feel comfortable with norms in general in terms of how adults are supposed to behave. I feel like our culture is really stifling. I was big into punk and hardcore music as a teenager. I think that that ethos carried over. I do feel that society is fucked and you should do what you love. As tough as teenagers are, it’s sort of socially acceptable for them to manifest dissatisfaction with power and just be a little moody, or on a voyage of self-discovery. But at a point that it’s not socially acceptable to be on a voyage of self-discovery anymore. I think I will be on a voyage of self-discovery until I die.
What were you making as student work at SAIC? There were probably no comics classes when you were there.
I was in the painting department. I’m still a nut for painting. A good painting drives me crazy in a way that nothing else can. I’m a really big fan of painting and painters.
You can totally see that in your line work too.
Yea, it’s really all over the place. It’s really big. I work huge, and I’ve been obsessed with asking other cartoonists how big their originals are.
My boyfriend’s work, Lane Milburn, is real tiny. He’s part of a group of cartoonists originally from Baltimore. They all went to Mica together. They were putting out anthologies as Closed Caption Comics. Then recently, they are all branching out and becoming more independent with the stuff that they are making. He works tiny and he uses a tiny little nib pen. Everything is just so detailed and his pen control is so spectacular. And I’m just like making giant brush marks with a giant brush pen. I really envy people who have that kind of detail. But I don’t think that will ever really work for me.
How big are you working?
The pages from my book were 13×18. I did a zine recently, that was maybe, 15×20. Pretty big!
The narrative of School Spirits is really unstable in an exciting way. While I was reading it, I wasn’t sure when reality was happening or when the reader was in the realm of fantasy. Adolescence comces across as a fantastical space, which, I think it is for a lot of people.
The logic of the book is my own internal logic. The first three chapters are staging for the final chapter. You are meeting the characters and getting to know them. I think of it as one story, but the few short pieces are just build-up.
I was curious to experiment. The one narrative thing that I tried that is unlike the rest of the book, is the 30 page silent battle story. I was really curious to know how people would react to that because I thought, oh this is like playing a guitar solo alone in your room. It sounds cool and interesting to you but if anyone else were listening they would just be like, oh why is this person dicking around. It’s fun while you’re in it but not fun to listen to. I was wondering if that silent part of the story, if I would just lose people.
I wanted to do a piece where Oola and Garf visit the natural history museum and we see the entire creation myth of the peoples that they are coming to see. When you’re in a place like a museum, you can see these totems that are just radiating power and energy and people are just like, where’s the snack bar! I also worked at the planetarium for a while, so I’m pretty fascinated by museum culture or what putting something into a museum does to an object and wanted to examine that. But wasn’t sure if anyone else would have any idea what it was about.
In School Spirits the reader is waiting for a magic love ritual to be performed. But the ritual never happens.
That was something that happened in the original School Spirits zine. I wanted to examine that. It’s a laugh at the characters’ expense. Grover is clearly unavailable to anyone. I wanted to magnify that. To make one character who was not giving off any sexual cues, totally off in their own world and this other character who’s a puppy dog following them around. Grover is really unsexy.
You seem to have two distinctly different ways of approaching comics. You have a crazy, unstructured, stream of consciousness style of setting up a page and a more straight forward linear approach to comics like in School Spirits. I was wondering how you make the decision to set up a story?
For the more experimental stuff, it can take ten pages to tell a few pages of story because it’s more of a stream of consciousness with me working around a theme. For Barbarian Bitch – I love like Kung Fu movies, I love trash cinema and I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of the righteous warrior. Somebody who has carte blanche from above to exterminate their foes in the name of something greater. How does that work? Because they seem so antithetical. I’ve been really fascinated with warrior priests. I’m really obsessed with discipline, what it takes for someone to master a craft. That piece in Kramers 8 was a meditation on that. It was me pulling threads of that all together. Whereas School Spirits is me attempting a storytelling approach. Even if I were to approach School Spirits in that way, it would have been a mediation on female friendship and then I just would have been pulling from my source material different threads but I wouldn’t have been able to have those moments where characters have sustained conversations and I wouldn’t have been able to develop the characters.
I like both of those ways of working, and I still reserve the right to work in both of those ways.
For the CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo) zine, I just googled “The worst experience of my entire life” and it was fascinating and not what you’d expect. It was really weird. One person’s rant about how they slept in a hotel room that was really dirty and they found a crack pipe in the ventilation system. Some angry bitch ranting about how, like a Motel Six or something, how the cleaning staff did a lousy job, and it’s like, really? That’s the worst experience of your entire life? Sleeping in an unclean motel room? There was one that was someone’s middle school experience, but it was really evocatively written. The language was really fascinating. I just like those kinds of sources and pulling them together. For a graphic novel, I don’t think that would really work. But for short story writing I think that’s a fun avenue to explore.
Do you consider art making and discipline going hand in hand?
Absolutely. Creativity is a muscle. Also-cartooning is a craft. You have to be extremely disciplined to hone it.
Have you always been interested in writing dialogue? Your characters come across as very real.
I took some creative writing classes. I’ve never been able to keep a journal but I was always I’m really into listening to people speak and recording conversations.
You’re a collector?
Yea, maybe at the cost of plot. That stuff interests me a lot more. Character development and dialogue more than building the skeleton of a story. What I will do is, I’ll have scenes and scenarios in mind that are unconnected by a story. Then I will weave them together. I will have a character and I’ll know more who they are than exactly what they are supposed to be doing. It grows organically out of knowing I want a scene.
There is a scene in School Spirits where Garf is at her job at a fast food restaurant with her co-worker who is complaining about his toe. He tells a story about how it was injured when he was young. That’s the story that one of my co-workers told me. I thought, this is an incredible story, and I knew I wanted to incorporate it in the book and I knew I wanted to show this character at her after school job, because I had these vivid memories of my after school jobs. How weird they were and what a strange training ground it is for the real world. Your weird mall job that you have when you’re 15. That’s a lot of my process – collecting those moments, paying attention to the way people speak, and listening to other people’s stories.
Are you worried about repeating yourself?
I repeat myself a lot. What I realized about most of the fiction writers that I love, is that they really like to riff on a theme. Sometimes it gets frustrating. John Irving has written the same book like 15 times. I really don’t have the patience for that anymore. There is definitely a danger, but I do think that we live in our own bodies and our own minds.
You’re also a very dedicated screen printer?
I do my screen printing at Spudnik Press. I do a lot of screen printing. That’s my favorite thing to do. It sucks because they are so labor intensive. I can make 50 or 100 if I’m really busting my ass and then they’re gone.I love Spudnik. I was on their board of directors for about four years. Angee Lennard, who runs the shop, was in the same year of college as me. She could charge like two times what she does for studio access, but it’s really part of the mission to make screen-printing accessible to everyone.
You seem really excited about the prospect of teaching.
Yes I am. and I feel like Spudnik gave me the foundation to start doing that. I’m really pro Spudnik. I feel very grateful that I got a lot of the skills that I have. They gave me a lot of opportunities. I thanked them in the book.
In terms of influences, not necessarily limited to comics, who are you looking at?
The old masters. John Stanley, Milt Gross, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood. A ton of E.C war, sci-fi and horror comics. The underground heroes too: Crumb, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, Dori Seyda. Some French Heavy Metal artists: Caza and Philippe Druillet. Gilbert Hernandez. Osamu Tezuka and Jack Kirby. I looooove Carlos Ezquerra’s Judge Dredd. Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.
Is there a soundtrack for School Spirits? What would be on it?
Yeah, it’s pretty much the soundtrack of a gore obsessed kid in the early 90’s. Carcass, Death, Morbid Angel, Cancer, the Misfits.
Where are you going next?
I do know where I’m going. I think it will be based on another zine that I made in my early 20s. I feel like, those ideas are ideas that I have not explored fully. And now that I have more discipline and focus I can flush them into full, bigger stories. I do want to play with color a lot. I’m committed to making the next thing exactly what I want and if someone will publish it that’s great, and if not, I will publish it myself.
PictureBox Inc. 2013
8.5 x 10.75, b&w hardcover
*Many thank yous to Brian Nicholson.
Eightball #18, 1997
Daniel Clowes is one of the artists of his generation associated with bolstering comics’ status into the realm of literary inquiry. While Clowes’s widespread popularity is not necessarily intentional, it does allow me to assert that Clowes had a hand in making it possible for comics to be considered required reading while I was in college (no really, thank you). His work is haunted by teenagers and adults adrift in a lonely American landscape. All of whom are currently on the loose in Clowes’s eclectic, career-spanning retrospective, Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes, exhibiting at the Museum of Contemporary Art. On view is an impressive collection of originals spanning all of Clowes’s publications to-date, including: Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (1993), Ghost World (1997), David Boring (2000), Ice Haven (2005), Wilson (2010), and The Death-Ray (2011).
My initial reaction was not towards Clowes’s work, but rather an irksome canonical attempt. The show is fronted with a wall wide timeline of comics history by cartoonist, Paul Hornschemeier. The assumption being that the MCA’s audience has had little previous exposure to the medium. Even though it’s arguable that Clowes’s imagery is ubiquitously cross-hatched into American pop consciousness. The effect is awkward; awkward like an overbearing posi-parent who is clearly not comfortable with their teenager’s blossoming identity politics, but is supportive nevertheless. While the MCA has hosted comics exhibitions in the past (Chris Ware. 2006, New Chicago Comics. 2011) the timeline epitomizes a friction still present between comics and art institutions’ reluctant willingness to accept them as one of their own.
For viewers with no working knowledge of comics, the timeline is unfortunately ineffective in educating. Hornschemeier scripts a stringent and odd history: foregoing women’s participation in comics, jumping erratically between different nationalities’ connection to the medium, omitting important innovations in print technology, and a puzzling lack of references to Clowes’s influences. Clowes’s retrospective, in part, celebrates the diverse and rambunctious comic centricity of Chicago and the impact of Chicago on Clowes’s work. The city houses a high density of comics creators, enthusiasts, academics, and thinkers – Clowes himself a Chicago native. With so many smart comics folks wandering around you can’t spit without hitting one, I’m left wondering why Hornschemeier was selected for the task of canonization and whether the museum curators sought a second opinion. Thematically, Clowes’s work trends to showcasing his simultaneous self-protecting cynicism and affection of comics’ evolving place within an art context. While the show’s introduction is an embarrassing example of the potential root of Clowes’s uneasiness – it’s certainly not working in his favor.
Comics exhibitions are typically, perhaps even inherently, about process. The work on the walls is unstable and has not yet calcified into it’s final form as a work of art. Clowes’s comics are intentionally built to be read. The focus is on narrative structure and storytelling, as opposed to the flip-side of playing with the visual richness of the medium. Reading desks and large, upholstered nooks with copies of Clowes’s books dapple the space while original pages of his comics span the width of the galleries. The result is claustrophobic in a good way, providing a daunting depiction of the amount of labor involved in comics creation. Clowes’s work is more emblematic of illustration than that of a painter or print maker, albeit his skills as a draftsmen almost render the various changes that occur during printing production invisible: penciling or under drawings are rarely present, Clowes’s adept brush work meticulously cover the initial draft, and the gouache painted covers in the show are breathtaking. The flawlessness of the line work and the confidence embedded in Clowes’s drawings almost seem to undermine the self-doubt and alienation present within his stories.
One way of encountering the show as a whole, is through the logic of Clowes’s Ice Haven, a comic originally published in Eightball #22. The story follows the lives of residents in the small midwestern town of Ice Haven as they slowly become enmeshed in the kidnapping of a boy named David Goldberg. Each character stars as the lead in their very own comic strip. Each stylistically unique, Clowes occasionally appropriating from comic strip classics with nods to Charles Schultz’s, Peanuts and to the Flintstones. The move is a kaleidoscopic one, and serves as a metaphor for the inter-connectivity of the characters’ worlds even if the characters themselves are in a constantly tragic state of misunderstanding. Like Ice Haven (sans the kidnapping), the Daniel Clowes retrospective is an intimate microcosm in which each of Clowes’s character contain some small conflicting slice of his psyche. From beginning to end, his characters even seem to inhabit his own lifeline: from the bummed out art school graduate, to the cliché misanthropic middle-aged man. Whether the conflict lies between Clowes and the art world, his tumultuous love/hate relationship with alienation, or contained complexly between the characters in his comics, each contender stands ready to duke it out all the way to the disturbing and bitter end, yet secretly smitten for the other.
Special thanks as always to comics critic Brian Nicholson for being an all around smart guru.
Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes
Museum of Contemporary Art
220 E. Chicago
$12, Tuesdays free for Illinois residents.
This weekend marks the second annual Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, fondly known to comics creators and fans alike as CAKE. For two days out of the year, artists and publishers from all over the US, Canada and beyond congregate in Chicago to share and shop-talk their work. The result: an overwhelming flurry of comics, prints, self-published ephemera, weirdos and spontaneity. Be sure to stop in for a visit!
Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE)
Saturday and Sunday, June 15 & 16, 2013
11 am – 6pm
Center on Halsted
3656 N Halsted
FREE and open to the public!
Amy Lockhart’s Walk for Walk. Screened today as part of the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation.
Artist and cartoonist, Sarah Glidden was recently chilling out in Chicago after a long stretch of traveling abroad. I was first introduced to her work in 2011 when I was embroiled in a comics based travel project of my own. Since our first exchange, Sarah has been an invaluable resource for helping me think through what comics journalism is and is not. Her shorter works of graphic journalism have been featured on the Cartoon Movement, Ha’aretz, Symbolia Magazine and the Jewish Quarterly — a lot of which can be viewed on her website.
Her newest project, Rolling Blackouts which debuts with Drawn and Quarterly in 2014, is a travelogue documenting Glidden’s trip through Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon with friends from the journalist collective, Common Language Project. The story centers around the relationship between two childhood friends: a marine who fought in the Iraq war and an American journalist staunchly opposed to the war.
I was fortunate enough to ask Sarah a few questions about her work as an artist and journalist before she trekked out of the US again. As always, she assisted in sorting through some of the more confusing aspects of categorizing genres of comics and provided some much needed insight into the subjectivity of journalism.
A peek at Glidden’s newest book, Rolling Blackouts
Do you consider yourself a comics journalist? When did that title seem relevant to the kinds of work you wanted to make?
I don’t really know if that’s a title that applies to me, at least not all the time. I’ve done some work that I do consider journalism, but most of the time the comics I’m working on are better as an essay or a memoir comic. So I consider myself a cartoonist who sometimes works in comics journalism, I suppose.
Lately I’m trying to work on not even considering myself a cartoonist. I feel like it’s a little restrictive to just think of yourself as this one kind of artist. I’ll be less likely to explore other ways of telling a story if I keep walking around thinking “I am a cartoonist.” But it’s hard to break out of thinking that way once you’ve been doing it for a while. Then again, I always had a hard time focusing until I found comics. Maybe I shouldn’t mess with that.
How would you define comics journalism? I ask, because recently there seems to be a lot of differing definitions going around among writers trying to contextualize it as a genre.
In a way, defining comics journalism is fairly easy: it’s any work of journalism that happens to be done in comics form. Defining what journalism is is something which I think is a little more slippery and which people can’t seem to always agree on.
Maybe it’s been a little harder to pinpoint recently, but I think that asking that question–what is journalism?–has always been integral to the process of doing journalism itself. I don’t know how it works in other countries, but in the United States, there’s no governing body that hands down rules which must be followed in order for something to be considered journalism. It’s self-policing, and the standards are kind of agreed upon by publications and/or individual journalists, who then have to make choices in order to make sure their work adheres to that set of standards.
As part of my current project (which is partly about looking into what journalism is) I asked my journalist friend how she would define journalism. She told me that to her, for something to be journalism it has to be accountable, verifiable, transparent and, above all, true. Some of that can be checked easily by an editor: her name is on the byline, which makes her accountable for her writing, and she has the contact information for her subjects so that their statements can be verified. But it is completely up to her honesty as a journalist to be transparent and truthful with her work.
It is easy for journalism to get sloppy and still not be considered “bad journalism.” No one will really know if you fudge it here or there. But it’s up to the journalist to decide how important it is for their work to have integrity. Because that media collective (the Common Language Project) I followed is working in a new kind of journalistic format–one which is independent from one specific publication–they feel that it is very important to hold themselves up to very strict standards. They are newcomers and they know that if they want to be taken seriously, they have to take themselves seriously. I feel the same way with my work. I fret a lot about things that no one will ever notice because I don’t want this work to feel any less like quality journalism just because it is a comic. It can still be considered journalism even if there are subjective elements and things viewers might not be used to seeing in an article or documentary as long as those core principles are there. I like playing with some of those elements, but there is a structure behind it all.
How did your new project, Rolling Blackouts come about? Was the initial idea influenced by the current state and erosion of US international reporting?
The project was something I had been thinking of for a long time. Right around the same time that I started making comics, three good friends of mine started a non-profit multi-media journalism collective called the Common Language Project. They formed in part as a reaction to their own dissatisfaction with that erosion of international reporting you mentioned. There we were in our mid 20s and our country–which has always been very involved in global affairs–was involved in international issues in a more intense and violent way than we had seen during our lives. We were in the middle of two expensive and disastrous wars, a collapsing economy, and a handful of other tense conflicts and relationships with other groups and governments. Instead of expanding coverage of these issues, American journalism seemed to be turning inward. There are a bunch of reasons for this, of course. The business model the news media had been using for almost a century wasn’t working anymore, and it couldn’t adapt. Foreign bureaus and investigative reporting were the first things that newspapers cut to save money. International reporting still exists, it’s just that there is much less of it and there are fewer people doing it.
So these friends of mine were young journalists who wanted to do the kind of reporting that they just weren’t seeing enough of out there. They wanted to look at issues they thought were underreported, and focus more on the kind of storytelling that emphasizes how international politics affect real peoples’ lives, not just the policies themselves. Also, they acknowledged that traditional journalism structures wouldn’t really work for them. They hadn’t gone to Columbia for a masters in journalism and didn’t want to go the traditional route, which is pay your dues at a small local paper at the Metro desk and then work your way up the ladder. The small papers are going extinct anyway, so that option may not even exist anymore. They knew they wouldn’t find a media outlet who would give them the kind of dream assignments that journalists fantasize about, so they ended up doing it on their own. They scraped together the money to finance an 8 month reporting trip to south/central asia and the middle east and kind of just started making the stories they wanted to be making. That ended up working out, and their work started getting picked up by newspapers, NPR, and PBS…they eventually went into a partnership with the University of Washington to teach and to house their offices. It was risky and a lot of hard work, but they made it happen.
I really loved watching all this take place. I had always been interested in journalism and I had even wanted to be a photojournalist years back (but I was too shy to actually approach people with a camera). It was fascinating for me to watch my friends and get all their behind-the-scenes stories on how they did their reporting. I totally admired what they had done and was kind of their number one fan. Early on, I talked to them about making a comic about them. I thought that most of us really take journalism for granted and don’t think much about the people who do this work, so why not make something that would give readers a look at what it means to be a journalist at a time when journalism is changing so rapidly? We agreed that the best way to do this would be if I came with them on one of their international reporting projects. At this point, they were mostly reporting on local issues dealing with immigration, deportation and human rights in the Seattle area, but they still did about one major international reporting trip per year. I was working on my first book already, so we said that when the timing was right and I was finished with that, I’d go out with them wherever it was that they planned on doing their next project.
The day my first book came out in bookstores, I was on a plane with them headed to Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
Rolling Blackouts seems like a transitional point for you as an artist. I feel like you’ve alchemized your initial concerns as a cartoonist into a longer work: journalism, travelogues, realism, interrogating your own american-ness. How is your approach to comics different now than when you started?
I still feel like I’m making this up as I go along. When I started making comics, I made daily journal comics because it seemed like a good way to practice. You experience something, you go home and see what kind of narrative you can extract from that, and then play with different ways of putting that on paper with words and images. The next day you start over again. When I thought I was ready to do a longer work, I was really working in a very similar way. I figured I would go on this trip to Israel, experience several weeks of…something…and then come home and make something out of that. I wasn’t really sure what that would look like, but with a place as loaded with conflict and meaning as Israel, surely there must be something there. And there was, and I did the best I could at creating a story out of that. I really didn’t know what I was doing, I just decided to try and make something that honestly reflected that very personal experience.
It took me about three years to finish making that book; three years of writing about my very confused feelings and emotions and investigating how I think about my relationship to this very complex issue, and wondering if it’s ok to be thinking so much about how I feel about these things at all. Three years of drawing myself freaking out and looking confused. By the end of it, I was happy with how the book came out but I was also really sick of myself and my precious feelings. I’m not sure if making that book is what purged my desire to investigate myself, or if that’s just part of getting older. The result is that I really don’t have any desire to make a book where my character is the center of the story again. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people writing about their feelings and experiences, and in fact I really love reading work like that done by other people. I just don’t personally want to do it again, at least not anytime soon.
For my newer work, I have shifted the focus away from myself as the central character, but I still use some of that same subjective as a way to bridge the distance between the reader and the subject. I think comics work really well at allowing people to have an emotional connection with the people drawn in them. There is something about having my own character as a curious but naive stand-in for the reader that works. So I’m working with that balance.
Your first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less and Rolling Blackouts both form their narratives out of contradiction. In each you pin different subjective descriptions of historical events against one another. The story we are left with as readers is the new one that gets created out of that friction. Can you speak to this process a little bit?
I don’t know if that is a conscious process for me…to me it’s kind of just the way I think about things and how I go about trying to understand an issue. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that for any given situation, there is going to be more than one way that people experience it. To ignore someone’s narrative because it contradicts the one I am used to would be to deny that person’s experience. If you care about understanding human experience on this planet at all, that kind of denial is not really an option.
The comics journalism I have done has been mostly for a Dutch comics journalism website called Cartoon Movement. Their motto is, “There is more than one truth.” When I went to visit their offices in Amsterdam, that was written on a big banner in the main space. At first glance, that might seem like an odd motto for a journalistic publication. Isn’t journalism all about showing the truth? But the real challenge is showing that the Truth isn’t found in a listing of events (elections, attacks, policies), it’s found in the way that those things affect people’s lives. Everything is subjective.
To me, a good work of non-fiction–actually ANY good creative work, no matter what the medium–is something that activates the reader/viewer’s imagination and makes them process it for themselves. They need to be able to have an active experience as well, otherwise the piece will be dead.
Often in your work the lines blur between what’s memoir and what can be considered reporting. How important is using the subjective or first person in your comics? Given the content, it comes across as a particularly vulnerable position to take.
To me, its just an extension of trying to be honest with the work. I like to show that the reporting (or experience-collecting or whatever you want to call it) was done by a person going out and talking to other people. There is, or used to be, this concept of the “objective reporter” who goes out and records the facts. But that’s bullshit. The reporter has to choose who they are going to talk to, and that person has to trust the reporter enough to agree to having that conversation. There are relationships that form, even if they are very brief, which affect what the person might say. When I was on the trip for my first book, I was too frightened to go to a certain place. This meant that that place was not included in the book at all. To me, it was really important that that absence was explained. Yup, I was afraid. People get afraid. And I’m not special in that regard.
The first book needed to be memoir, as subjective as possible, because it was not really about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was about how one person (me, in this case) tries to think about that conflict. Like I said before, this next book won’t be about how I feel about things, but I will still be telling it from my perspective and including my thoughts from time to time. Even though the book is about other people, I want to remind the reader that we are just watching people from the outside, through my eyes. I am the one editing the conversations into a narrative. I’m the one constructing a new reality out of other people’s experience. If I don’t acknowledge that, then I am going to be sending the message that my interpretation of people’s words and action is “objective truth” which would be terrible!
When you are doing interviews with people, is part of that process drawing them too?
I don’t draw people while I’m talking to them because I can’t concentrate on what we’re talking about if I do that. The act of drawing takes up some weird silent space in your head and makes that kind of multi-tasking impossible. This is why I can’t listen to books on tape while I draw! Sometimes I don’t even have time to draw the person, so I’ll just take a photo for reference. But if I can, I like to spend time drawing someone for at least a few minutes. There’s something about being that close to someone, really looking at them, sitting in almost silence, that creates an odd, quick intimacy. When we’re interviewing someone, if we are doing a good job, we are making them feel like they’re being heard. If I am drawing someone, I think they are also feeling seen. If I can, I like to draw someone’s portrait first before talking to them. It’s like an introduction. It’s also a great way to meet people. Sometimes I don’t even keep the drawings, I’ll give them to the person I was talking to.
When I was in my early 20s I thought I wanted to be a photojournalist. I even had an opportunity to travel for a job to Mongolia to take pictures of some artifacts, and I tried to use the time to do some photo reportage on the people we met. But I could never get comfortable with taking pictures of people. If I went out on the street, every time I pointed the camera at someone it felt wrong to me, like I was taking something from them without their permission. Even if I asked for permission with that sort of sign language, it still didn’t feel right. The only portraits I ended up with were from far away with a telephoto lens, portraits of people who never knew I was there.
I would read about how real photojournalists got to know their subjects, sometimes over a long period of time. They worked up a relationship so that the act of taking the photo wasn’t this imbalanced thing. And I think that an experienced photojournalist can do this even in a short span of time. There’s a body language, a communication between them and the people they’re photographing. It just wasn’t something I could do because I was too self conscious. With drawing, I don’t feel like that. It’s slower and there isn’t any piece of equipment between us.
The funny thing is that I’ll be taking pictures of these same people sometimes as photo reference, but since we’ve usually already established some kind of relationship through the drawing (sometimes no more than a tiny sketch), I no longer feel like I’m taking something. It’s part of something we’re doing together instead.
Since drawing is a main component of cartooning, do you find yourself asking visual questions?
Definitely. Although I often have to go back to someone afterwards and ask follow up questions when I realize that I don’t have all the information I need to show something visually. I’ll ask them for photos if they have them. I think as I get more experienced in this kind of work, I’ll be more comprehensive about my visual questions in the first place. When you’re in the moment, you kind of forget about what you need for your final project. It’s hard to find the right timing for that. If someone is telling me a story about how they hid themselves in the wheel well of a truck in order to get smuggled across a border, I can’t really interrupt their story to ask questions like, “How big of a truck was it? Did it have any markings on it?” That stuff has to come later or maybe not at all. But certainly I try to ask questions that are open and encourage people to be descriptive. Interviewing is an art and I’m really just a beginner.
One thing that surprised me while reading your comics, were the sequences of you daydreaming. I’m thinking of your first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less and some of your shorter pieces. How do you see these moments working in your narratives?
I spend a lot of time daydreaming! It’s how I process stuff. And being able to depict that, and to depict thought in general, is why I use comics instead of prose or film or anything else. When we think, we don’t just think in words and we don’t just think in pictures. It’s a mixture of those two over time. Comics are really the perfect medium for showing the experience of thought because you can use all of those elements.
For the first book, there were passages where someone else is telling a story, and I had to decide how to show that. I was wary of just illustrating their story because I thought that would be presuming that my depiction of events was accurate, and of course I had no idea. In these cases I couldn’t follow up with the sorts of visual questions we talked about before. So I decided to use the comic form as a solution: I showed my character listening to the stories and imagining them, visualising them. It’s kind of the same thing as just illustrating the story in the first place, only I’m including this flag that says, “Hey! I’m imagining this!”
While traveling in the middle east, did you get a sense of comics having a presence there?
There is a lot going on in Beirut with comics. I was introduced by some Belgian friends to this group of cartoonists who put out a comics magazine called Samandal, which has some really wonderful work. It’s published in three languages (Arabic, French and English) and often includes artists from outside of Lebanon.
If there’s one thing I love about comics people, it’s that they’re usually very open to meeting other comics people. It was great to show up in Beirut without knowing anyone and being able to email these guys and say, “Hey, my name is Sarah and I’m from the US and I make comics too, want to hang out?” and to be welcomed into that community. Having something in common like making comics kind of erases the feelings of separation that we sometimes put up between ourselves and people in other places.
I didn’t get to meet any Syrian cartoonists when we were in Damascus, but one of the Iraqi refugees we got to know is around my age and is an amazing cartoonist. He was working on a book about his experience in Baghdad before, during, and after the US invasion. He had to leave most of the pages he had already done behind when he and his wife were finally resettled in Canada last year, but he’s working on the project again now and I can’t wait to see how the book comes out.
Where/When can we see new work from you, and what are your future inquiries?