I am an unabashed and biased fan of comics–the integration of text and imagery connects the whimsy of fantastic worlds, flip reflections and twee confessions to the more transcendental preoccupations available in illuminated manuscripts or, even, Jung’s famous Red Book. Given the deep pockets of Hollywood super hero blockbusters, it’s easy to forget that comics mean much more than our tight-clad, cape and mask “Here I come to save the day.” In the following interview, I had the chance to talk to Chicago-comic artist/writer Sara Drake. We discuss the form of comics, the flexibility their formal structure affords, its relationship to gender and (!) her forthcoming trip to Cambodia. Come November, Drake is going to Phnom Pehn with the help of Arts Network Asia and Anne Elizabeth Moore to teach a 2-month class on self-publishing and comics to young women. Together they will explore and suss out the medium alongside the ethos of self-publishing and dissemination. What does it mean to share one’s own reflections? How or why would this be significant? As the center of this discourse, comics become a cross cultural stimulant, exhibiting once more their hybrid form.
Caroline Picard: In addition to your own work as a visual artist and writer, I know you do a lot of work in the city; you run Ear Eater, a collaborative reading series and have also curated visual exhibits. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your various creative endeavors and how you feel them working together in the routine of your life.
Sara Drake: I come from a specific mid-western DIY mentality, rooted in communal and local sharing of how culture gets produced. Most of what I do is about supporting or interacting within a community of other people which then becomes a lens I use to view most everything that gets created. There’s this great Joan Didion quote that I keep coming back to, “I write to find out what I’m thinking.” I tend to engage in different things all the time and consider a lot of what I do, whether I’m curating an experimental poetry reading in my apartment, making comics, or just hanging out and doodling with friends, as a process of becoming. I don’t particularly want to separate or categorize things, the hybridity, for me, is what’s important. I think the hybridity is what attracted me to comics. No one really knows how to think or agree upon what they are culturally. I find that when people talk about comics, they describe them in terms of other mediums (literature, film, poetry). Comics can do all sorts of weird, crazy things, and they exist on this personal, experiential scale. It allows me to engage with an idea or experience in an array of ways, depending on what I’m interested in investigating.
SD: Well, I would be hesitant to define “comics” as a genre. Comics are a medium, like poetry or literature or painting, a way to express or convey oneself. I’m actually having a hard time answering your question, I’m not exactly sure what “kind” or “genre” of comic it is that I make. I’ve never liked the labels like “graphic novel” or “experimental comic” because the titles don’t really make sense to me. Comics have always been lowbrow, underground, or something that the mainstream world didn’t deem valuable. Right now, so much in comics is changing, and changing very quickly. I am a direct product of that change too, which is both unsettling and curious. Being able to graduate at an art school and say that you’ve made comics is a pretty recent development, and one worth paying attention too. I have to hope that the self-taught-ness that has been so much apart of comics history doesn’t get lost or forgotten in younger generations of cartoonists who encounter the medium for the first time at art school.
SD: Holy moly! There are so many different ways to talk about hybrids when we talk about comics. Perhaps the one that I see as most important is that a comic is time-based. Time can exist logically: from one panel to the next. Time can exist simultaneously and also sequentially: you could depict a single setting that has many actions that happen within that setting, each at different times. Time can hop around at random and sometimes gets lost between panels. As a reader, you can go forwards and backwards. Comics just work on perplexing levels depending on how you want to interact with them. Even the lenses that I use to read comics are always shifting, one day I may pay a lot of attention to the writing of a comic, then the next to the drawing style and how it relates to the mood or tone, and this list could go on and on.
CP: Recently you’ve been part of a project spearheaded by Anne Elizabeth Moore examining the way lady drawers (comics) are under-represented in the comic world. How did you get involved with this project and what has your role been? How does the project shape your expectations/visions for your own work as a lady drawer?
I’ve always been involved a community that has had a vocal sensitivity to issues pertaining to gender and identity. More specifically though, my partner at the time was Anne’s research assistant. Through proximity to Anne’s project, gender discrimination and disparity became a part of my daily conversation and head space. Once you start looking at the rate of women in practically all comics anthologies you can’t really help but keep seeing a problem most everywhere you look. I was then asked to do the cover of the Women’s Comics Anthology, and later helped with Anne’s new Ladydrawers column on Truthout. My involvement thus far has been helping to create media to make the issues more visible. Although the people who should get credit for inspiring my awareness are all of the intelligent and inventive students who have participated in Anne’s class at SAIC or who have collaborated on gathering statics. My involvement with Ladydrawers has definitely opened some uncharted dark waters for me. On a weird personal level, I have a lot of close friends in the comics industry who feel attacked by the argument. This often becomes a heated debate or a bedraggled attempt at discussing the issue. Which, for me, becomes a daily issue of having to think seriously and critically about what is at stake when we ask questions about participation within a given medium. On a different level, the project has enabled me to work with a lot of amazing people, including Anne. I see Anne’s interest in working with young people uncommonly admirable. Her presentation of herself and her ideas are really infectious within the SAIC community and pretty soon, EVERYONE wanted to chat it up about gender and comics during downtime. So the project creates and allows participation within a community, and one that is centered around questioning cultural production at an art school and on a broader scale. Also worth noting, I probably wouldn’t be going to Cambodia to teach comics to ladies if I hadn’t become involved. So, you could say Ladydrawers really stimulates global media creation – I don’t want to think that that is so far off from the truth.
CP: You’re also in the middle of a kickstarter campaign to raise money to go to Cambodia as part of fellowship. Can you talk about what you would do there and how the project came together? What is the Arts Network Asia?
SD: The project, Independent Youth-Driven Cultural Production in Cambodia (IYDCPC), is based on and was founded by Anne’s collaborative independent publishing work in Cambodia. (read all about it in her really amazing and generous book, Cambodian Grrrl: Self-publishing in Phnom Penh, CANTANKTEROUS TITLES.) I first heard about the project through Anne herself. I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and the right place was an art exhibition with her work in it. We bumped into each other, and after chatting for a while she pulled an unassuming business-like card out of her pocket with a website on it. Anne said she could give me a thousand bucks to go to Cambodia. Who in their right mind would pass up an offer like that? Everything about that moment was weird and doesn’t sound like real life. I remember that evening I decided to apply not really thinking that a proposal to teach and make comics would get accepted. Skip ahead five months later and I’ve got a plane ticket and a bunch of bristol board rearing to go teach comics in Southeast Asia.
We are still in the planning phase of what I will actually be able to accomplish while I am there. As of now, I am traveling into Phnom Phen, Cambodia for two months beginning in November. I intend to teach a comics and self-publishing course to young women in conjunction with local collaborators. The goal of the course will be to offer a space in which young women can share their own ideas, and to promote real media creation in a cultural space that has historically denied women the ability to do so. We will also be working towards creating an archive of student work using local resources and available networks. The project will be documented via a comics blog and hopefully a digital archive for future students or just interested Cambodians to have access too. I have aspirations to self-publish or to create some sort of document of the comics I make while I am there to exist in the US.
Arts Network Asia was established by an independent group of artists, cultural workers and arts activists from Asia—I think, originally, Singapore, and come from the theater world. They are a grant-making body that encourages and supports regional artistic collaboration. They’re deeply invested in fostering an engaged cultural community across Asia, and I’m so honored to work with them, since they see local value in what i’m doing in Phnom Penh—which is so much more important than “international” value. Or “cool points.” Anyway, they’re great to work with, very supportive. They just want to make sure Cambodians have access to interesting ideas.
CP: What is it about Cambodia that has inspired this project? Are your interests specific to Phnom Penh?
SD: Phnom Penh is where I have a network of support already in place, due to Anne having already done work and reporting there. To answer the question, I do need to be aware that all of my current knowledge of Phnom Penh (and an entire nation) has been acquired through media and not through direct experience. I will try my best to be honest. And actually, seeking out media and information about Cambodia in the US is really frustrating at times. In one way, it’s important for me to see the disparities between how the US tends to represent Cambodia and my actual experiences of being there.
From my understanding, there is little to no educational structure in Cambodia, so providing a potential structure or a place to view structure becomes, potentially, important. Historically, Cambodia has accidentally forgotten about women’s education. After the Khmer Rouge destroyed Cambodia’s intellectual and cultural life the country has been in the process of rebuilding after it’s tragic past. School’s being rebuilt in the 1990s didn’t necessarily discriminate students on the basis of gender but strict traditional gender roles, lack of female housing options, and economic imperatives made young women’s participation within an educational system really difficult. Comics currently being produced in Cambodia are mostly made and distributed by NGO’s and promote comics as a way to help combat low literacy rates. I’m hoping teaching will encourage real media creation that can exist outside of this system.
I feel really responsible, although I’m not entirely sure I can define what it is that I am responsible for. It’s a really bizarre space to occupy, and I learn to deal with it by being open to being wrong and naive often. The more I seek information about the history of Cambodia, I notice how whack a lot of the media that the Western world has to offer is, and how little I actually know or understand how globalization or a nation in poverty works (or in reality doesn’t). I also, have a difficult time locating myself and my own thoughts on women’s rights within a culture I’ve yet to experience, where the rules are completely different than how I would normally perceive them. I’m really excited and anxious about trying to encourage a bunch of young women to wield a medium of expression, in my case comics, with very little working knowledge about how comics or even self-expression exists for them.