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.
Guest post by A.Martinez
I was introduced to the work of Sara Drake at my first Brain Frame event, March 2012. Brain Frame is an event series that invites comic artists to explore the performative side of their work. That night, Saraâ€™s shadow puppet performance â€œThe Romance of the Tiger Ladyâ€Â Â truly blew me away. I try to avoid using the word ‘magic’ to describe work, but the kind of child-like captivation I felt in response to this piece was both unexpected and incredibly moving.
Bad At Sports last spoke to Sara just before her two-month teaching venture in Cambodia. It was this trip that inspired â€œThe Romance of the Tiger Ladyâ€, and it was also this trip that inspired her (most impressive) self-taught movement towards shadow puppetry. You can find Saraâ€™s work online at http://saradrake.info/;Â Â she is also the Â comics writer for Bad At Sports.
A.Martinez:Â How did you get from making comics into performing shadow puppetry?
Sara Drake:Â Estrangement. I had just returned to the US from Cambodia where I had been teaching comics, and every way I knew how to articulate myself became erroneous. I needed to communicate in a mode which wouldnâ€™t come off as abrasive or didactic within an insular arts community in Chicago. I wasnâ€™t ready to process my experiences abroad with other people yet. It takes me a long time to process anything, including my new found political awareness.
Shadow puppets signaled tedious, meditative sessions alone in the dark and allowed me to find a voice I was aware of in the back of my mind but wasnâ€™t sure how to wield. Â So much of my creative life is prefaced with writing and asserting justification for making things. When Iâ€™m speaking in shadows, I am literally fumbling around in the dark trying to find bits and pieces to a story.
Martinez:Â So to begin talking about your piece, The Romance of the Tiger Lady, I want to start with your trip to Cambodia to teach comics to a group of young women. When were you there and for how long?
Drake:Â I was there for two months in 2011 through an initiative called Independent Youth Driven Media Production in Cambodia. My former teacher, Anne Elizabeth Moore, was looking for creative responses to issues relevant to young women in Phnom Penh. I applied with a gendered comics and self-publishing workshop.
Martinez:Â How did living in a completely different country teaching comics influence your work?
Drake:Â I was there for such a short time! I wouldnâ€™t exactly consider two months â€œlivingâ€ in a foreign country. It did completely shift my life. As for my work I attribute it most to an entangling and dispossession of my morality, which Iâ€™m only just beginning to explore through comics.
I am definitely an advocate for travel if you have the means or opportunity to do so, but hesitant to encourage others to pursue a project like mine. There are unique risks and potentially hidden power structures at play. To walk into a community as an outsider with limited understanding could be devastating, despite how well-intentioned an artist may be.
Martinez:Â Did you watch much shadow puppetry there?
Drake:Â Only as a tourist. Not as someone who has the ability to talk about the medium affluently or with respect to a long, and important cultural tradition.
Martinez:Â Of all the comics you read while you were over there, what made you decide to choose this story to work with?
Drake:Â Thatâ€™s the thing. I did not speak or was literate in Khmer. I had to find comics in the market places and through word of mouth, typically through western expats. Cambodia is still rebuilding from and coming to terms with decades of illegal American bombing, the Khmer Rouge regime, civil war, and persistent corruption. Comics, like all artistic production during the regime, were completely wiped out. The Romance of The Tiger Lady, by Im Sokha, is a horror comics from the 1980s about a were-tiger lady who falls smitten for a hunter. Aside from it being a good story, it was one of the comics that was well liked and looked at often among the women that came to my workshops.
Martinez:Â So, you made a decision to make this into a shadow puppet performance, and then how did you begin this process?
Drake:Â I spend a lot of time writing and collecting fragments of ideas until I internalize and visualize moods and feelings. Then I have to somehow translate them into puppets. I am still a bit mystified as to how that happens.
Martinez:Â The piece is 17 minutes long. About how long did it take you to just cut out all the scenes?
Drake:Â For Tiger Lady, I wasnâ€™t just cutting out the puppets, I was also teaching myself how to make shadow puppets. The show took about three months to physically cut out. A clumsy, one foot after the other sort of business.
Martinez:Â Did you work mostly by yourself?
Drake:Â Yes and no! When Iâ€™m starting to work on a show there is a germination period of a few months, where Iâ€™m working solo on scripting out the story and making all the puppets. Then I get together with a group of puppeteers and a musician to figure out the rest.
Martinez:Â How did you decide to use an overhead projector for your performances?
Drake:Â They are the staple, it seems, for shadow puppet shows. The puppet community in Chicago is incredibly supportive. Julia Miller of Manual Cinema, another shadow puppet group, gave me a lot of pointers in the beginning. Knowing about their work was an invaluable resource in the beginning and their work is mind-blowingly gorgeous.
Martinez:Â Comics are usually a very solitary act, so was it difficult for you to switch to an art that is so collaborative both in its making and its viewing?
Drake:Â I see this logic posed often to cartoonists and frankly, itâ€™s missing the point. Comics are solitary as a process sure! but similar to other art forms, communities have formed up around and about it all over the place. It would seem odd to ask a writer this question. Chicago is not as lonely as my cartoon predecessors would have most believe, yet certainly alienating at times. It bores me when artists use this paradigm as an excuse.
But to answer your question, there was never a time when I havenâ€™t been collaborating. Maybe the result isnâ€™t always a visual one or one whose end goal is something tangibly producible. Â For me, cultural production necessitates community involvement and being exposed to as many voices and encouraging access to as many voices as possible.
Martinez:Â When did PUPhouse form?
Drake:Â During the production of Saltwater Weather. Early on I realized that the project was going to be ambitiously technical and require a deeper commitment from the artists who stepped up to be puppeteers. Each of us had been collaborating in some form or another outside of shadow puppets. The range of mediums each of us is coming from is pretty protean: textiles, animation, comics, music, filmmaking, theater. PUPhouse, or giving our time together a name, became a way to reinforce what we were building together.
Martinez:Â Do you like working with a crew Â of people like that?
Drake:Â As with any group of humans, you can expect drama. I wouldnâ€™t have it any other way.
I mean, I couldnâ€™t have it any other way.
Martinez:Â What’s the strangest or coolest thing that’s happened to you while working together?
Drake:Â Being around other artists is strange and cool in general.
One of the perks of being in an experimental puppet company, is that no matter what event or show you are at, if itâ€™s going badly or is boring, I always have seven weirdos who I adore to hang out with on the sidelines. Eternal friendship lifestyle.
Martinez:Â How often do you meet and rehearse for shows?
Drake:Â When a show is in the works once a week. Sometimes two, three times a week.
It takes longer time than one would think to show someone how to move a small piece of paper from point a to b. . .
Martinez:Â What is the most difficult thing for you about shadow puppetry?
The physical and emotional labor that goes into it. Shadow puppetry may look effortless from the front but there is a flurry of movement, sweat, and awkward body positions happening backstage. It takes an exceptional group of people to be able to maintain strong friendships after tense long hours of being told their fingers need to act more like animals.
Sometimes puppets catch on fire . . . which, is definitely difficult.
Martinez:Â What are you currently working on?
Drake:Â Iâ€™m taking a break from puppets for a moment to make a new comic – but I donâ€™t want to share all my magic tricks just yet. On top of that, Iâ€™m heading out of Chicago for a bit to do an artist residency in Colombia.
Martinez:Â It seems like you like to travel to new places. Do you work while youâ€™re traveling? Or mostly just collect ideas?
Drake:Â I have a long-term, co-dependent relationship with wanderlust. I intentionally do not go to any place wanting to make work about it. Iâ€™ve found that traveling with a purpose in mind, mediates my experiences. It is however, important that all of the materials I work with are portable. This does two things. I like culture that is definitely small – thatâ€™s human sized and encourages people to relate to it. And of course, itâ€™s practical!
Martinez:Â Do you keep/have a collection?
Drake:Â Iâ€™m always leaving places. I do not like/enjoy owning things, maybe thatâ€™s why I work in ephemera and experiences. Although, I am a compulsive autobiographer. I keep a dated record of every book, movie, and art show Iâ€™ve ever read or seen since I was a teenager. I keep meticulous word lists of all sorts of things: new compound words I create, overheard conversations, turns of phrases that sound off, mood words, fragments.
Martinez:Â What is the most distracting thing for you while youâ€™re working?
Drake:Â Exhaustion. Or not feeling lucid and the feedback loop frustration that comes with that.
Martinez:Â Whatâ€™s the biggest revelation youâ€™ve had about the way you work?
Drake:Â The puppeteers always note that I exclaim â€œdo you hate it?â€ when I show new work or scenes to them. I have a parasite known to many as self-depreciation.
Martinez:Â Is there a certain time of day that you feel especially inspired to work, or when ideas come to you?
Drake:Â I do most of my writing and scripting when I am on my bike. Most days this tends to be the only alone time I have. And of course, shadows are more dramatic after dark. . .
Martinez:Â Does your cat hang out with you while you work?
Drake:Â Of course! We have a symbiotic working relationship. I cannot stress enough, how crucial a creative life in the company of other animals is to a human psyche.
Martinez:Â Is there a piece of advice, art related or not that you think of often?
Drake:Â When I was small, my dad always used to say, â€œWhat makes a good animal, a good animal?â€
This was meant to be soothing after some brutal animal world fact on television, a pet death, watching viruses destroy human cells on bring your daughter to work day, etc. It meant, what ensures that animal survives? Is being brutal or dark, something that a human animal might consider bad, a part of what defines that animal? Â â€œWhat makes a good human, good at being human?â€ This is how I move around in the world ad. infinitum.
All photos courtesy of Gillian Fry and Sara Drake.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.
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 Â 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 (!) Â her forthcoming trip to Cambodia.Â 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 Â self-publishing and comics to young women. Â 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? Â 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 Â know you do a lot of work in the city; you run Ear Eater,Â 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:Â 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:Â 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’tÂ get lost or forgotten in younger generations of cartoonists who encounter the medium for the first time at art school.
SD:Â 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:Â 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?Â
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:Â 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?Â
SD:Â 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,Â 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 Asiaâ€”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 Penhâ€”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:Â Phnom Penh is where I have a network of support already in place, due to Anne having already done work and reporting there.Â 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.Â 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.
I received a copy of Arty Party in the mail a few weeks ago. Created by Sara Drake and James Payne the comic came about while taking both an art history and comic class at the same time. As their website notes; “Arty Part started when Sara was having trouble writing one panel gags for her comics class. The easiest answer to this was, of course, to make fun of artists. I posted the initial three we made togetherÂ here. We were tonally and visually inspired byÂ The New Yorker cartoons but also by the over-the-top stupidity of Johnny Ryan’sÂ Angry Youth Comix and Ivan Brunetti’sÂ Haw!. The material came directly from the History of Art 541 course taught by Kris Paulsen that I took last fall. The class was based on David Joselit’s bookÂ American Art Since 1945.” I have seen some of Sara’s other work and enjoyed the quick read. Banalization has a pretty sweet viewer set up for the comic itself, but if you are interested in purchasing a copy either check out the following locations: