Web Site: http://durgaridesalion.tumblr.com/
Bio: Writer, editor, photographer and sometime cartoonist Julie Davis became addicted to comics and Japanese animation at a young age and hasn't yet grown out of them (and probably never will). Former editor in chief of Animerica, Anime & Manga Monthly, an English-language magazine about Japanese animation, she co-authored the book Anime Classics Zettai! 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces and contributed to The Complete Anime Guide and Manga: The Complete Guide. A native of Michigan, she now lives in San Francisco and teaches classes on comics writing and history at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and creates graphic designs for the Cartoon Art Museum.
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Despite the title, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines is not actually a story about comics. It’s also not about comic creators, although along the way you do get some interesting background Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, that sheds light on the character’s particulars, such as the golden lasso that forces you to tell the truth. (Marston was the inventor of the systolic blood pressure test, an immediate predecessor to the polygraph “lie detector” equipment.)
Instead, Wonder Women is more of an explanation of the icon that the character has become, and the ongoing need for inspiring role models for women and girls.
“I had friends who were Wonder Woman for Halloween year after year because there were so few options for girls as fantasy heroes,” said director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, reminiscing about her childhood in the 1970s.
The opening moments of the documentary promptly justify that this issue is still relevant in a series of on-the-street interviews where, after briefly enthusing about how much they love superheroes, interviewees struggle to come up with the names of any female ones…other than Wonder Woman.
The film is equal parts social document and thought piece, with the evolution of superheroines both placed into historical context and mused over by a variety of interviews, ranging from celebrities to fans. The product of four years of research by producer Kelcey Edwards and director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, Wonder Women‘s mission and method is virtually the same as the character’s—to educate and inspire.
We’re presented with the origin of Wonder Woman, one of the earliest comic book heroines, who appeared during the same month as the Japanese bombing raid on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“At last, in a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men,” as the caption accompanying her appearance describes, “appears a women to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play.”
Visualized by her creator Marston as a balancing force of compassion and (relative) non-violence in the overly macho world of comic books, Wonder Woman brought Amazonian strength and wisdom from a better culture, the aptly named Paradise Island. She didn’t need a male hero to save her; she saved herself. For girls disappointed by passive princesses and fainting damsels, this was a revelation.
From there, the story moves on to how second-wave feminism embraced the character—in a wonderful interview segment, feminist leader and Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem explains the reasoning behind Wonder Woman’s appearance on the cover of the first issue of Ms.—even as the comic books themselves redefined the character’s image in a variety of less empowered forms.
Speaking as someone who grew up during television’s attempts to process feminism’s second wave in the 1970s, Wonder Women‘s interview segments with Lynda Carter, star of the 1975-1979 Wonder Woman TV show; Lindsay Wagner, aka The Bionic Woman; and fans of these and other female-fronted ’70s shows such as Charlie’s Angels were a highlight of the film. It was a true delight to watch grown women describe how they’d eagerly copied the spinning motion that the TV series used to signal the transformation of Wonder Woman from her civilian identity of Diana Prince (an invention of series star Lynda Carter, by the way) in hopes that they, too, would transform…not that I, uh, did anything like that myself. (I did.)
Of course, all of this makes the subsequent decline of the superheroine in later decades that much more distressing. After the gun-toting warrior heroines of the testosterone-fueled ’80s—the Ellen Ripley of Aliens and the whipcord-muscled Sarah Connor of Terminator 2—and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena, Warrior Princess of the ’90s, the film notes how the new norm in fiction has become women who sacrifice themselves for a male hero rather than take the center stage. This leaves the second half of the movie with an undeniable feeling of loss mixed in among the inspiring vignettes—a young immigrant woman who wears Wonder Woman tattoos to remind herself how strong she can be; a Portland, Oregon comic book shop hosts an annual “Wonder Woman” day to benefit anti-domestic violence programs; a program to encourage more young women to become filmmakers. Together, it amounts to a call for women to create and be their own heroes.
The film is not an answer to every woman’s questions: at Wonder Women‘s San Francisco debut on March 19, 2013 at the Main Library’s Koret theater, director Guevara-Flanagan (with baby daughter Zora on her knee) was asked to explain why the movie didn’t feature more women of color, such as Pam Grier or Halle Berry. The director admitted that this was an issue she’d wrestled with, and lamented being unable to arrange an inteview with Nichelle Nicols, the original Uhura on Star Trek. I agree that this is a shame, given how telling it might have been to measure the Star Trek of the ’60s, imagined by Gene Rodenberry as a showcase of racial and gender equality, to its 21st century incarnation, a virtual fairy tale of an untrained white male’s rise to leadership over a far more qualified woman of color. The world that William Moulton Marston proposed, where women could and should hold power over men, has apparently become difficult for modern-day Hollywood to even imagine. (Additional footage covering ’70s exploitation films, as well female villains and heroines in slasher films and martial arts movies, are included as extras on the DVD.)
But not all is dark. We are living in a cultural moment that is struggling to redefine feminism, where a father modifies a video game for his daughter to play a female character to win rather than waiting to be rescued, and where the filmmakers’ followup to Wonder Women is to develop a game called Wonder City, with essentially the same idea—to give young girls inspiring images to play, to want to be. In that sense, it’s young Wonder Woman fan Katie Pineda who speaks most clearly to the point Guevara-Flanagan wants to make in the film, in her homemade costume and piles of comic books.
“If she can do it, I can do it,” Trina Robbins remembered thinking, when she read Wonder Woman as a girl. And so can we.
Wonder Women will be airing on Monday, April 15 as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series. Check your local listings for specific times and visit wonderwomendoc.com for more information or to order a DVD.
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A rainy day in the Presidio is usually something of a disappointment, but it’s an atmosphere that only adds to the experience of viewing the new exhibit at the China Brotsky Gallery, Ways of Water. Hosted by the Thoreau Center for Sustainability, a green-centric nonprofit named after Henry David Thoreau (the 19th century American writer best known for the two-year back-to-nature living experiment that he documented in the book Walden), the small gallery space is devoted to exhibits that “educate, beautify and enrich the daily experience of our tenants, visitors and community.”
Ways of Water features works by four female artists: Helen Lessick, Aline Mare, Carol Newborg and Hagit Cohen. The theme of the exhibition is water and humanity’s impact on this vital resource. A variety of media—photography, sculpture, installations—explore the beauty, power and fragility of water as well as its containers, shapes and effects on other materials.
Getting to see the exhibit can be a little tricky; the gallery occupies a hallway connecting the 1014 and 1016 buildings—lovely old-fashioned white wood structures from the Presidio’s days as a U.S. Army base. Access to the building requires a buzz-in by an employee, so it’s probably worthwhile to call ahead if you plan to visit. The gallery entrance can be found between a small cafe (the Acre) where you can relax and peruse a community bulletin board advertising events, classes, workshops and recycling programs. On the other side of the entrance are a series of wall-mounted placards explaining the history and mission statement of the Thoreau Center for Sustainability. A table set with flowers and postcards marks the gallery, which is through a glass door.
Inside, photographer Aline Mare’s series “By the Waterfront” is positioned first. Consisting of large, dye-infused metal prints and backlit transparencies, Mare uses digital photography fused to metal surfaces to show “weathered objects calcified with the stains of water,” creating montages of textured materials, such as porus rock surfaces, wood, foil, stone or scuffed metal. The metal prints focus on a single, distinctive image, such as steel coils or a spray of vegetation, while the transparencies offer a dreamy montage of pink, aqua blue and teal green.
Visual artist Carol Newborg’s work, “In Formation”, consists of teardrop shapes of paper mache and wax that droop on copper wires near the corridor windows, resembling curtains that frame the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. (The teardrops of rain on the windowpane lent the installation a sort of mirrored image.) “Traces”, on the opposite wall, repeated the teardrop shape with cotton and wire ovals placed in a rainfall pattern.
Hagit Cohen describes her “Acid Rain” series as “a prayer for the declining creeks of the Bay Area,” capturing the transient beauty of flowers floating in water as the blooms drifted past her camera. Her prints are stunning with bright blooms standing out sharply against dark flowing water; the blur of motion adds a dreamlike touch to the images, emphasized by streaks of stray color.
Artist Helen Lessick’s work is at the end of the exhibit, including her “Becoming” (an installation from 2011 that incorporates dangling buckets and a shower curtain), some photographs and a few sculptural pieces created from repurposed objects (a kitchen mixer, a glass urinal filled with water).
In the context of an open hallway, as opposed to a more formal gallery space, these items had a rather puzzling effect as the closing pieces of the exhibit. I was left with more questions about the intent of the art rather than the previous photographic and sculptural ponderings on the nature of water. Did the blue tape circles below the buckets represent the sea, or leaky pails? Was I supposed to want to peek into the buckets to see what was in there? (I didn’t, until the informational placard tipped me off that I was indeed meant to.) Was the beaded curtain meant to be pooling on the floor, or was the ceiling simply too low for the curtain to clear the floor? I’m still not sure.
However, at the end of the day, I had seen some beautiful images, discovered a part of the Presidio I had never seen and had new artistic questions to ponder—not bad for a rainy afternoon. At minimum, Ways of Water makes for a pleasant and thought-provoking way to spend a less-than-sunny day by the Bay.
The Thoreau Center for Sustainability is open Monday through Friday, 9am – 5pm, at Presidio Building #1014 (Lincoln Blvd. & Torney Ave.) in the Presidio. Call (415) 561-6300 for more information, or visit www.thoreau.org.
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Laydeez do Comics is like a combination between a book club and a series of TED talks. During meetings held after hours at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, the group gathers in a gallery to enjoy tea and cookies while being introduced to female comic artists and their works.
Originally a UK-based group, Laydeez do Comics was started in 2009 by illustrator and author Nicola Streeten and artist and curator Sarah Lightman. Streeten is the creator of the award-winning graphic novel, Billy, Me & You, about the devastating experience of suddenly losing her two-year-old son in a medical crisis. Lightman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Glasgow for her research on autobiographical comics, co-curated an exhibit of women comic artists called Graphic Details: Confessional Comics of Jewish Women, which was exhibited at the Cartoon Art Museum in 2011. Laydeez do Comics grew out of their interest in discussing, sharing and spreading awareness about comics with real-world dramas instead of superhero stories, all written by female comic artists like themselves.
“There is a new wave of comic work that is more domestic/active/political/diverse than superheroes,” the Laydeez do Comics website says, “and Laydeez do Comics provides a place for conversation around this new genre.”
From that initial start, the Laydeez do Comics group has become something of a franchise, with chapters now operating in three UK locations (London, Brighton and Leeds) and two in the U.S. (Chicago and San Francisco). The San Francisco branch of the group was launched by the efforts of comic artist, installation artist and children’s book illustrator Maureen Burdock, who was introduced to Laydeez do Comics through Lightman. In the fall of 2009, Lightman wrote a review for the International Journal of Comic Book Art of an exhibition at the Center for Book Arts in New York that included work by female comic artists Blanka Amezkua, Dara Birnbaum, Julie Doucet, Ali Fitzgerald, Chitra Ganesh, Aimee Lee, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Trina Robbins, Colleen Rudolf, Anne Timmons, and Burdock.
“The exhibition was curated by Erin Riley Lopez,” Burdock said. “Its title was There Goes My Hero, and it featured works by women cartoonists who use comics as a medium for social commentary…Sarah Lightman interviewed me and we thus struck up a dialogue.”
From this meeting, Burdock was invited to speak at the 2010 Thought Bubble Conference/Laydeez do Comics in Leeds, UK, where she met Streeten. In the following year, when Burdock moved to San Francisco to work on her MFA and MA degrees at the California College of the Arts, she also set to work creating the first Laydeez Do Comics international chapter.
New to the city, and needing a reliable venue for the group, she got in touch with San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum through its bookstore manager, Heather Plunkett.
“I’d met Heather Plunkett at APE [Alternative Press Expo] a couple of years before,” Burdock said. “It seemed like a natural thing to start the first US chapter of the UK comics forum here; one could arguably call SF the birthplace of underground comics and of much art dealing with social issues, feminism, and the like.”
Plunkett, whose willingness to host the event after work hours made the group’s meeting place possible, grew up in Northwest Arkansas and become interested in comics as a child. “Disney and Harvey comics,” she remembered, and then Marvel and DC when she got older. She lost interest for a time, only to rediscover comics later with Alan Moore’s and David Gibbons’ landmark mini-series, Watchmen. Since then, “comics have been a part of my life,” she said. The manager’s position at the Cartoon Art Museum’s bookstore fed her addiction even more.
“I had just ended a partnership in an independent bookstore,” Plunkett said, “and so had just learned a lot about opening a store. It was kind of a gift from the universe. I asked for several different kinds of work opportunities and got them all!”
Trina Robbins, one of the founding members of Wimmen’s Comix and author of several books on comics history, helped with the launch by giving a presentation about the history of women cartoonists.
“Trina has been enormously supportive,” Burdock said.
These days, meetings are casual; attendees come together on an assortment of folding chairs and are introduced to the presenting artists, followed by a slideshow of their work and commentary.
“We are all about getting the word out about female cartoonists / comic artists,” Plunkett said.
The work shown ranges from comics veterans, like Burdock and Robbins, to art students trying to find their artistic voices. As expected, much of the work has a feminist edge, and discussions about female heroes and gender identities are popular subjects at the presentations, although the group is open to whoever wants to show up.”The forum seeks to specifically even out the gender bias favoring men/male perspective in mainstream comics,” Burdock said. “So we weigh our events towards non-males (including trans- and inter-sexuals). Men, of course, are also welcome to attend and present their work. It’s a forum for cartoonists whose work is outside of the ‘mainstream.’ This includes works that are autobiographical, political or subversive in some way.”
Learn more about Laydeez do Comics San Francisco on their Facebook page or website at laydeezdocomics.com. To get involved, email Maureen Burdock (email@example.com) or Heather Plunkett (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Photos courtesy of Julie Davis, Heather Plunkett and Kim Alix.
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The Gallery Wendi Norris exhibit, Dorothea Tanning: Unknown but Knowable States, focuses on paintings, drawings and sculptures created between 1960 and 1979 by celebrated artist Dorothea Tanning. This is barely a glimpse of the full output of an amazingly prolific creator, whose career began with commercial illustration in the 1930s and eventually encompassed Surrealist paintings, stage sets for the Ballanchine ballet, abstract artworks, fabric sculptures and finally novels and poetry, until her death (barely a year ago) at age 101.
That said, the constrained timeframe of Dorothea Tanning: Unknown by Knowable States is clearly a deliberate choice, as the 30 selections presented offer a view of the artist at her most individual and personal, and are (perhaps) least likely to provoke comparisons to the artworks of her husband for 30 years, Max Ernst.
Within those boundaries, Tanning’s work can be judged for itself, rather than as part of art history, or an outgrowth of her personal life. The flip side of this, of course, is that if you go to the gallery knowing little about Tanning, you won’t necessarily leave knowing much more. (For a deeper examination of the pieces on display, an 80-page catalog, featuring an essay by Catriona McAra, is available for purchase at the gallery.)
Unlike her earlier Surrealist work, Tanning’s figures from this period are shadowed, morphed — frequently hazy as if underwater or blurred by smoke, wavy as though disrupted by some interfering signal. Fairytale narratives seem to hover just out of sight. The colors range from bright to muted: some works featured cobalt blues, vivid greens, dabs of yellow and red, while others revel in pearlescent, flesh-toned pinks and peaches.
Nudes are a popular choice for subject, but the effect is less erotic than simply organic. In “Portrait de Famille” (Family Portrait, 1977), golden skin fades into dark shadows that flatten and merge with each other, creating a literal family unit. Faces are rarely shown: “Pour Gustave l’adoré” (1974) shows a lower half of a woman’s body in turquoise and sea green, her head again vanishing into darkness, one foot is speckled with color like a gilded Klimt.
“Chiens de Cythère” (Dogs of Cythera, 1963), the largest painting on display, does show faces, but they are the upturned mugs of dogs, puglike creatures with expressions that make them look more like Chinese lions. These dogs blend with the knotted, fleshy, humanlike figures that Tanning favors, in shades of pearl and beige: a blend of human and animal that evokes legends and myths.
A more recognizably figurative piece is “Notes for an Apocalypse” (1978). A female figure does a backbend between two indistinct shapes — a dwarf, maybe, and a mythic giant, whose gnarled foot stretches into the foreground. The woman grasps at what appears to be a glowing orb, her head hidden by billowing sheet or tablecloth in the process of being pulled away from the dining room table. As a vision of an Apocalypse, the piece invites questions about the meeting place between domesticity and legend…Or perhaps a strange game of after-dinner Twister.
In other pieces, Tanning is even more playful with conflicting images and emotions. “Still in the Studio” (1979) shows a naked, redheaded female form splayed across a drawing table with paints dotted across her chest. A creeping brown fuzz crawls up the window frame to a surprisingly mundane Parisian street view. “Étreinte” (1969), from the collection of the Centre George Pompidou in Paris where it was originally exhibited, is a flannel and fur sculpture resembling nothing so much as two Muppets wrestling, each losing its head, so to speak, within the other.
But perhaps the image with the greatest graphic impact is “Birthday 1976”. Drawn in black felt tip marker on white mat board, it has the languid, dark imagery of an Edward Gorey cartoon, sketching out a female figure — presumbly a self-portrait — lying on what would appear to be freshly tilled flower beds, or possibly graves. (Tanning’s L.A. Times obituary credits another work titled “Birthday” — a self-portrait from 1942 — with connecting her to her future husband Max Ernst, who died in 1976: “Ernst was entranced by Tanning’s unfinished self-portrait — later dubbed “Birthday” — and equally taken with the beautiful artist.”)
Given the time period in which these works were originally created, some of the pieces cannot help but appear dated. There are the autumnal color palettes of the 1970s: an abundance of harvest golds, browns and beiges. There are abstract painterly shapes that invite contemplation like a scene from Annie Hall; and images that would look perfectly at home beside a 1970s chrome orb lamp and a hi-fi stereo turntable. But this isn’t so much a problem as the beginning of an interesting question about our own postmodern era, and what exactly has changed about art from that time to this. Tanning’s works beg the viewer to try to “get it,” whatever “it” might be — a mythical reference, an emotion or a commentary on relationships. Tanning’s work is personal — not only for the artist herself, but for each and every viewer — finding meaning in the tensions she creates and the suggestive narratives of figures that almost, but not quite, come into focus.
Dorothea Tanning: Unknown by Knowable States is on display at the Gallery Wendi Norris until March 2, 2013. For more information, visit gallerywendinorris.com.
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A collection of in-depth interviews, Women of the Underground: Art takes an inside look at the work of 24 female artists who are “cultural architects, influencing generations with art that is innovative, pushes boundaries, and dares to question, investigate and redefine society in the spirit of the underground.”
Perhaps because of these general parameters, Women of the Underground: Art presents an eclectic assortment of artistic disciplines. Far from ordinary, these artists sculpt with bones and create art out of living cells and their own bodies. They dance in the emotional rawness of Butoh and create miniature worlds in boxed dioramas, detailed drawings or stop-motion animation.
The interviews are presented in no particular order or timeline; the overall effect is a loose accumulation of history, from subway graffiti before the dawn of hip-hop and the punk scene at its height, to the Warhol factory, the Fluxus art movement and the International Mail Art Network.
Some of the women are international stars: Italian actor and writer Daria Nicolodi, who turned a grandmother’s bedtime stories into the horror film classic Suspiria; French photographer Irina Ionesco, who worked with Givenchy, creating fashion spreads for Vogue and whose photography plays on the dark symbolism and mythology of the female form; and Greek painter Litsa Spathi, co-founder of the Fluxus Heidelberg Center.
Up-and-coming artists are represented as well, such as San Francisco’s EXIT Theater founder Christina Augello, kitsch-pop painter Lisa Petrucci and animator Christina Cegavske. There is a lovely sense of greatness to all this: a community of artistic women living out their dreams to the fullest potential.
The interviewer and editor of the book, Zora von Burden, is author of a similar book on female musicians, Women of the Underground: Music. von Burden clearly knows what to ask to get good results from her subjects; the book is ripe with wonderful quotes, insights and memories. For example, performance artist Johanna Went remembers being told she couldn’t perform at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles: “the person from the effects company who hired me told me they thought I would destroy something.” Collage and installation artist Barbara Kruger, whose mock-propaganda billboards and mainstream magazine work reaches a large audience, comments that she finds the word subversive “incredibly romantic” and not really descriptive of the work that she does. “To me, subversion is, ‘Oh, I’m getting away with something.’ It’s really possible to make important changes and to do important, powerful work and not to have to think that you’re a subversive.”
That said, von Burden doesn’t supply a great deal of context or editorial commentary, something that might have benefited the collection. For an artist such as Orlan, the French performer whose body art involves live plastic surgery transmitted by satellite to galleries in multiple cities, discussing the art itself feels like only half of a fascinating story; as a reader I wanted more (for example, how did Orlan ever manage to arrange all of this?). However, some of the works presented here would require full-length books of their own to be fully explored or explained.
Interviews vary from fewer than five pages to more than ten, each including a straightforward, informative introduction and a single photograph of either the artist or a representive work: a frustratingly spartan presentation for a collection of visual artists. Then again, would visual representations of each artist’s work only distract from the artists’ words? Would occasional editorial notes (such as mentioning that Daria Nicolodi’s Suspiria was the last film to be shot using the three-strip Technicolor film process) have been more intrusive than helpful? Perhaps performance artist Michelle Handleman has it right when she points out, “Silence can be as painful as the roar because it forces you to confront yourself, your own inner void.”
Given the book’s premise, it may or may not be ironic that very little connects these women other than their gender. Some artists even contradict the idea that gender has anything to do with their work. “I always refuse this approach of males versus females in art,” says performance artist Marina Abramovic. “You know, the art has to be one when dealing with important issues. Pain, suffering, dying, sexuality, life, all issues have been addressed by male and female artists since the beginning of humanity. It’s nothing new.”
Others recognize that their gender is a key element to their success and/or message. “Things are better in the art world than they ever have been for women and artists of color,” says a representative for the activist group The Guerilla Girls, “and we have helped that change but there’s still a long way to go. We are still condemning the artwork for its lack of ethics and tokenism.”
Although the range of commentary and experience on display here is incredibly rich, the two longest interviews are easily the most memorable. Lady Pink’s description of the graffiti scene in 1970s New York reads like a scene in a film: “You could stay all night or do something in five or ten minutes. Way back when we did subway trains, you had to go with people who knew where to go, how to get in, the times and schedules. You sent out a scout, you snuck in shadows, hopefully without making noise. Most all the subway cars were already covered by graffiti. You had to pick and choose where you could paint, who you can go over, and you did your thing…and you got into these places in all kinds of ways: climbing walls and fences, running through tunnels, playing with live trains.”
Penny Arcade’s impressions of the Warhol factory artists and scene are just as distinct. “Andy was not a director,” she says of Warhol. “He was not creating or defining the women he put on film. He just used them as he found them, usually like an arrow pointing to the main character who was the focal point in the scene. There was also a great sense that he didn’t care what happened to them, that they were not real to him. With the exception of Brigid Berlin, the lunatic genius; Nico, the ice goddess; and Mary Woronov, the Amazon warrioress, they were all interchangeable.”
If there’s one thing that this collection makes clear, it’s that “interchangeable” is not a word that can be applied to any of these artists. Women of the Underground: Art is an inspired addition to any art historian’s bookshelf and an intriguing snapshot of contemporary female artists.
Get a copy of Women of the Underground: Art from Manic D Press at www.manicdpress.com.
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At a book signing event held at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, cartoonist Ellen Forney began with a reading from her book, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, describing her experience with bipolar disorder.
In the first chapter, Forney talks about getting a tattoo on her back, using vivid, sensory language.
“I was walking on red hot coals,” Forney said. “I was being transformed…Everything was magical and intense, bursting with universal truth.”
Set against this vivid backdrop, Forney’s narrative in the following chapter — describing her experience being diagnosed with bipolar disorder — seemed that much more bleak.
“My own brilliant and unique personality was neatly outlined in that inanimate stack of paper,” Forney said. “This sank in like the sun had gone behind the clouds.”
Already a well-known cartoonist from her work in the Seattle alterative weekly, The Stranger, and her autobiographical comic, I was 7 in 75, Forney takes her career as an artist to a new level with Marbles, a memoir in graphic novel form. The terror following this revelation — that her personality was not unique at all, but merely a collection of symptoms — is at the heart of Forney’s story, comparing her fear of taking meds to a fear of blindness. After all, art was her vision; if medication left her without it, Forney asks, who would she be?
Although Forney is hardly the first artist to write about depression, her ability to take a deeper look at the “crazy artist” is what makes Marbles unique. Her book goes on to explore the histories of well-known “crazy artists” such as Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe. Do mental disorders produce better art? Are creativity and craziness linked? These are questions that Forney poses both to herself and her readers.
Forney is also a master at interweaving poetic language with data and creating raw images that bring her emotional highs and lows to visual life. Mixed in with autobiographical accounts of her own treatment, she ponders the connection between mental disorders and creativity, including scientific studies and excerpts from Edvard Munch’s description of the The Scream and Sylvia Plath’s poetic references to electroshock therapy in The Bell Jar.
As a comics artist, Forney is uniquely well-equipped to explore the connection between creativity and mental crisis. Using a simplified drawing of herself as an avatar (a similar technique used by comics historian Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics), she easily alternates between speaking directly to readers and positioning them as voyeurs, having them sit in on her psychiatrist’s sessions, watch her cry into the mirror or spin her mental wheels with one failed drug combination after another.
When Forney talks about community in Marbles, a “Club van Gogh” of other artists who have felt pain similar to her own, it’s hard not to think of cartoonist Allie Brosh and other artists, still struggling to cope. Brosh, author of the popular webcomic, Hyperbole and a Half, also wrote about her personal struggles with depression in a strip called “Adventures in Depression” in October 2011. The strip described her own listlessness and self-recrimination during a depressive episode. Brosh’s strip has been on hiatus ever since, a situation that’s been treated as news itself by concerned fans, who’ve publicly worried about her welfare on Reddit and The Daily Dot.
During the Cartoon Art Museum’s Q&A session, Forney explained that one of her motivations for Marbles was to create “art to reach back to my younger self.” At the end of the book, Forney once again meets with her therapist — a recurring image throughout Marbles — showing the connection between herself now and the way she was at the beginning of the book. However, Forney’s true genius lies in her ability to connect with others, the inner workings of her readers and fans, through her personal trials and tribulations.
“Believe me, younger self,” Forney says, “everything will work out.”
See more of Ellen Forney’s work at ellenforney.com.
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To read the story behind the groundbreaking comics anthology Wimmen’s Comix is to be reminded of feminism’s past, and how much has (or in some cases, hasn’t) changed. In the early 1970s, while Zap and Weirdo kept on truckin’ with their counterculture stories about drugs, violence and the sexual revolution, female artists were feeling shut out. Even in the progressive circle of underground comics, publishers weren’t terribly interested in women’s side of the story. A group of female cartoonists, all San Francisco Bay Area locals, finally changed that equation for good.
It wasn’t the first comic book produced entirely by women — that would have been the 1970 publication, It Ain’t Me, Babe by Trina Robbins, also one of Wimmen’s Comix‘s founding mothers — but it made a difference by making the encouragement and publication of new female artists part of its mission statement. The editors rotated, so no one person would be able to impose a house style, and approximately half of every issue was kept open to new contributors.
The artists featured in the first issue were Patricia Moodian, who drew the cover and also edited the issue, Aline Kominsky, Lee Marrs, Diane Noomin, Michelle Brand, Lora Fountain, Shelby Sampson, Trina Robbins and Janet Wolfe Stanley. These and future contributors to the magazine are like a Who’s Who of women in comics: Roberta Gregory, Dori Seda, Mary Fleener, Carol Lay, Phoebe Gloeckner and Melinda Gebbe are just a few of the over 100 contributors that eventually filled the anthology’s pages. The collective published 18 issues between 1972 and 1992 through a series of publishers before splitting ranks to work on other projects.
With Wimmen’s Comix celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the San Francisco Public Library mounted a modest exhibition of original artwork from throughout the anthology’s run, as well as an opening reception featuring several of the magazine’s founders on Saturday November 10.
The pieces on display range from Lara Fountain’s 1973 strip “Movin’ to the Country” from Issue #2 to Nancy Husari’s “Gyno Cops,” published in Issue #17 in 1992. The content of most of the strips involves women’s daily lives, from romantic troubles —Roberta Gregory’s “Guaranteed Get-Over-It Kit” (Issue #14) proposes a service for women suffering from bad breakups that includes appropriate amounts of comfort food and the support of sympathetic women who will remind you that he was a loser anyway — to domestic problems of laundry management (“Sock Song” by Shelley Sampson, from Issue #5, 1975) and relationships (“People With Whom it is Well Worthwhile Cultivating a Warm, Personal Relationship” by Sharon Rudahl, also Issue #14).
The lives of famous female historical figures are featured as well, from the first woman to run for president (“Victoria the Woodhull” by Michelle Brand and Mary Skrenes, Issue #6, 1975) to Barbie (“Barbie at 30” by Katherine Lemieux, Issue #14, 1989). The 4-page story “Moonshine Mama” by Lee Marrs (1976) is a particular standout, comparing the lives of a backwoods, moonshine-brewing grandmother with her modern urban grandchild; both generations pity each other’s hard life and congratulate themselves on having a more enlightened view of existence.
While the original artwork on display is well worth seeing, the space offered by the venue, the San Francisco Library’s Main building, is something of a mixed blessing. The exhibit occupies the sparse wall space flanking the 4th floor elevator lobby, and continues through a series of display cases and narrow support columns between worktables and book stacks. However, the artworks are well promoted by large banners and a standing lighted sign that confronts all new arrivals exiting from the elevators, as well as helpful placards smoothly guiding viewers from one piece to the next.
Although it’s nice to dream of this exhibit occupying a larger, more formal gallery space, perhaps having the voices of these artists jostling for attention among the ordinary citizens using the library is more appropriate to the original intent of Wimmen’s Comix. If these women’s works reach an audience who would never have seen or heard of them otherwise, then that keeps with the progressive spirit behind these comics’ creations. A lot has changed for comics in 40 years, mostly thanks to these particular women and their willingness to assert that their own ideas and inner lives were as worthy of artistic exploration as the issues being raised by men. And that’s something worth looking back on, and celebrating.
The 40th Anniversary of Wimmen’s Comix is on display until February 7, 2013 at the Art, Music and Recreation Center of the San Francisco Main Library, 4th Floor, 100 Larkin (at Grove). The library is also looking to complete its collection of the magazine’s run; if you have issues to donate, contact the San Francisco Library at sfpl.org for more information.
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“I tend to just draw on what I like or what inspires me,” illustrator Jen Oaks said, “which sometimes fits in to what is popular at the moment.”
That moment would definitely seem to be now. Oaks’ work falls smack dab in the center of several hot trends in graphic arts, from the prevailing preference for simple illustrations with a hand-drawn style to ’90s pop culture references such as Twin Peaks and the Bee-Girl from Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video. Crafts and handmade design is another area where Oaks was ahead of the curve; she’s had her own Etsy store since 2006. Her most well-known works are probably her calendars featuring curvy pinups drawn in a retro-vintage style.
“I get annoyed when people say ‘now these are real women!'” Oaks told interviewer Laura Beck in 2011 for an SF Weekly blog post about the calendars, “because, jeez, we are all real women. It’s easy for some folks to get political about a fat girl calendar, but that was honestly not my intent. I just wanted to create something hot and cute with women who are shaped like me, and I didn’t see a whole lot of offerings in this genre.”
A lifelong artist, Oaks remembers one of her earliest artistic endeavors at the age of four. “I drew a lace-edged valentine that got my teacher and parents all excited,” Oaks said. “I remember drawing scenes from Disney movies as a kid, and lots of horses/unicorns of course!”
In middle school, she’d moved up to making fashion drawings and comics about her friends and classes. “By high school I was making lots of moody art about boys and Kurt Cobain and the Beatles,” she said, laughing.
She started an education in art, studying advertising and graphic design, and then abandoned art for nearly six years before deciding to return to her first love, illustration. She and her husband moved from Oklahoma City to San Francisco so that Oaks could attend graduate school at the Academy of Art University.
Art Animal was pleased to be able to speak with Oaks about her influences, style and Etsy.
Art Animal: Your art seems very influenced by retro imagery: ’70s turntables, vintage children’s illustrations, ’40s-style pin-ups, etc. What is it that appeals to you about previous eras?
Jen Oaks: Some of it is my own nostalgia for the surroundings and things I fondly remember from early childhood: ugly cut-pile carpet, my parents’ turntable and 8-tracks, school lunch trays, old TV shows and commercials, etc.
AA: What is the origin of your interest in pin-ups? Can you describe your approach to the pin-up style?
JO: I drew my first pinup for my friends’ very funny and awesome Fat Zine. It got a great response from people and someone remarked that I should do a whole series. I had already completed a calendar for my Master’s thesis and had the itch to do another one. The pin-ups seemed like a perfect fit so I recruited some friends to model for me. I built drawings loosely from their poses, padding things here and there, and changing faces and clothes. I wanted to fill a void that I saw in the pin-up art genre, and I wanted to showcase bigger women and keep the classic themed pin-up motif that I love so much.
AA: Does the “retro” theme of your work also extend to your lifestyle (vintage clothes, furniture, music)?
JO: When I still lived in Oklahoma I used to hit up thrift stores and estate sales pretty frequently. Estate sales in that part of the country are pretty amazing. A lot of times you’ll go into someone’s house and see rooms that haven’t changed since the ’60s or ’70s. Once my husband and I found this church yearbook from the late ’70s with portraits of congregation members. It’s just pages and pages of middle class people with bizarre hairdos decked out in these ridiculous Sunday outfits. It’s just incredible.
AA: Your work features such lovely bright colors! Can you describe your approach to color?
JO: Thank you! One of my first classes in grad school was Color Theory. Everything I learned there kind of floated aimlessly in my brain until the end of my third year when something fell into place and suddenly I started to understand. Now I usually try to start out with a solid color scheme and make sure I use some complimentary colors. I like things to look fresh and harmonious, and I’ve been experimenting with limited palettes. I often adjust colors a lot in Photoshop until it feels just right.
AA: Can you describe your process? Do you draw by hand, work digitally, or a combination of both?
JO: First I make a sketch, either in pencil or in Photoshop if I want to work quickly and move or resize elements. Then I print in blue and tighten the drawing in pencil. Then I scan again, print the tight drawing in blue, and ink everything in black using a Pentel brush pen and Rapidograph pens. I then scan and color everything in Photoshop, adding texture from scanned bits of paper and watercolor swatches.
AA: Tell us a bit about your comics work. What draws you to comics as a medium? What kind of comics did you read as a child, or do you like to read now?
JO: I have to admit that I don’t read as many comics as I should! I read all of Love and Rockets and it definitely had a huge influence on me. But mostly I’m drawn to autobiographical diary style comics, like those of Kate Beaton and Geoff Vasile. Diary comics like James Kochalka’s American Elf can be hilarious, thought-provoking and profound. I admire any artist who can put that out there. So the majority of the comics I make are silly, autobiographical stories or spots about things like road trips, cars I used to own, or uniformed jobs of my youth. Two years ago my husband wrote and I illustrated a longer comic about an adventure our two cats go on together. They’re thrown out of a plane at the end of Book 1. We have yet to start Book 2.
AA: You exhibit your work at a lot of craft fairs. How would you describe the craft fair community, both creators and customers?
JO: I do both craft fairs and comics conventions here in the Bay Area. They are so delightfully different! The crowd at craft fairs seem to shop for more gift or fashion and jewelry items and aren’t as drawn to a name or brand. The crowd at comic cons is there to shop too, but they’re also there to seek out new artists to follow or to check out artists whose work they already know and love. Both crowds are fun and stimulating.
My fellow craft exhibitors are incredibly talented, hardworking and savvy about business. Being among them has taught me so much. My fellow comic convention exhibitors are talented and hardworking and so passionate! They inspire me to constantly make new work and improve myself.
AA: Let’s talk a little about your Etsy shop. What’s been your experience with Etsy? Do you think the existence of shopping forums such as Etsy make it easier for artists to reach new audiences, or increase competition among artists for a particular audience?
JO: Etsy has been a wild and educational ride since I opened my shop in 2006. There were a few times that I got blogged and certain items became wildly popular for a while. I think Etsy and other shopping forums definitely help artists reach new audiences! 80 percent of my shop traffic comes from within the site.
Etsy is a great way for artists to promote and sell their own stuff but the real challenge is drawing in new fans and keeping the ones you already have. A lot of people on there do very well selling one style or genre of artwork to one specific group of people. Both my Twin Peaks buttons and the pin-up calendar were pretty successful, and while they appealed to different audiences I think they’re both great representations of my artistic voice. It’s easy to get lost amongst all of the amazing stuff that is sold on the site, so never locking myself into a specific genre or audience keeps me competitive.
AA: What are your ultimate goals as an artist? What would be your dream work? Or are you already doing exactly what you’ve always wanted to do?
JO: The whole Etsy and craft fair thing kind of started as a side project while I was working full-time. After I was laid off, it took over as a means of income and it’s loads of fun! But it has always been my intent to freelance professionally. I’ve only very recently started promoting myself to publishers, agents, ad agencies and magazines. I very much want to do books, packaging, home goods, ads…You name it. Hopefully soon my client list will start expanding.
AA: What are you working on these days? Any upcoming shows, publications or new work that you’re excited about?
JO: Right now I’m madly prepping for a solid month of craft shows and holiday sales, while still sending out promo packs to get freelance work. A list of my upcoming events can be found here: www.jenoaks.com. A couple of weeks ago, a film I animated finally went live! An economic group had me create art for their film, “I, Pencil”. I made layered art and the film’s editor made it move in After Effects. He and I had never done animation before and we learned a ton. It was intense! The film can be viewed at www.ipencilmovie.org.
AA: What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps as an artist?
JO: Practice. Stop comparing yourself to others. Draw and create like you know how.
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German-born artist Maureen Burdock has spent a lifetime using her creativity to combat gender-based violence. Brought to the United States as a child by her mother in an effort to escape domestic violence, Burdock began putting her agony and confusion into artwork by the age of eight. Her work has consistently embraced activist and feminist ideals, using the imagery of surrealism and magical realism to explore childbirth, cultural perceptions of motherhood, sexual orientation, religion, war, family origins, word origins, eugenics and misogyny. An illustrator and book designer as well as a fine artist, she’s also produced a number of installation artworks, complete with sound, drawings, books, and paintings, which have been exhibited internationally. Her work has been exhibited in New York, New Mexico, Cairo, Germany and Juarez, Mexico; she is also represented in the Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art Base.
Her most recent work uses the platform of comics to reach out to a potentially larger audience. The F Word Project: Five Feminist Fables for the 21st Century, a series of graphic novellas detailing the stories of archetypal strong women in multiple nations, has received an award from Through the Flower — a feminist art nonprofit — for New Mexico Feminist Artists under 40.
Art Animal was honored to able to speak with Burdock about her artistic inspirations and her latest work.
Art Animal: Tell us a little bit about your background. When did you first begin creating art?
Maureen Burdock: I began creating art as soon as I was able to grip drawing and painting utensils, and haven’t stopped since. My grandfather was a sign painter in the Black Forest, and I remember him encouraging and critiquing my earliest efforts at drawing around age three.
AA: You seem very drawn to fables and fairy tales. What is it about this material that speaks to you?
MB: I grew up in Germany, the land of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which my mother read to me and encouraged me to read, along with many other fables and tales including collections of fairy tales by Brentano and Andersen; fables illustrated by characters such as Struwelpeter and Max & Moritz; and myths about Rübezahl (tales of the giant who lives in the Riesengebirge — Giant Mountains in Eastern Germany — now Poland). I even taught myself to read old German script in order to be able to enjoy some of these books.
AA: You’ve worked as an installation artist, a painter, an illustrator, a children’s illustrator and a graphic novel artist. How would you describe the differences between these disciplines?
MB: They are all really just different media that enable me to communicate about the most pressing issues. A pivotal moment in my career was in 2002, when I had a solo exhibition of paintings and drawings and audio at the Anti-War Museum in Berlin. I count among my strongest early influences the Weimar Republic artists who fought against fascism. Artists such as John Heartfield, Hannah Höch and Käthe Kollwitz used graphic design and illustration techniques in their work to clearly and effectively disseminate their activist messages. Much of this art/activism had been based in Berlin, and I felt a very strong connection. After my two-month show there, I went back to school and got a degree in graphic design. I became proficient with design tools and methods and that prepared me to be able to later create my own graphic novels. I think design and illustration are to fine art what journalism is to writing — a professional practice that allows an artist to become a clearer, more versatile and effective communicator while making a living.
AA: Your black-and-white artwork is so wonderfully detailed. It reminds me of famous underground comics, particularly those of R. Crumb and, more recently, Phoebe Gloeckner. Is this just a coincidence or was your style influenced by underground comics?
MB: Thank you. I think my style evolved independently of these artists because I got really excited about crosshatching and obsessed with detail long before I ever saw Crumb’s “Fritz the Cat” or Gloeckner’s “A Child’s Life”. But I do feel I have much in common with these and other underground comics artists.
AA: What draws you to surrealism and magical realism?
MB: Early 20th Century European Surrealism effectively pointed out the absurdity and utter madness of that time and place. Magical Realism in Mexico has played a similar role. Also, it’s where my love of myths comes in. In Magical Realism, myths and ancient archetypes are right beneath the surface of “reality.” Methods of reaching deeply into the psyche to find those images which make the unimaginable injustices and contradictions of our times imaginable and digestible are good compliments to more linear, narrative methods of relaying information. The accessibility of art and psychological depth and creativity need to exist together harmoniously in order for me to be satisfied that I am reaching deep enough and far enough.
AA: Tell us about The F Word Project. What kind of response have you received for the first three books?
MB: I began to work with the cartoon/graphic novel format with this project in 2006. I met a group of cartoonists from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — Seis Cinco Seis Comics — and they invited me to have an exhibition in that city. Thousands of women have been brutally raped and murdered in Juarez over the past two decades. I wanted to create a superheroine who could galvanize the community there to fight back against this gender-based mass-murder. At the same time, I conceived of four more books that would feature superheroines who confront gender-based violence around the globe. I structured the books as series of fine art that could be exhibited as well as being bound together and disseminated in the graphic novel format. The first three books have enjoyed a tremendous response internationally. So far, art from this project has been exhibited in 13 cities, in six countries and across six continents. The books have also been embraced by several gender studies professors and incorporated into their teaching curriculums. [Todd] McFarland will publish an anthology of the finished five-book series in 2014.
AA: Do you feel that women in all cultures need fables that speak to their experience?
MB: I can’t say that I know what women in all cultures need, but I do conjecture that people of all genders and ages need fables that speak to the most pressing concerns of our time. Among these concerns, millions of people — most of them, but not all, non-male — experience violence based on their gender every year. My fables tackle forms of brutality such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, honor killing, female genital mutilation, dowry deaths, and human trafficking. Forms of gender-based violence affect not just women but everyone. How can any of us rest until universal, rampant hatred of more than half our species is addressed and eliminated?
AA: You’re also working on an animated short film. Can you explain how that project came about?
MB: In my animated short film, The Terrible Longing, I explore my relationship with longing. In this film, Longing is a complex character — a bald woman with tentacles instead of legs, dwelling in the basement of my home (or in the depths of my psyche). Her stomach has its own insatiable mouth. No matter how much I feed the Longing, she is never satisfied. I am afraid of this creature, but come to realize that she is part of me, and so I consent to give her voice. I try to explain to her that terrible things happen to women who reveal their longings to the world, but she reminds me that some women achieve greatness precisely because they reveal their longings and risk following them. I must choose between being consumed by the Terrible Longing, or following her.
AA: Would you say that you have particular topics or themes that you always return to in your artwork?
MB: Yes. Among them are feminism, longing for connection, tentacles, vines, roots, sinew, spinal columns, the human form, memory, displacement, resistance and transmutation.
A word about my superheroines: I’m drawn to the idea that common people exhibit superhero and superheroine qualities. So my superheroines are really celebrating ordinary, diverse women who find uncommon strength in breaking boundaries and forming coalitions.
AA: Can you describe your process? How long does it take you to finish a single illustration, or a page of comics?
MB: I’ve kept visual journals since I was eight years old, so I have a long-term practice that usually starts with sketching out ideas and/or writing about them. Specific to the comics, I usually map out my story using thumbnails and rough text, refine those into pencils that are at 150% the size to be printed, then transfer those, ink them and insert text digitally. Sometimes I add color digitally as well. My process for the book I’m currently working on is a bit more elaborate. It involves interviewing women who have experienced female genital mutilation, then sketching the story in the graphic novel format, getting the women’s feedback, then inking and designing. It can take from eight to 12 hours or more to complete a page from start to finish.
AA: What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps as an artist?
MB: Always be authentic. Don’t worry about who’s who. Pay attention to the art that has the most meaning to you and befriend those creators. Be generous in return for the mentorship you receive, knowing you’ll be in that place one day. Keep your eyes open, look at things and don’t take anything — including your own instincts — as gospel. Instincts can be nothing more than entrenched beliefs. So keep going outside your own comfort zone and keep pushing yourself to go deeper, see farther and communicate better. Do what you have to do to make a living. The closer that is to making or at least being around or feeding your art, the better.
See more of Maureen Burdock’s work and purchase The F Word Project books on her website, www.maureenburdock.com.
Shaenon Garrity is one of the great success stories in the world of webcomics. Her most popular strips — Narbonic, which ran from 2000 to 2006, and Skin Horse, which is still running — are dailies, the sort of comics that newspapers used to carry, with a new story each weekday. In short, she’s drawn a new strip every day for over a decade.
“I’ve always been drawing, like everyone; I just never stopped,” Garrity said. “I got into comics, specifically, when I was a teenager. I drew a comic strip for the youth section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer when I was in high school, and then in college I drew a strip for my college paper. In my senior year, some friends introduced me to webcomics, and I realized that was a way to keep drawing comics after I graduated. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
As if drawing daily comic strips wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Garrity also edits translated Japanese manga; writes about manga and comics in general for Otaku USA, Comixology and The Comics Journal; and heads a cartoonist’s group called the Couscous Collective that puts out a new anthology every six months. Plus, she’s started dabbling in prose writing. And there’s no sign of her slowing down yet.
Art Animal was pleased to be able to talk with Garrity about her work, her influences and the secrets to her successful Kickstarter campaigns.
Art Animal: How long have you been doing comics?
Shaenon Garrity: I’ve been doing comics professionally for twelve years now. I started my first webcomic, Narbonic, in 2000. I’ve been writing and drawing various webcomics ever since.
AA: How many strips do you think you’ve done by now?
SG: I used to number every Narbonic strip, so I know that I drew 2,028 daily Narbonic strips. That’s not counting Sunday strips and illustrations. I’ve foolishly neglected to number the Skin Horse strips, so I don’t know how many of those I’ve drawn. I’ve been drawing it for five years, though, so I’m probably creeping towards the 2,000-strip mark.
AA: Can you describe your process? Do you draw by hand, work digitally or a combination of both?
SG: I do almost everything by hand, even the lettering, because I like to suffer. I draw a week of strips at a time: I draw six sets of panels, then do all the pencils, all the lettering and all the inking. I clean up the art and add screentone on the computer, which takes about an hour per strip. That stage had gotten a lot less tedious since I got Netflix on the computer, so I can watch old X-Files episodes while I’m working on the strips.
AA: What are some of your major influences as an artist?
SG: Daniel Pinkwater. I admire the way he gradually builds up absurdity upon absurdity in a way that seems perfectly logical until you pause to look back at how far he’s taken you from reality. Art-wise, there are countless cartoonists and illustrators I love, but I was thinking recently about how much my style is influenced by Quentin Blake. I wish my lines were as loose and casual as his. You have to work for years to learn how to draw that simple.
AA: Let me put that another way. Who are some of your current cartooning heroes? Who is doing the kind of work you admire, or aspire to do?
SG: Most of my favorite cartoonists do work so different from mine that I can’t imagine coming up with anything remotely like it. Jason Shiga is definitely on that list, as are Kate Beaton, Lynda Barry, and Moto Hagio.
As someone who struggles with the illustrative side of cartooning — I don’t have any formal artistic training, and there’s a lot I still have to learn — I admire cartoonists who started out with kind of crude art styles but gradually got better and better through sheer dint of effort. Alison Bechdel and Moyoco Anno are my favorites in this category; when they started out they were much better writers than artists, but now their artwork is as stunning as their writing. That’s what I want to do!
Oh, and I adore Carla Speed McNeil. I’m hoping we can collaborate one of these days.
AA: The majority of your comics are black-and-white, but it seems to me like you’ve been doing more work in color recently. What’s the reason for this?
SG: People like color! I think my webcomics would be more popular if I bothered to color them. But I hate coloring. When I was in third grade, I’d leave my coloring assignments on my desk, undone, and Tara Alsobrook would take pity on me and do them for me.
Nowadays, though, I’m trying to teach myself a little color theory. I deeply admire artists who are good with color, especially Mary Blair, who’s one of my ultimate heroes. I do a monthly wallpaper design for Skin Horse, and that’s largely an opportunity to practice color and design. That said, I’m trying to force Pancha Diaz, who designs the Skin Horse books, to do some of my coloring for me. I haven’t changed since third grade.
AA: Skin Horse and Narbonic have some really dedicated fans. Tell us a little about them.
SG: They are awesome and rad. Back when Narbonic was running, this group in Minnesota had an annual Narbonic mini-convention, which they flew me out for every year. My husband Andrew insisted on going with me, because you never know when this kind of thing can turn into a Misery situation. But it was lots of fun. One year we had a demonstration from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices; one year we went to an electricity museum. I still miss meeting up with everyone. Plus, we’d always get brunch at Hell’s Kitchen on the last day, and that place has the best brunches.
Lately, since I’ve been doing this for over ten years, I’ve been hearing from more and more people who got into my work when they were in middle school or high school, and now they’re adults and they’re still following it. That’s pretty amazing.
AA: What kind of feedback do you get on your stories at live readings or conventions, or through mail and email? What do people like the most about your work? What kind of questions do they ask?
SG: People are generally very nice, although the commenters on my sites always love to poke fun at my artwork. I don’t get a lot of questions. Daniel Pinkwater once wrote that the difference between the mail he gets from kids and adults is that the kids generally want to ask him questions, whereas the adults generally want to tell him things. I’ve found that to be true. Especially since I do comics with a lot of science and technology in them; people want to tell me lots of useful things.
AA: Your books have been funded very quickly through Kickstarter, so this has been a really successful method of production for you. What would you say is the secret to a successful Kickstarter campaign? Are there any negative aspects to working with Kickstarter?
SG: I love Kickstarter almost without reservations. Just looking through the site, and all the projects people are working on, makes be feel better about humans. That said, there have been lots of awesome Kickstarter campaigns that undeservedly failed. Jeff Wells and I have an advantage with Skin Horse because it’s a known quantity on the internet and its following is mostly online — where Kickstarter is also conveniently located! (And here’s where I want to give all kinds of credit to Jeff Wells, my co-writer on Skin Horse. He’s responsible for so much of the greatness of that strip, whereas I mostly write the penis jokes.)
To people putting together Kickstarter campaigns, I advise you have a plan for what you’re going to do, develop a pitch that explains it clearly, and build up interest online even before you launch on Kickstarter.
The one negative thing about Kickstarter is that the funding has to be processed through Amazon. Not everyone likes working with Amazon, and I wish they had other options available.
AA: Tell us about your Monster of the Week project. What kind of reactions are you getting?
SG: Monster of the Week is a webcomic wherein I draw twelve-panel comic-strip recaps of every X-Files episode. I’m getting to the end of Season One now.
It came about because, as mentioned earlier, I was watching The X-Files while scanning Skin Horse strips. Then I had a revelation: if I drew a strip about The X-Files, I would double my productivity! Not until I’d started posting strips did it occur to me that The X-Files is nine seasons long, and the last two seasons are pretty awful. I should have picked something shorter, like original Star Trek or Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.
AA: What’s your ultimate goal as an artist? If you had to write your own obituary, how would you want to be remembered? (Presumably after a long, full creative life in which you did everything you ever wanted to do.)
SG: I wonder about that sometimes, but honestly I have no idea. I just do things that are entertaining to me. Hopefully some of them will entertain other people, and maybe also be important to them in a way.
AA: What are you working on these days? Any upcoming shows, publications, or new work you’re excited about?
SG: I’m putting together a graphic novel pitch with an artist, but it’s a little early to go into detail about that. There’s another graphic novel I’d like to do, but I haven’t found the right artist for it yet. I’m drawing stories for a couple of anthologies; one is called Cringe and the other is SF in SF, a collection of science fiction stories set in San Francisco. Beyond that, I’m very busy drawing Skin Horse and Monster of the Week and working my various real jobs.
Oh, and my cartooning group, the Couscous Collective, puts out a themed anthology twice a year, and I’m always working on something for that. Our latest anthology, Kitties, just came out, and the next one will be Spirits. For that, I want to do one ghost story and one booze story.
Oh, Oh! Wait! I’ve also gotten back into prose writing and have published a bunch of sci-fi stories in various places. The latest one will appear in Daily Science Fiction in December. So there’s that.
Geez. No wonder I’m tired and never have time to shower.
Read Skin Horse, Narbonic, Monster of the Week and more of Garrity’s work on her website, www.shaenon.com.
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“I’m a serial hobbyist, a chronic dabbler who has yet to master anything,” said Abigail Young during our interview.
That’s probably a different choice of words than most would use to describe Young’s artistic output, which includes everything from zines to yoga to writing and music.
“My art of choice as a six-year-old was writing short stories,” she said, laughing. “The plot lines were my own, but I’d steal all my characters from pre-existing creations. One included both Donkey and Diddy Kong being friends with Minnie and Mickey Mouse.”
Young’s artistic background was as varied as her current output. In high school, she reports (regretfully) that she didn’t take any art classes, but did keep a cartoon journal with her best friend, “complete with snarky rhymes about the horrors of high school.”
“I didn’t think of myself as creative, though,” Young said. “I actually had it very firmly in my head that while I wanted to be one of those cool, artsy kids, I couldn’t be. I have no idea why. I didn’t start really making things again until I bought my ukulele a couple years ago.”
Now, Young writes her own songs, and posts the results to YouTube and Bandcamp.com.
Art Animal met Young at the San Francisco Zine Fest, where she was selling a selection of her eclectic output, including the zine, Camel Toe, and cassettes of her music. In between sales, she graciously told us more about her work and process.
Art Animal: What attracts you to the ukelele? Is it just the sound, or is it particularly easy to play or…?
Abigail Young: I bought my ukulele after living in San Francisco for six months. I was depressed and lonely and I needed an outlet. I bought it as a Christmas present to myself and started tinkering around. It seemed like a very accessible instrument and hobby — warm and friendly with a low entry cost. Once I nailed strumming and singing at the same time (the hardest part), I started writing my own songs, which was easier than learning other people’s.
AA: Do you play any other instruments?
AY: I’d like to — I have a harmonica that’s been neglected, and I still tinker on the piano from time to time.
AA: What inspires you when you’re writing music? Can you describe your process?
AY: For the first four or five songs, my process was: 1. Buy two bottles of J. Roget “champagne.” 2. Open bottles with roommate and fellow cynic Liz Miller. 3. Bitch, rant and riff off each other as I wrote rhymes about people we found terrible. Alternately, I’d be in my room, write a song in 20 minutes, and debut it to her over the rest of our wine. It was fast and messy and the best way to dive right in to songwriting.
AA: What other musicians inspire you?
AY: After I wrote “Vegan Boys Are The Worst”, a friend sent me Andrew Jackson Jihad’s “Scenesters”, finding it similar and thinking I’d like it. I loved it and soon loved all of their music. The chords are simple, and their lyrics are wonderfully straightforward and talk about the ugly things and feelings in life.
And while I will never be as poetic and thoughtful and wonderful as Fiona Apple, I’ve loved her for many years and will continue to do so. Leslie Hall is my hero when it comes to clever, humorous lyrics and tight pants. JD Samson is my spirit animal.
AA: Why did you decide to release your music on a cassette tape as well as downloadable tracks?
AY: Because I’m ridiculous and love cassettes. They were my childhood’s music medium, and I still find value in them. Downloadable tracks are essential, though. It’s 2012! CDs have become some strange, dated thing. I’d never buy a CD, but there’s something silly and interesting enough about the cassette that I’d pick one up at a merch table, as long as I could still get the tracks on my iPod.
Speaking of iPods, I lost mine years back when I was living in St. Louis. I was broke and didn’t have the cash to replace it, so I bought some cheap old cassettes from a thrift store and a portable tape player from Walgreens. I used that for my pedestrian commutes around the city (I don’t know how to drive). I had The Clash’s London Calling and Bob Seger’s Greatest Hits in heavy rotation. That rekindled my cassette respect.
AA: What’s your opinion on the difference in sound between cassettes and digital files? (Or, for that matter, between vinyl and CDs?)
AY: Cassettes have nothing on digital files in terms of sound quality, although I’m charmed by tape hiss. I’m not cool enough to have a massive vinyl collection, and I know very little about the whole scene, yet somehow I buy into the idea that vinyl is “how the music is supposed to be heard, man.” But digital files sound a-ok to me, and the insane ease and speed in which musicians can share their music is beneficial.
AA: You recently performed at the Frankenart gallery in the Richmond district. Can you tell us about that show and how the audience reacted to your music?
AY: That show was very small, and by small I do mean the owner was the only attendee. But I’m an introvert, so it was a lovely experience. I like connecting with people one-on-one. She laughed at the appropriate times, asked questions, and was very generous in letting me play through my entire library.
My previous gig at Madrone Art Bar [in San Francisco] was part of a community variety show, which had a decent turnout. I think the reaction was similar and supportive there, too. The bar setting helps, even if they aren’t liquored up. I tend to curse a lot in my songs, so playing in a setting that doesn’t have a lot of opportunity for pearl-clutching is important. Also, no children.
AA: You have such a varied set of interests: yoga, running, writing, comics, cooking, music and more. Can you tell us a little bit about how each of these fits together in your life?
AY: I have no idea, really. Each has its own little path of how it came into my life, and I just try to maintain a balance as best as I can. But I still have a lot of work to do on that front. Usually when one interest takes center stage, the others get put on the back burner. I’m not one of those people who can function long-term on three hours of sleep, so I haven’t figured out how to do all the things all the time. I think not having a day job would probably help, but I have bills to pay and a Boo Bear to feed (my dog).
AA: You also mention dancing on your website. What kind of dancing do you like?
AY: Hah! Oh, that. I do love dancing, although that particular proclamation of dancing ability is linked to a ridiculous video I made for my last birthday. It’s a montage of me dancing and playing air sax. Birthdays are the greatest holidays ever. The best day of every year for me is my birthday, as you can tell by my very pleasant mood and high level of silliness in that video. I believe I had a happiness hangover the next day.
AA: Let’s talk about your zine, Camel Toe. What inspired this project?
AY: Most predictably, I was taking a shower, where I have 20% of my good ideas (the other 80% manifest while I’m running). At first I wanted to create a Tumblr for it, but as you would suspect, the URL is already occupied by some NSFW material. I’d been doing the zine thing and SF Zine Fest was around the corner. I decided to put out a call and see if I could get some submissions and take the theme offline. It all came together pretty quickly, and I’m really happy with the finished product. Issue #2 is slated to come out before the end of the year, and I’m accepting submissions now.
AA: What’s the best recipe in your tortilla book?
AY: Totally Tortillas is actually my mom’s [Ros Young’s] zine, which is the culmination of decades of experience and creativity. They’re all really delicious, but I’ll have to be boring and say the classic tortilla recipe is my favorite. You can take it sweet or savory with the proper topping. I like to have half sweet and half savory at my meals, so it’s the perfect base.
AA: What are you working on these days? Any upcoming shows, publications or new work you’re excited about?
AY: I’m excited for the next issue of Camel Toe as well as getting more zines in the pipeline. I want to start writing new songs and put out another album next year. I’m in the beginning stages of developing a kid-friendly line of work too, both songs and comics. I’m also pulling together an Intro to Uke course in San Francisco. The class is in its very early stages of development, but it is slated to happen at Makeshift Society. It isn’t on the website, but that’s where it’ll be!
Daily, I’m working on producing a doodle a day and documenting it on my blog. It may not seem like much, but developing consistency in my work and disciplining my creativity is a big step. As I said earlier, it’s easy for me to let one facet of my life distract the others. So far I have a solid month under my belt, which is a personal blogging record.
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Tyler Cohen’s comics are a melding of surrealist art, nature, dream imagery and observations about feminism and motherhood, displayed through her whimsical brushwork.
“I am an observer and tend to take in a lot of information,” Cohen said. “I am always reading: often science fiction (with a bit of a prejudice toward work by women), but also literature, biographies, primatology. I also have a tendency to be dreamy and mind-wandering, letting my unconscious burble.”
In Cohen’s imagined land of Primazonia, female figures sport tribal jewelry and loincloths while their heads are replaced by surrealist shapes. Children play with modern objects — a shopping basket, a tricycle, a trampoline — or play on jungle gyms surrounded by a blank white void. The total effect is almost shamanistic: mothers and children dance through eternity, summoning the whole of human history, its ancestors and primitive gods.
As one might expect from the creator of such rich material, art featured prominently in Cohen’s background from the very beginning.
“When I was 4 years old my mother explained that a gallery is a place for people to sell art,” Cohen remembered. “I whipped out a bunch of paintings and went door to door, selling them for 5 cents each. That was probably the most uninhibited artistic moment of my life!”
In college, though, Cohen veered away from art and instead focused on academic subjects, only to be drawn back into art after graduation. She rediscovered comics and found encouragement from creators of mini-comics in the ’90s, eventually leading to her own mini-comics work, including the beautiful prints of the Primazonia world (the second issue being funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign) as well as Mamapants, a collection of observations on motherhood.
“I felt like there was a hole in me that could only be filled by art-making,” Cohen said.
Cohen spoke to Art Animal after her appearance at the 2012 SF Zine Fest about her artistic process and inspirations.
Art Animal: Tell us about the ideas behind Primazonia. In your mind, what kind of a place is it? What kind of people live there?
Tyler Cohen: The very first Primazon drawing was born out of a series of drawings I was making exploring nature and nurture. I was reading a lot of primatology at the time and was particularly influenced by The Woman that Never Evolved by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. As Primazonia — the world and community — grew, I was initially exploring female domination and hierarchy in female social relationships, using implied literal violence to approach the kinds of social violence females will perpetrate against and with one another. But also the intimacies and community. Having a child — a daughter — gave me the opportunity to observe young folk, furthering my queries and observations into differing age groups and intergenerational interactions. It’s all nature-nurture and query into what is female.
My intention isn’t to give any final answers because there are no finite answers; nature and cultures are diverse and complex. But I do like to share my observations and questions, to get people thinking, because there are a lot of cultural assumptions out there as to what is female or feminine. As Primazonia has grown, it has evolved into its own place and people. I will find myself asking questions like, “What is their art like?” They do emerge largely out of my unconscious, but born of moments I’ve observed in the “real” world. Primazonia is a place of love, community, craft, hunger, social maneuvering, silliness, culture, ferality, intimacy and violence. Who lives there? All of us.
AA: Do you feel motherhood has greatly changed your outlook on life? In what way?
TC: Motherhood has given me a very clear, material investment in the future. It’s fueled an even greater passion in my feminism. It has encouraged my sense of silliness and imagination; it has also brought a much heavier sense of responsibility. It reminds me that it’s not just what I say, but what I model, which in turn encourages me toward living my truth as an artist, a human and as a woman. That life isn’t always fair and that love is mighty powerful and essential. It’s not that I didn’t know these things before, but the degree of investment makes it all the more profound.
AA: The first thing that really stood out to me about your work was your lovely use of color. Could you describe your process? What kind of materials do you use?
TC: I jot down story ideas, sometimes with thumbnails, in a seed book, that I eventually go through and select stories to rough out in a sketchbook. Primazon drawings are usually sketched immediately, conceived whole, or a drawing might be built out of a bunch of sketches that I collage together in Photoshop, making a more complex snapshot.
The roughs are scanned, enlarged — if necessary — and printed. I then use a light box to transfer the images to Bristol or watercolor paper, correcting, refining, and adding detail for the pencils. Then I ink (with a brush — a #7 sable). For the Mamapants vignettes, I’ve been inking with black India ink on bristol board, then scanning and coloring digitally with Photoshop. The Primazons are inked with Dr. Martin’s Bombay waterproof colored India ink — line and washes — on watercolor paper.
Lately, I’ve first been creating color roughs in Photoshop before putting ink to paper, working out the color balance. I prefer blocks of Lanaquarelle hot-pressed smooth watercolor paper. I really like the way the ink flows onto this paper, the way the lines lay on the surface and the way light glows in the washes. Color has a visceral and symbolic language that I find very evocative and pleasing. It’s more expensive to print, of course, but I really love the way it can communicate, bring focus, and seduce.
AA: What is it that draws you to books and paper media?
TC: I like to touch things. This is one of the great qualities of books: that they are interactive and tactile. A person can flip back and forth, keeping a finger in one fold while referencing another page and back again. A book, especially an art/comic book can be a portable, personal and affordable art treasure. It can be lent to a friend. Opening a book is an intimate act and a very kinetic sense of opening and potential.
AA: How would you describe the appeal of print to someone raised in a digital age?
TC: See above. And watch a child with a book: you’ll witness them scanning their hand or fingers along the words or images, turning the page to a new discovery or favorite. They, too, may turn forward or back, lying on their stomach on the floor or curled somewhere comfortable, the pages parted to open a world. Notice how they will sometimes draw in their books, adding to and engaging with what is given. Despite the fingering offered by pads, digital space is still abstracted.
AA: Are you interested in creating work for the digital realm?
TC: I am intrigued by digitally interactive narrative, as it’s beginning to be explored for pads. It’s a new medium with an approach to narrative that’s informed by comics and animation, yet different. I’m not really sure what I would do with it, but I find it interesting.
AA: What are some of your favorite science fiction stories? What elements of science fiction appeal to you most?
TC: [Laughs] Well, I’m a science fiction geek, so I have a lot of favorites. Book-wise, some are Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler; Dreaming Metal by Melissa Scott; Maul by Tricia Sullivan; pretty much anything by Ursula LeGuin (except EarthSea, which I never really got into — except Tehanu, the fourth leg, which she wrote much later); Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. Film-wise, Ghost in the Shell and Pi.
I love science fiction for its speculative nature. What would perception be like for a spaceship-human construct? What does it mean to be human? I particularly like writers who explore what it might be like or feel like to live in that extrapolated context, how it might push or shift consciousness and culture.
AA: Your website mentions that you’re influenced by anime. What’s the first anime you remember ever seeing? What was it that stood out to you?
TC: My first anime? That’s a tough one. It might have been Vampire Hunter D or Nausicaä, Ranma 1/2 or Castle of Cagliostro. It was a long, long time ago and I’ve seen a lot. I think what stood out was the greater diversity of stories being made in Japan than here: humor, fantasy, horror, crime, science fiction. There was also a greater diversity in stylizations. Some real storytelling that maintains reference to manga’s visual language.
AA: Will there ever be a Primazonia animation? What would it look like?
TC: I can’t say there will never be a Primazon animation because “never say never.” But I do think that one of the strengths of the Primazon drawings is they present moments caught in potential — in that sense that something might happen — and animation is just the opposite: it’s kinetic. I have played around with the idea of coming up with a simple kind of interactive, somewhat three-dimensional “game” space, moving among still moments. I’m not sure yet exactly what that would look like, if it ever comes about.
AA: What’s the one thing you would like people to take away from your work?
TC: I want people to be seduced by the beauty and humor, then be left thinking.
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