Published on September 12th, 2012 | by Julie Davis0
The Zine Scene and Mini-Comics with Gabrielle Gamboa
When asked what advice she would give to aspiring comic artists and zinesters, Gabrielle Gamboa suggests, “Don’t limit yourself by studying only one technique or medium. Practice drawing from observation. Learn about art from before you were born.”
It’s advice that Gamboa practices herself: the 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West, was the inspiration for one of her latest works, a graphic novel adaptation of the story. The material attracted Gamboa because its mixture of serious content with humorous tone made it feel very modern.
“At its core, the story also questions why we make art,” Gamboa said, “something that every creative person considers from time to time.”
Gamboa’s own creativity began early. Growing up in the Sacramento area with parents she describes as “DIY fanatics and crafters,” she gathered the impression that “a large part of life is making.”
“My mother had this series of art books, each one a monograph of a 19th century painter such as Cezanne, Manet, etc,” Gamboa said. “Before I could read, I would look at the pictures and make up stories about them. I had entire narratives about Carmen Gaudin, the red-haired model in so many of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings.”
Her attention turned to comics and the punk rock music culture in college, and she began self-publishing her own comics and zines, and became a member of the Puppy Toss publishing collective in the 1990s. Her mini-comics career is supplemented with teaching art to children and teens, which leads to her second piece of advice for aspiring comics artists: “Give yourself room to experiment and explore artistically by supporting yourself financially in a manner that doesn’t drain you of all of your creativity and time.”
Art Animal: Tell us about the Puppy Toss collective. Do you have any fond memories of that era that you’d like to share? What was the ’90s zine scene like?
Gabrielle Gamboa: The writer Landry Walker introduced me to the other members of the newly formed Puppy Toss collective. The purpose of the group was to collectively publish and distribute our work, but I’d say we also became a support group. In general, we were an idealistic bunch. We made an anthology, which we immediately opened up to artists outside of the group. We tabled at comics shows and appeared at signings in matching Puppy Toss logo shirts. We began distributing mini-comics, and then zines, through a pre-Internet mail-order catalog. We had a curatorial policy so loose that we became overwhelmed with submissions from everywhere, and the collective collapsed in on itself.
I have very fond memories of the early ’90s zine scene. Getting your zine or mini-comic listed in the quarterly Factsheet Five publication was exciting, because it was one of the few pre-Internet ways people could discover your publication. Zinesters were very supportive of each other. The first APE (Alternative Press Expo) was exciting, and it was much more like SF Zine Fest than like the behemoth it is now.
AA: Puppy Toss was a Berekely-based group, and I understand you often met at the old Comic Relief store, which is sadly gone now. Did you know the owner, Rory Root, well? How do you feel about what happened to Comic Relief?
GG: My ties to the Comic Relief store are deep. It served as a community center for East Bay cartoonists, Puppy Toss had several members who worked there, and I eventually worked there myself. I inherited the zine buyer position at the (now defunct) Haight Street location, which meant I got to meet zinesters passing through town selling their books, and I got to correspond with artists and writers from all over the world. I loved it.
Rory Root was very supportive of small press and local artists, and his store was a real labor of love. As a boss, he was a “quirky personality,” and often frustrating, but he was a great patron and true believer of the medium. He had a broad definition of what comics could be, and the breadth of his store reflected that, making it one of the absolute best in the country. It is a shame what happened to the store when he died. Everyone knew Rory had willed it to his most long-lived employee, under whose helm I have no doubt that Comic Relief would have regained its former glory. But when the Root family sold it, it seemed inevitable. “Nothing gold can stay, Ponyboy.”
AA: Your website shows a wide range of artistic styles. Would you say your work has changed over time, or do you adapt your style to the subject of the moment?
GG: Definitely both. I enjoy working in different modes and styles, but more importantly, I try to think of the suitability of each medium or style for the concept I’m trying to convey. Not every medium or style works well for every idea. A new series often means a shift of medium, technique and theme. On the other hand, the lack of an easily identifiable brand means I am not much of a financial success, so there’s that.
AA: You have quite a few roller derby themed drawings in your online gallery. Do you — or did you — skate in a roller derby yourself?
GG: I am far too clumsy to do roller derby. As a child I took skating lessons just long enough to be able to stay upright and come to a full stop. I made the roller derby drawings as a study of movement and power, particularly female power. It was a technical challenge to capture this in drawing, but also joyful because I got to imagine myself in their place. The works are also on a fairly large scale because I thought they should be monumental — I was thinking about history paintings as I made them.
AA: You’ve done illustration work for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, among other publications, and illustrated an interview with cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her stance on political cartoons. Do you enjoy working with politically charged material?
GG: I enjoy illustrating others’ politically charged material, but I don’t enjoy writing it. I am not confident that I could make my own politically charged work without it being ham-fisted or cliché. That is not a personal strength of mine.
AA: Your graphic novel Miss Lonelyhearts is an adaptation of a Nathanael West novel from the 1930s. What made you pick this material to adapt into comics?
GG: The novel is very dark look at the injustice and indignity of life, but it is also very funny. The cynicism in West’s work makes it read as if it were by a writer from my generation (Generation X), so I find it very easy to relate to.
AA: What made you decide to use parody versions of cartoon characters from the ’30s to illustrate Miss Lonelyhearts?
GG: In an interview, West said that he envisioned “the novel in the form of a comic strip,” as he wrote it. I have long loved newspaper comics from that era — one of my favorite memories is spending an afternoon reading a pile of gorgeous 1930s newspaper Sunday pages of Gasoline Alley strips at the late archivist Bill Blackbeard’s house. So when I came across this West quote, I wanted to make the writer’s thoughts resemble the comics world of that time.
AA: Your comics frequently feature music. What styles of music are most inspiring to you, and why?
GG: Coming from a working-class baby boomer family, rock and roll was the easiest music to come by, and I became obsessed with it as a kid. I also have family who worked in the country music industry. My dad loves free stuff, so that meant I grew up with an ear for the Bakersfield Sound. As a teenager, I discovered punk rock, and the whole punk DIY aesthetic that embraced music and art. Living near 924 Gilman was one of my criteria for choosing a college.
AA: What was the origin of your mini-comics about obscure Latino pop artists like Chris Montez?
GG: My father told me a story about how growing up in the 1950s, he and all of the other Mexican American kids in his neighborhood would (falsely) boast about being related to rocker Ritchie Valens. That got me interested in researching the history and obscurities of Chicano rock, and sharing what I find.
AA: Do you think zines and printed comics still have a future in the digital age? Or is print truly dying this time?
GG: I think that print zines and comics still have a future. People like tangible objects, so I think that unique and intimate publications with tiny or limited print runs will always be desired. It is affordable art that can be enjoyed and collected. The digital age has actually helped self-publishers by providing new means of distribution and advertising, and by making printing so much cheaper.
Gamboa is continuing work on Miss Lonelyhearts, and readers should look for the next issue soon. She also has a series of comics reviewing classic black-and-white horror films running at The Blog is Coming From Inside The House, and is working on a new graphic novel, a sort of a supernatural romance between two filmmakers in 1940s Los Angeles. Follow her on Tumblr or at www.gabriellegamboa.com.