Comics TCohen_MP_Pride2

Published on October 11th, 2012 | by Julie Davis


Surrealist Feminism with Tyler Cohen

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.

See Tyler Cohen’s work at and

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About the Author

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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