The Julia Gfrörer interview conducted by Jason Leivian

Posted by on September 28th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Julia Gfrörer is an artist living in Portland, OR. She has previously self-published a number of books including How Life Became Unbearable and Ariadne Auf Naxos with Teenage Dinosaur.

Flesh and Bone is her first book published by Sparkplug Comic Books. It’s a grim, magical fairy tale told with a modern voice. It is primarily a love story. A man’s lover has died and he is sick with despair. He believes suicide is a mortal sin, so he asks a witch to help him “deceive God” and reunite him with his dead lover. We are then treated to a story within the story as the witch’s ritual involves two children walking through the woods as a sort of Hansel and Gretel homage. The themes and humor are reminiscent of her earlier comic, Ariadne Auf Naxos, which read more like a diary comic embellished with fantastic details. It’s satisfying to see her develop the symbolism and style of her writing into a longer story arc.

JASON LEIVIAN: Hi Julia, your new book reminds me of an old-fashioned fairy tale. It’s got all the gruesome bits that usually get taken out when they’re told to children these days. Are you a fan of old fairy tales?

JULIA GFRÖRER: Folklore and legends are irresistible to me, the more gruesome the better. I have an insatiable compulsion to examine the humanity of mythic characters, thinking about what it would be like to live with them if they were real people, because in a way they are real people—we love them because they are part of us. Chrétien de Troyes said that the best part of the story is the part that’s kept from us, and for a storyteller that’s probably a wise policy, but I can’t resist pursuing parts that might be better left unshown. I want to draw the snot-dripping tears and everything else because I love to read those parts.

LEIVIAN: The interesting thing about history is it’s not actually as old and distant as it seems. We coexist with iPads and WWII survivors. In 300 years we’ve gone from Bach to Pink Floyd Laser Light Shows. Jesus stories have lasted 2000 years. When you look at these old stories are you struck more by how much humanity has changed, or how much we have in common with our ancestors?

GFRÖRER: There’s a part in The Once and Future King where T. H. White eloquently compares the so-called Dark Ages to his present day and concludes,

Do you think that they, with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom, were less enlightened than we are, with our Wars, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription? Even if they were foolish enough to believe that the earth was the centre of the universe, do we not ourselves believe that man is the fine flower of creation? If it takes a million years for a fish to become a reptile, has Man, in our few hundred, altered out of recognition?

This quote was at the top of my artist’s statement for a long time. It was a revelation to me when I began to read books from antiquity to discover that our ancestors had senses of humor, that the only reason their jokes sound lame is because they lose their sparkle in translation. No, I don’t think we’ve changed at all. Even the differences between you and me and a couple of Lascaux cave painters are pretty minor, really.

LEIVIAN: Why do you think we preserve these old stories? Do you think it’s as instinctual as the way we pass on our genetics by making babies?

GFRÖRER: The instinct is to find people who are like us, or to make people who are like us, and art is a tool to create that sense of communion. A stranger who likes the same song you like understands something secret about you—the person who wrote it understands you both—and if you want your friend to understand you in the same way, you play the song for her. Like in the famous scene from Dante’s Inferno, where Francesca explains how she and Paolo fell in love: they were reading about Lancelot together, and the story moved them both at once, that spark of communion was all it took. That feeling is magical and addictive. I think it’s the reason people go to concerts. At least, it’s the reason I go to concerts.

LEIVIAN: I understand the addictive and rewarding nature of creating. I always get a little high when a project is completed. Approval always gets the happy chemicals flowing. Sometimes this is followed by a depression that has to be filled by moving on to the next project. Has your art led to any surprising connections with your readers or other artists?

GFRÖRER: Through art is the main way I relate to people: all of my friends are artists now, drawing is all I think about, my husband and I start making comics together as soon as I get home from work. I can hardly think of any connections in my life that aren’t founded in a mutual appreciation of visual art. But I don’t seem to form that Paolo and Francesca spark through my own work, which is a shame, because people —wonderful people! Fans, you are my favorite people —want to make that connection by talking about me with me. Until we can talk about some other artist, removed from us both: Harry Clarke, Wilfred Owen, Frank Zappa, I don’t feel that sense of unity. I feel like a fish being eaten by another fish.

LEIVIAN: Is making comics your favorite way to express your ideas? Have you ever tried making music or writing songs?

GFRÖRER: My mother likes to say that “Mister Rogers Syndrome” runs in our family, meaning that we tend to burst into extemporaneous song. Other than the humble ballads over breakfast I am tragically bereft of musical talent. I play the theremin but only as a hobby, I don’t perform. I love to draw but like most artists I find my work perpetually lacking. I like to tell stories orally, preferably a little drunk. My favorite way to express my ideas is in long boring monologues delivered to unsuspecting bystanders. I would make a terrific docent.

LEIVIAN: Does the title Flesh and Bone refer, in part, to the cycles of life and death? Flesh represents the living. Bones or skulls seem to be the perfect image to symbolize our mortality, our eventual fate.

GFRÖRER: Yes, it’s meant to allude to the man (Jadwiga wryly calls him Handsome, but in my head I was calling him Onan) and Anabel: he’s the flesh and she’s the bone. Bones also appear a lot in the book. Jadwiga’s house is decorated with them because of her liminality.

LEIVIAN: Death is a theme that shows up in most of your comics. Sometimes the dead can still speak and move around. How do you explore death symbolically and philosophically in your comics? And what are your personal beliefs or theories regarding the “afterdeath”?

GFRÖRER: I have a morbid fascination with the indignity inherent in being alive, the reality that our bodies are so demanding and that they are constantly, continuously betraying us, getting in the way of all the really meaningful things we could be doing instead, yet occasionally communicating nobility with their involuntary actions. Death, then, represents freedom from bodily abjection—death confers dignity, power, independence. The Ghost of Julia in Ariadne auf Naxos is gleefully selfish and chaotic, shirking responsibilities and causing mischief, where the living Julia is always worrying, always trying to help and mend. And after death there is nothing more to fear: no shame, no anxiety, no doubt. Death and pain tend to be desirable states in my stories.

To my chagrin, no one with firsthand experience has yet described the afterlife to me, so I’m more or less content not to know and accept the futility of wondering what it’s like to actually be dead.

LEIVIAN: By contrasting the living Julia with the ghost Julia it seems that death can be a teacher. I love paradoxes like this where we can identify with our opposite or everything that we are not. Do you also embrace paradoxes and mystery?

GFRÖRER: I was raised by a Jungian psychoanalyst and I learned my fundamental methods of perceiving from her, so it’s accurate to say that I’m preoccupied with obtaining guidance from hidden realms, from shadows or mirrors. I love stories where the characters confront their opposites, like in the Neverending Story, or where they embody conflicting ideas, like Lancelot on the grail quest. I’m such a shameless navel-gazer, and I pursue negative emotions more than positive ones, I’m like a spelunker in the inner caverns, I like to chew on all my certainties until doubt reveals itself because precariousness is the natural state of things. Do I embrace mystery? I insist upon it.

LEIVIAN: I recently lost my two cats to kidney failure. The doctors compassionately described euthanasia as a permanent end to pain and suffering. Metaphysically I think death may feel like the ultimate face-palm. A strong sense of déjà vu, followed by “of course!” Then entropy as all of your information is dispersed.

GFRÖRER: I’m sorry about your cats. Do you think death means a transcendence of reality as we experience it now? Self-transforming machine elves unlock the vomitoria of the theater of false perceptions? I would prefer to believe that consciousness dissipates after death, but nothing we know about the universe indicates that this is so: nothing is bounded, nothing really ends, security and finality and the boundaries between things exist by consensus only.

I’m looking at the Wikipedia article for “universe” as I write this and when the page loaded with an image at the top, as most Wikipedia pages do, I felt like I would faint. It’s a sort of mottled blue oval. How vulgar!

LEIVIAN: At the very least, I think death is a transcendence of time. I don’t think of eternity as a really, really, really long time. It would be something outside of time. There would be no experience of time. That speed limit is represented in our universe by light. I’m not sure what that would be like but for some reason I suspect it would be totally alien and totally familiar at the same time. It may be a reversal of sorts. Instead of being an observer maybe you’d have more in common with the information that is observed.

Speaking of metaphysics, there are also elements of magic and religion in the story. The man fears god and damnation, while Jadwiga’s witchcraft seems authentically pagan. Are these subjects of interest to you?

GFRÖRER: Well, let me first profess my ignorance of authentic paganism—the occultism you see being practiced in my book is mostly based on medieval Christian ideas about the kinds of things a witch or sorcerer might do. I’m extremely interested in historical Christianity. And for the record, I’m an inveterate atheist.

LEIVIAN: I know a little about the mandrake root from the Paul Verhoeven movie, Flesh and Blood, which shares a similar title and archaic quality to your story. Tell me if this is right: sometimes when a man is hung from a tree they will ejaculate into the soil below and then a mandrake root will grow from that spot?

GFRÖRER: Oh no. I had no idea there was such a movie. Paul Verhoeven? Really? Goddamn it. But that’s my understanding of the mandrake myth, yes, that semen from a hanged man would sprout this little man-shaped screaming plant. I’ve also read that sex with a mandrake root produces a baby with no soul and no emotions, and that you can carve the root into a little person that will be your slave, and that you can make a balm with the mandrake that you rub on your legs and feet to feel as if you’re flying. It’s a panacea among the root vegetables. Beat that, parsnips.

LEIVIAN: I think you might like the film. It’s very archaic. So when Jadwiga is talking to the demon, Buer, about the mandrake that’s why he calls it a “baby.” Why is a mandrake so special to her? Or what does it symbolize?

GFRÖRER: He’s referring to the baby Jadwiga might conceive from sex with the mandrake. In a sense Onan would be its father, part of him would live on after he’s dead.

LEIVIAN: Is there value to a baby without a soul? Does she simply desire a slave to help her with her work?

GFRÖRER: There are a lot of things a witch could use a soulless baby for. Probably we can infer from the story that Jadwiga is a little lonely. Possibly, given Buer’s impatience with emotional people, she would consider soullessness an advantage.

LEIVIAN: Jadwiga has a romantic outlook when she says that: “their love may brighten the world of the dead.” But Buer has a more mundane view. He refers to love as “an addictive delusion,” “a trick done with mirrors,” “a distraction.” Why do you think these characters have such different views of love?

GFRÖRER: Buer is an intensely logical person (actually a President of Hell and a teacher of logic and philosophy) and his view of love is purely pragmatic. You could argue that from an evolutionary standpoint love is pragmatic, but Buer is indifferent to its spiritual value, so to him it’s all song and dance. Jadwiga isn’t necessarily a romantic, but because she likes Onan she’s willing to entertain the idea.

LEIVIAN: Do you know if was he a president of Hell first and then he decided to teach logic and philosophy? Or was he a teacher first and then ended up in Hell? I wonder what the connection is.

GFRÖRER: I only know of Buer from a few medieval demonology texts, which don’t explain his origin, but I think he must be a native of hell rather than the spirit of someone dead, since demons of Christianity are usually fallen angels. He also teaches herbology and provides familiars. Some old grimoires imply that a demon exists to teach any subject or perform any task, and it remains only to perform the necessary ritual to summon and command that demon. There are a lot of teachers down there, an infernal university.

LEIVIAN: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. It’s always a pleasure to talk with others who are interested in more esoteric subjects. What comics or other projects are you working on next?

GFRÖRER: Thanks, Jason: this has been fun. At the moment my husband and I are frantically finishing up a couple of new zines for the Portland Zine Symposium, which as of this writing is less than a week away. We did one about our heroes, which he wrote and I illustrated, and another about Wolverine (and to a lesser extent the other X-Men and the rest of the Marvel universe) which is mostly comics written and drawn by both of us. I recently finished a third issue of Ariadne auf Naxos, which is being published by Teenage Dinosaur and should be available at the Symposium as well. And I am glacially thumb-nailing a couple of shorter comics, which also deal with the idea of sex with ghosts. I have no idea what I’ll do with them when I finish them but I can’t stop writing them.

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2 Responses to “The Julia Gfrörer interview conducted by Jason Leivian”

  1. vollsticks says:

    That’s the most pretentious interview I’ve ever read. The comic itself is great, though.

  2. trinijoneses says:

    @vollsticks: Haha I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought so! The comic looks great, but she seems a little obsessed with proving how DEEP and MYSTERIOUS she is. (Though to be fair, she is explicitly asked whether she “embraces” mystery. What artist could say “no?”)