TCJ 300 Conversations: Alison Bechdel & Danica Novgorodoff

Posted by on December 17th, 2009 at 2:47 AM


Promotional art for Refresh, Refresh, ©2009 Danica Novgorodoff.

Prepare for a densely packed, fiercely intelligent conversation between two extremely well-read, thoughtful comics creators: Alison Bechdel, a graduate of Oberlin College, has been long established in at least a corner of the comics world as the author of Dykes to Watch Out For, an alternative strip that ran continuously from 1983 until last year, but she leapt into a whole other level of mainstream public awareness with the publication of her critically celebrated graphic memoir, Fun Home, in 2006. Despite her exotically foreign-sounding name, Eisner- and Isotope-award-winner Danica Novgorodoff is a former Kentucky horse trainer with a degree from Yale, whose first graphic novel, Slow Storm, was released to much acclaim in 2008. TCJ readers got an advance look at Slow Storm in issue #291.

Bechdel has suspended her long-running strip in order to focus on her next graphic memoir, Love Life: A Case Study. Novgorodoff, who has art-designed most of the graphic novels released by First Second, has just completed an adaptation of an unproduced screenplay adaptation of Benjamin Percy’s short story, “Refresh, Refresh,” about three small-town boys whose fathers are doing a tour of duty in Iraq. Refresh, Refresh the graphic novel is scheduled to be released by First Second in October. Both artists were kind enough to take time away from their projects to talk with one another about their wide-ranging influences and ambitious hopes for the comics medium, toward which they share an outsider perspective.


Alison Bechdel:
It struck me that you were probably born right about the time I was getting started as a cartoonist, and I thought maybe we could start by taking a look at the different comics landscapes we evolved out of.

I grew up on Mad Magazine in the ’60s. I read the odd forbidden underground comic at a friend’s house once in a while — her dad would buy her The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. I’m sure I also got some Crumb along the way, if only on the Cheap Thrills album cover, which I spent many an afternoon examining closely. When I was in college, I discovered Hergé and Harvey Pekar. Then in the early ’80s, after college, I stumbled onto this mother lode of underground sexual-liberation comics — Gay Comix, Wimmen’s Comix, Tits & Clits, stuff like that. These were really exciting to me — not just for the raunchy, insane sexual-taboo-busting, but for the confessional strain of autobiographical stories that I found there. It was those comics that made me realize I could tell stories about my own queer life.

I didn’t do actual autobiographical comics for another 20 years. But I did start doing a fictional strip about people like me and my friends which felt kind of autobiographical. I started out totally grassroots, doing cartoons for a free feminist monthly and peddling postcards to gay and women’s bookstores. Eventually, I self-syndicated the strip to gay and lesbian newspapers around the country, and started publishing book-length collections. For 20 years, the gay and lesbian subculture was my milieu — I never felt like part of the comics world. I had some glancing contact with it — doing a few things for Gay Comix and Wimmen’s Comix. Reading TCJ. Meeting Harvey Pekar in the late ’80s and doing some small collaborations with him. But I was on the fringe of the fringe of the mainstream comics world.

That world was changing really fast, though. There were more and more alternative comics coming out every month, and they were getting better and better. Raw, Love and Rockets, Weirdo, Drawn & Quarterly, Young Lust. Beautiful art and storytelling, and increasingly, great design. But somehow it never occurred to me that I could be part of that scene. I mean, I just didn’t even think about it — I had my little niche. And I stayed in it, doing my own thing.

OK, how’s that for a start? If you’re up for this, tell me what your influences were, what the landscape looked like when you showed up on the horizon. Oh, lemme just say one thing first: One thing I notice when I look at younger cartoonists’ work is their incredible fluency with visual language, the sophistication of their layouts and panel transitions and drawing. Slow Storm is visually and dynamically stunning. It’s virtuosic. It’s a completely different animal from the more static, simple, word-laden grid I’m heir to.

Maybe they started putting something in children’s vitamins in the late ’70s. Is that it?

From Bechdel’s introduction to The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, ©2008 Alison Bechdel.

Danica Novgorodoff:
I feel like I’m still becoming familiar with the comics scene, taking in European, American, Asian, indy, mainstream, traditional, experimental, old and new all at once, in the course of my haphazard comics education. Sadly, I didn’t grow up reading comics beyond what was in the newspaper. I didn’t know anyone who made comics until I was in college. So I guess you could say I showed up on the horizon in the past seven years. Which, as far as I can tell, has been a pretty exciting time for comics in America with a quickly growing audience and increasing respect for the art form as just that — a form of art and literature.

Which leads me to the “influences” question — I would say that I’m influenced as much by other forms of art and literature as by comics. I’ve been drawing and painting since I was 2, and so I’m inspired visually by painters like Peter Doig, Kiki Smith, Anthony Goicolea, Neo Rauch, Marlene Dumas, to name a few … as well as by Chinese painting, Medieval art… I don’t know, graffiti, folk and craft art, that Louise Bourgeois show at the Guggenheim last year, whatever cool stuff I stumble on in the Chelsea art galleries, etc., etc., etc. Film can be a really great source of inspiration for comics because the two media have so much in common – it’s narrative, visual, time-based, and so forth. I love Werner Herzog films. I’ve been watching a lot of war movies and documentaries lately since a project I just finished and one I’m about to start involve the Iraq war. Most of all, I love to read. I’ve always got at least one novel going; if not a novel, an audiobook, this week’s Economist, a book of short stories, a history book, and a book of poetry. You’re obviously very influenced by other forms of writing as well, given the wealth of literary references and brilliant parallels you draw between classic literature and your own family life in Fun Home. Do you think there’s a distinction between the narrative style, quality and purpose in the “standard” literature (that of the picture-less nature) that you read versus in comics?

I would say that there’s definitely a difference between the narrative style of comics and “picture-less literature.” (Nice term!) And there’s possibly a difference in narrative quality, if by that you mean nature or essence, as opposed to skillfulness. But there’s probably not a difference in purpose.

From Novgorodoff’s Neck of the Moon, ©2004 Danica Novgorodoff.

Do you think it’s been changing over the years — are literary forms blending more?

There is a blending going on — mostly in the direction of comics staking claims on literature’s turf. Serious or painful subjects, obviously. But subtler things too, like interiority. I think, increasingly, comics are showing that they can capture nuances of thought and consciousness, not just external action.

But there are distinct stylistic things that comics can achieve. I like what Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven write in their introduction to the Graphic Narrative issue of Modern Fiction Studies, that graphic narrative makes “the question of style legible.” It’s an “autographic form in which the mark of handwriting is an important part of the rich extra-semantic information a reader receives.” There’s something about simply the quality of line that comes out of a cartoonist’s pen that conveys meaning. Is it crisp, sketchy, wobbly, aerodynamic, harsh, doubtful, dreamy?

I don’t think you can equate that to style in writing. Because in comics you still have writing style. But you also have this other thing, the particular sensibility of how the artist draws. I feel safe saying that this is more distinctive, more idiosyncratic, than style in writing. I can glance at a drawing in the New Yorker and tell who did it. I can’t do that with the articles: read a few sentences and instantly be certain who wrote it. Maybe I’m just more visual than verbal, but I don’t think that’s it.

But I’m really just bullshitting about all this. The only thing I really know anything about is why I tell stories with pictures and words, instead of with just words, which is because I can explain myself better this way. If I’d been trying to draw this interview, it would be taking me even longer. But it would be much clearer, and more interesting.

From The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, ©2008 Alison Bechdel.

You say that it never occurred to you that you could be part of the mainstream-comics scene — do you feel like you are now, with the great success of Fun Home? If you do, how is it different from being on the fringe of the fringe? Do you think the wide recognition you’ve gotten for this book says something about how the comics scene is changing, or about how your own work has changed, or both? What do you think of the recent rush of most big publishing houses to put out a line of graphic novels?

I think the rush of the big houses to put out graphic novels is kind of a logical economic decision. But I don’t know what the effect will be. I’d like to say, the more the merrier. There might be mediocre stuff coming out, but there’s also really wonderful stuff.

I weathered a different and perhaps comparable book boom that might offer some lessons. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a real flowering of gay and lesbian books, most of them published by small independent publishers. Then in the ’90s, the big houses noticed this attractive, literate niche market that seemed to be buying an awful lot of books per capita. Mainstream publishers started buying up all kinds of work by gay and lesbian writers, and some of it was very good, but there was also a huge number of junk books that flooded the market. The boom went bust, the big advances disappeared, and gay stuff ended up even more marginalized — at least for a while.

From The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, ©2008 Alison Bechdel.

Maybe that’s just an unfortunate fact of capitalism, and the way trends correct. That probably won’t happen with graphic novels — I think they’re vigorous enough to withstand that sort of glut better — but still, it’s worth thinking about.

I’m kind of boggled by your range of skills. You’re not just a cartoonist, but an accomplished painter, photographer, illustrator and designer. Are you equally avid about all these things?

I think I would be equally avid about all media except for that minor constraint of time. What an inefficient art form, these comics! They take years to make and under an hour to read! I started out with photography, realized I don’t have an assertive enough personality for it (at least for the kind of pictures I wanted to make), focused on painting, realized it couldn’t tell the stories I wanted to tell, and then took up design, because I realized I had no marketable skills and yet had to pay my rent. (Although lately I’ve been starting to see design as more of an art in itself.) I’d do it all if I had time. I still do some painting and photography, depending on the idea — I think it’s important to use the art form best fitted to the idea, rather than trying to fit the idea into a medium it’s not suited for. I don’t know. I’d like to be a writer. Or make films. Or build houses. But I don’t know how to do those things. I don’t know how useful it is to be sort of good at various things versus excellent at one thing.

Do you feel like you need to have a consistent, recognizable, singular “handwriting” in your drawing style? Is it something that you want to be recognizable throughout your body of work, or personalized to each different story you’re telling?

From The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, ©2008 Alison Bechdel.

I’m not a good enough artist to have any choice about my drawing style. In a sense, I don’t even consider it a “style” since that seems to imply a degree of control or intentionality. I mean, I think my drawing has improved over the years, but the basic quality has remained kind of the same. I know it’s a gross oversimplification to say that cartoonists draw the way they look, but I think it’s often true.

Do you place a higher value on comics that use images as a sort of handwriting to advance the story, or use images as a thing to be savored and dwelled upon, panel by panel, slowing the reading rather than ushering the pace of the story?

I wouldn’t say I necessarily place a higher value on images that take time to look at than on images that move the story along. But I’m certainly a practitioner of the former technique. And I love that quality of comics — that unlike a film, you go at your own pace, and you pretty much look where you want to look, given the constraints of the frame. I guess I tend to resent being manipulated at all as a reader or a viewer. A fast-moving visual sequence has its own pleasures. But I prefer images that I can “read” slowly.

From The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, ©2008 Alison Bechdel.

What do you hope to accomplish with your comics in the future (either stylistically, or narratively, or in terms of new audiences you want to reach)? Are there any trends in comics you’d like to see catch on, or emerge, in the future? In other words, what’s something you’d really like to find on the shelves when you go to the bookstore?

One trend I’m interested in is the graphic essay. The comics format lends itself very naturally to narrative, but its potential for delivering expository material is relatively untapped. Joe Sacco’s journalism is one obvious example of a type of comics essay, but there are all kinds of nonfiction realms waiting to be explored through visual language. I’m all immersed in memoir right now, but even though I’m telling stories about myself, I’m also trying to explore non-narrative material, to talk about ideas. It feels kind of risky. It might not work. But whether I can pull if off or not, I’d like to see other people doing it.

What about you? What do you hope to accomplish in your work? What would you like to find at the bookstore? OK, I cheated by turning your last question back on you, but it was a very good question.

From Slow Storm, ©2008 Danica Novgorodoff.

I would say I agree with you about preferring images that can read slowly. I know it’s not possible for every frame of a comic to be a work of art that could be isolated and hung in a museum, but I do hope to have some frames or pages in my books that the reader will dwell on, and maybe go back to and look at twice or three times. That’s what I hope to accomplish — art that is art in addition to being a story-telling tool.

And as far as writing, I would like to find graphic novels at the bookstore in which the writing stands up to the writing in the best contemporary short stories or novels or documentaries or essays — on a par with what you’ll find in the New Yorker or Harper’s or Best American Short Stories. In my own work, I’d like to try not to use pretty art to hide weak writing. The art should be used to elevate the writing, and vice versa, rather than one used as a crutch for the other.

And I think I’d like to see more experimentally structured graphic novels in the bookstore. Think of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, in which each short “chapter” is a different narrator, each recounting a story about the main character, who never actually appears in his own voice, and is in fact the fictionalized character of the author himself. Or Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, a novel that reads almost like poetry, or Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, poetry that reads like a novel. What would be the equivalent in the graphic form? I like Dominique Goblet’s Faire Semblant C’est Mentir because of its beautiful art and its wild, experimental variations in style used to tell a complex emotional story. I’d like to see more of that sort of thing.

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