Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Comics Round Up #4: The Horror of Sitting and Talking with Julia Gfrörer

by J.T. Dockery

Oddly enough, when I started this idea of documenting my forays into reading what I consider to be the cream of the contemporary underground comics crop, I never thought I'd do an interview in this contex. I'd interviewed Hubert Selby, Jr., Ivan Brunetti, and Sexton Ming in the dim past of the 20th century, but it didn't seem to be a form that appealed to me anymore, at least in actually conducting them myself (I read and enjoy interviews regularly, however). But there was something about last year's Flesh and Bone by Julia Gfrörer from Sparkplug Comics that monkeyed with my mind. Ostensibly a horror comic book, it had a narrative flow, deceptively simple, that begged questions, which I didn't have to answer to enjoy the work, but they kept on begging me until I finally found myself begging the author with these questions. Ms. Gfrörer agreed to a conversation.

J.T. Dockery: Flesh and Bone reads on some levels as a gothic horror tale, reminding me of genre writers from the turn of and the early years of the twentieth century (and earlier) and early horror films. When I'm constructing stories or working on music I habitually put together what I term "totems of influence"--that is, touchstones of a few different sources and inspiration which I'm consciously allowing to inform the work. This may just be my autistic brain at work, but did you have any inspiration, or set of inspirations, which led to this story, or did it arrive less consciously? Is there any way you can describe the process (or processes) of its origin?

Julia Gfrörer: This is an incredibly challenging question because I feel like the details of Flesh and Bone are culled from a lifetime of trivial obsessions which would probably be boring for you and embarrassing for me to enumerate here. I guess the initial seed of the story was when Arcana Perfumes hired me to draw a label for a perfume based on the old Irish ballad "I Am Stretched on Your Grave" in early 2009. (The drawings are here, they ended up using the first one.) Around the same time, a friend had asked me to draw an eight-page porn comic for an anthology, and I had been reading about occultism a lot (maybe as a result of devouring Foucault's Pendulum a few months earlier? I forget) so I wrote it about a mandrake root. After it was thumbnailed out it didn't exactly look like porn to me so I didn't submit it, but that eventually became the penultimate eight pages of Flesh and Bone. (The final page scene with the mass grave came later.) When Dylan Williams asked me to write a forty-page book for Sparkplug, it occurred to me that the guy with the ghost girlfriend and the death erection guy could be the same guy, so I wrote the rest of the story with the goal of connecting them.

JTD: Well, don't hold back on further enumeration with me. I enjoy that kind of thing. That said, I realize that the process is sometimes an internal thing, more of use to the artist than is otherwise of use to a reader/audience/viewer. If that were the case, we'd all just publish lists of things that fascinate us instead of creating narratives.

JG: Well, one of the cultural touchstones that was influential on Flesh and Bone was the movie Antichrist, which came out at the same time that I wrote my book. I wanted desperately to see it but I had a newborn baby, which makes it tough to go to the theater, and I knew that the violence in the movie and the fact that the plot hinges on the death of a young child would be too much for me emotionally at that time. Fortunately I live upstairs from Sean Christensen, another comics artist and a beloved friend, among whose lesser known talents is included an ardent and insightful movie buffism. So he saw the movie and indulged me with a vivid hour-long retelling (immortalized in his diary comic here) and the vision I had of Antichrist in my imagination, the idea of nature itself as an antagonist by virtue of its unimpeachable amorality, became part of the story I was writing. (I did see the movie about a year later and I loved it, but it was very different from what I had originally imagined, which is good, I guess.)

I listened to Clint Mansell's soundtrack for The Fountain almost every day while I was drawing the comic (again, I hadn't seen the movie yet, and in this case I didn't know anything about its plot that was not revealed in the song titles), and that certainly had an impact on its overall mood. Or maybe I ended up with a book that's gloomy and takes itself too seriously. On second thought, I think those traits are inherent to me.

JTD: That said, I 'm interested to ask another question, which may pertain to your development. Do I understand correctly, and this is pure digression, that one of your parents was a Jungian analyst?

JG: Yes, my mother is, and she taught me early about symbolic interpretation, to analyze my dreams and to consider people's actions from a psychoanalytic perspective. It's not something I enact consciously but Jung's philosophy is fundamental to the way I perceive and interact with the world, and I'm sure that it comes through in my work. I also made my first zines with my mom.

JTD: One aspect of the work that is immediately striking (and I know this from passing around the book in social situations to other cartoonists or those interested in art/comics--which is a favorite hobby of mine with books that I enjoy) is the sexual content. In a contemporary age in which every movie aims for PG-13 and the United States seems at once caught in a dualistic whirlwind of free and readily available pornography, on one hand, and a repressive fundamentalism in regards to depictions of sexuality, on the other, was there any intentional design to the portrayals of sexuality in the book or, again, was it more natural? Much of the sexuality in the book, for me, brought to mind rituals of a sexual nature from old folklore.

JG: First of all, thanks for sharing my book with your friends. It wasn't until I read the reviews of my book that I knew my treatment of sexuality was peculiar. My personality is very earnest and matter-of-fact, and it's difficult to shock me because I tend to assume that all people are trying to act reasonably and in good faith. (Also because I wasted my adolescence on Usenet and Portal of Evil.) So I think that my attitude, towards sexuality and everything else, is simultaneously romantic, permissive and practical, and that's reflected in the way sexuality is depicted in my book, but I didn't do it on purpose, no. Frankly I was just trying to draw what turned me on.

JTD: Of course, this wasn't an "accusatory" observation about the sexuality. I quite like the frankness of the sexual content. I didn't realize it had origins as a porn story, at least not before my first reading of it, but I did note you alluded to that in one of your blog posts.

What I was trying to get at was that I felt the sexuality of the book flowed very naturally within the narrative, and I mean it as a compliment as I don't think very many artists of any genre, especially in America, deal with sexuality all that well. I like the idea that at the end of the day, you just drew what "turned you on." It's something I've noticed in your stand-alone images as well, a very natural sexual, overt or covert, content. I'm struggling for a question here, but instead it's more I'm just saying, "Bravo."

JG: Well, thank you. I feel like I'm taking credit here for something that I can't really help doing, but I'm glad it works.

JTD: The dialogue between the witch and the lion head's entity stuck in my brain, returning to me over the course of several days after my initial reading (and are we talking Jadwiga of Poland and Buer as in the Germanic demon here?). And each time I re-read the the scene with the Hansel and Gretel type children, I am reminded of how abrupt and brutal that bit is (my mind somehow wants to gloss over it so I get a little shock when I read it again), and also by how effective both these two digressions seem. Can you speak of these two scenes, what was the process of their creation and inclusion within the larger narrative?

JG: There are two questions I kept asking myself when I was writing this story. The first one was, "What would a witch do with herself during her work day?" and the other was, "What is the worst thing that could happen now?" When I wrote Flesh and Bone I had just had a baby, which can make you very empathetic, especially towards children, and the scene with the children was one of the worst things I could think of, so I put it in partly because it upset me so much. The scene with Buer was because the story needed a sustained moment of intellectual dread to balance the visceral horror the characters were surrounded by. My book and I neither endorse nor denounce Buer's gloomy view of love, but I think the possibility that he's right is the most gruesome of the horrors the book presents.

JTD: I like the visceral versus intellectual horror tension. That's what I was getting out of it as a reader but just couldn't quite articulate as a writer, couldn't elucidate it in a linear fashion. I don't have much of a tolerance for other people's pain as well...especially children. And even animals. I always think of the line from the film Night of the Hunter: "It's a hard world for little things."

JG: It was difficult for me to draw, but in a way it's also a funny scene. Jadwiga is so perfectly phlegmatic throughout.

JTD: I was reading the scene with Buer at a particular time in the throes of the painful death of marriage, and I found myself on a dry and cynical rebound, so that it read to me at the time very logical. To the point of conjuring dread, but in a cold clean manner. I'm a bit more hopeful now, but he touches a horrible truth, or at least partial truth. Also, I really enjoy the approach of the witch that you mention, that sort of "all in a day's work" mentality that she as a character and you as author treat the material. Giving oral sex to Baphomet out in the woods, as much as I love that opening and it makes an immediate statement, it's also just treated in the narrative as business as usual. Again, there's not much of question implicit here; I'm reflecting on your answer.

JG: Well, I'm sure there are plenty of things I do as a matter of course that an uninitiated observer might find shocking or strange, too.

JTD: I still don't grasp the significance of the hanky slipped into the pocket with the resultant dogs and men removing it. Does this speak to mental deficiencies on my part as a reader?

JG: J.T., I'm sorry, but yes. The kerchief is dropped by the little girl as she's running away from Jadwiga's house, does that help? I don't want to ruin it.

[JTD smacks his own forehead.]

JTD: And this is the reason that you are the first person in this "Comics Round Up" series of reviews that I've wanted to interview as opposed to just simply write about. Flesh and Bone plays tricks on me. Things that don't make sense, make sense upon revisitations to the story. I forget aspects which I then remember. And then I missed a very obvious point which I reread a couple times specifically trying to resolve. At first, while I enjoyed the book, I thought that it might be faults within the narrative, and the more I study the work, the more I realize that the narrative has some way of messing with my perceptions.

Is it just me, or does Flesh and Bone have a happy ending?

JG: It has an ambiguous ending, which is my favorite type of ending.

JTD: It does seem like everyone gets what they want. But that might not be a good thing. Maybe we'll leave it at that.

JG: Heh, okay.

JTD: I've not read Ariadne auf Naxos. Can you tell me about it? Is there a connection to Strauss's opera? Or is it better to be appalled at the ignorance of someone willing to interview an artist when that someone is only familiar with one book? Is the third volume the only one in print?

JG: Ariadne auf Naxos is my series published by Teenage Dinosaur. It's about me befriending my favorite characters from literature, history, and pop culture, it's completely self-indulgent and silly and I'm thrilled that it entertains anybody other than myself. Yes, there is a connection to the opera, in part because it's about overcoming the loss of one relationship by throwing yourself into the next, and in part because, like in the opera, the characters in it can't really agree on whether they're in a comedy or a tragedy. I think you can still get all three volumes from Tim of Teenage Dinosaur. I'm nearly finished with a fourth.

JTD: I'm looking forward to acquiring and reading them.

What can you tell me about your new book, Too Dark To See? I didn't realize it was available for purchase until just before sending these questions out to you. Being that I live on my own internal sense of the passing of time, I'll review it or ask specific questions about it a year or two from now, I predict.

JG: It's modern-timesy. It's about a succubus. Like Flesh and Bone, it subtly addresses the subject of supernatural procreation, which is a topic I find fascinating. Also like Flesh and Bone I think the scariest part is when the characters are just sitting and talking.

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