Samantha Berger takes us underground to discover the New York City female comic book artist scene.
I have been a serious reader and collector of children's books from the time I could read--and even before. When I read books like Where the Wild Things Are, The Giving Tree, and Sylvester and The Magic Pebble, I instantly connected with this medium and the wonderful relationship between text and image together on the page. It was clearly the thing that I wanted to do when I grew up. When I did "grow up," or at least got older, I discovered comics and graphic novels. YEEEEY! It was like children's books--but for grown-ups! However, I may not be talking about the type of comics with which most people are familiar. I too had a huge misconception of what comics were. Even the word "comics" implies a meaning which isn't reflected in the kind to which I'm referring. To me, "comics" had always meant "the funnies"--those cutesy blurbs in the newspaper, like Charlie Brown, Family Circus, and occasionally actually funny ones, like Calvin and Hobbes. Or sometimes "comics" meant comic books, like Archie, Superman, and Casper. Let's face it, the same word "comics" is even used for comedians! There should be a new word for the good ones. Getting Introduced In 1994 I heard about a project two women in Philadelphia, Debbi Rogow and Sheri Grasmuck, were working on. It was a comic book aimed at girls in the 8-13 age range and was going to be an alternative to Archie. They felt comics were under-used as a medium to reach children, especially girls. They believed there were no comics for girls to read except Archie, which has two girls with identical hot-bods, and different color hair fighting for Archie's affection, and stuck in 1955. Oh, and Barbie also had her own comic. Not the best in the way of role-models. This project, called Get Real would be published by their newfound company, C.O.L.L.A.G.E (Comics, Arts and Gender). It had intentions of having a multi- ethnic group of characters, and dealing with "real problems" in the "real world." It could also function as a literacy tool, and touch on some female health issues while it was at it. Maybe it could be in public schools....maybe it could be in women's health clinics...It aimed high and had a lot of potential.
After contacting them and reading their proposal, I began writing and illustrating comics about the painful teenage years. We worked together, and ultimately, I began editing their scripts, and designing some of the pages or doing thumbnails for the artist. They ended up using many of my stories, but having their artist re-draw them in his Archie-esque style. The end product is great in intention, but a bit more didactic and politically correct than my goals aspire to be. This started me thinking....maybe I should do my own book.
It was Art Spiegelman who originally rocked my world with the comic form. Although my mother had told me throughout the course of my life to read the graphic novel Maus, she was my mother after all, and out of sheer stubborn- rebellious-young-spirit, I simply couldn't honor her request. It was the principle of the thing.
But, one day while I was working on the Get Real project, I stumbled into the Strand bookstore and saw Maus was on sale. Without even considering, I bought it, brought it home, and started to read. I could not put the book down. When I came to the end and discovered it was only the first volume, and the book left me hanging, I ran back to the Strand at top speed to get the second volume. Panting, I paid, parted, and headed home, so engrossed, I was reading while walking, and smacked into a mailbox. Never has a story been so well told as in Maus. The images stained my mind. Nightmares followed. I was moved, a changed person. It was the dawning of a new time. These were comics. Real comics. Autobiographical comics.
Searching for the Underground
There simply had to be more and I began my search. I went to all the comic shops in New York, and this was the typical scene: You go in and check your bag with the blue-haired, multi-pierced hipster behind the counter. You make your way past the X-Men, X-Files, and X-Rated comics. Keep going past the Trekkies and teens pricing out U.S.S. Enterprise figurines. You go down the aisles, past superhero shelves, past Dungeons & Dragons, past the thrillers, horrors, and mystery novels. There, usually tucked away in the very back of the store, is the "indie," the "underground," the "alternative," section. That's where you find the good stuff.
And that is precisely where I went. Since comics are usually pretty inexpensive, I went for it and bought a whole bunch that looked good to me. I bought Eric Drooker's graphic novel Flood. I bought Peter Kuper's book Stripped and the very first full issue of a comic called Girltalk. That night I had myself one hell of a read.
Each one of those books had a profound effect on me, each in its own way. Flood is a powerful graphic novel, with almost no text, which I have re-read time and time again. I felt a deep connection to it, having grown up much of my life in alienating, cold New York City. I found Eric's storytelling exceptional as well, hard-hitting and deep, like Maus, and inspirational. I wrote to him to tell him how much the book had affected me.
Peter Kuper's book, Stripped, "An Unauthorized Autobiography," tells the story of young Pete's journey through awkward adolescence, de-virginization, "very little sex, way too many drugs, and rock-n-roll," and his "first love/hate relationship." I was laughing so hard, I literally fell off my chair. After I read it, I read it out loud to friends, and we all laughed heartily into the night. This book motivated me to do a comic called, The Stripped Strip, about my reaction to reading his book, and I sent it to Peter.
Girltalk is a collection of comics by all different women and one very cool man. It is edited by Isabella Bannerman, Ann Decker and Sabrina Jones. The stories deal with everything from First Love, to Singin' those Postpartum Blues, to Old Flame, to a graphic biography about Marilyn Monroe. What can I say? It's a fantastic book. I laughed, I cried, I declared, "It's better than Cats," and then I wrote to the editors to tell them how much I enjoyed their work.
So, I pick out these comics and I love them and write to the authors independently of one another. Then one day, I pick up an issue of World War 3 Illustrated. It's a compilation of political comics on one unifying theme per issue. There I found all the people I had written to together in one book! Peter Kuper, Isabella Bannerman, Ann Decker, Sabrina Jones, Eric Drooker and many, many more. Not only are they all there in the same book, but they all know each other! Crazy coincidence? I think not. It was right then that I realized it was a small intimate group of people doing this kind of work, and all here in New York City!
To make a long story into a long summary, I began taking Peter Kuper's comic course at School of Visual Arts. It was there I met my first comic-book partner Ursula O'Steen, and we started our own comic, Pure Friction. We featured work from many Girltalk and World War 3 artists, and tried to expose people to other great comics while we were at it. Two years later, I'm about to release a graphic novel called The Dungeon Diary and Ursula will be coming out with her book Wrong in January of 1999.
Rather than hunting through the back shelves of local comic shops without a clue, there's a quicker way to become aware of all the great comics out there. Here it is. I will give you a list of the stuff I think is the best of the best. If anyone had given me this list years ago, I would have been eternally grateful. Here goes:
* Girltalk. Edited by Isabella Bannerman, Ann Decker, and Sabrina Jones; published by Fantagraphics.
* World War 3 Illustrated. Published by Confrontational Comics, founded by Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman some 18 years ago; distributed by Mordam Records (Go, Mordam, GO!).
* Bleeding Heart.
* Wild Life.
* Life and Death by Peter Kuper; published by Fantagraphics.
* Give It Up! A book of Kafka short stories; illustrated by Peter Kuper; published by NBM.
* Eye of the Beholder by Peter Kuper; published by NBM.
* Flood by Eric Drooker; published by Four Walls, Eight Windows.
* Maus by Art Spiegelman.
* Seven Miles A Second by David Wojnarowicz and James Romberger; published by Vertigo Verite, a sub-sub-division of DC.
* Understanding Comics, the Bible for the medium, by Scott McCloud; published by Kitchen Sink Press.
* Slutburger by Mary Fleener; published by Drawn & Quarterly.
* Meatcake by Dame Darcy; published by Fantagraphics.
* Dirty Plotte by Julie Doucet; published by Drawn & Quarterly.
* Naughty Bits by Roberta Gregory; published by Fantagraphics.
* Peep Show by Joe Matt; published by Drawn and Quarterly.
* Muthafucka by Lance Tooks and company; published by Danger Funnies.
* Just Who The Hell Is SHE Anyway? by Marisa Acocella; published by Harmony Books.
* Marilyn-The Story of a Woman, a graphic novel about Marilyn Monroe, by Katherine Hyatt; published by Seven Stories Press.
War In The Neighborhood, a graphic novel by Seth Tobocman; published by Autonomedia.
There's a "short" list to get you started. Should you want to get these through the publishers, here's a few addresses that might be helpful:
Fantagraphics7563 Lake City Way NESeattle, WA 98115(800) 675-1100 (for a free catalog)
NBM Publishing185 Madison Avenue Suite 1504New York, NY 10016
Four Walls, Eight Windows39 West 14th Street Room 503New York, NY 10011
Kitchen Sink Press320 Riverside DriveNorthampton, MA 01060
Drawn And Quarterly5550 Jeanne Mance St. #16Montreal, Que H2V-4K6
You may want these addresses to contact the publishers and get some of these comics. You may also want it to pitch them your own comic book ideas. But most importantly, you may need it to write and request some of these comics stay published and keep coming out. Comics are rather endangered. It's difficult to track their profit, which is low to begin with since they're so cheap. It's also often difficult for them to reach their desired audience, since women are usually scarce in comic book shops. (And who can blame us?) Since most book stores and newsstands will not carry comics, it really depends upon strong word of mouth and letter writing. Girltalk is on hold right now but I have a feeling, after you check out some of these comics, you'll want to write to the publishers, and keep them around for years to come.
Samantha Berger edits and publishes the comic book Pure Friction. Her self-published graphic novel, The Dungeon Diary, will be released in 1999. By day, she writes, draws and narrates children's books on tape for Scholastic in New York City.