On Being a Woman in the Manly World of Daniel Clowes

Editor’s Note: This is one essay that you’ll need to read all the way through to the end in order to really appreciate what Ms. Mardou is getting at here.  We’re confident that you’ll be glad that you did.

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Clowes, Daniel, Eightball#12, Fantagraphics Books Inc, 1993

The novelist John Updike (1932-2009) experienced a feminist backlash during his long career. Possessed of laser vision (perhaps aided by his early calling to be a watercolorist and cartoonist) his pen was akin to x-ray on the lives of those smart New England housewives who formed his muse.

The critic Anna Shapiro spoke for a consensus when she opined:

It was the way he depicted women. It was the way he described them – us. You felt yourself squirming, wanting to pull a blanket over you, preferably lead-lined, to shield yourself from the merest stray phrase or casual observation. Not because they were sexual and incited one’s modesty. It was not like being stripped. It was like being splayed open on the examining table under the glare of medical lamps while satirical remarks were made; it was being seen looming with comic grotesqueness through a telescope; it was the most unfriendly leering by someone saying, You see? You see? How could anyone love that?

You know, I don’t fully agree. When I first read Updike, in my twenties, these heroines of Updike’s fiction struck a chord. These were not the bland, homogeneous impossibly beautiful ‘Girl-Next-Doors’ of Hollywood or TV. These were ordinary dames: with freckles, graying hair, stretch marks, big hips and fat asses. They could be annoying, or adorable. They drank too much and got sloppy. They were usually married, indulged in affairs on the side, fell in love against their better judgment and even accidentally killed their children sometimes. But somehow, they recovered and held it together like women do. And Updike couldn’t get enough of them. They were interesting in their ordinariness. The men in Updike’s world were equally messy, but seemed to fly apart easier. They spiral out of control, run away, give themselves heart attacks, or resign themselves to sadder, humbled second lives. The outright misogyny perceived by Updike’s contemporaries just didn’t hold true to my mind. It was too complicated to dismiss that easily.

Which brings us to Daniel Clowes. His depictions of women are at times, unflinching (is this how men really see us?)

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From Gynecology, Clowes, Daniel Caricature, Fantagraphics Books Inc, 1998

Is this how MY gynecologist unconsciously feels?

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From Gynecology, Clowes, Daniel Caricature, Fantagraphics Books Inc, 1998

These ‘splayed’ early stories prompted female reader intervention:

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Clowes, Daniel, Eightball#18, Fantagraphics Books Inc, 1997

Did Natalie Larios change the direction of Clowes’s work? One can only guess. Well, at any rate, whilst Updike would be followed to the grave by charges of women hating, Clowes gets roasted for outright humanity hating. Here we have from a review of ‘Wilson’:

Some readers will wonder whether the world really needs another maladjusted, illustrated misanthrope. (See also the work of Adrian Tomine, Ivan Brunetti, Robert Crumb — and Daniel Clowes. Obviously the Oscar-nominated creator of Ghost World, among several other rightly beloved comics, has a way with misanthropy.)

Neither Updike nor Clowes shied away from the darker underbelly of humanity, but just as I think dismissing Updike’s close inspection of womanhood as misogynistic quite cuts it, nor do I think the misanthropy identified in Clowes’s work is quite on the nose either.

Consider this dark snippet:

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Clowes, Daniel, Ice Haven, Pantheon Books, 2005

There’s more to this than murder, there’s conscience and awareness of what else could have been. I’m going to argue that Clowes’s comics are shot through with humanity and that the main manifestation of ‘what else could happen’ comes to light through his depictions of women.

I see similarities with Clowes and Updike in so far as they are both known for their precise, finessed detail, their craftsmanship. I should also point out that in comics and literature respectively, Clowes and Updike are both heirs to Vladimir Nabokov’s crown. Both artists cite him as a big influence. Thematically this carries over too. Updike’s notable for his main themes of God, sex and America. What are Clowes’s themes? Sex and America? Sure. God? Well, yes, it’s there. Mortality certainly looms as themes in both men’s work as in Nabokov’s before them.

So let’s start with sex. It’s a preoccupation in Clowes’s work. Many of Clowes’s story feature men who chase their existential need to be mated and they can’t do ‘life’ alone. They are drawn to the power of the Dyad! Clowes, like Updike has created a series of women with so much complex verisimilitude over many years of books. Women are both salve and salvation in the bitter worlds both men paint – at times – so acidly. It’s hard to know where to start, so let’s start with this:

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Clowes Daniel, Orgy Bound, Fantagraphic Books Inc, 1996

As fate would have it, I was 22 years old myself when I read that for the first time and knowing Clowes to be a little unusual in his definition of ‘beautiful’ it gave my mawkish, raw self a sense of hope!

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Clowes Daniel, Orgy Bound, Fantagraphic Books Inc, 1996

Clowes made another case for ditching the mainstream aesthetic in 1995’s short story, Caricature (Hollywood’s bland actresses are also impossible to draw, so forget THEM) but this goes beyond fashion. Mainstream’s rejects are not just – to his refined mind – physically lovely but they ‘saved him’ according to his most overtly autobiographical story to date:

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From Blue Italian Shit, Clowes, Daniel Caricature, Fantagraphics Books Inc, 1998

A different type of lonely, naïve urban misfit-girl’. I knew this girl! I knew many of her English, 1990s counterparts. This was real to me. And ‘they saved’ his life! Who knew we were that significant? We sure weren’t feeling appreciated at the time. But I digress. Here’s a sentiment we hear repeated over and over in Clowes’s fiction. The women save, rescue and redeem the men. And just the idea of them will do it! Note:

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Clowes, Daniel, David Boring, Pantheon Books, 2000

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Clowes, Daniel, Ice Haven, Pantheon Books, 2005

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Clowes, Daniel, Mister Wonderful, Pantheon Books, 2011

Women are often essential to the well-being of Clowes’s men. Even when they exist in auxiliary, care-taking roles they often get wrapped up in notions of sexual devotion.

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Clowes, Daniel, Eightball#23 ‘The Death Ray’, Fantagraphics Books Inc, 2004

And here David Boring’s one-shot date:

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Clowes, Daniel, David Boring, Pantheon Books, 2000

This speaks to a deep need in Clowes’s men folk I think (Please look after me! Please fuck me!). One can only speculate what’s going on with the guys (another time, another essayist!) but this ‘need’ is played out, conversely, when the beloved heroines disappear from view. Like Updike’s heroes who all too readily veer out of control, Clowes shows their lives graphically flying apart on the page. Witness David Boring losing his Wanda:

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Clowes, Daniel, David Boring, Pantheon Books, 2000

Or Marshall losing Natalie to the night, his world is reduced to abstract geometry:

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Clowes, Daniel, Mister Wonderful, Pantheon Books, 2011

And Jack literally dissolving into organic compounds after losing his girl, Patience.

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Clowes, Daniel, Patience, Fantagraphic Books Inc, 2016

What are we to infer from this? That women are the cosmic glue that hold the balance of humanity together? Perhaps it is something to that effect.

The ever-lurking God of John Updike’s prose is the typical protestant patriarch who must be worshiped and placated by knee-mail and missionary sex positions. Clowes’s stance on God seems a little more no-nonsense:

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From ‘Why I Hate Christians’, Orgy Bound, Fantagraphic Books Inc, 1996

I’d argue that Clowes’s notions of God are a little more aligned with Nabokov’s gnarled McFate. In Invitation to a Beheading Nabokov spares his protagonist’s sufferings in a cruel (not too fictitious) world by removing the veil and dismantling the novel around his head. Clowes takes this tack too with anti-heroes like Epps in stories like Gynecology, in the warped logic of Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and to a lesser extent David Boring, where God mockingly pops up, but we really can’t be sure what exactly is going on (is David already dead for the second two acts? That’s my theory; I mean who survives a bullet to the forehead with such alacrity and vigor?). Well at any rate, Clowes seems happiest deferring the universal questions to the ladies. Here’s Naomi in David Boring (and we already heard from his mom):

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Clowes, Daniel, David Boring, Pantheon Books, 2000

When not retrieving men from the maw of the void, perhaps more powerfully, Clowes depicts women relating to each other. The friendship of Becky and Enid proves to have ‘inter-generational staying power’ according to the Millennial misfit-girl zine, Rookie. Their unwinding friendship crosses the Generation X/Millennial divide speaks to women about their selves, clothes, boys, identity, friendships etc. I like this scene here as it reminds me of my own high school best friend whom I was haplessly willing to shed as she saw right through my grunge girl makeover in 1991/1992.

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Clowes, Daniel, Ghost World, Fantagraphic Books Inc, 1997

Clowes would tell the Comics Journal in May 2001 that his wife, Erika, being twenty when he met her, did influence the writing of Ghost World to an extent and that, in his own twenties:

I had a teenage neighbor next door who was this really smart French girl who would always come over and tell me her problems… She was very uncensored and she was really struggling to figure herself out. Enid is mostly, I think, based on a combination of two or three girls I knew in art school.

Undoubtedly Ghost World’s generation-hopping validity speaks to its ability to ring true. It’s charming, has pathos, and is cutely vulgar and achingly raw. The older I get, the harder I find Nabokov’s Lolita as a book to enjoyably reread, but I think of dear old crummy-toothed Nabokov himself, riding buses in the early 1950s, sitting behind teenagers so as to immortalize their slang and cadence. Ghost World has that ‘interloper’ quality too.

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Clowes, Daniel, Ghost World, Fantagraphic Books Inc, 1997

Well, Enid and Becky get a book to themselves, but subsequent young women characters share space in more diversely textured stories. The women of Ice Haven are exceedingly well delineated I think. Vida, this obscure-literature loving, future Hollywood sell-out (uhh? Is that you, Clowes?) is particularly memorable.

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Clowes, Daniel, Ice Haven, Pantheon Books, 2005

Julie Patheticstein and Violet Vanderplatz are two wronged women who team up in an unlikely friendship. Patience endures a humiliating stage in her development under the kind mentoring of the older waitress, Nancy. And Vida just adores her old grandmother, the fading poetess Ida Wentz. There’s a subtle alter-world of quiet kindness and acceptance in his books and when you look for the women, you’ll find it there. It would be a miserable life for the men if not for this quiet, subplotted influence. Even grumpy-pants Wilson benefits from the tender mercies of his daughter, and then from his life companion, Shelly.

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Clowes Daniel, Wilson, Drawn and Quarterly, 2010

But the women here aren’t just in it for the men’s sake, let’s remember that. Clowes’s most stirring heroines often get to blow the joint at the end. Naomi walks out of David Boring’s warped (after?) life:

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Clowes, Daniel, David Boring, Pantheon Books, 2000

We can’t help but note how pathetic and inept David looks next to this smart, deserving woman who packs her bags, vowing to escape the coming apocalypse. Good for her!

Vida leaves for Hollywood:

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Clowes, Daniel, Ice Haven, Pantheon Books, 2005

Violet leaves her bullshit non-marriage and step-family behind, and of course Enid is going to get on that bus before the story’s done.

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Clowes, Daniel, Ghost World, Fantagraphic Books Inc, 1997

What is going on here? The women get more choices than Clowes’s men. From Clay Loudermilk to Daniel Pussey to David Boring the men inhabit this spectrum of sad indignities like Fate’s blind somnambulists. The women are operating on a more awakened level I think. Dan Clowes writes women so damn well that they overshadow the men they deal with on every page that they interact together. Why is this so? Is it because of feminism? Post modernism? Punk rock? What’s driving this?

The boys and men of Ghost World don’t stand a chance at outshining these women (which is why I personally balk at the movie adaptation giving a sexual role to the Bearded Windbreaker character. Oh come ON! I don’t care if it is Steve Buscemi, restore Brad Renfro’s impromptu blowjob please. Director’s cut. ‘Nuff said.)

Maybe one way we can understand what Clowes is getting at with all these astutely rendered female characters is getting back to the cosmic glue notion. Consider this quote I read in a diet book years ago, it really stuck with me:

Healthy yin energy is the stuff of relationships. Currently believed to be on expand mode, the universe courses up and through a woman, pulling both partners towards their primary connection with a larger whole. No wonder we got burned as witches.1

Clowes’s career then can be seen as thus. He represents the quiet fire of the Ink Stud, using his male gaze to exalt ordinary women and ‘Ugly Girls’ in a way that Updike tried and spluttered at and Nabokov, in his born-in-1899 way, exquisitely failed (seriously, Charlotte Haze is a blow to middle-aged women everywhere). Comics-wise, women and their pesky bodies have openly been a preoccupation for cartoonists since the 1960’s (2). Womanly speaking, I don’t see much to relate to in the world of Robert Crumb or Chester Brown say, nor do I personally identify with the gorgeous cartoony chicks of the Hernandez universe. But Clowes’s women keep ringing true.

And maybe it’s because his male gaze isn’t wielded with a leer or as a controlling force – it’s a means of understanding.

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Clowes, Daniel, Mister Wonderful, Pantheon Books, 2011

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Clowes, Daniel, Mister Wonderful, Pantheon Books, 2011


1 Jessica Porter, A Hip Chicks Guide to Macrobiotics, Penguin, 2004 p269

2 Well there’s George Grosz, he was pretty girl crazy too, but the Sixties is when it began to splurge out, right?

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Sacha Mardou is a Brit making comics in St Louis, Missouri. Sky in Stereo is her most recent comic.

Cartoon Crossroads Columbus: is this real life?

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CXC happened last weekend in Columbus, OH, and I got to represent Team Comics Workbook and also myself as a special guest (this has never happened to me before – count me overexcited and also terrified!)

I get in on Thursday night and head to the President’s Reception feeling very wallflowerish as I know literally no one except through Facebook and Instagram. First off I meet Tom Spurgeon (finally!), Jeff Bone and his lovely wife Vijaya, Caitlyn McGurk, and Robin the Inkstud. I nervously nurse my wine and then I am rescued by Sergio Aragonés, who sits next to me with a plate of meatballs and a beer. I’m a vegan but I don’t even care about the meatballs! It’s Sergio Aragonés and I proceed to fannishly monopolize him for the next hour. Sergio! I’ve loved his comics in Mad Magazine since I was eight years old.

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Sergio and I – photo by Caitlin McGurk

Ahhh. Those moments of life where nothing degrades or disappoints. CXC is already off to a GREAT start.

Friday morning I’m giving a Peer-to-Peer talk at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. I’m very nervous, but also ‘over prepared’ – I’m not going to TRUMP this, thank you very much. It’s also at 10 am, so I figure no one’s hardly going to be there. WRONG! It was a full house; I talked about scripting and planning processes for long form fiction in comics. I tried to jazz it up with stories of ayahuasca (not my own of course, I’m totally square, dear reader) and out of body experiences and Amazonian explorers. And I did a reading from the thumbnails of a new graphic novel I’ve been working on this year.

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Presenting on Friday – photo by Juan Fernandez

Once that was out of the way, I was free to enjoy the Billy Ireland Museum. I loved it so much. I copied some stuff in my sketchbook whilst I explored in a blissed out state. Oh and I ran into old pal T. Edward Bak and we had lunch. Day Two: AWESOME.

I skipped the festivities on Friday night so that I could be the sole un-hungover person at CXC on Saturday for a full day of tabling and socializing. I made the right decision. You have to treat comic’s shows like an eleven-hour congressional hearing, i.e.: you need STAMINA.

(Apologies if the election has snuck in to my CXC coverage. Ohio is very much a swing state and my weekend, traffic, eating in bars etc, were interrupted by bizarre looking fashionista Trumpettes and a presidential motorcade – yes, both Trump and Obama had been/were in Columbus that very weekend.)

So, Day Three: Saturday tabling. It went great. I hunkered down with Team Comics Workbook, and got to finally meet some of my Comics Workbook Roller Derby of the Mind compadres, particularly Alyssa Berg, Whit Taylor and Sally Ingraham. At one o’clock I had an author spotlight thing, which was easy and fun, thanks to Jared Gardner. I read from Sky In Stereo, and afterwards would sell all my copies. Sweet!

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The expo – photo by Juan Fernandez

So far I’m enjoying this show so much. The downtown Columbus Metropolitan Library is bright and airy, there’s some good energy about, the locals are so friendly and the organizers are present and visible. And I’ve sold all my comics! This never happens.

But afterwards when I’m alone again, in this new Midwestern city, I’m strolling around downtown Columbus at twilight. It’s Saturday but everything’s closing or closed. I feel a little spooked out and get to thinking about Dorothy Thompson talking about Terre Haute in the 40s or something. She wrote to her man, Sinclair Lewis:

This is a lonely country, it is so goddamned empty. I am turning mystic. Surely there is something in the very air of a city where civilized people have lived, worked, dreamed loved and enjoyed civilized pleasures for hundreds of years…some radioactivity which lingers in the atmosphere. I begin to believe in ghosts, gentle ghosts which keep one company in ancient towns. Here there are none.

Traveling alone spooks me out. I’m not a good traveler at the best of times. I walk; admire statues and fountains and government buildings. I pass a tiny Episcopalian church. It has an 8am service on Sunday morning. Tomorrow!  Maybe I’ll go, I tell myself, just to feel somehow cosmically rooted again. ‘You know what?’ I think, ‘I will definitely go. I’ll set my alarm tonight.

I go back to my hotel room and spruce up for that evening’s drinks reception in honor of Stan Sakai. And I have fun! I forget my lonely existential Midwestern emptiness and that night I roll into bed at 3am having been to a Haunted House in ruralish Ohio with my publisher and a couple of Rhode Island hepcats. The Haunted House has a definite ‘juggalo’ vibe, something I’d heard about but never seen. It was gross and yucky, people in costumes tried to touch me! But the sight of rural folk wielding fake chainsaws made out of leaf blowers and duct tape PLUS the company of good friends has somehow righted me again. I don’t set my alarm after all. I don’t need church. I just need sleep dammit, and I just need ‘my people’ and this weekend Columbus, OH, has been full of them.

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Jeff Smith visiting my table – photo by Jared Gardner

On Sunday I sell all my publisher’s copies of Sky in Stereo, experience a sleep-deprived meltdown and Alyssa Berg revives me with dried mango slices and crystal healing. I get through! I meet Keiler Roberts and Noah Van Sciver, they’re both great! I talk to lots and lots of people. Until its time to go get my plane! Sergio Aragonés stops by my table to say goodbye. Is this real life? Before I go I coerce Tom Spurgeon into a hug. It feels right. My delightful assistant (I have an assistant!) Sara drives me to Chipotle and then to the airport.

I fly home that night in the darkness over Midwestern cities that look like small bejeweled funfairs in pools of rural soupy darkness. America is a strange place. I’m full of that crackling comics energy. Ready to retreat again and draw my next comic.

Thanks Columbus, OH. Thanks to all the volunteers who were so nice and the librarians who were unfazed by all these cartoonists, and to the comics community, including my own Comics Workbook community, for being so rad. Is it not amazing that comics people can just assemble and friendships made at CAKE or SPX years ago, can just pick up again, over printed pages and falafels? Well, it’s sort of magical to me. I get to be part of this. It was a strange and spooky, magical weekend. I wanna come back for more! I do, I do.

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Sacha Mardou is a Brit making comics in St Louis, Missouri. Sky in Stereo is her most recent comic.


For the rest of our complete CXC coverage check out the special “round up” report HERE.

Bucket of Blood

Women self-censor.

Think about all the non-pregnant women of childbearing age that you know. A quarter of them are probably menstruating right now. So what? Is that statistical fact even a big deal?

Yeah. Kinda. I think so. You’re sat here reading these words on a screen because a woman once had a functioning menstrual cycle many years ago. The thing is, for something that’s so common and abundant and ordinary (PERIODS), we don’t see or hear much about it. Which is quite odd and antiquated if you think about it. I mean, how does society benefit to be so shielded* from our menses? Or for that fact, from our lactating breasts or our miscarriages or our ‘women’s troubles’, etc etc?

(*I don’t mean literally. I don’t want anyone to have a tampon thrown at them, thanks.)

This little essay is a personal response to the comics of Julie Doucet, which, since I first encountered them in my early twenties, served to rock my world. They forced me to question the kind of comics I wanted to make, my attitudes towards the female experience on and off the page, towards biology, sex and shame. All that stuff factored in my response to Julie Doucet’s comics. Plus they look and read great. They still hold this timeless, glorious power for me. I’m so freaking glad she made the comics she did! Let us take a look!

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Doucet, Julie, 1993 Leve ta Jame, Mon Poisson Est Mort (Drawn and Quarterly Publications)

I love these panels from Doucet’s Leve ta Jame, Mon Poisson Est Mort (pictured above). So serious and elegant, the details of the bathroom perfectly rendered, that toilet paper! (Julie draws the toilet quite a lot in her comics. Deal with it). Look at the little sweattels on her beatific forehead. This is about using imagination and humor to dealing with a familiar, tiresome fact of life (tampon overfull in the night). The ‘I succeed’ makes me chuckle, the gush of blood is not so terrifying, is it? It’s rendered in black ink after all. It’s cute even.

Well it got me thinking, this comic does present an unusual sight, does it not? A relieved woman, legs akimbo bleeding it to the toilet bowl from her levitating hover. Where are all the other women getting their periods in comics, or on screen? Sure, there’s Stephen King’s Carrie. She once had her period. I also seem to remember Brook Adams rummaging for a Tampax in Gas, Food Lodgings in 1992. Well so what about literature? Uterine bleeding was never fully acknowledged by the literary establishment until 1957 when Anna Wulf famously forgot her tampons in the novel The Golden Notebook, which ultimately won Doris Lessing a Nobel Prize, so groundbreaking was this depiction. Doris described the smells, stained sheets, the nebulous grotty feeling, the worry of accidentally bleeding through her dress in front of her male colleagues.

The Golden Notebook unleashed a free-for-all spurting of literary menstrual blood from Sylvia Plath all the way to Philip Roth (hey, Roth, want to really shock? Lovingly whip a tampon out of your female protagonist. She probably won’t mind). Those creators recognized some latent dark power when they needed it. It’s a useful taboo, creatively. It speaks to those dark fears and misunderstood feminine powers right?

And then there’s Julie, baring all with a shrug and a grin. God, how I love comics….

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Doucet, Julie, 1993 Leve ta Jame, Mon Poisson Est Mort (Drawn and Quarterly Publications)

When I was in high school a girl from another grade bled through her skirt and obliviously walked through the teenage crowd. A female teacher came up behind her with her sweater outstretched, tied it around the unsuspecting girl’s waist and hustled her away. There it was the biggest fear in all my years of high school in plain sight. I saw it! It happened to that girl I saw, it can happen to you too, teenage female! Never relax, never let down your guard! And…OH JULIE, you can’t do that! You can’t grow to King Kong proportions and drown the streets in your inky period blood whilst on the rampage for a box of Tampax. You just can’t do that!

This page (above) is the equivalent of a teenage air punch and I wished I owned the original. I would put it on the wall in my dining room in a heartbeat.

The comic strip ends on sweet note. I don’t feel like the menstruating women of the world ask for all that much. Tax-free sanitary products and a little understanding would be a start though.

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Doucet, Julie, 1993 Leve ta Jame, Mon Poisson Est Mort (Drawn and Quarterly Publications)

In Jedi terms our menstrual cycles can be understood to have two aspects, the waxing of the full moon, the ‘light’ and wonderful powers of the fertile period and the dank, smelly and scary shadow world of the menses. The ‘Dark’ side. This is known to us, albeit unconsciously.

Researchers at the University of Mexico…concluded that the financial reward for being a topless-lap dancer are far greater during the fertile part of the menstrual cycle with dancers earning nearly twice as much a peak ovulation time.1

The same pattern played out with waitresses at truck-stop café diners, researchers discovered. Waitresses found their tips peaked during ovulation (the pleasant part) and waned as the cycle moved towards menstruation (ew gross!). In other words, according to Earth Feminist writer, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli:

Our culture has a clear message to us: that we are rewarded for ovulating and devalued for menstruating…that menstruation is worthless to men and thus should be disregarded and rendered invisible.2

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Bagge, Peter, 2005 Buddy Does Seattle (Fantagraphic Books)

Julie Doucet’s comics don’t ‘render invisible’ this aspect of her biology but nor is she just letting it all hang out. She renders the female existence (and female-as-artist) experience in a relatable, funny, transformative way. Sex, masturbation, miscarriage, dreams of pregnancy are not held as taboos. Taboos can harm us, repress us, and shame us. And for what? To be stiffed on tips when you get your period (read: men know anyway). Why are we hiding all this bleeding?)

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Doucet, Julie, 2007, 365 Days (Drawn and Quarterly Publications)

This page (above) from Julie is a dream comic from her 2007 book 365 Days. It’s personal to her so I’m not going to attempt to interpret it – but I do want to point out that it’s full of imagery familiar to many women. Here she dreams of a liquefied baby in a yogurt cup called ‘Liberte’, a line of women with their successfully acquired babies, and getting your period yet again. These are familiar symbols for any woman who’s given thought to pregnancy, either wanting or not wanting it. Or both. It’s perfectly simple, complex, elegant, dashed off – it’s the absolute mastery Doucet has with pen and paper that makes difficult things look easy. And she writes with a clarity and honesty about themes with are common to many women, specifically perhaps, to women who want to create things and not just babies.

Here’s a fetus and a fashion model!

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Doucet, Julie, 2006 Elle Humour (Picture Box Inc)

I mean, woah! She takes bullshit women’s magazines and turns them into something transcendentally awesome.

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Doucet, Julie, 2006 Elle Humour (Picture Box Inc)

And this (above). It’s so funny, pretty, ironic. And smart. We the ladies, are the expansive force of the universe, are we not?

Women’s lives contain many interconnected cycles. And we overlap – put us in a house together and our menstruation will become synchronous. We’ll bleed together, more or less. And things have changed, generationally. I’m personally having more periods than my grandmother who birthed and nursed six babies ever did. All this bleeding is the new normal, at least in the Western world, for now. All this latent creative female energy and we’re so embarrassed about it? We should own our cyclic power. That’s what I get from Julie Doucet’s comics.

She connects to her inner forces, laughing and with a self-assured shrug, over many, many accomplished pages.

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Doucet, Julie, 1993 Leve ta Jame, Mon Poisson Est Mort (Drawn and Quarterly Publications)

1 Hallinan, Joseph T, 2009 Errornomics: Why We Make Mistakes and How We Can Avoid Them, p.47

2 Dinsmore-Tulli, Uma, 2014 Yoni Shakti: A Woman’s Guide to Power and Freedom Through Yoga and Tantra, p.259

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Sacha Mardou is a Brit making comics in St Louis, Missouri. Sky in Stereo is her most recent comic.

 

Art Trip: At the Magic House

The notion of a Children’s Museum just didn’t exist in the 1980s when I was a child and let’s face it, it’s a complete misnomer. There’s nothing “museum-like” about St Louis’s Magic House, enjoyable as it is (for children).

When I was a kid, the Museum meant the Manchester Museum, with impressive items pillaged from the British Empire and it’s protectorates during the Victorian Era. The Manchester Museum still has that same collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts and I remember them perfectly, on school trips pressed up against the glass, staring at partially unwrapped mummies with horrified fascination. One of the mummies was a male with a 2000 year bandaged up penis. You just don’t forget seeing that as a child.

Very unlike the Children’s “museums” of today, which are more or less interactive play palaces. That’s not a criticism, it’s fine, my kid had a great time. But unlike the Milwaukee Public Museum, where we took a family trip earlier this summer, I’m assuming she won’t remember much about the Magic House, except that she had fun. Nothing was learned, it’s an “in the moment” experience only.

But this cool tamarind monkey with its little hairdo at the Milwaukee Public Museum might be remembered for a lot longer. It already has legendary status in our family unit. (Note: Milwaukee Public Museum is perhaps the best museum I have ever been to. It’s like stepping into a lurid 1970s text book. Everyone should go there.)

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In Milwaukee I didn’t get to draw anything, as my participation in looking at stuff was required. At the Magic House you just sit around and wait for your kid to be done playing. Which works out great if you take a sketchbook. Maybe these pages will serve as a memory book for my child, now that summer is all but over.

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Art Trip is a series that features reflections on art and comics, and the adventures that transform those who seek it out.

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Sacha Mardou is a Brit making comics in St Louis, Missouri. Sky in Stereo is her most recent comic.

Chicago Alternative Comics Expo 2016

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Zak Sally and John Porcellino tabling at CAKE, with Dan Stafford perusing their wares

CAKE just happened in downtown Chicago. It’s such a fun show, currently in a great venue – the Center on Halstead. There’s a Whole Foods on the ground floor and come CAKE time it’s full of hungry cartoonists picking up lunch. It means you can momentarily pretend you live in this alternative reality comics town where you can casually run into Laura Park buying a hummus wrap, and then see Kevin Huizenga picking up a Dr Pepper on the way to the check out. It feels sort of right somehow.

This year there seemed to be less of an East and West Coast showing, at least to my memory. It felt more like a regional show this time around – you know, quite Midwestern in its focus. It felt too, like a show that had really found it’s footing, being well organized with super friendly and helpful staff. Debuting work was highlighted this year as well as kid-friendly books. And it’s free to get in, like the best shows always are. CAKE for me is one of the best shows. There was a great list of exhibitors including, this year, Chester Brown, Trina Robbins (signing Fantagraphics’ The Complete Wimmens Comix), Sammy Harkham, Patrick Kyle, and Leslie Stein amongst tons more.

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I tabled with Revival House Press, alongside my husband, Ted May. It always feels like we’re running a mom and pop store together (I love it!) and it was a pretty good show for us. Sales were alright for us (most people found sales to be sort of so-so this year) and we followed ‘Frank Santoro’s Rules for Tabling‘ so we had a ‘Treasure Box’ or two of old minis for sale as well as our own books. That Treasure Box, filled with books from conventions passed, did very well for us and paid for parking a few times over (Chicago, your parking system is so territorial and extortionate. Living in St Louis is like being in an improbable movie scene, where you just drive up to a restaurant and park right outside it. For free at weekends and evening. Truth.)

Well yeah. More about that Treasure Box.  Some were duplicates. Some were loved books we’d enjoyed and were ready to set free in the world. And some were junk – AKA – other people’s treasure. You know, when I went to my first ever Comix shows, dressed up, nervous, in my twenties, I’d look at every table. I was genuinely curious to feel out the scene. Boy, could vendors see me coming. I got hit by every sales pitch and in my shyness would invariable buy the cheapest thing they were selling. I’d end up with lots of stuff, stuff not always not to my taste you know. Mostly I got fleeced!

These days I’m more seasoned, experienced, inured against hard-sell sales pitches, or so I like to think. I know what my tastes are and I creep closer to a table only when my curiosity’s piqued. I know I’m missing out on some great stuff, surely, but I’m still sort of shy and still have a horror of hard sell sales-pitches. Look, comics shows are hard work! And expensive…

WELP, I spent quite a bit at CAKE this year. But happy with my purchases am I. And it’s my birthday soon so what better gift to myself than a stack of summer reading, right? Just look at this booty.

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So, in the spirit of readership I worked up the confidence to flit around on Sunday afternoon and asked a few top notch cartoonists and exhibitors, just what books THEY were psyched to have picked up at the show.

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Dave Nuss (Revival house/Alternative books) and Hazel Newlevant

Starting with my table neighbor, the awesome Hazel Newlevant – Portland born, NYC based Hazel is the editor of Chain Mail Bikini and author of No Ivy League (which is so great!).

Hazel, what was your most exciting pick this weekend?

Hazel Newlevant – “Kevin Budnick’s Handbook and Kevin Huizenga’s Comic School USA zines.”

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Marta Chudolinska

Marta Chudolinska is an artist whose work was new to me. She specializes in beautiful hand-cut linocut comics. I’m so glad I discovered her work at this show.

What are your top picks from the show Marta?

Marta Chudolinska – “The Ley Lines Czap books.

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Linocut by Marta Chudolinska

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I asked Midwestern stalwart, Zak Sally, What’s your book of the show?

Zak Sally – “Well I want to buy John Pham’s book. And King Cat 76 of course.”

John Porcellino’s Spit and a Half Distro was tabled right next to Zak.

John P, how is your show going?

John P – “Thumbs up. Not as many sales as last year but last year was unusually good for some reason.”

What’s your pick of the show?

John P – “Zack Sally’s Folrath Part 1.”

(Aw, fellas!)

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Onsmith and Chris Cilla

I asked Chris Cilla and Onsmith what their CAKE book picks were.

Chris Cilla – “The new Zak Sally book and Tiger Baby by Nate Beaty.”

Onsmith – “The new Chester Brown book. When I bought it from him, Chester asked me about my religious background so the book came with a short discussion about Lutheranism!

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Jen Tong

Jen Tong was selling beautiful handmade prints and mini comics. I wanted them all!

What are your best sellers this weekend, Jen?

Jen Tong – “My new mushroom print. And the PlantLife mini. I wish I’d brought more of them to sell.”

Can I ask who your visual influences are? I’m so in love with your prints.

Tong – “Maybe…Miyazaki. And Henry Darger!”

What’s your top pick from the weekend?

Tong – “John Pham’s new book.”

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Anya Davidson was selling her new book Gloom Planet. I asked her about what she looks for aesthetically when shopping for books at shows.

Anya Davidson – “Definitely a handmade versus a digital feel. If it’s raw and handmade looking, I’m going to stop and look at it. Narrative’s important too, as much as I love art comics.”

What are you going to work on when you get home from the show?

Davidson – “A new book for Retrofit called Lovers in the Garden.”

And what’s been your hot purchase this weekend?

Davidson – “Enter to Exit by George Porteus.”

(Anya’s much anticipated book, Band For Life will be debuting at SPX this Fall!)

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Dan Stafford of Kilgore Books

Dan Stafford of Kilgore Books was present and experiencing a great weekend.

Really? Most people have found sales to be middling this weekend.

Dan Stafford – “No, sales have been great. But only maybe because I do so badly at other shows, ha ha.”

What have been your bestsellers, Dan?

Stafford – “Sam Spina’s Vulture City stories, Noah Van Sciver’s My Hot Date. And of course the Joe Matt Paid for It book.”

What are your top personal purchases from the show?

Stafford – Tess Eneli Reid’s A Estonian Story: Silver for Bread. A fold out origami book, totally unique.”

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Kevin Huizenga

Midwestern comics superstar Kevin Huizenga was selling his new Ganges 5 at CAKE.

Hey Kevin H, what are your top CAKE picks?

Kevin H – “Chester Brown’s new book. Ley Lines by Warren Craghead (Golden Smoke) and Aisha Franz’s Eyez.”

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Thanks to old friends and new acquaintances for taking to time to talk to me! And thanks to the CAKE organizers for putting such a great show together. Ted and I drove home under a beautiful Midwestern sunset, totally enthused to get back to our St Louis hub and make more comics. I love that inspiring energy and momentum a good comics show can boost you with. And CAKE 2016 was a really great show.

I’ve got some comics to make and reading to do.

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Sacha Mardou is a Brit making comics in St Louis, Missouri. Sky in Stereo is her most recent comic.

Art Trip: Little Black Dress

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I just wandered into ‘The Little Black Dress: from Mourning to Night‘ at the Missouri History Museum, not particularly interested in the subject at the get-go. Once I whipped out my pencil, I found myself getting kind of into it.

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It was popular, lots of people, mainly ladies, many of them dressed up on a Sunday afternoon. There was a nostalgic enjoyment in the air, like people window shopping, remembering old dresses of their own. People felt comfortable here. And it was fun listening into the conversations around me. I got asked some unusual questions whilst I was drawing (including “are you a pattern maker?”)

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(I also kept thinking of that line from Dan Clowes, whenever he’s stuck watching a boring film, he watches the clothes move and studies the folds. Good advice. Watch the folds.)

My favorite part was the glass case containing the sewing machine and dressmaking tools. Suddenly I was thinking about my step-grandma, Ethel, who died a few years ago and of all the years she spent behind her own sewing machine. That special sort of concentration of cutting a pattern out of fabric, transforming the flat material to the body’s shape. When I was in college she reversed-engineered my favorite dress so I suddenly had three of them in different colors. People would ask me about those dresses whenever I’d wear one of them.

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Art Trip is a series that features reflections on art and comics, and the adventures that transform those who seek it out.

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Sacha Mardou is a Brit making comics in St Louis, Missouri. Sky in Stereo is her most recent comic.

“How we were thinking” – The Zeitgeist and The Complete Wimmen’s Comix

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1972-1992 – collected by Fantagraphics 2016

Mystic novelist Doris Lessing interspersed her autobiographies with news clippings and thought-snippets that she’d saved from the years she was writing about. It’s not something you see very often in personal biography; history books are preferred when pulling in contextual ‘fact’. Instead Lessing supplies us with flavors of 60’s London (such as “in cinemas and theatres we stood up for the national anthem”). There’s something so evocative about how she pulls on that shared current of her time. Some of ‘the times’ get culturally hardened and recorded in history books, but lots of it doesn’t.

In a similar vein, singer Ian Svenonius notes the transient attitudes of the Then-and-Now, using The Velvet Underground as an example ,

“…groups that failed in their own era despite catchy tunes, cool shades, turtlenecks and solid connections might have ‘felt’ bad to their audience…conversely, groups which might have felt ‘right’ at the time (the Grateful Dead, Grand Funk, Free etc) may seem confusing to listeners of a later era who are not privy to the pheromones said groups were releasing at their concerts.”

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From Kewpie the Groupie in Another Throb by Willy Mendes, 1971

Reading the two-volume release of The Complete Wimmen’s Comix made me think about those sort of cultural assumptions and blank spots. The first volume in particular feels like a powerful raw gust of real comics history. The pretty pink and black covers (with inset blue, bruise-like half moons) kicks off with Trina Robbin’s anthology It Aint Me, Babe (1970) and then the complete run of Wimmen’s Comix. I’ve read individual issues before and was somewhat ambivalent. Getting to read the whole gamut is a much different experience, especially the aforementioned first volume (1970-1985).

The second volume contains a lot of great stuff too (and more of the artists I’d cite as direct influences on my own work such as Julie Doucet, Phoebe Gloeckner and Alison Bechdel) but the first volume stands out. It seems more experimental, wilder and much less conventional.  I wouldn’t have name checked any of these artists in the 70’s/early 80’s as personal influences but this book has made me look with fresh eyes. There’s bold storytelling, some crazy comics layouts and lewd, unapologetically sexy content. It’s in stark relief to the relative lack of risk-taking I permit myself. (And yeah, I’m going to keep thinking about that one).

Another aspect that occurs to me is that volume one is essentially my mother’s generation making those comics (I was born in ’75) which makes the lack of respect for cultural niceties and cartooning norms seem even more punk rock and revelatory, as well as being somewhat nostalgic. It reminds me of looking though my aunt’s closet in the early 1980’s and finding all her old platform shoes and boots. My childish trespassing got me yelled at after the event, but I’m glad to own that childhood memory of trying on and walking around in those beautiful and weird, too-big-for-me ‘space’ shoes.

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From Remember Telluria by Trina Robbins, 1970

It’s not just surface and style though, the content is a match to the macho mores of its time. I’m old enough to remember the casual chauvinism of early 80’s primetime TV shows, as much as I remember seeing housewives with black eyes in the supermarket on Saturday mornings. Though, I was in 1980’s Northern England and not 1970’s San Francisco – yet it’s close enough to spark that consciousness. It’s kind of the thrust these feminist cartoonists were aiming at I think.

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From One Night Stand by Simone Bressler, 1973

This volume has also made me re-evaluate Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work. I found her book Need More Love a little tiresome in tone but reading her juxtaposed with other women artists in this context is such an enjoyable experience. Set amongst her generational peers it’s easier to see the frank humor and flippant skill in her work.  She’s so great!

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From Goldie in ‘Hard Work and No Fun’ by Aline Kominsky (-Crumb), 1973

A lot of the comics here do miss their mark artistically but it’s not important overall. There was enough I found exciting (and fun!) in these volumes to remind me of the direct power of comics in print – a single cartoonist to a single reader through ink and paper, sharing the highs and degradations of the female experience. This is a big, beautiful, door-opening book and I’m really glad it’s out there.

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From Home Again by Diane Noomin, 1973

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Sacha Mardou is a Brit making comics in St Louis, Missouri. Sky in Stereo is her most recent comic.