Artist Profile: Phoebe Gloeckner on the language of comics
“Cartooning for me is a language that is not solely visual — the words and the images don’t stand alone … they come together to form something else.”
It is early evening as I sit in the studio of artist Phoebe Gloeckner, an associate professor in the Stamps School of Art & Design. Though best known for her semi-autobiographical graphic novel “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Gloeckner has worked as a medical illustrator, published two full-length graphic novels and seen countless comics printed in journals and magazines. She is fascinating and passionate, and The Michigan Daily had the pleasure to chat with Gloeckner and gain insight into the world of comics and cartooning.
Gloeckner’s attic studio is large and eclectic; the ceilings are high and something is occupying every nook and cranny of the space. In the center of the room, the floor is made up of a sandy-dirt mixture. Each wall is uniquely decorated — no section is left bare. One wall is hidden by books while another boasts shelves lined with cloth dolls. There’s a storage room containing every art supply imaginable, and a tall ladder in the sandy center leads to a loft occupied by what appears to be miniature film sets.
I sit on a low chair, facing Phoebe’s desk and the stool on which she is perched. We’re discussing whether or not autobiography works better as a graphic novel than a traditional novel. It’s a contested subject.
On one hand, Phoebe argues that stories involving heavier, real topics work well as graphic novels because “the more specific something is, the more relatable it becomes. I think in a sense it’s easier to do that with comics because instead of describing the wallpaper, you’re drawing the wallpaper, it’s there.” The concept that graphic novels allow readers to visualize their characters exactly the way the author sees them, however, is a double-edged sword.
When asked if presenting readers with one specific image made them focus more on the content and less on the imagination, Phoebe responded with questions of her own.
“When you read Maus, do you just accept the person looks like a mouse? Or someone is cartoony with simplified features? This too gives you room to interpret what they look like in real life.”
Ultimately, the conclusion was that there is no conclusion. After all, cartooning isn’t always black and white. As Gloeckner pointed out later in the evening, when showing the comics in consideration for the 2018 edition of “Best American Comics,” an anthology for which she is the year’s guest editor, the style of a comic is specific to each cartoonist. Some are vibrantly colored and look hand-painted; others are grey-scale and closely resemble doodles. The variety of both subject and style in the comics was astonishing. This variety is perhaps why she is so drawn to the form.
Gloeckner’s fascination with comics was born when she was living in San Francisco and sneak-reading the “head comics” her hippie mother and stepfather had (unsuccessfully) hidden from the impressionable eyes of 12-year old Phoebe. And impressionable these comics were. The nature of underground “head comics” — wild and inappropriate — taught Gloeckner that comics “don’t have to be limited to superheroes or cute dogs.” It was this early education which taught Gloeckner she could “do comics and they can be about anything (she) wants.”
The notion that comics can be about more than just “superheroes and dogs” is not a new concept. Gloeckner cited several contemporaries who used this form to tell heavy, often autobiographical stories — Art Spieglman’s “Maus,” Justin Green’s “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” and Robert Crumb’s stories with his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb. The category of comics which reveal universal truths about humans through personal histories is heavily a (and artfully) decorated one.
Reflecting on her own semi-autobiographical works, Gloeckner recalls why she was inspired to write “Diary of a Teenage Girl” in the first place: “I didn’t see that voice reflected in other books or other films and that voice wasn’t just mine. It could be any girl, or any person, perhaps.” It could be any person, and it was; Marielle Heller saw herself in Gloeckner’s work and adapted the piece first into a play and later a film. Though Heller’s motivation to make the film differed from Gloeckner’s inspiration to write the book, the sentiment was the same for both.
Nowadays, Gloeckner is working on another unique form of storytelling — one which may not be qualified as a comic at all. Her current project uses cloth dolls and elaborate, miniature film sets to represent the violent scenes of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico.
Initally sent to Juarez to write stories for Amnesty International, Gloeckner found herself drawn back time and time again. It was on one of those trips she read a police blotter about the brutal rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in Juarez. At the same time, Gloeckner was supporting herself by working as a medical illustrator on a project titled “The Joys of Sex Toys.” Both the murder and her work as a medical illustrator involved, coincidentally, butt plugs.
“It got all my wires crossed, and I had difficulty drawing either thing,” recalls Gloeckner. Compelled to further explore the violent story but unsure how, Gloeckner came up with a unique alternative to cartooning.
“I’ll use dolls. I’ll kill them and then the next day I’ll wipe the blood off, and they’ll be alive again,” she said.
New challenges accompanied this undertaking. “I had to learn to use power tools and make things and I didn’t know how to do any of those things before.” She experimented with stop-motion and learned to understand and speak Spanish.
Though still in the process of finishing the story, her piece has already affected change. When it is done, a valuable, necessary story will get the attention it deserves.
Regardless of the project — illustrating sex toys, teaching digital painting, creating a graphic novel, researching a foreign community — a genuine passion is ever-present in Gloeckner’s work. It’s clear that she is still fascinated by what hooked her in the first place: That there are stories to be told and pictures to be created, and they can be whatever. It doesn’t have to be superheroes and dogs — but it could be. With Phoebe Gloeckner, art can be anything.