Art and Design Prof. Phoebe Gloeckner isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Whether she’s penning an excoriating criticism of the comics community, illustrating a cross-section of a blowjob or telling the story of a murdered Mexican teenager, she’s got a lot to say on the subject besides what’s on the page. A cartoonist, writer and professional medical illustrator, Gloeckner accepted a position teaching figure drawing and comics in the School of Art and Design this term.
There’s a good reason her voice is so strong: Gloeckner has come up against all kinds of censorship — some external, some self-imposed — as a comics artist. “My work was just recently (called) ‘a handbook for a pedophile,'” she said. Last April, Stockton, Calif., Mayor Gary Podesto cited Gloeckner’s “A Child’s Life,” a collection of her illustrations and comics, as an example of a lack of control over potentially offensive materials in San Joaquin County libraries. An 11-year old recently checked out the book, which is clearly intended for adults. One story in “A Child’s Life” involves a young girl travelling through a fairy-tale forest in which she can see her future relationships with different men. In another comic, a girl named Minnie sees imaginary dolls — abused children, starving refugees — and tries to rescue all of them. The Stockton City Council decided that its library system would not carry the book because of its supposedly inappropriate content.
Although she’s upset about the censorship, Gloeckner feels comfortable with the content of her work. “I know it’s not (a handbook for pedophiles), but I hadn’t looked at my work in a long time. Then I forced myself to look at it and say, ‘Is this really bad?’ and then I realized it wasn’t. (Podesto) took it totally out of context.” But censorship of her work comes not only from readers and viewers, but from within the publishing community: A printing company in Ann Arbor refused to print Gloeckner’s most recent work, “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” because of its content.
“But there is that little-girl voice in you thinking, ‘You wicked child!’ I drew things like that ever since I was very small, for my classmates, and I think I did get in trouble,” says Gloeckner. As a young artist, her work went virtually unseen by family and friends; when her work first got published, she assumed that no one read the underground comic books in which her art appeared.
“I always thought, ‘I’m bad, I should hide,’ ” she said. “Then again, I have this overwhelming desire to express this, so I will. I don’t care if no one reads it. I’m doing what I have to do, and no one’s calling me bad because they don’t see it.”
Eventually, Gloeckner learned to forget about everyone else — at least while she’s still involved in the creative process. “I think my big problem was people’s misconstruing the meaning of my work. The relationship of the work to the viewer is the most important to the viewer. But to me, it’s my relationship to the work.”
Her comics have been called pornographic by some critics, but Gloeckner denies the label. “There are so many different things anything can mean,” she explained. “I think that when people look at a sexual picture, it makes them kind of excited, and they feel awkward feeling that, and they can’t work it out. So even if it’s a picture of child abuse, the knee-jerk response to that is sex.” Using disturbing imagery might make readers uncomfortable, but she knows that these illustrations are valuable to the larger work. “As an artist, you have to have that feeling, because you want the reader to have the same confusion the person in the story does. You don’t mind if they feel sexual for a few seconds if they get further into the psychological thing because that’s what it’s about.”
Gloeckner’s book, “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” tells the story of a girl named Minnie, who appears as a pre-adolescent in “A Child’s Life.” Minnie lives in San Francisco with her mother and sister as Gloeckner did; Minnie has the same face — strong jaw, bright eyes and thick dark bangs — as her creator. Because of this resemblance, readers often incorrectly assume that everything that happens to Minnie has happened to Phoebe, that Minnie’s thoughts and feelings are Gloeckner’s own. She channels many of her experiences into Minnie’s character, but she rejects the misconception that details about her life and Minnie’s are identical. “I was never thinking in terms of ‘This looks like me, people are gonna think it’s me’ because I was totally divorced from my public, if there was one — not even divorced, just never married … I kind of mix in other people’s stories and then hide them behind other characters.
“I didn’t consider the audience because I didn’t know if there was one. Once you realize later that you do have an audience, I think it becomes harder to do your work. Suddenly, you’re in danger of becoming self-conscious,” Gloeckner said.
Minnie’s adolescence is a time period from age 15 to 18 during which she carries on an affair with her mother’s 40-something boyfriend, Monroe. But the diary format of the book captures the important details of teenage life: Minnie draws comics, idolizes Bay Area cartoonists R. Crumb and his wife, Aline Kaminsky, hangs out on Polk Street, experiments with friends, boys, girls, drugs. Pages filled with comics panels and larger drawings illustrate Minnie’s diary entries. She eventually gets kicked out of school, runs away from home, meets a wild girl named Tabatha while living on the street.
In “Diary,” Minnie tells her story as a young woman still discovering the world; Gloeckner has received many e-mails and letters from teenagers who loved the book. But the visuals –— while beautifully created and emotionally arresting — can be shocking. Gloeckner includes a large panel depicting Minnie and Monroe arguing naked after sex; another shows Minnie and a potential abductor struggling in profile. Gloeckner stands by her art, but she realizes that her subject matter isn’t always the easiest to digest.
“I have two children who are girls,” she explained. “I want them to know that I’ve done stuff because I want to be a role model for them. It’s really strange when I can’t even draw in front of them because maybe what I’m drawing is scary or ‘inappropriate.’ So what do I do? I just say, “Hey, I did something, believe it or not. I can’t show you, but I did something.’ I want them to read it when they’re old enough.
“(Children) love black and white, they love a fairy tale with a good guy and a bad guy. They’re not quite ready to understand gray or contradiction. So it’s not just the content, whether the story is appropriate or not, it’s a lack of certainty, or an insecurity, she said. “It’s disturbing to feel insecure that way.”
Gloeckner is currently working on a comic about a murdered Mexican teenager in conjunction with a piece about Russian refugees by cartoonist/journalist Joe Sacco. She travelled to Mexico to meet with the girl’s poverty-stricken family, but wasn’t sure how to rationalize her presence as an artist.
“I was really scared to meet this family who’d lost their teenage daughter … But I went down there and met the family, and they were very forthcoming and very, very poor. I had never seen such poverty. They told me all about their daughter, but they only had one icture of her that had been used for the missing poster and the police never gave them back the original, so the only picture they could show me of her was a badly Xeroxed missing poster. So it’s my job to kind of recreate this girl, to make her alive again to some degree. But I felt really weird as an artist to be extracting parts of a story from people who had lost so much and had so little to begin with,” she explained. “It just felt like I was exploiting them.”
In return for their story, Gloeckner found a way to help the girl’s grieving family. “I’m doing a story that’s somewhat fictionalized and somewhat realistic, but it can never recreate their daughter … They already suffered the ultimate loss. So now I’m focused on helping one of the other kids, who is now 17.” In addition to paying for English lessons, Gloeckner is trying to obtain a visa for the girl — she would stay at Gloeckner’s Ann Arbor home and continue learning English. “I think I get really personally involved with things, and you want to make things right and you can’t,” she explained.
That might sound like an extraordinary measure, but maybe that’s just Phoebe Gloeckner. “If I was doing a story about you, I’d want to crush you up into a little ball and swallow you, you know?” Because an artist can never completely comprehend his subject, Gloeckner says, “It’s sometimes easier to sublimate other characters into something that looks like me. You just have a feeling, you want to express it, so you use whatever you can.”
To be able to create art for oneself, she says, artists must separate themselves from their audience and pay attention only to how they feel about their own work. “It becomes schizophrenic, and in order to do really honest and genuine work, you have to have that separation. You can’t be thinking about who’s out there. They don’t matter. They do not matter,” she emphasized. “They only matter once the work is done, and it’s none of your business what their interaction with the work is. It’s out of your hands.”
Daily Arts Writer Sam Butler contributed to this article.