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Truth or Fiction

Cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner May Not Believe in Truth, But Her Work Explores Its Many Sides

By Christopher Skokna | Posted 3/23/2005

Phoebe Gloeckner

Digital-slide lecture on her work, titled “I Don’t Remember Being Born,”at the JHU Mattin Center March 24; Book-signing at Atomic Books March 25.

A young girl, 9 or so, sits leaning against a bookshelf in a typical kid’s bedroom—a clutter of toys, books, art supplies, and a wine-bottle candle surround her, a Chinese lantern-style light hangs overhead—but look closer. That book she’s reading is Lolita, other “adult” books dot the shelf (Poe, Naked Lunch), and the cat in the corner is squeezing out a dump. If this picture sounds to you like a cheap and easy juxtaposition of innocence and depravity, keep reading. It’s just the splash page of Phoebe Gloeckner’s 1998 comics short story “An Object Lesson in Bitter Fruit.”

As the story continues, the girl, Minnie, is called to the kitchen by her mom and stepfather, Pascal, and when she gets there, Mom is sitting on Stepdad’s lap, her minidress riding up so far that her garters are showing. Cigarettes and wine are being consumed. OK, a little off, but we’ve all been there. But then Pascal talks to Minnie about the birds and bees—“You’re almost nine years old now, nearly a woman. Your body will soon change—you’ll get breasts, like your mother”—while all Mom does is snicker.

Things only get worse for Minnie throughout Gloeckner’s 1998 comics short-story collection, A Child’s Life: And Other Stories, and her heavily illustrated 2002 novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures (both Frog Ltd.). Pascal continues to act completely inappropriately with Minnie in the Philadelphia-based “A Child’s Life” cycle of short stories, and she gets involved with drugs and pimps, and sleeps with her mom’s boyfriend, in the San Francisco-based Diary. Because Gloeckner looks a lot like Minnie, because their younger years followed such similar tracks (grew up in Philly, moved to the Bay Area), and because Gloeckner’s earliest comics are passed off as Minnie’s in Teenage Girl, it’s tempting to ask her if she is Minnie, if these stories are true. But don’t bother. Over the past year or two, in several interviews, she has made clear that her two books, if somewhat semiautobiographical, should be considered fictional.

“Memory is mutable. It changes, and it’ll keep changing,” says Gloeckner, who’s doing a digital-slide lecture about her work at Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus this week. “To say that something is true—that we experienced something—is not true.

“I don’t understand the word ‘truth,’” she continues. “‘Truth’ is something that is a human construct. It makes us feel comfortable to have these definitions, but I’m more comfortable in an ambiguous world. . . . [Minnie’s stories] make you feel who she was, or could have been. But I don’t know who she was, or I was.”

While she hasn’t quite fully sounded out all her ideas about truth and fiction, obviously Gloeckner has been spending a lot of time thinking about them. Her latest works, short comics she’s been doing while working on her next major project, often take the form of fumetti, comics made with photographs. Her recent comic strips play with Gloeckner’s own image through self-photos—sometimes a harried mom, sometimes a femme fatale—and in them she often confronts readers directly, staring into the camera and asking direct questions or making commands.

“I started wondering about my work,” Gloeckner says of her impetus for these short fumettis. “Obviously these photographs are me, but is that character me? Which photos you choose shows a lot. . . . While I know when it is and when it’s not me, do you?”

Gloeckner’s concern with memory is best seen in Diary’s comics sections, which act as adult Minnie’s unreliable correctives to her teen self’s unreliable diary entries. The comics seem more—to use almost certainly the wrong word—truthful. While young Minnie may be depicting her present in almost real time, older Minnie’s comics show more context and insight than the often impetuous, angry diary entries. All this talk about truth, memory, and identity, however, can be a distraction from Gloeckner’s other strengths.

Diary’s basic plot—young girl of divorced mom gets involved with drugs and such, but finds redemption through art—sounds at first like one of the all-too-typical super-confessional memoirs that have grown in popularity over the past decade. Part of Gloeckner’s success in turning this material into something worth reading, something we haven’t already seen a thousand times, is the fact that much of it’s in comics. We haven’t seen screwed-up lives like these in comic-book form before, so it’s, if not unique, at least novel.

Then there’s Gloeckner’s tone: matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental, deadpan. Minnie’s adventures are neither condemned nor romanticized, and every character is treated with sympathy; Gloeckner presents even child-adult sexual relations in a clinical way. You can overlay your own prejudices (critics have described her work as picaresque and moralistic), and her work is always provocative, but the author foils your expectations at every turn through her just-the-facts-ma’am style.

Most important to A Child’s Life and Diary’s success, however, is Gloeckner’s sheer artistic chops. While much of her drawing style and pacing clearly was inspired by comics’ Underground era—she was mentored by comix superstar couples R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky and Bill Griffith and Diane Noomin while a teen in 1970s San Francisco—it’s Gloeckner’s training as a medical illustrator that gives her comics their identity. Her precise lines make her work far more representational than her more cartoony peers. Yet her comics background allows her to give her characters’ faces a great range of emotion, and she can break out exaggerated effects, weird angles, and other cartoonist’s tricks when needed.

One effect in her bag of tricks—precise anatomical drawing—comes directly from her medical illustration training, in which she received a master’s from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. When she uses these skills, like when she shows various internal systems in 1990’s “The Sad Tale of the Visible Woman and Her Invisible Man” or the nearly too realistic penises in 1994’s “Minnie’s 3rd Love,” her work takes a turn toward the horrific. Add that to her clinical tone, and Gloeckner’s work, like that of fellow cartoonists Charles Burns and Renée French, can be profoundly disturbing, but without overt horror elements.

“As a kid, I always tried to imagine what was happening inside to food I ate, then, when it came along, sex, too,” she says. “We are our bodies. I don’t see body and soul as disconnected. It’s one thing. As far as why I went into [medical illustration], I never wanted to be a doctor or a medical illustrator, but I wanted to have that experience—going to autopsies, watching people get cut open. And it did give me something to support myself with.”

Born in 1960, Gloeckner says she is now finally able to support herself through her art, writing, and comics (not illustration: medical, commercial, or otherwise) and related activities, namely teaching comics and drawing at the University of Michigan. For too many years—her original strips date to the late ’70s—she was one of the most underappreciated underground/alternative cartoonists, much because she only released occasional short stories in anthologies like Wimmen’s Comix, Weirdo, Buzzard, and Twisted Sisters II. But with the publication of A Child’s Life and, especially, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Gloeckner’s talent is now far more recognized.

Despite her relatively newfound recognition, Gloeckner remains somewhat cynical about graphic novels’ trendiness or even whether comics can be art. In a 2001 short strip titled “I Hate Comics,” she writes, “You think comics can be ART? That’s a laugh! . . . It’s all just novelty. . . . In the GREAT SCHEME of THINGS, NOBODY cares about cartoons.” When asked about it, she is somewhat more equivocal.

“Comics are fashionable now, but 99 percent aren’t going to teach you anything, they’re not any good,” Gloeckner says. “I don’t have any patience. Whether you make something up or write about your own life, I want it to be honest and true. If someone comes into my class wanting to do fantasy stories about werewolves, it’s harder to get to the ‘why.’ So I try to make them think. They have to find their own voice.”

Gloeckner is less cynical, and more open to talk in general, when her newest project, I Live Here, is brought up. The book, a collaboration with The L Word star Mia Kirshner, is an examination of the hundreds of recent killings of young women and girls along the Texas-Mexico border, and a benefit for Amnesty International. For I Live Here, scheduled for release next year, Gloeckner says she and Kirshner traveled several times to Mexico to meet with the families of girls who had been murdered, and Gloeckner’s part of the book (35 to 50 pages of comics, she says) will focus on a girl, Maria Elena Chavez Caldera, who disappeared when she was 15.

While she says that “this is probably the first book that people won’t ask me if it’s autobiographical,” I Live Here certainly shares themes with Gloeckner’s previous work.

“The challenge for me is to resurrect a girl who has been murdered. This is a person I never knew,” she says. “It’s hard. . . . She was only 15, very shy, and no one knew her very well. . . . But this is what I always try to do: try to give a voice to someone who’s gone. This is not unfamiliar territory to me.”

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