Tintin and I

PBS Premiere: July 11, 2006Check the broadcast schedule »

Interviews: On Cartooning

Phoebe Gloeckner

Tintin and I - Phoebe Gloeckner portrait

POV: Hergé is famous for the ligne claire ("clear line") style he employed when drawing the iconic characters of Tintin, a style that contrasts with the unusually realistic landscapes and backgrounds of the worlds Tintin visits and inhabits. As Scott McCloud pointed out in Understanding Comics, this contrast gives the effect of allowing the reader to "mask themselves in a character and safely enter a stimulating world." "One set of line," he writes, "allows readers to see; the other to be."

In Diary of a Teenage Girl, when Minnie visits a comic book publisher in San Francisco, the publisher tells her if she wants to draw comics, she has to learn to draw fire hydrants, cars, animals, everything. Your style has evolved over the years: you can see its transformation in A Child's Life, which collects comics of yours published in places like Weirdo, Twisted Sisters, Wimmin's Comix. Describe your illustrative strategy or style as you see it. How did you arrive at it -- did you struggle to find it? How did your study and work in medical illustration factor in?

Phoebe Gloeckner -Frontis

Phoebe Gloeckner: I look at Hergé's work a bit differently. I don't perceive a significant difference in the quality of line between figure and ground -- Hergé's characters are drawn with realistic proportion and form, and refer to their counterparts in nature as faithfully as his landscapes. His line is la ligne claire, and as it extends throughout each panel, it is nearly unvarying, always of similar weight and defining the objects it describes with the same threshold of detail.

The very consistency of his drawing, and the skill with which Hergé simplifies a scene without leaving us feeling cheated of detail are the hallmarks of his genius, and when combined with his brilliant story-telling and his sense of timing -- from frame to frame and throughout the arc of the narrative -- Hergé seduces reader after reader to happily enter the world of Tintin.

His 72-page plots are somewhat formulaic, his characters are predictable and change little over time. But we don't grow bored of Tintin or Snowy or Captain Haddock. Their consistency is as comforting as that of many popular television characters -- like Fred Sanford, Gregory House, or The Three Stooges.

Oddly enough, I suppose, I don't give much thought to my style, and I don't attempt to be consistent -- except within a story. You ask if I struggled to find my style. It seems to me that style (in other words, a way of thinking and doing things) is innate. You can try to will it to be different, but it's like a signature -- you can't change its fundamental nature.

Tintin and I - Phoebe Gloeckner -Madwoman So, the answer is no. I didn't struggle to find my style (I prefer to call it "voice," because I think the word is more suggestive of complexity, implying quality of form and content). I do, however, struggle with making my work "work," and there's no predicting whether this can be achieved calmly or with a ferocious evisceration of the psyche.

My interest in medicine, biology and other aspects of science led me to focus on medical illustration in graduate school. I was quite sure I didn't want to be a scientist or a doctor, but I wanted to cultivate my understanding of what it is to be human, corporeal, in a way that was natural to me -- by observing. I also had always admired old medical art, having been exposed to it via my grandfather, a junk dealer who loved old books and clocks, and my grandmother on the other side, who was a doctor.

POV: What about moving into books like Diary of a Teenage Girl -- your novel written in the form of a diary, heavily illustrated with exquisite, intricate drawings and comics? The comics are like filmic interludes from the inner narrative; they're also used to tell the more dramatic parts of the story -- when Minnie's mother discovers her diary, for instance. How did you find that form for the book?

Phoebe Gloeckner - MinniePhoebe: That book is a good example of a project involving what I referred to earlier as "ferocious evisceration of the psyche." I started with raw materials -- the diary I kept as a teenager, old pictures and books. By the time I began the book, nearly 25 years had passed since I had lived in the time I wanted to write about. The physical diary was like an artifact from another realm of existence. In the meantime, I had somehow become an adult, and I found myself regarding the author of the diary as any and all 15-year-old girls -- and this girl was in a state of emotional bouleversement. I cared for her, like a mother in a way, and wanted to see her prevail over her troubles.

At first the diaries seemed precious: I was afraid to change them in any way. But I wanted to write a novel, not to compile a collection of my juvenilia. I knew that my challenge would be to preserve the girl-ness of the teenager, whether I was using her actual words or not, and whether she was indulging in precocious or regressive behavior. I essentially spent two years locked in my garage, hidden from the world, and living the interior life of a teenage girl.

Initially I was drawing single images to illustrate the book, sort of like an illustrated Victorian novel. This became frustrating, as the pictures were not serving to propel the narrative -- they were redundant interpretations of it. They offered no real relief from the self-centered voice of the teenage person who is writing for no one but herself. I began doing certain scenes as "comics" because that way, I had the opportunity to offer a window looking out at Minnie's life from a perspective that was not her own.

I couldn't think of a precedent for what I hoped to achieve, which made it harder to visualize myself. I couldn't describe it to others, either. This is usually how I work, though -- I'm not at all a linear thinker. I know the feeling I want to convey, but the form is what I struggle to find. I'm sure I'd fail if I tried to write a grant proposal or a book proposal.

POV: You told Gary Groth in a Comics Journal interview, "I think my last book [Diary of a Teen-Age Girl] is probably more what I was headed for. And now I feel like I'm headed for something else." What something else is that?

Phoebe: I meant that I don't like to be constrained to any one medium. I like to surprise and amuse (and indeed, torture) myself by weaving back and forth between images and words of all sorts, and trying to create work in the end that feels "of a piece." This is why I resist calling myself a "cartoonist." It doesn't seem to describe what I do. I talked with Gary after finishing The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and at the time, I felt I had succeeded as best I could in creating a book that was a hybrid of several forms. And, to the best of my ability, I had managed to do it in a way that did not seem "choppy." At least, that was my hope.

When I said I felt I was headed for something else, I suppose I meant that I didn't intend to follow that book with another of the same form. I wanted to work with media that were more plastic and dynamic than ink and paper.

POV: You told Nerve.com in an interview: "It always seems to people that I'm avoiding saying, 'It's autobiographical,' but I really do believe that human beings make stories and they make themselves. If I told you the same story twelve years ago, I could have emphasized something different. The importance changes, the meaning of things shifts over time. Also, I think all art is autobiographical. Every endeavor is full of impressions of ourselves."

How do you feel about your recurring characters? How real do they become to you as you work and live with them over the years? Do you imagine them having a life independent of the comic?

Phoebe: The characters that have recurred in my work have changed from one appearance to the next. A character does seem to have a life of its own, but I have what I'd describe as a very fluid relationship with them -- as I'm thinking of what they will be like, they shift in and out of focus -- they are a projection of some idea inside of me, even if a character is inspired by an actual person, I'm well aware that it is not that person. My job is to identify the essence of the character, and to bring them to life long enough to commit the acts, say the words or simply "be" in a way that allows them to affect and be affected by other elements and events in the imaginary world of a story.

And I don't confound my character, Minnie, with me. She is, I hope, like Tintin, not real, but believable.

POV: You started reading and drawing comics in the 70s in San Francisco, and were especially influenced by the first Twisted Sisters by Aline Kominsky and Diane Noomin. What were some of the other first comics you read and how do you think they found their way into your work, consciously or perhaps unintentionally?

Phoebe: Aline Kominsky and Diane Noomin are both obsessed with visual detail -- minute patterns, strands of hair. Each artist has an acute ear for idiosyncrasies of dialogue and gesture, yet their work is quite different. Aline's characters are physically and psychologically ungainly, engaged in incessant interior dialogue. Diane's temperamentally twitchy central character, Didi Glitz, is camouflaged in the graphically effervescent environment she perpetually redecorates. Their book, Twisted Sisters, which I read in mid-70s at the age of 14, led me to consider trying to make comics myself.

This genre of book was already familiar to me -- I had been surreptitiously reading my parents' copies of Zap Comix from the age of ten. Underground comics were produced by individuals -- they were the auteur variety, rather than the production-line sort of comic book aimed at pleasing a vast general audience. Mainstream comics never appealed to me: they seemed sterile in their stylistic consistency, and were quickly consumed, the stories interesting only for so long as you were reading them.

Underground comics were striking in that they seemed largely unedited -- in a typical book, with stories by five to ten creators, some stories would be shockingly bad, and others would be startlingly brilliant. This was a lively and exciting combination. The artwork and stories, good and bad, were all so different -- I'd stare at the pages and lose track of time. I loved The Checkered Demon and Star-Eyed Stella (S. Clay Wilson), Big Bitch (Spain Rodriguez), and all of Robert Crumb's stories, especially Pete the Plumber and The Adventures of Whiteman. This was a world where anything could happen, and I wanted to go there.

I didn't read Tintin until my late teens -- I read it in French because I thought that would be a good way to learn the language. Because I had a goal other than pure entertainment, I spent much longer with these books than I otherwise might have, and came to recognize the beauty of their apparent simplicity, realizing that such easy perfection was an achievement of genius.

POV: Who are some of your other influences, in comics and art and literature?

Phoebe: All sorts of things can find their way into your work unconsciously. I'm guessing that by "influences" you mean by those creators I admired and whose work I loved, whether their influence is clearly evident in my work or not.

-- Jiri Trnka: his earlier work, particularly the work-for-hire public service films.

-- Ray Harryhausen: early work as well: Little Red Riding Hood stands out.

-- Janis Joplin: watching footage of her performances seems to equalize the amplitude of my brain waves, her music makes me feel loved and understood. Like she died for me. She's my Jesus.

-- Ilona Staller (La Cicciolina): I'm fascinated by creators who use themselves as the raw material for their work. I once met her at an opening of an exhibit of Jeff Koons' work -- she was tiny, and her hand was smooth and dry. She had a real smile. Jeff Koons' hand was smooth too, but damp and friendly.

-- Kurt Schwitters performing his "opera," the Ursonate.

But certainly, an artist's work is a synthesis of much more than the work of other creators. I guess your question might be asked to try to establish an artist's creative lineage. It's funny to think of myself in that way. As someone who makes things, those who contributed most directly to producing the artist of the sort that I am were my father (an artist), my grandmother (a doctor), and my grandfather (a junk dealer), each one a Philadelphian. I am Phoebe, daughter of David, grandchild of Louise and Ed.

POV: Can you talk a little about one of your favorite writers, Dr. Ira Lunan Ferguson?

Phoebe: He was an extremely prolific self-published writer, a black psychologist who bore a chip on his shoulder after falling short of being admitted to Howard University's College of Medicine. He compensated by earning several masters degrees and maintaining active membership in countless professional organizations. He wrote nearly 30 books, all but one or two published under his own imprint, The Lunan Ferguson Library.

Most of his books were wordy chronicles of his own history and achievements. His prose is repetitious and his anecdotes are recounted with little self-reflection. He was, it seems to me, a judgmental and moralizing person, narcissistic and self-aggrandizing. I've often wondered what it might have been like to be his patient.

His persistence is what fascinates me. He died 10 or 15 years ago at nearly 90 years old. He was dictating manuscripts for new books up until his death. The oeuvre he left behind is the voice of the human spirit in giddy recognition that it has life. It is the poignant wailing of a soul yearning to be heard in its desperate attempt to escape the ethereal and find immortality in substance. And for all his struggles, he found little acclaim or award beyond his own circle of friends and acquaintances. Luckily for him, he was undaunted. I believe he was convinced of his own superiority and regarded those unable to appreciate his brilliance with indulgent pity.

A few of his titles:
83 Practical Observations by an Octogenarian Psychologist
Fantastic Experiences of a Half-Blind, and His Interracial Marriage
I Dug Graves at Night, to Attend College by Day
(3 volumes)

POV: Art Spiegelman really struck a nerve with a literary and a mainstream audience with Maus. In the last few years, a number of literary journals have been devoting space to comics; the New York Times magazine began serializing comics in 2005, beginning with Chris Ware's. Although for years comics have been denigrated as a so-called "low art" category -- in Diary, Monroe scoffs at them and says "head comics" are something he read in college, wonders if "Art Crumb" is even still alive -- it appears they're becoming more widely accepted and perhaps even validated as a form of art and a long literary narrative. Would you agree with this?

Phoebe: Yes. I do agree that they are becoming more accepted as an art form, but as such, comics are a "young" art form, and there is much confusion as to how to treat them. Images have more immediate impact than words, and it is not every reader who can be convinced to relax into experiencing the work for what it is -- not words and pictures, but a different form, where the narrative is propelled by the blending of image, word and sequence, and where no element can be extricated and have the same meaning by itself. When this art is shown in a gallery, its "thingness" is called to attention, it is no longer experienced as "story," but rather as an artifact of the artist's process.

Whatever they are, can Comics be "Art"?  Of course they can.  The "Art" in a piece is something independent of genre, form, or material.  My feeling is that most paintings, most films, most music, most literature and, indeed, most comics fail as "Art."  A masterpiece in any genre, form or material is equally "good."  It's ridiculous to impose a hierarchy of value on art.  The division between high and low art is one that cannot be defended because it has no correlation to aesthetic response.

I do think that comics are being more widely accepted, and even validated as an art form, and as a long literary narrative.

POV: Do you think this kind of validation is inhibiting in any way, that comics are in danger of becoming less rebellious or creatively free because they're more accepted, and being published in the mainstream?

Phoebe: Most comics are NOT truly rebellious or creatively free.  Most comics, paintings, music, etc., are derivative of other, more successful works.  And it's quite often that those without much rebellious spirit are the ones to imitate it.  Genuine radical expression is hard to come by, but it usually crops up when money is not a motivating factor.  You can take all the liberties you want when someone else's dime is not at stake.  The "validation" you describe is not a threat to comics.  A far greater threat to the creative freedom of artists working in any medium is self-consciousness and self-censorship.

POV: You teach art at the University of Michigan: what do you teach? What do you tell your students?  Do you enjoy it?

Phoebe: Yes, I teach in the School of Art and Design at the U of M. I finished my second year of teaching in May, and it's been, well -- my mind stutters as I try to find an adjective adequate to describe the experience. I- I- I- I- I cannot think of one.

A bit of history might help you to understand.

I was expelled from three high schools, and "not invited to return" one year in middle school. I won't take the time to explain why, and it doesn't really matter. What I do want you to know is that one of the aims of recent faculty meetings at the U of M was to define the sort of student we'd like to attract. The consensus identified this person as "a high achiever, involved in extra-curricular activities not limited to sports, but including community service, ranked academically in the top 5th percentile of graduating seniors."

How does that make me feel? I sit in those meetings with a weepy heart, knowing full well that I never would have been accepted to the University of Michigan.

But I'm here now. I spend quite a bit of time thinking about my students. I look at them, at their work, I listen to what they tell me, and try to figure out who they might become in the best of all possible worlds. This is not easy. Students try to give you clues; sometimes they look at you as if imploring you [to] understand something about them that they don't yet have the means to articulate. How can one succeed at this? And how can one do it 20 times over for all the students in a class? It's impossible, of course. I know this, but I try anyway. It's tiring. I have been known to take naps on the linoleum floor of my office when I have a break.

Another little problem I have is that I don't think it's possible to teach a person to be an artist. But yet, I'm here, and I suppose this is what I'm expected to do. I teach a course called graphic narrative and one called digital studios -- the classes change from semester to semester, but no matter the topic, the basic principle underlying my "method" of teaching (developed in just two years) is that a properly prepared artist/creator must simply know everything. Not just how to draw, but how to see. Not just how to use a computer program, but what the word "penultimate" means. And the shape and orientation of a goat's pupil. And where Kentucky and Chile are, at least approximately. The only way to know everything is to learn how to think, how to ask questions, how to navigate the world. Students must learn how to teach themselves to use new tools, how to talk to unfamiliar people, and basically how to be brave.

It's much better for an artist to know everything than to be limited by ignorance, don't you think?

POV: Hergé underwent a period of despair and anxiety during which he suffered recurring nightmares filled with whiteness -- certainly iconic dreams for a cartoonist. Eventually, after psychoanalysis, he emerged with a new direction: Tintin in Tibet, with its stark alpine landscapes and minimalist cast and story, was a major departure for Hergé.  Do you have periods when you lose faith in your work? How have you handled them?

Phoebe: I didn't know this about Hergé. I remember being in Angouleme, France last year at the International Comics Festival -- there was a huge bust of Hergé's head in the middle of an open square. He's smiling, but he doesn't look genuinely happy. He seems too exposed. It was raining when I looked at him, but I'm sure he wouldn't have seemed any happier if it had been a warm and sunny day. I wish they had given him a body. Maybe they will one day, and he'll be as big as the Colossus of Rhodes. At that size, anyone would be happy.

I am aware of existing in a nearly constant state of inner turmoil and argument. I become frustrated with my work when the solution to a creative impasse seems like a secret I don't want to tell myself. It's not that I lose faith in my work -- I'm fairly certain the answers are there, but much of my energy is spent beating my psyche into revealing them. I'd describe my inner life as constantly vigilant, always ready to flee or respond with violence. I've felt this way since I was a small child. Although it's often quite amusing, it's exhausting at times to live with myself, and when I'm tired and overwhelmed, I do become very depressed. If I'm unable to work for too long, I start questioning my purpose on this earth and whether or not I deserve to live. When I look at other people, I get the sense that they live with themselves much more gracefully.

I try to handle these periods with psychotherapy, long walks, crying, petting my purring three-legged cat, playing computer games and looking at my children as they sleep.

Rebecca Bengal conducted this interview via email for POV

Related Links
Phoebe Gloeckner
The artist's personal website.