I remember feeling pissed when some dude asked Phoebe Gloeckner if she was “desensitized to violence” (because she does medical illustrations) after hearing her talk (and almost cry) at the International Comic Arts Forum about the book she’s been working on since 2002’s Diary of A Teenage Girl about the murders of young girls and women in Juarez, Mexico. There was a lot that I didn’t expect from Phoebe’s talk: the crying, sure, but also the card game she’d created out of crime scene photos from Juarez, a fake tabloid she had created about being cheated on between teaching at U of M and border crossing to live with the families of missing girls in Mexico, how exhausted I felt after listening to her. And I guess I was pissed because some dude took her vulnerability for sloppiness, like Phoebe didn’t actually intend to show us how fucked up one can feel trying to do good work in a world that is not made for you, a world that is wearing you out.
Phoebe’s speaking again later this week at Columbus College of Art and Design, but last night the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum hosted another Twisted Sister, Carol Tyler (I love this town, btw). Seeing C. Tyler got me thinking back to Phoebe because her talk about the 10-year project Soldier’s Heart made me feel similarly exhausted and vulnerable but also like I was gonna punch through a wall when I got home.
In academia, we are taught that there is no crying in conference. Even if you feel your voice shaking while you read some words that mean too goddamn much to you, cry in the bathroom after your panel. And so it was incredibly disarming to watch Carol shuffle through slides depicting covers and entries for Wimmin’s Comix from the 70s (“You can write about postpartum psychosis. That’s what’s good about comics!”) to pictures of the actual stacks of books she got researching Soldier’s Heart (so big they left “gap tooth” holes in library shelves) to pictures of her dying mother, her sister, her daughter in the hospital (“I never saw so many goddamn lobbies. I figured out what every elevator button [in the hospital] meant.”) and back to images of her studio where she created 53 custom colors of ink and “cornered the market on eBay” to buy out her preferred pen tips for drafting Soldier’s Heart.
“I’ve buried eight people in the past three years,” she told us before showing us the saw blades from her father’s workshop onto which she engraved a comic after she inherited his house. (Saw blades currently on display at her “Pages and Progress” show at University of Cincy’s DAAP Gallaries.) She told us about running herself ragged between hospital suites before her loved ones passed. She told us about not being able to move from the floor after a separation from her husband Justin Green. She told us that hospital lobbies sometimes are the best places to make comics. I felt emotional looking at a picture of the pipe-shaped mug she keeps her yellow #2 pencils in somewhere in Cincy.
Something I beat myself up for daily is my inability to accept that I’m good at what I do. I beat myself up because being in my particular (read: depressed, anxiety-ridden, PMDD suffering) body is not always conducive to doing the kind of academic, intellectual (or whatever) work I’m supposed to be doing as a grad student and as a woman who wants a lot of things, and maybe if I stopped fighting myself so hard I could actually just do the thing. I have no idea how to balance bad feelings and work in a productive way, but Carol Tyler has somehow figured it out. And to hear her during a Q & A, after she pulled out all her guts and studio drawers for us, admit that she still doesn’t feel like she’s worth anything filled me with great hope. Because we may feel like the insides of a crummy desk drawer, we may be running ourselves down, but somehow there’s still a way to write and make beautiful, terrifying things. And, in Carol’s case, plant flowers.
“What do you do?” she asked. “Plant more flowers. Do more pictures about your life.”
Shouts to the g, Caitlin McGurk for sharing her pictures.