I interviewed comics vet Roberta Gregory via email for Ink and Pixels at the end of October. The column that resulted is up at Tablet currently. This is the transcript of our correspondance. I edited it to add links, expand some abbreviations, and remove an intro I included with the questions so that Roberta would have some background on Ink and Pixels.
I think, but am not certain, that I was exposed to Roberta’s first comics project, Dynamite Damsels, when I was pretty young. At any rate, I’ve enjoyed her work for years, and recall seeing the initial issues of Bitchy Bitch with pleasure and fondness, like seeing an old friend returning. I’ve never really been able to determine if I actually had seen the work previously, however.
(The first six questions are the original questions I started asking when I began this project. I’m keeping them because I like the idea of getting a range of creators’ responses to the same questions.)
M: Who is your favorite visual artist?
RG: My favorite?? I have a lot of favorites. I can enjoy visual artists for many different reasons… Historically, I like William Blake, Goya, and so forth, and contemporarily, heck, there are a lot out there! Comics? I think Donna Barr and Carla Speed McNeil are underrated. Jim Woodring‘s art is just amazing. Jason Lutes always makes the most elaborate scenes look so easily drawn…
M: What’s the sexiest comic you’ve ever read?
RG: Nothing really comes to mind as outstanding. I think that is why I put sexual themes so much in my own work.
M: What’s the most moving comic you’ve ever read?
RG: Hm, gotta think about that one….. I do know there was an issue of Donna Barr’s Stinz comic where the Major had to order the whole trainload of cavalry horses shot because they had become diseased, but he personally shoots his own horse, and just before he does, the blindfolded horse nuzzles his cheek for reassurance, which is just what a nervous horse would do to someone it completely trusts. It is only one panel without any dialogue, as I recall, but speaks volumes. Still brings tears to my eyes.
There are lots of examples of that in comics, the subtlety is sometimes missed.
M: What do you think about web comics?
RG: I think it’s a good idea. It makes comics more accessible to people, (rather than sending away for something or trying to track it down in a comics shop back-issue bin, ya just type in some URL…) though I like Donna Barr’s approach… she uses the format as a precursor to the work eventually being printed in a book. The Girlamatic people want me to do one for them, and I am trying to fit in the time. But I see it as something that will end up being in print.
M: What are your goals as a comics creator?
RG: Well, just to be able to do comics and other creative projects and get them into print or somehow else accessible to people who would get something out of them and not end up impoverishing myself in the process…. I would like to think I have not been making some big mistake with my career that I will live to regret. Not doing something that pays better.
M: What do you listen to while you are working on comics?
RG: Nothing, if I am in the writing process. In the drawing process, I listen to lots of NPR and just a big variety of music, from Classical to all the “contemporary” stuff I have accumulated over the years, since I started drawing in the early 70s. Nothing too harsh, usually.
M: In Artistic Licentiousness #2 you note that you’d begun cartooning 18 years prior. That was in 1994. So you’ve now been cartooning for 27 years?
RG: Thank goodness for this little built-in Calculator on my iMac. The math says 1976, so that would be Dynamite Damsels, though I have had comics published a few years before that, too.
M: What was your very first publication? Is that from 27 years ago?
RG: My very first solo publication is Dynamite Damsels, mentioned above. I have had things in underground comix from 1974, and even more obscurely before that.
M: Who influenced and encouraged you early on?
RG: It was great to have a father who worked in comics, since they were always around the house, and I was able to make the connection that human beings (well, MEN, to be precise) were responsible for these things ending up on the spinner racks at the corner store, they didn’t just drop from the sky. Later, I had far more encouragement from Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli who had their own women’s underground comix press, Nanny Goat Productions, in the early 1970s. They were encouraging to get my work out into print!
M: Why did you start cartooning?
RG: I dunno why. I just started drawing as a small child (like all small children do) and when I started learning to write, the cats and dogs and horses and such that I drew ended up having word balloons over their heads and they were talking to each other and so forth.
M: When and why did you move to Seattle, and where from?
RG: Moved from Seattle from Southern California in early 1989. When Fantagraphics moved here. I had just gotten a job with them in California doing darkroom and pre-computer-era production. I had already made up my mind to move here a bit before that since I had come up to visit in 1988, and Seattle seemed to be a place where a low-income person could have a much better quality of life than in L.A. (Insert derisive laugh!)
M: In your most recent Bitchy Bitch you write about moving. In Artistic Licentiousness Kevin and Denise live in a subdivided house in a neighborhood that looks suspiciously like Greenlake.
Could that be the neighborhood you just moved away from?
RG: Well, no, I lived in Fremont. Close, I guess. Actually, a bit of trivia, in Naughty Bits #6, the hippie party house where little Midge loses her innocence IS based on a ramshackle Greenlake house, just down the hill from the old Honey Bear. Someone even pointed out to me that they recognized the neighborhood.
M: At Bumbershoot you told me that you were concentrating on writing more than cartooning these days. Can you elaborate? What are you writing?
RG: Well, for the last several years, I have been writing a text version of that Mother Mountain storyline that I collected as a back story in the second volume of Winging It. The story quickly expanded, so now I am working on the third of a trilogy with this storyline. It is a bit of an irony, since I probably like drawing those little winged characters and their neolithic lifestyle better than anything else, but it would take two lifetimes to draw a story that complex as comics. Writing always comes very easy, but the art just seems like endless work, even something as simple as Bitchy Bitch. It is probably my favorite project ever, but is rather low priority for now, so I have to work on it in bursts of a few weeks or so every several months when I clear up the time. It will be published eventually, somehow….
M: In comparing the most recent issue of Bitchy Bitch to even earlier recent issues, the ratio of text to drawing is vastly in favor of text.
How deliberate is this?
RG: I dunno about deliberate. I am doing more of these stories, and if they took up more space, they would crowd out the Bitchy stories even more than they do now. I am just trying to be thrifty with page space. I never ever did big, generously-sized art. At the beginning of my Underground Comix career, page space in the anthologies was at a premium, so the only story I may have in print all year had to be confined to two or four pages or so, so had to be pretty packed. Guess it is a bit of a return to my roots. I like to have a lot of material in each issue of Naughty Bits, I am rather disappointed by comics you can read through in 10 minutes or so, so I like to create the sorts of things I like to read myself…
M: Can you talk about the creative process that leads to the three-part text-picture-text frames that are characteristic of the journal in the recent issue?
RG: Huhhh? Well, I write the story out rather roughly and then break it up into little chunks that can be illustrated with one picture and some of the text goes above the picture and some of it goes below it, usually rather evenly spaced unless one of the chunks is very short, and then it ends up being only a couple lines. I don’t really think about it that much, to be honest.
M: In all of your works I read leading up to these questions, the most characteristic depiction of a character was of a person carrying on a silent internal monologue. The most notable exceptions to this are the Roberta character in the journal strips that appear in Bitchy Bitch and all of the characters in Winging It.
Furthermore, in many cases the characters use the internal monologue as a device to avoid doing something by thinking about it, from Bitchy Bitch’s murderous desires to Kevin and Denise’s dogged pursuit of isolation. To what extent has this moved you over toward writing?
RG: Wow, you are really READING my comix! I am SO impressed! Well, I think more of the move toward writing came from two approaches: not wanting to take all the time to draw the comics once I had written them. AND, the prejudice against the non-human characters. After the characters are described, the reader can just let them be ‘human’. The little horse-like winged characters in Winging It are supposed to be metaphoric, or in the nature of a fable, but I hear so many people who read comics look at it and say something like, “eww, it’s a funny-animal comic and only geeks read those.” When I was in Spain just last week, I showed a copy of it to someone Spanish and she got very excited and said, “This is wonderful! It’s like Gulliver’s Travels with the horse people in it!” Sometimes I think I am in the wrong culture.
However, point of view is very important in writing prose, so that could tie in, too. Usually, comics cover several points of view. You can see thought balloons over a lot of different characters heads. Someone told me that when people who normally write comics write prose, they take a while to do point of view accurately, which was so in my case.
I think I am more of a writer who draws than an artist who writes. You can see variations of this in comics and graphic novels. Some artists do wonderfully elaborate drawings, but their stories are not that involved or are repetitive. Some artists really do blend art and writing.
M: What other comics and creators are you reading currently?
RG: Usually, whatever anyone gives me. I read embarrasingly few comics these days. I always read Donna Barr’s work. I did pick up some great books in Spain and Portugal that I am trying to read, despite the fact they are in Spanish and Portuguese. One is a beautifully painted satire of Vincent Van Gogh in his style by a Yugoslavian artist named Gradimir Smudja. Wish it would be translated into English eventually, but there are lots of wonderful things over there that are not going to be in English, unfortunately.
M: Sexuality and gender play an important role in your work. In the background of Bitchy Bitch’s life is a community of sane and well-adjusted women who I take to be lesbians (I think you depict this directly, if not with explicit sexual depictions but can’t cite chapter and verse, my apologies). The theme is also obviously important in Artistic Licentiousness, and in Winging It, the nonhuman characters are hermaphrodites. To my knowledge, the journal strips are the only works of yours that do not include the theme.
RG: NOTE! I am not quite sure I understand about the background women in, uh, Bitchy Bitch, being lesbian? Barb and Lanie, yes… but the women at work? In Bitchy BUTCH that is true…. And the Journal Strips mean my autobiographical material?
[I wrote back to note that indeed, I was not referring to Bitchy’s coworkers.]
M: The depictions of sexuality you have included emphasize fluidity of gender and sexual identity. I don’t wish to inquire about this in a way that invades your privacy, as I take the exclusion of the theme from the journals to be a deliberate choice. With that in mind:
Where does your interest in this subject matter stem from?
RG: Well, I always sort of think of gender and sexuality and all that as being pretty fluid, I guess. I never really thought of myself as a girl while I was growing up, for example, and I have been all over the sexual map myself, even living with a transgendered person before it was ‘trendy’ and thinking nothing odd of it, for example. I find it fascinating sometimes to watch people trying to fit into society’s sexual/gender boxes and adjust to fit the ‘labels.’
Something visual like comics seems like the best medium for these sort of things. However, on the other hand, I am not sure that your average comics reader is adventurous or open-minded enough to be able to deal with the subject matter…
M: What work by others are you aware of that explores similar themes?
RG: I can’t think of ANYONE else who deals with these themes in comics, and nothing really good in fiction comes to mind, either. (I think there were some science-fiction stories a while back, like The Female Man [by Joanna Russ], and other books about fluid gender roles but I didn’t care all that much for them.) That is why I was doing it. I seem to have made a career of creating the sorts of things I would like to read, if only they existed. They don’t seem to exist, or at least I can’t find them anywhere, so that is why I create these, to have something to read I really enjoy. (Does that sound too self-centered? Hope not!) Not always a way to make a lot of money in comics…
M: Do you think of your work as being in dialog with these other creators’ works?
RG: See above!
M: Bitchy Bitch has been appearing on Oxygen for a while now. How long?
RG: There were two seasons where the short cartoons ran on the X-Chromosome cartoon show. 2000 and 2001.
M: How many episodes?
RG: 15 three-minute episodes, and 4 eleven-minute episodes. We are now in the process of completing 13 twenty-two minute episodes. I don’t know if there will be any more.
[UPDATE: They are in programming now, late November 2003]
M: Do you know the total amount of time produced so far?
RG: Where’s that little calculator? Well, 45 minutes the first season, 44 the third and, uh, 13 times 22 makes….
M: Do you get final review on the episodes?
RG: Well, I get to see them. If the episode is not too far along, I get some say in the direction the story takes, but sometimes they are pretty far along. I design a lot of the characters and scenery and props for the episodes, but I am not all that much involved anymore.
M: Are they adapted or original?
RG: Oh, they are completely adapted. They are produced in Canada, and a majority of the people involved and a majority of the material has to be Canadian, which I am not, unfortunately. They don’t bear all that much resemblance to my Bitchy stories but this seems to be what happens when you deal with television and working with people with their own ideas.
M: How does working for animation differ for you from writing and drawing the comic?
RG: Well, instead of writing and drawing a comic story of my own, I find myself wincing a lot and hoping I can get them to change something before it is too late….
M: I saw you doing a character design at Bumbershoot that was for animation. Was that for BBTV or for a new show?
RG: Oh, that was probably for the Bitchy TV show…. I think I brought some work with me.
M: Another major theme in your work is the characters’ constant struggle to stay afloat financially, from Bitchy’s credit problems to Kevin and Denise’s marginal livings as creative people. In Winging It you even saddle a working-class Latina with a family that can’t work, being composed of an angel and two devils (I know that’s not wholly accurate but you understand me here).
Does this element of your work arise programatically, as a deliberate political choice (as in the work and theory of Brecht, for example)?
Or does it arise organically, reflecting personal anxieties and concerns?
RG: Hey, I am just writing what I know!
M: Finally (and thanks for bearing with me) in Artistic Licentiousness, Kevin and Denise can be understood, I think, as a self-portrait. They live in your house, they perform your creative activities, etc. In other works, as well, you often use a split protagonist, as in the character of Roberta seen in the journal strips contrasted with Bitchy Bitch in the same comic book. Can you discuss this divided protagonist motif?
RG: HUH? Wow, I never thought of Kevin and Denise as a self-portrait, to be honest. One writes and one of them draws, so that makes a bit of sense…and they do sort of live my lifestyle, but again, I am just writing a story that ‘rings true’ for me, and that is pretty much the only life I have known…. Does that sound too shallow? Also, I often sort of stuck myself as a side character in some books (look at my first page of Dynamite Damsels… there is ‘talking head” Roberta and her little cat, too!)
I tried to avoid doing too much directly autobio stuff just because I didn’t think my life was all that interesting, and I wanted a bit of privacy for myself and people I knew, (the whole, wow, here is a lesbian or bisexual cartoonist flap always seemed so rather intrusive. I don’t care what anyone else does in their private time) but later on in Naughty Bits, I started getting a bit tired of long Bitchy storylines, though they are usually easy to write and faster to draw than the journally-things, partly because people kept thinking I was Bitchy Bitch, and I would hear things like, I was so brave to write about my early sexual abuse and that illegal abortion I had in High School, etc (neither of which remotely happened to me). I will put enough things in fiction stories that are from my life to sort of give it a feeling of truth, but the incidents and such are usually completely made-up.
M: As I read the material I couldn’t help but think about another work by a very different creator, and I wanted to ask you to talk about it, if you can. I think there are many parallels in your work with the musical and film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This might just be reaching, so if you don’t have any reflections on that idea, don’t worry about it.
Do you agree or disagree?
RG: I have never seen it. Wanted to, but I usually wait until a movie comes to the Crest so I can see it for three bucks but I seem to have missed it somehow…. Sounded good, though.
M: Thank you, and again, I apologize for any inconvenience.
RG: Hey, no problem. Been fun. Wish I had more time for it…