April 22, 2009
A few weeks ago I attended a book nerd/librarian/publishing event thrown by a great organization called The Desk Set. I could tell everyone was really nice, but I still felt like a total wallflower and didn’t talk to anyone for the first hour. I seriously almost started crying. The nerds made me feel like a nerd. (These are my own social anxiety issues obviously. Nerds are nice.) And then finally I was like, Go introduce yourself to someone! You are valid! You have things to offer the universe! And the very first person I talked to was Sarah Glidden, a charming, level-headed Brooklynite who makes indie comics. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (DC/Vertigo, November 2010), chapters of which are available on her website smallnoises.com, and she is also the recipient of an Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent. Her work is even-keeled and informed, but totally passionate, and I suspect she will be part of changing the cultural dialogue in the coming years.
Jami Attenberg: The night we met, you spoke about how happy you were to be a part of the cartoonist community in New York City. You said a lot of your peers - women in particular - had different styles, and there was plenty of room for all these unique voices. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to be a woman in an industry that has been especially male-centric?
Sarah Glidden: I just got into an argument the other night with a male friend of mine who insisted that female cartoonists are still massively disadvantaged and marginalized in the "comics world.” The argument arose because he and I were discussing different kinds of comics. On the surface, it looks like there are more female cartoonists getting attention now than there were even five years ago, but I think that's because literary comics are suddenly in the spotlight after years of being ignored, and more female cartoonists focus on this kind of work than on mainstream superhero or fantasy comics. Female cartoonists have been just as influential in this branch of the comics medium since its beginnings in the underground comix movement in the eighties and nineties, with artists like Julie Doucet and Lynda Barry getting as much praise as their male cartoonists peers. But still, those comics were not really available to the mainstream public and were easy to miss, just as people might have missed the work of Art Spiegelman or Gary Panter.
All of that is changing now that - for reasons that aren't really clear to me - literary comics are the New Big Thing. Every major newspaper in the country has run a story with a title along the lines of, "Gee, Did You Know? Comics Aren't Just For Kids anymore!" Then they list some of the recent graphic novels that a curious reader might want to check out, assuring them that these are real books with serious themes. Art Speigelman's Maus was probably the first comics blockbuster, but for some reason it took ten years for the momentum to really build up to what it is now. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis had a lot to do with the graphic novel boom, as it was one of the first I remember seeing displayed prominently in bookstores like Barnes and Noble, followed by Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. So basically it seems to me that women have pretty equal footing in the lit-comics world and maybe always have.
Now if you're asking me about the position of female cartoonists in the mainstream comics world then I have no idea, because I don’t really pay attention to those comics. It's probably still a boy's club for all I know. What I can tell you is that when I'm hanging out with a bunch of male-cartoonist friends and they start arguing about whether Jack Kirby was the shit or not, I have no idea what they're talking about.
I don't know why literary comics are the new big thing either. But I never understand why anything is ever the new big thing. And I see what you mean about the women being there all along. I was reading Mary Fleener's Slutburger alongside Peter Bagge's Hate when I was in college, and they both spoke to me equally, and in some ways, much more than the books I was being assigned in my classes. I know that you read a lot of fiction. Do you ever have any aspirations of any writing beyond graphic novels? Are there any novels or non-fiction books that influence your work?
I love fiction and I think reading novels is the most effective way for people to learn how to empathize with the rest of the world, but the idea of creating my own world and characters like that seems so difficult and unattainable at this point. Maybe one day I'll actually try it, but for now I'm content with sticking to non-fiction.
As far as influences go, I really like non-fiction where the author isn't afraid to acknowledge their own voice as part of the story, such as George Saunders' non-fiction work and Matt Taibbi's brand of head-first reportage. I think this kind of work can bridge the gap between fiction and traditional journalism because it gives the reader a point of reference from which to look at the new information they're being presented with. It also seems more honest because the author is making their own biases clear instead of hiding behind the word "objective," which is almost always a lie. In a work of fiction, we identify with a character because of their flaws and hopefully we'll grow with them as the story moves along. When a piece of non-fiction can do the same thing it feels so much more immediate and real and ends up resonating more with me.
Sure, maybe David Foster Wallace wasn't a trained journalist, but I learned more about life in rural Illinois from one of his rambling essays than any proper reporter could have taught me. I'd like to make work that guides people through ideas and situations like that instead of just arranging facts. This isn't to say I don't love non-fiction where the author isn’t part of the narrative; Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel completely changed the way I look at the world.
I think traveling is also an effective way for people to learn how to empathize with the rest of the world. I've been nosing through your flickr page, and noticed you get around. Obviously, you went to Israel to do research for your book. How much do you travel and what do you get out of it?
Traveling is an itch that I'll find any opportunity to scratch, and I've been really lucky to go to some pretty far-flung places. In college, I got a gig taking photos in Mongolia and China for a museum exhibitions production company planning a show on Genghis Khan, and it was mind-blowing. I got to learn some pretty fascinating history in context. A story means so much more when you're standing in the actual location in which it took place; you can imagine it surrounding you. And being somewhere unfamiliar really strips you down to your bare self. I know it sounds really cliché, but it's true. Without your friends, your comforts of home and your routines, you're forced to take stock of what exactly you’re doing and who you are.
So both of these things definitely applied in Mongolia in extreme ways (plus I got to eat some really crazy stuff) but those same rules apply no matter where I travel. Going to Texas can be just as eye-opening as a trip to Japan. There's something about the combination of being really uncomfortable but really curious about new surroundings that's addictive and so rewarding in the end. I spent a year of my mid-twenties in Barcelona teaching English illegally, a decision I made for no good reason except I was bored with New York and didn't know what I was doing with my life. It was one of the most difficult stretches of time I've ever experienced--especially since I had no money, spoke Castellaño like a five year old and felt completely out of place--but I'd never change that if I could because when I got back I felt great, hit the ground running and started making comics.
Haha, I found myself in Europe. That's so lame.
You're lucky you found yourself! I'm still kind of looking. I'm always traveling and looking. I feel like I have to fill myself up with the world every so often, and then I can settle down for a while and write. It's a cycle for me. You used to live in Flux Factory, an innovative artists’ collective in Long Island City, which seems like it would be traveling in its own way.
I moved into Flux Factory right after I got back from Spain, actually, and it was a delightful 180 degrees from the previous year. I went from feeling completely disconnected from my surroundings to being suddenly plugged into a vibrant creative community, maybe even too connected. It was its own little world, and at the time the building was pretty isolated so I hardly ever left except to go to work or hang out with my boyfriend.
There was no reason to venture out! Having fifteen creative roommates meant there was always someone around to have an interesting conversation with, and through Flux I met so many artists, writers and performers who would come visit, not only from New York but from all over the world. So yeah, in that way it was like traveling without moving. Of course, with fifteen roommates comes a fair amount of drama -mostly over the dishes - but being part of that community as it grew and shifted was so exhilarating.
One of the most valuable things I took away from Flux was the importance of taking risks. Almost every time we would sit down to discuss the next Flux project, I'd be thinking something like: "Build a giant walk-through music box that plays a song with parts built by individual artists? It'll never work! This will be a disaster!" But then we would somehow make it happen and it would turn out better than anyone expected. As far as I know, Flux Factory has never attempted anything remotely reasonable. It's inspiring.
You have to channel the energy when you have it. I went to the Grizzly Proof show there and was totally overwhelmed by all the ideas. An entire room full of bear-inspired art and cute artist kids, all jammed together in this warehouse space in the middle of nowhere. It seemed exactly like what people come to New York to do. I am not surprised you were a part of it.
We have now arrived at the Largehearted Boy Mini-Music Questionnaire portion of the interview. Do not be afraid.
What was your first rock show?
Green Day played a free show on the Esplanade in Boston when I was 12. I was so excited. About two songs in ,the crowd rushed the stage and they had to pull the plug, but during those were two songs I felt so supremely cool, an uncommon feeling for me in junior high.
What was the best performance you've ever seen?
88 Boadrum last summer certainly stood out. There were 88 drummers! And the boundary between the audience and the performers was kind of porous, both literally and figuratively, which was a unique experience. Also, I'm a cranky old lady when it comes to shows, so I liked that I got to sit down and enjoy the music in the grass instead of standing in a cramped venue where I can’t enjoy the show because there's some tall guy with a backpack standing right in front of me.
What albums do you listen to while you work?
I usually listen to NPR or podcasts while I work, but I'll put on music once in a while. Lately I've been listening to Malajube's new album, Labyrinthes. It's great. I've also been kind of obsessed with the Wrens "Meadowlands" for a while now. I don't get sick of it.
Where is your favorite place in the entire world to see a show?
The Middle East in Cambridge, MA. I miss that place so much.
What song do you want played at your funeral?
"Seas Too Far to Reach" by Okkervil River.
Did you ever date anyone in a band?
Yeah. It's a bad habit.
Sarah Glidden links links:
also at Largehearted Boy: