Sunday 13 July 2008

Coleen Coover interview

Colleen Coover

* Location: Portland, Oregon, USA

* How would you describe your art?: Clean line style with a foundation in traditional cartooning

* Currently working on: Graphic novel written by Paul Tobin titled “Freckled Face, Bony Knees, And Other Things Known About Annah”

* Day job: Freelance Illustrator (when I have an assignment)

* 3 Likes: Bunnies, spicy food, Jack Benny

* 3 Dislikes: Poo on the sidewalk, the current President Of The United States, getting my gas bill.

* Daily Inspirations: If I don’t create something on a regular basis, I will sink into a swamp of boredom and go mad.

* People & artists you admire: Los Bros Hernandez, Milton Caniff, Ivan Brunetti, Miyazaki. I’m also learning about a lot of new comics artists and illustrators whose work I really dig through MySpace and LiveJournal. Yay, internet!

* Favourite album(s) to listen to when working: I prefer spoken word stuff to keep my mind occupied while drawing—books on tape, lectures, a baseball game, or old-time radio theatre.

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This interview took place at the beginning of March 2006. All images reproduced with permission from Small Favours and Banana Sunday © Collenn Coover

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Hi Colleen, how are you? What are you up to at the moment?
I’m working on a new graphic novel that my boyfriend Paul Tobin wrote: “Freckled Face, Bony Knees, And Other Things Known About Annah”. It’s not a story like any I’ve done before – it’s sort of a character study of this young woman, Annah, who may or may not be a little bonkers.

When did you first begin drawing? Is it something you’ve always done?
Yes, I can remember drawing Catwoman from the old 60’s TV show when I was not even in school yet. I don’t really remember when I became aware that I had more than usual ability. I kind of got out of the visual arts during my brief college career, and then I didn’t start drawing comics seriously until I was in my mid-20’s.

I’m half way through making my friend a Monkey-themed birthday mixtape at the moment, because he and all his siblings are all monkey-obsessed. I’m also positive that he’d adore Banana Sunday, your comic involving monkeys. What is it about monkeys that you think appeals to people?
How did the idea for the Banana Sunday comics come about?
In my experience, VERY FEW people don’t like monkeys. This is because monkeys are awesome! They’re like little people only better because they are monkeys!

Paul (Root Nibot’s totally-not-secret identity) and I have shared a love of monkeys and apes since the beginning of our relationship, and it became clear very early on that we would eventually do a comic about monkeys. Banana Sunday has in fact been percolating and evolving as an idea since before I began working on Small Favors in the late 90’s.

How does the process of working on a comic with somebody else, (Root Nibot in the case of Banana Sunday), differ from working alone on your comics? Does working collaboratively alter your relationship to your cultural production?
I think it’s difficult for me to answer that at the moment, because the only writer I’ve worked with so far is my boyfriend Paul. He was the one who got me back into drawing and taught me how to make comics in the first place, and he was my adviser and creative coach all throughout the creation of Small Favors. So working with him on Banana Sunday and Freckled Face, Bony Knees is a perfectly natural transition. How I would feel working with another writer is a mystery at this point!

Of your ‘girly porno comic collection’, Small Favours, you wrote: ‘It had to be the kind of porno comic that women would enjoy.’ How aware of a female audience are you when you create your illustrations?
As aware as I am of myself! I knew what I liked and didn’t like about the adult comics that were available at the time, and I figured other women would respond the same way. And I believe strongly that any art should be made for the satisfaction of the creator, or it will ring false.

You once claimed that, ‘Small favours is a book through which I (a very shy person, honestly!) celebrate sex and the pretty girls who enjoy sex.’
I am very interested in what makes women want to be, and able to be creative now, and how people are able to gain access to their abilities and confidence when society often pushes people in the opposite direction, and makes many of us shy. What role does confidence hold for you in terms of your ability to be creative, and in your ability to draw what you do?
How important to you is the depiction, expression, (and promotion & celebration) of healthy female sexuality? (Especially since female sexuality, masturbation & sexual expression is often a mute topic, or even worse, a topic disapproved of) – was this part of the drive to create Small Favours?

The life of any comic book artist is pretty solitary, by virtue of the amount of work involved. I think that most of us straddle a fine line between crippling shyness and massive ego! The shyness drives us to the loneliness of our drawing studios, and the ego keeps us productive. I may have just libelled a lot of my friends!

My attitude toward sex and sexuality has always been pretty matter-of-fact, because I never really learned to think of it any other way. So when I set out to create a sexual entertainment, the kind of sex I wanted to portray was fun, sweet, and free of shame.

By mixing porn and popular culture (comics), and thus demystifying the taboo of female sexuality by bringing it into public space, what has the public response been?
Ha ha! I have to argue that porn is a much more popular medium than comics! I think the pornographic content has done more to bring attention to my comics than the other way around! The reaction from the public has been almost universally positive—from salacious satisfaction to gratitude for providing porn that couples can share.

The truths about the realities of marginalized groups have largely been hidden and lied about throughout history, or misinterpreted. To what extent do you feel that your depictions of lesbian lives, (however “far fetched” or fantasised), queer sex and queer sexuality, to be a positive step towards representing and voicing marginalised stories? Is this a conscious aim in your work?
Do you find comics to be a powerful and useful medium to express such personal politics?
I'm a big believer in the value of passive activism in addition to active activism when it comes to normalizing attitudes toward minority groups. Active activism would be Pride marches, rainbow-flag flying, writing Congress. Passive activism is simply living life openly-- raising a family, being active in your community, making friends. Examples of active activism for queers in television are things like Queer As Folk, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, and the coming out of Ellen Degeneres on her old sit-com. Passive activism on television are gay couples having their homes remodeled on the Home & Garden networks, gay participants in reality shows, and Ellen Degeneres hosting her chat show as an out lesbian.

Small Favors is first and foremost a sexual entertainment-- that's its whole reason for being. The only way I could conceive of doing a pornographic comic was to make it all-girl because that's what I prefer. It had to be happy, fun, and free of guilt and shame because I don't find shame and guilt erotic. Just by being true to my own preferences, what I created was sex-positive and queer friendly. So through that bit of passive activism-- being true to myself-- I wound up making what is for many a powerful statement of sexual politics. I don't know if I can claim that to be intentional, but it is a happy result!

You have been involved in creating all-ages comics such as Banana Sunday, as well as comics such as Small Favours which holds the strap line ‘adults only’ on the front & the warning that ‘this graphic novel is in no circumstances to be sold to persons under 18 yrs of age’; thus ensuring that there are restrictions to the access of some of your comics, and that some of your younger Banana Sunday fans may not see the extent of your back catalogue.
What are your thoughts on access and monitoring within the comics community?
It is restricting, or freeing to create age-specific art forms?

I think of Banana Sunday as being literally for readers of any age-- my friends who are parents have told me their young kids love it, and it has a story nuanced enough for adults to enjoy it as well. Again, Paul and I worked hard to satisfy ourselves while keeping in mind what would be appropriate for a younger age group, and so were able to produce a story that everyone can enjoy.

I was reading about the Little Sister's Book & Art Emporium in Vancouver, and all the issues and court cases that they have had with Canadian Customs regarding the seizure of material branded ‘obscene’ that was destined for the emporium. You feature in one of the fundraising collections of comic art, which confronts censorship without fear, to assist with Little Sister’s legal challenge to the actions of Canadian Customs.
Little Sister's held an appeal in 2002 against Canadian Customs for prohibiting the importation of two adult comic books, and the owners and staff of Little Sister's and Arsenal Pulp Press believe that the comic books at issue - all comic art, in fact - have unquestionable artistic merit, and therefore do not fit the definition of obscenity.
What was the drive for your involvement in this project?
What are your own thoughts on, (and possible experiences of) censorship of comics, and the definitions of ‘obscenity’ within art?

Do you think that sometimes comics are seen as a ‘lesser’ art form, thus holding disputed artistic merit, meaning that such disparaging claims can be made of it, claims that may not be made of ‘high’ art?
My main objection to the Canadian law is that it does not define obscenity. It leaves the determination of whether or not the imported material is obscene to the individual Customs Official, with no real system in place for appeal. Therefore, the law is completely arbitrary and utterly unfair. (By the way, the United Kingdom and Australia have similar Customs laws.)

Any anti-obscenity law without clear definitions of what is obscene is a bad law. It does not exist in order to protect the innocent from being exploited, which of course is entirely right. Instead the arbitrary “I know it when I see it” law fails to recognize the difference between a photo or film of an illegal act, and a drawing of the same thing. On the one hand a real person is being victimized, on the other an idea is being articulated. Comics are therefore unfairly banned for having visual representations of illegal acts, even though no illegal act has been perpetrated upon anyone. Think of how differently you would expect a pornographic film version of Lolita with a girl of Lolita’s age to be treated, than a copy of the book. The film would be confiscated as child porn, and rightly so! The book is a literary classic, and so would probably be permitted. But very often a comic book version of Lolita, with no photography of any kind, would be given the same treatment as the porno film.

These bad laws most often get passed by politicians who find it easy to score points by being tough on pornography, and difficult to fight for the rights of the public to express their more unsavoury thoughts freely.

What fascinates you most and fires your imagination?
Do you think imagination holds an important place in ‘art’?
I think for me it’s romance. It sounds terribly girly, but it really does get me excited and my imagination flowing. And of course the imagination is vital to the creation of anything new—and that is the soul of art!

You have had your work published in a wide range of publications, from queer magazines such as On Our Backs, Girlfriends and Curve, and anthologies such as True Porn, to more mainstream and less adult publications such as Nickelodeon magazine. It seems like a pretty diverse and contrasting mix. How do you decide which projects to work with?
They’re not as diverse as you might think—of the three lesbian magazines, two are owned by the same woman, and my illustration work for them started in each case with having an article appear about my comics, so then I was in the art directors’ address book. Nickelodeon Magazine gives assignments to a myriad of independent comics artists because many of the art directors come from the comics industry, and they knew my work from Small Favors and Banana Sunday. I met the editors of True Porn at a convention. The comics art scene in the US is actually pretty small, when compared to other entertainment industries, so it’s relatively easy for an artist with talent to “network”. I chose projects based on who asks and if I have time to do the project, really.

Your illustrations and comics have been variously described as having ‘a full range of emotion’, ‘a sense of elegance’, ‘a light touch and a pretty line’, ‘simply styled, easy to read, with clear layouts’.
How did you develop your drawing style?
Is it important for you to keep the drawings ‘simply styled’ in order for your narrative to be easily read, or is there another motivation for this non-distracting drawing style?
What are your thoughts on reviewers describing your work with conventionally, often stereotypically feminised (and once restrictive) terminology such as ‘elegant’, ‘pretty’ and ‘emotional’?

It’s the result of being influenced by a myriad of comics artists and cartoonists from the whole history of the 20th century. I’m self-taught and have been drawing my whole life, so it’s just the style that I developed over the years to best tell my stories. Someone recently asked me why I chose to draw Banana Sunday in the style I did, and I had to reply that there was no other style I could have drawn it— it’s just… my style. I can’t choose to draw a comic any other way! As for it being “elegant, pretty and emotional”, I’d much rather that than “vulgar, ugly, and cold”. I don’t think most comics reviewers think of it in terms of masculine vs. feminine because I often see my male peers having the similar adjectives applied. And you know, let’s face it; my art is pretty cute!

For you what are the most satisfying, or important aspects of creating art work?
I love to tell stories with my art—that’s why I feel that I’m more of an “illustrator” than a “fine artist” when I paint. That’s why I love cartooning and comics. And it’s very satisfying to have my stories touch people, especially when it happens in a way that I don’t expect.

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