“I never intended this book to be published,” writes Phoebe Gloeckner in the introduction to her new collection, A Child's Life and Other Stories. Perusing these finely drawn, mostly autobiographical comic works, which span twenty years, it's not difficult to see why its creator might be wary of foisting her stories on a public whose idea of an enjoyable narrative is Titanic. Gloeckner's unsparing memory and painstakingly detailed pen-and-ink drawings of family dysfunction, childhood cruelty, and queasy sex make for seriously disquieting reading. The book takes us through the years with Gloeckner's alter ego Minnie, whose childhood is dominated by her overbearing, ogling stepfather and whose adolescence is spent on the streets of San Francisco in a morass of unsavory drugs and even less savory men.
The unwelcome sexualization of young girls forms the center of every story in A Child's Life, not to mention the book's very introduction, in which cartoonist R. Crumb slobbers over the artist (“I'm just like all the other despicable males that appear in these comic stories…. I, too, desired to subject the beautiful, intense young girl to all sorts of degrading and perverse sexual acts…”). In Gloeckner's hands, the disturbing subject matter translates into absorbing art that's hard to wrap your eyes around, but unforgettable once you do.
Cheerful it's not, and neither are the so-anatomically-correct-they're-scary paintings and etchings reproduced at the end of the volume. Gloeckner's aesthetic centers unflinchingly on disease and sex (she illustrated J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition), and, as we trekked up into the Oakland hills to visit Gloeckner at her home/ office, where she writes, draws, and clocks day-job hours as a medical illustrator, we couldn't help wondering what kind of person would be waiting for us. We never thought to anticipate a glowing expectant mom cradling a tiny gray kitten, offering us tea, and busting out with a Hanson album, but there you go.
In the foreword to A Child's Life, you write that a lot of the work is stuff you'd done just in the past five years. There's a real thematic consistency to all the stories in that book.
Yeah, I guess I haven't exhausted it yet [laughs]. I've never had my own book before. And I think that's probably because…well, there are probably a lot of reasons, but one is that my dad was an artist. But he was also a drug addict and went downhill really quick, and I was so afraid of being like him that I never had the guts to just focus on the artwork. I was just always doing stuff, you know, “on the side.” But I didn't want it to be that way. So recently I decided, “Well, I'll do this book,” and someone wanted to publish it—and they actually wanted me to do two books, so I'm doing 'em, and I feel much happier.
You illustrate children's books, too, right?
Yeah, I've done five now.
In A Child's Life, the way you're portraying the experience of being that age is kind of scary and disturbing; is it weird to then be doing kids' books that are probably supposed to be more cheerful?
[The publishers] send back a lot of my pictures, because they say, “Oh, this is just too gross,” or “This looks too weird,” so I'm always having to redraw. The last book I illustrated was called Weird but True, and it had stories of, like, a baby with a tail. But the way I drew it, they said it looked too much like…you know, it looked too [dramatic whisper] suggestive or something. I mean, I was looking at this x-ray of this baby with this tail, and I drew it the way it was, with the tail as long as it seemed to be and everything, and they were like, “Oh, you've gotta make the tail shorter!”
It's weird, but they don't want it to be that weird.
Yeah, nothing gets by them; it's like the great filter of Random House.
So these are other people's books that you're illustrating; have you thought about writing your own?
I've got one that I've written, and after I finish this next book I want to do that, and then I have an idea for another book. So it's all these plans in the future, but, yeah, I've got one of my own that I want to do, which is very different than what I've been doing.
Let's talk about the introduction that R. Crumb wrote for your book.
In the back-cover blurb he says, “She is one of the best, which is interesting, seeing as: A) She's a cute girl, B) She's not a very prolific artist…two factors which, one would assume, would be a hindrance to great art.” So the cute girl comment coupled with this salacious introduction—I know it's very tongue-in-cheek, but I was wondering how you felt about that.
Well, it's weird. I mean, I never thought I was a cute girl. I always felt ugly, especially when I was really young. And so, when he said that—I mean, first of all, he wrote me this letter a couple of years ago; he was commenting on some story that was in [the all-female comics anthology] Twisted Sisters, and he described how one day he was giving me a piggy-back ride on Polk Street and he ejaculated [laughs], and it's like, he thought I was so beautiful, and he loved me, and all this stuff, and I just had no idea. In fact, if I look back on my teenage years, he was the most appropriate-acting male figure that I knew! And so when he said all this stuff, it just seemed like a joke to me. I don't know why that would be a hindrance to doing one's artwork. I guess if you thought you were really cute and that's where you valued yourself, then maybe it would be.
If he had meant it in a “Well, society won't take you seriously if you're a cute girl” way, he might be right, but that wasn't the way it sounded; he said it like a universal given, like cuteness and ability are mutually exclusive.
Ask him! “What the fuck did you mean?” [Laughs.]
You've talked in the past about, when you were younger, wanting to run away and live with Crumb and his wife [cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb].
Oh, yeah. It's true, I did. They seemed like the most normal people I'd ever met; they seemed like they were really doing something. And my mother was always gone all night—there was no center to our life at all, it was just chaos. I focused on the Crumbs as being productive, and they seemed to have a really good relationship, and I just thought, what better thing than to live with such people, and to learn from them? And plus, R. Crumb never ever gave any inkling that there was any sort of sexual feeling at all; even though he tries to sound like this bad boy, I think he has it all under wraps.
When you started doing comics, you were fairly young, but you mentioned that it was a surreptitious thing for you—you hid your comics, you were shy about them. When did you start publishing?
When I was about 18 or 19. I was always writing these comics about my mother's boyfriend, who I was having an affair with. And I didn't want anyone to know about that. But once I called Ron Turner [publisher of Last Gasp comics]—I was like 16—and said [tiny voice], “I have a story and I want to get it published.” And he led me into his office and sat me down and told me [gruff big-man voice] that I had to learn how to draw everything, and I had to learn how to draw cars, and all these things.
Did your mother or her boyfriend eventually see your stories?
My mother is constantly threatening to sue me. I think that's another reason why I've always been kind of inhibited. Back then, she drank a lot and took drugs, and now she says, “Well, that was the times, you've just gotta get over it! You can't blame me!” And it's not even that I blame her, it's just that it's my story, my life, and she happens to be in it. I'm not saying that we can't have a different relationship now, but am I not allowed to talk about myself?
So, at this point, it doesn't affect the things that you're willing or not willing to write about?
I figure that I don't really have any choice. I have to get this book and the next book done, and they contain the things that disturb her, and that's probably why I haven't done them for so long. It took me a long time to build up the courage to be sued and murdered [laughs]. I constantly have these dreams that my mother is killing me. I just try to look at them with some humor and get on with it.
Do you think that you'll want your own kids to read these stories? Because they're very intense and childhood-oriented, but also super dark and disturbing.
Well, I have a daughter who's 7, and she keeps wanting to read A Child's Life. I tell her that it's for grown-ups and she can read it later on. But I have let her read some of my stories that don't have sex in them, and she always asks, “Why does this person do this?” and we sort of have a discussion about it. She always wonders why nobody is good. She says, “Even the kids aren't good!” Kids are used to having a good and a bad person, so it's kind of interesting to see her point of view.
A lot of your stories would seem to come from a sort of victim standpoint, in the sense that you're relating a lot of terrible stuff that happened and ways in which you were taken advantage of, but ultimately they really don't propose that kind of victim consciousness. I was wondering what kind of reactions to your comics you've gotten from other women, especially the ones that center on the young girl who's in that area between being manipulated and doing the manipulating. Like the affair with the mother's boyfriend—it's a consensual thing, but it could be interpreted differently.
What do other women think? Some women don't like [my stories] at all. One time I was doing a story for this comic book—it was called Choices and it was for a pro-choice benefit; [comic artist and historian] Trina Robbins asked me to do this story, because she was editing the book. And I told her I wanted to do a story about how difficult it is to make the decision to have an abortion, sometimes—about the fact that you could feel a million different ways, you could have all these conflicting feelings. That's what was interesting to me. And she was just, like, irate. And she was screaming at me, “What do you mean, conflicting feelings? It's just a blood clot!” It was, again, that she wanted to see a good guy and a bad guy. And in certain ways that works for her, it's gone a long way, but for me, there's never any good guy or bad guy, in anything. People are able to see things from different points of view, and it can be hard to come to decisions. And sometimes that's just what my work is about.
I had an opening for my show at the Cartoon Art Museum, and there was one woman who was sooo shy and she came up to me and she said [overwrought young-girl voice], “I just wanted to tell you that I really like your book, and it really meant something to me.” And she could barely get the words out, and I was just so flattered by that, because that's who my audience is. You know, you always hope that someone sort of like you will understand what you're doing. So that made me happy. But some people get really pissed off. Men often don't like it, they're like [makes grumpy noise].
Because they feel like you're pointing a finger? It doesn't seem like you are, at all. The stories don't come off as accusations—or if they do, you're implicated in those accusations too.
Well, people will always have knee-jerk reactions. There were printers who wouldn't print it. People see the pictures and they just think, “Oh, sex! Child abuse!” They don't read the story and try to think about what's happening. So I think a lot of men have that reaction, because they'll look at the stories and think, “Oh, there's a picture of someone getting his dick sucked,” and they get kind of turned on. And then they read further and think, “Oh, I'm not supposed to be turned on,” and then they get confused, and then they hate me [laughs].
Did you ever get feedback like, “You shouldn't be drawing these kinds of things because you're a girl?”
Yeah, but not from other cartoonists. People might say, “Why are you doing this?” Or, “Phoebe, you're just a weirdo.” [Laughs.] But you know, I've done it since I was a little kid. I was the one in the class who knew how to draw, so the other kids would always ask me to draw penises.
The medical illustration–inspired art you do, the detailed paintings and etchings of things like cross-sectioned penises or cross-sections of women giving blow jobs—they're very clinical, and yet they also make sex seem almost stupid. Like you're poking fun at the physical aspect of what happens during sex.
That's an interesting point of view. Of course, when you're drawing a picture, you never quite know why you're drawing it; that's the problem with talking to artists. It is kind of a detached point of view, and it makes it all seem kind of silly. But at the same time, it's what has fascinated me, what really goes on there—not so much in a sexual way, more in a biological way. Like that one of the cross-section of the penis juxtaposed with the cross-section of the whole body? It was just the similarity in how they're made, in the anatomy, the tube-within-a-tube formation. I think some men have felt—well, I've gotten some comments like, “Is this about castrating males?” But it was never that, for me; it was always about looking at things.
Tell us more about the book that you're working on now.
The new book is based on my diary from when I was a teenager, when I was 15, 16 years old. I'm not illustrating a narrative, I'm just going to set the actual diary text alongside illustrations. Because there are things I didn't write about—you know how it is with a diary. If things are going well, you won't write. You write when the dramatic stuff happens.
Is it weird to go back your diary? I know if I pulled out a diary from high school, I would just be so mortified by everything that's in it. I don't know if I could stand to read it.
It's almost like it's a different person. And I think that's why I'm able to do the story now, because I think about the character as this really pissed-off little girl who's not me [laughs]. It's like some kind of schizophrenic thing—I want to give her a voice, and so I don't really feel embarrassed about it. I do have to edit to make it readable. That's a hard thing to do, because you don't really want to change it, but you also don't want it to be totally grammatically incorrect.
Obviously your work is very autobiographical, but do you ever change narrative situations or add other elements that aren't autobiographical?
Definitely. I don't really believe in pure autobiography; it can't happen. If you're writing about something, it's always processed a thousand ways in your brain, so no matter how objective you try to be, you can't be, entirely. And as far as trying to fit something to a narrative…nothing has a beginning and an end; there are always things that preceded it, that feed into it and influence it. So I guess you could call it autobiography. But if I do a story now, it's very different than it would be if I did the same story ten years from now or ten years ago, because how you feel in the moment has a huge influence on what you're doing. To a certain extent, I think everybody does what you could call autobiography, but it's just their experience filtered or projected onto other characters or something else. In my case, I've used myself as a character. You shape your own past, whether you end up writing or drawing it eventually or not. Psychologists say that they listen to a person's story, but they're not thinking of it as, “This is the truth”; they're thinking, “This is how the person feels.” About what they perceive happens to them. And I think that's an important part of what I do. It's not so much the story—it's trying to figure out what it meant to me, or what it means in the larger sense.
[While Lisa amuses herself by engaging Phoebe's cat in a one-sided conversation (“Who's got a tiny head?”), Phoebe pulls a gigantic loose-leaf binder—which turns out to be the actual diary—from a shelf and begins flipping through the typewritten pages, then hands one over somewhat sheepishly.]
You typed your diary when you were younger?
I would carry it everywhere with me! I had this loose-leaf binder, the typed pages, and I was so afraid that someone would read it that I would have it in my backpack all the time.
This almost reads like an adult writing in the voice of a 15-year-old; I mean, it's a lot more observant of outside things than maybe your average 15-year-old would be. When you write, “As soon as you give men the eye, they puff out their chests,” it sounds like a much older person.
Well, I really didn't talk to anybody at that time [laughs]. I think I just totally funneled my energy into writing that. I guess that's why when I look back at it, it seems like there's so much I could do with it, because it was pretty descriptive. That's why I decided I had to do this book; it was burning a hole in my brain.
I don't necessarily want to be doing my childhood forever—I want to do other characters, not just someone who other people recognize as me. But I think I have to finish this, and then I'll be done with that.
Do you feel like it's helped you…I don't want to say “come to terms with it,” but do you see doing these stories as a form of therapy or a means to think critically about the past?
No, I don't at all. But the funny thing is, after I do a story, it no longer bothers me—if I think about the incident, it doesn't bother me at all anymore. So I guess it has the effect of defusing it. I think I've always been pretty mad [laughs]. I could be mad at my stepfather, but then if I did a story about him, then it sort of…it gives you a power over the things that happened to you, so you feel like you have some control, even though you didn't at the time have any real control or power. You can say something that you might not have said, or things you might have said, but you're not sure if you remember saying them, but you put it in there anyway because it sounds good [laughs]. I never intended it as therapy, but I guess it does have that effect. I hope that's a good thing. Some people tell me that my work is so negative—but I think my work is funny, you know? It feels positive to me.