February 3rd, 2006


visible cartooning : everything is grist to the mill

(continued from here)

Kate Charlesworth was up next, with a slideshow mix of classic strips from the Pink Paper, Guardian and others. While Alison Bechdel had been careful to draw a line between herself and Mo, Kate Charleworth gloried in the connections between herself and her cartoon alter-ego, Auntie Studs -- five years older and posessed of more studs -- orignally drawn to wear the jacket Kate lacked the bottle to wear herself, whose constant companion is her own much-loved dog. The strips were part of a very active time polically for the UK gay scene; Section 28, Lesbian Avengers abseiling into the House of Lords (she ruefully remembers how, on seeing the beautiful butch dyke she drew on the commemorative postcard she drew for the event, someone said "what a pity she's drawn a man") and the constant fight for visibity, support, safer sex, AIDS awareness ... the animals, inevitably, went off to start their own strips; animals do that. But we're in a different world now, or, as she put it: we don't need the gay press now, we have the internet. So after the Pink Paper she went onto mainstream presses, slipping lesbian seagulls into the New Scientist and poking fun at Islington precioses in the Guardian. She remembers her editor at saying, "I hope this isn't going to be a GAY strip." Kate Charlesworth had her answer ready: there are ten characters, two of them are gay, it's Islington, for pete's sake ... She got her way, and the gay characters were regulars, part of what she calls keeping a watching brief to check that what you are doing is morally good, and had her reward when a fan wrote to enquire about buying a strip she drew about going to gay pride with your mother. "Those are our names, and and we're just like that, and we went to pride, and that's just what happened," he said. I make things up, says Kate, and it just melds with life, through no fault of mine. And at the moment? Hatching plans for a new story about civil partnerships, slipping pink triangle t-shirts into EFL textbooks and illustrating the people described in a local queer history project. She shows us a few pictures from the last (they look beautiful but oh! the fashions) before leaving us with one last word from Auntie Studs: always demand better artwork!

Last up, Suzy Varty, who does a lot of grass-roots work with young women, producing strips about relationships, safer sex, AIDS, condoms, and other important issues. She opens by saying that one of the joys of autobiographical cartooning is drawing yourself without wrinkles! She uses comics in her work with young people as a way of exploring issues and drawing out the narratives of their own experience, and this includes strips she's drawn with her daughter. What interests her, she says, is the grassroots application of comics and cartoons as educational and support material.

The last word goes to Carol Benet, who has been chairing the panel: "these are the girls who have been taking the notes."

Questions and Answers

Who influenced you? Alison's main influences came not from comics but illustration, especially Edward Gorey illustrated children's books, as well as Norman Rockwell, and Mad magazine. Suzy was fond of Rupert, the different methods of telling a story fascinated her (Alison doesn't like Rupert the Bear -- that's really sinister! she says). The two Kates both read the Beano (not the Dandy); Kate Evans also names Hospital Lancaster and Giles.

Do you draw your friends into the strips? Kate E. and Suzy both fill their comics with real people, and Kate E. also uses her strips as a record of who she was hanging out with, they looked at at the time, vehicles, places and so on. Though at a slightly further remove, Kate C. notes how pets and friends creep into her strips; everything is grist to the mill. Alison's strips, though, never feature real people (except occasionally herself), they're always out of her head. It just doesn't occur to her to include real people, and also -- what if they don't like it?

What about that Danish muslim cartoons scandal then? Does it make you afraid? Bang up-to-the-minute, this one, and needed some footnoting (caution: the cartoons are offensive). Fortunately the discussion quickly veered off into why Steve Bell can get away with portraying such outrageous things, and whether the panellists ever censored themselves. All of them agreed that cartoons had an enormous freedom, and part of the duty of a cartoonist was to explore that. Kate E. was vigorous about never giving in to fear of reprisals -- people are always going to threaten to kill each other -- your job as a cartoonist is not to censor yourself. Kate C. agreed, with the proviso that occasionally your editor would do it for you, and that perhaps your job also was to create a space where you could say outrageous, provocative things and get away with it. Alison hummed a bit at this, then related how she had stepped back from a storyline about a character having an abortion, not through fear of reprisals, but because all the people she discussed it with said it would be too depressing.

So what about those 9:11 strips then? An audience member challenged Alison over the title to her 9:11 strip, Real World, arguing that all her strips were very much grounded in the real world. She remembers how hard it was to write, and the feeling among herself and her social group, "it awoke us/me from a dream". Originally the strip was very wordy; it was her girlfriend's idea that it should contain no words.

I love the incidental detail of clothes and hair in your strips, is it important to you? Yes, says Alison, she loves all that ephemera, styles, clothes, hair, and how it changes for the characters over time. Kate E. finds in her comics a personal history of clothes, hair, vehicles, even down to remembering where she was when she drew a particular page or panel. Kate C. recounts again how she cringes when she goes back through her old strips, not at the quality of the art this time but over the clothes! How awful!

What are you working on now/next? Suzy Varty is doing a project with young women looking at relationships, Kate Charlesworth is working on illustrations for a gay history project in Edinburgh, but has plans to do something about civil partnerships, Kate Evans is working on a book about the benefits of breast feeding (including extreme breast feeding positions! aaa! funny!) and Alison Bechdel is about to publish a memoir of her mortician father called Fun Home, and her discovery of how he had been a closeted gay man, and is also publishing Dykes to Watch out For every fortnight on Planet Out, of course, and promises some exciting new plot developments about which I can remember nothing, sorry.

So, there you have it. Personal, political, whether it's at the heart of your work or snuck in round the edges, incorporated into the process or included as witty commentary, it's crucial not to lose sight of your ideals. Why? Well, I think there's still time for one last anecdote from Kate Charlesworth, about a young dyke who came up to her one time.

You know that picture of two women in pink triangle t-shirts you drew for an EFL book, she said -- well, I noticed that!
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