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October 2, 2009

Antiheroines: Ellen Forney

The Antiheroines series features author Jami Attenberg interviewing up-and-coming female comics artists.

Ellen Forney

Jami Attenberg: The first time I met Ellen Forney was on a slightly sweaty summer’s night at a bar in New York City in Hell’s Kitchen, out back, on a patio crowded with a mix of lit kids and post-corporate-jobbers. She was visiting town from Seattle to do a reading, and knew one of the writers there. I thought she was young, just a kid, with her punky, spiky haircut, and her enormous eyes, and her light giggle. (Of course she’s around my age, which is not to say we are old. But. You know.) She held a copy of her juicy collection, I Love Led Zeppelin, in her lap, and when I looked at the cover, which was a self-portrait of her in a tight shirt, short skirt, torn fishnets, and big, bad-ass boots, leaning against a classic old car with authority, I thought: GIVE ME THAT BOOK NOW. She is the same as her work, which is to say she makes you want to know her immediately, and also that she is immediately knowable. She’s got a refreshing transparency about herself. She is deep, but she is flawed. She is funny and wild, but is also very much a grown-up. She is extremely interested in discussing sexuality, but knows when to protect herself. This mixture of openness and strength makes her work, including Lust: Kinky Online Personal Ads (a collection of her illustrations of personal ads for The Stranger) and the National Book Award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, extremely powerful and relatable, and probably very necessary for your bookshelf.

Most of us tend to be slouched behind a computer on our desks all day long, but I know you have a serious commitment to your physical self – you’re probably one of the most fit creative people I know. Can you talk about where that drive comes from, and if it has any impact on your work?

Ellen Forney: It's hard to say how being fit affects my work specifically. I know it affects who I am in general. I've swum for as long as I can remember, I've been taking yoga for about ten years, and I just started Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes. I believe strongly in the mind and body connection, and I get antsy and cranky when I don't work out for more than two or three days. Maybe it's something about the flow of energy through the body, the chemicals released in the brain when exercising, how breathing deeply calms the body and psyche, or even simple tangible things like being able to stand with good posture at my drawing table. I've found physical activities that I really enjoy, and it feels good to go through my life in a vessel that feels strong and healthy.

When I help friends move, I tell them the best way to get me to carry something is for them to say, "That's probably too heavy for you."

So you like a challenge, I think, is what you are trying to say here. What kind of challenges have you found over the years in your work? You've been doing this a long time, and I wonder if things were harder in the beginning, and have gotten easier lately as you have become more established in your career and practiced in your work.

Sometimes I have to reflect and remind myself that I do have many more skills and more experience in my repertoire at this point, and to appreciate that the challenges don't freak me out so much. Still, some challenges are exhilarating and some are a pain in the ass. Learning to streamline my work because of super-tight deadlines, trying my hand at a series of large-scale acrylic paintings, taking on a parallel career as a college professor: exhilarating! Figuring out how to effectively promote myself: pain in the ass.

I'll get to the promotion stuff in a bit, because I have something to say about that. You’ve been teaching at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts. I'm interested to know what's on your syllabus this fall. Do you feel like you learn anything from your students? I once asked a famous-ish award-winning writer who has been teaching for decades if he ever learned anything from his students and he said very bluntly, “No.” And that was the end of that discussion.

This semester I'm teaching a new class, a graphic novels lit class. I’m totally excited about it! Since 2002, I've been teaching studio classes, Beginning and Advanced Comics, and in the intro class we'd read one graphic novel and discuss it. But there was never enough time to really get into it, and choosing just one book always made me want to tear my hair out. Even for the lit class it was tough to choose just five books, so I have a lengthy "recommended reading" list. But in class, we're reading Ghost World, Maus, Fun Home, Buddy Does Seattle, and Watchmen.

I know it sounds like a line but I definitely learn from my students. There's the general aspect of being inspired by their enthusiasm, but here are some specific examples: just two days ago my class read the first chapter from R. Crumb's upcoming graphic novel of Genesis, and one student pointed out a bunch of visual references from famous paintings. I've never taken art history, and hadn't picked up on that. Also one of my students did a great comics series in a two-panel format, which I found inspiring and intend to try. (And almost used that format for a project that wound up falling through.)

In my studio class, I teach a basic introduction to visual language - some of my students have taken semiotics and have more nuanced insights than I can offer. I've also given myself the assignments I give my students - my no-word "Wednesday Morning Yoga" comic was from my own lesson about visual language.

Well maybe you need twenty more years of teaching and a few more awards under your belt so you can get extra snotty! I think that's how you know when you've arrived.

But you're not bitter at all; I love how connected you are with the Seattle community. You've contributed regularly to the alt weekly there, you've had several books published by a local publisher, and now you're even on the board of your neighborhood's Chamber of Commerce. Admittedly, The Stranger and Fantagraphics are a little bit more than just your average small town media outlets. But I guess I'm wondering what Seattle means to you. So many artists are wanderers - do you think it's home for good for you? Can you talk a little bit about the artistic community there?

Seattle is definitely my home - and my neighborhood specifically, Capitol Hill. For good? Who knows? Maybe probably? Here's another connection to my neighborhood: Sound Transit is building a light rail station smack in the middle of the densest part of Capitol Hill, and I'm going to be doing some of the public art for that. I'll be painting two huge hand-painted murals in the entries, visible from street level. My work will be a significant part of the landscape - a big gift to me - and is a way I can offer something significant to the neighborhood that has supported me. I'm also a lead organizer for Blitz, the Capitol Hill Arts Walk, which launched this past June.

I'm not sure what to say about the artistic community. I have a toe in the fine art scene because of my paintings and the limited overlap between comics and fine art, and it seems that a lot of us know each other at any arts function or show opening. Seattle is a small, liberal town and is supportive of the arts - a general statement, I know, but that's the vibe.

You sound very West Coasty for an East Coast girl. I guess you've been there long enough.

I know, like, "vibe," "energy flow," right? I love going back to the east coast, but the crunchy-granola touchy-feeliness of the West Coast really suits me. Of course, I still have East Coast qualities. I miss delis.

So let's talk about promoting one's self. I'm in the midst of trying to start up some sort of promotional campaign for a new book, and, by default, myself, and I am not enjoying it. Not one bit. To me it feels like something that is bad for me spiritually. To spend a significant amount of time thinking about getting my name out there, it's gross, right? Necessary, but gross. I have seen you do some amazing performances and you seem to be very much in control of your identity and your style and your subject matter. But yet you mentioned it's a huge pain in the ass. Can you elaborate?

I have to admit, I do very little self-promotion these days. Between teaching and the work that comes my way because of the work I already have there, I get by okay. Having comic books out is a huge help, I think - it's like having an easily-findable portfolio all over the place. I just got a corporate gig doing some illustrations and at the end of our very professional phone conversation, the woman I was discussing the project with asked if, when we have a meeting next week, I would sign her copy of Lust.

I can get totally into promoting something specific - when my book I Love Led Zeppelin came out, Fantagraphics eventually asked me to stop requesting review copies to send around. I asked around and looked things up and sent copies to as many reviewers as I could find. I came up with that performance to serve as a "reading," and performed that all over the place - Matt Tamaru of Plexipixel and Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics helped me put those together. I can pour myself into one project with a lot of gusto if I think it's worthwhile.

But general self-promotion, that's a huge drag. I do private commissions as a significant part of my income, and I need to promote that more - right now I just have an ad running in The Stranger. It's tough because I mostly do wedding invitations, and most wedding resources are totally wrong for me - too traditional, too expensive. So I need to come up with an innovative way to promote myself, so I just...haven't. It's on my "to do" list.

It's on my "unavoidable" list.

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?

I like to say it was the Rolling Stones. Which is true - but it was a stadium show, and I was much more excited about one of the opening bands: Journey.

What was the best performance you've ever seen?

Yikes, who knows? But I'll say the first thing that came to mind: John Zorn. I can't say that experimental jazz is a favorite genre of mine by any means, but someone gave me a ticket to one of his concerts, and one section of it just blew me away, and I've never forgotten it.

What albums do you listen to while you work?

I rarely listen to music while I work - the only part where I can listen to music is while I ink. Then it really, really depends. Rock mostly, I guess - Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. Or slow soul, like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke. Various playlists I've put together on Rhapsody. Rarely anything up tempo.

What music did you listen to when you were growing up?

High school: Talking Heads, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, B-52's, Devo, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran. My Led Zeppelin phase (which continues) didn't come about until I was in my early 30's. In high school my brother was into rock, so I wasn't!

Did you ever date anyone in a band?

Wow, I live in Seattle where everyone and their grandmother is in a band, so how can this be? But no!

Ellen Forney links:

Ellen Forney's website
Ellen Forney's Wikipedia entry
Ellen Forney's MySpace page

Lust: Kinky Online Personal Ads, by Ellen Forney
I Love Led Zeppelin, by Ellen Forney
Monkey Food: The Complete I Was Seven in ‘75 Collection, by Ellen Forney
The Mother Trip: Hip Mama's Guide to Staying Sane in the Chaos of Motherhood, by Ariel Gore and Ellen Forney
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (illustrated by Ellen Forney)

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Antiheroines interviews
musician/author interviews
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks