Tag Archives: violence

Six Boxes: Deconstructing and Illuminating Bonnie Jo Campbell Part 1 & 2

ssml handout 1_edited-2 copy

Going old school with the printed handouts

[Parts 1 and 2 of the presentation I gave to at the Symposium of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature; Part 3 will follow later in the week.]

Part I

14 Things I Think about When I Think about Creating Bonnie Jo Campbell Comics

  1. The first time I turned in a comic book in lieu of an academic paper was in 1988, for 9th grade history. There wasn’t enough information about my assigned historical figure, Xenophon (figure 1), to meet the page requirements. My visual interpretation of the few recorded events of his life earned an A, and the comment that my report was “one of the best!!!”
  2. Comics are absolutely a legitimate academic form. Graphic storytelling is not just for kids. There is plenty of scholarly writing on the subject, not even counting pieces that I’ve been paid to write. If you disagree, feel free to fight me after this session.
  3. As an undergraduate, I kept hearing this word I didn’t know: “interdisciplinary.” The internet was in its infancy at the time, so I asked my advisor what it meant. She looked at me like I’d grown a few extra heads. “Monica,” she explained, gently, as if I might be enfeebled, “everything you do is interdisciplinary.”  
  4. Bonnie Jo Campbell has been incredibly generous to me on numerous occasions, dating back to 2002, for no reason, as far as I can tell, besides the fact that she’s a nice person (figure 2).
  5. The idea to draw Mothers, Tell Your Daughters as a series of 6-panel comics was, I think, a joke on the part of one of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s fans, seconded by another fan and thirded by Bonnie Jo herself, and I rolled with it because that is absolutely how I roll (figure 3). Looking back, though, I can’t find the original suggestion, just Bonnie Jo’s thoughts about how great it would be to have such a comic and take it on tour with her. The idea for me to come to Lansing and talk about these comics in this forum also started out as a joke about me considering myself the world’s foremost authority on Bonnie Jo Campbell. If you aren’t convinced that I am the world’s foremost authority on Bonnie Jo Campbell, feel free to fight me after this session.
  6. I didn’t know that I was writing literary criticism until Bonnie Jo told me. It didn’t occur to me until I finished Women and Other Animals that I had written nearly 60 pages of literary criticism in which I referred to the author by her first name throughout. I thought maybe I should apologize to this society for my over-familiarity. It’s hard to revert to a more formal form of address when you’ve known someone personally for over a decade. Also, I originally believed that I was blogging, not writing literary criticism. But half the panelists who spoke about Bonnie Jo’s work at this symposium addressed her by her first name. Also, as an artist, I really shouldn’t be apologizing for anything. So I won’t.
  7. Most literary critics do not have the luxury of being able to text the author about whom they’re writing at any time. I was tempted, on a few occasions, to ask Bonnie Jo for clarification, but I restrained myself. Later, we collaborated on some comics about her life and ideas, but all the comics based on her short fiction are entirely my own work. If I got anything really wrong, that’s on me.
  8. Bonnie Jo did tell me, after the fact, that I got one thing wrong. In “My Sister Is in Pain,” I wrote that the narrator and her sister had a relationship that is “distant and superficial,” and apparently that was me projecting my relationship with my sister onto the story, because she texted me to say that the narrator (her) and her (actual) sister had a close relationship.
  9. She also texted me before I started American Salvage to let me know that the big red elusive snake in “The Yard Man” was not a symbol (figure 4). She claimed it was just a snake. In the spirit of real literary critics, I assume the author actually doesn’t understand her own work, because I could write an entire paper about the symbolism of that snake, but out of respect for her, I won’t.
  10. Recurring characters you see in the works of Bonnie Jo Campbell [aka: problems]: Men who love women but don’t understand women and all their problems stem from the fact that they don’t understand women. Women whose problems are that they love too much. Women whose problems are men. Moms whose best isn’t good enough in their daughters’ eyes. Daughters whose moms don’t understand anything. Teenage girls who want men to stop objectifying them sexually. Teenage girls who enjoy men objectifying them sexually, or think they should. Teenage girls who need men to objectify them sexually just to survive. Teenage girls with all three of those problems. Guys who think they know more than you, but they’re wrong. Birds that are totally free when you’re not. Birds that are shackled to their reproductive imperatives. Women struggling with their reproductive imperatives. Men with no self control. Men who respond to fear by trying to control things that can’t be controlled. Women who are too bold for this world. Women who have enough to worry about without your nonsense.
  11. Lessons you’ll hear in the works of Bonnie Jo Campbell [aka: solutions]: You don’t have to have a baby if you don’t want one. You’re not ready to have a baby. If you have a baby, you will never be able to adequately protect that baby, even if you try. You’re lucky if you have family that supports you in any way whatsoever. Pretend you actually weren’t assaulted. Semi-feral girls are the most fun, or the most dangerous, depending on who you are. You can protect yourself by shutting everyone else out emotionally. Go to the river. Go for the worst possible sex partner.  Love people anyway, even though they don’t deserve it. You can always run away. You can usually go home again, it’s just really degrading. Get close to a dog. Weird things happen when the circus is in town. Don’t drink antifreeze. Don’t envy birds; emulate them. Don’t expect people to stop doing meth. The more you drink, the more you…drink. Don’t drink and ogle girls in bikinis while piloting a boat. Don’t look away. Don’t light a cigarette after dousing yourself in gasoline. If someone hits you with a pipe, stay down.
  12. In between finishing Mothers, Tell Your Daughters and starting American Salvage, I did another, very different graphic project, for another, very different, award-winning author. Linda Addison, 4-time recipient of the Stoker prize for poetry, hired me to create a short story in pictures for her upcoming collection, Negative Spaces, based only on the knowledge that I had created this (show Mothers Tell Your Daughters) comic book, without ever looking at my art. Although she was in the process of transitioning to prose, working closely with a poet taught me new ways to streamline sentences (figure 5). My focus for the prose of the Mothers, Tell Your Daughters comic was just telling the story. In American Salvage, the focus was writing about the story without worrying whether or not I was summarizing it. For Women and Other Animals, the focus was visual, the words and pictures worked on the problems of seeing, being seen, and inspiring others to look.
  13. For those trained as prose writers, it’s very difficult to grok how few words you can fit into a comic format. No matter how much you have to say, you get finite space to say it in. As in poetry, every word has to work overtime, especially given that, in the case of my art, pictures were probably worth something less than 1000 words.
  14. My drawing hand hurts. My drawing hand will probably always hurt, now and forever. And it’s always worth it.

Part II

Sense

While I was finishing up the second issue of Bonnie Jo Campbell comics, Bonnie Jo told me something simple, yet profound, for which I can find no documentation and will proceed to offer no sources. This is not a direct quote. She said that she wrote the stories she wrote because she wanted these particular characters to be seen, her characters often being the type of people that it’s easier to look away from, or to willfully not see. In literature and in life, many of us have a tendency to overlook the unpleasant seaminess of reality (figure 6). We intentionally push pain and privation into a dirty and avoidable crack, but not looking doesn’t erase the problem. In literature and in life, we have to look at the hard problems if we want to take a first step toward positive change. We can’t look away from other people’s problems. We can’t pretend that other people’s problems don’t affect us, our lives, and our humanity.

When I think about this message, I jump to American Salvage’sBringing Belle Home,” which is a sort of a love story, Bonnie Jo Campbell-style, about two people who are so hurt and broken that it doesn’t matter that they probably do love each other quite a bit, because their own histories of violence and substance abuse make it just about impossible for them to be reliably kind to one another (figure 7). Belle, a careless drug addict who has been abused all her life, seems to be seeking out her estranged husband to ask for money, and Thomssen, who hasn’t seen her since she stole his truck and all his cash three weeks ago, is overjoyed to see her and would gladly give her whatever she needed, but the encounter still ends will them emotionally and physically attacking each other, and Thomssen getting arrested.

If, in real life, we see a police officer breaking up a domestic violence dispute, or read about people like Belle and Thomssen in the newspaper crime beat, it doesn’t necessarily make an impact beyond fleeting judgment, but when we read “Bringing Belle Home,” we don’t have that luxury, because Campbell’s writing forces us to see the meat and bones and nerve endings of her characters’ circumstances. We can’t dismiss Belle and Thomssen as simply problematic. aggressive humans with substance abuse issues, because fiction forces us to see, not only up close, but also through someone else’s eyes. In this short story, we also view Belle’s history with violence: the abuse she suffered at her father’s hands doesn’t excuse her behavior, but it does explain it. It’s difficult to learn how to love safely if you’ve only been taught how to love violently. One thing that great fiction does is force readers to a place of empathy. Thomssen’s not just an alcoholic with a temper: he’s an alcoholic who’s deeply in love with his troubled wife. Belle’s not just a bitch who enjoys pushing his buttons: she’s a hurt child in a middle aged woman’s body, and she’s pushing his buttons because she doesn’t know that you can just ask for unconditional love without designing it as a test that Thomssen can’t help but fail.

And even though Thomssen fails her test, through the medium of the short story, readers can see what Belle cannot: that Thomssen does love her unconditionally. As he’s getting arrested, which wouldn’t be happening if she hadn’t showed up, we hear him tell her what she can do to protect herself in this brutal winter—break a window in his house and take shelter there—and we can hear Thomssen take it a step further in his thoughts: he believes that she will break a winter and hang out at his place, but she won’t take the second part of his advice, to tape plastic over the broken window to keep the heat from escaping. He knows the exact amount of self care of which she’s capable. He knows she can’t do better than she’s doing. He can’t judge her, and neither can the reader.

Campbell stated that it took her twenty-four years to get this story right, polished in such a way that people would want to look at Belle and Thomssen. But before people can see, they have to look. Comics are an even faster way into the lives of people like Belle and Thomssen because you don’t have to wade through thousands of words to catch a glimpse of what is going on. In the comic version of “Bringing Belle Home,” readers get a huge portion of it in six pictures and two dozen sentences. It’s an efficient doorway into a complicated thought.

Terrible things happen in many of Campbell’s stories, which brings us “To You, as a Woman,” from Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, which I’m going to call the saddest and most emotionally difficult of all of Campbell’s short fiction, and also the story that most demands to be seen in terms of the importance of its subject matter (figure 8). If we just glance at the life of the protagonist, we likely see what her neighbor sees: a drug-addicted whore. Even the doctor in this story, who, we must presume, has literally looked inside of her, still only sees a very superficial picture of a person who seeks emergency gynecological care. The story’s brilliance is in the way it forces the reader to see through the protagonist’s eyes, why the mother struggles to offer “good enough” parenting, why she can’t protect her kids from someone she’s convinced is potentially a child molester, why she can’t protect herself from the men who raped her. This story brings her challenges and obstacles into sharp focus. There can be no, “Why doesn’t she just…” When you read “To You, as a Woman,” you know why the mother doesn’t just. She is truly doing her utmost. She just can’t do anymore.

The comic draws the reader’s gaze to the story, and the story draws the reader’s gaze to the truth: nobody wakes up happy and then decides to jump into the most punishing and degrading type of sex work in order to score painkillers. Nobody chooses the things that happen in “To You, as a Woman.” The things that happen to the protagonist of this story happen because she doesn’t see any other choices. She still condemns herself for not being the kind of person who bakes cookies and is available to her children after school, but a reader with a shred of empathy cannot. The reader has to give her the benefit of the doubt. She’s doing the best she can, she can’t do any better or any more, and the sacrifices she’s making are entirely for her kids, and more than most people would ever consider giving up, even for their children.

The third story I’ll talk about in terms of seeing and being seen would have to be “Circus Matinee” from Women and Other Animals, which is overtly about seeing and being seen. When we look through Big Joanie’s eyes, we can’t help but notice how much of her life has been affected by how she is seen. As a child, her mother suggests that she was raped because she was seen as being older than she was (figure 9). At that time, her own sight was stolen when her attackers covered her head with a bag. As an adult, the way men treat her is based purely on her physical appearance. While the objectification of beautiful teenage girls by adult men is a running theme in Campbell’s work, Big Joanie’s story is a gnarled branch jutting out of that root stock. She is objectified due to how she looks, but not because she’s beautiful. Men aren’t pursuing her with the excuse that she’s so beautiful and tempting that they can’t help themselves, but rather with the excuse that she’s so ugly and objectionable that she doesn’t matter.

The story itself offers a different focal point, that of the potentially dangerous escaped tiger, more exotic and less common than a beautiful woman, or an ugly woman. Joanie is the object of the condescending male gaze, while the tiger is almost magical in its novelty. We’ve all seen pretty women. We’ve all seen ugly women. But we haven’t all seen escaped tigers. And then the story gives us an extra point of view, that of the adulterous businessman receiving felatio in the cheap seats, with the knowledge that this picture is something that his lover would love to see, but he isn’t going to offer her that privilege ait at the expense of his own pleasure. While Joanie works through her moment of seeing and being seen, the businessman (who is also seeing, and judging Joanie’s sexual potential) is stealing the option or possibility of seeing from another woman.

At the other end of the book, for balance, “The Smallest Man in the World,” in which the protagonist thinks almost exclusively of being seen, enjoys being seen, takes extra care to present herself in a way that makes others want to see her and is, not coincidentally, one of the most privileged characters in these stories. But, she wants the reader to know, we can’t really see her anyway, because we are just as misled by her external appearance as we are when we make casual judgements about any facade. People may prefer seeing the narrator of “The Smallest Man in the World” just as much as they don’t want to see the protagonist of “To You as a Woman” but in both cases, they’re still only catching the surface. Campbell’s storytelling is taking the concept of sight to a deeper level. She’s forcing you to look at something you wouldn’t ordinarily look at, and she’s forcing you to look deeper, to see beyond what you usually are able to see.

[Due to time constraints, I did not read the last couple paragraphs of this section. I also made some unscripted remarks, mostly about the fact that I created the handout before I’d finalized the text, and that figures 10 and 11 were just there to diffuse any tension generated from the rape and violence of the previous 3 panels, and figure 12 had nothing to do with any of my prepared speech. It sort of went with an introduction I later deleted about how I once wrote a paper about Lady Macbeth’s “essential goodness,” and my professor told me I was wrong but she still had to give me an A because I followed all the rules of writing English papers and had correctly cited my source, and later I won $200 by entering the essay in to the university’s Shakespeare competition, although I suspect I might have been running unopposed. Shakespeare’s kind of gone out of style.]

 

Advertisements

Crimes against a Tow Truck Driver

american salvage nonfiction_edited-2

All about being all about American Salvage

Bonnie Jo wrote this script and provided the pictures of the junkyard. She also wrote the following text:

Why Write Fiction?

Most of the stories in AS were all inspired by real life, but I ventured far from actual characters and events.

Sometimes we fictionalize a story in order to make more sense out of it

As Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.

There are some stories that can be told ONLY in fiction. In “The Inventor, 1972,” I write a guy trying to rescue a girl he’s hit with his car, and while she’s lying there in the road, he has a fleeting thought of molesting her. No man who hoped to survive the night could dare admit to such a thought.

King Cole’s American Salvage

american salvage 11 king coles american salvage_edited-1

I didn’t notice the parallel between Slocum holding the galvanized pipe and Johnny holding the sledgehammer until after I drew it. Panel 6 should have been Johnny standing in the same attitude as Slocum in panel 2. In case you haven’t read the book, Johnny is not threatening his uncle with the sledgehammer; he’s just knocking the tire off an old Lincoln Town Car.

A really difficult comic for me, almost on the level of difficulty of “To You, as a Woman.” It’s just so sad. It didn’t help that, the day before I started working on it, The Man asked me to watch The Green Mile, which I had never seen (or read—I was an avid Stephen King fan as a young person, and the publication of the book coincided with the end of my love affair with his work) and it really crystallized the feeling of being overwhelmed by pain and suffering and man’s inhumanity to man. There’s not a lot of hope here: Slocum is clearly irredeemable, and Johnny’s path to responsibility is guilt-ridden and regrettable. Also, many people know that I spent 5 years taking care of a friend with a traumatic brain injury, so that pain is all too familiar. Plus, trying to draw the same character in a variety of poses always stresses me out.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

It took an entire week to create this comic, working in bits and pieces because the whole was too terrifying to contemplate, but I powered through and finished around 3 a.m. Sunday night. Then I uploaded it. I uploaded it 6 times. Every time I uploaded it, I saw a mistake and felt compelled to go back and fix it. The first 5 were kind of little: 2 of them were missing apostrophes, and 1 was that Slocum didn’t have an ear in panel 5. But the 6th time, the time I said, “OK, now it’s got to be right,” I noticed a mistake in the title. Among my writer friends, I’m considered a pretty excellent copyeditor, but somehow I had gotten through the entire process (I drew the title first) without noticing that “American” was misspelled. That’s when I gave up and went to sleep because it was almost 4 a.m. and if I’d overlooked that, who knows what I might have overlooked, and how would it be possible to discover it in any case?

The next story in the book is a lot more pleasant, although it also involves gross bodily injury of the sort that will likely affect the character for the rest of his life, but at least it doesn’t feature any psychopaths.

 

Bringing Belle Home

american salvage 9 bringing belle home_edited-2

So, yeah, I imagine Belle looks a lot like Kristen Chenoweth.

This one was hard! There aren’t a lot of visual symbols to work with besides Thomssen’s perception of Belle as a physical being, and cutting down to the bones of the story required a brutal touch. There’s love and there’s domestic violence and there’s terrible childhood memories and there’s self-medication. It’s about a guy who tries so hard to love but he can’t seem to get it right. She tries to tell him that she’ll never really let him love her, but she’ll keep taking from him. He can’t hear it anyway. They’re both so out of touch. They’re both broken beyond repair.

I spent way too long drawing those liquor bottles in panel 2. The Cuervo isn’t mentioned in the story but the other brands are, and I needed one more bottle to fill the panel properly. The juxtaposition of the “We can change” quote in panel 4 and the implication in the story about Belle keeping the change and never tipping the bartender was unintentional, but now it pleases me. The image in the last panel could have also been Belle sitting in Thomssen’s living room with a broken window behind her and the snow blowing in. She’ll still be wearing canvas shoes with no socks and Thomssen’s sweater with no coat because she doesn’t know how to protect herself from the cold.

Family Reunion

american salvage 7 family reunion

I wasn’t sure if I was really going to draw that final panel, but I drew it.

As I recall, there are a couple of pieces of American Salvage that appear in Bonnie Jo’s second novel, Once upon a River, which is apparently being made in a movie even as we speak, and the events of “Family Reunion” are a big part of Once upon a River, which I guess means that in short order we’re going to have a feature film in which a teenage girl shoots off the tip of her rapist’s weapon.

I guess America is seriously ripe for this kind of honesty in cinema. If more rapists got their dicks shot off, maybe there would be fewer rapists in the world.

It’s really only a couple of pixels, but it did seem like a kind of far-out thing to draw. Then again, so are gutted deer and spit roast pigs. And this is the 4th comic in a row that features a gun.

In the story, Marylou finally recognizes the violence that was done to her through the metaphor of a gutted deer. The word “rape” doesn’t appear in the story, and there’s no particular recollection of the actual event, although she describes the details of the moments before and after. The pig makes a vile, but apt metaphor as well.

Selective mutism is a not completely uncommon response to trauma among children. There’s a certain degree of power in willful silence. The way Marylou experiences the world, jumping back and forth between current and past events, is also a result of trauma. In illustrating the story, I jumbled up the images, quotes, and captions, too. Everything is mixed up. But Marylou has a moment of clarity at last. It’s a satisfying ending, the kind of justice that we so rarely see in the real world.

Happy Valentine’s Day 2017

valentine-2017_edited-1

Like I always say, you never really know what goes on inside other people’s relationships.

You know how I sometimes let my husband write my comic and then I just illustrate it? This comic was not my idea. It was not my idea. It was his idea. The Man’s. The Man thought of this. Not me. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, Happy Valentine’s Day. I guess we’re not exchanging gifts this year for financial reasons, so this comic is our gift to each other.

I wanted him to pose for the reference photo with me but he refused.

You have no idea what goes on in other people’s relationships.

This would have have been an insomnia comic if he hadn’t come up with this idea. I had a couple scripts in varying degrees of completion but none of them were going to get finished before I passed out from exhaustion. Good thing he’s sometimes timely. And funny. And I love him. Happy Valentine’s Day.

A Brief Treatise on Nazi Punching

nazi-punching_edited-2

I’m not saying that anyone deserves to be punched, but you have to admit, with all that hatred hanging out right where everyone can see, they’re kind of asking for it.

Sorry. I’m an angry person. I’ve always been an angry person. Since I was socialized female, I got to suppress my rage instead of learning to express it in healthy ways. And I do believe in non-violence , but I learned in yoga teacher training that non-violence includes non-violence to the self, which means that sometimes you have to defend yourself rather than acquiescing to immediate threats. And sometimes, the best defense is a good offense.

The Rabbit says, “People tell you who they are.” If someone tells you that they share Adolf Hitler’s beliefs, you should believe them and act accordingly. For example, you could take action to prevent them from annexing Sudetenland and committing genocide. And no, punching Richard Spencer in the face is not the only solution, but you can’t deny that it is an action, or that it makes an impact.