Tag Archives: women

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

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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.]

 

Shifting Gears

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So, according to this story, raking leaves makes you have a baby.

Poor Tommy. He’s skinny, he has no life outside work, and the only woman he interacts with on a regular basis thinks he’s an idiot. His ex-wife found him selfish. Meanwhile, he still thinks they’re both great. He knows Sharon is mean and critical and he still thinks she’s great. I bet if we saw more of Tommy moving through the world we would see that, like Jim in “The Burn,” he thinks all women are interesting and magical. He would admire them all and never figure out what he was doing wrong in regard to relationships.

“Shifting Gears” once received an honor that I’m not sure any work of short fiction has been granted before or since, which is that, in 1999, it was the official story of the Detroit Automobile Dealers’ Association Show. Perhaps no one has ever captured the raw but quiet emotionality of a man’s love for his truck before. No one has ever so accurately parsed a truck’s redemptive power.

I could have drawn one more dog in this comic. Sorry I couldn’t fit him in.

Gorilla Girl

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Civilization is overrated.

“Gorilla Girl,” raw with emotion and rich with meaning, offers a protagonist who may consider herself a member of the animal kingdom, but is a great deal more self-aware than a lot of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s characters. She knows, at least, who she is and what she wants to do, and she recognizes opportunities when they arise and seizes upon them.

I’ve read this story many times in the last 15 years and I can’t believe that only as I found myself stuck on how to present the scenes at the circus did I see the parallels to Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, a book that had a profound influence on me as a young adult. Of course, Harry Haller, as a young man, has voluntary ties to his middle class upbringing and is torn between his 2 natures. Our Gorilla Girl, young and without male privilege, is moderately tied to convention by love of her mother but primarily by the lack of mobility and freedom offered to young girls. Her crisis may be less pronounced due to her temporal environment, but more pronounced due to her gender. Her struggle is not whether to give the beast reign or to settle down in a comfortable bourgeoisie existence, but only when and where to give the beast reign.

My first thought in tackling this story was to highlight my immediate reaction that it should be read as a universal tale of female rage, that all Americans socialized female contain within themselves this exact anger, the despair at being restricted by virtue of gender, the sense of alienation by an oppressive civilization that imposes a dull domesticity on a vibrant animal nature, but then I’m not sure if that’s me projecting. Clearly, not all women bristle against the edict to be beautiful and well-groomed and mannerly and acceptable/approachable. Some of them seem happy to become the thing my mother so desperately wanted for me, the thing that neither I nor the protagonist could hope to emulate, let alone assimilate. After Jill from “Boar Taint,” Gorilla Girl is the Bonnie Jo Campbell character with whom I most relate, although I have found other—ahem—outlets for my animal nature and made a truce with objective reality. I leave it to the reader to choose: is Gorilla Girl an anomaly, a freak who can only thrive in the carnival, or is she ubiquitous, an expression that all women carry with varying degrees of comfort and ease?

Circus Matinee

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Her hair is meant to be “lightning struck,” which is possibly up for interpretation. This is how I interpreted it. 

Flipping back through the previous 2 volumes of Bonnie Jo Campbell comics, I was struck by something Bonnie said in conclusion, that she wrote her stories to inspire compassion in readers, to make them care about the marginalized folks that she most often writes about. She wants her characters to be seen, especially those types of characters who we often don’t really see.

Big Joanie is the kind of person that it’s easy not to see clearly, to dismiss for being big and fat and ugly, with bad skin and bad hair, and in the case of most of the men in this story, to sexually objectify because, not in spite, of her lack of conventional attractiveness. “Circus Matinee” puts us inside of Big Joanie’s head, where we can see her being overlooked and objectified and we get to see her reaction to it. She’s used to it. She accepts it. She anticipates it.

But also, because it’s all she’s ever known, it’s all she ever expects.

This is the story of a moment. The tiger is out of its box, and now, so is Big Joanie. In that moment, she chooses not to obey, not to remain sightless as she has been made in the past, as the hapless, sexually objectified mistress in the cheap seats remains in the moment. Big Joanie says “fuck you” to men who tell her what to do and what to see. When Big Joanie chooses to see, the reader can’t not see her. We’re cheering for her.

The tiger and the snow cone pictures came out pretty well. The feet in panel 2 remind me of drawing Carl Betcher’s feet in “Multitude of Sins” from Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. I felt gross about drawing young Big Joanie in panel 5; in my first draft she was fully dressed, but that doesn’t reflect the text and doesn’t make sense. I left her the one pant leg, small comfort. Big Joanie’s face is based off the actress Dot Marie Jones, who always turns in the kind of performance that does make you look, and see. The adulterous businessman in panel 4’s face is based off convicted felon and poster boy for casual evil Martin Shkreli.

Boar Taint

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Can you tell that I’m pleased with myself? Can you tell that I’ve never seen a feral boar hog?

Jill is probably the Bonnie Jo Campbell character with whom I most strongly identify, because we’re both idealists who believe that, armed with only our advanced degrees and our own sense of self-righteousness, we can accomplish anything. Also, we both swear we’re only going to eat one square of dark chocolate a day. And then we both become overwhelmed with self-loathing when we fail.

I ended up cutting out more of “Boar Taint” than I intended, particularly the parts of the story that involve Jill’s awareness of being a woman surrounded by men, and of her concern for the Jentzen woman, who appears to be the only female in a household comprised entirely of men, who, presumably, are all inbred cannibal cultists. Speaking of which, those inbred cannibal cultists came out great. (Note: the text does not ultimately support the cannibal cultist theory, but it does give you the sense that Jill is walking into Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes right up to the point where she drives off with the boar hog.) Also, the panel in which Jill’s husband (his name is Ernie, and the story also lets us know that he and Jill are really in love and spend every night humping like rabbits) tries to gently explain to her that nobody is selling a high quality stud pig for 25 dollars looks pretty sweet.

Anyway, that’s a wrap on American Salvage. It took twice as long as Mothers, Tell Your Daughters but the illustrations are probably twice as good. I gave myself a deadline of New Year’s Eve to finish the 14 stories in this book, because then I wouldn’t have to change the copyright date on the bottom of my template. Deadlines are helpful. Next year, I’ll create the cover and some other supplemental material, and I understand Bonnie Jo wants to bring the print comic out in time for a literary festival in March, so look for Bonnie Jo Campbell Comics v. 2 in the spring. Fingers crossed, next year I’ll get my chance at Women and Other Animals. 

 

Storm Warning

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Do you think there’s enough blood in panel 2? I’m not sure there’s enough blood in panel 2.

This is the heartwarming tale of how toxic masculinity is purified in the crucible of life-threatening injury, and, combined with fear in the alembic of loneliness, transmuted into the burgeoning crystals of the ability to express actual love. What’s hilarious here is that Doug, upon realizing that he loves Julie, immediately tries to convince himself that he doesn’t really care for her, because, I guess, it’s not manly to have feelings? And then, as it happens, once he’s wholly dependent on her, he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he even likes or respects her. Only when he’s got less than nothing does he finally admits to himself that Julie is kind of a peach if for no other reason than she puts up with his ridiculousness.

I wonder how the story would have gone if Julie had been the one injured and Doug had to choose between nursing her through her convalescence or running away.

This comic was a lot of fun to draw. It took 10 days because my power cable broke and then I got the flu, and some of the images were pretty challenging, but I love the results. Probably the wounds would be worse in panel 2, but then it would have just been a cloud of blood, and that’s less interesting to look at. In panel 6, I realize that Julie is likely supposed to be wearing a jean jacket with no shirt underneath, but let’s say that she went home and changed before she came back. Probably, she left the bar still mad at Doug, then went home, then realized that she left a basically paralyzed guy alone in a lake house during the storm of the century and started to feel bad as she sobered up and then went back to babysit his crabby self. That’s love.

This is one of the happiest stories in the book, I feel.

I was telling my friend the coyote about how I had to draw a picture of a girl coming into a dark house during a power outage and he said, “That sounds hard,” and I said, “Not as hard as getting up early and wearing a tie 5 days a week for 30 years,” and I meant it. Hallelujah, making webcomics is the best job I’ve ever had.

Family Reunion

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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.