[GRAPHIC NOVELIST, MEDICAL ILLUSTRATOR]
Making dolls seemed quicker
You can wash them off if they get bloody
The University of Michigan gave you fifteen thousand dollars to make them
Phoebe Gloeckner began her career as a medical illustrator who published comics on the side in volumes such as Twisted Sisters: A Collection of Bad Girl Art, and also did experimental illustration for work such as J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. In 1998, she published her first book, A Child’s Life and Other Stories, a comics collection that has at its center several hard-hitting semiautobiographical stories featuring a character named Minnie. Her next book, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures (2002), takes place in 1970s San Francisco and focuses on one year of fifteen-year-old Minnie’s life—a year in which she starts an affair with her mother’s predatory boyfriend, gets kicked out of several schools, runs away to join Polk Street’s gay and drug subculture, and draws many comics. Diary, the most unabashed record of teenage sexuality I can think of, is a remarkable formal object, roughly half Gloeckner’s actual diary from the time and half narrative she formed as an adult. The story moves forward in both prose and comics sections, seamlessly alternating back and forth, while also featuring many spot and full-page illustrations. (The New York Times wrote that Gloeckner “is creating some of the edgiest work about young women’s lives in any medium.”)
Gloeckner’s current project is another formally experimental take on young women’s lives, but it focuses on the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Gloeckner first traveled to Juárez in 2003 to research her “graphic reportage,” La Tristeza, which was commissioned for the volume I Live Here, edited by the actress Mia Kirshner (Pantheon, 2008). Gloeckner started off drawing scenes of murder. She eventually developed a three-dimensional sculpting and modeling technique whereby she poses dolls that she creates—they are felted wool with wire armatures, and have styled hair and meticulously detailed clothes Gloeckner sews—in scenes in elaborate quarter-scale sets. She photographs them and then digitally integrates the doll faces with human features. The images are at once fascinating and highly unsettling. Currently an art professor at the University of Michigan, Gloeckner was inspired to embark upon a larger project focusing on the Juárez–El Paso border area. She has visited Juárez more than a dozen times in the past several years, and made close connections with the family of a murdered girl, Maria Elena Chávez Caldera, who remains the inspiration for her forthcoming book.
Our conversation took place in her Ann Arbor studio, where she builds and photographs her sets—and where her three-legged cat, Pipsqueak, hides out—for two days in December 2009. Gloeckner’s studio occupies the top floor of her house. We were frequently joined by her eleven-year-old daughter, Persephone, who improved my life by initiating me into the world of Twilight (Phoebe calmly sewed doll clothes as we screamed at the screen). I caught up with Gloeckner again in New York City at a performance of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a new play adapted by Marielle Heller, who also stars as Minnie. Phoebe noted that she had seen the play four and half times already, and wasn’t sick of it. “Diane [Noomin, editor of Twisted Sisters] asked me tonight, how can you watch this? Don’t you feel destroyed? Because she was really affected by it. Every time I see it I forget that it’s my own reality, and to me it becomes someone else’s story that I’m experiencing.”
THE BELIEVER: How did you decide to focus on one girl for the project about Juárez you’re working on now?
PHOEBE GLOECKNER: When I first went down there, we met all these families of girls who had been murdered, and it was really hard for me. My older daughter at that time was a young teenager, and I was thinking, All these other girls were that age, and so you can’t help but relate immediately to these mothers who are bursting into tears. And besides that there was just this incredible poverty. Some of the families were so poor that we were sitting in the house—there’s this dirt floor. There’s no plumbing. There’s no water. There’s electricity tapped from some wire someplace, and there’s a sandstorm blowing wind, so you can’t go outside, and the wind is coming right through the house, because it’s just discarded wood with cardboard tacked on the other side, like old boxes, and they had lived there for, like, ten years. It’s like nothing improves.
At the most I had thirty pages to do the story, and I felt like I couldn’t possibly address all the things I was thinking and feeling in those pages. And so I decided that I was going to do something longer. I don’t want to do that kind of short thing—encapsulate life. You have a little slice of life of this poor suffering person and you feel like you know everything, but nothing ever happens. Nothing comes of it. I wanted to go back to Juárez. I wanted to really somehow be a lot closer to it than I was. The separation really bothered me.
And I decided to focus on this one girl for the longer story. The reason I chose her was because we had met a lot of people, and a lot of families, and most of them came and showed us pictures of their kid. They would save newspaper clippings talking about when she was missing, and some of them even had videos and things, and lots of things to tell, stories to tell, report cards, everything. And this one girl, her parents had nothing. They had no picture of her, not one picture, and then finally her mother said, “Well, we do have one picture, but the police took it to make the missing poster, and they didn’t give it back to us.” So the only picture they had of her says missing right across her forehead. It was a Xerox copy.
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