As Long as You Stay Alive There’s Hope: An Interview with Aline Kominsky-Crumb
By Tahneer OksmanJuly 14, 2018
Kominsky-Crumb’s characters and settings, drawn in an expressive style as willfully intense as the sometimes shocking, often boundary-pushing content of her work, are studies in the contradictions that make up individual inner lives. Her alter egos’ moods fluctuate, from deep self-loathing to keen self-admiration to an assortment of anxious and unanxious states in between. The Bunch (her most often recurring alter ego) takes care of her body’s appearance, but, she wonders in front of hand-drawn mirrors, does this make her overly obsessed and superficial? Her protagonists worry about what others think, but they are also often pictured in flagrante delicto (popping a zit; joyfully being mounted by a husband; seething at a mother or even, though far less frequently, at a young daughter). For me, as for the many who have been captivated by Kominsky-Crumb’s work, the attraction is in the exposure, in the ways her comics get readers to think in new ways about common themes and subjects — sex, love, money, family, trauma, work, aging, motherhood — that are so often represented in tired, masking clichés.
On a sunny day in early May 2018, I called Kominsky-Crumb from my Brooklyn, New York, apartment to speak to her at her friend’s house in the desert in Tucson, Arizona, where she was staying on a brief four-day break from her book tour. Since the 1990s, she has been living, with her husband and earlier also with their daughter, in France.
TAHNEER OKSMAN: I want to start by asking you how this expanded 2018 edition of your 1990 collection Love That Bunch came about. It’s a large hardcover. The design is careful and beautiful. Can you tell me the story of how it happened?
ALINE KOMINSKY-CRUMB: I ran into Peggy Burns at the Angoulême Comics Festival a few years back. We had a drink together, and she said to me, “I’ve just become the editor at Drawn & Quarterly, and one of the things I really want to do is a book of your work.” I said, “If you do it, I’ll do a new, long story for it too.” I did a new cover and endpapers, and I really got excited about it. It’s such a nice version of my work. And I’m old enough now to appreciate the attention.
I was very taken by the cover image of the book, a portrait which is a lot less expressionist than your comics. It looks more like a painting than a cartoon version of you. Why did you decide on that cover?
It’s because that’s who I am now. I’ve been teaching yoga for 25 years, and I have a very different feeling about my body, myself. A different self-image. And that cover reflects who I am now. I felt like, how can I draw what I was 30 years ago, or 40 years ago? I am that person but I’m an evolved, different version of that.
Reading the book from start to finish (which involved a lot of rereading of pieces you had published in different contexts and over three or four decades), I was struck by how many of the themes persisted throughout those years. I was also struck by how often the Bunch’s childhood seemed to come up again and again in different iterations. Why do you think these themes have stayed relevant in your work over time? How does it feel to look back on this body of work?
This collection seems very complete. I feel a great sense of relief that it exists. It covers a lot of territory, and it’s a good representation of my career as a cartoonist.
It’s not like there’s a direct evolutionary line. It goes all over the place, and keeps going back to things. There’s a period of time where you feel better, a period where you feel worse. Where you’re fatter, where you’re not in touch with your body, where you’re drinking too much, doing too many drugs, whatever it is. And I think the work reflects those different periods, but I think there’s a general trend toward fulfillment and self-awareness. Some of the early images are really out there — I was so crazy then, I was just trying to rebel against my upbringing completely. I had so much pain and so much anger. Those stories are very painful, very anger-driven. Some of the later stories are not quite so full of venom as the earlier work.
I was wondering too about how that notorious “monster” image of Blabette — the character who represents your mother — was included in this blown-up version in the index. I’ve heard you talk in the past about how that image caused you some trouble when your mother saw it.
That was the book designer’s decision, but I said it was okay because it was a very significant image in my early years. Now I get along great with my mother. She’s 90, and she’s really a character. I’ve developed a lot of compassion for her, thinking and realizing what she went through as a young mother with a pathological husband who was a liar and criminal. And she was 19 when I was born. Having been a mother and having lived a lot longer than when I first wrote those stories about her, I have much more compassion.
She also had a second husband, after my father died, and she took care of him when he was very old. She was such a wonderful caretaker that I think she evolved because of that, and I think I saw her differently after that, how much compassion she had. It made me love her and accept her so much more. And now we get along great — we enjoy each other and we have fun together. I spent February with her in Miami, Florida. We went to the gym together; we did yoga together. She schlepped to the Everglades with me to look at wild animals, which she never does. We went shopping together and we had lots of dinners with friends and family. I really had a good time.
I was interested in some of your depictions of motherhood in your comics — both the ways you depict Blabette and seeing the Bunch as a mother. I’m a new-ish mother, and it still seems rare today — though a lot less so — to get accurate and genuine depictions of some of the negative emotions and experiences involved in motherhood. How do you think being a mother affected your relationship to your work?
Robert and I both being egotistical artists, both of us felt like we were doing much more childcare than we should and neither of us felt like we had enough time to work. It was the worst that we’d ever gotten along in our whole relationship. We kind of hated each other during that early time.
And the thing that was the hardest for me, and sent me into years of therapy, was that my love for her, which was overwhelming, was painful instead of pleasurable. I couldn’t deal with that and so I went into therapy and what I finally realized, which was pretty obvious, is that I didn’t feel that from my mother. When I felt so much love for my daughter, I guess I realized I didn’t get that from my mother. So it made me feel pain rather than pleasure. And I worked on that a lot.
I think I was able to become a better mother as time went on, but in the early stages it was very difficult for me. I loved her so much — I felt like my heart had been moved to the outside of my body, and it could be pierced so easily by anything. I have never felt so vulnerable in my life as when she was a baby. It was the most overwhelming thing I’ve ever experienced. My pregnancy was easy, the birth was easy, but then when she was there, it was so hard.
Sophie now has three children. She is the most natural, best mother. And she recently said to me, “Yeah, but you were such a great mother, that’s why it’s easy for me.” I said, “Really?” I realized that I did a much better job than I thought I was doing at the time, and she does a lot of things now that I did then. I was a real hippie and I was very organic and I had cloth diapers and I hung them out in the sun and I had chickens and goats. I was really back-to-the-land California hippie. And she’s a lot like that, but in France. Being a grandmother and seeing Sophie as a mother has been a wonderful experience for me. And it has reinforced the fact that I was not a total fuck-up. At the time, I felt really inadequate and unprepared and very bad at motherhood.
I also felt guilty because I was thinking about my art and I was editing Weirdo magazine and I was doing a lot of comics then. It was the peak of my work phase of comics, and I was very productive before that. It was difficult, but I stayed productive throughout her childhood. I was able to do it somehow. Eventually, we got some childcare, but not for a while. I was too scared to leave her with anybody. And I breastfed for a long time. But gradually things got easier.
Your character talks a lot about the influence of creativity in her life. Sometimes she seems to have this kind of ambition, to produce work and be known, but sometimes she just seems to want to be able to do her work and be left alone. Other times, she wants to focus on life and love and sex. What role do you think ambition has played in your life, or your autobiographical characters’ lives?
I think I was in general ambition-impaired. But I think women have a harder time than men. For me, I’m very domestically oriented. I run a tight ship of a house and I really enjoy doing all of the domestic things, like cooking and gardening. It’s very time-consuming, but it’s also deeply satisfying. For all of my life, I’ve been torn between those kinds of “female,” domestic activities — they are totally satisfying to me — and wanting to get my voice out there in the world and participate in the general culture and have my say. I don’t think I ever had ambition in terms of caring about money or getting into movies or TV or whatever. But I do think I wanted to leave something, for posterity, in the culture. Say something. So I had that drive.
But then, I was also totally obsessed with sex and approval from men and wanting to have fun and taking drugs. All of it. It was all simultaneously going on, and there was a lot of conflict.
The way you describe it, you seem somehow more balanced than many people, who sort of zero in on one thing or the other.
Well, I managed to eke out some kind of body of work. And I managed not to be such a terrible mother, and to have a clean house. [Laughs.]
That’s superhero status, right there.
I think so too, a little bit. I was just helping my friend skim her pool, and I was thinking, I love doing this. I love working in my garden. I love cleaning and making order and aesthetic beauty in the house. It is a gratifying creative thing to me, along with everything else. I love decorating — I’m redoing another house. I take these old houses and make them beautiful again. I find that very satisfying also. It’s hard to say that one thing is necessarily more important than another.
You seem always to fluctuate between making comics and doing other stuff. This includes yoga and home decoration, but also working in other art forms, like the video and art show you collaborated on with your friend Dominique Sapel (Miami Makeover: Almost Anything for Beauty, 2012), and the paintings you do. How do you know when it’s time to make comics, or when it’s time to do something else?
Stories tend to fester in my brain and soul until they need to come out. After I’ve been working on comics for a while, and it’s so restrictive and uptight — it’s all black-and-white, these little boxes — after a while I have a huge desire to break out and do something in color. Either work on my house or decorate my house or do paintings. It kind of goes in cycles, and one reacts to the other. And then if I’ve only been working on my house, I might find I need to do something more meaningful and intellectual, and stop and go in my studio.
Sometimes I feel crazy, like I’m running from one to the other. But on the other hand, one thing informs the other. It’s also seasonal. When the spring comes, I want to start planting flowers like crazy. I feel more out there and I don’t want to be confined inside, so I work less. Now I have three grandkids, so I play with the children a lot and take care of them to help Sophie. And I love that too. That’s also creative and satisfying.
Another issue that comes up a lot in your work, and seems to be a uniting theme of the new story you included in Love That Bunch, “Dream House,” is money and class. Why do you think you have such an interest in the topic?
My grandparents were very successful and very comfortable and for the first five years of my life they lived in a big house and I was there a lot. I was very influenced by my grandmother, who had impeccable 1920s furniture. She was very elegant. She dressed beautifully. My fashion and decorating sense definitely come from her. Then when I was five, my parents moved to a very modern 1950s house and my father was a bum and a pathological liar and he never had any money. But they moved to a very fancy area where everyone had money and we had no money and I was always ashamed of my parents and my house and my outfits. I think part of my obsession with it was being in a place where everyone had that stuff and I didn’t, and feeling very inferior.
Later, when the 1960s came, I realized that was all bullshit, all of it, and I was kind of angry about having been raised in such a horrible place with such bad values. I had to deal with those things for a very long time in order to come to terms with them. And gradually, Robert and I developed our own reality with our own values and a bohemian lifestyle. We were poor at times, we had money at times. But that wasn’t what made our life rich. We found other ways of being rich, and that was cultural and trading things with people and being able to grow things and eating our own food and being able to fix things ourselves. We discovered a whole other way of life that had nothing to do with how I grew up. Gradually, I evolved beyond my upbringing. But in the beginning, having been subject to that value system and not having the tools or the equipment to deal with it was a very painful and difficult thing.
Lots of critics have focused on the traumas you depict in your work: sexual and physical and emotional violence. I noticed, in rereading your work in this new form, that there were several stories throughout the book that touched on issues of grief. One was about the loss of your father, another was about the loss of a grandparent. And there was a bit, toward the end, in your new story, that seemed to touch on grief in relation to your brother’s life and your relationship with him. All of this is done with your characteristically over-the-top sense of humor interspersed throughout. Why do you think you’re so drawn to the comedic, even when writing and drawing about these darker topics and themes?
I can’t tell a story unless there’s humor involved. I was raised with stand-up comics in New York, like Jackie Mason, Joey Bishop, Alan King, Henny Youngman, and Don Rickles. That kind of humor is really soulful to me. There’s a history of Jewish humor and storytelling where it’s somewhat self-deprecating. There’s pain and pleasure involved, but there’s also always this fatalistic dark humor about all of it. That’s what makes me want to tell a story — when I can see all of those sides to it.
I could see the absurdity of some of these grief rituals. Like, you’re sitting shiva and instead of sitting on wooden benches they give you cardboard boxes and my overweight relatives caved in the boxes. It’s almost this incredible social commentary about family deterioration at the same time. While I was grieving with my family, as it was happening, I was also thinking, my god, this is unbelievable. I’m really interested in these things happening simultaneously. That’s what makes a story to me: weaving together all of those details and contradictions because that’s how life is. It’s not linear, there’s not one theme. You’re weaving a tapestry. That’s what’s good art to me. And literature too. That’s what I want to read myself.
Are you thinking of any literature in particular? What do you read?
I read a lot of comics. I love Phoebe Gloeckner and Julie Doucet. Alison Bechdel, Carol Tyler. I love Chester Brown and I love Dan Clowes and Chris Ware and all these artists. And I love Lena Dunham and Broad City and Amy Sedaris.
I think it’s all linear, from my work to that. Whether or not they read my work, it’s in the collective unconscious and that autobiographical style of work has developed and spread. I’m always interested in reading that kind of stuff. One of my favorite writers is Jean Rhys. And I also like John Fante and Bukowski and writers from that period, too.
Lately I’ve been trying to keep up with The New Yorker and journalism because I’m so concerned with what’s happening in the United States. So I’ve been reading nonfiction since Trump got elected, to try to figure out what’s going on, and listening to good radio shows too, which I stream from France. I can’t ignore it.
I’ve spoken with a lot of cartoonists who like listening to radio while they work.
Yes. I listen to radio while I’m drawing. I can’t listen to it when I’m writing, but when I’m drawing I’ll stream NPR. I go to KQED in San Francisco, I go to KCRW in Los Angeles, I go to WNYC in New York. I go all over the country to try and figure things out. I also listen to BBC and French radio stations. I listen to ARTE Radio, which is German and French, and I try and get as much input as I can. Especially having grandkids, I wanna have some hope. I do have hope — I have hope that young women are going to take over from the fucked-up old white men, and that’s my hope.
This leads nicely into another question I had, which is about role models and mentorship. In one of your pieces about being in art school, you show the Bunch having a female art professor and finally feeling encouraged in her work, at least for a time. You’ve also been an important role model and champion of autobiographical comics for lots and lots of cartoonists — from Phoebe Gloeckner and Julie Doucet to Gabrielle Bell and Lauren Weinstein and Vanessa Davis. Could you talk about role models and mentorship — whether you feel like you had any, and what, if anything, you feel is your role as a pioneering creator?
I came from a fine arts background and started as a painter. My role models were Frida Kahlo and Alice Neel. Those were the two who influenced me most in terms of my style and how I saw I could express myself. And then Justin Green also, who wrote Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972), the first autobiographical comic as far as I know. He influenced me a lot. When I first went to San Francisco, I went there to meet him because I was very influenced by his work.
I also loved Little Lulu comics when I was a kid. Those were the only comics I really read a lot. And I think of Little Lulu as an early feminist character — she was tough and strong, and I really liked that a lot.
I have had friends in my life, too, who were strong women, who have had an influence on me — some older friends. I had one friend who passed away. She said things to me in my life at moments when it was really important. And I have one cousin who is younger than me that I feel I had a really good influence on. We’re close friends and I think I steered her in a direction away from our horrible family values and into a much better way of being.
I’ve met so many inspiring younger people on this book tour. I’m happy about that. What more could you hope for, than that people will keep doing good work and even better work? Because the graphic novel is considered an important art form, people actually study it and learn it and they’re better than we were. We were just groping around, trying to figure out how to make comic books. There was no history and not much precedent — nothing really to base one’s work on. A lot of the work was really crude and not really self-realized in a lot of ways. The work I see now is better — it’s really impressive. And comics have themselves been influential. Alison Bechdel’s work is a Broadway show, and Lena Dunham’s work seems like it could have been influenced by early comics.
In 1976, I drew myself on the cover of [the first issue of all-female comic anthology] Twisted Sisters, sitting on the toilet. And then Lena Dunham put herself on the toilet on an episode of Girls. When I saw that, I fell out of my chair. People said I was crazy and brave for drawing myself, but that’s just a drawing — you can be distanced from it. But she put herself on the toilet on-screen, and I was blown away by that.
Looking back, do you still feel a connection to these earlier versions of yourself on the page? Or are they just characters you used to know?
There’s a connection, but it’s more and more distant, and I feel like a much more evolved creature than I was then, thank god. I don’t use any substances, I’m much more clear-headed, I have replaced alcohol and drugs and cigarettes with yoga for the last 25 years and that’s a very positive change in my life. It took me a long time to get there. Meditation has been a great tool for me as well, and it has helped me so much. I still incorporate that early self in myself. I think it helps me feel compassionate toward young people.
People can really fuck up when they’re young and still come out of it, as long as they don’t die of a drug overdose or get in a car accident while drinking. As long as you stay alive, there’s hope.
Tahneer Oksman is the author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs.
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