THERE IS A NEW give and take between comics and fine art. This comes on several fronts: comics in galleries and museums; scholars fascinated by the line between fine art and comics; a generation of post-alternative comics creators, many of whom learned the craft of comics at art school; and the publishers who support those creators, producing minicomics and books for an audience familiar with the avant-garde. Laurenn McCubbin knows all these facets of the art-comics intersection. She is a large-scale installation artist and illustrator, as well as the in-house designer for Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction’s production company, where she works on titles like Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly. She’s drawn comics for Marvel, Vertigo, Dark Horse, and Last Gasp, and was for a time art director at Image Comics. She produced the graphic novel Rent Girl alongside writer Michelle Tea, and made the documentary installation A Monument to the Risen, both of which depict sex work as neither titillating fantasy nor moral lesson. She also now teaches as a professor at Columbus College of Art and Design, where she’s been instrumental in shaping their new Comics & Narrative Practice major.
When I spoke to McCubbin, I wanted to talk to her about how she brings comics form into the gallery, as well as her upcoming work on Bitch Planet. I also wanted to find out what she thinks of making art about the politics and economics of gender while simultaneously teaching a new generation of women and queer artists how to find their feet in a capitalist, patriarchal industry.
BEN NOVOTNY OWEN: One of your upcoming projects involves bringing comics form into a large-scale gallery installation. What interests you about that fusion? What’s it like to bring two of your professional identities together in that way?
LAURENN MCCUBBIN: I think that it’s actually something I have been unknowingly working toward organically. In the pieces that I’m working on right now, I’m playing with the idea of how we interact with a narrative. And for me the interaction with narrative has come many times in the form of comics. It’s something I struggled with when I was making comics, and then when I started making installation pieces, because my installation pieces were specifically about looking at the documentary form: how to tell people’s stories in a different way. So when I started working on the documentary about sex workers I always knew that I’m not interested in documentary in a way that makes you sit back and absorb the narrative. And especially when I was doing it about sex work, the idea of people sitting back in a dark theater consuming these people’s stories felt very distasteful to me. I wanted their bodies to be involved like the bodies of the women that I was talking about. And so that’s why I put your body in these same spaces. Here is your body in this space of sex work. Does this maybe change your viewpoint at all? When you’re hearing these people’s stories in the same spaces that they inhabit, you’re performing these kind of ritualized movements — of putting the dollar into the slot, walking across the stage, there’s a pole on the stage, you’re opening a locker, you’re in the backstage space, you’re going through someone’s belongings while they talk to you. That is an entirely different way of hearing someone’s story, or viewing someone’s story.
And then with this piece I’m doing smaller narratives. I’m not doing an entire giant narrative about the complexities of sex work. There will be a sex work narrative in this, but it’s going to be a smaller one, because this is my anthology. And how can I create these new spaces for these narratives that I’m interested in? It’s all stuff that has come out of my fascinations. Like my fascination with Las Vegas, because I lived in Las Vegas for four years. I often refer to Las Vegas as the worst relationship I ever had that I can’t get over and keep stalking on Facebook. Because I just cannot believe how fucked up Las Vegas is. And that there seems to be a lot of disassociation about the fuckedupedness of Las Vegas. Everyone’s like “It’s America’s playground!” And I’m like yeah, and people live there, and people have to clean up. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas and people have to clean up after that. People have this idea that they can come to Las Vegas — and it’s a hugely transient city — and their lives will change. It’s a Mecca for shit. There are people who come there who aren’t shit, but people who live in Vegas become inured to how weird their lives are. They become inured to the really rampant sexism. And there is some healthy sexuality going on. But it’s all hung on this one idea, what I call NASCAR sex. It’s like blonde, and big-titted, and hetero, and white, and that’s all that it is, and there’s nothing else for sale there. One of the narratives is me wrestling with Las Vegas, and the false narrative within the true narrative. This is what Vegas displays itself as, and this is how when you actually get closer … the rotting corpse within it. [Laughs.]
When you were talking about the documentary installation you did on sex work, A Monument to the Risen, that seemed like a very spatially embodied thing. Is the new project like that, or is this a different engagement?
It is a different engagement in that it is not a fully embodied space. But it is similar in that I am still engaging the viewers’ bodies. With the Vegas one, the embodied moment is proximity. The closer you get, the more that the narrative shifts. This will be hung on three large pieces. There’s going to be a bunch of smaller pieces, but then the third, large, interactive piece is about cosplay. Specifically, about cosplayers who are in some way playing with gender. And it’s either that they are gender-swapping characters — and it’s usually women who play male characters as female characters — or women who play male characters as male characters so they’re disguising their gender, or people who have come to an understanding of their own transgender identity through cosplay. Those are the three types of people that I’m looking at. The element of embodiment is going to be something about size. It’s going to be about scale. The scale of these bodies is going to be at the scale of your body. I have not finished this one yet. But I’m getting there! I keep circling it!
How does comics form figure in there?
The way that I lead people through the narrative is the same way that comics lead you through the narrative. It’s a series of panels. All of these pieces are a series of panels that are read in the way that comics are read from left to right, where idea leads to idea, with the whole Scott McCloud understanding of what happens in between the spaces. It’s a little “Understanding Comics 101,” because my main audience for this is probably not going to be people who understand comics. But the panels lead you to the final panel, which will at least finish the narrative, if not explain it.
Do you view your practice as a documentarian as collaboration with your subjects? Is that important to you?
Yeah, I’m very influenced by the idea of relational filmmaking. There’s a woman at Portland State who has this relational filmmaking manifesto that I found when I was in grad school, and was like, “Yeah! That! That is what I like.” And it also comes from sex worker activism, which is “nothing about us without us.” The idea that I can’t talk about you a) without your cooperation, and b) without your input.
So you take that as a sort of baseline ethical obligation?
Yeah. And documentary ethics are weird, right? Because it’s the whole Errol Morris–ian idea that documentarians are all liars because everyone has an agenda. Editing is in and of itself an agenda-creating action. So my thing has always been, okay, within this, the most that I can do is allow the participants the ability to give me the feedback and say this is my story/this isn’t my story. Or, yes, you get it right/yes, you get it wrong. And sometimes that can cut out stuff that I think is important. Going back to the sex work project, I had to drop one of the stories from my piece because one of the women said, you know, “Yeah, I can’t work if this story is out there.” She got fired from the brothel that she was at because I had put some clips up on YouTube and she was talking about that brothel. And actually, another woman I know was a sex worker and then she stopped being a sex worker and was a sex work activist, and has now retreated entirely from that world. And I decided to excise her story from my documentary because I feel like she is making a conscious choice and I need to honor her choice. She didn’t ask me, but seeing how hard this year has been on her, I’m like hey, I’m not even going to make this a problem for you. That’s how I do it. I’m not Michael Moore, and I’m not a big famous documentarian, but at the same time I have a very different relationship with my subjects than those people.
I looked back at your old comic, Jane, and I looked at the fragments of the installation A Monument to the Risen that you have online, and in both of those there’s a real thesis, right? It’s a challenge to received notions about what we think we know about women who work in the sex industry. And yet neither comes across as didactic. How do you see the relationship between your roles as a feminist activist, and as an artist? Are they one and the same? Or are they separate? Or is the distinction that I’m drawing itself misleading?
This is something I super struggle with in my work. Because I want to point a finger at the thing that I think is important and go, “See! It’s important! Pay attention to it, it’s important!” But that does not make for great art, right? And the way that you trigger an emotional response isn’t through that kind of didacticism. And I want something that’s going to linger. My goal with this is if I’m asking you to understand these things, I want these things to linger with you for more than the moment that you look at the piece, absorb it, and go “Oh, okay I think I get it” and walk on. And that’s the hardest part right now of what I’m doing. I think that’s part of why I’m changing forms. If I give you a different way to read, does that help at all? It becomes the unfolding of a story. There’s going to be more of my hand in it, my hand in the way that we think of it in art. There’s going to be less talking in these pieces and more visuals.
And so you see that visual element as a way of making people pause to look at a piece more closely?
Yeah, and hang out with it for a minute more. That’s the other thing: if I want to do work in a gallery setting as opposed to a film, making people stop and listen to audio, or watch a video, is fucking impossible. They’re visually overstimulated anyway, because everything is going on when you go into a museum or a gallery. And the idea that you have to stop and absorb this thing?
How do fine art and comics compare as industries in which to work? How do the opportunities compare, and how do the chances of getting exploited compare?
There are a lot of similarities, in that they are both very white, and in both there is a stratification of worth. The people whose work is perceived to be worth more in comics and in fine art — there’s that five percent in either that people are going to pay attention to. It’s hard to get attention. It’s hard to do something new because, again, in both fields there are standards that we already think of that people need to reach before we will actually consider them artists. There are weird cliques in the working world of both. The indie kids of comics and the warehouse gallery kids are very similar. The superhero kids and the blue chip artists are very similar. And then the people who consume these arts, they like the things that maybe are not the great art. They’re not getting the good stuff because it’s not part of our common parlance. But, boy oh boy, do they love it when somebody draws photorealistically at a really large scale. That’s the thing in fine art that drives the fine art people crazy. “Why do you guys keep liking this stuff?” And in comics it’s, “Why do you guys keep liking Jim Lee?” No one makes money in either field. It’s hard to make money in comics; it’s hard to make money in fine art. Very few people do it. It is a very rarified group of people who actually can make a living at this. And the people who do work their asses off. Which is not to say that the people who don’t don’t also work their asses off!
Working your ass off is a prerequisite, but not necessarily a guarantee.
Exactly. And the major difference between the two of them is that comics just don’t get taken seriously, as art. They just don’t. And I get it, because if I looked at what most people think of as comics I would go, “Oh yeah, that’s not art, that’s crap. That’s crap for kids.” It’s not even that it’s garish, it’s just simplistic and kind of boring and maybe a little moralizing. And as far as opportunities for exploitation? I work with students in comics, and the thing that I have drilled into them — and they’re getting so good at it, it makes me so happy — is that they don’t work for free. I do. I’m totally not getting paid to do my new gallery show. I’m paying a lot of money to put it together and I’m probably not going to make any money off of it. But that is for me. The gallery gets value out of it. But that is different than, “I’m going to make something for somebody’s crappy comic that they’re gonna sell.” And my students get asked almost every single time they go to a convention, or they will get people emailing them, “Hey, you want this great opportunity to work for nothing?” And it’s always the same kind of dudes, and it’s always dudes.
Is the distinction there partly prestige? That is, in the fine art world you get some measurable prestige that you can translate into further opportunities …
And I also get the opportunity to work out my ideas in public. It’s great to talk about all of this stuff and do it in my studio, but now I’m going to show it other people.
Whereas if they get the crappy offer, there’s zero prestige and zero money.
Yeah, and a lot of work. And there’s the big difference for you. Comics are, at their heart, a commercial endeavor.
So if you don’t get paid, then you’re not doing it right.
And if I don’t get paid as a fine artist that’s to be expected. [Laughs.] Capitalism, baby! [Laughs.]
I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your work on Bitch Planet. You’re doing the art and writing on a book that’s an object within the Bitch Planet universe?
Yes, I am. Kelly Sue [DeConnick] and I are co-writing it. I’m taking the first pass at it and then she goes in and makes it funny. ’Cause I tend to take everything really seriously. And she’s like, okay, we need to lower the shoulders a little bit and relax. And so in the science fiction world that Kelly Sue has constructed, the idea is that women don’t go to school. They’re only homeschooled. And then when they get their periods, they have to go to special classes called compliance classes, which are basically, “now that you are a woman, this is how to be a woman.” And so it’s everything from how to manage the household budget to advanced interrogation techniques. Because when we were thinking about this book, one of the things we talked about was evolutionary psychologists. They’re bullshit artists. Like, men are hunters and gatherers, and women are nurturers. So evolutionary psychologists have control of an entire society, and men’s rights activists have control over the entire society, and this is the way that women are supposed to be. And there are things that women are good at, and so in the book we are going to instruct you in your role. The book is the how-to.
The back pages of Bitch Planet are very pointed satires of patriarchy in the contemporary United States. Do you think of satire as a new part of your work?
I do think of it as new in that it’s the first time that it’s actually been part of my work, as opposed to just me being kind of snarky. So that’s definitely a new thing.
Are there unique joys or challenges to working in a satirical mode?
Yeah. One challenge is not putting your finger on the punch line, which again, thank god for Kel cause she is much, much better at that than me. And then when the joke lands and other people pick it up, that makes me just the happiest person in the world. My favorite one is the Misandry Cosmetics gag that we did. That was super successful. I think it was also because I was just so annoyed by dudes on the internet saying, “Girl, you’re beautiful without makeup, but also you’re not, and also makeup is a lie.” And our idea is just, get off of our faces. I’m not doing this for you! I don’t wear lipstick because of what you think about it, I wear lipstick because I love the way it looks.
I’ve heard you say that when you want to understand something, you draw it. What does drawing mean to you? How do you think it helps you understand things?
Drawing is all about observation. Well, the way I draw is about observation. And when we teach people to draw, when I’m talking to art students about drawing it’s like, you’re going to look at this thing that you want to represent and think about, and break it down to its essential parts, and think about the shapes that make it up. And hopefully let go of your preconceived notions of it. Because that’s the hardest thing for anybody who’s learning how to draw. Right now, I’m drawing cosplayers. I’m drawing pictures of all of the cosplayers that I’ve interviewed so far and as I draw them, you know, it’s a very meditative process, and I’m thinking about what they’re wearing, and I’m thinking about the why of what they’re wearing, and I’m thinking about the way that I want to represent them, or do I want this part to be darker over here. I hang out and meditate with them for a little while. And even if the drawings don’t show up in my stuff, that’s where I get into a thing. I’ve drawn everyone I’ve ever interviewed. And I don’t show the drawings that often.
Do you think it changes your relationship with the people whom you draw?
I think so, because I hang out with them, and I think about them. And the interview is part of it too. But I think about, “Oh, you have this weird little thing that you do when you smile,” and I think about what pose expresses you to me the most. These are the things about you that I feel clearest about. I don’t know if it makes me feel more fond of my subjects, but I definitely feel like I have a better understanding of them.
And do you show them the drawings?
Oh yeah. And I often give them the drawings. Especially because I am asking so much of them. Like, please let me interview you for hours on end, and let me come and hang out with you, and get really intrusive in your life, and then not do anything with it. Then it’s going to be in this installation that you can’t even fucking come see. [Laughs.] There’s an emotional labor there. And in exchange for your labor, here’s some of my labor.
I have a general question about the comics industry. How do you see the opportunities for women and non-gender-binary people changing in comics at the moment? What are the possibilities and where’s the pushback?
Well, there’s both a larger audience and a larger group of creators who are women, and non-gender-binary people, and people of color. It is still in no way equal or even representative of the population as a whole. And it’s a little exhausting because I’m tired of the same arguments from the same dudes who are like, “Women don’t read comics.” And it’s like, dude, we prove it over and over again. Raina Telgemeier’s comics have been on the New York Times bestseller list for 127 weeks. She has nine titles on the list. How do you not see? It is the David Bowie line of comics — the children that you spit on, they try and change the world. It was the girls who grew up watching Sailor Moon and drawing manga, who then wanted to make that thing, and then when they were told they couldn’t make that thing, they made their own thing, and that thing took over. And that thing is now the most profitable thing. And, yes, there is always going to be a place for superhero comics. But even in that, they have to know that that audience is an aging, graying, decaying audience. And if that part of the industry wants to continue to be a thriving part of the industry, they need to change. It’s slowly getting better. For every one step forward it sometimes feels like there are two steps back. And I used to feel like if we made a change in corporate comics, in Marvel and DC, it would make a difference. And now I’m like, “Nah, eff it, screw them.” Something I’ve noted about Marvel and DC is that their fashion and their politics are always 10–20 years behind the times. Like, they were drawing people in the 2000s who all looked like they were from the late 1980s/early ’90s. And that was their idea of sexy. And their politics went right along with that. It’s the same now.
They’ve just discovered grunge.
Yeah. Just like all of the kids at my school. All of them are dressing super ’90s now. And so are comics. And it’s cool because you know that what also comes along with that is riot grrrl.
Have you seen Black Canary?
Exactly! [Laughs.] And so yeah, it’s cool, we’ll be here waiting for you.
So for you it’s how to strengthen and expand the thing from the outside?
Yeah, exactly, and so I am incredibly happy that I get to teach, because the people that I teach are the people that are going to make the difference. And I really do believe that about some of these kids. Like, I really, really do.