Melinda Gebbie Interview
Melinda Gebbie’s comics are different from the underground background she shared with other San Francisco cartoonists from the 1970s. While Robert Crumb was fixating on big-legged ‘gurls’, and Gilbert Shelton was plucking his Furry Freak Brothers from out of one marijuana-related catastrophe after another, Melinda was drawing the other cartoonists around her, capturing their visages and words on paper and including them as characters in her own world.
What was the first thing you remember reading?
Little Golden Books were the first books I read. I had a small library of them. Beautiful, varied stories full of children, animals, and fairy tales, all by different authors and artists. Gustav Tenggren, Gertrude Elliot, and Eloise Wilkin Kent to name some favorites. I was about nine.
What inspired you to become an artist, particularly comic books?
I took inspiration more from the relationships between forms, and a feeling for line work than the kinetic possibilities of panel to panel storytelling. I loved “Gordo” by Gus Arriola—quiet storytelling that drew you into the afternoon peace of village life in a little town in Mexico. Flowing, effortless brushwork. Undulant and naturalistic. A real grasp of figures at play and rest, man and animal. A celebration of life’s enchanting details.
Was it hard to break into the underground comix scene and were you supported by the type of stories you told? Also can you tell us your thoughts on censorship (I know you’ve suffered terribly at the hands of the censors, particularly the British and American censors)?
My entrance into the comix scene was pretty much through the back door, like the rest of the unruly lot already squatting there. One week there was a small publishers’ fair in Golden Gate Park, and I met Lee Marrs from “Wimmen’s Comix.” I showed her some art and she told me there was no censorship of stories submitted to the publisher Ron Turner, at Last Gasp. Everyone worked from home. We got 25 bucks a page. At about 12 to 14 pages a year, comix work did not support me.
My views on censorship at this point are frankly skewed. I believe I’m the first female cartoonist in the UK to have 250 comics burnt by the court and pronounced illegal to import, possess or to sell, which, I believe, is still true today. That was back in 1986.
The book in question, “Fresca Zizis,” contains personal stories about sexual trauma, as well as darkly humorous feminist takes on misogyny, which were deemed to be unacceptably insolent by the Magistrate-of-the-Day. Luckily, by that time, caning moral miscreants had been abolished by 1986, so I was allowed to go free without getting spanked.
What artist or writer inspires you the most?
One of my favourite authors at the moment is Toni Morrison. I love her ear for dialogue, her characters, her warm and knowing heart and her glowing language. Others would be Daphne du Maurier and Violette le Duc; Emile Zola and Ted Chiang.
Some favourite artists might be William Holman Hunt and Monet and Kandinsky, and Ivan Albright and Ronald Searle.
What piece of art are you proudest of?
I have different reasons for loving different works. I’ve been painting in the years since “Lost Girls” in 2007, but most people will not see the colour works till they’re published in the definitive book of my art, which I’m organizing the notes for, presently.
I suppose that my most classical-looking painting would be “Pink Boy,” which is an eroticised version of “Blue Boy” by Gainsborough, littered with 1980s’ pop-culture ornaments. My sources are usually family and friends. I have painted my mother as an oriental deity, and done a group study of friends as moon worshippers and as graffiti artists. Color relationships are crucially important to me, as well as texture and meaning. There are paintings that have helped me to express feelings of trauma, lost love, joy and the absence of dear friends, while educating me in the use of color as a mood-enhancer.
But let’s concentrate on the published comix, shall we? I never thought of being a writer. Words were something I originally approached with a pitchfork, anxious to stave off self-criticism, as words can show you up for being a fool or a boor. I tended to use a kind of dreamlike approach to language, as dream-narratives follow their own imperatives.
Eventually, drawing from diaries, I found storylines I could develop and follow. I was very proud of the story I did about the Miner’s Strike in Britain, in 1984, “Beryl’s Fury,” after visiting a mining community in Gwent, Wales. It was also obvious from my solo book, “Fresca Zizis,” that I had a yen to be a torch-bearer for what would eventually come to be known as the second-wave feminist movement. By the way, I still stick by my critique of American-style masculinity as I personally experienced it during those vexing years. I suppose I was really only sure of a direction to take when prompted to do so by real events and the real people involved with them. First-hand reporting that I could verify with dates and names. The women I worked with on “Wimmen’s Comix” were constantly being accused of, “Over-reaction to the petty concerns that women were heir to,” and were not funny or relevant in their assessment of anything, in the eyes of the Boy’s Comix Club and our mutual publisher, Ron Turner, who informed me that us women were, “Lucky to be published at all.”
Do you think your environment, where you live, has an effect on type of art you create?
I think that environment plays a very big role in what one creates. I was brought up in two small towns, the first by the sea, and then a move to a town surrounded by redwood trees, walking distance from a mountain. Nature set the tempo of my life and was an anchor and a panacea to cleanse family strafings. People can, by turns, be rewarding or wounding, and in all cases, require considered responses. Nature only requires a response of tenderness and respect; to be cleansed of the dirt we pile on her, and the caretaking of her soil, her creatures and her elements. If she dies, we die. Cruel behaviour dished out by humans on a personal level can fade considerably once one leaves the miserable wallpaper of shared unhappiness. Even for an hour.
Having lived for 30 years in Northampton now, I have been very glad of our local parks. The town isn’t even mentioned on the weather maps; that’s how competitive a destination it is thought to be. It’s a town full of consequence. Blood and iron. Ancient battle sites; a great place for buckling down and getting jiggy with one’s inner hermit.
Is it easier for you to create if given an assignment or does it get in the way of your creativity?
I’ve had a tight brief or two in the past. Never had to crank out a perennial assignment, per se, but the first binding brief was the art produced with David Smith as writer, under the “Writers and Readers” series titled “Ronald Reagan for Beginners,” in 1981. Whew! I’d get about halfway through the spot illos and then receive a late-night call from David Smith, frantically telling me a whole string of new events were pouring out of the White House, which would require my saying adieu to a bunch of suddenly irrelevant art.
Then there was the animated film, “When the Wind Blows,” in 1986—missed deadlines by the score, no budget, sleeping on the studio floor so as to catch up on miles of wrongly-executed hand-made animation. A near-disaster almost as nightmarish in a 2D way, as its nuclear 3D tale. Now that’s what I call a deadline!
You co-created one of the best loved comic book characters, Cobweb. How did that come about?
The origin of the “Cobweb” saga is nice. Attending the San Diego Comic Con, on a panel of women of that vintage (1980), I said that I was sick of all the fuss the women creators were making about cute femme superheroines and their antique antics, as popularized by Wonder Woman and her magic lasso. Why do we need more examples of empty, pretty pinups mincing around, when there is a natural glut of limp be-boobed glyphs already, I enquired. Cat Yronwood and Trina Robbins came to Wonder Woman’s rescue by claiming Harry Peters, W.W.’s creator, had done the cutest girlie-heroes ever, end of story.
“What about a new kind of super woman character? One that has a brain, a code of ethics, a discerning overview of human folly and an intolerance for the dopey pact between women and men where she’s the geisha and he’s the samurai?”
The questions went unanswered. My guess was that these ladies were just pleased to be allowed by the guys to get to draw girls, too. A book of industry-produced comix art came out about ten years ago, featuring all the greatest renditions of super-type ladies by various artists working for Marvel or DC. A thick volume of wish-fulfilment toss by men, all full-page, except for two diminutive images by two actual women. Jill Thompson’s and mine.
Anyhoo, Alan asked me if I ever had a hankering to do my own superhero. This was around 1999. I experimented with All-American red, white, and blah types and although I never ever liked any industry “fliers,” I did have great affection for Betty Page, the fifties pinup queen from days when I found a couple of her pamphlets in my dad’s bureau. I was eight at the time, and she looked like a smiling princess to me. I did the first hand-colored drawing of her in 1980—even before Dave Stephens drew her in “Rocketeer.”
As a kid, I loved to watch a TV series called “Our Miss Brooks,” starring Eve Arden as a witty, statuesque high-school teacher, who scared the pie out of all the men on staff with her rock-solid logic and devil-may-care attitude. Miss Brooks fancied the lab-coat off Mr. Boynton—a shy but handsome science teacher who balked like a colt whenever she pounced gracefully into his office.
I was hypnotised by “Our Miss Brooks.” Following her antics was like watching a David Attenborough special on the predatory subtleties of an advanced species of woman struggling to introduce deductive thinking to cargo cultists.
Miss Brooks didn’t purr or coo. She spoke with the assuredness of an amused logician. A sitcom starring a woman who found men amusing in their vulnerability was not what conservative fifties TV shows like “I Love Lucy,” (shrill) “My Little Margie,” (pert) and “Susie McNamara, Private Secretary,” (big-busted, “mumsy”), were made for. Viewers were instead, fed upon femme vehicles dawdling in their neutered landscapes, waiting for commands from exasperated males in the tower. Miss Brooks wasn’t married. Miss Brooks was too independent to be groomed into subservience. What to do with her? Let her choose her own life; stand back and watch her grow; that’s what!
That’s where Cobweb comes waltzing in. Not dressed for work. Not useful in the workplace. Not a mum. Not a wife. And she has a glamorous female companion, who is also not a mum or a wife. They do what they want. The sky’s the limit. Brunette and blonde explorers drifting through multiple realms of unexamined territory. Into Space, into the sixties, into film, and even into antiquated, collaged imaginariums filled with hellish fauna and flora. And they were post-modern, meaning the images were chosen freely from all sources; old, new; whatever fitted. And the styles and even sometimes the artists, changed with each chapter.
As the daughter of an angry, disappointed secretary who despised being a wife and mother, I started thinking early about people making bad choices that they have to stick with forever. I grew up eager for even a sighting of a girl or woman who seemed happy in her life. Granted, California was not a hotbed of selfhood for women, and San Francisco was an Isle of Lost Women anyhow, due to the doubled competition of both men and women avidly seeking men.
It just wasn’t seemly for a woman to be the judge of what kind of life she wanted for herself in the sixties, or to be, in guy-lingo: a “ball-breaker.” May I just point out that if we women were really good at ball-breaking back then, we would’ve been better at tackling the roots of rape at its source. Someone should’ve pointed out to us that you don’t need keys if you’ve got your knees.
What was the oddest thing you’ve ever been asked to do in your writing career? A specific assignment from a comic book company, screenplay for a producer, books for a publisher?
What was the oddest thing I was ever asked to do? Honey, they were mostly odd! The weirdest things got thrown away—even a banned pornographer like myself has some standards! And I’m not necessarily talking inappropriate subject matter here. The oddest situation I found myself in was at a small comix convention in Portugal. “Lost Girls” was in print there, but lots of parents had brought their kids to the Con, and doing sketches for people in Europe was not done like the US did it. People expected not to pay for sketches. It wasn’t the done thing. There were lots of families there, and a language problem to deal with, and I kept getting asked to draw Batman, Bat Girl, Bat Baby, etc.
How to explain a refusal to draw other people’s cack? I thought I would do something that all the parents and kids would like. I did a portrait of every child in that lineup of families. Full-color in pencils. Everyone was delighted and no one said “But I wanted a sketch of Aquaman!” I only ever did that once at a comix convention. I must have cranked out thirty lovely likenesses in only six hours. Afterwards, in the bar lounge, I was so exhausted I literally could not get up out of my chair to cross the room to hug an old friend. But I did it! I made thirty families happy for a day, and they had the same change in their pockets going out, as they came in with! Art for Art’s sake.
What projects are you working on now?
In terms of projects in the now, I’ve just completed a memoir of my life back in San Francisco in the sixties and seventies, including the Underground scene, and after that, culture shock during my time in Cambridge and later in London, where I got involved in a fair amount of other scenes, including courtrooms. It’s just being prepped to be sent to an agent.
Meanwhile, I’ll be finishing up notes on my art book next, which will contain all my most controversial comix, full color illustrations and paintings. Lockdown has been a strange blessing for those of us who are used to working at home on their own. I’ve spent a fair few years in relationships, and am happily still in one, but oddly, my most intense memories are of those times of being on my own, drawing or painting and dancing and singing along with my records in my flat in San Francisco, projecting a future self to a world I didn’t know yet.