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December 02, 2004 - Image 14

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Text
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The Michigan Daily, 2004-12-02

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The Michigan Daily -T

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THE STORY

OF HER LIFE

COMICS ARTIST PHOEBE GLOECKNER BRINGS HIGH-RELIEF STORYTELLING TO 'U'

By Alexandra Jones
Daily Weekend Editor

Art and Design Prof. Phoebe
Gloeckner isn't afraid to speak her
mind. Whether she's penning an
excoriating criticism of the comics
community, illustrating a cross-sec-
tion of a blowjob or telling the story
of a murdered Mexican teenager, she's
got a lot to say on the subject besides
what's on the page. A cartoonist,
writer and professional medical illus-
trator, Gloeckner accepted a position

teaching figure drawing and comics
in the School of Art and Design this
term.
There's a good reason her voice is so
strong: Gloeckner has come up against
all kinds of censorship - some exter-
nal, some self-imposed - as a com-
ics artist. "My work was just recently
(called) 'a handbook for a pedophile,"'
she said. Last April, Stockton, Calif.,
Mayor Gary Podesto cited Gloeckner's
"A Child's Life," a collection of her illus-
trations and comics, as an example of a

lack of control over potentially offensive
materials in San Joaquin County librar-
ies. An 11-year old recently checked out
the book, which is clearly intended for
adults. One story in "A Child's Life"
involves a young girl travelling through
a fairy-tale forest in which she can see
her future relationships with different
men. In another comic, a girl named
Minnie sees imaginary dolls - abused
children, starving refugees - and tries
to rescue all of them. The Stockton City
Council decided that its library system
would not carry the book because of its
supposedly inappropriate content.
Although she's upset about the cen-
sorship, Gloeckner feels comfortable
with the content of her work. "I know it's
not (a handbook for pedophiles), but I
hadn't looked at my work in a long time.
Then I forced myself to look at it and
say, 'Is this really bad?' and then I real-
ized it wasn't. (Podesto) took it totally
out of context." But censorship of her
work comes not only from readers and
viewers, but from within the publish-
ing community: A printing company in
Ann Arbor refused to print Gloeckner's
most recent work, "Diary of a Teenage
Girl," because of its content.
"But there is that little-girl voice in
you thinking, 'You wicked child!' I
drew things like that ever since I was
very small, for my classmates, and I
think I did get in trouble," says Gloeck-
ner. As a young artist, her work went
virtually unseen by family and friends;
when her work first got published, she
assumed that no one read the under-
ground comic books in which her art
appeared.
"I always thought, 'I'm bad, I should
hide,' " she said. "Then again, I have
this overwhelming desire to express
this, so I will. I don't care if no one
reads it. I'm doing what I have to do,
and no one's calling me bad because
they don't see it."
Eventually, Gloeckner learned to
forget about everyone else - at least
while she's still involved in the creative
process. "I think my big problem was
people's misconstruing the meaning of
my work. The relationship of the work
to the viewer is the most important to
the viewer. But to me, it's my relation-
ship to the work."
Her comics have been called porno-
graphic by some critics, but Gloeckner
denies the label. "There are so many
different things anything can mean,"
she explained. "I think that when people

look at a sexual picture, it makes them
kind of excited, and they feel awkward
feeling that, and they can't work it out.
So even if it's a picture of child abuse,
the knee-jerk response to that is sex."
Using disturbing imagery might make
readers uncomfortable, but she knows
that these illustrations are valuable to
the larger work. "As an artist, you have
to have that feeling, because you want
the reader to have the same confusion
the person in the story does. You don't
mind if they feel sexual for a few sec-
onds if they get further into the psycho-
logical thing because that's what it's
about."
Gloeckner's book, "Diary of a Teen-
age Girl," tells the story of a girl named
Minnie, who appears as a pre-adoles-
cent in "A Child's Life." Minnie lives
in San Francisco with her mother and
sister as Gloeckner did; Minnie has the
same face - strong jaw, bright eyes
and thick dark bangs - as her creator.
Because of this resemblance, readers
often incorrectly assume that every-
thing that happens to Minnie has hap-
pened to Phoebe, that Minnie's thoughts
and feelings are Gloeckner's own. She
channels many of her experiences into
Minnie's character, but she rejects the
misconception that details about her
life and Minnie's are identical. "I was
never thinking in terms of 'This looks
like me, people are gonna think it's me'
because I was totally divorced from
my public, if there was one - not even
divorced, just never married ... I kind
of mix in other people's stories and then
hide them behind other characters.
"I didn't consider the audience
because I didn't know if there was one.
Once you realize later that you do have
an audience, I think it becomes harder
to do your work. Suddenly, you're in
danger of becoming self-conscious,"
Gloeckner said.
Minnie's adolescence is a time period
from age 15 to 18 during which she car-
ries on an affair with her mother's 40-
something boyfriend, Monroe. But the
diary format of the book captures the
important details of teenage life: Min-
nie draws comics, idolizes Bay Area
cartoonists R. Crumb and his wife,
Aline Kaminsky, hangs out on Polk
Street, experiments with friends, boys,
girls, drugs. Pages filled with comics
panels and larger drawings illustrate
Minnie's diary entries. She eventually
gets kicked out of school, runs away
from home, meets a wild girl named

Tabatha while living on the street.
In "Diary," Minnie tells her story as
a young woman still discovering the i
world; Gloeckner has received many
e-mails and letters from teenagers who
loved the book. But the visuals - while
beautifully created and emotionally 1
arresting -can be shocking. Gloeckner
includes a large panel depicting Minnie
and Monroe arguing naked after sex;
another shows Minnie and a potential
abductor struggling in profile. Gloeck-
ner stands by her art, but she realizes;
that her subject matter isn't always the
easiest to digest.
"I have two children who are girls,"
she explained. "I want them to know
that I've done stuff because I want to be
a role model for them. It's really strange
when I can't even draw in front of them
because maybe what I'm drawing is
scary or 'inappropriate.' So what do I
do? I just say, "Hey, I did something,
believe it or not. I can't show you, but
I did something.' I want them to read it
when they're old enough.
"(Children) love black and white,
they love a fairy tale with a good guy
and a bad guy. They're not quite ready
to understand gray or contradiction.
So it's not just the content, whether the
story is appropriate or not, it's a lack of
certainty, or an insecurity, she said. "It's
disturbing to feel insecure that way."
Gloeckner is currently working on a
comic about a murdered Mexican teen-
ager in conjunction with a piece about
Russian refugees by cartoonist/journal-
ist Joe Sacco. She travelled to Mexico
to meet with the girl's poverty-stricken
family, but wasn't sure how to rational-
ize her presence as an artist.
"I was really scared to meet this fam-
ily who'd lost their teenage daughter ...
But I went down there and met the fam-
ily, and they were very forthcoming and
very, very poor. I had never seen such
poverty. They told me all about their
daughter, but they only had one
icture of her that had been used
for the missing poster and
the police never gave
them back the original, so the
only picture they could show me of her
was a badly Xeroxed missing poster. So
it's my job to kind of recreate this girl,
to make her alive again to some degree.
But I felt really weird as an artist to be
extracting parts of a story from people
who had lost so much and had so little
to begin with," she explained. "It just
felt like I was exploiting them."

In return for their story, Gloeckner
found a way to help the girl's griev-
ing family. "I'm doing a story that's
somewhat fictionalized and somewhat
realistic, but it can never recreate their
daughter ... They already suffered
the ultimate loss. So now I'm focused
on helping one of the other kids, who
is now 17." In addition to paying for
English lessons, Gloeckner is trying to
obtain a visa for the girl - she would
stay at Gloeckner's Ann Arbor home
and continue learning English. "I think
I get really personally involved with
things, and you want to make things
right and you can't," she explained.
That might sound like an extraor-
dinary measure, but maybe
that's just Phoebe
Gloeckner. "If
I was doing a
story about
you, I'd want
to crush you
up into a little
ball and swal-
low you, you

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know?"
Because
an artist
can never
complete-
ly com-
prehend his
subject, Gloeck-
ner says, "It's some-
times easier to
sublimate other
characters into
something that
looks like I
me. You just
have a feel-
ing, you
want to
express
it, so
.~ /

Ali Olsen/Daily Courtesy of Phoebe Gloeckner
Gloeckner in front of a wall of her students' drawings at the School of Art & Design.lTOP: An attacker tries to pull "Diary of a Teenage Girl" protagonist Minnie Goetze
into a moving car. BOTTOM: Panels from "Diary" depicting Minnie, her friend Kimmie
and Monroe, her mother's boyfriend.
d /
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