Men cry a lot in Julia Gfrörer’s comics.
In her minicomic Flesh and Bone, the 18th century protagonist is wrought with despair at the death of his lover. He wretches in agony, tears streaming down his face, right before he masturbates on her grave in a strange act of morbid intimacy. He finally finds a solution to his dilemma by consulting a powerful witch who helps him reach the afterlife to reunite with his lover, but not before taking advantage of him.
In Phosphorous, a young boy blubbering with tears and snot curses his dad for an unseen conflict. Suddenly, a spirit comes out of the lake nearby and sexually abuses him.
Cornish grad and current Portland resident Julia Gfrörer fills her comics with these jarring scenes—supernatural beings who thrust themselves upon mortals and take what they want. Filled with Satanic rituals, malevolent specters and hungry vampires, hers is a world where the occult freely intermingles with ours. But what makes Gfrörer’s work stand out is how well her stories would function even without the supernatural flair—standalone stories about the incapacitating properties of love and refreshing portrayals of fragile men and powerful women (more on that later).
Gfrörer’s latest work, Black is the Color, is also her Fantagraphics debut. It’s a dark, nautical tale of a 17th century cast-off sailor sent adrift at sea by his crew, doomed to die alone fantasizing about his wife in a tiny boat. Suddenly, amorous mermaids enter the picture, some of which have noise rock bands, who make erotic advances on the sailor and cast his allegiance to his faraway wife into question.
Gfrörer’s art is incredible and entirely her own—scratchy, fine linework and a pitch black palette that would feel at home on the cover of a metal album.
Gfrörer will be doing a signing of Black is the Color on Saturday at Fantagraphics from 6-8 p.m. In anticipation of the event, I asked Gfrörer to answer a few questions:
In the NW there's a thriving feminist community that critiques and analyzes the way women are portrayed in media and pop culture—but I find your work really interesting for the way you portray men. They are often fragile, sexually subjugated, or vulnerable to the whims of powerful supernatural women or female spirits who oftentimes use them to their advantage. Can you talk a bit about that?
To be honest, I'm interested in stories about people of all genders who are subject to despair and abjection, but I don't usually attack those emotions as hard with female characters as I do with male characters, because to my mind there already exist more than enough romantic stories about women helplessly suffering, I don't want to create more stories that seem to congratulate women for their self-sacrifice. Femininity as a social construct is essentially the eroticization of vulnerability. Conversely, men have been rarely allowed to feel helpless, weak, exhausted, or afraid in a narrative, other than to lend nobility to that character's later conquest of the scene, whereupon the plot is resolved. So I give male characters primacy where those emotions are concerned, and I try to give my female characters opportunities to be selfish, dishonest, demanding, and guarded, without facing negative consequences for being so.
At the same time I think it's not accurate to characterize my female characters as entirely selfish. All of them exist within plots driven by the needs and actions of men, and they make compromises, within their abilities, in order to provide what they believe the men are lacking. In Black is the Color, Eulalia tries very hard to help Warren, she does everything short of derailing her own life to save him, and it's not due to a lack of concern for him that her intervention in some ways makes his situation worse. The expectation, due to conventions of gender and genre that that story evokes, that Eulalia should somehow be doing even more for Warren, is something that Black is the Color was intended to at least partially deconstruct.
Piggybacking off that—can you tell me a bit about your interest in the occult, wicca, and the sacred feminine? I noticed on the cover of Phosphorous, you snuck Artemis' moon crown on the main character's head, and you seem to have a natural predisposition for witches in your story. What is it about these symbols and archetypes that grabs you? Did the NW instill an interest in these sorts of dark, forested things in you?
The mundane world rarely offers us satisfying language with which to relate the extreme mental or emotional states we nonetheless frequently endure. They're difficult to even discuss, because we lack the tools to describe them accurately and the opportunity for dialogue about them, and to me this is the reason that horror as a genre, and indeed all fiction, exists: stories about the fantastic, the supernatural, the extreme and appalling provide access to states which are familiar but otherwise impossible to talk about. Some feelings are so difficult that only a horror story can convey them, identifying them as overtly evil gives us an excuse to then explore them.
The occultism probably derives mostly from Jung, from the idea of using that which is literally forbidden or concealed to denote unconscious motivations and desires, things which demand to be addressed and integrated with the conscious self before they covertly destroy the subject, and probably also in part from a mischievous atheist's attraction to the debasement of sacred symbols. Wicca was invented centuries after most of my stories take place, and doesn't play a role in my work, other than that it cribs from the same folk superstitions and early Christian paranoia that inform my depictions of the supernatural. Nothing is sacred.
Off the top of my head I can't recall any deliberate references to classical mythology in my work--the horned moon looming behind the little boy's head was meant to evoke his waxing virility, of which he himself is not yet fully aware, with animal horns as a symbol for instinctive male sexuality.
Since we are a Seattle publication, tell me a bit about your time at Cornish. Also, I saw you studied printmaking there—does that inform the way you layout or design your mini-comics (the turquoise paper in Black Light, the dark ink on black paper for Too Dark to See, etc)?
Majoring in printmaking at Cornish gave me a strong foundation in drawing, in bookbinding, and in working with multiples. I still use bookbinding techniques for my minis that I learned in my bookbinding class in college. I don't work with color a lot and my color choices tend to be pretty literal--the teal paper to reinforce the twilight atmosphere of the stories in Black Light, the fluorescent skull on the cover for its uncanny qualities. The charcoal-on-black print on the cover of Too Dark to See, like the woman in the image itself blowing smoke into her own face, is literally self-obscuring.
One line that really struck me in Flesh and Bone is when the demonic lion spirit talks about love being "designed, I suspect, to prevent mankind from peeking behind god's mask, consigning them to eternal recursive slavery." Your stories seem to muse on the futility of love—one lover is usually in pursuit of another, and eventually their spirit gets reft from their body and things decay from there. Why do you portray love the way you do in your stories? Where do scenes in your work like the lion spirit's dialogue with the witch come from?
Well, love isn't an end in itself, no emotion is. Emotions are signposts directing you to actions, and the actions have varied consequences beyond the scope of the events that instigated them. I'm more interested in examining the state of being in love, of accommodating that feeling and attempting to legibly express it, than I am with mapping the initial process of a romantic attraction. If the lovers in my stories seem to struggle to connect with one another, it's because that's what being in love mainly entails, this ongoing mutual desperate groping for communion.
I don't mean to argue that I think love isn't worthwhile! I think it absolutely is, but whether I think that or not, love and every other strong emotion will still be rampaging through the animal kingdom, kneecapping all attempts at independent decision-making, compelling us to conform our behavior to its purpose, which is mainly procreative. In fact the inevitability of it is reassuring. Pulling these things apart a little is beneficial, and I'd like to see it done more, but questioning a concept doesn't equate to rejecting it outright. I question it precisely because I believe in it so strongly.
Check out an excerpt of Black is the Color below, and see more of the artist's work at www.therazos.net