Melinda Gebbie's exquisite painted art has brought to comics a level of grace and craft rarely seen in the art form. Her career as a cartoonist dates back to the classic Underground era, where her work appeared in numerous comics, including the seminal all-women anthologies Wimmen's Comix and Tits & Clits, as well as her own solo book, the sexually charged Fresca Zizis. A native of San Francisco, Gebbie resides in England and is a frequent contributor to Alan Moore's projects, most notably as the co-creator and artist for the Cobweb character in the America's Best Comics line. Sixteen years in the making, Lost Girls represents her life's work.
Ismo Santala: In the final chapter of Voice of the Fire, Alan introduces you into the text the following way: "Melinda Gebbie, underground cartoonist late of Sausalito, California; former bongade model turned quarkweight boxer." Next he enters your flat, "a Fauvist pocket universe of colour, art materials" and some great details, including "a pornographic tableau of transsexual Action Men and wayward Barbies."
Melinda Gebbie: I started out in underground comics in San Fransicso in the early seventies. There was only one small group of women cartoonists at the time. There were about forty men, and about seven or eight women. We were all herded into one comics title called Wommin's Comix. I think they had done about three or four issues at the time, so I came in around the third issue of Wimmen's Comix. I worked in comics until 1984, and then I came over to England and worked for about a year on When the Wind Blows, the anti-nuclear animation film. I restarted my whole art career because nobody in the illustration field had never heard of underground comics from San Francisco. Alan had seen my work many years before when I first started doing it, so he was aware of the SF underground, but it was not something known in London.
IS: What kind of comics were you creating during the 1970s?
MG: I was in Wimmen's Comix, issues 4-7. I was in the first issue of Wet Satin, a women's erotic comic by the same group that did Wimmen's Comix. It got turned down by a publisher who had received an award in bravery for publishing a comics cover of a giant vagina easing in the Empire State Building, but he wouldn't publish Wet Satin because it dealt with women's erotic fantasies. He found that idea disgusting. The cover of Wet Satin was quite unobjectionable, it was a picture of a girl on a skateboard eating a banana, sliding past Marlon Brando standing in a doorway. There was absolutely nothing dirty about the cover. I did a story for Wet Satin called The Cockpit. There were a lot of complaints about it, because it was a take on Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade with a lot of mad sex in it. I was kind of the bad girl of the Wommin's Comix scene. I was always the one getting us in trouble by writing really dirty, weird, scary stories that upset the male cartoonists and the public.
My solo comic was called Fresca Zizis (Last Gasp Publishing), which means "fresh cocks" in Italian. I did news graphics for a while for a 24-hour news station and they couldn't afford cameramen to cover all the things, so they had three of us sitting in a little room making graphics all day long to go with the stories. And this "fresca zizis" phrase referred to a story that came up that a baker in Rome had been arrested by the police. He had kept his bakery shop open on Sunday, and in the window was a little sign saying "fresca zizis" and underneath were little meringue penises and breasts.
I just thought that that was a funny little story and that's why I called the comic that. And of course nobody had any idea what it was about! I mean, a lot of my early stuff is kind of incomprehensible, but I think the art is good. And I think, for it's time, it's got value as a kind of dreamscape of incoming static from strange places. I just think that a lot of the stuff that was being done during that period by a lot of cartoonists was very interesting, and the San Francisco underground is worth looking into. A lot of people haven't seen my underground work because no-one bothered to repackage the underground comics and bring them out again to a new audience. They just remain in their old comics form. You could write to the publisher and get some copies of them, but they haven't been forthcoming in reproducing any of the stuff that any of us have done. I think that there is a lot of brilliant work there that a new generation could enjoy, but...
IS: One of your titles had an obscenity trial in the UK, right?
MG: It had to do with Knockabout Press. They were always getting busted by the vice cops during Margaret Thatcher's reign. At one point they got busted, one of my titles was involved. The judge made me stand up in court and defend my work. There was objection to some of the autobiographical things in my stuff. I said, "These things happened to me, and I wrote about them because they happened to me, so if you're going to find them obscene, you have to find the people whom I'm writing about obscene. I'm just writing about my life, I'm not trying to titilate anybody." He thanked me, and promised to look at them more closely and give us the verdict the following Friday. His verdict was that all the comics should be confiscated and burned. They burned all 400 copies of my comic and made them illegal in England to possess.
IS: How did you meet Alan?
MG: The paint mixer of When the Wind Blows told me about a comic called Strip AIDS. I met Alan through that, and saw him in a couple of conventions. I then ended up working in comics in just a regular little job. One day Neil Gaiman came into the office and saw me there and said, "What are you doing working in a little job? Why don't you give Moore a ring?" and I said, "Yeah, OK.". We each had an 8-page thing offered in this little book called The Tales of Shangri-La, so I came up and we started talking about it, but it was supposed to be an erotic comic book edited by a woman. Eventually the 8-page story turned into Lost Girls. We just kept talking about how poor the pornography field was and how little there was of any interest, and how the pornographic artwork by famous artists that we had seen had usually been left unsigned or sometimes hidden away or something. We just had the idea that there was a need for a project like this.
When I was a kid I believed that there was a big beautiful book of sex somewhere that explained all the flavours of sex and how to negotiate sexual relationships and sexual situations. Everything would be explained, nothing would be left untalked about. When I realized there was no book like that, I carried that thought in the back of my mind all through the underground comics - which were of course explicitly sexual, and dealing with alternate lifestyles and having an antagonistic view on government and all that kind of thing. But still no beautiful book of sex. So, we ended up doing it, eventually! It was a very long journey from the San Francisco underground to London and restarting a career. It took a long time, but I think it worked out quite brilliantly!
IS: When did you move to Northampton?
MG: Well, I moved all around England. I lived in Cambridge for a while, I lived in London for a while. I moved up to Northampton once we got so involved with the idea for the book. Besides, the things that I was doing in London were sort of drying up. I was kind of sick of London, so I just moved up here and we started working together on this. It was quite intense from the very beginning. We were both so fired up about it. We had no idea how long it would take. I mean, I had no idea. I'd never done that amount of work before. Most of the underground things I did, I had one solo book that was about thirty pages long. Most of the time I used to do 6- or 8-page stories because they were almost always for anthologies. I was eventually invited into comics like Young Lust and Anarchy, which had male editors, which was a huge coup for a woman cartoonist because we would just get stuck with other women cartoonists. There weren't any solo books women were doing at that time. All of that has changed now.
IS: In previous interviews, you've mentioned that the initial idea for Lost Girls was partly influenced by your interest in three central female characters. Where did that interest come from?
MG: I did a story called My Three Swans that appeared in Young Lust #7, I think. It was the taboo sex issue. The title was based on an old American sitcom called My Three Sons with Fred MacMurray playing the father of these three boys, each from distinctly different ages. It's a short story, only about four pages long, about three girls who are growing up. They go away to college and write letters and send funny pictures to their mother about how they need money, because they are having to eat squarrels and things like that. By the end of the story, they're writing to her excitedly, saying "We're all getting married to each other!". It was the first humorous story I did, and it was a lot of fun to do. People really liked it.
IS: Were there a lot of preparatory sketches for Lost Girls?
MG: There were a fair amount of drawings. There are spot illustrations, there are sketches, there are the first sketches I did of the three characters, there are other little projects that I played with. There are maybe thirty pages of other works that are not in the book. They weren't necessary to the book, but if we want to do - and this isn't something I've discussed very much with the publisher, so this isn't in any way official - a future edition with extra material, we could.
IS: Lost Girls takes a decidedly lush approach to pornography.
MG: Hans Bellmer is incredibly fascinating: his sexual drawings are very explicit, but they are also very graceful, beautiful, balletic. The line is absolutely exquisite. So, if you're going to bring in something that people are squeamish about, you have to engage them. You have to have beautiful music, you have to have beautiful line, beautiful colour. They have to be able to hear a coherent harmony while they are examining something in a new light, so that they can change their minds about it. They can retextualize with the help of aesthetics. It's appetizing and attractive, and reminds you why you like that image, why you like that feeling, that essence.
IS: I imagine your early work didn't have quite this sense of lushness about it.
MG: It's a difficult thing in art, especially when you're starting out: you don't know what you want to say, what you love, what you absolutely must communicate to others. You also don't know what there is about you that you want to communicate to others to pick up on. So, most of the early things I did, I think, are quite artistic, but the quality of the thing was often quite ferocious and confrontational. I had skill very early on, but I didn't have a way of engaging the viewer, to invite them into my realm. The work would look exciting and stimulating, and it would be beautifully drawn, but it would be too in-your-face. There was too much energy, too much going on, too much stuff right in front of the artwork.
With Lost Girls, I learned to create a sense of reverie. You know, I never used to get into backdrops, I used to have a very Japanese sense of everything floating in the foreground, where everyone is crushed to the front. I never used to draw buildings or cars or landscapes; I wasn't interested in architecture. I really was only interested in people, and I always drew and painted lots and lots and lots of portraits. That was my strength, but with Lost Girls I learned to include a whole world and I had to gain confidence drawing architecture, cars, steam engines, hotels, boats... I had to fix exactly what the perspective was. Since I've done Lost Girls, I've started doing paintings that have all of those things, that have that sense of reverie. Things that are invitational and bring the eye in, and then bring the mind and the feeling with it.
IS: Lost Girls must have been a wonderful opportunity to explore new ideas, new techniques...
MG: It was a tremendous opportunity. It was like being a race horse that's just been going out to pasture, and finally having somebody come along and say, "Look, you look like a runner to me. I'm going to take you out and train you and things are gonna be great." And so, I had to do a lot of learning. I had to do a lot of paying attention to instinct, emotional instinct and aesthetic instinct. Feelings about how memory changes the image in your mind of a lover or a beloved family friend or a beautiful scene. Somehow we bathe our favorite images in a kind of golden setting. I think that's one reason why we respond to illuminous portraiture, because it reminds us of these sacrosanct, exquisite moments in our lives. Working with the coloured pencils, I could let a certain amount of light in and it wouldn't be too bright, it would be the kind of dust or mist or refracted light.
IS: I very much enjoyed the many nice touches, such as the illustrated first letters in the White Book pieces.
MG: Those were done as much bigger drawings and then reduced down. We just liked the idea of making everything as intricately sexual as possible, even the finest details. We were really influenced by things like the Yellow Book, by the grand old periods of illustration where there were beautiful designs on every page. They're not just simple and easy, but quite intricate. Everything in the book is hand-drawn by me, except for the titles, the little poppy image on the outside of the book, the golden filigree, the Lost Girls logo, and the decoration on the intro page to each of the chapters. Those were all done by our art team.
We really hoped that the book would have the quality of always having been around, that it wouldn't look new. Even with the font type, Todd Klein made up a typeface that was like my hand-written lettering. And I asked him to make rectangular shapes for the speech balloons instead of oval ones, because I wanted it to look dated. As if the book has been rediscovered, but was always there.
IS: The few early published chapters used different panel shapes. As I understand it, the whole handling of those booklets was a bit of a shambles.
MG: There was a different letterer, yes, and all of that was scrapped. We really needed absolutely first-class lettering for this. The first letterer was a friend of ours. Although she made a nice job, she wasn't a professional letterer. Also, I thought that those oval balloons looked far too modern, they looked precisely like the books that are being released today. I noticed that Victorian greetings cards, very often, had these little rectangles instead of ovals.
IS: You needed to have a digital version of the artwork to make the book ready for printing. In one interview you mentioned an unnamed friend who helped you with that...
MG: Actually, we didn't have time to put in a "Special Thanks" page, perhaps in a future edition we'll be able to. We hoped to, but we had to get the book out in time to debut it at San Diego Comic-Con. The person who helped us with the digital stuff, I'm afraid... I'd love to give you his name, he does beautiful work, but he has asked not to have his name mentioned. Which is very sad for us, but it's just one of those things and we're just following his request. But that person was a fantastic help and is a digital wizard. And I would love so much to give you his name! But I just can't. As a matter of fact, we're going to thank him, but we're going to have to use a code name!
You know, we had top-quality people working on this. The crew that did all the designs, the lettering... The beautiful, simple poppy motif. I'd asked for a poppy motif, and this person's solution was so elegant and so delicate. Not too fussy and Victorian, just kind of feminine and dated-looking. It was a very elegant solution.
IS: The White Book pieces themselves are really fascinating.
MG: I did a couple of illustrations after the style of Félicien Rops' "Pornocrates". The painting is very anti-religious, and the two pictures I did were also fairly anti-religious because of that. But we felt, well, this isn't really an anti-religious diatribe here, this isn't what we wanted to focus people on. Although the illustrations were good, they really weren't what the book was about, so we discarded the Rops pictures. I think that's the only stuff that I did in the synthesis of someone else's style that didn't get used. Alan thought things over ahead of time and really knew what he could do in terms of writing, what kind of art I could do, like the Oscar Wilde combined with the Egon Schiele. The style of the writing had to have the same mood and feeling as the artwork, to some extent, so that they seemed connected and worked together.
IS: A few striking images have fabrics and things worked into them. How did they come about?
MG: In the first Dorothy chapter, where she gets involved with the tornado, Alan actually suggested that I cut out some things and fix them in. I drew a little spool of thread and glued it onto the page and then drew a bit of thread coming off it... Also, the ink bottle, I drew blots of ink coming out of it to give it a more floaty quality. And in the first Alice chapter, where she's got a bit of lace coming from her apron and from the front of her blouse, I thought it would give the image a bit of tooth and a quality of unexpectedness that wouldn't be there if I drew it. Also, I very much wanted the little shadows the apron produces to fall on the paper and add a bit of unexpected dimensionality to it.
IS: What is the relationship between the frontispieces and the narrative proper?
MG: The frontispieces - the girls in the boat or dancing in the grass - were originally meant to be inside front covers of the books. I prefer the way they've been done, I think the books look beautiful. The pieces are now proper illustrations rather than just something on the inside boards of the book. And all those pieces, even though they're not specifically from the book, are references to idyllic, fairy-tale-like moments in a girl's life. In the very first one, the ballet piece, the red curtain is meant to be like the curtain of life, or the curtain of initiation, into young womanhood. They are waiting on the wings to go on the stage of life and become who they are.
IS: You continued the practise of painting all the way through the process of creating Lost Girls?
MG: I've always had a fine art background. I never had an art education and I'm pretty much self-taught, but it was always fine arts that I was interested in. I got into comics because there was a niche... Getting into galleries was very, very difficult, and I didn't like the gallery scene, I thought it was artificial and high-pressure, so I never had a gallery show. I finally did all of the paintings and drawings that didn't go into comics just for my own pleasure. I have been doing a lot of painting recently. Lost Girls took a long time in production, so I've had about a year or two of free time. I've been painting and drawing all of the time that I did comics intermittently.
IS: What does your workspace look like?
MG: Well, I was working in just my little bedroom before, but we made a new space in what used to be Alan's little garage. We fixed it up so that it has nice light. I've now got, for the first time, a proper studio space. I'm very happy there, if only because it's bigger than the bedroom was. Now I actually got room to paint. It's very hard to paint in small rooms, you really do need a studio. You need to be able to stand back from your work. The room has to have be enough space so that the painting doesn't dwarf the room.
IS: What's next for you in terms of comics work?
MG: Alan has written a very fine piece of visionary poetry called Angel Passage, which is all about William Blake as a spirit going through London. I'm planning on illustrating that in a small, square-back hardbound book with big illustrations and piece of the poetry on the opposing page. So it's a bit like a kid's book, but adult in nature. That's the project that is picking up in terms of comics - although it's not really comics, it's more of a blend of fine arts and comics.
IS: A kind of a companion piece to the Mirror of Love adaptation by José Villarrubia?
MG: Yeah, kind of like that. I hope that the book would fit right next to Mirror of Love, they'd be the same size. That would be quite nice.