19th Jul 2011
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Ellen Lindner
Ellen Lindner is a cartoonist and illustrator from Long Island, New York. She studied at Smith College and did an MA at the University of the Arts, London.
She is the editor of Whores of Mensa, a publication comprised of illustrations and comics from a rotating cast of women.
Her self-published graphic novel from 2009, Undertow, was praised for its sharp style and subtle and sophisticated storytelling.
It is set in New York in the 1960s, and tells the story of a young woman called Rhonda, juggling a complex, chaotic, tragic life comprised of “heroin, sex, and hopelessness, with a dash of nightclub dancing and swimming after curfew.”
FBS: How did Whores of Mensa come about? What are the backgrounds of those involved?
Whores of Mensa started at Ladyfest Bristol in 2003, where Jeremy Dennis (a lady, by the way), Mardou (also a lady), and Lucy Sweet – three excellent cartoonists – gave workshops on comics. They stayed in touch, and started to publish a comic together, edited by Mardou.
I got involved when I bought Whores of Mensa 1, and wrote Mardou a fan letter. I had just moved to the UK and was having trouble meeting people in comics – and all of a sudden I read a comic that was unlike any I’d seen before.
The first issue had an orgy involving Aphra Benn, Oscar Wilde and John Keats, and a woman who had Alan Sillitoe‘s baby. Apparently they were the kind of stories I’d always dreamt of! Classic literature with a sexy twist.
Influence-wise, we all come from non-comics backgrounds – I studied art history and worked in museums and universities, Jeremy went to Oxford, and Mardou studied literature.
Lucy is a fantastic novelist and also played in the band Lucky Luke. So our comic has always had influences from a wide variety of sources, especially literary or art historical ones, while still being informed by the world of independent comics, pop culture, and crazy old comics for girls.
FBS: Your comics show a wide variety of styles, who would you say are your main influences and inspirations?
It’s hard to speak for the group on this subject – we’re all quite different, and nowadays we live and work in very different places – Mardou in St. Louis, Missouri, myself in South London, and Jeremy in Oxford.
For myself, I draw inspiration from travel, personal experience, other creators. I like to read about history and anthropology, and a lot of my stories follow these lines. I read a lot of French comics and American mini-comics.
But I also love the British small press scene – some of my favourite creators are people like Julia Homersham, Elliot Baggott and other fantastic small-pressers I’ve met in the UK.
Being in The Fleece Station with Gary Northfield, Lauren O’Farrell and Sarah McIntyre has also been a fantastic experience – studios are great because you see art, books and all sorts of things you would normally not be aware of.
FBS: I’ve noticed that a lot of your work features characters who feel trapped in their stagnant lives, but dream of escaping and pursuing a successful career, particularly in the arts. Were you always encouraged to pursue your creative aspirations?
Sure, to a certain extent. It’s interesting that you would notice that, because it’s not something I associate with my work. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, which are pretty good as suburbs go – lots of rail links into New York – so I can’t really complain of having grown up in a cultural wasteland. But Catholic school felt stultifying, and I guess school generally felt like a waiting room for ‘real life’.
My family encouraged my artistic leanings but my parents never took them very seriously, probably out of concern that they would distract from my academic career. And then I went off to Smith College, a small, liberal arts college in Northampton, Massachusetts.
I loved my college, and there were loads of interesting people in the town where I studied – plus, at uni I went to Paris for a year. It made me feel that I hadn’t been deluding myself – genuinely exciting people and places were out there.
When I went to New York after uni, I met lots of really fantastic comics creators, who showed me that – with a lot of effort – it was possible to make comics into a career. That was a really important time for me.
By comparison to my comfortable upbringing, the characters I’ve created who feel this way – Rhonda in Undertow, for example – are operating in the context of far more impoverished options; maybe I use them to explore how it would have felt to be a woman in another time.
I didn’t have to face the levels of gender and class structures she would have, as a young woman in the early 60s – but it’s interesting to tell a story with those constraints in mind.
My next graphic novel, which I’ve written and hope to begin this fall, goes further into the past – London in the 1920s. It’s a mystery, and very different, but I suppose it’s still full of characters who are limited by forces outside their control, in this case the trauma of the first World War. But who isn’t struggling against forces beyond their control, just a little bit?
FBS: Undertow is described as “a tour of a side of the 1950s that didn’t make it into the romance comics”. Is this what to set out to achieve when you started writing it, to show a darker side of things?
Partly. While I love shows like Mad Men, I’m not sure they are completely accurate – I think the truth would have been worse, more shocking. When living in Brooklyn I became fascinated by the differences between my childhood and my mother’s – her life would have been more like Rhonda’s.
I love old romance comics but they were mostly written and drawn by men – I wanted to do a comic that would be kind of like a romance comic, but one done without censors and by a woman. And that’s where Undertow began.
FBS: Comics and graphic novels seem to be the ‘in thing’ at the moment, most notably with Hollywood movies. Have you found that your work has gained a wider audience in the last few years?
I think it’s more significant for small press artists that publishers have started taking comics seriously. Don’t get me wrong, it can make a big difference to one’s financial well-being to get your comic optioned for a film – and it does happen.
But it’s far more likely that a publisher will take your pitch for a graphic novel, or a children’s comic, and that you can cobble together a living doing that, maybe with freelance work, the occasional part-time job.
I do think comics are finding a wider audience in the UK – but it’s happening very slowly, and it’s hobbled by the lack of good comics for all age groups, especially teenagers. New projects like The Phoenix, a children’s comic that some of my Fleece Station studio-mates are involved with, are changing that, but it’s a long-term process.
FBS: Why do you think that the comic industry is so male-dominated? Do you think this is changing and if so, what do you think has brought on this change?
I hope you won’t mind me saying so, but the idea that comics is male-dominated is a massive generalisation. American mainstream comics, or something like 2000 AD – fine, perhaps. But is that ‘the comics world’? I certainly hope not!
In my experience comics, is as ‘male-dominated’ as you want it to be. Unlike in film, where female directors are genuinely held back by the film industry’s lack of willingness to fund their projects, alternative comics – which is the ‘comics industry’ I’m in – is largely a DIY affair. If you can’t find a publisher, you self-publish. The Man can’t keep you from drawing – only you can.
I worry that because the general notion about comics is that it’s a ‘male-dominated’ industry it blinkers people to the good work actual women are doing in the actual comics industry all the time.
Like a lot of received wisdom it’s a bit insidious – I hear it all the time from people who have no personal experience of the comics industry; how it gets out there, I have no idea. And I have no interest in perpetuating it.
The problem is that sometimes people in the comics industry also have this paradigm in mind, or use it as an excuse for continuing whatever gender bias still lurks in the industry.
“My anthology doesn’t have any women in it because I couldn’t find any” or “Oh, I couldn’t find any women to publish.” You hear stuff like this sometimes, and it’s like, really? For Whores of Mensa, we routinely find loads. If we can do it, on no money…anyone can.
In terms of what’s bringing about the change, culture is becoming more visual, and comics are a part of that. Webcomics are expanding the female audience by a lot, as is manga.
But it’s also down to fantastic work by big names like Jessica Abel, Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi, showing over and over again that women’s stories are worth telling.
FBS: Finally, who would you recommend for girls who want to get in to comics and graphic novels, but aren’t sure where to start?
I would love to say that women who are interested in comics should go into their local comic book shop and look around, but the culture around comic book shops can be so weird.
They range in quality from places like London’s Gosh! or Orbital, where the staff includes young women and the shop is laid out in a visually attractive way with plenty of staff recommendations on a wide range of material, to stores that are halfway to being sex-shops. Which is fine, if you’re looking for porn, but if you want to find a good graphic novel…
I suggest that if you’re interested in good comics that are friendly to women, try out a small press fair like Leeds’ Thought Bubble, London’s Alternative Press Fair, or New Cross Turn Left, the festival I’m planning at Deptford’s amazing Old Police Station this Sunday 24th of July.
Introduce yourself to a creator whose work you like, buy a minicomic (it’ll cost between £2 and £6) and you’ll be on your way. But if you do live by a comic book shop like Gosh!, OK Comics in Leeds or Page 45 in Nottingham – any of which are worth a special trip into town – give them a go.
Page 45 actually has a personal recommendation service on their website, where you can tell the staff exactly what kind of things you like in other media, and they’ll give you a list of great books to check out. They’re amazing.
Whores of Mensa is about to be relaunched. You can check out their blog or website for news on the changes or enter their current contest. Whores of Mensa issues can be found here, and Undertow is available here.
Interview by Cariad Martin