||Phoebe Gloeckner Is Creating Stories About the Dark Side of Growing Up Female
Photograph by Michael O'Neill
August 5, 2001 New York Times Magazine
By PEGGY ORENSTEIN
Bob's diner on Polk Street is two blocks up from where tourists catch the cable car for a joy ride to downtown San Francisco and just beyond where the hustlers and junkies stroll. Plastic grapes festoon the walls above cracked gray vinyl booths. The chow is strictly short order. In the center of the restaurant, her tweed coat slipping onto the speckled linoleum, a 40-year-old woman sketches in a notebook. When she looks up, time bends. Phoebe Gloeckner has expectant hazel eyes and brown hair shot through with red highlights. She wears round antique spectacles over a small Band-Aid where her 2-year-old accidentally jammed them into the bridge of her nose. She may be an established medical illustrator and mother of two married to a chemistry professor, but she also, quite startlingly, has the face of her 15-year-old alter ego, Minnie, the subject of Gloeckner's semiautobiographical cartoons. Minnie, who was booted from some of the finest Bay Area private schools. Minnie, who was sexually involved with her mother's boyfriend. Minnie, whose best friend dosed her with Quaaludes then traded Minnie's body for more drugs. In fact, if you set the Way Back machine to a quarter-century ago, you could find the teenage Phoebe sitting in this very spot, scribbling in her diary, bearing witness to her life. Bob's was her refuge; safely above the street scene's DMZ, she wasn't likely to run into anyone who was likely to question what she was writing or why.
Now, in 2001, Gloeckner is only visiting her former stomping grounds. She lives on Long Island these days, where she is finishing "Diary of a Teenage Girl," a hybrid between a conventional and graphic novel based on the very journals she penned in this diner. The book mines the same territory as "A Child's Life and Other Stories," Gloeckner's first book, a story collection incartoon form that R. Crumb says includes "one of the comic book masterpieces of all time." Like Crumb's, Gloeckner's work is challenging stuff, graphic in every sense of the word. But while the images are similarlyexplicit -- and have raised comparable charges of obscenity -- the context could not be more different. The Minnie stories describe an adolescence that is at once traumatic and picaresque. They explore the power a girlfeels in her emerging sexuality as well as the damage inflicted by those who prey upon it. In the process, they raise unsettling questions about vulnerability, desire and the nature of a young woman's victimization. "Phoebe looks square in the face of extremely disturbing subject matter," says Kim Thompson, co-publisher of Fantagraphics Books, the largest publisher of alternative comics. "But she has this illustrative style that's so beautiful. It's like going to a movie that looks like Merchant-Ivory but turns out to have a Charles Bukowski story."
Confessional comics are an intriguing, surprisingly supple medium in which to tell young women's stories. Gloeckner is arguably the brightest light among a small cadre of semiautobiographical cartoonists -- including Debbie Drechsler and Julie Doucet -- who are creating some of the edgiest work about young women's lives in any medium. The narratives are often presented as diaries, that quintessential literary form of female adolescence. (There is virtually no tradition of diarists among teenage boys.) Perversely, even their marginalization -- as cartoonists, as literary cartoonists, as female literary cartoonists -- works in these artists' favor. Free from the pressures of the marketplace, they can explore taboo aspects of girls' lives with the illusion of safety; since their work is usually hidden behind racks of ''X-Men'' in shops that smell like a sweat sock, few people are likely to stumble across it. ''They're like what independent films were before they stopped really being independent,'' says Drechsler, whose collection ''Summer of Love'' will be released this month. ''You have total freedom. Nobody cares what you're doing because nobody's going to make money off of it.''
photograph copyright Michael O'Neill
That's how it has been for Gloeckner for years. Some call her a ''cartoonist's cartoonist,'' a backhanded compliment that both acknowledges her exacting skill as an artist and the fact that, even for comics, her work has not sold especially well. ''Phoebe is one of the most accomplished artists in terms of mastery of the medium,'' says Bill Griffith, the creator of Zippy the Pinhead. Griffith was among the first to publish Gloeckner's work, when she was in her late teens. ''Her drawing conveys a lot of the underlying feeling of what's going on in the same way a movie can have a shot without dialogue that's a major turning point or a major insight into a character. It's a delicate balancing act. The pictures have to propel the story without overtaking it. That balance -- it's almost a tension -- occurs when a cartoonist is equally good as a writer and artist, and it's very rare.''
Richard Grossinger, publisher of North Atlantic Books/Frog Ltd., which put out ''A Child's Life,'' says: ''In a perfect world, she would have as large an audience as R. Crumb or Art Spiegelman. She's that good. But we haven't been successful in letting that world know about it.''
''Diary of a Teenage Girl,'' which will be published next spring, could change that. Inspired by, among other things, the illustrated novels of the Victorian period, it takes the form a step further. Instead of a fully illustrated graphic novel, like Spiegelman's ''Maus'' or Daniel Clowes's ''Ghost World,'' Gloeckner's book is largely text that periodically bursts into comics the way a musical bursts into song: with no warning whatsoever, as if it's normal. Because its raunchier themes are explored through prose rather than through images, ''Diary'' has a better shot at being picked up by conventional bookstores than ''A Child's Life'' did. Gloeckner is the first to admit that's an exciting opportunity. She's also the first to question whether it's one she wants.
In conversation about her work, Phoebe Gloeckner shifts arbitrarily between referring to ''Minnie'' and ''me.'' ''I was so needy,'' she remembers of herself as a teenager, followed immediately by, ''In that sense, there was nothing particularly remarkable about Minnie.'' Because of the permeable boundary between fact and fiction in Gloeckner's life, I find myself, at times, picking peculiar arguments with her. ''One of the things that interests me about Minnie,'' I say, ''is that she is very pretty. We talk a lot about the damage done to girls by unrealistic standards of beauty but not about the vulnerability that comes when you actually meet them.''
''I don't think Minnie was beautiful. I honestly don't.'' ''Well,'' I say, ''I think she probably was. She turns heads wherever she goes.'' We both laugh awkwardly at the perversity of speaking in the third person. Gloeckner considers this for a moment. ''I always hoped people would think I was pretty, but I always felt painfully ugly,'' she says slowly. ''Painfully. Whether that was the reality or not. I know a lot of girls feel that way. I could not deal with my appearance or my sexuality. I just wanted someone to see who I was for real and love me for it. So I would talk to anybody, go anyplace with anybody in the hope that they would see me and help me.'' She shakes her head. ''And I can't even say how I meant that.''
Gloeckner is the daughter of a librarian from a blue-collar family (her mother) and an unemployed artist from a blue-nosed one (her dad). They divorced when she was 4. Eight years later, her mother remarried and moved the family from Philadelphia to San Francisco. The early Minnie stories portray a stepfather who was arbitrarily cruel and who leered at Minnie and dropped sexual innuendos. In real life, the marriage quickly deteriorated, and to shield her from the tension, Phoebe was shipped off to an elite boarding school. By the time she returned home at 15, her mother was dating again.There is an image that Gloeckner returns to in her work that acts as a kind of pivot point, a defining moment both in her own life and her character's. She drew it in one of her first comics at 16. It appears again, in writing this time, in ''Diary of a Teenage Girl.'' It is not one of the more lurid images in her repertoire, but it may be the most chilling: it shows one of her mother's boyfriends, someone Minnie trusted and admired, running a casual finger across her bare midriff. It is his first tentative crossing of a line, quite literally sending out a feeler to gauge the girl's vulnerability. ''When he first made those advances, my initial thought was, 'This is not right,''' she says, ''but then I thought, 'Maybe it is and I don't know.' Minnie had been bombarded with adults who had no boundaries and were overtly sexual with children. You get used to that, and at a certain point you think of yourself and value yourself solely as a sexual being.'
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material copyright 2001 The New York Times, Peggy Orenstein, Michael O'Neill