Sunday, 3 February 2008

Because I wanted to talk to...Ellen Lindner (Part One)

Ellen Lindner is an artist, cartoonist and art historian. In this interview she talks to Overspill about her influences, her current projects and her love of the lo-fi, DIY ethic in small press comics.

Edit to add (09/02/2008): A few years ago I interviewed Jeremy Dennis (who appears with Ellen Lindner in the anthology Whores of Mensa) for ace comics magazine Redeye. I thought that it was worth mentioning that the original transcript for Jeremy's interview can be found here. It's very long and rambles all over the place. Enjoy.

Now, back to Ellen's interview:

Please tell us a little about your art education and about your work outside of comics. I understand that you work as an illustrator and also exhibit in galleries.

Until a few years ago my art education consisted mostly of figure drawing. I studied art history for my undergraduate degree…my university in the States, Smith College, was fantastic, but the studio art department was very traditional, and trying to work comics into my coursework was always a struggle. This was a fairly ironic state of affairs, considering that I chose my school because the town where it was located, Northampton, Massachusetts, had such an amazing comics scene. At the time it housed the Words and Pictures Museum of Sequential Art, where a lot of cool local artists worked as support staff. I became a volunteer there as soon as possible after arriving.

While at Smith I studied in Paris for one year, where I discovered the European comics scene . I also did my first complete mini-comic, an adaptation of Christine de Pizan's proto-feminist The City of Ladies into comics form. When I left university and moved to New York City, I started taking classes at the School of the Visual Arts, where the staff include American indie cartoonists like Nick Bertozzi, Matt Madden, Jason Little and Jessica Abel. At some point I took the somewhat radical advice of an elder comics statesman and quit my job, moving to a suburb of Philadelphia so I could do comics full-time. I started hanging out at the annual Angouleme festival, where I met my husband.

We decided I'd move to England, where I applied to Camberwell College … I studied for one intense year under Janet Woolley, the head of MA illustration there, and met cool folk like awesome illustrator Sarah McIntyre. I often feel uncomfortable putting my comics pages up on a wall – to me, they're works in progress, always – but I love creating new work for gallery shows, especially stuff like painting or model making which isn't part of my day-to-day routine. Most of my gallery work has been at an amazing place in Queens, New York, called Flux Factory….the people who run Flux come up with really mad concepts for shows and then devote every waking hour until the opening to insuring that they are amazing. The last one, NYNYNY, involved artists from all over the world re-imagining the five boroughs of New York City in a million different media (including fabric and ice cream, though thankfully not in the same piece!).

I made a cartoon billboard, telling the story of my great-aunt coming to New York in the thirties in a series of advertisements. I can't wait to see the catalogue…. I do work as an illustrator, but strangely most of my paid 'illustration' work has been doing comics projects of various kinds. I have done a lot of educational comics for children, which is great because I get to use my art history background quite a bit; I definitely know my way around a library. I just this week finished a 120 page book on the American civil rights movement, drawn from a script by a university professor in the US. It was a really great project – I love drawing the fifties, and it's an important story to keep telling to new generations. That'll be out from Aladdin Paperbacks in the States in July, as part of a series called Turning Points.

How did you get into comics, both as a reader and a creator?

Growing up in the New York City suburbs, the boys in my class at school were big fans of mainstream comics, stuff like Viper, Punisher, Wolverine….they used to hang out in the back of the class and obsessively re-draw the characters. Basically, they were the first people I ever encountered who wanted to be artists – they probably looked silly to adults, but I admired their artistic fervour!

Anyhow, I started to buy comics, and fell totally in love with the X-Men and Wolverine. (Even these days I'll occasionally meet another person who loved Marc Silvestri's artwork and nerd out. But it's unfortunately quite rare!) From there I followed the fairly predictable path of becoming a teenager, deciding Marvel was crap, getting into Sandman and Tank Girl…still two of my all-time favorites. Now I've evened out…I like the best of everything, mainstream stuff like Y The Last Man and indie stuff like Gabrielle Bell's comics, or Dan Zettwoch, who, in my opinion, has one of the most rewarding artist's blogs on the internet!

Please tell us about your work in progress, Undertow.

Undertow is the graphic novel I'm currently serializing on Web Comics Nation. It's the story of a young girl growing up in the 1950's in Brooklyn. The heroine, Rhonda, has problems – her mother is an alcoholic, and so Rhonda thinks that's how you solve problems, by drinking them away. She's dealing with the death of a friend, and a crush she has on a seemingly unattainable guy, and she does some really foolish things. In the end, though, she figures things out – I promise! It's inspired by the films of Fellini and Godard, people who thought that you could have a good time even when things were crashing down around you. That image of Anna Karina dancing in the bar in Her Life to Live, or Guilietta Masina at the end of The Nights of Cabiria, smiling despite everything that's happened, being swindled in such a cruel way…that's so powerful. People who know me well know that I've been working on Undertow forever, redrawing, changing the ending….it's become this organic thing. I always meant it to be a learning project, so I've taken a lot of time to get feedback and make changes accordingly. But with online serialization, the end is swiftly approaching…stay tuned!

(Go to part two of this interview)

Because I wanted to talk to...Ellen Lindner (Part Two)

(Part one of this interview is here)

Please tell us about your work for anthology comic Whores of Mensa.

I really love working on Whores of Mensa. It's like a zine, or a no-censors verion of a girl's annual…we have a lot of fun with the stories. I actually became involved with Whores of Mensa because I wrote Mardou, the editor, a fan letter. She, Jeremy Dennis and Lucy Sweet were already working on it. I loved the mix of styles, and the humour of their strips…there's one Mardou did about Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid fame that made me laugh for days. Anyhow, I think it's important to keep the DIY aspect of comics going in the glossy graphic novel age, and Whores of Mensa is great if you like witty, intriguing comics by girls. We're hoping to do an anthology…I think an art show would be really good, too…Jeremy's originals are pretty neat. Mine are a mess but maybe I could knock up some new ones! I think the next issue will be really fab…it has a Parisian theme, and I've got lots of ideas, some autobiographical, some involving my current obsession with mystery stories. Maybe we could publish a French edition! "Les Putes M.E.N.S.A"…

You have a clean, crisp art style. Who are your influences and how did you arrive at that style?

I remember once going to a friend's house when I was fairly young, and some relative had just brought a giant box of old EC comics out of the attic…Tales from the Crypt and such...they were amazing! I think they made a big impression on me. Even the newspaper strips I liked were more in the realist vein, though I loved the stylized look of Dick Tracy, for example. Marc Hempel, who drew some of the later Sandman stuff, and Dan Clowes were both big influences when I hit my teens…though, I have to say, some of the artists I like the most nowadays have a more cartoony style, like Dominique Goblet or Pauline Martin, two French artists whom I really like. A big influence in the last five years or so has been American romance comics from the fifties. I have a friend in New York who has a mammoth collection, and she was kind enough to let me go through and scan some for reference. They have a reputation for being dashed-off and sloppy looking, but there were obviously some illustrators who very much enjoyed working on them…the level of detail is amazing! I paid tribute to them in a strip I did for a Camberwell show called WAVE…I love taking the old melodramatic images and writing my own stories.

What are your thoughts on the small press scene in this country? What's good and bad about it?

I think the level of enthusiasm is really great in the UK comics scene…I love local festivals like Caption. And stuff like the Observer prize is totally unique, I hope it'll go a long way towards making people respect comics as a literary form. Plus there are people like Paul Gravett who serve as really invaluable ambassadors for comics..all of this is so important. My only complaint is that I miss the drinks nights Gosh! used to organize in Central London…bring 'em back, boys!

Where can people find your work?

My graphic novel, Undertow, is online at Web Comics Nation. I'm currently posting the third chapter, so it's not too late to catch up! Whores of Mensa is available from the Forbidden Planet shop, and from Ted May's It Lives! shop if you're outside the UK. I've also been in a bunch of American anthologies: Scheherazade, published by Soft Skull Press, and Hi-Horse Omnibus, published by Alternative Comics, are two I would recommend. Or you can check out my website and blog.

What next for Ellen Lindner?

At the moment, I'm just relaxing…getting my Aladdin book done on deadline meant a lot of long nights, and I'm nursing a terrible cold as a result! That said, I have two April deadlines, swiftly approaching…I am working on a new Whores of Mensa story, for our Paris-themed issue, which is planned for release during the summer festival season. Robyn Chapman, who is an amazing cartoonist and Center for Cartoon Studies lecturer, invited me to be in her Hey, 4-eyes! zine, which is dedicated to the culture of spectacles. I am writing a story about the daft things people have done through history in order to stop wearing their glasses. And I'm adapting an E.M. Forster sci-fi story for the Graphic Classics line of books. Also I have some comix-themed travel coming up – I'm visiting Mardou in her new hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, otherwise known as the most up-and-coming city for comics in the US.

I'm excited!

Thanks, Ellen, for taking time out of a hectic schedule to talk to Overspill.