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Saturday, December 30, 2023

“The Story of the Holocaust Is Not Pretty, And It's Not Redemptive”: An Interview with Leela Corman

 by Hélène Tison

Leela Corman is a painter, educator, and graphic novel creator, working in the realm of diaspora Ashkenazi culture and third-generation restorative work. Her books include Unterzakhn (Schocken/Pantheon, 2012), which was nominated for the Eisner, the L.A. Times Book Award, and Le Prix Artemisia, and won the ROMICS Prize for Best Anglo-American Comic and the MoCCA Award of Excellence; the short comics collections You Are Not A Guest (Field Mouse Press, 2023) and We All Wish For Deadly Force (Retrofit/Big Planet, 2016).

 Her graphic novel Victory Parade, a story about WWII, women's wrestling, and the astral plane over Buchenwald, will be published by Schocken/Pantheon in April 2024. Her short comics have appeared in The Believer Magazine, Tablet Magazine, Nautilus, and The Nib. She is a founding instructor at Sequential Artists Workshop, and an instructor at Rhode Island School of Design. She is a Yaddo Fellow, a MacDowell Fellow, and the recipient of the Xeric Grant, the Sustainable Arts Foundation Grant, the Helix Fellowship, and the Koyama Provides Grant.

 Her contact information is: (currently down as of 12/30/2023)


Instagram: @leelacorman

 This videoconference interview with Leela Corman took place on Nov. 28, 2023. It has been edited for clarity. All artwork is copyright by Leela Corman.

Portrait of the Artist

We All Wish For Deadly Force 2016
Hélène Tison: Thank you so much for your books, and also for agreeing to this interview. So today we'll talk about your new book Victory Parade [April 2024; reviewed here:], but maybe also about your other work, if that's ok with you. I was really happy to see that you were able to republish some of the work from We All Wish For Deadly Force, which you were a bit frustrated with I think.

Leela Corman: Yeah, it didn't print well for a variety of reasons. So it was really important to me to reprint at least my favorite work from that.

HT: The first question I wanted to ask is about your art, because your work and your style I think are rather unique and beautiful, very poetic, very painterly. And it probably takes you a very long time to make, so can you tell me a little bit about how you work, your technique, your tools, et cetera?

LC: It does take a really long time to make a project like Victory Parade. I will say it also took a long time to make Unterzakhn, which was just in ink, in part because the writing aspect of my long form work is really important. And I spend a lot of time, especially with the longer books, really… First of all, I do a ton of research and that takes a lot of time and there are a lot of stages to the research and there's a lot of stages to the note-taking that goes along with that, before there's even anything written down, that becomes the story.

“Wilderness” in You Are Not A Guest, 71

Then it takes a long time to thumbnail the story, which is where the actual writing of the story itself happens. The dialogue and the action happens while I'm drawing. I don't write a script in advance because I can't think without the pictures, the characters don't come to life, they don't even exist until I start thumbnailing, sketching.

And then when I started painting my comics in watercolor, it instantly made my work better and it completely changed my career. It also meant that the work took a lot longer and in a lot of ways I think that that was something I was searching for. I'm not sure I really knew I was looking for that exactly, but I always had this feeling that my work wasn't getting to the depth that I wanted it to, and I had been trained… Uh, well, if you really want to go back, I thought I was going to be a painter, and then I got kind of heartbroken by a very cruel teacher, my first painting instructor actually who just wanted to make sure I didn't become a painter, basically. And she almost succeeded; and I learned from her how not to teach, but it took me 20 years to come back to a place where I could pick up a paintbrush again. And in the intervening years, I became an illustrator, which felt a bit like a diminished path for me because it was not where my heart really lay as an artist. But I had a lot of fun doing it. What it meant, and this brings it back to your question, what it meant was that I had to train myself to work very quickly. So I started working with line a lot and flat color, digital color -- the line was always hand inked, but everything else was digital to try to get things out quickly. You know when you're an illustrator, everything is very fast turnaround and I developed a style that was sort of easy to do that in, but I got really tired of it after a while and when I hit that turning point in 2015, when I started watercolor-painting my comics, that took me out of that completely. The pages in Victory Parade are definitely the most labor-intensive work that I've ever done.

HT: What format do you originally work in? I imagine your page initially is bigger than the book format, right?

Unterzakhn, cover © Leela Corman 2012
LC: Yeah, a little bit. I initially had wanted to print it at the size that the art was painted, 11 by 14 inches; the printing is not that much smaller, only a couple of inches. With Unterzakhn, the pages were gigantic, they were 19 by 24 inches, because I wanted to make something that felt like gesture drawing. With Victory Parade, I was really working like a miniaturist, with a tiny little brush. Now I'm starting to make large paintings again. There's one behind me almost as tall as me; I’m not very tall, but I'm taller than a book. [laughs]

HT: What tools do you use? Do you do everything manually, or do you use a light box, a computer?

LC: You know, I never used a light box. I'm not sure why I never tried it and maybe it's just never really been necessary for me, but no, I do everything manually until the scanning and production. The lettering is digital, but it's a font of my own hand-lettering. I hand-lettered Unterzakhn and I will never do that again. I'm just not good at lettering and I don't enjoy it, so it's nice to have that part be digital, but everything else is by hand because that's how I think.

HT: You talked about switching to color after Unterzakhn which was in black and white, was that because you had more time to devote to the to the art?

LC: No, it was aesthetic. I've always loved working with watercolor, and I didn't like doing it as an illustrator. It's funny, I have opposite points of view for color with illustration and with comics. I will say also I no longer take illustration commissions -- unless they're really special, like a musician that I'm friends with wants me to do a poster for them or something. But when I was still doing illustration, once in a while I would try to do it in watercolor and I didn't enjoy that. It just didn't feel sharp to me.

You Are Not A Guest, cover © Leela Corman 2023
The opposite is true with comics. I can't stand coloring comics digitally. It makes me crazy. It doesn't feel like art to me. I'm not saying it's not art for other people, but for me I need to be working with chaos, the controlled chaos of paint. So, I always really loved working with watercolor, but I didn't do it for a long time between my adolescence and adulthood, and for some reason I just put it aside. And then one day I just experimentally started playing around with it in in a sequential way and it was kind of a shock like -- what is this, what is happening here? And so I decided to do a piece that was really like the turning point in my career, which was the one about PTSD that I did for a science magazine called Nautilus. [“The Wound That Never Heals” reprinted in You Are Not A Guest] I thought, well, what would happen if I did that in watercolor? and it completely changed my life.

I guess it's funny, I've never thought of this before, but this is a really obvious comparison: The Wizard of Oz, where the world goes from black and white to color [laughs]. And no, I don't have more time; having said that, the last seven years or so I had a perfectly fine amount of time. I have no time now, which is good because I'm done with the book, I can take a break.

HT: In your non-fiction, (You Are Not A Guest, We All Wish for Deadly Force) there is a lot of accompanying text, a sort of narrative voice, contrary to your fiction, Unterzakhn and Victory Parade, which are told through images and dialogue exclusively. Why is that?

LC: Good question. You know, it's not a thing I planned, but when I work in short nonfiction, my voice is in there just by the nature of the piece. It's more like a graphic essay, and when I'm working in fiction, I'm not interested in an omniscient narrator. I want things to unfold -- I was going to say in a cinematic way, but there's certainly plenty of cinema storytelling that has a narrator in it. And now I'm racking my brain to think are there any films that influenced me that have an omniscient narrator?

 The reason I'm mentioning film is because film and episodic storytelling is the closest thing to what I do and it's the kind of storytelling I've learned the most from, that comes into my own work. I think about film all the time. And when I think about the films and the filmmakers that are the biggest influences on me, they mostly don't use omniscient narrators. It's almost entirely dialogue- and image-driven and action-driven, although there are some exceptions -- Wings of Desire, if you remember that film, sometimes there's some narration and it’s a little bit oblique because it's not really a person narrating it. It's this kind of exterior, higher being observing. It's a poetic kind of narration. It's not like a noir film, where the narration is somebody reminiscing about their life or something. That would be an interesting experiment, to make fiction that has that. What would happen if I did that?

HT: That would make it very different; I was thinking, for instance of Fun Home that is completely dialogic, with narrating voice and dialogue.

LC: Well, that's a work of memoir, which lends itself to that in comics very well. Now I'm trying to remember I don't have Maus right in front of me… That's a testimony that's being illustrated, in a lot of places, the places where there is the narration of the father's voice, but then there are places where they're interacting, and that's entirely dialogue-driven. I find that very interesting too.

But in terms of fiction, Jaime Hernandez sometimes brings in an omniscient narrator. Well, it's not an omniscient narrator. It's a character talking about their life. But he's Jaime Hernandez -- he's God, you know. Whatever he does, it's like up there somewhere.

HT: Language is obviously really important in your work. Can you talk a little bit about that? Did you grow up in a surrounding that was multilingual for instance?

LC: I did, I grew up in Manhattan in the 80s, and so my neighborhood was multilingual. There were a lot of Spanish-speaking and Haitian Creole-speaking people, and then my family spoke Yiddish and Polish and English. They almost never spoke Polish. They would argue in Polish if they didn't want my mother or my aunt to understand them. If they were trying to keep something really between them, I never really understood Yiddish beyond the very basic -- like endearments: how are you doing? What are you doing? I love you. Eat something. Why aren't you eating? You know a lot of stuff about food, curses; but I grew up around a lot of Yinglish, which is a really specific way of speaking English with a Yiddish syntax and accent. The generations that are familiar with that are probably my age and older. And I worry that that feeling, that that particular slang is going to be lost, you know? It’s a voice.

 It also is a voice that people are very familiar with, at least in the United States, through comedy, and comedic writing like Mel Brooks, a lot of his work is in Yinglish. But again, this is a generational thing. And I feel like, if you didn't grow up with family members who talked like that, you don't know what it is and I've seen people try to write it who don't come from my particular ethnic background and they don't get it right. You have to have grown up with it -- like this is just how we had to communicate in my family with my grandparents who spoke five or six languages. But English was the last one, and the one that they spoke the least fluently.

 I love Yinglish. I love it so much. There’s a great, old, old episode of the New Yorker fiction podcast, where Nathan Englander reads the Isaac Bashevis Singer story Disguised. It's so great and he talks a little bit, in the little interview with him either before or after he reads the story, he talks about how he had gone to yeshiva as a kid and how long it took him to stop using that kind of syntax in his own writing. And I thought listening to that why? Why would you give it up? But I get it. You know, like you're not going to write an academic paper in it, but… and vy not? Vy you don’t? [laughs]

HT: Going back to drawing, how important in your experience is the haptic or the sensual nature of drawing and painting? In particular, when you're representing characters, whether in fiction or in nonfiction, how important is the process of spending time on drawing, redrawing, creating human figures, in your practice?

Victory Parade 29

 LC: It's the most important thing. It's absolutely the most important thing. I love that you use the word haptic. I'm going to have to steal that and start using it myself, because I almost feel like I have to defend the practice as a teacher, trying to explain to students: Well, I'm not against you making comics digitally. I think they're beautiful, but I want you to have a particular physical sensory experience. I'm a figure drawer and figure painter; to me figure drawing and working with the human body is endlessly compelling and extremely important. So working with paint and texture and viscosity became such an important part of constructing Victory Parade especially.

HT: I was struck by Thi Bui who, in an interview about The Best We Could Do, said that having to repeatedly draw her mother as a child actually reconciled her with her mother, with whom she had sort of a distant relationship, and having to draw her repeatedly was important emotionally for her.

LC: That's amazing. That is really incredible. I love her book.

Unterzakhn 10

Yes, it’s an amazing book. All right, completely different topic. The US has changed a lot since Unterzakhn came out, in 2012. By the way, I’m not sure how to pronounce it.

LC: Well, you know, that word is not dialect. I think maybe someone's going to read this interview and they're going to write me, and they're going to take me to task for saying that, but I believe that word is academic Yiddish. The person who I got it from I was a sort of Yiddish consultant on the book who was like a Yivo-trained Yiddish speaker, and I think she grew up speaking in her family too, but she also had some formal academic training in the United States, learning academic Yiddish. My mother was like, what is this word? And I had this nightmare experience at Miami Book Fair: this lady who looked just like one of my tantes, she had, like the butterscotch-colored kind of big hair and the coral fingernails, and she says: “I grew up speaking Yiddish and I've never heard this word Unterzakhn”, and I was like, oh, it's academic. [laughs] Anyway, I don't put a vowel between the K and the N, but you could say it in the way you want.


Comics and Politics

Unterzakhn 11

HT: Ok, thank you. So, the US has changed a lot since Unterzakhn came out, in 2012, and in that book you discussed, and illustrated, the vital need for access to birth control, and I was wondering if it (or any of your other work) has been banned anywhere.

LC: Well, I think because no one's gay in that book, at least visibly, the neo-Nazi cultural crusaders haven't found it yet. I do remember reading that it was on a banned list in some prisons -- I guess they don't want incarcerated men having abortions. Or maybe because there's boobs in it.

I was making a very dark joke last year that not enough people in Congress have read my abortion book. But yes, things have changed a lot, but at the same time, it's more like who gets to say, who gets to be in control. The forces that are in control right now have always been here. They're not new and we've always been a country that tends more towards the fascistic.

HT: The same thing is happening in Europe currently, it's pretty scary. Being French, we've been under the threat of the Le Pen family for 30-40 years now.

LC: Incredible to think of it right, this one family that looms over this one country's politics. And when will that stop?


HT: I didn't want to talk too much about current politics, but…

Victory Parade, cover © Leela Corman 2023

LC: But I think it's not irrelevant to my work, and we need to look at fascism as a force that rises and falls globally. It has characteristics specific to each country that it shows up in, but maybe if we can look at it as a global force, we can find solidarity against it globally. I don't know, and I'm just an artist, you know? But Victory Parade -- I felt when I was at the beginning of making it that it was my antifascist work. Like this is what I can do right now. Now it feels like events have completely overtaken me.


HT: Reading your work from the beginning, you seem to approach some of the very central and very tough themes in your books with a certain reluctance. For instance, in an interview, I think in 2008, you said that you didn't want to talk about WWII and Poland, that you were wary of the topic. And in 2012, you said that you didn't see yourself as a feminist; yet these two things are so central to your work.

LC: Oh, my God, no, I what the hell is wrong with me? I mean, of course I do. I think also 2012 was the worst year of my life. And there are probably a lot of things I said then, the context would have to be there. But I used to have a lot of the same issues with the word “feminism” that I think a lot of women of my generation had in the 90s and early 2000s. Second wave feminism had come to feel restrictive, sometimes; we were tired of getting lectured, in ways that felt puritanical, about sex and about porn and about eroticism and all these things. There were some real hard doctrines around that stuff for some second wave feminists that I encountered personally and in media, but god! there's no way I could say that about myself.

HT: But I wondered also if it had to do with something that's obvious in your fiction and in your nonfiction: the problem with silence, not talking about tough situations, history, etcetera. There’s an anecdote that you tell in your nonfiction and your fiction, which is the metaphor of the carp that is going to be put to death, but we don't talk about it. I thought maybe that was sort of a clue -- there are certain topics that are so important and so central and painful that perhaps in your family there was some reluctance to tackle them.


You Are Not a Guest 66

LC: Well, in 2008 I didn't feel like I could [talk about World War Two]. I had gone through a period of being very obsessed with certain aspects of World War Two and then needing a break. I wanted to do work that was not related to it. And then when I had the idea for Victory Parade, it wasn't initially about anything that happened in Europe. It was very New York focused. Then I realized well, if I'm going to tell a story that takes place in the 1940s, of course it has to engage with World War Two.

 The initial idea was about women working in war industries. That was the first image; I had to engage with it. And then in 2015, I started to see the turn towards fascism and the language about immigrants coming to the United States being exactly the same language that was used about us in the 1930s, exactly the same. All you have to do is take out the words Jewish and put in the word Syrian or Iraqi. And there was this idea in 2015 that ISIS infiltrators might sneak in among Syrian refugees in the US. It's a stupid, racist construction, right? In the 1930s, there was this fear that Nazis would infiltrate among the Jews. Like, really? Come on, that is not going to happen.

 But here I am meeting a bad faith argument with a good faith concern. The people who are saying those things don't really believe that either, it's propaganda, but it was very obvious to me in 2015 that we were going in a really dark direction, and I felt like I was seeing and hearing this stuff on the horizon, that a lot of people were not. And I'm not trying to give myself credit for it, just like I have Jewish radar, you know? I was really horrified by the inhumanity of it.

 And then when I started working on Victory Parade the following year, it was right after Donald Trump was elected. And everybody was scrambling to understand what was happening. And some of us were sitting there going, “We fucking told you. This is the obvious direction of things.” There's even now this constant, irritating discourse in the US, where people will ask themselves and you'll hear people in the media posing the question, “is it time to use the fascism word?” My God, it's been time to say that since at least 2015. And you know, if you want to look at the actual history of the United States -- and I'm sorry, this is not relevant to my book exactly -- but the entire history of the United States is a history of racial fascism.

HT: But I think it is relevant because in Victory Parade, I picked up certain clues that you were also talking about America when you were talking about the concentration camp, for instance.

LC: Absolutely.

HT: One of the first images when Sam arrives at Buchenwald, you draw the camp and the victims, and the word America appears, spoken by one of the prisoners, but it appears in the middle of the panel. It's superimposed on the concentration camp. Also, I thought that although you’re not talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I sensed it in there somewhere; and then at the end of the book, you have this quote by Shōmei Tōmatsu, the Japanese photographer who's famous for having photographed the aftermath of WWII and the bombs in Japan.

LC: Yeah, that was his quote, after spending his career photographing hibakusha [atomic bomb survivors]. It's funny that you mention that “America” quote. I'm really glad that you had that double read on it. I didn’t intend it, but that’s my favorite thing in art, and it’s something that I'm trying to figure out a better pedagogical way to transmit to students, when the truth comes out unintentionally or without being overdetermined and shaped consciously by the artist.

 So, what's happening in that set of panels where the prisoners are saying “America, America” is actually what happened when allied soldiers stepped through the barbed wire at Buchenwald, people started to say, “America, American” and cheering for them. And other camps too, according to liberators' testimonies. So that is just historical documentation, but the double reading is really important, and accurate.

 You asked about the carp and about not talking about things -- I think most people who grow up in families where there has been some kind of historical trauma, certainly Holocaust survivor families, but definitely not limited to them, there's a lot of not talking. There's a lot of silence and in American culture, especially among a certain class of white people, there's so much not talking about things, and that's outside of my own culture -- with Super American people, like my husband [laughs]. And on a broader societal level, we still can't really talk about the indigenous genocide our country is created on, or the hundreds of years of chattel slavery and the barely better conditions now racially in this country. First of all, just the brutality of slavery in this country, what that actually meant, you can look at a history book and be upset that there was slavery, right? But when you actually read about what the day-to-day life of enslaved people was, what it was like to be captured, transported, what life was like on plantations, what happened to people, to their children, to their bodies -- we don't talk about that. And when people do try to talk about it, they're viciously censored and punished for it. While there's this official kind of observance of, you know, “things are better now,” and every year they trot out the Martin Luther King quotes without really engaging with what his really serious work was, and what is still happening now. There's this maddening silence around horror and suffering in this country. Sometimes I feel like I live in a slaughterhouse with a little window box full of sweet-smelling flowers in front of it.



Comics and Trauma

HT: Trauma and its transmission from one generation to the next are also very central themes in your fiction and nonfiction, and certain traumatic events create a network that links your stories together. I was talking about the carp. I was also struck by the scene in Victory Parade when the dead talk to Sam and say: “we are teeth,” “we are bones,” “I'm with someone who knows you,” that resonated with We All Wish For Deadly Force and with “Life Is An Ambush” -- it creates a link with the story of your first daughter. Can you talk about how you conceive of the relation between trauma and comics, and the usefulness or the appropriateness of comics in narrating traumatic experiences.

LC: Well, I think comics is an art form that lends itself to any kind of storytelling, and one of my favorite things about it, and the thing that initially drew me to it as a younger person, was that you can say and do anything in comics. And I think you could make the argument that that's true of all art forms, right? It's true of film. It's true of writing. But comics felt uniquely like an art form that lent itself to the wildest explorations of any human experience, and I had really great examples of this early on, especially Phoebe Gloeckner, Renee French, Julie Doucet, artists like that, all of the RAW artists.

 And maybe it's because comics is also such a global art form and cultural product at this point. So many people in the world read comics in some form -- comics come from all corners of the globe, it's an easy language for people to learn visually. You just kind of grow up with it. It's instinctual, so when you start putting heavier content, bigger content into it, it naturally expands to include it, if that makes sense.

 In terms of its use as a container for trauma storytelling, I think it's really useful for that, in part because there's so much malleability between text and image. Also, I have to say this connects to your earlier question about the carp and about not talking about things -- I hate evasiveness, it makes me so angry; I want to talk about things. This is a maladaptive trait of mine, to want to talk about everything, and of course I have my limits on that. There's definitely things I shut down about and don't want to talk about. That's fine too; but pretending that there's not a carp with a knife through it in a pool of blood on the counter, metaphorically speaking, is something I really loathe. It feels like gaslighting to me. But to be a little bit more gentle and compassionate, in families that have been through the Holocaust, I can only speak for my own culture here, I won't speak for other historical traumas, but I want to get to that in a second. In my family, there were good reasons why people did not want to talk about what had happened to them. It was too painful and the gulf of trying to reach someone like me, for my grandparents, across the barriers of language and culture and experience, to tell me, a privileged kid in New York City in the 80s and 90s, about living in a hole in the ground in the forest. There's no way they could tell me. Even trying to say the first thing about it is exhausting, so I understand, I understand.


And in my grandmother's case, when she told me one really terrible thing, she started having what I now recognize as the trauma reaction, and I backed away immediately. I didn't want to make an old woman have that kind of reaction, and I was afraid she was going to have a heart attack. She was shaking, she was telling me about witnessing the liquidation of her entire ghetto, from a hiding place. She was hiding in the attic of the synagogue or a barn, I can't remember which, and they shot 950 people, basically under her nose, and many of them were her family. So I never asked her to tell me again. Consequently, a lot of stories get lost.

 In terms of the links between other historical experiences that you mentioned in this book, if you don't mind me going back to that, that's really important. I think that there are two major ways that I see descendants of the Holocaust, second and third generation, how we carry it in the world, there are some people who respond to it in a way that is insular. This is about us and only us, and we have to take land, and narrative and make it only our own. No one else has ever experienced anything like this. Then there's another group of people who say, this is a genocide connected to other genocides. All atrocities are connected, and we find solidarity with each other because our own people have been through something so terrible. I'm putting this in terms that are so simplistic, I'm sorry. But for obvious political reasons, I'm thinking about this a lot right now because I'm feeling like the lessons of the Holocaust are being profaned every day in my name to justify the murder of thousands of innocent people right now. So, I obviously count myself in the second group. To me, it's really important to connect with and have solidarity with everybody else on the planet in this huge mass grave of human suffering that is this planet.

HT: And as you said, it's important that the second and third generations talk about these things because so much of the time, the first generation couldn't. In France, a lot of people who had experienced arrests, the camps, were told not to discuss it, also because the French police were so involved. Most of the arrests were made by the French, not by the Germans. So the French did not want to hear about it. And now most of the witnesses are dead, or very old. So the next generations need to pick up those stories and tell them.

LC: Yes, but everyone suffered also in France under occupation. And Poland gets accused of collaborating with the Nazis a lot, but no one ever talks about the Western European countries that collaborated really enthusiastically with them. I will defend Poland here -- I know there was plenty of anti-Semitism to go around there, and everywhere else. But Poland didn't even have a government during World War Two, the government was a German Nazi government. And there are countries that don't have that excuse. They were really happy to collaborate.

 I have to say that the second generation here -- my own family being a really good example of this -- usually can't talk about it either, or when they do, it's really different. I mean, for one thing, that's how I think a lot of hard-right Zionism became institutionalized in American Jewish organizations. But my mother, for example, her generation, they really have a lot of shame and their own trauma about it. It's very traumatizing to be that generation too. 

You Are Not a Guest 5

So I categorize my work very firmly in third generation descendant work and there are a lot of other people like me making work in all kinds of mediums and I've been finding them lately. It's really nice to connect with them. But also, the people that I am associated with in Poland are also doing third generation work; and this is work that the previous generations really couldn't do because they were suffering the Soviet occupation and its aftermath, they were just trying to survive in the Communist era. And then as Poland became a capitalist country, that's a whole other part of the story.

 It falls to people my generation and younger to start dealing with it, and also there's so much shame and so much trauma around everything that happened during the Second World War and afterwards in Poland. I don't want to speak out of turn, I'm not an expert, but just from my own experience there and talking to people, people really suffered horribly.



Comics and History

 HT: Going back to Victory Parade, you said that you thought of the story of women working in the war industry and then you moved on to Europe and to the concentration camp. So how did that switch occur in your mind, and how do you think the two topics inform one another?

LC: Well, it's interesting when I think about the mechanics of writing this story -- I don't remember the moment when I realized I could do both of those things in the same book. But I've always been obsessed with concentration camp liberation stories. I went through this period where I read them constantly, and I returned to that when I started working on Victory Parade. And it just made sense that if there is a woman who is working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard making warships, that her husband would be serving overseas. And there are so many accounts of American Jewish soldiers being part of the battalions that liberated concentration camps and what they experienced. So there was already a lot of material there for me to draw on. Lots of stories of people speaking Yiddish to the prisoners; a completely different level of understanding what had happened. Because we receive these stories about concentration camps, about World War Two, kind of packaged. There are a lot of things that we already know, and it means we don't always question “what are the things we don't know, what's not in the package, where are the complications?”

 This is really important to me as a storyteller in general -- there are whole other layers to all of these stories, it's a really vast topic. Imagine coming across one of those camps at the time, you don't have the package -- you don't know what happened, it's totally incomprehensible, you can't get your mind around what you're seeing. I was trying to put myself in the mind of a person who had no idea what they were stumbling on, which is one reason, and I'm sorry this might feel like a digression. Because now I'm talking about the book itself, but one reason why I didn't feel the need to show the gate of the camp, for example, is because I was trying to be a bit nonspecific about it. It's very clearly Buchenwald, if you know the imagery of that camp. But if you don't, it could be almost any concentration camp.

 I'm frustrated with the tidying of the story of the Holocaust and I want to stay very complicated and messy. It's not pretty, and it's not redemptive, and people, at least in the US, keep trying to make it those things. I don't know if that’s the case in France or anywhere else in Europe.

HT: Yes, but I was thinking about what you were saying -- in the early 40s, if you wanted to know what was happening, you could. There were reports, including in the US. But I guess a lot of the population did not know; was there a lot of censorship, were people just too busy living day to day, and perhaps trying to not know what was happening… France is a good example because we collaborated, but we also resisted -- resistance is a great story to tell. Collaboration -- not so good.

LC: You know, it's funny the first time I went to France, one of the people I was there with, a French comics person said: “everyone, every older person here is going to tell you they were in the resistance. It's bullshit.” Which I feel is probably a really incendiary thing to say, and I don't think it's entirely true either: there was a lot of collaboration and a lot of resistance everywhere.

HT: And a lot of in between. For instance, some of the German artists you mention in Victory Parade (such as Oscar Schlemmer and other Bauhaus people, or what you say in “Blood Road” about Franz Erlich) had an ambiguous relationship to the Nazi regime, probably like most people who lived under this regime. Even if you disagree with it, you're also thinking of your own survival, which I can understand -- if I put myself in their place, would I have been up in arms immediately? I thought of that also when I saw your quote on the SAW [Sequential Artists Workshop] website, where you say you’re interested in breaking down, in destroying the neat narrative of history.

LC: Schlemmer, I actually don't remember what his story was. I think most of them probably… you know, we have the benefit of hindsight -- they didn't entirely know. When you read about Otto Dix, you read that he went into internal exile, which I think sounds like what a lot of us are doing in the US -- in some way you could say that about us. George Grosz, left, and he writes, in his journal A Little Yes and a Big No, about leaving Germany when he knew he had to leave. It's a really interesting passage, but my feeling during the Trump years was, we're all good Germans now.

 So I think I understand because we know -- we knew that there were camps on the US/Mexico border full of asylum seekers, with separated families, people who were being left without shower or blankets in ice-cold cells, children separated from their families for indefinite periods of time and sometimes lost! Knowing what's happening in your own borders, right? Let's bring it even closer to home. I keep saying we live in a racial fascism here, that's been ongoing for hundreds of years. We're all just living our lives in this kind of in-between knowing that these terrible things are being done and that some of us are living on the safer end of those terrible things. It's hard to make binary judgments when you know that you're doing the same thing. I think then it requires… I don't know what it requires, but it's something other than how we've been thinking about these things.

 Then there are people who I think were ideological Nazis. Unfortunately, I think Christian Schad joined the party and I love his work. I really can't engage with it anymore or show it to my students because I'm not going to excuse that in a person.

HT: In a sort of related question, your main character, Rose, and her occupation, of course, recalls Rosie the Riveter.

LC: That was an accident. [laughs]

HT: It was an accident? That's very funny. So, I thought that was interesting because it also put me in mind of Unterzakhn and your reclaiming a lot of American history as not just WASP, and as also belonging to minorities. The USA you depict in Victory Parade and in Unterzakhn contribute to a sort of rewriting of the country's past and origins, to include the very people who have always made up the country and yet are still perceived as on the lower end of the hierarchy. So you’re not just showing multiculturalism, but reclaiming American history as multicultural.

LC: I love that and I'm honored that you see my work that way because I would not have put it in those terms. But it's absolutely something that I love to hear, and I do feel strongly about. I think it came naturally because I'm from New York, I write about New York, and New York is different from the rest of the country in a lot of ways, it’s a resolutely multicultural place. It's not exempt from any of the racial hierarchy or class power structures of the country, if anything, it reproduces them in an amplified way in some cases, but when I go to other parts of the country, I can feel the cultural difference. And also, being a Jewish woman, an Ashkenazi woman, it's a really particular way of behaving and looking at the world, and how we're socialized is not like a lot of other American women are socialized. I don't want to make overly broad generalizations, but it’s something I struggle with a lot. So maybe it comes through in my work, obliquely: living in a Christian hegemony as a minority, I’ve resented it all my life since I was a small child during the Reagan administration. He was the Christian right’s president. He was the guy who brought them into power. So my entire life, I've basically lived under their cultural control and it is actually quite relevant to my work in that I'm pushing against it so much -- in Unterzakhn very explicitly and in Victory Parade, talking about something else, centering someone else.


Comics and Bodies

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 HT: Another important topic in in Victory Parade is sexual harassment, which makes the character of Ruth furious, and she's encouraged in her fury by this sort of other-worldly being. I wondered if that reflected your own anger. Also, about the scene where she beats up the guy on the street who's been following and harassing her and her friend, I thought there was a sort of superhero dimension to it: we have her origin story, her superpower, and then her very impassive attitude after she's meted out justice.

LC: Stroking the man’s teeth on the handkerchief, enjoying her prize? I think that passage is pure wish-fulfillment for me and a lot of other people. Who among us has not wanted to do that? I set out wanting to talk about sexual harassment a lot more than I actually accomplished. It's in there and it's pretty constant, but it's barely scratching the surface. I'm going to have to keep engaging with it in my future work. But it was such a constant in my life from the time I was twelve years old, you know, I couldn't leave my apartment building without experiencing groping and horrible comments. No one prepared me for that as a kid, and no one supported me or gave me any kind of help when it was happening, including my mother.


HT: In Victory Parade, more than in your other work I think, you de-idealize the bodies. They're not sexy, and even Ruth, who is young and strong ends up dying at a very early age, so her body lets her down as well. Can you talk a little bit about that and maybe also come back to Oscar Schlemmer, whom you reference a lot and whose approach to bodies is so at odds with yours.

LC: Yes, it is. I think the primary Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity] artist that gets referenced in Victory Parade is Otto Dix -- talk about de-idealizing the body! No one makes a body less sexy than him, right? So Dix and his compatriots, and maybe also H.R. Giger, there is absolutely nothing sexy about his work, even when he's drawing a giant penis, it's like the ugliest thing you've ever seen. I love Giger, anyway, so, with respect.

 But Schlemmer, the way that he depicts bodies, they're not flesh, the way he paints people, they look like pegs and carvings of wood or they're these incredible theatrical costumes where the body is the axis around which the costumes revolve. But the costumes aren't made to enhance the body, they're coming off of the body in these really interesting ways. I love his theatrical costumes, but if you watch any of the recreated footage of the Triadic Ballet, it's not a loose flowing dance; the dancers aren't allowed to actually use their limbs in ways that ballet dancers tend to. They're wearing these really hard costumes that dictate the movement.

 I like that you said de-idealize the body -- maybe it's a side effect of living in a body that's getting older and hurting a lot more. [laughs] No, but it didn't start out that way, I started this book six years ago, so I didn't hurt as badly as I do now, but I find all kinds of bodies really interesting and I guess I'm trying to get away from constantly drawing conventionally beautiful people because it's really easy and fun to do that.

HT: And it's still dominant in comics; non idealized, realistic bodies in comics are not that common.

LC: I guess it depends what comics you read. I'm thinking about the Hernandez brothers, constantly drawing very realistic bodies, and drawing them as bodies that have every bit of a sex life and a sensual life as an idealized young body. Chelo or Luba in Gilbert Hernandez’s stories have round stomachs and stretch marks from childbirth, women have lovers and they are moms -- they're fully fleshed out people. No pun intended.

HT: I was thinking of mainstream comics, not so much independent comics such as yours.

LC: I don't really read mainstream comics; and the artists that informed me tend to be painters more than cartoonists. A couple of years ago I met this amazing painter named Clarity Haynes at a residency and I've been really fascinated with her paintings ever since. At the time, she was working on these monumental torso portraits of people, and they were amazing. There would be aged bodies, or bodies that had had top surgery, or bodies that had had heart surgery, wearing a beautiful belt and necklace, or beautiful tattoo and scars, just so lovingly painted and huge -- monumental. And I thought about those paintings a lot. I'm not saying they're an influence on my work, just that I think there are other ways to love and appreciate bodies, that are not mainstream comics or fashion photography.

 I had this experience last year: I went to the Brooklyn Museum and there were two different exhibitions running at the same time. There was a retrospective of Thierry Mugler, the couturier, it’s beautiful work, right? But right before I saw that, I went to the exhibition of the photographer Jimmy De Sana. It really blew my mind, it was really sexy and really central in these ways that were, like, gritty, very queer. Also he took a lot of photos of No Wave bands, which is a music and art scene that I'm really fascinated by and I love a lot of that music. But also these really beautifully lit, beautifully posed figurative photos that were so strange and so… They felt like they were really about what sex actually is. It's body fluids and flesh and smells and sounds and colors.

And then I went upstairs to this very idealized, you know, everybody's super skinny. And like, it's about sex, but it's not really. It gestures at the fact that you're supposed to find this sexy, but really everything is very hard and regimented and skinny and there's no access to the body in any kind of meaningful way. I wrote a much more articulate response when I initially saw it, pairing the two.

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HT: On another topic -- Victory Parade is full of ghosts, or the undead. Is it mainly narrative and/ or aesthetic? Does it have anything to do with your own beliefs?

LC: It was really important to me in this book to situate a lot of the action in the world of the dead and the place where the worlds of the dead and the worlds of the living intersect. I was thinking a lot about what happens in a place where a mass death has occurred. It seems to me like the air would be disturbed by the deceased, that they would be very present.

 I've become a much more skeptical person than I've ever been in my life in the last few years, and so I I'm much less interested in the supernatural than I used to be. I was more interested in that when I was working on the book; the dream state and the death state were things that I was really interested in exploring. And I tend to feel very haunted, especially back then when I started working on it. It’s things I think about and respond to a lot.

 HT: It's just a detail, but in the scene where Sam finds the women’s hair in the concentration camp, you draw him standing in front of the hair and dozens of pink ghosts behind him, and I thought that the one that's just above him, who is not as emaciated and who looks much angrier than the others, that it looked like a much more specific ghost; I thought maybe it was even yourself that you were putting in that drawing.

LC: I was just looking at that drawing this morning actually. No, it's not me, but in a sense everyone in the comic is the cartoonist, or everyone in a novel is the novelist. A lot of the time, from the very beginning, when I was drawing the scenes with ghosts, I was thinking about putting faces to names, putting faces and names on the dead. Somewhere in there I realized this book is in dialogue with Maus in that way because in Maus, Spiegelman made a very deliberate choice not to do that. And I think it was a really wise choice for the time and the audience, making everybody an animal. And thus not expressionistic in any way, even though his line quality is very expressionistic, capital E expressionistic. It's like a pill pocket, you know, when you have to give medicine to a dog or a cat and there's a little treat that has a hole in it and you stick the medicine in there and you shove it in their mouths. It's like that: get the story past people's disgust or fear reaction.

 In my case, I felt like I wanted to do something else. These are individual human beings with faces, and there's another running theme in Victory Parade that was really important to me, which was to show lots of different kinds of massed bodies. You'll notice there's a couple of scenes that are recreations of Busby Berkeley numbers also. I love Busby Berkeley, I'm totally fascinated by those films, but I was thinking about the connections between masses of dancers and masses of soldiers. And then there's these mass graves full of full of bodies. Or prisoners in the concentration camps, full of the barely alive. All of these kind of massive collections of people. I was thinking about that a lot, and I was also thinking, yeah, these women are pissed. They're really mad. Those pink ghosts above him? They're fucking furious.

HT: Talking about names, there is also a scene where Sam is visited by ghosts who give him their names, are these specific or are they random?

LC: They're random -- although there's names of friends and writers I like; but they're mixed up, they're randomized, the first and last names.

HT: You were talking about Busby Berkeley -- can you talk about the final gruesome ballet in the book?

LC: It's probably the most transgressive thing I've ever drawn in my life. And I use the word transgressive really carefully because I came of age as an artist in a time when that was of great value, to make things that were transgressive and everyone was trying to do that, and I think very few people actually made anything that was that.

 OK, so I take notes on index cards when I'm working and it'll be like one idea, one beat, one statement per card, and then the result of that is that I'll have a stack of index cards going back a few years, sometimes with projects, and then sometimes I'll forget ideas that I had. This is why I take them down on cards. So I found a card I had forgotten about where I wrote “Busby Berkeley death scene.” And this is two years later and I was like, “thank you past me!” I was very grateful to 2017 Leela because this was such a good idea and it just made sense to me that this would be the scene you would find at the end.

HT: So bringing together these differently “massed bodies” as you were saying. It also made me think of the film by Roberto Benigni Life is beautiful. When I first saw this comedy about the concentration camps, I was really uncomfortable, I didn't know how to react; but I think it was brave. And I thought this was also not just transgressive, but an act of bravery on your part because you're taking a big risk, bringing those two worlds together to say something about those ghosts that you're bringing to life, and about your vision.


LC: There's another Busby Berkeley movie that shows up in the beginning and at the end, The Gang’s All Here, which he made during World War Two. So maybe I'm taking a risk, but you could make the argument that at the same time that all of these people were suffering and dying, starving, people in the United States were going to see The Gang’s All Here, going to the movies and seeing these massed bodies dancing. So it feels like there's a connection there. I was thinking a lot about the experience of being here in the United States while all of this stuff is happening there in Europe, especially if your family came from there and you still have connections there, this is the thing you read about all the time. There were Jews in New York who knew that their families were being slaughtered, and the guilt and the pain that they were carrying, and the helplessness of knowing that this is happening. I think this is replicated across time and all over the world in the refugee and asylum-seeking experiences, once somebody gets out, they're always thinking about who's left behind.

 But I was thinking a lot in this book about how people process collective trauma, and I think that that also comes back to the massed bodies. There's a lot of stuff in this book about the collective and the individual. So much of what's going on with Rose is the processing of how an individual carries a group trauma, and she's not the only one.

 To come back to that final scene, there's humor in it too, and I think maybe that's where some of the risk lies. I'm interested in your mentioning Life is Beautiful, I love that movie. I haven't seen it since it came out, so I wonder how I'd feel about it now, but I remember in the US people were so angry at that movie. I think actually this is something that was in the DNA of the book, this image of Roberto Benigni holding his child, you know, where he starts walking with his kid on his shoulder and then he comes across a pile of bodies, a giant mountain of corpses, and he starts walking backwards. He doesn't turn around because he doesn't want his kid to see it. And he doesn't survive, you know, at the end Nicoletta Braschi's character, the mother, is reunited with her child, but the father is gone, and that scene almost broke me, because so many parents were not reunited with their children.

HT: All right, I have to let you go back to your real life, so two quick questions about Victory Parade: how did you become interested in wrestling; and why did you decide to recycle Meyer Birnbaum, a character from Unterzakhn.

LC: First question: in 2015, John Darnielle from the band The Mountain Goats asked me to illustrate his wrestling-themed album, “Beat the Champ” and I was really flattered that he asked me instead of somebody who's known for drawing wrestlers. I had never drawn a wrestler at that point -- he could have called Jaime Hernandez who draws the best women wrestlers, but he called me. I had a really good time and I realized I love drawing, sweaty, muscular bodies in motion. And I loved -- talk about drawing de-idealized bodies -- the theme of that album wasn't just wrestling, it was early 80s local territory wrestling, which is before wrestling became this shiny, glitzy thing. If you watch video footage from that era, they don't look like glamorous muscle men, they're grittier.

 I think there's also a connection, in the United States anyway, between immigrant grandmothers and wrestling -- my best friend’s Irish great-grandmother was obsessed with wrestling, my Yiddish grandmother loved wrestling. She loved Hulk Hogan, I think because his character was the anti-Communist Cold War wrestler. There's a lot of funny stories about people going to wrestling matches with their grandmas and stuff like that.

 I also have a background in martial arts and dance, so I really liked drawing the physicality -- and it made sense that this character [Ruth] would be a wrestler and that that would be her kind of trauma coping mechanism and that it would be the thing that kills her.

 Now the thing about Meyer Birnbaum is he wrote himself into Unterzakhn -- I don't feel like I created him. I feel like he showed up one day, just started talking. So it just made sense that he would come back and be a wrestling promoter. But I will say it was a little more conscious in this case, I'm paying tribute to a Gilbert Hernandez character with him -- he's sort of the Gorgo of my book. He may even show up in the third book -- this is part of a trilogy, so he might even show up again, and maybe even somehow Meyer Birnbaum never dies. [laughs]

HT: Well now I have to ask you about the trilogy…

LC: Ok, so halfway through working on Victory Parade, I was in a café in Berlin, sketching, and I was just looking around and I was thinking about being a child during the late Cold War and all of the terror, you know, being absolutely sure we're going to die in a nuclear holocaust because the leaders of the US and the Soviet Union were selfish and stupid -- and then how shocking it was when the Berlin Wall came down. And I was just trying to question -- what was it like to grow up on the other side of that wall, and all of this stuff… And then I thought ohh shit, this has to be a book, doesn't it? So I started thinking about my own childhood in the 80s in New York and thinking about all the things that were cool about it, too. And I was like, God dammit, I just had a book idea, didn't I.

 So the third book in the trilogy is set partially in the 1980s in Manhattan and partially in the forests of Poland during the 1940s, and the way that I have been conceiving this book lately as I've worked through the ideas more is that I want it to be kind of a tribute to the Yiddish women that raised me, the war generation. Who are almost entirely gone now, but I've been painting and drawing them and thinking about them and… but it's about a lot of other things. I'm also not ready to work on another book yet. My arm is tired, it needs a break.

HT: So there will be a trilogy, but I shouldn’t hold my breath, right?

LC: No, it'll come. Yeah, my New York trilogy. [laughs]

HT: You need to make one too! Ok, now just two or three questions about You Are Not A Guest. I have a silly question, but it's inspired by the title of the story, “The Fuck You Forest.” I thought that this was both painful reminiscing and also sort of distancing, perhaps mocking yourself for the recurrent metaphor of the forest as a place of trauma and refuge. Does this also have something to do with the fact that Buchenwald means the beech forest?

LC: No, no. “The Fuck You Forest” was made long before the comic about Poland, where I said that thing about trauma and refuge. No, I'm not mocking myself at all. That comic is the only comic I have ever in my adult professional life as a cartoonist, improvised. I improvised an entire book when I was in college. My senior illustration project was a comic that I totally made up as I went along, but I hadn't done that since I was in school and I did that with “The Fuck You Forest.” I'm not mocking myself at all, I was just in the rage part of grief.

HT: Mocking was the wrong word, I’m sorry, but I thought distancing perhaps, because there's a lot of images of trees, forests, mountains, rivers, a lot of nature in your stories, and I thought perhaps, the forest as refuge turned out to not work.

LC: I think I was looking for solace in nature imagery, a place to hide. You know when someone dies in a hospital, it's the least natural place in the world, surrounded by the machines, and plastic, and chemicals.

HT: So it's sort of an echo to the story “Wilderness” perhaps?

LC: Yeah. And also well, “Wilderness” was so much about feeling like… that was done at an inflection point in my life. A friend of mine had just committed suicide right before I did that piece, and this was the friend who had taken us in after my first daughter died also. So I was feeling a lot of just really feral emotions. And I think also grief makes you feel like you live outside, it puts you outside of society for a while, and I think that piece is about that a lot.

HT: OK, I have a question which is maybe anecdotal, about “Life is an Ambush.” The end of it felt like two worlds colliding almost. There's a beautiful, painful and very personal story that I as a reader experienced in solitude but that also created a sense of intimacy. And then on the last page you have this image of a snake, and you address your readers about their potential online comments about their birth beliefs. Have you had a lot of negative reactions to your stories online? […]

LC: No, it's because -- I did that story in 2016 and it was impossible to talk about whatever your own birth experience was without a lot of other people piling on and giving their opinions about it. And there was so much ideology and positioning around it; and I used to have a lot of misinformed beliefs too, before I had kids, about how you should give birth and what's good and what's bad. And I had my mind completely changed by the experience. But also that was done in a time when I was still grieving pretty hard and very angry. There was a lot of anger in that piece.

HT: Alright, concluding questions, for real this time. How have your books been received in general? What kind of feedback do you get?

LC: Mostly really good. I'll see what happens with Victory Parade. I'm feeling a little strange about Victory Parade right now because it feels like, what am I doing telling a story about the Holocaust? It made sense a few years ago and now it feels like… I don't know, those thoughts are kind of unformed and hard to articulate... And I haven't seen a lot of feedback yet to You Are Not A Guest, so I'm not sure. It's been a while since I've put out a book. Yeah, but mostly good.

HT: Do you think that it's still harder today to be a female than a male cartoonist, or has the cartooning world evolved enough that there isn't much difference now in terms of publishing, readership, reception, etc.

LC: Well, I think that there is probably some data science answers to that that I can't give, that would really answer very clearly how much money people are being paid, percentages of male to female, or male and everybody else in publishing. I would say I think my career is going pretty well. But I think a woman who works in the mainstream comics industry might have a really different answer, or a woman in manga. I don't know what they would say. I am a little frustrated that a lot of the same kind of old white men are still in power in some publishing houses specifically. It just feels like it's never going to end. It's been women who've really helped my career along, and I think that white men still have unfair advantages everywhere, so publishing is probably no exception.

 But having said that, I think the problem and the solution are related. The table keeps getting bigger; there are more voices in comics now. So my feeling is: bring more chairs, right? This is happening in some places like the Small Press Expo here in the United States. I had a twenty-year gap between times that I attended: I stopped going in 2002, and I went again in 2022 and they were totally different because they had made a very conscientious effort to make it a much more queer, female and nonwhite friendly space, I think. And also, there's just more people making comics, there are more education programs for comics, there's more opportunities to study it, and consequently the art form is so much better because there are more people making them and they're more diverse. Also, there's more examples of comics from other countries in the US now; not enough stuff gets translated, but maybe more than used to.

 Anyway, I think you'd get a really different and maybe more clear answer from someone working in the more traditionally male-dominated areas of comics. I mean, women have always been an important part of every sector of comics, but especially in art comics, we've really always been here.

HT: Do you still belly dance?

LC: No, I quit in 2017, quite happily.

HT: Ok, well thank you so much, you've been amazing and very generous with your time and your answers, it's been a pleasure talking to you.

LC: Likewise. It was a pleasure for me too.