Under the Surface with Rebecca Rosen

Aug 30, 2018 by

There’s just a little over a month left before our amazing Fall lineup starts making its way onto store shelves, and believe us, it’s going to be incredible. FLEM, by artist Rebecca Rosen, is a visually stunning, experimental comic. In this instalment of Under the Surface, we talk to Rebecca about cartooning, silkscreening, character creation, and so much more.

*Fun fact: Contrary to what Google’s algorithm believes, this Rebecca Rosen is not a psychic medium (as far as we know).

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What was going on in your life when you first decided you wanted to make FLEM?

At the time, I was more actively involved in political and cultural resistance movements. I knew that I wanted to create a character who lost herself at the intersection of personal and political struggle, because that’s what I was seeing happen around me. I was also reading a lot of early modernist authors – Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, to name a few –  and wanted to experiment with a character-driven, non-linear, experiential approach to storytelling in comics.

After a few embarrassing false starts on the story that eventually became FLEM, I decided to go back to school to do an MFA in Graphic Storytelling at LUCA School of Arts in Brussels. Paradoxically, I needed to impose some structure on my artistic process in order to deconstruct this specific story.

Is the band in the book inspired by any particular shows you’ve been to in Brussels? If not, what made you decide create these characters?

There’s a lot of intensely physical performance art in the European underground scene depicted in the book. Just a few weeks ago, I saw a piece that involved music, dance, insertable sex toys, and the burning of the European flag… I’ll spare you the details. The performance in FLEM was inspired by an artist who goes by the name of Whorgane Madbled. She and I were in a radical feminist action group together. To be perfectly clear, that performance is based on one of hers, but the characters and plot in FLEM are entirely fictional.

How have you brought your silkscreening practice to the work of creating a graphic novel?

My print practice had a huge impact on the way that I approached colour; I drew my colour separations by hand with the help of a light table, and then assembled them on the computer as transparent layers. I like to think that there’s a parallel between the way that I built up the colours, layer over layer, and the way that I built up the story, scene by scene… but I think that process is probably pretty opaque (haha) to the reader.

The story is interspersed with linocuts, which serve as a visual break between scenes/chapters as well as a narrative device. Initially, I chose to work in linocut because I was eager to try out a new proof press that our print studio had acquired… but eventually the subtractive process of linocutting (that is to say, the creation of the image via the removal of negative space) came to play a big role in the story.

Which character in FLEM is most like you, and why?

Although FLEM isn’t autobiographical, there are elements of Julia’s story that are based on my experiences. I don’t share all of that character’s pathologies or her troubled past, but I too have tried to distract myself from an anguished mental state by throwing myself into a theatrical politics of resistance. The physicality of that kind of anarchist action, “putting our bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus”, to quote Mario Savio, can be especially attractive to a person in a nihilistic frame of mind. A kind of self-abnegation can take hold.

Confrontational politics of resistance are inherently physically/psychologically taxing, and the heightened emotions they provoke can obscure other issues that may be weighing on a person, issues that are themselves in part a result of the very systems they’re fighting. People who engage in political direct action in a group setting form strong interpersonal bonds, but that camaraderie has its limits; such groups aren’t always equipped to provide for a person who is fighting personal demons in addition to systemic oppression.

Everyone is driven by a combination of idealistic motives and personal experience, but sometimes the confluence of personal and political struggle can be overwhelming, for both the individual and the group. At least, that has been my experience.

What was the most challenging part of the cartooning process? Which part was your favourite?

I’m not a talented draughtswoman, so I’m perpetually challenged by my own artistic limitations. Notice that there are very few street scenes, haha! I really enjoy the initial writing/storyboarding; at that stage, it feels like I’m building a machine out of moving parts without the use of a manual. When a piece finally slips into place, it’s a very rewarding feeling. All the rest – the sketching, the drawing, the inking, the colouring – is a long, hard slog.

What do you hope your readers take away from FLEM?

I hope my readers find the psychology of the main character compelling, whether or not they agree with her choices. I also hope that my readers are comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity and willing to bring their own interpretations to the story. I’m not interested in creating didactic work.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a series of large art prints based on the work of the 16th-century Dutch engraver Lucas Van Leyden. Van Leyden, a contemporary of Dürer’s, cemented his reputation as a master engraver with an acclaimed series of prints in a genre known as “The Power of Women.” These images represent scenes drawn from Judeo-Christian and Roman stories in which women seize power, reversing the traditional social order, albeit by virtue of their seductive prowess. My series of prints will represent stories from outside Western traditions in which a woman’s power is due to her own qualities as a leader and not grounded in her ability to seduce a man before humiliating or injuring him.

I’m also in the very earliest stages of writing/researching my next graphic novel.

Want to stay down a little longer? Go Under the Surface with Sean Karemaker.

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