Cartoonist Jessica Abel on Graphic Novels, Jungle Music, and Tequila
by Melissa Locker
Back in the ’90s, Jessica Abel wrote a series of graphic novels called Artbabe. The short stories told tales of quintessential twentysomethings living in Chicago, going to shows, dating, etc., and they were perfect. (If you haven’t read any, I’d start with Mirror, Window (An Artbabe Collection).) With all the ’90s nostalgia floating around these days, I pulled out my copies of Artbabe and Jessica’s later graphic work, including La Perdida, Radio (with Ira Glass), and Life Sucks, which follows vampires working in an all-night convenience store. The stories immediately drew me back, so I did the only logical thing and pestered Jessica to do an interview. Jessica, now a professor at New York’s School of Visual Arts who does things like write textbooks called Drawing Words and Writing Pictures: Making Comics, eventually gave in to my charms constant emails and agreed to chat with me on Turntable.
Melissa Locker started playing “Up on the North Shore” by The Sea And Cake
Melissa Locker: Hi! Welcome to The Turntable Interview.
Jessica Abel: I never much liked Sea and Cake.
ML: I go back and forth with them, but I think they’re good for Sunday brunch background music.
JA: Yeah, that’s why I never liked to see them play. Everyone would stand stock still and look at you funny if you moved or made any noise.
Jessica Abel started playing “Mouth Breather” by The Jesus Lizard
JA: This was a lot more my style at the time.
ML: Haha there is a big difference between The Jesus Lizard and The Sea and Cake.
JA: Yeah, not to bust on the Sea and Cake specifically, but music like that is why I stopped going to shows. I liked the noise and dancing and going nuts, and then there was this new music culture that came in like a … what do I want to say?
ML: Yeah you don’t need to see The Sea and Cake in concert. You could just listen while you washed dishes or whatever.
Melissa Locker started playing “Charlotte” by Slint
JA: But if you lived in Chicago, practically all shows at that time took on this quality of sit down and pay attention. You had to master this minute little head bob that wasn’t too obvious, and that’s the extent to which you could “dance.” I like Slint, but they were the beginning of the end. Set the ball rolling.
ML: So, you’re saying you’re kind of hardcore. Jesus Lizard or nothing!
JA: Have you heard of a band called Table? They’re not on here, but were way way math rock. I loved them.
ML: I will admit though that I was looking for Big Black and couldn’t find it. I also haven’t heard of Table.
JA: My band was like mini-Jesus Lizard/Table when we could manage it. Which was rare.
ML: Would you get as drunk as the guys from the Jesus Lizard? I once saw that guy puke on the entire front row of a show.
JA: Yes, slow core = noooooo. Math rock and noise = yes.
Jessica Abel started playing “Kiss” by Prince
JA: But also dancing in general.
ML: Yeah, music without dancing seems counterproductive.
JA: I mean, I’ve danced in the last 15 years, but I used to have various places, clubs I’d go to that were unpretentious and small and played hot music, and go dancing every couple of weeks. The upside of music in the ’90s in Chicago was dancing in small clubs. Do you know my story “Goddamn Hollywood?” That’s my little commentary on music in Chicago in the mid-’90s. It’s kind of sad, really. I’d love to dance regularly, but haven’t found a way to do it in like 15 years.
ML: I don’t know “Goddamn Hollywood.” I have Artbabe, Radio, La Perdida and Life Sucks.
JA: “Goddamn Hollywood” is in Mirror, Window. ArtBabe vol 2 #4.
ML: Oh! Then I do have it. I’ll go read it. But one thing that struck me about Artbabe is how much music seems involved in them.
Melissa Locker started playing “6’1”” by Liz Phair
ML: And THIS album and Artbabe are really intertwined in my head. I think I discovered them at the same time?
JA: Hm, never much liked Liz Phair either.
ML: Really? That’s funny because she really evokes Artbabe for me, but that’s probably personal. What were you listening to when you wrote it?
JA: I have no idea. I can barely remember. Liz Phair, when she started out, just seemed like a giant pretender, feeding off the Riot Grrl thing. She’s probably more than that, but when I first saw her, it was just like, really?
ML: It’s interesting that you correlated Liz Phair with Riot Grrl. She always seemed so un- I don’t know grunge-y and not Riot Grrl-y.
JA: Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Melissa Locker started playing “Little Babies” by Sleater-Kinney
JA: Yeah, I do like Sleater-Kinney, never was a huge fan, but they’re good.
ML: Okay. Who did you like?
JA: Remember I was in Mexico when I did the last two Artbabe stories. Discovered this next music there — though you have to understand this is a way overproduced version.
ML: How old were you when you moved to Mexico?
JA: 28, I think.
Jessica Abel started playing “El Querreque” by Trio Armonia Huasteca
JA: Oh, well, not too overproduced. This sounds pretty decent.
ML: Wow, this is REALLY far from the Jesus Lizard, but you can certainly dance to it.
JA: It’s huapango — central Mexican folk music. The best stuff is like folk hardcore. Intense.
ML: Do you still listen to this?
JA: Yeah, sometimes. It’s awesome.
ML: Listening to it now, what does it remind you of?
Melissa Locker started playing “Tea Merchants” by Rachel’s
JA: The day I discovered it, sitting in a weird house party with a bunch of Mexican music students, the girlfriend of one belting out a huapango while her boyfriend tired to fiddle with the completely irrelevant tuning of her guitar.
ML: So it’s super evocative.
JA: Of that, and drinking tequila, and dancing, and my old Mexican apartment … I’ve never heard this song either. What’s the story?
ML: Rachel’s were actually on Touch ‘n Go in the ’90s. I forgot how super super slow they are. I mean, talk about music not to dance to.
JA: Oh yeah, I remember the name Rachel’s. Tuned them right out!
Jessica Abel started playing “Ojalá Que Llueva Café” by Café Tacuba
JA: Here’s the Cafe Tacuba huapango version of a pop song. LOVE this. The fiddler is a real old huapanguero. I saw them live at Prospect Park, and this was awesome.
ML: I bet!
ML: You wrote the last two Artbabe stories when you were in Mexico. Do you think your location influenced the stories?
JA: Artbabe — yes. Well, what was weird is that the concerns of that series just got more and more distant…
Melissa Locker started playing “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill
ML: This is the opposite of huapengo I think?
JA: I mean, Artbabe stories are about middle-class Midwestern young people dealing with the tiny crises in their lives that seem gigantic to them, and when you leave your context, your entire country, the kinds of issues and thoughts you’re having are so much bigger, or rather, in some sense cruder. Like, I can’t even TALK to people. Makes a lot of those Midwestern tight, quiet crises seem a bit pale.
ML: So you and Artbabe grew apart?
JA: You know, it’s really hard to do this interview with music playing! I always write in silence. I draw with music and radio, but I need quiet to listen to my words.
ML: Really? I have music on ALL the time. It’s some reverse ADD.
Jessica Abel started playing “Before Today” by Everything but the Girl
JA: This was a way perennial fave. Talk about dancing.
ML: Yeah, Everything but the Girl is a dance fest! So when you think back on Artbabe now, what does it look like to you? It sounds like you think it was immature?
JA: No, not immature. I still really like the stories. But maybe the characters were a bit navel-gazing. In a way that I think people in their early 20s actually are.
ML: Which is what your early 20s are for.
ML: Ha! We were typing the same thing.
JA: Yeah — well it’s true. Anyway, I think the series has something to say about that, but there are a lot of other things also worth saying.
ML: I have to say the series was really important to me at that age. Because it reflected what I was feeling and going through, I guess. It was nice knowing I wasn’t alone.
Melissa Locker started playing “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths
JA: Oh, I hope so. I hope it speaks to a lot of people. I mean, it really did reflect my concerns when I was writing it, up until the last couple when I was basically out of sync with it, with the approach. Hm, never a Smiths person, but way after the fact, I do really like them. In high school, I wasn’t interested. Now, I like. I liked the Cramps then and Iggy and the STOOGES!
ML: Oh I love the Stooges! Was La Perdida more what you were experiencing?
JA: No, well, La Perdida wasn’t my experiences, but it did allow me to talk about the kind of massive misunderstandings possible and just the amount there is to think about and learn when you enter a new culture.
ML: You teach cartooning at SVA now, right?
JA: Yes, for the last 10 years. Second textbook out in spring!
ML: Congratulations! What do you teach your students about staying in sync with their work?
JA: I don’t think it’s a concern for them. At that age, you’re just drawing what’s in front of your face — that’s what I did. Either that or bad-ass, massive-gun-wielding assassins. Jesus christ this song is long … you keep thinking it’s going to end.
ML: Morrissey has a LOT to say.
Jessica Abel started playing “Wicked Junglist (Original)” by Machine Nico ß-AKA the weirdest song ever
JA: As close as I could find.
ML: Whoa! What is this?
JA: Jungle. Hardcore dance. I love this shit.
ML: This is some of the craziest music I have ever heard.
JA: I might actually buy this single. Just wait…
ML: Oh yeah, wow, gun shots and video game sounds.
JA: You can dance to three different beats at the same time.
ML: Yeah I’m not sure which body part I should be shaking right now.
JA: Feet slow, hips fast, head suuuper slow, collapsing when the beat changes up. Or the opposite.
ML: The music has rendered me speechless.
JA: Listen to Everything But the Girl — they riffed on this stuff.
ML: I feel like if we end here we’ll make everyone super curious about this ultra strange music and our work will be done.
JA: Actually, now that it’s carrying on longer, it’s more repetitive than the best jungle. Not enough unexpected changes.
ML: So most jungle is just completely insane for two minutes and then that’s it?
JA: It should have some slow segments, total silence, etc. Lots of influence from dub reggae.
ML: I’m going to go look up some jungle music now.
JA: Tribe of Issakar — Oringial Junglist!
ML: Thanks for spreading the love of completely insane freaking music! It was great talking with you.
JA: OK, cool. Thank you!