Austin's Comic Strippers: Part of the Big Picture
Fri., May 12, 1995
Would you pay $100 for a piece of your own art? Divya Srinivasan did. The UT student paid $100 of her deposit at the White House Women's Residence for the door she turned into a work of art. It may have been Room 101, but since "they took all the fixtures," including the number, she can't remember. "You'd think for 100 bucks, they'd throw in a knob!"
Srinivasan is a twentysomething student at UT and creator of an unusual strip called Sexually Repressed Girl and the more developed Pupae for The Daily Texan. Her work recalls that of Canadians Fiona Smyth and Julie Doucet: The stylized loopy lines, billowy sleeves, Medusa hair, bell-bottoms, and wide, almond-shaped eyes of her characters are captivating. Although geared toward adult themes, there is a cozy innocence to her art.
The idea for her first Texan strip was a fluke. Freshman year, she became pen-pals with a prospective Plan II student from El Paso. The young man made Srinivasan a video about life in his town. Appreciative, but not to be outdone, her devil emerged: "I drew a parody book making fun of him and in it was this character Sexually Repressed Girl - who was me...."
It must be difficult, especially as a shy, young co-ed, to be branded as such. "I can't draw Sexually Repressed Girl any more," Srinivasan laments, "because people categorize me.... Everyone is Sexually Repressed Girl; I was the only one admitting it."
And admit it she does. "`You hug like a dead fish!'" Srinivasan recalls a friend telling her. "I was not a real touchy-feely person. My friends were trying to teach me how to hug. You have to be able to do that here to interact with people."
"Well, it's not so much have to as want to."
Currently, Srinivasan is overseas, exploring Europe and India, from where she sends her strip Pupae. Her liquid, almost languid, characters reveal a maturing artist. For a fine example locally, check out the multicolored mural at the foot of Ruta Maya Coffee House.
Recently, a show at Central Market Cafe featured a series of frames which told the story of an elf and his magic adventures. Srinivasan intends to construct it into a children's book. The thoroughly modern elf looks a bit like your fave sensitive teen idol - Ethan Hawke? Johnny Depp? - with a striped knit top and stocking cap.
In the last few years, Srinivasan has developed into a serious artist and learned to bring her work to people all over the globe. She's learned an important method of communication and a good means to access those inner parts of the psyche. But most of all, she says, "Over the past four years, I have learned to hug."
JEANETTE MORENOIf pop art were the sign of divinity, Jeanette Moreno's home would be declared sacred. Scanning the comfy wood-frame near Ramsey Park, it's difficult not to be drawn to her art. One room is dominated by a giant piñata of her father. In the hallway rests a large crucifix. I recognize the executed "victim" and offer the obvious, "Hey, that's you." "Yeah, I'm self-indulgent...." Moreno mischievously chuckles.
Although she holds a degree in sculpture from UT, Moreno is best known as a comic-strip artist. "I started as a kid drawing pictures with little words - I never thought of them as comics - it was just one of those teenage girl things. I got to college, saw the Texan comics and thought, `I can do this.'"
From 1992-93 Moreno published the comics zine Moko, in which local luminaries Walt Holcombe, Tom King, Shannon Wheeler, Roy Tompkins, and Chris Ware appeared. Her forays into the "legiti-mate" realm of comic-dom have not all been as fabulous, though: "Comic book conventions soured me. Many artists seemed unhappy with their lives, so they built this fantasy world. I couldn't deal with that."
Reality is a bit more Moreno's style; her experience of being raped, for example, was devastating but not entirely daunting. "The day after the rape, I wanted to draw it. But physically, I couldn't; I was bedridden for weeks. So, I decided to wait." Soon after, she created a sculpture. Part catharsis, part document, the bust is a harrowing depiction of a woman, eye swollen shut, covered with bruises and cuts. On the bottom is carved only a date.
"I come from an open family; we're pretty blunt. It seems so natural to talk about [the rape]; I understand that others can't. But the reason I'm telling you is because I want people to know that you can survive something like this."
Currently, Moreno works as an animator, designs fabric patterns for a fabric printing firm, and still draws comics. She hopes to translate the story of the rape into a comic book. "Creating is a positive way of expressing. If you've been reading my stuff lately, you'll notice how sweet and happy everything seems. That's because everything in my life is so great. I'm sorry if that seems sappy and cute but... [laughs] I do feel guilty sometimes, I think, `God, I should be pouring out my heart,' but I don't feel like that right now."
BERNADETTE NOLLDid drawing cartoons inspire Bernadette Noll to wait tables, or did waiting tables inspire her to draw cartoons? Her one-panel cartoon "Just Wait" is one of those life-imitates-art-imitates-life things. "Nothing can inspire you to wait tables," says the four-year veteran of Austin's Magnolia Cafe South.
Originally from New Jersey, Noll now leads an idyllic artist's life. She waits tables three days a week and spends time creating beautiful frames (works of art in and of themselves), painting, and drawing. She lives in a simple cottage in South Austin with artist/husband Kenny Anderson and helped build a stunning artist's studio in the backyard out of recycled house parts.
Oddly, Noll's life in the panels began while she was serving as a baker's apprentice. The baker's wife saw her work and encouraged her to try The Daily Texan. "Just Wait" began running in 1993. The strip was picked up by the nationally distributed Funny Times and sometimes in XL ent.
Using a cigarette box to trace the perfect size border for her one-panel toon, Noll turns some fairly crude drawings into some forehead-smacking insight. Many relate well to her day-in-the-life style. One day at work, she was joshing a new employee. Overhearing their banter, a customer interrupted, "Oh, I just saw a real funny cartoon about that at Sweetish Hill." Sure enough, it was Noll's own work. She often sees her strip taped up at local eateries and hang-outs. Life imitates art imitates life imitates....
"I do much better when people see the cartoons on their own. When I show them to people directly, I get too self-conscious." Noll's humility, however, doesn't translate at home. "Whenever Kenny makes a joke in the house, I just say, `Hey! I'm the paid funnyman around here!'"
PENNY VAN HORNAll you have to say is "Penny" in many comic underground circles to elicit reactions of adoration and wonder. Many who were interviewed for this project urged, "You are interviewing Penny aren't you?" To be honest, Penny was the initial inspiration for this piece. Penny Moran Van Horn seems to be the inspiration for a lot of things.
Van Horn began as a paste-up artist in New York. "I was basically a secretary and assumed I'd eventually be doing gallery art," she remembers. "I was asked to do an illustration for Harper's," which led to freelance gigs at Ladies' Home Journal, Scholastic, and Family Circle.
Kandy Littrell, an artist from Texas, showed her how to use the scratchboard technique that would eventually become Van Horn's trademark. National Lampoon's comics intrigued her and she began to do her own. Meanwhile, she moved to Austin, freelanced for the Texas Humanist, built an illustration portfolio, and began contributing to The Austin Chronicle. She appeared in Weirdo and Wimmen's Comix; some of these contributions appear in Twisted Sisters.
Her work in Twisted Sisters has garnered much response and is often "compared to German Expressionism," she says. "People talk about it in terms of being dark - not threatening, but moody. It's positive response for sure... but some..."
At which point in the interview, Ava, her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter emerges with one of the family's five cats. "Look, Mommy!" The cat does not seem pleased with a balloon on his head. "He's trying to bite it!!"
Barely skipping a beat and scooping her daughter up into her lap, Van Horn continues, "Some people are a little bit confused and offended about the X-rated stuff... like any of my more `straight' friends. I can't really show family members or relatives how well I'm doing because, you know, they're gong to see a picture of a dick or something.... So, for the most part, I have to say I'm doing well, but I can't show them! What with the pornographic quality..." Van Horn snickers. "I did openly send my brother a copy of Twisted Sisters and the [family was] amused but I'm sure they had some reservations... like, I might as well show up in some X-rated movies while I'm at it! Oh, Ava! Put Butch down right now!! Quit dragging him by one leg!!"
Many of Van Horn's stories are autobiographical or ripped out of someone else's life. "Sometimes I do stories without really consulting [the people involved] and then have turmoil over releasing it - I'm ashamed to call them," she flips from sheep to wolf with a grin, "But if [anyone] ever bitched at me, I'd explain, `Look, c'mon, the story was pre-written! It was just the best story I had ever heard!'"
In one case, the true-life follow-up was even stranger than the told tale. In her story, "Ten Dollars for Two Minutes," Van Horn tells of the unwelcome, propositioning landlord who whipped out his johnson and then fell over dead of a heart attack. The hilarity of Van Horn's juxtapositions emphasizes the bizarre twist of fate. Life has a way of one-upping even an artist as odd as Van Horn: A friend sent her a book about the horny landlord. Apparently, he had been in some trouble in the military and spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name. "My friend marked the passage that said his wife `found him dead in the snow...' Oh sure! How 'bout `with his pants half off in my trailer'?"
Much the way guitar wankers credit Hendrix, comic strip women credit Van Horn. But the reluctant mentor focuses instead on her full plate of projects. Living in her funky, South Austin bungalow with her fire-fighting, car-racing, artist husband Scott, their daughter Ava, and five cats, she continues to scratch away in her backyard studio. She's in the latest Twisted Sisters comic and has recently been spotted as a fun-fur-bedecked go-go dancer for local band The Horsies. She's looking to expand her style, since scratchboard is so labor intensive. Her latest project is a fine art series documenting a slew of dead, blood-sucking mosquitoes, each of which she names. All, of course have feminine names, as females are the ones that bite.
Just say, "Penny." - K. X M.