Leela Corman is a cartoonist, illustrator and dancer who first came to prominence in 1999 when she received the Xeric Grant for her book “Queen’s Day.” The Massachusetts College of Art graduate received further acclaim for her second book, “Subway Series,” which was published by Alternative Comics, but she’s likely known best for her work as an illustrator. Beside publications ranging from “The New York Times” to “BUST Magazine” and “Family Circle,” Corman has illustrated many books including “The Long and Short Of It: A Madcap History of the Skirt,” “You Grow Girl,” “The Cuddle Sutra” and “Knit Aid.”
Corman’s new book is “Unterzakhn,” recently released by Schocken Books. Her most accomplished book to date, it’s a family story focused on the Lower East Side of New York City in the early Twentieth Century. It is a story of immigrants and a story about women that is troublingly contemporary at times and it is about the stories we tell ourselves that comfort and at times delude us. Although all of these topics have been addressed by comics in the past, Corman handles this material masterfully and the book marks her ascent to the first class of American cartoonists. CBR News spoke with Corman on her book tour, which concludes next weekend at the MoCCA Festival in New York City, about “Unterzakhn” and her experience as a cartoonist and illustrator.
CBR News: Leela, in other interviews and at your book events, you’ve talked about where the idea for this book came from. I remember reading Megan Kelso’s anthology “Scheherazade” where the character Fanya first appeared years ago. Was this idea that became “Unterzakhn” always meant for publication in a book?
Leela Corman: I had always intended it to be a longer book. Every short piece I did was just trying to work out where the characters were and who they were. I knew it was going to be a longer book from the start.
I didn’t think of it as a short project. I don’t really do short projects anymore unless it’s for money. When I do my own personal projects they tend to be long. I always knew that’s what it was going to be. I just needed to figure out everything about it. Doing small pieces as a part of that was a way to start.
What was the challenge of mapping out where this story went?
[Laughs] That’s a question with a very long answer. Everything was a challenge about that because it’s challenging to write a story. I knew I was taking on a big task.
At what point did you know that this wouldn’t be just about the sisters, but would be a family story and about their father and what happened in the old country?
Immediately. The basic structure suggested itself right away.
Was the character Meyer always a part of the story?
No. Actually, Meyer came around when I really started writing it a few years after I had the initial idea. I don’t know where he came from. He was like this bolt from the blue that I had just channeled. I didn’t have to think about Meyer at all. Meyer was the easiest addition to the story because he already existed.
How much research was required to tell a historical story like this?
I did a lot of research, but that’s natural for me, because that’s what an illustrator does too. I’ve always been into research anyway just as a personal pursuit, so that stuff was fun. It’s really fun to have an idea and ask yourself, “Okay, let’s see if this could have happened.” A theater that’s also a brothel, could it have happened? Let’s go look it up. Costume research is really fun. I didn’t really feel like that aspect of it was a challenge at all — and because I’m a native New Yorker, it felt very homey to draw all those buildings. I didn’t grow up in one, but I’ve been in a million of them in various states of renovation or disrepair. There are also tremendous resources for that kind of research in New York City and in general in part because the Lower East Side was one of the most heavily documented neighborhoods at the time that my book takes place. It was a magnet for social reformers so a lot of people were going there and taking photographs of it and that stuff is all archived and very easy to find. It exerted quite a hold on people and it still does now.
In that sense, was it curious to do this and notice aspects of contemporary New York in odd ways?
Yes and no. There are ways in which immigrant life hasn’t changed but the ethnicities have changed, so some people are still living in this way. It’s very interesting. I don’t feel qualified to talk about it because I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but you do hear things like the discovery of an illegally subdivided building full of fresh off the boat immigrants working horrible shifts in a sweatshop or garment factory and sleeping in shifts. One guy rents the bed from 6:00 AM to Noon and then another guy rents the bed from Noon to 6:00 PM. That kind of thing was going on early in New York City’s history. You can find documentation of that. Luc Sante’s “Low Life” is a real good resource for stuff like that. That’s where I initially had read about it. That stuff still happens.
I remember at a certain point being struck by just how contemporary many of the book’s issues continue to be.
No shit, right. Isn’t that annoying? [Laughs] I really can’t believe it. I didn’t think it was going to be that way. I didn’t have anything to do with that, I promise. [Laughs] But if it adds to people feeling more awake to the current situation, then that’s good.
I kept thinking that you didn’t mean this to have such resonance.
No. I mean, I did, but I certainly didn’t think that the discourse was going to sink so low. Not just the discourse but the results of the discourse, because these things have consequences. They aren’t just words.
To what degree does this book look different from your earlier books because your style evolved and to what degree because you changed your style to better tell this story?
A bit of both. I was looking back on that old work and realizing that it wasn’t a crime to have representational drawing styles within my cartooning style. My background was fine arts. I started out doing painting and printmaking. Life drawing was my specialty. When I started drawing comics, it was like having to relearn how to draw because the skills were not transferrable exactly. Especially for the first few years it was really like starting out brand new to drawing. It’s a funny thing and it’s very humbling. You don’t just become a cartoonist overnight. It’s a very different skill set. I had worked in my earlier books at stripping away all of the stuff that I had learned as a painter and as a life drawer and then adding things back on for this book.
Your use of dialect and the rhythm of language really stood out. How consciously were you shaping the language to read like this?
That’s not something I was conscious of. That’s just how I write. That’s how I hear and how I speak. I’m a dancer. Rhythm comes naturally to me. I don’t have to work at it. And language is a rhythm. I grew up hearing a lot of Galitzianer dialect around me because my grandparents were Galitzianer from Poland. So it was kind of natural to throw that stuff in there and I wanted the readers to have some of it untranslated. I wanted people to have to go and look it up, what does this word mean?
There’s that great scene in the beginning where the sisters each learn a word and neither can figure out what it means.
Pritze. It’s funny. Even my mother didn’t know that it really meant prostitute. It has a couple of different usages. So it’s often used to mean a spoiled girl, but really it means prostitute. I’d love to check this against another source. My source was a Yiddish translator who learned very academic Yiddish. This is different from dialect Yiddish. Yiddish that is taught in America in school is going to be very different from the Yiddish that my grandparents spoke. So pritze might be a dialect word. The dialect usage might be brat or spoiled girl but the root is Aramaic and means prostitute
The Yiddish glossary cards that my publisher put out on tumblr. There’s a pretty good definition of pritze in there written by my editor that’s better than anything I could have come up with.
The first time I came across your name was after you received a Xeric Grant in 1999. You spoke a little about your background in art, but what made you interested in creating comics?
I always wanted to. I thought it was too hard. I just looked at it and thought it was a lot easier to paint one image then it is to draw a whole comic. There was this amazing traveling show and I can’t remember what it was called. It had comics from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was great. There were tons of originals in there so I got to see what originals looked like. I saw, here’s a mistake, somebody inked a huge black area with a marker, this other person used whiteout. I was kind of blown away to see that. I thought, okay, normal people can do this.
Also it coincided with a time where I was getting very sick of the fine arts world that I was seeing around me in school. Please remember I was very young. I was basically an adolescent. I think I was twenty. I had this very rejecting reaction to art school and the fine arts and I thought, “I don’t like this.” I want to do something that has a broader reach and is more democratic. I don’t want to be in the gallery world. It was a really enriching experience to start drawing comics. It was really fun and it put me in touch with exactly the world that I wanted to be in. I felt like this is a terrific medium.
Will we see new editions of your earlier books, “Queen’s Day” and “Subway Series?”
Oh no. I don’t care about those books. They had their chance. [Laughs] You have to understand that “Queen’s Day” was my senior illustration project. I am so done with that. I am absolutely done with both of those books.
In the fall at New York Comic Con, Random House was handing out “Unterzakhn” underwear. Was that your idea?
That was the PR department’s idea. I had nothing to do with it. I thought I was going to be designing a bookmark and all of a sudden, it’s underwear. It’s cool with me. Everybody needs underpants.
It was only available in one size, though, and one size does not fit all when it comes to undergarments.
I know. They said that was the cheapest way to do it. In the future I would like to make it available to men and women in different sizes. At least they were black and not white. Who the hell wants to white underwear? Yuck. White underwear is stupid. [Laughs]
In closing, would you like to say a few words about book?
I’m not sure how I could sum that up. That stops me in my tracks. How would you sum it up?
How would I describe it? It’s a family story centered around twin sisters in New York at the turn of the century. It’s about immigrants. It’s about women. It’s troubling contemporary in some ways.
I think that sums it up. [Laughs]
Leela Corman is on tour for “Unterzakhn” for the remainder of this month, appearing in cities and April 28-29th at the MoCCA Festival in New York City.