Phoebe Gloeckner's Mexican odyssey

If you haven't read much by Phoebe Gloeckner...well, frankly, I can't blame you. I'll tell anyone who'll listen that she's one of the very, very, very best cartoonists working today—if I were to make a list, she'd rank in the low single digits—and that her unique prose-comics-illustration-memoir hybrid The Diary of a Teenage Girl is maybe my favorite graphic novel of all time. But since that book came out in 2002 (her only other comics collection, A Child's Life and Other Stories, debuted in 1998), her comics work has been next to nonexistent, with only a couple of cartooned contributions to The Comics Journal's short-lived line of Comics Journal Specials and several photocomics here and there to her name.

Where has she been? In a word, Juárez. In an extraordinary interview with Gloeckner by Jorge Flores now available in English on Gloeckner's website, the artist reveals in fascinating, at times horrifying detail how the troubles of this Mexican border metropolis—the site of the murders of untold hundreds of women and girls, many of them unsolved, as well as a flashpoint for Mexico's out-of-control drug war—has come to dominate her personal and professional life. Gloeckner explains how her one published work about Juárez so far, a series of dioramas she constructed for I Live Here, actress Mia Kirshner's anthology of visual and narrative art about the abuse of women and children worldwide, just barely scratched the surface of the story she wants to tell. I'm going to excerpt a relatively long passage here, just to give you a sense of Gloeckner's thought process and where it might end up taking her:

That book (I Live Here, published by Pantheon, 2008) was a collection of pieces by many authors and artists about world issues affecting women and girls. The actress, who was also the editor of the book, had a rigid political agenda she hoped would be expressed and supported by the project. From the very beginning, this was a problem for me. I felt a real responsibility, as an artist, to explore the situation for myself before drawing any conclusions about what was happening in Juarez, and why. For the most part, my first trip to Juarez (in November of 2003, with the actress) was highly controlled. We interviewed subjects that met certain criteria (they were mothers of murdered daughters, AND were part of a wave of “economic immigrants” who had moved to Juarez from other parts of Mexico to get jobs in the American and Canadian maquiladoras). It seemed to be a “given” that the women had been murdered because of their connection to the foreign factories, and therefore, “Globalization” could be blamed for their deaths.

I immediately had to question this conclusion. Sexual murders are, I imagine, intimate actions that express intolerable disturbance in the inner life of the perpetrator. It was impossible for me to imagine that politics could be to blame, even though political and social factors could facilitate the behavior of the individual. As I looked through the lists of murdered women (which had been compiled from local papers-PM, El Diario, El Mexicano, etc), it seemed that most of the murders, although not solved, were assumed to have been committed by husbands, boyfriends, or other acquaintances— acts of domestic violence. And, in actuality, few of the victims were employed in maquiladoras. Additionally, taken as a proportion of all murders committed in a given year, the numbers of women murdered in Juarez seemed to be about equal to the same statistics in many large American cities.

So, not only did I question the conclusions I was being asked to support in my piece, I also returned to the US feeling stunned by the pain and the poverty I had witnessed. It was a struggle to figure out how I could possibly tell stories about dead women who were never “like me” because I am a “gringa” from a more or less middle class family, because I don’t speak the same language, because my child hadn’t been murdered, because I am educated, I have a good job, because I can get people to listen to me, usually… I worried that I wouldn’t be able to write a story that was anything but shit, studded with clumps of guilt and fear and apology. I had empathy and compassion, but my point of view was disconnected from the experiences of the people I’d met in Juarez.

I needed to find a way to get inside these things, to understand the situation as it was experienced by the people I wrote about. I needed to get to a point where I could accept poverty as a normal state so any shock or queasiness I felt didn’t prevent me from seeing beyond that. I had to abandon the guilt I had for having more. It wasn’t helping anyone.

If you've read Gloeckner's comics, you know that she's no stranger to exploring predatory sexuality with icy clarity, made all the more affecting and disturbing by her uncanny ability to avoid explicit judgment. In 2008 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship to make a much larger project about the city (where she has frequently visited and planned to live for several months until the increasing violence made a prolonged stay by an American woman untenable) and the killings, focusing on the family of one murdered girl. She says in the interview that the primary version of the book that will result is an electronic one for tablet computers that will feature live-action and animated sequences intermingled with the text. Read the whole interview and then join me in anxiously awaiting the insight and empathy only a writer and cartoonist (and filmmaker) of Gloeckner's caliber could bring to this hugely important story.

REVIEW: The Way of the Househusband Vol. 1 is Cute, But One-Note

More in Comics