The Beautiful Bug in My Head
by Helen Blejerman
Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews,
Edited by Sarah Lightman,
McFarland, 316 pp.
Sarah Lightman uses the word confession in her title, but it is clear that these women artists were not looking for repentance or absolution. The word is used to mean ‘an intimate personal revelation, or exposure’.
I read the book from the end to the beginning. I was so voracious that I ate the dessert first. Part IV, of Graphic Details: Artists, Artworks, and Confessions contains examples of the work of eighteen Jewish women artists, including Corinne Pearlman, Racheli Rottner, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. The works deal with such issues as market dominance and mass consumption, social structures and inequality, racism, and political hope and disenchantment. But they also tell the personal, the intimate and the often unspoken and forgotten.
The comic form is open to it; it receives it; the comic as a sunny fertile soil; or as a warm and inviting couch. A psychoanalytical couch.
Psychoanalysis comes to my mind, because it also allows these types of confessions to see the light. It gives the person the space and the way to understand more about themselves by thinking; this thinking is via language and image. It is not an easy job. Bringing our unconscious secret feelings all the way up to reason, to awareness, from the dark and oceanic unconscious mind. There! The couch. This blossom will happen against the resistances of our uneasy mind. But the unsaid will become said. The emotions will be re-signified. It feels good, the person says. A hidden feeling that was controlling from behind the scenes is finally out, in the spotlight. The person is freer.
This is what the compilation of works provoked in me. The book does not deal with psychoanalysis, but the creative expression shares something with it; invisible but palpable.
I took the image from the book; it is a panel by Racheli Rottner part of her work The Other Side of the World (2008). Bugs do not speak in everyday life, but they do have a voice in Rottner’s black and white world. Look. A black gigantic bug in front of a woman. Between them just a mug with soil.
“No, don’t bother him,” the bug says; but it could also easily be saying ‘Hands up!’ Her possibility of dialogue is attacked by its substance. She shuts up; she tries to talk; we see the speech bubble. This is a bug without eyes, neither nose nor mouth, without facial expressions; one that mimics her own head. Perhaps it is in her head.
“Do not bother him” it is a phrase not alien to my own story, not stranger to myself; a sentence that always came from a familiar, sweet and senior female voice. This panel is showing my bug. A secret cockroach. An old friend: we women better not bother him. Whoever him is. Who ever the male is. ‘Be liked by him. Be a good girl, a good potential mother’. Perhaps it is the voice of Eros doing what he does best; making difficult for us all to escape the most powerful life impulse.
This panel also reminds me of Echo, the nymph that lived in the lush mountains. The one that had a beautiful voice and enchanting words. Zeus, the king of the gods, was attracted to her; but Hera his wife, in a jealous rage, cursed her for eternity. The once copious Echo was now only able to speak the last few words spoken to her. This was not a good thing. However, some time after being cursed, Echo fell in love with a beautiful young man, Narcissus; only to realize that she was unable to express her feelings. She was forced to watch him, as he fell in love with the reflection of himself on the lake. The legend tells us that when Narcissus died in love with himself, Echo mourned over his body, and she eventually slowly died as well. Myths sometimes help us understand.
We live in a narcissistic society; but also in an echoistic society. Perhaps we women have a bug in our heads saying ‘do not bother him’. Collectively and individually. Although we might deny we have it. We might deny it a lot. Good for the bugs in our heads, it survives. Perhaps sometimes our voice just does not come out. Fantastic well-known exceptions confirm the rule.
Is this one of our secrets? Is that one of the reasons of having so little female voice in our history? If that is the case, it is not the men’s fault; anyone’s fault; but part of our unspoken agreements.
This book shows the female point of view on several topics in personal stories, but men have dominated Western history-making, and also our political landscape. Perhaps the dark side of Capitalism is a result of this; its nature is “progressive”, aggressive, possessive, macho, Narciso. The system served up as a fair solution for everyone. So far – to an extent – a mirage, the reflective waters of the lake, the beautiful bug in our heads, a faux pas that has led to all sorts of crises.
I assume the artists in this book have faced moral dilemmas. Despite all the said, what was kept unsaid? Why? To benefit whom? Which are still the constraints? I say this because I am quite sure their constraints are also mine; as a woman, as a writer; with my own confessions to make.
No wonder Lightman’s book has been awarded both the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for the Best Academic Work and the Susan Koppelman Award for the Best Edited Book in Feminist Studies.
If I think about the inner world of women, I think about Francesca Woodman; an artist that photographed herself. In this photograph, she doesn’t show her face. We think she is naked, almost part of the ruins of the scene. Her legs embrace the abyss. The reflection of the mirror could have been showing the source of light behind a window. But no, instead it shows the floor and something that looks like a brain or a stone; and the reflection is held by her hands and embraced by her legs.
The gigantic bug of Rottner’s image has become a dead stone in this photo. The speech bubble has become a mirror; a naked woman in ruins holding a mirror to a stone; a delight for any psychoanalyst. Echo and Narcissus on acid.
After all, ‘What is art?’ Tarkovsky said. ‘A declaration of love; the consciousness of our dependence on each other. A confession.’
Dreams are the images that psychoanalysis uses to understand the mysteries of our psyche. The person gives a dream to the doctor. The doctor gives the dream back. The person expands.
Psychoanalysis and the creative expression— both are conceived in private; and outside through our stories, they see the world. The status of the world is the status of the stories we have made public. It is through the window of language and image where we can have a glimpse of a particular historical time – without this creativity, how would we uncover and disseminate the world that we live in and the complex human mind? From the engravings inside the pyramids, the religious illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and the secular books of the Renaissance, through comics, posters and graffiti; to chronicles and maps; language and image have been giving shape to our global story.
Our collective imagination gives birth to our dreams, myths and legends, demons and heroes. This agreed thinking determines our vox populi and the projection we tell ourselves about ourselves. We understand who we are by interpreting the past – as does history. Lightman’s book inspires me to question this androcentric modus operandi – the fundamental place of women in this territory, their role in recording history, and the individual’s microscopic part in its immensity.
Shortly after enjoying the dessert, I discovered the other courses. With academic rigour and an introduction that establishes the framework of the collection, the 300-page book is a very lush compilation. There are eight essays by scholars and seven interviews with artists. This is the way in which Lightman connects the academic with the artistic; the institution with the female artists.
This image comes to mind. By the artist Christine Sullivan; on the left Echo, and on the right Narcissus (1999). Two separate works. Photographs mounted on aluminium.
This work was made just before transforming an oil-fired power station. It looks concrete and male. It is desolated. Rottner’s gigantic bug and Woodman’s stone have disappeared; so has the human presence. A floor shines reflecting a wall. An empty space echoes nothing. Perhaps the click of Sullivan’s camera; the female artist trying to make sense of an uninhabited power station. This space will then become London’s Tate Modern museum.
A male-looking Echo. But what recent historical mainstream knowledge has largely missed, art has not. Women unlocked the birdcage in the twentieth century. They challenged the boundaries of art, as well as their own under-representation, and also questioned the main issues in the world.
Since then, artists have explored women’s lives and inner worlds, including filmmakers like Bresson, Fellini, Antonioni, and artists like Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, Margaret Harrison; a small mention of a large list. But female artists still have a struggle. Just in two words, ‘artist’ and ‘female’.
This is replicated in the comics industry; since its beginnings connected with the Jewish language. Words in Yiddish like schlepper, schmaltz, mazel, schmuck, were constantly used in the 1950s comic book Mad (which later became Mad Magazine). Part of a content full of Yiddishisms and self-mockery, these words became essential in American urban slang. I know these words from my own Jewish upbringing in Mexico City. These words in Yiddish were used with food and with love; no without a pinch of guilt.
Young Jewish artists and writers, coming perhaps from a similar home like mine, began to use the comic as a medium of expression and confession. Art Spiegelman was fan of Mad and the creator of the Holocaust-themed graphic novel Maus, where he tells his father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor. He said that because it was beneath contempt, the comic book industry in America was open to Jews, and was essentially part of the rag trade. Given the chance, Jews would have become painters or have written novels, but here was a way for kids with an intellectual bent to express themselves.
But what about the Jewish Echo in America? What about their female peers with an intellectual bent? Michael Kaminer says in the book, that women have been writing confessional cartoons since the 1970s and the context for them has changed in favour. However, Trina Robbins, historian and one of the few female artists in the Underground Comix movement, said that men ran the publishing houses and all the machinery of evaluation and criticism. Despite this, Lightman says, it is still women who continue to do the job of disinterring a hidden history.
This word: disinterring; digging up something that has been buried, discovering something that it was secret. Comics are neither a couch nor a psychoanalyst, but in Lightman’s book we see one creative way that exposes the ‘no female voice’ out-of-date contract. But why would a book like this have value in an era of hyper-information, where anyone with a smartphone can say anything to anyone? In an era where Echo is already shouting, and not necessarily to get the man?
Graphic Details uses comics as a platform for Jewish women’s personal voices, and frames it in a meaningful way. This is not a small thing. One can just wonder how ‘us’ would be, if in past centuries women’s confessions, ideas and stories had been more extensively published and meaningfully compiled. How would we perceive ourselves as individuals, communities and nations? Perhaps not utopia, but I wonder.
The type of romance between the undetected collective thought and the individual creative expression will remain a mystery. But we know that the relation between comics and women has been one of love. It began underground, and it has only gradually come into the light, reflecting, not their own image to fell in love with, but the progress of women in finding their own voices. ‘Let us choose what our beautiful bug says in our heads’, I imagine them saying. I imagine myself saying; perhaps in Yiddish.
The journey of Lightman’s book is a journey of empowerment of Jewish women, and a reminder, as psychoanalysis tells us, of the value of the creative personal expression. Hopefully it will also be an inspiration for any person interested in what needs to be said, even if it is said in a beautiful way, as an antidote to a legendary curse of just echoes.
About the Author:
Helen Blejerman is an artist and writer based in the UK. She is an associate lecturer in Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University and an associate lecturer in Spanish Language and Literature at Sheffield University at the DLL. Her graphic book Lulu la sensationnelle was published in France in 2014 by Presque Lune Éditions. She has written short stories for anthologies and art magazines, and also written and produced cultural radio shows. Now she is working on a full-length film and also on her second graphic book.