With the Small Press Expo (SPX) taking place this weekend, we took the opportunity to spotlight a number of the creators appearing at the show – from up-and-comers to veteran cartoonists and illustrators. First up, we’re talking to the creator of some comics that have made a splash for their colorful, classically-influenced art and stark take on feminist issues.
Celine Loup’s illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, Mental Floss and The NY Times Book Review, among other acclaimed publications. But she’s made a splash in the sequential word with Honey, a tale that depicts life in a beehive with humans in the insect roles, with similarly humanoid takes on the many predators they face. The first issue is available for free on Issu.
Loup also recently attracted attention – and controversy, for “You Should Know Where You Come From,” a one-shot webcomic for AV Club’s Comics Week exploring her love of the feminist SF comic Zara that interposes her thoughts on the comic’s female-centric society with images of real-world sexism and actual online ads for porn websites. The full, uncensored comic, which is not safe for work, is online here.
With Loup appearing at SPX, we sat down to talk Honey, the response to her work, her thoughts on real-world feminism and sexism, and more.
Newsarama: Celine, let's talk about what you'll have for sale at SPX.
Celine Loup: This year I'll for sure have copies of Honey to sell, as well as a 32-page full-color sketchzine called Seed. I made myself very sick last year getting Honey ready for SPX, this year I'm trying to take it easier. I'll also have some new buttons for sale, and prints and posters. I'm aiming to have some screen printed tote bags this year, and I'm working on a Honey-themed silk neckerchief.
Nrama: How did the initial concept for Honey come about?
Loup: A few years ago I signed on with a literary agent, and she asked me to come up with an original idea for something she could show to editors. The book publishing world increasingly wants to hire people who already built a following for themselves. I have a deep love for comics and felt like I was ready to make some I could actually show other people, but I wanted an idea that allowed me to go at my own pace and experiment.
I don't consider myself a very good writer, so a short, simple narrative was best. I knew I wanted to make a comic that focused on female characters, and that had elements of horror in it. I had a casual interest in insect colonies, but I spent a year researching bees after realizing their societies are intensely matriarchal.
Around the same time I read Michael DeForge's Ant Comic and felt like I could do something distinct from it with bees, but potentially excite the same audience. It was the perfect world to teach myself comics in, since there are potentially thousands of characters to explore, all of whom experience distinct life stages and do different jobs.
Nrama: There's a disconcerting quality to seeing these humans in this bee-type society – kind of an uncanny quality to seeing humans in this role associated with animals, though it's funny -- people seem more comfortable with stories with animals in human roles.
I was curious about how your interest in bee colonies and the connections to human society originated.
Loup: (laughs) You know, I read that Darwin completely lost his faith when he began to really observe insects. On some level I hope that by drawing people as insects, readers will abandon any delusions that human beings are somehow special. We're highly social animals on a planet full of other highly social animals. Honey Bees have an incredible social system that is perfectly evolved to ensure their continued survival---although the life of any individual bee is violent and short.
There's a scene in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale where the religious zealots have taken control of the government and are slowly reducing women's freedoms. First they abolish paper money and so everyone has to use a debit card. Then they put all women’s money – savings, everything -- under the control of the husbands. The main character tells her husband, who’s always seemed very liberal and progressive, about this, and his only response is to reassure her that he'll always take care of her.
That scene was the scariest part of the book for me, because I've literally had that conversation with guys I thought I could trust. They don't understand why women aren't happy to let them control their lives and decide what's best for them, because they're convinced they'll do a good job of it. They can't imagine why women wouldn't want to be at their mercy, so long as they provide us with everything they think we need.
I wanted to flip that narrative in Honey. In a hive, female workers control every resource, including the queen. Drones (male bees) make up a tiny percentage of a colony, and an even smaller percentage of them ever successfully mate with a queen.
The ones that mate die horribly in the process, and a single queen will harvest sperm from many drones to ensure the genetic diversity of her hive. The ones that don't are pushed out of the colony in the fall by the females, and starve to death. Any drone that dared attack a female would be torn apart in seconds. Drones can't even harvest food from their own hive---they have to beg their sisters to feed them.
Honey isn't really about drones, though. It's so hard to find narratives that don't put men at the center of women's lives. Women are conditioned to consider men's opinions before their own, male approval ends up being more important than our own ambitions.
I can't even read Sylvia Plath without rolling my eyes at how special she thinks she is because she's "not like those other girls" and wants so desperately for the pretentious male blowhards in her life to approve of her intellect. Our sexual availability defines our worth, and we grow up with relentless pressure to conform to the expectations of the male gaze.
So I wanted to create a world where men aren't even characters unless viewed through the eyes of women, they have no independent subjectivity, no "story". Center female friendship as literally the only way to survive. I think one of the reasons Honey took off so much with female readers was because it presented a reality where women could just get on with life without having to consider men's feelings or compete with each other for male approval. Where women don't have to navigate all these exhausting toxic double standards.
I really only make comics for other women; if guys enjoy them that's awesome, but they aren't my audience. You'd be amazed at how mad some guys get when I say that, as if a woman who isn't interested in what they have to say is literally the worst thing that has ever happened to them. No really, I've been called Hitler for that.
Nrama: Well yes, because that’s exactly the same thing as exterminating millions of Jews in death camps. (sighs) Have you more plans for this world in a long-form work?
Loup: Yes! I have so many stories set in this world that I want to tell. My next book will actually be a one-shot spinoff about a queen bumble bee, called Mother. Bumble bees are more primitive and have less complex social systems than honeybees, and I want to explore heterosexual love in a society where males do survive copulation. I think it will be really bittersweet. Honey 2 will be about parasites and children.
Nrama: And I was curious about your artistic style -- how you put together the pages from plotting to final art.
Loup: Hmm, well, Honey was as I said an exercise in teaching myself how to draw comics. I spent some time studying Frank Santoro's ideas and decided to adopt a version of his grid system, so that I didn't have to worry about hierarchy quite as much, or showy panel layouts.
From there I just wrote tighter and tighter outlines, and once I was confident of my plot structure I drew thumbnails for each page. I was doing a fully colored page every two days for Honey, and even though I had a color palette worked out for the whole comic in advance I still got really sick at that pace. Mother is going to be in black and white for that reason, but I'll return to color for Honey 2.
Nrama: And getting to the AV Club comic -- that was a very powerful piece of work, and one that hit a nerve. The main thing that got me was how some commentators objected to the parodies of porn banner ads throughout it -- it seemed almost like an objection along the lines of, "Hey, I recognize this from some site I shouldn't have visited, how dare she remind me of this!" But I thought it was very powerful overall, taking the themes you appreciated in Zara and showing how they reflected on the lack of agency women and female characters in fiction face in the real world.
What were the unique challenges in putting the comic together, and what was your reaction to the reaction to it?
Loup: My art director had to really fight to get You Should Know Where You Come From published, and his editors seemed to have a really dim view of their readership. I was told the comic was both too heavy-handed but also too inaccessible. They actually made me take out the porn ads because they didn't deem them "relevant". Every woman I showed the uncensored comic to didn't have to read it twice; they got it without needing any explanation.
I don't know, I tried to have a sense of humor about it---my boyfriend and I would high five each other whenever some beardmad bro thought calling me a man-hating feminazi was this terrible confidence-undermining insult. I think the hardest thing was when men accused me of lying in order to sensationalize.
They couldn't believe one person could have experienced all these things in a single lifetime, as if I didn't spend hours trying to whittle down my experience of male sexual violence to a handful of stories I felt could be safely and quickly told without opening myself up to further trauma or violate the confidence of others.
Every woman I know has experienced enough misogyny and gendered violence for ten lifetimes; I think guys find it unbelievable because they just don't have to see it if they don't want to, and women don't want to talk about it with men because they can be such clueless dickheads about it, it's not worth opening up about.
The comic book was published the day before my birthday and I had a really great time painting at the Smithsonian all day with two wonderful men I'm lucky to have in my life. One person did tell me to kill myself but isn't that like saying hello on the internet these days? The impotent man-rage was drowned out by the incredible, almost overwhelming positive response from men and women alike.
Nrama:And the reaction to the comic brings up some of the issues that have been very prominent in fandom, not just of comics but many media, which is -- why do you feel there is such a reaction of violence and anger when there is a direct commentary on sexist or entitled behavior?
Loup: The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has done some fascinating research that shows men will view a situation where women are a minority as equal representation; I've heard it referred to as "the 17% rule". So, if women speak in a mixed gendered discussion 17% of the time that men do, the men will perceive that women are speaking just as often as they are. If 17% of a crowd scene in a movie is female, men perceive the crowd to be equally represented.
But when women are represented over 30% of the time, they are perceived as actually dominating a situation. Women's speaking time and representation isn't measured against men's, it's measured against silence and absence.
From everything I've seen, that anger is all about entitlement. If you think of women as these alien creatures who exist to f*** you and clean your bedroom, bear your children and seek your approval, it's enraging when you're forced to treat them as peers.
Over and over again men have demonstrated that they cannot STAND the idea of competing fairly with women---whether it be as athletes or as professionals in the workforce or as intellectuals and artists. Men routinely erase or plagarize female contributions to history, science, art, and dismiss the unpaid labor women have always performed that allows men to run the world.
When all else fails there's always sexual harassment to try to silence women and push them out. We take for granted how recently women were allowed to attend college with men, or own their own credit cards, sign a lease, or take out a loan in their own name. Marital rape wasn't illegal in the US in all states until the early 90's. All our laws were written from a male understanding of sex and the female body.
I can't take these angry guys seriously---certainly not as critics with a valid point of view. And they're free not to read my comics.
Nrama:What do you feel is important about SPX and similar shows for the comics industry?
Loup: SPX is magical. First of all, I think everybody should be reading comics. Francoise Mouly was there two years ago and gave a great talk about the importance of comics in building literacy. In France comics are not seen as this nerdy, immature thing, everybody reads them because there are comics about every subject. People there regard their most talented BD illustrators with a kind of national pride.
If you go to SPX, you will probably find a comic that interests you. Secondly, it and shows like it are set up so that the bar to entry is very low, so there is a lot of diversity, but there is always enough proven talent there that you get a good mix of newcomers who are still figuring their art out and more established names. That diversity also makes it a really welcoming place for women and minorities---people realize this is not the place to hang a giant banner with a softcore porn ad for your horny female assassin elf title. People DO sell erotica there, but it's discreet and more often than not it's being made by and for women and queer folks.
It's a great place for artists to connect with each other and form a foundation for later collaboration. I feel like it's really important to have shows like SPX where independent artists have a place to get their work out there and connect with people in person, because without that fresh perspective comics get stale really fast.
Celine Loup appears at SPX at tableG7-G8A.
Next: We take a trip Through the Woods with Emily Carroll. And later this week: Farel Dalrymple, Eleanor Davis and Jules Feiffer!