In this second part of our interview with Molly Crabapple, we talk about the Scarlett Takes Manhattan artist’s entry into the world of full-time illustration, and how the story fictional story of the vaudevillian fire eater echoes her own early struggles in New York City.
Even in terms of the aesthetics themselves, there’s a form of torture involved in the Victorian period
That’s what I think is so fascinating about it. Women’s bodies in the Victorian era and many other eras that I’m interested in, didn’t really look like bodies anymore. They looked like drawings. They didn’t have legs, their waists were cinched in with steel, they had horse hair on their heads, and velvet patches on their cheeks to hide their pimples. It was kind of crazy. They were like living drawings.
It seems like we still do that, only we’ve discovered more surgical means with which to accomplish it.
Oh, it’s so true. I was thinking about it as I was getting ready for a party. I was painting my face on—literally sticking paint on my face, I’ve got fake hair attached to my head. I’m wearing these shoes that make me five inches taller—I’m not disapproving of it at all. I think it’s very fascinating and a lot of beauty comes it. It’s a very rich subject.
You describe your art style as “maximalist.”
Yeah, I grew up obsessed with Where’s Waldo, and I really like art that rewards repeat viewings. That’s just something that really interests me.
That must be something that’s difficult to pull off when you’re creating panels.
It is. That’s why it was so torturous for me. Most fine of my fine art pieces are the ultimate expression of my Where’s Waldo obsession, because they’re like four feet tall. With panels, I’m not able to do quite as much, but I have a ton of crowd scenes in Scarlett Takes Manhattan, like riots at Madison Square Garden and backstage scenes at vaudeville pageants and parade scenes. These let me take out my detail obsessions.
Did you encounter any limitations, with your abilities as a storyteller? Did you figure out any specific ways to work around them?
I think the biggest limitation was that we only had 43 pages. On one hand, we’re very happy to have had that, because it means there’s an end in sight, but on the other hand, we could have so many more cool scenes. You kind of wish you had 100, but even if you did have that many, you’d probably be like, “oh, woe is my, I have 100 pages, my slavery will never end.”
Who imposed the page cap?
The publisher did.
When did you first become so fascinated with Scarlett’s time period?
I think I started getting really interested in the Victorian period when I was in college—so, around 17 or 18. There was this book called The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, which is a book about a Victorian prostitute, but really it’s a book about Victorian class in London, from every single perspective—from the perspective of the maid, from the prospective of the rakish aristocrats, from the perspective of the poor but genteel woman who is interested doing charity work. It was class as seen by everyone in Victorian London. It’s a brutal book. It just got me hooked on that period. And I was kind of poor, living in a tenement in New York, like everyone does, when they’re young. It kind of resonated with me, and that’s when I started exploring it in my artwork.
When you were working on this book, were you actively drawing parallels to you own life, living broke in New York?
Well, we’re not broke in New York anymore [laughs]. But I think we did draw a lot of parallels to our own life. The artifice and superficiality of New York. One of the things in particular that I think fascinates me and John is the notion of poor people putting on flamboyant fronts to get into the class that they don’t naturally belong to, which is what early vaudeville was. The people who did early vaudeville were not rich. They were poor, marginalized immigrants. And yet with costume and artifice and hustle, they were able to one earn money and two, be allowed in the drawing rooms and hearts of their social betters.
And you felt like you were doing that to some degree in your own life?
Oh god yes [laughs]. I think it’s something that a lot young ambitious people do.
You went to F.I.T., right?
Did you move out to New York specifically to go to school?
I’m from New York—I was born in Far Rockaway.
There’s a lot of mention of your leaving the school. What prompted that?
Well, me and John actually left the school at the same time. We were best friends in college. It was just farcical. We weren’t learning anything. I was working full-time as an art model. I was also trying to get my illustration career started. And I was always getting sick and I was always tired. It was miserable. I was like, “what the hell is this doing for me?” going to the school and trying to get an art degree just felt like this farcical and silly sham. It was just better to end it quickly.
So you didn’t feel like you were learning anything that you didn’t know already?
It’s not that. I just felt like I wasn’t learning anything there that I couldn’t learn elsewhere in a better and more efficient way.
Was it too technical? Too classical?
Oh god no. If it was, then I would have stayed. There was one teacher who just played movies at us the entire time. We were spending thousands of dollars just to watch movies.
What would you consider to be your formal training, then?
Well, first of all, my mom’s an artist. And when I was young, she always gave me really good advice. We don’t actually have a lot in common, artistically—her art actually tends to be much more sweet. But we both do pen and ink stuff and neither of us are very good at perspective.
You have a lot of the same limitations.
Yeah, we do. But when you have artist as a mom, you don’t make a lot of the childish mistakes you would have. You know how when kids draw the sky, they tend to draw it as a blue band across the top? My mom looked at that and said, “Jen, seriously, look at the sky there, it’s not a blue band. It goes all the way to the top.”
This was to you as a little kid.
Yeah. She’d be like, “look at that nose. A nose does not look like an upside down seven.” So I had that and I went to art classes as a kid, pretty religiously, and then when I went to Europe, I really started developing my style. I was there for six months when I was 17. I had a lot of time, and I had this really cool leather-bound notebook that I couldn’t afford. It was like $100. It was really nice, and I really didn’t want to mess it up with crap drawings, so I really studied how to do a really cool pen and ink drawing that would be in my travel journal. I ended up filling up quite a few leather bound notebooks with my travel journal. That was really when I started developing what would become my style. I lot of it I developed by reading through art books. My boyfriend, Fred Harper, he’s also an illustrator. I learned a lot from him. I took figure drawing classes. I did what I could to learn.
At what point does it become clear that this is what you’re going to be doing for a living?
There was never any other option for me. I knew that I wasn’t going to have a dayjob. I’m just the most sullen, uncooperative person. I knew from the time that I was 17 that I would be completely unemployable in any sort of capacity, including McDonald’s. I was never going to be good at anything like that. At that time, I knew I wanted to be a writer or an artist—being a fiction writer, which is what I wanted to be in high school. But we all know that that doesn’t pay the bills. I could say, “for $25, I’ll draw a picture of your cat.” I couldn’t say, “for $25, I’ll write a short story about your cat.”
You’ve always got some form of commercial artistry to fall back on.
At what point did it really become a viable option? When did it become clear that it was something that you actually could live off of?
Well, my mother lived as an illustrator, so I knew you could live by drawing. I think a lot of people come from families where no one does art, so they don’t think of drawing as a viable way to support themselves. In my family, that wasn’t the case, because my mom was supporting me that way. I was working as an artist model for a while. I was making some money from my art, but not enough to live off of.
What sort of drawing jobs were you doing, early on?
Well, the first desperate thing I would do was making Xerox fliers to draw people’s cats.
Oh, so that’s a real example?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I was a very entrepenurial thing. I would draw people’s cats. I’d try to draw people’s kids. I would put up fliers to draw people’s D&D characters at Forbidden Planet. I would troll Craigslist and see what I could get there. I would also try to get jobs at real places. My first professional job ever was doing something for the New York Press. I was so thrilled to have my work in print. I thought I was going to be famous. And then I did covers for Screw, which was kind of awesome, because so many good artists were doing covers for Screw, like Dame Darcy, Joe Coleman. It’s funny when you think of it, because Al Goldstein was kind of a patron of the arts.
Yeah, sure, sure.
In his way. He had a real softspot for underground comic art. My first job when I got out of school was doing illustrations for Playgirl. I actually got that job off of Craigslist. I was thrilled that it was Playgirl, because I thought of them as a really big deal.
[Concluded in Part Three]