December 2010

Martyn Pedler


An Interview with Sarah Glidden

In How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Sarah Glidden doesnít exactly visit Israel with an open mind. Her new autobiographical comic documents her ten-day, government sponsored "Birthright" trip, and her complicated and contradictory reactions to the Israel/Palestine so-called ďsituationĒ she finds there. Part memoir, part travelogue, part history lesson, Israel began its life as a minicomic -- one that won Sarah an Ignatz award in 2008 -- but has now been completed as a graphic novel for Vertigo.

A weird question, first of all, that Iíve always meant to ask an autobiographical cartoonist: do you approach drawing yourself differently than drawing others?

Itís funny because my "Sarah" character doesnít really look much like me. Like the rest of my characters, she has very simple facial features. My style is pretty simple in the first place, but I was also thinking a lot about what Scott McCloud says in Understanding Comics about levels of simplicity in drawings of faces. The more detailed and realistic a drawing of a person is, the harder it is for a reader to see themselves projected into that character. Likewise, the less specific a face is, the more people it could potentially represent. So I knew that making my character kind of androgynous and simple looking might make it easier for someone reading the comic to imagine themselves in my place and feel like theyíre there in the story. The funny thing is that by now Iíve spent so much more time drawing and looking at that character than Iíve ever spent looking at the real image of myself or my face in the mirror. So now my mental image of myself is of that cartoon character. Weird.

How To Understand Israel... is a beautiful book of soft colors and flights of fancy. I love the moment where you imagine a battle involving men on dinosaurs because you have no idea of the actual reality of this ďsituation.Ē Do you think the bookís lack of objectivity is its secret weapon?

I donít even think I believe in objectivity anymore. No matter how hard you try to gather facts, thereís always a motivation behind the reasons we choose one source over another, and our sources have prejudices and biases too. That stuff can really drive you crazy if you start thinking about it. As soon as I started doing research into the history of the Levant region and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I realized this. I was suspicious of pretty much everything I read. This book is kind of about my search for objective truths in a situation where thatís nearly impossible to find, so I knew that if I wanted to write about that I would have to go the route of extreme subjectivity. If the books Iím reading have their authorsí biases hidden -- maybe even to themselves -- then I had to put mine right out there for everyone to see. I take the subject matter seriously, but I wanted to show that as a human being, thereís more to learning about a complex political situation than just analyzing facts. There are neuroses, prejudices and emotions involved. And sometimes daydreaming about dinosaur battles.

Does comic art lend itself to subjective storytelling better than other forms? Are we less suspicious of it than in prose, or cinema?

I would hesitate to say that comics can tell those kinds of stories better, but in a way I guess it is a sort of combination of those two mediums that can closely mirror personal experience. Our interior thoughts are made not only of words but of pictures too, so comics can combine those two different modes nicely. I guess in a way, a piece of prose literature or a film does distance the audience from the creator. With first-person comics, you are actually seeing the hand of the writer/artist so you have a more direct connection to the way they made the work. In prose, no matter how strong and individual a writerís voice, their words are still printed by a machine so thereís more distance and maybe that adds more authority to what theyíre saying.

You seem to be telling stories about stories, and about the reasons that some stories are told and retold... and others, uh, arenít. Did you interrogate your own narrative choices in the book? Were you tempted to count pages to ensure your even-handedness?

Thatís a really good question! I think that by the end of the experience I had realized that true even-handedness was a little impossible, so I also have to accept that Iím going to be making narrative choices that may stray from some kind of ultimate truth, even if the "truth" this time is my own experience. I wrote the script for this book more than a year after the actual trip itself, and even though I had notes and journal entries, the best I could do was focus on what moments stood out the most to me and made the biggest impression. And I would try to put myself back into that time and remember how I felt. I guess that in writing the book, I was being subjective in representing subjectivity. Maybe this is getting too meta. Letís just say I tried to be honest and leave it at that.

Do you ever worry that saying ďthere are no easy answersĒ -- while absolutely, undoubtedly true -- can become its own sort of easy answer?

It would be an easy answer if it meant that I thought that was a license to stop thinking about the issue altogether. But -- to me at least -- saying there are no easy answers to a complex problem is just another way of telling myself that Iím not ready to stop learning more about it and exploring it. Because once you have an answer, it means your search is over and youíre ready to start telling other people that you have the solution. But the people who make the biggest waves and change things are often those people who are dead certain they know all the answers and are fanatical about letting people know that theyíre wrong. Those of us who sit around mulling things over indefinitely donít always end up having their voices heard.

Your book succeeds, for me, because it feels so defiantly honest. But that sense of honesty has to be deliberately created on the page, right? Or does that make the process seem more calculated than it is?

I donít think itís calculated. Itís kind of my default in real life too. I usually try to be honest and Iím a terrible liar. Thatís not always a good thing though. Iíve definitely upset people Iím close to in my life by telling them what I actually think. You canít always fall back on ďwhat? I was just being honest with you!Ē But for this book it was easy to be honest because it was mostly about me. Criticizing yourself is not hard, but showing other people the way they actually appear to you takes some guts that I donít know if I have in me yet. Iím afraid of pissing people off. If I have to do that in a future project I think I may have to be more calculating about how honest I am about people. Or at least be more careful.

How did your thinking change when the project was reconceived from appearing in your minicomics into a hardcover book by Vertigo? Do you reconsider certain thoughts, certain moments, as suddenly not being worthy?

I had only written and drawn two chapters by the time the book got picked up by Vertigo but since I was redrawing those first two chapters I did use the opportunity to look at them more closely and make edits. Those chapters didnít actually change that much, in fact I think I only cut one scene at the end of chapter two where I have a conversation with another trip participant. Itís not that it wasnít worthy, but being limited to 200 pages meant that I had to be very selective about what I included. There were lots of moments which, when they happened in Israel, I thought would be perfect for the book. But when it came down to making a cohesive story I realized that there was more to it than just representing everything that happened. I spent two hours of a bus ride across the desert with a teenaged soldier asleep across the aisle from me, her gun pointed straight in my direction. At the time I thought that, while nerve-wracking (despite the gun probably not being loaded) this would be a great anecdote, that it symbolized something. But after getting some distance from it I thought ďno, that doesnít symbolize anything to me. Itís just a weird momentĒ and I let it go.

Your book sits nicely as an odd companion piece to Joe Saccoís comic book journalism on Palestine. Do you consider yourself part of that same tradition? Which comic artists have influenced you most?

Although Iím not sure if I would consider Israel to be a work of journalism, I definitely do want to move more in that direction in future projects and Sacco is someone whose work I admire a lot. I think comics is a great medium for nonfiction in general and it was that kind of work that inspired me to start making comics in the first place. Marjane Satrapi was a big influence. I saw how powerful a first-person comic book could be in that it made me feel like I was listening to a friend tell me about coming of age during and after the Islamic revolution in Iran. I never thought about Iran in the same way again after that. But comics donít have to be about some big political issue to be inspiring for me. Gabrielle Bellís work is much more internal and quiet, but it showed me how an artist can reveal themselves through their thoughts to a reader. I really admire that a lot.

You say that, before the trip, youíd done all this research and yet you ďsomehow knew lessĒ than when you started. After the trip, and after this book... do you feel the same way?

I definitely know more about all sorts of things relating to Israel, but now Iím much less likely to tell someone that I have any conclusive answers to their questions about it. A long meandering conversation about it, however, is a different story altogether.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, and Bookslutís regular comic book columnist.