Interview with Dorothy Gambrell: Cat and Girl and more

To launch the new hosting and domain of the blog today it’s time to interview Dorothy Gambrell!

As a historical introduction: back in 2002 a participant in a newsletter / forum dedicated to punk music and culture sent this cartoon as only contribution. Girl’s in a cafeteria fight was the first strip I knew from Cat and Girl, a quite particular artistic project that Dorothy Gambrell runs nonstop since 1999, quite more than ten years. In all these years the strip has mutated but has also remained faithful to istelf, secondary characters have spawned new series (as The New Adventures of Death) and also Dorothy has launched and participated in other projects, as drawing some cartoons for a book of essays about Chekhov, run a couple of quite particular blogs and play the guitar in a fistful of bands always about to make it to the underground.

At the centre of the stories we have Cat, a large anthropomorphic cat quite unscrupulous, reckless, irreflexive and impulsive who enjoys eating lead based paint and partying; and Girl, a girl (of undetermined age) who has among her activities fiercely critizing almost any topic. Among secondary characters we have Grrrl, a northamerican-nineties-punk spirited girl (a Riot Grrrl); Boy, a quite insecure and rather uncool (at least on the outside) boy, and a Beatnik Vampire, who is simply maravelous and who oddly in the last years of the strip has changed a bit (ie, dropping the dark shades and getting a job).

The strip is full of humor, and although it commonly deals with consumer society and capitalism in general, Cat and Girl has an extremely sharp, almost cynical, sense of humor, for instance regarding mass culture. As an example see I hear a symphony, Cat and Girl wait for New Wave’s big comeback, The trap, Followed (these last two on social networks) among many others. It should be noted that Cat and Girl also deal with more “conventional humor” and that my selection of strips for this blog post is a bit biased. It is also to be noted that there is a way to make your own Cat and Girl strip.

As another thing that makes it interesting, the strip also plays and jokes quite freely with references to the world of art and of “high culture” (where we usually find Cat making the jokes). See for instance Cat puts things in his pipe and smokes them (for another Magritte reference), or others herehere and here and especially here. Also, the strip is one of the new things coming from the USA that I’ve seen can build humor based on smart references to communism, proletariat and social classes in general (here, here, here, here and here, for example), or ideology and even situationism.

 But also the strip allows some joking on itself so to say, as it is quite critical on the same cluster of hipsters / bohemians / pseudointellectuals that make their characters (and probably also readers). In the past and more and more in recent times Cat and Girl show this criticism as can be seen  here, here, here, herehere and here. Cat and Girl has also a strong existentialist branch, in which characters question others, the readers and themselves about the meaning of existence, the construction of the self, artistic creation (seen also here and here), communication, and death. This last item is very interestingly captured in three strips in which Girl asks the others “so how do you stay warm in the cold shadow of death?” (see answers of Grrrl, Beatnin Vampire, and Cat, who obviuosly rocks).

Regarding aesthetics, the style has changed with time; characters are nowadays more stylized and neat so to say. Nevertheless and very interestingly again, for some months starting around October 2011 (and coincidentally with her moving) Dorothy  just took a risky move and chose to present the strip kind of “embedded into real life” (see here and here for the moving, or here and here for weirder strips). About non aesthetics, Dorothy makes a living out of her art, maybe based on a quite curious work ethics: not only does she sell comic strips originals and merchandising (incluiding three tomes  comprising all these years of Cat and Girl), but also she launched the Donation Derby. Promoted by the author as Support my lavish lifestyle! Donate $5 or more and I’ll draw you a picture of how I spend it. Include your address and I’ll mail it to you, it actually consists more or less precisely on that: Dorothy accepts donations by PayPal but commits herself to ddraw a small cartoon or strip illustrating what she did with the money. You could then think that Dorothy is living partly from representations of her own (daily) life; in the past this money allowed an interesting tour around some parts of the USA.

cartoon of Donation Derby

Besides, in 2012 Dorothy also launched Fun Club, presented by the authors as a year-long subscription to odd things in the mail, it also consists precisely in that: you sign up and month after month receive odd / weird stuff on the post. I do not know of any other authors / artists having such a peculiar way of turning followers or fans into small patrons. Another projects of her include incursions in music with her band  Jenny and the Holzers, in photography through a  flickrsome sporadic contributions in other blogs, webcomics, newspapers or publications in general, and the blog Very Small Array, that could be said focuses on processing data with strange output. For instance down here we see occupation of main characters in movies of 2011, plotted considering also age of the actor/actress and gender. We see that older men tend to play pirates for instance, while it seems patients, authors and scientists are mainly women. Interesting.

It should also be noted that some years ago Dorothy also started sharing publicly her financial situacion, that is, how much money a year she makes  (dissagregated by source of income). This is quite a lot of public exposure for a person that does not have (or at least doest not seem to have) a Facebook or a Twitter account. About herself we know little more than what it says (for more than ten years) in her website: Dorothy Gambrell was born in Illinois, and educated at Illinois College and Union College of Law. She was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1891 to 1895, during which time she became the leader of the free silver movement. Her later years were devoted to the advocacy of fundamentalism, most notably as a prosecutor during the Scopes monkey trial. 

Dorothy herself has appeared more than once in Cat and Girl, sometimes just to clarify that author and character are not the same thing (here and here for instance) and very interestingly in 2000 (Cat and girl feign interest) to complain a bit about her life choices and in 2009 (Cat and Girl follow up) to conclude that her life/career choices had been just crazy. Looking forward to knowing a litle bit more about this versatile and very very aged artist Dorothy kindly acceeded to answer a bunch of questions (out of a quite long and tedious list I sent to her by e-mail)

1) You started C&G, at least online, in 1999. Eversince your online bio has stayed the same; so I might ask: how did it felt to be a member of the House of Representatives? Also, is there anything valuable you learned from your experience as a prosecutor?

I’m flat-out terrified to see the idea of a Gold Standard revived. And it’s still hard to get Americans to accept evolution! We really wasted the 19th century.

2) You have drawn C&G for more than ten years now. Though in Cat and Girl follow up you stated this decision meant going with ‘crazy’, how do you feel about C&G now, in comparison with how you felt at the beggining?

 Ten years ago Cat and Girl was a hobby, done when I had the time, but it was also the only creative outlet I had. Naturally as you get older “I MUST express these IDEAS and FEELINGS” settles into “I want to make something GOOD.” And now making Cat and Girl is a central activity that I schedule other things around, but also one of many creative projects I’m working on in any one week.

3) Readers have seen many changes in the comic strip in time. Do you think your past strips hold the test of time, that is, are still actual or meaningful? Do you draw current stripes taking this into account?

There’s no point in drawing for a future audience – we as humanity are remarkably bad at predicting things, and guessing what will still be relevant in the future is a losing game.

4) Characters have changed quite a bit also. What happened to the Vampire Beatnik? He kind of “sold out” to a certain extent! Do you relate this to to changes regarding the popularity of ‘hipster culture’, so to say?

He’s the only character who tries to keep up with the present! Which is a definite act of faith.

5) It also seems that you use secondary characters a bit less frequently; what have been Boy and Grrrl been doing lately?

Grrrl is learning to screenprint and Boy is breaking down acts of grand self-reinvention into to-do lists. He will get three items in before leaving the list on a bus.

6) How do you manage to keep finding ideas, fresh ideas, for the comic strip?

Well nuts! Our lives change. You can walk by the same building every day for a decade but how you see that building will change. There are always new ideas. Every morning we walk out into a new and different world.

7) How do you deal with feedback from your followers/fans? How has your fanbase reacted to changes across more than ten years of comic strips?

It is a mark of what a small fish I am that almost everyone I speak and write to has been extremely kind and supportive.

8) How did you come up with the idea of the Donation Derby? Why do you publish the amount of money you make, what made you make this decision?

 In 2002 the Paypal donation button started popping up on peoples’ websites. I like free money just as much as anyone else, but I didn’t feel comfortable taking money without giving anything back. And how I was spending my money, especially then – I wanted people to know their donations weren’t going to scallops and Faberge eggs. By drawing how the money was spent and mailing that drawing to the donor I hoped to create an exchange out of a one way street.

Some people buy comic merchandise because they want the book or the shirt, but more and more people make a purchase to “support” the creator in what they do. So, like Donation Derby, making my finances public was an attempt at transparency. I want anyone who donates money to know what I spent the money on, and I want anyone who buys a t-shirt to know how much that means to my monthly finances. 

9) In previous interviews you have stated some concern about the fact that you end up recording figments of your life and social interactions that is mediated by money. Why are you concerned about this?

Let’s say a great Saturday night is going to a house party. Mister Chen buys a six-pack before I meet up with him. We talk to people about religious pilgrimages in Spain, half-agree to be in a Bangles cover band, and six hours later we arrive home with a jug of apple cider, two decorative pumpkins and a pineapple. I haven’t spent any money! And I only draw Donation Derby strips when I’ve spent money. So this party fades away. But that one time I met up with someone, paid $10 for two beers and we talked about something boring for 40 minutes – that’s something I’ll always remember. Not because it’s public, but because I’ve taken another 40 minutes to draw it.

10) Do you have social comment as a goal when doing ‘very small array’ as well? Or what is it that catches your attention?

A nice thing about charting information is that, even if you have an agenda going into it, that agenda is often shaken, twisted, or just plain disproven by the time the chart is completed. 

 11) Do you draw having a prototypical reader in mind? Atlernatively, what do you think a typical reader/follower of C&G and your other work is/thinks/expects/looks like?

When I imagine someone who’s reading Cat and Girl, I imagine someone with about the age and gender and background of… me. I expect that people reading Cat and Girl imagine I have about the age and gender and background they do.

 12) Do you think C&G has any sort of impact on the people following it? on their believes, thoughts and behaviour?

I was sitting at a comics show once and someone walking by yelled “I tried to read your comic, but it was too sad!” 

13) What’s your view on the current state of northamerican society? (reading the news from here looks like the political debates resembles much more a culture war that anything else)

We’re always heading for a new apocalypse. It’s never different and it’s always new.

14) How’s fun club have been doing? where did you get this idea, and how have people  been reacting to the packages they have been receiving? do you plan to continue it next year?

When you make things for the internet you can’t help but be aware of the potential audience. Anything put online can explode in popularity, even if few things ever do. And whether you want that popularity or not – even when you’re just talking to friends about nothing of interest to anyone else – that potential audience is there, lurking at the back of your interactions. I began to feel like it was a poison, that everything I put online was, at some level, begging for that larger audience just because it was online. And if that’s what I was doing, I wasn’t even any good at it!

Rather than working in a medium with that distant constant possibility of BIG, I wanted to start something that was purposefully, stubbornly SMALL. So I started Fun Club, where – this past year – 150 people have been mailed a new, physical object thing every month. Some of these would be possible to put online, but they’re not. They’re in the hands of 150 people who got them through the mail. And that’s it.

Fun Club 2013 opens up for membership November 1.

15) How’s the band going, by the way?

Still, always terrible! Such are the pains of the dabbler.

 15) y 16) Do you feel influenced by any writer, filmmaker, musician or artist? Have you read any book or listened to any record that you would like to recommend, lately? / C&G are, in their sayings and their attitudes, quite radical, noncomformist characters. You have stated in other interviews that, for instance, you are not Girl. Have you ever drawn a comic strip that you disagree with, or with views that you particularly oppose?

Dorothy Gambrell
(c) The Jenya

I don’t hold a lot of ideas to be true but often think about dialogues I believe to be important. Any dialogue is between two poles of certainty -  I agree with the uncertainty strung between them.

17) and finally, do you have any plans for next years? (say, you and C&G) moving again? changing update days? anything we should know?

 I’m planning on eating lunch later today. That’s as far as I’ve gotten.

 

 

Thanks Dorothy!

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