“I’m in for keeps”: An Interview with Cartoonist Marnie Galloway

Marnie Galloway responds to emails with the same precision and love of detail on display in the pages of her comics. After she’d answered a few of my questions, she included a warning: “I’ve attached for you a novel in response to your five prompts!” I think you’ll find her answers—which cover topics ranging from symbolic logic to her love of Nabokov and Herman Melville—just as fascinating as her comics, which combine an experimental narrative sensibility with complex drawings and innovative panel layouts.

Since publishing the first volume of In the Sounds and Seas through her own Monkey-Rope Press in 2012, Galloway has released several other minicomics, including Mare Cognitum—an account of Ranger 7’s encounter with the moon in the summer of 1964—and Medusa. Just last week at SPX, she debuted the next installment of In the Sounds and Seas. The second of what Galloway promises will be a three-volume series tells the story, as she explains on her website, of “three ship-builders” who “turn sailors as they head out in search of the Singers,” the three beings we meet in the first few pages of Volume I.

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The cover of In the Sounds and Seas, Volume II (Monkey-Rope Press, 2014)

Galloway begins Volume 1 of her otherwise wordless narrative with a passage from Alexander Pope’s 1726 translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Minerva (Athena) pleads with Jove to assist Ulysses as the warrior struggles to find his way home:

Must he, whose altars on the Phrygian shore

With frequent rites, and pure, avow’d thy power,

Be doom’d the worst of human ills to ptove,

Unbless’d, abandon’d to the wrath of Jove?

It’s possible, then, to read In the Sounds and Seas as a response to Homer’s epic, much like Derek Walcott’s Omeros, James Joyce’s Ulysses, or—to go back even further in time—Sappho’s fragmented lyrics. Like these three other writers, Galloway responds to Homer with both humor and reverence. When I asked her about her debt to Herman Melville, another of her literary influences, she explained, “I was surprised by how playful Melville’s writing is, not just with jokes but (again) with form, changing up narrative style sometimes every chapter.” Her pages are richly textured, filled with repeated images that suggest the sweeping power of the ocean itself. When the three women sing the world into being in the opening pages of In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1, we are swept along by a tide of rabbits, fish, and birds—earth, sea, and air, all meticulously rendered in black and white.

In “Secret Labor,” her recent article for Poetry Magazine, Hillary Chute argued that poetry and comics share many similarities: “The rich relationships between word and image in which spatial arrangement is significant, and which characterizes contemporary comics, had precursors in all sorts of poetic experiments.” When I read the dense imagery of In the Sound and Seas, I am reminded of the visionary poetics of Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D., whose early poems inspired other Imagists of her generation including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Consider, for example, the final stanza of H.D.’s “Sea Poppies.” Like H.D.’s poems, Galloway’s comics are filled with images that imply a kind of prophecy. The effect is uncanny. What at first appears familiar suddenly gives way to swirling imagery both ghostly and strange. In H.D.’s poem, flowers bloom near the ocean, but the ocean itself undergoes a sudden and startling change, not unlike the Singers in Galloway’s narrative:

Beautiful, wide-spread,

fire upon leaf,

what meadow yields

so fragrant a leaf

as your bright leaf?

On this page from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1, we see the same mingling of earth, sea, air, and fire:

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From In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1

This fall the Chicago-based cartoonist will be in residency at Ragdale, where she will devote her time to new work. Pages from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1 will also be part of “Like Comics Without Panels,” a three-artist gallery show I am co-curating with my colleague Jason Peot. The show features work from John Porcellino and Edie Fake, two other innovative cartoonists with Chicago connections and visionary tendencies. Galloway also continues to work as an organizer for the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, which is now heading into its fourth year.

I’d like to thank Marnie for taking the time to answer these questions in such detail. In the Sounds and Seas, Volume II is now available. For more information on how to get a copy, visit her website or ask your local comics shop to order you a copy.

BC: Can you talk briefly about your background in symbolic logic and how it has inspired your work as a cartoonist? What effect does your training in philosophy have on your storytelling?

MG: Sure! So my undergraduate degree was in logic, which is the study of the structure, patterns and rules behind rhetoric/any formal system. I was very good at math and logic puzzles growing up, so I took the Logic 100 class my first semester at Smith to take care of my writing intensive requirement. After the first day of the first class, I was hooked. The next semester I signed up for all the logic classes I could, plus related classes in the math department (like set theory) and I spun all my philosophy classes to build on my interests in paradox and inconsistency. By the end of my second year my narrow focus had sped me along towards completing the requirements of a philosophy degree, so I declared that major and spent the next two years diving deeper into narrower veins of logic and exploring other academic interests with relative leisure. I published two papers in undergraduate philosophy journals, and I also worked for three years as a teaching assistant for the Logic 100 class, grading homework and leading tutoring/discussion sections.

All of this is a long time ago now, and I’ve had a lot of different kinds of lives since I was a sturdy-hearted logician. It is tempting to try to look back and lay a coherent story on top of a lost and searching young adulthood, but the truth isn’t that tidy and everything was happening at the same, confusing time. While I was studying logic and totally confident I was going into academia, I was also obsessively drawing, keeping illustrated journals and taking printmaking classes, and trying to not fall apart during some intense crises that nearly broke me during that time.

I’m not sure if I’d point the causal arrow from logic and philosophy towards an influence on my comics practice, but I do think that there is a common core that inspires both: a curiosity about the hidden structure behind things, and an easy love of hyper-focusing and diving deep into a project. The books and comics that have always been the most compelling to me have been ones that play with or undermine or explode the rules for how to tell a story. Pale Fire by Nabokov, for instance—a perfectly contained puzzle of a book. Keeping within a rigid structure (in that case, the form of an academic compilation of poetry with introduction and elaborate footnotes) gives so much room for play and misdirection. I think it’s fun to think about narrative structure like a puzzle, like carefully set up things one wouldn’t pay attention to at the beginning that meaningfully pay out at the very end. I don’t know if my books succeed in that effort, but it’s something I think about as I’m working on a story.

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The three singers from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I

BC: The name of your press comes from “The Monkey-Rope,” the title of Chapter LXII of Melville’s Moby-Dick. You mention Nabokov, so I’m curious to learn more about the other literary influences on your work. How do narratives like Moby-Dick or The Odyssey, for example, inform In the Sound and Seas?

MG: I definitely grew up (and in many ways remain) more a literature-nerd than a comics-nerd, not from a place of judgment against comics but from relative lack of exposure as a kid. I read “Calvin and Hobbes” collections and Mad magazine like the best of them, but I found my escape in novels. Moby-Dick is maybe an obvious choice, but it’s one of my favorite books—no one tells you how funny it is! I was surprised by how playful Melville’s writing is, not just with jokes but (again) with form, changing up narrative style sometimes every chapter. Plus, of course, the language can be so utterly beautiful and moving. I had just finished reading it when I needed to name my press; “The Monkey-Rope” chapter is about how hopelessly interconnected and interdependent we are in our lives, which I thought would be a meaningful, funny nod as I started my little printing business and really wanted customers.

The Odyssey is another obvious literary tip-of-the-hat as I’m working on a book involving a long ocean journey + search for meaning, but I particularly chose the translation by Alexander Pope for my introductory quotes (and from which I pulled the title of the series). He played fast and loose with the translation, favoring beautiful rhyming couplets over any attempt to be true to the original language. It’s a critically panned disaster of a translation. I thought that was a hilariously self-confident approach to interpreting a classic (and as a satirist, maybe he did too); I also thought it was the most appropriate selection as a framing introduction, since I was doing a pale version of a similar project. Culture is remix, language is a servant to meaning, and none of it is sacred.

Like in Moby-Dick and The Odyssey, the ocean as a space for storytelling will always be interesting to me, as do any spaces (literal and emotional) that are so massive that they make all our mightiest efforts at putting order to the world humbled and insignificant. That kind of scale is an easy emotional cue for hybridized feelings of powerlessness and awe; consuming, obsessive projects are the internalized versions of that same feeling for me, making a project so big it consumes the self. In that vein, Anne Carson is an author who is recently a huge inspiration. She uses similar elements of culture that I’m interested in—the dailiness of mythology and literature and landscape—but with seeming effortlessness she imbues her words with humanity and grace and heartbreak. I read her words over and over.

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From In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I

I am embarrassed to admit this, but I have rarely been as deeply moved by a comic as I have been by a novel, and I’m still trying to puzzle out why that is. Not always, of course, but often. Maybe because of the time compression in comics? Maybe just because it’s a much younger medium, so there haven’t been centuries of artists telling stories in comics like they have with image-starved books? There are comics that I deeply love and give as gifts to everyone in my life, comics that I return to over and over; comics that are elegant and beautiful, or disturbing and heartbreaking, or raucously hilarious, but I’ve never been punched in the gut and destroyed for months like I have by literature. Like: a few years ago I read 2666 by Roberto Bolaño and couldn’t read anything but light nonfiction for two years, because I was still dealing with an almost existential fallout after having read that book. I read a review of 2666 that said that it felt like a book that shouldn’t be, a book that should only be a work of impossible imaginary fiction in a Borges short story, but look—it exists! Someday I want to make a comic that does that, something that feels impossible. Miles to go and plenty of failures to work through before then, I reckon.

BC: You mentioned that there are some comics you “return to over and over.” Can you talk about a few of the cartoonists you look to for inspiration?

MG: Oh yeah, of course! The first minicomic I bought, before I knew I was going to be making comics, was Beast Mother by Eleanor Davis and she has consistently remained a glowing beacon in my pantheon of favorite artists. She finds the emotional core of a story more eloquently than any other artist I have read; she can illustrate a piece for the NYT about the home mortgage crisis and find the poetry and heart in it. I think that is a huge shortcoming of my work right now, and I look to her for guidance. Anders Nilsen is another hero. Big Questions is one of my all-time favorite books (I do love a dense symbolist tome), and his recent nonfiction comics, especially Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, cut me to the core. Jon McNaught’s quiet, meditative printmakerly comics are hugely instructive for me as I think about time and pacing. Aidan Koch & Sam Alden’s graphite comics capture ephemeral moments and movements that jump to the exact emotionally resonant moment needed for their stories, sparse narrative elegance with no filler. I also admire a loose, gestural line—I am just horrible at that. Lilli Carré is the most masterful short-story artist I have read; I have yet to read a single piece of hers that I don’t wish I had written, and then read over and over to try to figure out how she accomplished what she did. And then there’s Chris Ware, of course, but I reckon that goes without saying. He continues to innovate and push what books—not just comics—can be. I’d also put early 20th C narrative woodcut artists Lynd Ward and Frans Masreel in my list of comic artist influences, and also William Blake—he obsessively self-published his hand-printed illustrated books of poetry. If he were alive today, he’d be the king of the alt comics scene.

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From Galloway’s Medusa (2013)

BC: You’re also one of the organizers for the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE!). Does your work as an organizer also influence your practice as an artist?

MG: Absolutely—every time we get to jurying season, reviewing the mountains of applications for CAKE, I feel half-inspired and half-crushed by the need to step up my game! There are so many talented artists making work in comics today, and with a huge diversity of style and content and inquiry. It feels like the wild west: there is a thrilling urgency to the work being done in comics right now. It also can feel like everyone has been doing this longer than me, and has the privilege of a longer & richer familiarity with the medium. Imposter syndrome can bubble up for sure.

It is equally true that my experience as an artist influences my work as an organizer. I feel a huge debt of gratitude that these festivals exist, that this community of artists has overall been so welcoming, that I want to do everything I can to keep that feeling going. I was floating for many years, knowing I wanted to make visual narratives but not realizing that comics was a medium in which my work could find a home. I felt so out of place in the art worlds I first tried to participate in—first in fine-press artist books, then printmaking—so finally finding comics felt like “OH, of course. There you are.” The first season I tabled my books was in 2012, after having printed the minicomic version of “In the Sounds and Seas: Volume I” that winter; I sold a few copies to friends and family, but ended up sitting on the remaining 120 copies or so in my living room. I was so distraught! I believed in the project, but didn’t know what to do with it. That year, after an encouraging email from Jeffrey Brown (whose young son is in the same class with my old letterpress studio boss’s daughter), I tabled at Chicago Zine Fest and then SPACE and CAKE in short order, and it was all over for me. I’m in for keeps.

I have gotten so much support, friendship and inspiration when I was coming in as a bright-eyed outsider, I feel like the least I can do is offer that same support back. It is really important to me as an organizer and also when I table at shows to be supportive of emerging artists, to find anyone who looks a little lost and introduce myself. I’m particularly proud to have been part of the organizing team at CAKE as we founded the Cupcake Award, a microgrant + mentorship award for emerging comic artists, and I hope we can keep finding ways to better serve early-career artists.

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From In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I

BC: Recently I read an old interview in which Will Eisner and C.C. Beck talked about Beck’s experiences at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in the 1920s. “The reason I’m questioning you about that is that I believe geographic origin impinges on style of art considerably,” Eisner explained (from Will Eisner’s Shop Talk, page 55). I think Eisner hoped Beck would define some sort of Midwestern cartooning sensibility. Do you think Eisner was right? You’re originally from Texas and then studied in New England and now live in Chicago. Do all of those locations play a role in your work?

MG: This is a great question that is also tricky to answer for oneself! Maybe there are tell-tale signs in my style that are easy to read from the outside that show hints of a geographic footprint, but I’m too close to see them. I am absolutely sure that the questions I’m interested in asking are shaped by my background as a nomadic low-income southern white woman who went to a half-radical-queer/half-pearls-and-cardigans elite women’s college and then settled down in Chicago, always feeling like the outsider. How could it not have an effect, right? But I think the comment Eisner made to Beck assumes a level of engagement with the local art world that I didn’t necessarily have, and also one that many artists don’t necessarily have as they develop their style. I grew up in a rotating sequence of apartment complexes in the exurbs outside mid-sized cities in the south—Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas primarily. We didn’t go to museums or galleries or art openings, if there even were any available nearby; my mom and I would make regular pilgrimages to Barnes and Noble and we watched a lot of TV, but that’s about the extent of our engagement with contemporary culture. In college I went to museums for the first time, college museums in the Pioneer Valley and an awe-inspiring trip to the Met when I went to NYC for an anti-war protest in 2002, but most of my time was spent reclusively studying. And again, I didn’t really stumble upon the comics community in Chicago until embarrassingly recently, after I started making what I now know to call comics. I’ve been hustling to catch up and find my place in the scene before anyone notices I don’t quite belong.

I agree with Eisner that there are regional styles, and more obviously styles that emerge from schools. I think a lot of people assume that the internet is grinding away at regional culture, that because (say) Tumblr is a place where any young comic artist can share their work and grow a community and following, the specifics of their geography become less important. I don’t think that’s the case at all! Even within Chicago, I can consistently guess which local young comic artists trained at SAIC versus Columbia College. Jurying for CAKE is like rapid-fire flashcards for regional aesthetics: the Minneapolis (MCAD) look is wildly different from Brooklyn/NYC applicants, which couldn’t be more distinct from Center for Cartoon Studies kids, and so on.

The richest vein of the Chicago alternative comics scene comes pretty directly from the weirdo/underground comics of the 1960s, and the Imagists & the Hairy Who; Jim Nutt has guided the hand of a generation of comic artists in the city. It’s not the only kind of work being made, of course, but I have noticed that the punk/underground comics legacy seems to lead to a pretty broad mistrust of slickness and digital illustration in Chicago comics. I don’t think I have a particularly Chicago-comics-heritage style in my work, but I think I was able to find my footing as quickly as I did here from a similar tongue-in-cheek distrust of institutions, a kindred feeling of aggressive outsiderness.

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The cover of In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I (2012)

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