CCS alum Annie Murphy has been busy since she left White River Junction for the bright(er) lights of Portland, Oregon. She has two more publications under her belt (I Still Live and The Collective Tarot), she started teaching, and she was awarded an artist-in-residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Annie’s current project may be her most ambitious endeavour to date. Gay Genius, a 140+ page, full color, perfect bound comic anthology-in-the-works has attracted a lot of attention (Bitch Magazine called it a “Project to watch”, The American Library Association’s Over the Rainbow Project commended her fund-raising efforts).
Annie was kind enough to give us the inside scoop on all her projects. Read on for all the details.
What has happened since graduation?
“Well, after graduating from the 1-year program I went back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Since then a lot has happened. Notably, this past August I moved to Santa Fe with my girlfriend Sarah and Dora the cat because she (Sarah) got accepted to the Institute of American Indian Arts. I was there for about four months which is crazy because it felt like more. The Southwest is very different from the Northwest. Now I’m back in Portland again where I’ve been most all of my life (which can be pretty strange). I’ll be going back to Santa Fe in May for an artist/writing residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute where I will be working on my next secret project.”
Tell us about I Still Live. What was your aim with this book? How did you go about researching, creating and publishing it?
“I Still Live was my attempt to prove to myself that I could make a semi-full-length comic book that made sense. I first read about Achsa Sprague in a literary journal that I came across while working at the CCS Schulz Library. The essay (written by Sarah Rath) described Achsa and her life as a sickly person and a spiritualist medium living in in nineteenth-century Vermont. I felt connected to her right away: I’m also a sickly person, I was also in Vermont; I didn’t know a whole lot about the Spiritualist movement, but ghost stories sort of run in my family; I was obsessed with ghosts as a kid and I’ve often lived with them. As I decided to find out more about Achsa, the coincidences just kept getting weirder. She lived and died just a short drive from where I lived in Vermont. My girlfriend came out there to visit and we decided to go looking for Achsa’s gravestone. The first weekend we went, we didn’t find it. We found some other cool graveyards, argued a lot, and then headed back all disgruntled. The next weekend we headed out looking for her grave again and this time we had a good feeling about it. We got to the graveyard and it was snowing for the first time that year. We realized then that it was Achsa’s birthday. So me and Sarah left her some gifts and sang Happy Birthday to the gravestone. Nobody was around and a raven called in the distance. Spooky. It was also my grandma’s birthday, November 17th. I did the math: my grandma was born exactly 90 years after Achsa. and we were standing in the graveyard exactly 90 years after that. So that was weird. Achsa’s headstone reads “I Still Live”.
After that, I decided to let Achsa share my brain a little bit while I tried to do her story justice in a comic. Achsa was a workhorse in her life, she wrote constantly. I didn’t really sleep those two months I spent making the book. After she recovered from a seven-year illness, Achsa traveled as a trance lecturer and sold her self-published writings. Like zines, but in the 1850s. I Still Live ended up being a comic about the early Spiritualist movement as well as an essay on grief, recovery, and first-wave white metaphysical feminism. It was autobio and bio together. It’s important for me to do autobio stuff, but I like to try to make sure that I am saying something in addition to talking about myself. I got to hang out a lot in the Vermont Historical Society with a box of Achsa’s actual letters and spirit communications. One of them was written backwards and I read it by flipping it over and holding it up to the light. An excerpt from that letter narrates the final pages of the comic. After I passed out xeroxed copies I decided to apply for the Xeric Grant, Peter Laird’s foundation for comics self-publishers. I got it! I was psyched. I used to read the old Ninja Turtles comics with my brother as a kid so I guess what goes around comes around.”
Tell us about the Collective Tarot. How did this collaborative project come about? How did you produce and distribute the finished product?
“The Collective Tarot is a project I’ve been working on with a bunch of friends for about four years. It started when my friend Sacha approached me with an idea of making a radically politicked queer tarot deck. She’d been discussing with another friend how she really wanted to get into using the Tarot but couldn’t find a deck whose images she could relate with. I was psyched because I think the Tarot, as an unbound book of pictures and secret history, is connected to the histories of comics and graphic narrative. I’d been working with the Tarot for a few years and had similar beef as Sacha with the decks I’d come across. So five of us friends formed a collective and decided to design a deck that would more reflect the lives of people we knew and loved. We met every week for a while, studying the system of the Tarot and numerology and all that. We brainstormed what new archetypes we wanted to include, which of the old ones to keep, and what we wanted to let go of. We divvied up each of the four suits to a different artist within our group (I drew the Bones suit which correlates with Pentacles in older decks and Diamonds on playing cards).
When we got to the Major Arcana we realized we wanted to open up the group and assign each of those cards to other artist friends in our surrounding communities. We didn’t want the deck to be completely Eurocentric, and our core group was mostly white. There is a real witchy movement right now in indy/hipster art scenes these days and our group was troubled by the amount of cultural appropriation and racism going on. We wanted to avoid this. To make a long story short, we wound up with a 78-card deck, an 80-some-page zine with a silk-screened cover, and around 23 different contributors. I had no idea how we would fund the project, but a couple folks from the collective came forward and fronted the money for printing. Charles at Eberhardt Press printed 500 decks and booklets for us (a HUGE job for an anarchist printer working out of a garage). We sold out within two months. We handled the distribution ourselves, which turned out to be pretty complicated. There were some scarcity issues. Word of mouth was crazy and people got kind of frenzied as the decks dwindled. I heard there was a bidding war for a deck at a wedding in Canada. Luckily, We have since been able to reprint, with Eberhardt footing the bill. This second run of 750 came out last Spring. There’s a couple different contributors, a few revised cards, edited booklet with a new format, and we traded the stolen health-food zip-lock baggies for a handsome new packaging sleeve. In the end the publishing arrangement didn’t really work out as planned (long story), but at least most of the decks have sold. We’d like to keep them out there and available to people who want them so we’re on the prowl for a new publisher.”
You’re a teacher now! Tell us about your classes, and the IPRC cartooning program.
“Yeah, teaching!! So there’s this rad non-profit in Portland called the Independent Publishing Resource Center. It’s been sort of a zinester hub for years. It’s got a zine and comics library, letterpress, copy machines, computers, perfect binder–a bunch of stuff. And it’s housed above Reading Frenzy, an awesome small press book and zine shop. Anyways, last year the IPRC started up a comics and creative writing certificate program. I presented a lecture the first semester called ‘Comics As Survival: Creative Non-Fiction in Graphic Narrative’ which was pretty fun. Then I ended up co-facilitating the spring semester class with Dylan Williams and it was a blast. Lots of talent, lots of interesting conversations. This year the program’s expanded to include two different tracts per semester, with three semesters and twice as many students. I’m co-teaching a class called ‘Elements of Graphic Narrative’ this spring semester with my dear friend Clio Sady, also a contributor to Gay Genius and a Collective Tarot co-creator. We will be expanding on the ‘Comics As Survival’ lecture which discussed the common themes of survival, resistance, and oral tradition in recent wave-making graphic novels. I believe that oral history+images=graphic narrative, and we’ll be using this idea as a launching point as we study several main genres of (primarily) creative non-fiction comics and examine those themes within different graphic narrative traditions. The other instructors in the program are Dylan Williams, Nicole Georges, Jesse Reklaw, John Isaacson, and Lisa Mangum, plus lots of visiting artists. It should be really fun.”
What is Gay Genius?
“Gay Genius is a very special kind of genius that those of the homo persuasion tend to possess. To call someone a Gay Genius, or to draw attention to the Gay Genius that they possess, is to salute them. I came up with the idea for an anthology while I was at CCS in 2007 – 2008. Two visiting artists that year had received the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award. I think it’s worth $500,000. And they just give it to people for being who they are! As both of those guys were straight white men, I started wondering what merits the title of ‘genius’. I remember James saying something in class about how the word ‘genius’ gets used too loosely and how rare true genius actually was. I mulled this over that night and looked up the definition of genius on the internet. I came to the conclusion, according to the definition, that many of the folks I knew were geniuses and most of them were Gay.
Then I wrote out a list of artist friends that I wanted in my ideal comics anthology and showed it to my friend and schoolmate Kubby. When I finally sent out the submissions call, I stayed pretty true to that list. This was in 2009. Then I got up the guts to ask Dylan at Sparkplug if he might be interested in publishing it. He said no at first. Then he got back to me and said yes–with the agreement that I would handle the editing and negotiating terms with contributors. As the anthology started materializing I realized it was going to be much bigger than I thought and it would have to be in color. So I offered to try and raise half with a Kickstarter fundraiser. I have never been that public on the internet before and hustling the funds together was very challenging for me. But there are so many rad supporters of the project and word of mouth worked its magic. Dylan is great to work with. I trust his ethics around comics and publishing. Plus, he’s a Virgo so that puts my mind at ease. I’m really heartened by how supportive he’s been of the project. And the Kickstarter response is just phenomenal, I feel grateful to everyone involved.”
Tell us about your editorial process for Gay Genius.
“Well, I sent out a submission call to about 20 friends almost two years ago. I had a very specific idea about what I wanted in terms of content, so I picked folks I knew and respected who were artists, comics artists, or people who I knew would make a good comic if they wanted to. Then I asked those folks to let me know if they had friends who they thought should be in the anthology. I wanted to prioritize queer artists of color, disabled queers, trans and genderqueer folks. The contributors are friends, ex-housemates and friends-of-friends. I suggested ‘History’ as a theme prompt and while that is pretty vague, the contributions that have come in are uncannily cohesive. I tried to make it clear in the call-out that I wanted work that was actively feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, celebrating many kinds of bodies and minds–which I figured was basically a given with the artists I had asked. It’s important for me to have guidelines like that as an editor because I see so much offensive and hurtful shit out there and I wanted to make sure none of it made its way into the anthology. That ended up being a non-issue. I mean the content could be seen as “controversial”–but that’s how it is with any queer art these days, as well as most art that’s consciously counteracting racism and white supremacy. A main goal for the anthology is the visibility and promotion of the work of this group of queer artists. I don’t think the mainstream comics world or even the ‘alternative’ small press comics world reflect the desires of their potential audience(s). Of course that is changing as more comics and graphic novels are appearing by women/people of color/queer and transgendered folks (Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Joey Allison Sayers, etc.). But I want more. I was talking last year with someone (a straight guy) who’s partly in charge of a semi-large/semi-small comics publisher and we were discussing the work of underground comics artist Jessica Johnson, who is trans. I had heard nothing but good things about her art and once I finally got hold of her old zines. I saw that they were fantastic. This publisher himself was a fan, but when I asked if he would republish her stuff, he said “oh no, there’s no audience for that”. This was coming from a dude that can’t even use the artist’s preferred pronoun. So I beg to differ. I think this is a big part of the culture of ‘underground comics’. Comics by queer artists have always been the underground of the underground. And there’s something special and sacred about that. But I think queer art needs to be visible and accessible in order for us to stay alive–and too many of us are dying. What with all the suicides and the recent censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s ‘Fire In My Belly’ by the Smithsonian, clearly the world needs more queer art. It’s been a new experience being the person in charge of all the GG decisions. I am used to the collective process so I’ve really tried to consult the artists and friends at any stumbling blocks. I love collaborating and this is definitely a collaborative effort. I don’t like to turn people down. There are lots of talented queer artists out there. I would love it if Gay Genius can be a continuing thing–but first things first. I can finally see the anthology materializing and becoming a fluid whole, and it’s more than I could have imagined. The artists all have such epic lives and talents, I can’t wait to see everyone’s efforts all in one place. Check out their bios here if you get a chance. Gay Genius went from a pipe dream to a possible zine of five or six contributors to a full color 140-some-page book. GG will debut at Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland, April 16th so check for it in stores shortly there after.”
Thanks, Annie! We look forward to having a copy of Gay Genius on the shelf of the Schulz library.