Anna Ehrlemark (Sweden) – interview, Stripburger 68, November 2016
Anna Ehrlemark is a comics artist, illustrator and linguist. In Ljubljana, where she lived for almost eight years, and especially in the Autonomous Cultural Center Metelkova mesto, she is also known as the ‘invisible hand’ behind two large murals: one of a rat (Metelkova’s symbol) drawn in collaboration with the London-based artist Andrea Piro, and another one that portrays twin sisters who show their back to the visitors of Menza pri koritu.
Numerous musicians who played in Menza at the time Anna was designing posters for the venue were amazed by her daring visual interpretations of their work, thus it comes as no surprise that her drawings continue to appear on silk-screened posters, T-shirts, tote bags and badges. The same goes for the posters she made for the International Feminist and Queer Festival Red Dawns: years later, they can still be spotted in kitchens and bedrooms from Angoulême to Portland, from Pančevo to Rome, from Rio to Železniki.
Anna’s comics and illustrations have been published by Hopital Brut (France), Happiness Comix (USA), GRIDLords (USA), Kovra (Spain), AltCom (Sweden), Symposion (Serbia), Alkom’X (France), Komikaze (Croatia), Crack (Italy), STRIPOVI/СТРИ-ПОВИ (France), Galago (Sweden), Zarez (Croatia) and Brand (Sweden). In Slovenia, her work has been featured in Beli Sladoled’s zines, the Slovenski klasiki anthology, the now defunct magazines Tribuna and Balcanis, and, of course, in the most certainly alive Stripburger.
Anna, what have you been up to since you moved to Gothenburg?
I have become a nerd. I just completed my master’s degree in language technology, which used to be called computational linguistics, and now I work with natural language processing, which means that I am making computers understand human language. I learned how to code, I count words, I write grammar, I analyze text, I train algorithms. It is all very geeky stuff, and I like it. After spending almost eight years in Ljubljana, moving to Gothenburg felt like starting over from the beginning once again. I was homesick for the life and work I left in Ljubljana, but at the same time I didn’t want to repeat myself, thus I decided to do something new.
Your first comic book Winners (Floating World Comics, 2015) contains comics you (self)published earlier as well as comics drawn especially for this book. Since you were preparing the book during your studies, I wonder how you managed to find the time to draw, which, in comparison to non-creative work, follows a different logic. Did you cut back on your sleep?
I studied and worked double extra-jobs, I had to make time for drawing, sit down behind my desk at night and try to wake up this other logic, find the concentration again. It’s not a passion, it’s something I have to do, and it is also something I have effectively avoided turning into a bread winning job on its own. I’m afraid to work with something so closely connected to my ego, it feels too private. Or, I want to keep it private? Furiously defending a little ink spot that is mine.
Of course, this means that my production pace is slow. It is what it is. A fragmented and pretty exhausting patchwork of ambitions, duties and work, while still harbouring a kind of archaic ideal about ‘art’ and how it should be produced. It’s archaic because it demands solitude, focus and buffer time. I don’t have a lot of that, but neither do you.
Both format and narratives are affected. Longer is better. On the other hand, the short, distraught and immediate narratives have momentum. They cannot wait for the big format. That time may never come. If you can’t draw the whole story, just draw the climax.
I could also talk about my periodical depressions and burn-outs. I dragged with me a lot of dark exhaustion over the years, mostly because I didn’t know how to take care of myself. That drowsy panic has left traces in my stories, even with recurring props like beds, birds, rope and twins. But depression is a dull subject, they all look the same. I think there is a lot of comedy in self-pity, and I’m truly pleased every time somebody tells me that they find my work hilarious.
The comics story you drew for this issue of Stripburger didn’t exactly make me laugh, but I enjoyed the way you portrayed the main character’s self-pity. He seems to be so absorbed by his disease that he doesn’t mind or even notice the people eating on his bed!
The bed is a perfect stage. If you are paralyzed in bed it becomes the hub around which the entire world revolves. I love drawing beds, they furnish the pages so neatly, I never tire of drawing sheets and pillows. Sleeping is my guilty pleasure, I want to fake a fever and call in sick every day. Staying in bed is passive resistance and forbidden lazy pleasure. As a grownup I have to invoke my superego to force myself out of bed, it feels like violence. Of course, being really ill and immobilized is a nightmare. There was this ballad we used to sing as kids, about a girl who was hospitalized for a year. She asked “when can I go home” and the doctor replied “maybe in spring, summer, autumn, winter, maybe then” – and of course she died in the end and the tragedy was so beautiful and noble and exciting, it almost made you wish that you were terminally ill so that everybody would feel sorry for you.
The story in this issue is based on an excerpt from Kafka’s diary that honestly made me laugh when I read it. I think he plays with turning his guilt inside out, blaming everybody but himself for his own weakness. Wishing he was raised by wolves in the jungle. Immature, funny and completely understandable.
Ha ha, Kafka as the escapist loser. If we take a look at the losers in Winners, I have to start with a quote by Jacqueline Rose. “In the cult of celebrity, the potential for failure may be the key to success,” she says, claiming that we create celebrities in order to admire their shiny perfection, but also to satisfy our cruel, almost murderous curiosity which preys on their flaws, hopes for their failure and ultimately demands their public humiliation. Several comics in Winners, for instance The Ring and Abundance, address this hunger from the perspective of nobodies who want to become famous.
You are right, a lot of my stories spin the wheel of losing and winning; winning by losing; losing when you thought you won; winning but the prize is shit; winning and getting away with it. It’s a kind of trap laid out by the subconscious. You want what you can’t have, and when you get it everything turns to dust. It’s a trope so basic that it’s almost banal, but I like simple fairy tale narratives. If you want to stick with the trope, there is a lesson to be learned. Something in the lines of “don’t sacrifice your friends or dignity for peanuts”. But is that it
I understand a story as a living conflict, an emotional dilemma that can’t be resolved easily. I consume a lot of trash, reality television, gossip and game shows. I love the way they absorb our desires and map our triggers. Suspense, repetition, endless voice-overs, nothing ever happens and every season is just like the previous one – who would have thought our hunger for this kind of drama is so bottomless? Are we murderous and cruel, or are we merely endlessly interested in human hanky-panky?
My friend Bruno told me: If you don’t know what to draw, draw a face. And if you don’t know how to draw a face, just draw a pair of eyes. That’s enough to wake our interest in other man-apes.
In The Ring it seems that any public exposure, even a humiliating one, is better than the prospect of remaining an invisible nobody. Is this why the ‘chosen’ poor man in Abundance follows the rich woman without hesitation? He is literally starving, but the hope that he could fill his stomach at her table doesn’t sound like a good enough reason for him to abandon his tribe. Or is it?
Any chance of winning a prize makes even meaningless tasks motivating. I watched A shot at love with Tila Tequila on MTV and it tickled my fancy so much it was almost intoxicating. The show is about the bisexual celebrity Tila who is searching for the love of her life in a crowd of ten boys and ten girls. In every episode the contestants have to prove how much they care for her by performing humiliating tasks. Then she talks to them softly about not wanting her earnestly enough. In The Ring I just drew it as absurd as it was played out to me. Competing for love is so mundane I don’t wish to make an obvious point, but drawing it adds some beauty to the tragedy, I hope.
In Abundance I was toying with the concept of a ‘deserving’ winner. Many game shows try to uphold the illusion that winning is based on capability. But when I think about winning at somebody else’s expense, chance almost seems to be a kinder fairy godmother than deservedness. Like the green-card lottery. “Because you deserve it” is a cruel reward when your friends are starving.
In Happy Ending you focus on a kid who wants to be in the spotlight, but refuses to be humiliated, thus he burns down the circus in an act of revenge that ends Winners with a powerful and hopeful image of destruction.
Ha ha, isn’t revenge hopeful! For the ending I really wanted to plug into that childish sense of justice and go out with a big bang. I don’t mean childish in a derogatory way, just another powerful emotional collective stream. Like in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts comes back to the expensive shop dressed in fancy clothes to humiliate the staff for treating her like trash earlier. Revenge is not a moral victory, but it is triumphant. Every bullied kid knows exactly what the happy ending will look like. After all the darkness, that’s the best I have to offer. Violence. Yikes. Violence or deep sleep.
I want to read these stories as fantasies, uncensored fables of suppressed feelings. A lot of accumulated anger and romantic day-dreaming. Something to reconcile the blasé, cynical superego with the innocent, lonely, guilt-ridden girl.
Happy Ending and Wake up visually stand out from the other comics in Winners. The style is unmistakably yours: strong contrasts and narration driven by eerie atmosphere and emotion rather than causality. However, in these comics you have replaced the usually clear, rough lines with a finer, more detailed approach. I love the drawing of the circus audience in Happy Ending and the decomposing facial lines of the girl swallowed by her hospital bed in Wake up. Did you consciously change the style for these comics or did the change ‘just happen’? I got the impression that these two comics were among the last ones you drew for Winners.
Thank you. Short answer: it happened. Those two were indeed the last stories and with time, instead of making longer comics, I’ve been increasingly drawing single panels, tripping on page compositions. I like drawing because it’s difficult, difficult enough to keep trying. I draw with black ink on white paper, because it is the minimal setting. With minimal tools I can limit the possibilities, yet still never run out of infinity. I like a lot of black, strong contrast and fast flow. It’s mostly about the balance between black and white. The inking is fast, I need chance and nonchalance to make it good, to get where I want. Being overly careful is a sure way of killing a picture. Trying to draw ‘good’ too.
You can tap into reality and fish things out of there. Then you apply your filter, rephrase it, take it out of context, make the familiar strange. Focus until it stands out of the stream. If you succeed it’s powerful. It has lost its harmless context; it’s standing on its own again. In comics, details are often the enemy of the flow. My drawing is quite uneconomical. It takes too long. It’s heavy and savvy. It reads too fast (short and condensed stories), but also too slow (a lot of detail in every panel). I’m not sure I’m going to do anything about it. In fact, things may get even more condensed. But I promise to work on my punch lines.
What are you working on now?
I have this idea for a sleepy porno comics story in which the characters are too tired to fuck. It would be nice to do something sexy and sweet, another bedtime-story for the long Swedish winter. Also, eating is always interesting. Maybe something with an actual dialogue in it …
Who knows, maybe the characters in your future porn comics story will talk dirty in their sleep! You have already talked about your creative process a bit, but I want to know more. For example, how do you begin?
The story usually begins with nothing more (or less) than a strong image. I play with short narrative skeletons, sometimes they are as meagre as a small chain of consequences, or even an unusual state.
I don’t spend much time on characters at all, they are just people, ‘the boy’, ‘the sisters’, ‘the desperate old bitch’ or whatever. I want them to remain anonymous like the heroines and heroes in folk tales. In fact, as I have said before, I often use folk tales or found material as a backbone and let the visual narrative take over. Once I have the seed I go on to sketching, which is the intellectual work. Inking, on the other hand, is where the magic should happen.
What if it doesn’t happen?
Then you have to continue past the place you got stuck and return to it later. I find that the block is usually motivated, there is something there that isn’t quite right, and it’s easier to see it when you have the other pieces in place. For artist self-help I rely on two good doughnut metaphors, one from Dušan Makavejev and the other from David Lynch. In Makavejev’s W. R.: Mysteries of the Organism one of the workers holds an ironic, drunken speech about Yugoslav politics. “In our democracy,” he exclaims, “everybody has the right to a doughnut. Some people get the doughnut, and some people get the hole.” David Lynch is on the same track when he tells aspiring filmmakers to “keep your eyes on the doughnut, not on the hole” in his how-to book Catching the Big Fish. What is, is better than what isn’t. Sounds simple, right?
Yes, unless you think that your doughnut is tasteless, or at least not as tasty as other people’s doughnuts. In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel quotes Friedrich Schiller who writes to his friend with a writer’s block: “The reason for your complaint, it seems to me, is the constraint which your intellect imposes upon your imagination … you reject too soon and discriminate too severely.” In a similar situation, you once told me that I should try to take writing less seriously because no text is ever finished unless you accept that this is the best you can do in that moment. You also told me that one can learn from mistakes. Do you still believe this?
This is more about momentum for me. I hope I didn’t tell you not to take it seriously, because I’m idealistic enough to want things to be for real. I don’t want to learn through mistakes, but it’s okay for the work to be marked by time. It’s more like catching a wave. If I don’t finish what I start within some window of focus, it can die. I also respond very well to deadlines, ha ha.
I had greater problems with my self-confidence and publishing when I was writing fiction. When I changed words for drawing I felt freer and less judgmental about my own work. I read images in a more emotional and intuitive way; I know what I like when I see it. Like I said before, sketching is intellectual work, but inking is a leap of faith. Perhaps that one-man division of labour helps to disarm the inner censor. I still avoid words, as you may have noticed. Words are nice, but I feel more powerful without them. I guess I’m afraid they will limit the reading, while images communicate in a more immediate and associative way. Drawing is like digestion. Images don’t deliver a message; they are the refined leftovers of all the junk we eat.
Speaking of leftovers: one of your first comics I saw was the Very Scientific Article About the Dicks in South-East-European Underground Comics from 2006. That one featured many words! And dicks, of course. Ten years later, and looking from the northern perspective, would you say that the penis panic epidemic is still haunting south-eastern underground comics scenes?
Oh yes, and with some fine quality dicks too!