In 2004, I read a book that I should have read 15 years earlier when it was published, Misogynies by Joan Smith. It blew my mind. I had read some books on violence and lots of feminism but here, suddenly, in a collection of essays, was the reassurance I needed that the hostility, hatred and disgust I perceived towards me as a child was not just in my head and that I might be perfectly justified in feeling angry about it. Two essays in particular: Crawling From The Wreckage and There’s Only One Yorkshire Ripper reminded me so strongly of the things said around me and to me when I was growing up that I felt moved to try and contact her to tell her how much her work had meant to me. I didn’t manage this at the time but thanks to social media I have more recently been able to express my admiration for her work. I have tried to build on some of her arguments in this book and owe her a heavy debt.
A year or so later, having reached a point in my life where I felt, if not equipped for anything, at least able to cope with life and work and feel generally contented, I collided with my post traumatic stress after an incident at my workplace that triggered it. I thought I had left it all behind but I had hit middle age and here I was still crying about it, suddenly unable to do all the things I could not do when I had been in the thick of it in my twenties, feeling that heightened anxiety that left me breathless and disoriented… I began to try to explain what was happening to me and discovered to my horror that even those people around me one would think could understand, absolutely didn’t. I narrowly avoided being disciplined for refusing to do my job by disclosing, against my better judgement, some information about what had happened to me as a child and I went back into therapy, understanding that what I thought I had laid to rest might never be fully buried.
I heartily resented having to spend yet more of my precious time in therapy because of something other people had done to me, despite finding a really excellent woman, an NHS consultant no less, who offered me her own valuable time and got me back on track quite quickly. I started to think about this resentment and about how frustrating it is to live your life unable to be completely open about your own experiences because they carry such a strong taboo. I wondered at the reactions of the supposedly educated people around me who had responded with the usual mixture of scepticism, judgement (of me) and disavowal and I felt compelled to try and find a way to communicate with them. I might add here that I had no intention of actually showing what I was making to anyone, it was more a way to relieve my own frustration and explore in more depth the one aspect of the sexual abuse I had experienced as a young person that I had never really faced: shame, specifically slut shaming.
As an artist my first impulse is visual but I do love writing and words too. I didn’t think of what I was doing as a comic for ages but it also didn’t fit with my usual artistic practice so I was aware it needed a different audience, a different approach. Much of the initial drawing stayed in a folder, some of it remains there. The first drawings I made I tried only to draw, not to overthink, but just to allow the images to form themselves through the material and the imagination. Some motifs appeared. Drawing is for me a way of thinking and many thoughts emerged.
I began thinking about two other books that had made an impression on me: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. What does it mean, I wondered, to become a woman in such a violent landscape, like the one in which I grew up. Not only my own violent experience but the wider landscape around me, the notoriously misogynistic 6 year period of the hunt for the serial killer The Yorkshire Ripper, which coincided so neatly with my adolescence and matched so thoroughly my local geographies. And what does it mean, I wondered, to be transformed overnight, like Gregor Samsa, into a creature. I had often considered The Metamorphosis to be just as effective as a metaphor for the transformation of female puberty as it is for the alienation of the male but if I also thought of the creature as the figure of the shameful girl, the slut, the whore, the prostitute, it illuminated quite uniquely the terrible misogyny of the prevailing culture of late 1970’s Yorkshire. How did that culture affect me as I absorbed its sights and sounds?
I began to draw some creatures. This is the first creature I drew.
I was reading a few graphic novels at the time, books that had propelled comics into the mainstream. Maus, Watchmen, Persepolis, Jimmy Corrigan, Palestine…and finally the penny dropped. I was drawing a comic. Perhaps a novel length one. I gave in to cartooning and Una was born. I had been a fan of political cartooning for many years, had read all the UK comics as a kid and always read those lowbrow and hilarious comics such as Mad magazine and Viz so I’m not sure why it took me so many years to work out that my love of drawing and my love of words meant I should probably be making comics, but there you go… its better late than never I suppose.
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