The cartoonist, musician, and multimedia artist known as Geneviève Castrée died on Saturday, July 9, at the age of thirty-five. She succumbed to stage four pancreatic carcinoma after being diagnosed about a year ago, not long after the birth of her daughter, Agathe. Her husband, the musician Phil Elverum, noted on their GoFundMe page, “She was truly driven to work and stay living right up to the last minute, insisting on getting up and going to work in her studio way beyond when many would have surrendered to rest. Last night and this morning, she declined quickly and receded into her own eyes as her body vetoed her wishes, her lungs filling with fluid. She died at home with me and her parents holding her, hopefully having reached some last minute peace. It’s all very sad and surreal. So much is left unfinished for her. She was a firehose of brilliant ideas that never turned off. We loved her and everything is weird now.”
Though the Canadian cartoonist started her career as a teenager, she was best known for her 2013 graphic memoir, Susceptible. In the book, Castrée memorably and painfully recounted growing up in Quebec with a young, immature single mother amid an environment of constantly shifting emotional quicksand. The book depicted the intense closeness she felt to her mother as well as the ways she felt alienated and belittled by her, and Castrée later noted that telling these stories unburdened her of them. Indeed, simply recounting these stories was a form of transgression for a family that valued its secrets (as she noted in an interview) but these were secrets Castrée needed to strip away for her own sake. In the book, Castrée notes taking solace from the local punk community and demonstrates the development of her considerable skills as a cartoonist, an occupation which had been her career goal since the age of nine.
Traveling across the country at the age of fifteen, Castrée reconnected with her absent father, who had been gone from her life for a decade. Castrée depicted her relationship with him as the opposite of that with her mother: lacking in contentiousness but also lacking the intimacy she sometimes shared with her mother. However, when circumstances found her with no place to go, her father built her a log cabin to live in as she moved west. Later, she would move to the small Puget Sound town of Anacortes, Washington, where she and her husband were influential in the local art and music scenes. They were instrumental in the local What The Heck fest, a musical event held in conjunction with other town activities. Castrée was comforted by what she saw as a remarkable amount of space to live, breathe, and work in.
Castrée started self-published mini-comics at an early age, establishing “Castrée” as her working last name. “When Genevieve emerged onto the Montreal comics scene, it was with a flash,” remembers cartoonist Billy Mavreas. “She was sixteen or so and made awesome minis which are treasured, rare jewels. She outranked her elders right out of the game and continued growing and dazzling us.” Her first publisher, Benoit Chaput of Montreal’s L’oie De Cravan, published three of her books, beginning with Lait Frappé in 2000. Roulatheque Roulatheque Nicolore followed in 2001, but 2004’s Pamplemoussi provided her biggest early breakthrough as an artist. It’s a rare work of art that sought to integrate music and image on an equal footing, and its large size and unusual dimensions (12″ by 12″) make it a unique artifact. Castrée noted that like everything else in her artistic life, she was self-taught as a musician and trained herself in order to be able to create sounds that went with the images she was creating. Castrée realized one day that the stories she was telling required music to make them complete. She later went on to record eight albums of varying length under the names of Woelv and later O PAON, as well as collaborating with her husband’s band, Mount Eerie. She always felt a great deal of loyalty to L’oie De Cravan and published a book of poetry titled Maman Sauvage with them in 2015. “All her work bears the mark of a passionate, creative and unique artist,” says Chaput. “There are no words to tell the sadness of this loss.”
Castrée was a lifelong fan of comics. She read Tintin at an early age, as well as comics drawn by an Argentinian artist named Quino, featuring a girl named Mafalda. Later, her father took her to a comic book store in British Columbia, where she discovered the work of Renée French, Chester Brown, and Julie Doucet. Doucet’s influence on her work is obvious in some ways, from her character design (the same use of oversized almond-shaped eyes) to her scrawled, cursive lettering style. That said, Castrée’s visual approach was quite different in most other respects. Whereas Doucet crams every panel with detail, Castrée instead frequently relied on the use of negative space, open page layouts, and other techniques that asked the reader to consider the emotional impact of discrete images rather than depending on more familiar panel-to-panel and page-to-page transitions. Her figures were also smaller and more fragile in the panel than Doucet’s denser figure, who had a more direct effect on their environment. This is not to suggest that her figures were weak. Indeed, Susceptible shows a young girl who is buffeted by forces she does not understand but who eventually seizes her own destiny and does so in the form of a primal but restrained howl. It is heartbreaking that while the creation of Susceptible apparently cleared away years’ worth of anger and pain, allowing her the emotional space to create from a different perspective, Castrée ran out of time before she could finish another long-form comic.
Castrée also contributed remarkable work to noteworthy anthologies. She was in the seminal Kramer’s Ergot #4, edited by Sammy Harkham. That was a groundbreaking volume and a statement of aesthetic purpose, and Castrée’s three gorgeous pages are in full, vivid color. Her story in Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #3, edited by Chris Oliveros, depicted a girl imagining her depression as an elephant. (Much of her earlier, more fantastical work also made extensive use of visual metaphors for mental illness, emotional abuse, and struggle.) Her piece in Drawn & Quarterly’s 25th anniversary anthology was a true standout, especially as it merged the powerful use of metaphor in her earlier work with the emotional directness of Susceptible. The story will be reprinted in the upcoming 2016 installment of Best American Comics, edited by Roz Chast & Bill Kartalopoulos.
There’s been an outpouring of grief in the comics community over her death. “She [was] one of my favorite people in the world and one of my favorite artists,” Anders Nilsen wrote on his blog. “I wish I could make drawings half as exquisite, beautiful, and strange… Over the last year she would deflect the question she kept getting about whether she was ‘still working.’ Her answer was, basically, ‘No.’ She was too tired, too spent, too preoccupied with trying to live. But I was able to visit her at home twice in the year that she was sick and both times there were many bits and pieces of half-finished and carefully crafted things every where you looked. She was still working. She couldn’t have stopped if she’d tried, I don’t think. But she changed her tune (at least to me) a month or two ago, determined to bring art back into her life (I didn’t mention that it seemed to me like it never left). She was working until the end. She was one of the most impressive people I’ve ever known. I can’t believe she’s gone.”
“There is much sadness in our community tonight as there has been since the news quietly crept our way home,” says Mavreas. “My last memories of her is coming into my shop and giggling about her newfound love for stamp collecting. She was a joy: infectious smile, huge heart, humble hands.”
“I met Genevieve at Angouleme in 2002,” recalls Dylan Horrocks. “She introduced herself and gave me the most beautiful little book I’d seen in ages. [My wife] Terry and I hung out with her a bit that week and she treated us like co-conspirators, talking about the weirdness of Angoulême and her own feelings of discomfort. She was like a wild animal creeping around a zoo, looking in horror at the cages, afraid she might end up in one. Later, she sent me comics and records, and we saw her again when she came to New Zealand to play some gigs. I’m so glad we got to see her play. Her comics are among my favorite art of any kind, ever. Sometimes this world seems so cruel, and this is so awful and sad. But her art makes me fall in love with the world, with all its darkness and pain and beauty and love, and looking at it now is like a gift. She never went in the cage.”
“I must’ve first come across Genevieve’s work when fellow Montreal publisher L’Oie de Cravan published a couple of her early booklets,” says her former publisher Chris Oliveros. “Remarkably, she was only about 18 at the time, yet somehow she managed to develop even at that early age an advanced skill and unique sensibility that even the best artists can take years to refine. Around this time, I met her in Angoulême and we developed a correspondence that would last over the next dozen or so years. I encouraged her to create a longer work and I told her D+Q would be happy to publish it. It took slightly over a decade, which was probably longer than either of us had anticipated, but ultimately Susceptible went on to become one of the best books D+Q ever published. It’s an intense, deeply personal exploration of her family life growing up in Quebec and later in BC, so it’s not surprising that she wasn’t able to tackle the subject until she reached the slightly more comfortable objective distance of her late 20s and early 30s.
“There’s an emotional intensity that permeates her work, and it’s so powerful that it’s sometimes easy to overlook the fact that on a technical level she could draw like nobody’s business. Her fragile, sometimes broken characters live in landscapes anchored by realistically drawn, solid, and permanent objects: apartment buildings, lush forests and vegetation, snow-capped mountains, intricately-detailed drawings of cars. Everything was so delicate and refined.
“This is all really, really hard for me to write, in part because I still can’t get used to using the past tense in regards to Genevieve. She was so young and she had so much to offer, and I always had a deep faith in her abilities, and had no doubt that her best work was still ahead of her. There are so many levels of tragedy when someone as exuberant and talented as her dies at the prime of life, but I can’t help thinking of the immediate heartbreak for her husband Phil and their baby, Agathe, and how Genevieve will never live to see her daughter growing up. It all seems so terribly cruel and unfair. Over the last couple of days I’ve been rereading emails and letters by her, reading some lines over and over again as some of it now takes on a new, depressing meaning, especially when she talked about her excitement about starting new books, or her early joy of having a baby. I’m very, very honored to have worked with her over these years, and I can speak for everyone at D+Q to say that we’re all so proud to have published her comics. We will miss her terribly.”
Castrée is survived by her husband, daughter and parents. A gofundme account established when she got sick is still active and in need of donations: https://www.gofundme.com/elverum