There's a scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where one of the bad guys tries to press Indy's face against a conveyor belt that would pretty much sand off his skin. Your first glimpse of a Heather Benjamin drawing feels something like that.
As collected in her aptly named zine series Sad Sex, as featured in the anthologies edited by her fellow members in the sprawling and prolific Collective Stench group, and as blogged and reblogged on her comprehensive and frequently updated Tumblr, Benjamin's drawings are a primal scream in the direction of human sexuality. Her almost invariably nude female figures almost invariably cry or scream while their hands or men's penises splay open their orifices. Blood, sweat, tears, semen, breastmilk, and vaginal secretions drip and spray like the front row at a Gallagher concert. Hair is everywhere, increasing the visual cacophony and forcing an acknowledgement of our bodies' least socially approved sexual characteristics.
But focus exclusively on her images' transgressiveness ignores their often breathtaking beauty: She draws the sheen of light reflected in long black hair as well as anyone this side of Charles Burns. Her characters' eyes (now that she's moved beyond drawing everyone crying at all times) are as alive and mischievous as the peepers you'd find in a Kate Beaton comic. Her line is surprisingly delicate and steady. There's an ornamental loveliness to even her most repulsive explosions of bodily fluid and body hair that both prettifies and complicates her noise-comics roots, put down during her time in Fort Thunder's old stomping grounds at RISD. And while her sequential work is limited, thus far she appears to be taking to issues of layout, rhythm, and motion like a fish to water.
The artistic growth she has demonstrated during the three years it took her to publish Sad Sex #1-10—currently available in a collected edition from Desert Island—is readily apparent, and remarkable. A preternaturally assured markmaker, she just turned 23 last month; if there's any justice in this world she should be able to write her own ticket. I'm excited to see where she goes from here, and thrilled to share our wide-ranging conversation about her life and work.
Sean T. Collins: One of my favorite things about Sad Sex is how literal the title is, at least at first: The earliest work is just drawings of people fucking and crying their eyes out. Did you intend for it to become an umbrella title, or were you just out to have a home for that one particular kind of drawing at first?
Heather Benjamin: I guess when I first started drawing Sad Sex I pretty much had no idea that I was even going to continue past a couple of issues, let alone stray away from just that particular kind of drawing. So yeah, it kind of unintentionally became an umbrella title as the series kept going and the kind of stuff I wanted to draw for each issue changed.
Watching the level of meticulous detail rise throughout the collection is kind of breathtaking—a journey from huh to whoa to oh my God. It seems like it must have been...I don't know, a personal risk of time and sanity, to devote yourself to that sheer volume of markmaking on any given illustration?
Definitely. I actually have been spending the past few months trying to sort of train myself not to be that obsessive anymore, it gave me carpal tunnel in a matter of a couple of months. And was hugely intense, time- and energy-wise. I'm always gonna be really partial to extreme detail, but I needed to sort of loosen my grip after a while and stop being that OCD about my markmaking—or yeah, at least to not be necessarily so dense per square inch. I'm still obsessive about markmaking … just trying to be a little more discerning about each one, and a little less gluttonous.
The detail subsumes the sadness, too, in a way: As the book goes on and the work grows increasingly detailed, the people you draw cry less and grin and scream more. The melancholy or maudlin aspects of the work are now more often expressed in captions rather than in the drawings themselves. It feels to me like the people are channeling the intensity of the drawing. Did those two aspects—the way you drew people and the way you drew in general—go hand in hand?
I have a hard time articulating how/why my drawing style changed the way it did. I guess Sad Sex was always such a personal, kind of autobiographical thing, that as I drew it over a period of years, and shit in my life switched around and I started feeling differently about some things, the feelings and subject matter I wanted to convey/the way I wanted to convey them changed. Just drawing people having sex and crying, point blank, like I did in the beginning, doesn't really interest me anymore because it isn't really the issue that I'm grappling with in my personal life that I need to hash out. I guess I grew more into the maudlin sarcasm and dark end of things over the course of the series, and it became more about making the darkness really apparent through more twisted humor, as well as about the process of markmaking, to convey what I was going through with hashing out these issues, rather than just the flat-out porn drawings I was doing in the beginning.
There are times when I look at your work and it feels like a really explicit and direct response to depictions of women by your peers. Sexuality has returned in a big way in alt/art comics over the past three years or so—are you seeing stuff you particularly like or dislike as you look around?
Yeah, I started noticing more and more explicit material in art stuff recently. I love a lot of older art involving sexuality, but as far as work being made currently, I honestly don't particularly even gravitate towards art that includes sexuality; that's just what I personally draw. I don't have a huge interest in seeing drawings of naked people and dicks and tits and cum over the place, and I'm really not necessarily psyched on seeing it becoming more of a trend, either. If it's done well, of course I enjoy it—you know, if it seems like there's another element to it that I can get down with, that it goes deeper than just being a weird empty porn drawing because that's "shocking"—but that particular subject matter isn't something I feel really strongly about seeing and reading and whatever else. I feel pretty indifferent about it, unless it's saying something extra or if I think the drawing is gorgeous, but I'll love a drawing if I think it's done beautifully no matter what the subject matter is.
Your work also feels incredibly personal. Asking you about why you draw sex and nudity the way you do seems almost indistinguishable from asking an autobio cartoonist about a sex scene in a memoir. Is that a fair characterization? How much of what you're putting on the page is raw angst about sex and sexuality, and how much is using sex as a tool to access graphic or emotional qualities you're interested in?
It's mostly the former. All my work is coming from a really personal place to the point where I probably might as well just be drawing the kind of really autobiographical sex comics that I see some people doing. The reason I don't just do that is that I don't really have an interest in attaching specific storylines, characters, names, whatever else to most of the sad sex stuff, because it is already so personal and I feel like that would just push it over the top a little bit. And I also like to not be too straightforward. I do enjoy just picking one feeling or moment or whatever that I'm trying to focus on and just ornamenting it and reworking it as a single drawing.
It's definitely a weird emotional process for me to go through, and I feel almost like, cleansed of whatever fucked up thing was totally bothering me by the time I'm done hashing it out. At least for a little while. "I masturbate thinking about your boyfriend" was totally just a huge issue that I was dealing with at the time, 'cause I kept masturbating thinking about somebody's boyfriend and didn't know what to do about it, so I drew that and spent forever screwing with the markmaking in the hair, and by the end of it, photocopying it a zillion times and giving it out to people, having hashed it out and then basically admitted it to everyone in a roundabout way, I felt better about it. I guess that's just my take on the traditional autobio sex cartoon, maybe I'm just a wimp cause I didn't make the girl in the drawing look like me.
As far as sex being a tool to access graphic qualities that I'm interested in, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that I do just really enjoy drawing stylized body fluids, so drippy porn scenes full of sniffling people is a pretty perfect way to get to do that! I love drawing hair, pubic or otherwise, so it's easy for me to indulge in that too.
What is it about hair, for you? I ask because some of your most straight-up beautiful drawing has been of hair, for the Bliss Lau fashion illustrations you did. I actually blew up those illustrations online to see if you'd Photoshopped in someone's actual hair. It's a world away from the graphomaniacal, Junji Ito use of hair in your Sad Sex stuff, and it was stunning to see you use techniques you usually deploy for horror to depict something beautiful. It feels like you're communicating a lot with hair, wherever it grows from.
I love drawing hair just for the endless rendering possibilities and graphic qualities of it, and I love drawing hair because I love hair—not in like a hair fetish way, I'm definitely not one of those people. I think. But I do think it's beautiful and I totally hate drawing people that aren't hairy. I had sort of a hard time with the Bliss Lau drawings because I was specifically instructed for the girls not to have any body hair, not to have as intense of eyebrows as I like to draw, etc. So I think maybe that's why I overcompensated with their head hair. Also on a really basic political level: I don't shave, I don't think anybody should shave, I think it sucks when people shave, I don't think the people I draw should shave. So there you have it!
You referred to the early issues in particular as borderline autobiographical, but this was also where I saw the most direct appropriation of other images—Madonna's Sex book hit me pretty hard as a lad, so the Madonna drawings you did really stood out to me. I assume some of those other images were drawn from actual porn that you'd seen, too. Why did you choose to incorporate that imagery in an autobiographical framework?
What I meant there is that the way I was really feeling at the time was literally just bummed on sex, bummed on sexuality, bummed on human relations—not in a very specific or nuanced way, just hating on it—so incorporating other images/people/whatever into it didn't detract from what I was trying to do. It didn't need to be straightforward images of myself or fictional people to say that I totally hated everything about human sexuality. All the issues of Sad Sex were pretty autobiographical, not just the early ones—but just not in a super straightforward way.
I think that what makes Sad Sex and your other stuff stand out—and this is sort of what I was getting at in comparing it to sex-based work by other cartoonists—is that its approach to sex is more obviously, and viscerally, negative than what you typically see. There are certainly other artists who access the melancholy or isolating or destructive aspects of sex—Julia Gfrörer comes to mind—but in your case it's super-confrontational. This strikes me as likely the most overtly autobiographical element of your work—that at least in emotional terms, if not in terms of depicting specific events, much of it originates in unpleasant experiences you yourself had. Is it catharsis that drives you?
Yes. Catharsis is a good word for it. I agree that a lot of other artists dealing with sex and sexuality in their work are not as intensely negative as I am in portraying it. I guess maybe that's why I don't identify much with their work, or particularly enjoy it.
I wanted to ask you about the Superchief.tv interview you did. I thought that soundtracking it with "Lick My Nuts" by Three 6 Mafia framed the material, and even the setting—you in your bedroom—in a way that maybe overwhelmed the work. I was curious to hear what you thought.
Yeah, I think that video definitely became way more about me and my bedroom than about my work, but that's okay with me. The backing music was my choice too! I see what you mean about it kind of taking precedence over the drawings. But I feel like a lot of studio visits that are in people's spaces that are interesting-looking themselves can end up being that way. It doesn't really bother me. The only thing I wish had been different about that video is that I didn't even know it was going to be a video interview—when they came over they initially had told me they were just taking some photos of my space and asking me questions. I would have fixed my hair and maybe tried to not be so disgustingly sweaty.
[Laughs] When I saw that video, particularly your Osama Bin Laden shirt, I literally wrote that you've got everyone else in comics beat in terms of interview attire. So it was just a happy coincidence that that's what you were wearing?
Ha ha, yes. I also was in the middle of a phase where I was wearing that shirt pretty much every single day.
Understandably. I've never really had the opportunity to talk to an artist about art-related injuries or health issues. Can you tell me a bit about your experience with carpal tunnel? You said it came on relatively quickly—how did you treat it? How badly did it impact your ability to keep drawing?
Well, my carpal tunnel didn't escalate to a point where I needed to get surgery or anything. I just started feeling it pretty bad, worse than I have in my life so far, and went to a doctor, and they said I was definitely well on my way to getting to that point. That was back in June. So my way of dealing with that was basically just not even drawing at all during June, July, August, most of September… I kinda just took a break. My hand started feeling better after that. Now that I'm working consistently again, I can feel it coming back, but not as strongly. I used to sit at my desk for 12-plus hours at a time without taking any breaks, and I work really really small, so that was kind of intense. Now I take more breaks and try to stay aware of what my hand feels like while I'm working, and I think it's going better.
You mentioned in that video interview that you'd been smoking a lot of weed and that your drawing became less detail-oriented when you did so. Was that an attempt at self-medication? Did it stick?
I don't think anyone likes to admit it, but I think smoking weed is always self-medicating in some way, ha ha ... but if what you're asking is whether I was smoking weed specifically in order to try not to draw as meticulously, that's not the case. I just do it to stress a little less and get a little weird.
You haven't done a lot of sequential work, and the one out-and-out comic I've seen from you, your piece from Dimensions, presents female sexuality as a gateway to transcendence—not something I'd have expected from Sad Sex. Is this a direction you're heading in—meaning either more comics and/or a less, I don't know, squalid approach to your subject matter?
I feel weird about that piece. I paid a lot more attention to how it looked than how the storyline worked—which is my main problem with finishing sequential work that I'm happy with in the first place—and honestly the place I was trying to go with it was not really towards transcendence but towards a really dark, psychological weird feeling that I don't think ended up getting conveyed quite the way I wanted it to.
Is there more sequential stuff waiting in the wings unreleased?
I've done a bit of sequential work that I've just basically never even showed anyone—mostly because I'm either not happy with the work, or because I consider it still in progress—but yeah, in general I feel like I'm a little too focused on rendering single images in a complete way that I'm happy with to be very good at making successful comics. It's something I want to do better, though, and something I'm working on. I did a really long narrative comic for a class I took with Paul Karasik when I was at RISD that I basically have never showed anyone besides the people who were in that class with me. It was something like 20 pages and included a ton of dialogue and only had two characters. I have one copy of it. It got a good response, but I feel super weird about it. I'm a perfectionist, so I just feel like I got to get better at real storytelling.
Do you have any immediate plans to make more comics?
Not any concrete plans right this second, aside from knowing that that is definitely something I am going to be working on this year. I have my first show in Europe coming up next month, so I'm going to Spain for that, and then when I get back I'm finishing up working on a book project with a publisher from Brazil, a book of drawings. Once that's all over I'm hoping to get to work on some more narrative stuff.
When I was little I liked the comics in the newspaper, but I never was a superhero comic person, nothing traditional. When I first actually started looking at comics, I was looking at alternative stuff right off the bat—R. Crumb, the whole Fort Thunder clan and the like, Charles Burns … you know, all the staples that when you see for the very first time, you're like, Whoa, this exists?! I was probably 14 or
15 during that time and that stuff had a huge impact on me. I remember seeing Brian Chippendale's Maggots or the first Powr Mastrs book by CF when I was 15 and being really fucking blown away.
I was already looking at a lot of art at that point, and I pretty much already knew I wanted to go to art school because I'd already been obsessively drawing for a lot of my life, but comics were never really a thing till then. Then I moved on to getting really heavy into Weirdo, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Wimmen's Comics, Tits & Clits, Young Lust and all that super-good Last Gasp stuff. I still count those all as big influences.
I didn't really start actually attempting to draw comics until I was at RISD. As far as what I look at now, I don't look at much current artwork, and I feel like a weirdo for it. But I don't. I look at old magazines in junk shops, old print materials, old this and old that. I need to get better about not trying to just completely live in decades that I wasn't even born yet in.
What was your situation growing up?
I was born in Westchester, NY, and moved around all over the place—Oklahoma, Virginia, Philly, the Bronx—until I was 10 and we moved to New Jersey, where I spent the rest of my adolescence until I moved out. So I really consider myself from Jersey since that's where I spent all the formative years that I have any real memory of. My dad's a math and computer science teacher, my mom's an English tutor, and I've got a little sister who's sixteen. I went to a really freaky private prep school in New Jersey that was all about varsity lacrosse and matching your loafers to your polo shirt, so you can imagine how well I fit in there.
I heard the word lacrosse and instinctively muttered the word motherfuckers under my breath.
Telllllllllll me about it.
I took a year off after high school and then ended up moving to Providence to go to RISD as a printmaking major for two years, before I transferred to Pratt because they offered me more financial aid. Once I moved to Brooklyn, I went to Pratt for about three weeks and dropped out. That was the year I got invited by Printed Matter to have my own table at the NY Art Book Fair, so I was scrambling to get things done for that at the same time as trying to finish shitty coursework that I didn't have any real interest in and just couldn't bring myself to do. At that point it seemed like Sad Sex was maybe starting to take off, and it just didn't make much sense anymore to be stressing out doing color theory assignments and charcoal life drawing homework.
Now I still live in Brooklyn, in a house full of a bunch of my friends and some dogs and cats, and I work out of my bedroom, and I couldn't be happier about it.
How much does the ghost of Fort Thunder haunt people interested in making comics at RISD? I assume it was a decade in the rear view mirror by the time you got there, though obviously some of those folks are still around in Providence.
I would say immensely. I wouldn't even say it's in the rear view mirror whatsoever. Not everyone who goes to RISD is super aware of or influenced by them, but I would definitely say that pretty much anyone who's making comics that goes there is well aware of and heavily influenced by, in some way, the work of at least a couple of those artists.
I'm curious about Collective Stench, the group to which you belong, for a few reasons. First, everyone involved seems to have their own anthology that ropes in even more people. Second, it seems like a really self-sustaining scene that's getting by fine with very little interplay with the traditional comics-crit circles, or even the cartoonists that the traditional comics-crit circles celebrate. Maybe this is incomprehensible and just reflective of my own concerns lately, but what do you feel CSV's position in the comics world is? What has it meant for you?
CS to me has kind of been a loose grouping of people who I mostly know because we went to RISD together. Actually, a huge handful of us were all in the same semester section together of the comics narrative class that Paul Karasik taught. For me personally, my real involvement with CS has been getting to be a part of a few of the great anthologies that have come out of that group of people, as well as the fact that, in various combinations, we all still table together at conventions like BCGF, TCAF, the Philly Alt Comic Con, and the like.
I think it's awesome that a close-knit group of really talented artists formed this group together basically right out of college and have stayed together pretty solidly even through a lot of us are starting to also focus a lot on our own work. And for me it's refreshing to be associated with a group that I think is fairly self-sustaining and independent. A lot of really awesome work comes out of that group of people, and gets attention, and does well, but even if it wasn't getting attention it would still be getting churned out at the same rate, same quality, by those people, 'cause everyone involved cares really deeply about their work in a super no-bullshit, non-stigmatic way, which rules.