Turning to the first page of The Bacchae, Sarah Horrocks’ new adaption of the Euripides play, you are immediately hit with something sublime. An ocean blue body on a vivid chartreuse backdrop, a little pink panel inlaid on the top right corner the same color as a flimsy garment lazily draped in his lap. His body is twisted and beautiful, thick charcoal-like contours sculpting awesome abs. Important information is withheld from the reader - hands, feet, any identifying details of person or place, even the face is hidden past the trembling lower lip. As we try to make sense we are quickly, forcefully pulled into the desiring gaze of the image. Finally, we notice in the pink panel a hand holding a cup, above a short clip of text - “Here I am.” This is Dionysus. Somehow, the erotic intensity of this image holds for twenty four pages of comic book, panel upon panel a lush punch in the face.
Sarah Horrocks is exactly the sort of cartoonist that comics needs most right now. There’s a danger in an assertion such as this, a risk that any reader of the Journal is certainly familiar with, but there are few artists in the American scene right now whose work truly demands such a response. This is not only because of the intensely personal, intensely creative, and just intensely intense vision Sarah has brought to each of her comics to date. It is not only for the breath of fresh air that is a confrontational voice in comics that is neither cis nor male. There are a myriad of great cartoonists, queer cartoonists, and great queer cartoonists who deserve our attention just as much as she. What makes Sarah Horrocks an essential cartoonist of the current moment is the love and understanding of comics and of art from which she builds new and transformative images and stories.
Sarah is nothing if not savvy of comics history, as any reader of her criticism (some of which has appeared on this very site) is certainly aware, a champion of corners of the art form as essential as they are too often neglected by our homegrown intelligentsia. But while looking back on the rich creative past that comics offers, Sarah pushes the form forward with deliriously crafted melodramas presented in vivid color, even when they are in black and white.
The Bacchae is Sarah’s first adaptation of a pre-existing work from another medium, a play by Euripides from the late 5th century BCE. This foray into ancient tragedy also brings Sarah’s comics to another audience even more self-conscious than small press art comics: classical reception. And yet, this is Sarah’s most artistically vivid work to date, with the same personal severity as her earlier work and an even higher level of craft. With the recent release of the first self-published issue, I spoke to Sarah briefly about the new work.
Helen Chazan: While I was reading your Bacchae, I kept thinking of that Fellini quote about his Satyricon where he calls it a “science fiction of the past.” I get a similar feel to the way you approach the Euripides play. Is the Thebes of your Bacchae a version of a real place, or somewhere that exists in your head?
Sarah Horrocks: It’s the place I imagined while reading the play. It’s always more important to me to get the emotion of a setting right, moreso than a hyper realistic and accurate drawing of a space. I think there’s merit to doing that (doing it based on an actual place), but it doesn’t really have that much to do with what I wanted to accomplish. I’m not interested in verisimilitude, just truth.
Many of your comics explore unlikely melodramas. Your longform work always circles back to complex families and people shouting about their feelings. Where does tragic theater fit into your melodramatic space?
I mean these are some of the earliest complex families and people shouting their feelings type of stories out there. Besides The Bacchae, I really want to adapt Electra at some point, and all that is, is like vicious interfamily insults and wailing. I feel like comics are the best medium for extreme heightened emotions. A comic where people don’t scream with emotion is only going at half speed in my opinion.
Are there any other classical plays that you think would make great comics? Did you ever get any strong visuals while reading that just weren't your own?
I’m sure there are, I mean it just comes down to the artist and what they vibe with. Like I’d get down for a Julia Gfrörer, Trojan Women comic. Blutch’s adaption of The Satyricon is one of my favorite comics. I also think a lot of poems would make good comics. Like Prometheus Unbound. Byron’s Don Juan. There’s actually a really cool comic adaption of Paradise Lost by Pablo Auladell that I definitely recommend.
There’s a lot of conversation in Classics about the ways we should present authors like Euripides to modern audiences. Were you ever worried to adapt an ancient work from English translations?
Not at all. The images I had were so vivid, it seemed really obvious to me how I was going to do it. I think Electra is the only other thing I’ve read where I had that experience in terms of the classics. Which isn’t to say I haven’t enjoyed other works, just those two; I read them and could see them in a way that fit my own thing really easily.
Your earlier comics often reference other genres and media deliberately, like the giallo pastiche in The Leopard, but this is your first outright adaptation. Did this change your process?
Not really. There’s probably more comic references in The Bacchae than there are in The Leopard, but maybe the same balance of film and comic references. Like I would say Goro is very influenced by Pazienza, Kyoko Okazaki, and Monkey Punch with some stray shots of like JRJR. On top of film references from Pasolini and Tsai Ming Liang. Bacchae there’s a nod to Ron Wimberly’s Prince of Cats, which I think is maybe the best most complex comic of the 21st century, and an adaption--so like I felt like I had to kind of pay respects--I think Blutch’s adaption of The Satryricon was pretty inspirational in the liberties I felt I could take, and then there’s some Sienkiewicz stuff in there, as there was in Goro--but that’s more because a lot of my primal images as an artist started at his work. I don’t know if references are even the right word for much of this, because I don’t know that recognizing any of these things is really about the reader, it’s more about me as an artist wanting to work with images that I consider important, figure out why they are important, and find where I am within that. My goal is not a post-modern hyper text in the end, but something that expresses the truth of where I’m coming from. I think my work has always been able to convey a certain tone that is mine, even when I was starting out. So each project I try to develop that even more. But I would say that I do fight against my work becoming postmodern and referential.
In Bacchae you’ve brought your idiosyncratic, intense approach to color further than ever before. Are you working with different media on this project?
Nope. I still am doing analog for pencils and inks, and then painting in digital. Though on some of the parts I’m just knocking out the inks altogether. It’s probably the most digital heavy work I’ve done in awhile. But I actually used to do art in this digital paint style a lot when I was starting out. I just fell in love with flats pretty early on in my sequential work--but I’m sure there are things I posted back in the whitechapel/millarworld days that had the more obvious precursors to this style.
Is this more textured style something you’ve always wanted to achieve in your art? Is there anything particular to this work that prompted these stylistic changes?
I’ve always been interested in more textural work. It was work like Sienkiewicz’s Stray Toasters that made me want to be a comic artist in the first place--and Alberto Breccia is a huge influence as well. I love texture because it gives you more dimensions to work in, and allows me to communicate my emotions as an artist behind the story or page. And I just think it looks cool.
I also had a revelation while reading Zanardi by Pazienza, that no matter what style I worked in, it would always look like me, so the coherency of a page can just simply be my inclinations as an artist. What communicates the emotion of this panel, of this page; what makes this composition right--and not: “well I drew that character like that in the previous panel, so I should keep with it”--to me the consistency is that it’s all coming out of my pen/brush.
As for anything prompting any change. I think Bacchae looks how it looks, because I’ve been working in black and white on Goro for a year, and wanted to do something in color again. But also that’s just kind of how I saw it in my head. Each comic should look the way that works best for what it is. So across Leopard, Goro, and Bacchae my style shifts wildly--but you can see this in my old old anthology work too where styles would shift radically between stories. I always see these things, and then do my best to put them out in front of me, even if it requires me to work differently than I ever have previously. If I had a comic that I thought I should do in watercolors, I would just learn how to do watercolors. That’s my approach to comics as an artist. I’ll never limit the stories I can tell by what I think I can or can’t achieve as an artist, for better or worse.
You’re also designing, printing and distributing your comics independently. Do you think this gives you more freedom than working with a traditional publisher? Have there been difficulties?
I would say the main difficulties is the amount of time it takes to fulfill orders and the money it costs to reprint things to keep everything in stock. Like I think I could be a lot more aggressive at getting my comics into shops, but it’s a lot of extra time in terms of emails and takes chunks of my stock that I can sell for more myself. I do have a really good relationship with Escape Pod Comics in New York, and they pretty much buy anything I put out to keep stock there, but that’s mostly been effort and excitement on their part, if it relied on me keeping in touch with them, I’m not very good with that yet. Maybe I’ll get better? Patreon helps a lot to be honest. A lot of months that is what I use to print stuff. But yeah. It’s not easy. But I like the freedom and directness of self-publishing. I make it. Sell it. Ship it. Anything that happens in that process I have control over. When you start dealing with a publisher in that process, I think there’s a lot of trust you have to have in that relationship, and I just haven’t built that relationship with anyone who it makes sense for them to carry work like mine. I mean even that side of it, “work like mine”--there’s really not work like mine. So I can’t go to a publisher and say here is a pre-established market for you to push this book through, beyond the people who already buy my work. The only area where that really bugs me is when I do a series, and like Goro is 8 issues long--that’s a lot to cart around at this point, and it’s a harder sell at 8 issues than it was at 1 issue--same thing with the Leopard. Collecting these larger works into singular volumes besides capstoning the project, I think would expand my market, because I think one whole completed thing is a lot more palatable to readers. So I haven’t figured out that side of it yet. I may have to do a kickstarter, which is nervewracking. I don’t know. I’ll figure it out. No one gets to just spool out their work and not have to worry about some aspect of this thing.
But yeah. I prefer having as much control as I can over what I make, and as few other names on the covers as I can get. Which I think is a trust issue as much as a creative decision ha.
Euripides’ Bacchae has strong homoerotic undertones, but your version is provocative in a way I’ve never seen. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on queer sexuality?
To me to be queer is to be provocative. I don’t want my sexuality turned into some like Will and Grace shit. If it must be, it should be, to the fullest. When I came out as trans I had no community around me for that. I didn’t know any other trans people I didn’t know anyone famous who was trans really. There were even less legal protections than we have now. But the first time I went out, I had these like leopard print pointy toed flats that I feel like had a bow three huge jewels--I had short hair, a five o’clock shadow, too much makeup, but the fuck if I cared. It’s insane looking back on it, how unsafe that was. But I think anyone LGBTQ can feel that impulse, that statement of intent against a society that hates you and wants you invisible--to not only be NOT invisible, but to be intensely visible, intensely present--I’m about that impulse. The harder they push, the more glorious we’ll show out.
This sense of being who you are proudly definitely resonates in your more sensual depiction of Tiresias and Cadmus, “Old Queens,” in your version.
That’s just how I saw it in my head. I honestly can’t see the play done any other way and for it to be true to what resonated for me with the play.
You’ve noted that your version of Pentheus is modeled off of Andrea Pazienza’s Zanardi. What spoke to you about Pazienza’s Italian fuckboy that made you want to cast him as a tragic hero?
He looks hot as hell in a skirt.
Finally, since I know you’re also working on a mecha comic at the moment, I wanted to ask you a very important question - Who would win in a fight, Dionysus or a Gundam?
The Turn A Gundam.
Why Turn A specifically? I reckon G Gundam would at least stand a chance.
I think Turn A and 00 Gundam are the only Gundams with crossdressing main characters in them. I went with Turn A because I like it more than the Virtue Gundam, plus Turn A is the main character’s Gundam and the main character usually wins.