“Dolls Ask Something Different”: A Roundtable On Doll-Making & Comics

Most cartoonists I know not only have a day job but a side art practice as well, usually music, sometimes painting or writing, a few far-outliers like dance. Often, there's an aesthetic overlap with their comics; if I like your graphic novel, I'm going to like your band.  

Flexing secondary art muscles, especially during a creative block, helps keep the muse juiced up. It's also a nice respite from the labor-intensive and fairly thankless act of comics-making, which may be why so many cartoonists' side projects are something the general public recognizes as Fine Art. It would take a certain craziness to pour yourself into two mediums that will only break your heart.

Dolls, for instance, must fall lower than comics on the legitimacy scale. I doubt there's real money, recognition, or career opportunities to be had by making dolls. If I were a serious and established cartoonist, I wouldn't consider it. But there are several top-tier cartoonists who are, for reasons of their own, doll makers.

Phoebe Gloeckner, Nina Bunjevac, Julia Gfrörer, and Dame Darcy have been making some of the most heavy, strange, beautiful, and dark comics on the scene for years.  They've also been making dolls. Their dolls share an aesthetic with their comics, but also have their own artistic and narrative lives.

As art objects, dolls ask something different of the viewer than a comic asks of a reader.  As a medium, they require something different from the creator. I chatted with each of these artists to find out why and how they make dolls. - Kate Lacour


Phoebe Gloeckner

Kate Lacour: OK, my sense was that the project came first, the subject matter, and the dolls were an artistic solution to like 'how do I approach this'...?

Phoebe Gloeckner: Actually, it was slightly different. I was asked initially to go to Juarez, Mexico, to write a story about murdered women and girls [for "I Live Here," Pantheon Graphic Library]. And that later turned into 'well, I'm doing a novel,' because the story I was being asked to do was just so superficial. But when I started to draw the full story, I'm looking at all these police reports, and at the same time I had little kids, like you, little girls. And as a mother, that's the worst thing to think about- someone killing a child, right?  

So I didn't want to do this story, either, it was making me feel just very badly, literally reading about all these little children being murdered in horrible ways. I just couldn't wrap my head around it. I kept kind of rejecting it mentally and emotionally. And at the same time I had been illustrating the Joys of Sex Toys for a client, and I'm drawing a particular sex toy, this series of butt plugs, you know each one bigger than the last one? Doing pretty illustrations of these things. And at the same time I'm reading a police report about a girl who'd been taken out to the desert and anally raped with a splintered two by four. Which killed her. She bled to death in the desert. Trying to think about that story and think about the pleasure of butt plugs... all my wires got crossed.

You know, I'd been drawing these very violent scenarios, and when you're drawing without a picture of it, you're imagining it and your head's working like a 3D program. It was just too much inside it for me. And so I had this idea- which is not a new idea, many people have done it- which was to use dolls. I would use dolls, and I could kill them, I could rape them, I could mangle them, and in the morning I could wipe the blood off and they would be alive again. So it created a sort of magical thinking, where I no longer felt like the perpetrator of the crime, as I did when I was drawing it. I felt like I was using these dolls as actors and they wouldn't really suffer.

But then it developed further, because I was trying to go to Juarez as often as I could, which was maybe two or three times a year, and I couldn't stay for very long at a time. And as I got more and more into the story I felt more and more remote. I just wanted to be there. I was building replicas of peoples' houses, making dolls of the specific people I was writing about, building houses and neighborhoods and deserts and mountains. And I would sit there, in the sand, like a giant surrounded by little people and houses, and I could feel just like I was there. It was a transportive thing, and it was able to get me closer to the story.

Of course, it's crazy! There are so many difficulties to doing this. What I'm trying to do is take beautiful photographs of these things and do an illustrated novel, and the question becomes 'what is the art'? Is it the three dimensional thing? Is it the photograph? I feel conflicted about that sometimes. I spend far too much time on little details. But then, I did that when I was drawing my comics too.  

Amazing. And that sounds like, a little contradictory? Like the original impulse was to put in a little distance from the violence versus drawing comics, but then working with everything surrounding you in 3D sounds super-immersive.

Phoebe Gloeckner: Yeah, I mean it does in a sense bring you closer to the subject, it immerses you. But I do very weird things around that! Like if I've got a girl doll, and I know she's going to die in a scene I'm about to shoot, for a few nights beforehand I'll let her sleep in my bed.

Are you funny with objects, like sentimental?  I was reading where Carrol Spinnay, the Big Bird muppeteer, was meeting with Jim Henson and at one point Jim kicks an Oscar the Grouch muppet out of the way and Carrol was like running over, picking it up and going "noooooo, Oscar!" But, you know, it was just a thing to Henson.

Phoebe Gloeckner: Well, if you're drawing a person, especially if it's someone you know, you really project all your feelings about them, and there's some communication between that person and you as you're recreating them. And that's even more true with making dolls. It takes me a very long time to make them, and I'm really trying to have them embody who I think the person is. So they do become almost alive.

I did one story a while ago about dolls who come alive (A Shoulder to Cry On) and I realized recently that it has parallels with what I'm doing now. More so than the way I played with dolls.

What do you make them from?

Phoebe Gloeckner: All kinds of things. There's a wire armature so I can pose them and I felt the bodies. It's a long process but in some ways it's pleasing. Like I I felt them very, very densely, so when you pick them up they weigh as much, proportionally, as a human would. So it feels like a being. The advantage of felt is that if it's dense enough you can actually carve it, so after you've photographed that doll you can actually carve them into a different person. You can also add to it, it's malleable in that way. But then wire has a lifespan. It will break if you bend it over and over. I experimented with every kind of wire, with ball and socket joints. If you could look under the skin of my dolls they would all have a different armature. I was experimenting. And I had to learn how to sew, to felt, to build, to use power tools.

That's crazy. And you learned Spanish and photography for this.

Phoebe Gloeckner: Yeah, learning photography was no mean feat! And now I have so much stuff. I'm always at thrift stores and junk yards looking for materials. You accumulate all this crap you never would if you were just drawing. And I have to keep it in case I need to shoot a scene again.

OK, last thing... dolls are sort of this uncanny thing where it's both a person and an object. I would think people who commit violence are not actually grasping the other person as a person in that moment, like they're just an automaton thing. Does that play into what you're doing at all?

Phoebe Gloeckner: Oh, I don't think that's the case at all. I think someone who's killing someone wants them to be a feeling living person, and suffering, that's the thrill. A doll, you know that it's not feeling pain. Unless you're that muppeteer, I guess. He's projecting some living quality on that object. And I do that too, but I'm very aware of them as objects. I can kill them, the next day I can resurrect them. So there's something both living and nonliving about them. Not even living and dead, living and nonliving. And, in my mind, that rescues them.


Nina Bunjevac

So I was thinking how dolls are kind of special as a bastard art form- they have this infantile feminine association, whereas comics are, like, infantile masculine. At least in this culture.

Nina Bunjevac: That's an interesting take. I began making the dolls at a very strange point in my life, after exhausting the medium of oil painting, and going through an extremely difficult stage in my life. It felt like exorcism. It was cathartic. I began making comics soon after. 

Your doll images are intriguing. I'm really curious about them, and I also suspect there's a social, maybe political, context that they fit into that I'm not aware of. They're such intense and specific characters.

Nina Bunjevac: I started making these dolls at a very low point in my life. This was about the same time I began thinking about doing comics. Up to that point I had been painting on canvass, but painting just wasn’t doing it for me any more. I was married at the time. My mother in law, whom I was very close to, collected dolls. 

At some point, I found some polymer clay at an art supply store, and began playing with it. The material seemed perfect for doll parts. I began to sculpt the heads, feet and hands, and paint them intricately, using fur or human hair to finish it off. I would construct the bodies out of fabric, filling them with whatever I found on hand: millet, sand, cornmeal. This was a decision I would come to regret, as the bodies of the dolls eventually became infested with pantry moths, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the sculpting of the heads and faces was a cathartic experience. I remember weeping as the features would emerge. Everything that lay hidden and buried in my unconscious just came pouring out. So, in a way, there are some political overtones, as I had not yet dealt with my father’s legacy of violent ultra-nationalism, or the fact that I come from a war-torn country, and the feelings of displacement.  Up to this point, I had not even began to realize that I was suffering from PTSD, and undergoing therapy or analysis was the furthest thing from my mind. 

So, in a way, the making of these dolls was a starting point for me to realize that I have issues, because these dolls were not your regular cuddly things, they were violent children, children amputees, people restrained in straitjackets, and homeless people. 

Could you tell me a little about any of them individually, or the exhibit as a whole? It's very painterly, really composed, but also narrative. I also love how it's an installation you can walk around in. I would have a really hard time not touching everything.

Nina Bunjevac: In 2005, I was invited to participate in a group show titled Shock and Awe, at Spin gallery in Toronto, with an installation of my dolls, for which I was given ample floor space. It was perfect for a sculpture installation. In order to present the dolls properly, I needed to incorporate them within a larger installation. This way the dolls would become the components of the larger piece. 

The setup ended up looking like a playroom from hell, with a vintage tram painted in camouflage, a wall built of bouncy sandbags, a found and repurposed lightbox, a vintage medication shipping drum, a found sewing box, vintage sewing supplies, and my favorite – a dress I once painstakingly sewed out of Italian triple-foil silk crepe, to a 1950's pattern, and cut into rose-petal sized pieces. 

A lot of stacking and arranging of things took place. As a centerpiece, I built a life-sized figure of a woman emerging out of the open sewing box, by casting my own head and building on it.

I'd love to know if there was a path to picking up doll-making once you'd worn out painting as a medium. I mean, there are so many other directions you could have gone in, embroidery or photography or what have you.

Nina Bunjevac: I am not entirely sure why I picked up the dolls. It may have something to do with the fact that I did not have a doll of my own, or a proper one, until I was gifted one by my stepdad, around the age of eight or nine. Up to that point, I was a kid who was given books, paper and pens to make something out of it. I enjoyed crafts, and making paper dolls. 

Looking from this perspective, after years of therapy and analysis, I think that a part of me was identifying my current state, with the state I was in before my stepdad came onto the scene. Before him, life was not very good. And because I had repressed so much emotion, for so long, my shadow became palpable. From somewhere deep within me this child attempted to emerge again, demanding to be heard.

And do the art forms of drawing/comics and dolls/installation have any relationship with one another, for you? I ask because I seem to remember seeing some images of a comics art exhibit where you installed a couple of these dolls [Out of the Fatherland, Art Gallery of Ontario].

Nina Bunjevac: At some point, as I was completing the installation for Shock and Awe, I realized that I was building a narrative by playing with different elements of the piece. It was my love for the narrative component that I took away from this experience. Creatively, I had been in a rut for so long, because painting is such a static medium. This experience led me to take on comics more seriously, and focus on writing.

I still do occasional sculpture installation pieces, and I like to change mediums. As far as the dolls go, I no longer feel the urge to make them.


Dame Darcy

Your dolls are dynamite and you've been doing them since forever.

Dame Darcy: Yes, I’m obsessed with dolls and always have been. My doll daughter/ granny/ parasitic twin, Isabelle, holds a special place in my life and psyche too. She has her own personality, she does interviews, she has her own instagram [@isabelledoll1927].  These photos are from when Isabelle and I went to Key West and the Caribbean on a vacation a few weeks ago.

Wow, look at her.  I'm sure people say that Isabelle looks like Dare Wright's [eccentric photographer and author] Lonely Doll.  So much feminine mystique there.

Dame Darcy: Thanks for being so astute. Isabelle loves the Dare Wright books and we made a version of Red Riding Hood inspired by her.

It still needs to be published; I created it as a series for my agent to pitch as part of a feminist fairytale series. I don't usually do kids' books, but it was fun and combines illustration with photographs of Isabelle and other dolls and props I made in the ancestral red wood forest near Astoria, Oregon.

Anyways, Scholastic wanted it but the board said they already had a feminist fairytale title. Which is such a sexist thing to say! It's probably better to self publish it anyways- we can keep our cut and put the money it back into the haunted house hotel we're developing.

That would be Meat Cake Manor, the B&B you're planning in Savannah?

Yes. Actually, the doll house is a model of it and also a witchcraft altar to manifest Meat Cake Manor haunted house hotel and witchcraft center. It has theme rooms based on my comic book characters. 

I dreamed of Meat Cake Manor as a giant doll house that could spin around and had the back wall missing so all the rooms could be displayed. Huge concrete painted dolls in front of the gate, half sunken into the yard by the all-black flower garden. When we get the real house I’m definitely doing the concrete statue dolls and the black garden. Thanks for the ideas, dreams! 

Ultimately, Meat Cake Manor will also have a zine and comics library, a witchcraft Goddess Reparations center with lots of events, virtual and otherwise. And an entire doll tower for Isabelle! Plus a high gate for protection because even though Georgia just turned Blue, I’m still continuing to prep for the apocalypse. 

And there's currently a Patreon to support this project and make it happen faster [pateron.com/damedarcy]!  I gift my supporters dolls, original illustrations, comix, graphic novels, etc.

I'm glad the human-size haunted dollhouse enterprise is still coming into fruition. Going back to the dolls themselves, how did that get started?  Was that in tandem with your comics practice?

Dame Darcy: I’ve always drawn stories crafted dolls and played out stories with dolls with other kids. My childhood was made from this. Maybe the stories are what binds the comics and the dolls together. And both comics and dolls can be made from anything. So egalitarian.

Perhaps drawing comics and crafting dolls manifests a perfect reality that I can have control over and escape from the endless tedium and mundane trash culture of todays modern world. 

Oh, yeah, and your music and performance and writing is also made up of magical stories.  I think that's the only way for an illuminated mind to survive reality.

Dame Darcy: The way the dolls look and the stories of the comics are like a beacon to other like-minded souls and a response to the idiotic reality creations of the gross and violent mainstream. These dumdums can’t kill creativity and critical thinking, literature and witchcraft, and the dumdums do not dictate their racist reality to everyone. They misrepresent and under-represent everyone but white guys and they cant just bulldoze over the mermaid fairy message of The Goddess. Which is: Liberty and Life. 

I admire how your work, across all these mediums, seems deeply committed to manifesting that inner fantasy on the physical plain.

Dame Darcy: I love Tasha Tudor [whimsical mid century children's book illustrator], who lived in a Victorian fairytale where she dressed in turn of the century clothes, painted her beautiful watercolor books and crafted dolls, lived in a farm house with only candles and fireplaces and had no electricity. She was hard core #cottagecore.

My Great Grandma, who was a homesteader in Idaho in the 1920s gave me her book, A Time To Keep, when I was a kid. She used to craft dolls with me and encouraged my drawing. She taught me to read and write before kindergarten so I could write my own picture books. And as a child I always wanted to live this way. 

Granny weathered the lonely, cold, long winters to own the property of the ranch where I was raised three generations later in the 80s. She supported her family as a teacher during the Great Depression. It was on this ranch, the Rocky Mountain version of Eden, where I was raised in the wild and never got to live that free again.  Maybe I will be able to after i die. 


Julia Gfrörer

So I didn't know you made dolls in a serious way.

Julia Gfrörer: I'm not sure whether I qualify as "serious" about it, because it's something I actively avoid doing. I hate having a bunch of dolls around the house, I feel responsible for them.  

But I compulsively make human figures in any medium, I always have. Ever since I was little I was making tiny rag dolls and clothespin dolls and worry dolls out of toothpicks.  Still now, if you give me a piece of clay I'll make a person, and then I have to paint it and make clothes for it.

This book, Goldie the Dollmaker [about a child who makes dolls as art] was enormously influential on me when I was little. I also made dolls for my kids when they were younger, and clothes for their various toys.

I feel like making and manipulating a little homunculus over and over is a compulsion for certain people, maybe people who make "heavy" comics fit that.

Julia Gfrörer: Interesting. I know that with Phoebe [Gloeckner], part of the reason she wanted to do dolls for her Juárez project was so that she wouldn't have to create a static image where the pain was frozen in amber. With a doll, you can play with it and then put it away; you can fix it.

Well, dolls are figurative and narrative like comics, but the agency/passivity shit is different, right? It's not a doll if you don't interact with it. It'd be just a small sculpture.  

Julia Gfrörer: Since I started writing [erotic] fanfic, I think a lot about how similar it is to playing with dolls. It's not uncommon for fanfic writers to refer to that urge as "wanting to make your dolls kiss."  

And I played with dolls almost exclusively, growing up. I had dozens, complicated relationships and backstories. I played with dolls until I was probably, like, 14?  Sometimes with my mom or my friends, but also just by myself for hours. I was an only child.

Same, I kept it up until the brink of high school. I think that kind of play is considered a “healthy” trauma response. Like in dissociative personality disorder you’re fully inhabiting these split off personality parts, which is obviously really maladaptive. Assigning that energy to a little body gives it a space to live that’s separate.

Julia Gfrörer: Interesting! I often think that's the impulse I'm coming from when I write. What if that traumatized person could go off and have their own life, you know? I know I've said this a lot before, but it's all about finding a method that allows you to handle material that's essentially radioactive. There's so much stuff that's just too painful and too ugly to talk about, but if you fictionalize it you can talk about it. It's no longer about you, it's about this guy over there. And this guy can do and say stuff you can't, can work through it in ways you can't do.

Yes!  And you’re not really responsible or accountable for that guy's actions.

Julia Gfrörer: Yes, but at the same time I really resent when people are like "oh, so this character is really you, right?"

There's a presumptuous "gotcha" in that.

Julia Gfrörer: Totally. This was the hardest thing for me to overcome in becoming an artist and a writer of fiction: the fear that people are going to read into it and think they know something about me. But as it turns out, a lot of the insights people think they have about me based on my work are wrong.

Well I won't read into your dolls. But can you tell me more about them, what they are and how you made them?  

Julia Gfrörer: So one of these is a harpy- the dollar store bird body was leftover after we used the head for a halloween costume. One is Mordred [Arthurian villain], my attempt at making a man doll for my son when he was little, but he has no interest in toys of this kind. Mordred's shirt comes off, too.

There's Archangel Michael, our Christmas tree topper, whom I made because I didn't have a topper for my first Christmas tree, around 10 years ago. And Jadwiga, a Baba Yaga doll. I made her about six months before I started writing Flesh and Bone [self-published/Thuban Press], which is a comic about a witch named Jadwiga.

How did she come about- did she play a role in the book idea?

Julia Gfrörer: When I was first pregnant I had a lot of dreams about witches. At that time I wasn't doing fiction or comics really at all, my art practice was very much focused on drawing from life, so it didn't make sense then to draw her, but I had ended up with this big brick of Fimo for some reason, so I sculpted her. I had read somewhere that "Yaga" as in Baba Yaga is a nickname for Jadwiga (the Polish variant of Hedwig). 

Later on when Dylan Williams asked me to write a fiction comic for him to publish it seemed natural to write it about her. Jadwiga in Flesh and Bone was inspired mostly by the unnamed witch in "The Fisherman and His Soul" by Oscar Wilde, the witches from His Dark Materials, and of course Baba Yaga.

In addition to her conversations with the above artists, Lacour also spoke with Isabelle Doll. That conversation is presented below.