“I Felt Like I Didn’t Have a Baby But At Least I’d Have a Book”: A Diane Noomin Interview

To do what?

The Smith Act was going to make it essentially illegal to be a communist. Starting in 1949 and continuing into the fifties most of the leaders of the CPUSA were arrested. The Communist Party leadership was afraid they were going to be raided and broken up and all their records and everything would be confiscated, so they sent a lot of people underground.

I have a friend whose mother was a communist, and she was sent to “commie camp.” So there were kids who knew their parents were communists. I never fit in anywhere. In Hempstead, I was one of two Jewish kids in my class- they let us say the Lord’s Prayer with our hands flat on the desk instead of folded in prayer. So there was a lot of hostility, which I didn’t personally experience, but my sister’s friend got tied to a tree and smeared with shit and called “dirty Jew.”

Was Canarsie better?

Canarsie was a modern shtetl. It was developed by a guy named Sol Waxman—he called it Seaview Village, not Canarsie. It was row upon row of identical brick duplexes Then, on the outskirts, there was a low-income project, mostly Puerto Ricans and blacks. I remember for a brief time I had a boyfriend from there named Gino. We hung out at the bowling alley across the street from the projects or in school playgrounds after dark. There was also an area of original houses built in the twenties. The people living there were mostly Italian. We were all supposed to go to JFK Jr. High together and blend. It was hard.

How did you find out your parents were communists?

They told me—but not until I was about thirty, and they told me in bits and pieces. It’s very mysterious to me still, unfortunately. There’s so much I don’t know. I interviewed my mother’s best friend from childhood—they were friends until my mother died—and I interviewed my uncle who lived out in San Francisco and was also a communist and had a lot of friends who were communists. I interviewed my father’s sister. I found out a lot of interesting stuff, but I didn’t ask my parents the right questions. My father said he was the leader of a cell, and I asked, “What does that mean? What did you do?” And he said, “I would go and get the orders, and I would come back and tell people what the plans were, what we were gonna do, whether we’re going to demonstrate.” And I said, “What if somebody didn’t want to do it?” And he said, “Then they didn’t do it.” But in reality I’ve read that there were a lot of people getting expelled from the Party.

But mostly I didn’t ask questions. I was fed information in dribs and drabs. I was told by my father that our house was a stop on the underground railroad for communists who were either trying to escape testifying before HUAC or going to jail.

Were your parents involved in any illicit activity?

Yes! I found this out after my mother and father had died, and I interviewed my mom’s friend. She said that my parents could never have afforded their house in Long Island, even with the G.I. Bill, and that the Communist Party helped pay for it, or bought it, and, in essence, that my parents were laundering money for the Party. My father had his own business and had a partner, and I have no idea if the business was part of it or not. I know his partner was not a communist. I just found this out within the last couple of years. It’s still very shocking.

Apparently the Party told members where to relocate and gave them the money to buy a house, which then became a safe house. I’m assuming they not only gave them shelter but also documents and money and papers so they could escape to Mexico or Czechoslovakia or wherever they were going.

Do you remember people that you didn’t know being in your house?

That’s also interesting. When my father told me this story about the underground, I must have looked kind of blank, because he said, “Don’t you remember all those uncles who used to come to the house?” I don’t remember any uncles. My sister doesn’t remember any uncles.

It’s like this deeply repressed memory—an internalized unspoken taboo. So even though we weren’t told anything that we shouldn’t know, somehow, as children, you get it. You get the message that this is really scary and you can’t talk about it, and so we can’t remember it. I have no memory of it at all.

Is your “Red Diaper Baby” book only about your family?

It’s about my family, and from that point of view you’ll also see the personal side of politics—real events like the Rosenberg trial—but only from a personal perspective. I’m not going to try to analyze communism in America. That would actually be easier than this. [Laughs].

Is it a lot of piecing together?

It’s a lot of piecing together, and memory is such a vague thing. I’ve been talking to relatives and friends and getting their memories about my parents. I sent away for Freedom of Information Act material, and they said that all records of my father were lost in a building that burned down. I find that really hard to believe. I got some records about my mother but only stuff from the sixties on, and they never sent me anything else and I know there was a lot. My mother and her friend joined the Young Communists when they were in high school, right before the war. This was really shocking to me—it was something I found out from my mom’s friend—they actually protested against the United States joining the war, World War II, because the Russians at that time were trying to avoid war. But at the same time, as Jews, they knew about Germany and what was going on. That’s how powerful the pull was. My mother and father were both emotional and idealistic communists. They weren’t writing treatises or anything like that. They just wanted things to be fair. My father was in the army in World War II. He was a Master Sergeant, and he was very smart. The army offered to send him to officer’s training school, but he said no. He didn’t want to be an officer. He wanted to be with the people.

Where did he fight?

He didn’t fight. He was stationed in England and his job was to go ahead of the fighters and build airstrips for the planes to land. I’m not sure where else he went. I found his old army jacket, and in the pocket was a ticket to an opera at a Viennese opera house. I know that after the war, my father did go look for friends or relatives in concentration camps. He would never talk about that.

Were you raised Jewish?

I was culturally Jewish. My parents were atheists. My mother told me, “You have to make up your own mind if there’s a God or not”—which, at that age, you just want, “Yes, there’s a God, don’t worry.” You don’t want to have to imagine death being the end of everything. We did go into Brooklyn for the Jewish holidays. My grandmother kept kosher, my mother’s sister kept kosher. I used to go to shul with my grandmother. At that time, orthodox didn’t quite mean what it means now, because now there are a lot of different factions—reform, Hassidic, etc. Orthodox was just the normal thing, but it did involve women going upstairs and men downstairs. I have very strong memories of doing that. And to me it was great fun, because it was something I got to do four or five times a year—march around with an Israeli flag with an apple on top. But mostly, I think I relate to the Jewish culture through humor and food.

How involved were you in the women’s movement?

It’s hard to say. I personally changed my life, left my husband, and maybe that was part of the woman’s movement and maybe it wasn’t. I did go to consciousness-raising groups at various times in New York, and I definitely agreed with what was going on. I read Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Doris Lessing, and I identified with a lot of what they said, but I didn’t go out and march. I did protest for more left-wing stuff, like against the Vietnam War. I had friends who were in a much more committed left-wing group, and they still had to go through a lot to stop the men from thinking the women were there to bake chocolate chip cookies while the men planned political actions.

Do you think DiDi is feminist?

Yes, in her way. Even though she’s obsessed with the trivial things about her body—trivial in the long view. At the same time, she can’t be pushed into doing anything she doesn’t want to do. She’s very strong that way. But I don’t really worry about that very much—feminist, not feminist. I’ve come to a point with DiDi that’s a big change for me actually. My criteria for comics is not whether something is feminist or not, I never think in those terms. It’s whether I like the art, whether I think it’s funny, whether it moves me. It’s very personal. I have to like the art and the writing, and that’s sometimes hard to find. I did submit something to Ms. once, and I thought that they would reject it because it wasn’t feminist enough for them, but they rejected it because they didn’t like the art.

Is that better or worse?

I don’t know. It was just funny.

Have your concerns changed in what you choose to write about?

That question is based on a false concept—that I choose to write about things. Something, an idea, comes to me, I might have a theme occasionally expected by a certain editor or publisher, and I’ll do that. Usually, I don’t choose to do a story—there’s not a whole lot of choice involved. It’s more like, “Well, this is going to come out this way, and how do I unlock it and just let it flow?” I can choose. I chose to do a DiDi story where she robbed a bank, but that came from a combination of seeing a newspaper article that said women were now committing more crimes due to feminism, and to the fact that back in the days, when you used to line up in banks, before ATMs, I always imagined that they were looking at me and thinking I was going to rob the bank. So it’s surprising the way stuff comes out.

Why did you start making appearances in your own work?

I had occasionally drawn myself as myself. I just had never drawn myself and DiDi having a relationship. But it just seemed like the most natural thing in the world. And I know it’s myself talking to myself, but it’s not. So when I did “Baby Talk”, the story I did after “Back to the Bagel Belt”, which had DiDi and me in it, I used that even more. In “Baby Talk”, I started out thinking I could do the story hiding behind two characters, but I found out I couldn’t. It was just too personal. I was crying. I couldn’t do it from a distance, even though it was many, many years later. So I made a timeline, because it was all kind of one big horrible experience—the eighties was my miscarriage decade. It wasn’t just that—it was also the decade of the Nicklettes and the show—but I thought of it that way. It seemed like the most natural thing to have DiDi drag me out and do it right. So all of that just happened, and then she was the perfect foil. If it was getting too serious, too heavy, too maudlin, DiDi would come along and ask me what color nail polish to wear.

Are there other very personal stories in which you play a large role?

There is an unfinished, very long story that I put aside for a long time and still haven’t gotten back to—where the whole DiDi talking to me thing was in full flow, and it’s a story within a story. It’s called “Everybody Dies”, and it’s about what happened to me when it seemed like my whole family was dying. I wanted to do a story about it, but it was just too hard. I had DiDi in it, and I had decided, within that story, that it was going to be a murder mystery, and she solves the murder mystery and occasionally we go in an out of that story together. I put one or two of the covers in the book. One’s called “Decorated to Death: A Tale of Bourgeois Noir”—that’s the story within the story. I wanted to do it without a deadline and just see how long it became, whether it became a whole book or not, but I haven’t gotten back to it, though I got fairly far along.

Do you think you’ll finish it?

I don’t know, I might. I’m still interested in it, and I’m still interested in the interplay. I think most cartoonists have at least one story they haven’t finished and might still like it, but somehow they haven’t gotten back to it. I really have been concentrating a lot on sculpting and I haven’t quite figured out how to do both. I have a great studio. I have all my comic stuff downstairs and my sculpture stuff upstairs, but I rent a studio in a nearby town with a bunch of other women and we hire models together and someone to teach us how to make molds, and I really like going there. It’s not that far, and we support each other. It’s just a very natural way that it works.

I’m curious about your relationship with DiDi. You said that she arrived fully formed, and you’ve described her as your alter ego.

Maybe alter ego implies too much of a similarity, even though it also implies a difference, but I don’t know what else to call it. When we did the musical comedy, I had to train everybody to talk in Brooklyn accents, and DiDi definitely has a specific voice. I played her in the "Zippy for President" video. That’s in the book, but what isn’t in the book is that it was eleven in the morning, and the cognac was real.

Are you and DiDi alike in any way?

There must be some way—she came out of me. I never wanted to be an interior decorator, but I do love drawing all that stuff, and I do have a huge collection of Home and Garden magazines from the forties and fifties and definitely get inspiration from that.

That’s interesting, because there’s so much patterning in every panel.

It’s interesting to me, too, because I thought that it was because I was doing scratchboard work, but I started out that way before I did scratchboard work. Like the story in Twisted Sisters, “The Fabulous World of DiDi Glitz”—that had lots of patterns in it. I didn’t want to do crosshatching. I wanted to create tones and space—there’s something primitive about it. Like if she’s wearing a flowered bathrobe, I’ve got to draw all the flowers. It’s not consciously naïve—I have been called that, but it’s not true.

Do you still do scratchboard?

Yes. Once I started doing scratchboard I really didn’t go back. I use white scratchboard. With black scratchboard, you have to scratch away the black to make anything white, but with the white scratch board you can draw black on white with a regular pen, then fill in the black areas and scratch into them. So you get both, and that lends itself to pattern. And I like the feel of it. When I was in high school I majored in graphics and sculpture, and the graphics mostly involved linoleum blocks and things like that. I wasn’t doing etching yet, although we did do some etching on acetate, instead of metal. I think the scratchboard is going back to that, like linocuts. It seems very natural to me.

In “DiDi Has an Orgasm”, and again in “Glitz to Go”, the grid of women’s faces reminds me of Jim Nutt’s portraits—both because of the geometric, planar quality of the faces and because of the patterned backgrounds. Have you ever looked at his work?

I don’t think I knew about him at the time. I found out about the Hairy Who after I had started doing my stuff because I was told it looked like theirs. And I thought that was nice, but it wasn’t a direct influence.

What about Basil Wolverton?

I love Basil Wolverton.

Those two stories also remind me of his grotesques.

If you see that, I take it as a great compliment.

I think most of the influences might be unconscious, and I’m not someone who has a whole lot of choice. There are people who have such great academic skills that they can say, “I’ll do this style or I’ll do this style.” Mine is just what I do. I like that, and I think it’s very direct, and I’m grateful for it.

How hard was it to come out about the miscarriages in “Baby Talk,” to come out, as you put it, from behind the mask, onto the page?

It was hard. But it felt like that was the only way the story was going to happen, so I had to do it. Then, once it started, it was okay. It felt better. It didn’t feel right doing it the way I started it. And I don’t think I could have done it without humor.

Was it an important story for you to do?

Oh, yeah. To edit that whole experience down to ten pages was incredibly difficult, because there was just so much that was part of it. I had to simplify it, and I felt like I didn’t have a baby but at least I’d have a book. When the first Twisted Sisters collection came out it was like, “Okay, the birth of that …”

Were the anthologies important for you to do?

Very important. I also think it was important for all of the cartoonists who were in it. What I’ve heard from them says so. I was happy to be able to choose work only from people whose art I wanted and not feel forced, like with Wimmen’s Comix, into having stuff I didn’t like. It seemed very logical to me, the people I chose, and everybody wanted to do it and nobody was a pain in the ass. It helped that it was all stuff that had been printed before. When I did the second anthology with Kitchen Sink—that was much harder, because you’re actually editing your peers. And I wanted to include more young artists, like Dame Darcy and Fiona Smith, and people who hadn’t been in the first anthology, like Carol Swain.

I’m very proud of the Twisted Sisters anthologies. I did a huge amount of work in terms of just keeping in touch with all the artists and organizing publicity and just designing it. And all of it paid off.

Would ever do another one?

I’ve thought about it. I actually had a contract for one, and I was going to do it with Andrea Juno, who did RE/Search magazine. Phoebe Gloeckner did a lot of work with her. They were going to publish it. I was going to make it with fewer cartoonists and longer stories. I was going to call it Twisted Sisters: Gang of Five. I had a $10,000 advance, but I gave it back because I was in no shape to do it. I had a lot of personal tragedies happen—my mom was in the hospital—and I just couldn’t deal with it.

Is it still important to have an anthology of only women cartoonists?

No. I think that was important at one time because it really made an impression. People said, “Where did you find all these great female cartoonists?” Unfortunately, it’s largely been forgotten by a younger generation of women cartoonists.

You think so?

I do, and I’m very surprised. At the Small Press Expo, I heard a young woman cartoonist on a panel talk about how she felt really isolated and that when she found another woman cartoonist she felt real connected and happy. She didn’t know anything about Twisted Sisters and all those women cartoonists. It’s like too many decades, too many generations, have gone by.

Have you ever found it hard to be in a relationship with a male cartoonist and have people focus on your work?

I side-stepped that. Aline and I did opposites once again. Her thing was changing her name to Crumb, and I never changed my name. People who weren’t friends didn’t know for a long time that Bill and I had gotten married. For about the first five years of my being a cartoonist, someone would ask what I did and I would say, “I’m trying to be a cartoonist.” Eventually I stopped caring what anyone thought. But I still don’t use Bill’s name, and I’d rather not be labeled as “the cute cartooning couple.”

There must be benefits to being a cartooning couple.

One thing that’s really good is you understand each other. You understand the pressures, you understand deadlines, and “I’m sorry I’m not coming up to dinner because I have to finish this.” You’re in the same world.

In the beginning it was harder, because he was better known, and I didn’t want people to think I was riding on his coattails. Though I think inevitably some did. I was included in Arcade, just a half page. They also gave Aline a half page, and many other people, too. George Kuchar had a half page. Eventually I graduated to a whole page. [Laughs.] But it’s a really hard job being an editor. Bill and Art were very scrupulous, and they took it very seriously. I think they did a wonderful job.

You can learn a lot from a good editor.

Those Arcades are like little jewels. They had cartoonists that hadn’t been discovered, and old comics, and writers like Charles Bukowski.

The Publishers Weekly review of Twisted Sisters 2 refers to the pieces in the book as “women’s art.” Do you ever think of it that way?

No, but I think that unless you’re a white, Anglo-Saxon male, you’re going to have an adjective. You’re going to be a black artist or an Asian artist or a woman artist. I don’t know if that’ll ever change. There’s a saying that you don’t care what they call you as long as they spell your name right.