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April 26, 2014

CR Sunday Guest Interview: Anne Ishii Interviews Sophie Yanow About War Of Streets And Houses

imageSophie Yanow debuted War Of Streets And Houses earlier this month at MoCCA Festival. I happened to have had a miserable time trying to attend MoCCA because of bad planning and perfect weather: Sixth Avenue was closed from 23rd to 28th for a street fair celebrating the year's first consecutive hours of weather that wasn't DEFCON 1. If that complaint feels outsized for the setup to an author interview, it is because in my part-time capacity writing about open architecture systems, urbanism is almost a forced fascination. I am sure this is something I can fix... with writing...

Finally, I reach the Park Avenue armory and peruse the ranks. It is the last place I expect to see this work: an honest and engaging peak into the real dimensions of urbanism, civil unrest and architecture; in a graphic novel barely spanning 70 pages stacked at a small booth with three guys. For that, War Of Streets And Houses may also be profound in its ability to render something as pedantic as cultural theory and as pedestrian as a protest memoir work into an artistic comic book. So here is someone who's written a book about a system that was desperate to get fixed -- Montreal's university wages and tuition referendum, and the pursuant student protests of 2012 -- and given it a poetics. I feel I can learn from this; not solutions, as Yanow points out, but a way to ask questions.

The importance of Yanow's urbanism is covered with greater fidelity over at The Atlantic. but there's plenty to think about as to the subtlety of her approach. Yanow achieves an emotion that seems ultimately so fitting for cartoon and comics arts: Ambivalence. It felt appropriate to meet after MoCCA -- to avoid any more traffic. We talked over a bad adult contemporary Spotify station in a coffee shop full of tired tourists. No matter: we managed to keep the talk anything but small. -- Anne Ishii


ANNE ISHII: Why don't we start with this book? You mentioned it's your first full-length. Why this story? Why did you feel this story had to be a full-length?

SOPHIE YANOW: I think it was a combination of things. Tom Kaczynski had told me he wanted to put something out with me. I gave him copies of In Situ and said offhandedly in an e-mail, "Oh yeah, if you ever want to put something out..." and it was sort of at a period of transition at Uncivilized [Books]. I had been the mini comics buyer at Comic Relief, so I had another relationship with him based on buying minis, but was a big fan of Uncivilized. Then Tom said, "By the way, we're a real publisher now." [laughter] It was convergent.

It was the culmination of what was going on in Montreal, too, because when Tom invited me to send something, it had been four-five months I was working on my comics and started thinking about architecture and the strikes. I just thought it would be perfect for Tom because he studied architecture and his comics are a lot about architecture. His mini-comics talk about it. The structure series, architectural forums... Also he was publishing Gabrielle Bell, who is my total favorite cartoonist. Uncivilized was just a perfect place.

ISHII: I was going to ask about the personal artistic process, but it sounds like it's really tied into your relationship with your editor.

YANOW: Yeah, in some ways. Well, I was thinking about this stuff, anyway, but I thought it would be cool to do this project with somebody, or having a relationship with somebody, who maybe knows a little bit more. I would do my own research and send pencils to Tom, which were super rough. Like, "I'm kind of thinking about this," and "I'm kind of thinking about that." I don't know if Tom has given a lot of feedback on other books he's worked on, but in my case, I was asking him for it directly. When we first started, he asked if I wanted it loose or to get strong editorial input. I took him up on the editorial input.

ISHII: Do you workshop with anyone else or have other peers or groups you collaborate with?

YANOW: In Montreal I'm part of a studio called La Maison de la Bande Dessinee, Vincent Giard was my editor at Colosse, and while I was working on this book I was also drawing my zines or mini comics, and he always had some sort of input. It's sort of another convergence. He had just stated a real publishing company, La Mauvaise Tête. That was my local thing. I had some input from Vincent, definitely, and Sébastien Trahan, his co-editor. They helped me a lot in the end process. Tom helped with narrative and clarifying things, and Vincent and Sebastian, who are native French speakers, helped me a lot with verifying my sources and end notes and stuff.

A whole meta-narrative surfaced from the process of making end notes, actually.

ISHII: Do you think the tenor of your artwork changes with the language? Because as you said there's a more intense striking tradition in French, for example?

YANOW: I think a lot of things influence my art, just being in a francophone place, for example. That's what I wanted out of going to Montreal. In terms of language stuff, I'm not sure. I started doing some journal comics that are more silent... I don't know if that's a result of that.


ISHII: You say a lot in very few words. The placement and organization of information and artwork is to me, the most interesting aspect. I just wondered how much of that has to do with where you've been and where you are now, because this style feels like being in a lot of places at once. And you're a bit of a vagabond… I'd almost call this vagabond art. Can you tell me a bit about that?

YANOW: I think my process has changed due to necessity; to meet the lifestyle I wanted after a certain while. Yeah, I think idealized having a portable process.

ISHII: Ooh. Can you describe what a portable process is?

YANOW: The way that I work now is influenced a lot by Gabrielle Bell. I always wondered how I could just do something in a notebook. So I draw panels on graph paper, first. That's where a lot of the rhythm comes from in the comics I do. So generally, I'll draw on the graph paper as I'm out and about and when I have down time in a studio or somewhere I have a lightbox, I redraw them.

ISHII: So you're actually drawing in situ...

YANOW: Sometimes, yeah. I mean not always. But especially when I was doing journal comics, when I was doing them really regularly, wherever I was, I told myself "I have to try to do one everyday." If I saw a moment of opportunity I'd just say "I have to do it right now. I'm going to do it."

ISHII: Do you want to try other modes of drafting? Do you want to do less portable, more permanent, like... do you see yourself doing hours of watercolors in a studio?

YANOW: [laughs] I don't know, the thing is I did that kind of thing for a while. Like my past work. This one thing I did... it was full color, drafted on a computer, but it bogged me down. I realized I'm more interested in rhythm. I'm not interested in telling one perfect story. I think trying to pursue the perfect story is impossible. That story might be a one-page comic, too. I used to be like "graphic novel! graphic novel! graphic novel!" but I just failed, over and over again.

imageISHII: Tell me about the failure process. (Laughter)

YANOW: Well, basically I had a reluctance to do memoir and for a long time... I grew up a nerd. I mean a lot of people say they were a geek when they were little, but I played magic cards and played DDR every weekend through high school. In that culture, inventing stories was the thing. I was writing a personal blog at the time but I never thought of that as my work. It was just this thing that I was doing. But then I got into university and was like, "OK, I'm really going go to buckle down and make those comics!" I tried making these weird fantasy stories about a bike messenger in San Francisco, with Greek mythology... and then it just didn't work. I totally lost interest. Repeatedly.

ISHII: What do you think finally made it OK for you to do memoir?

YANOW: I feel like I tricked myself into doing it. While I was working at Comic Relief, I finished a 30-something page full-color comic and printed it and brought it to Stumptown but I was so embarrassed by it. I didn't want to do it. At all.

ISHII: Why were you embarrassed?

YANOW: It really failed in a lot of ways. I found it boring and maybe I'm just not good at fiction! I could have said more if I just talked about the reasons why I was making this, than to write the story itself. I didn't feel like it amounted to... I think ultimately for myself my life is more interesting than anything I can come up with.

ISHII: I'm more curious about why you felt this way but don't want to make you talk about anything too personal.

YANOW: Basically what happened was I was really tired of working at the comic shop and my friend Jacq Cohen had recently become the publicity assistant at Fantagraphics, and I was like, "Hey... I'm looking to be an intern somewhere... I don't know where..." and Jacq said, "Come be my intern, dummy!" So I moved to Seattle and slept on my ex-girlfriend's couch and lived on food stamps. In that time, I was reading a ton of poetry. Like Eileen Myles' Inferno had just come out while I was there and [reading it] I was like, "Fuuuuuuck," and it kind of broke something in me.

ISHII: That's great! I like that answer. I love Eileen Myles. Her work is amazing and I can see the tendrils of her writing in yours. I also know a lot of people who've had that Seattle breakdown experience, for what it's worth. It can be demolishing but rejuvenating; a rite of passage I guess.

YANOW: Yep. I would spend three days a week at Fantagraphics and the rest of the time hiding at the Elliott Bay Book Company to read. I'd just read the books there. Like, I read The Importance of Being Iceland there, returning repeatedly to finish it, because I couldn't afford to buy it. Sometimes I'd just sit in the cafe and read and draw.

So it was at the end of that period when Vincent posted on his blog, totally randomly, in French, "We're accepting residents in our studio in Montreal." I was applying to grad school in Strasbourg, to an illustration school, because I really like European comics and I wanted to get the hell out of Seattle. I was having some kind of crisis. Anyway, Vincent and Julie Delporte got back to me and said if I wanted to come out there it was totally cool, so I said OK. My French wasn't good enough to be a student in France, even if I were accepted. I'll go to Montreal and then maybe I'll go to France eventually. Now I've been in Montreal for three years.

ISHII: What are you doing besides comics in Montreal now?

YANOW: I'm a graphic designer at a co-op cafe. I have a very specific visa for being a graphic designer in Canada.

ISHII: I had no idea they made such specific visas in Canada but good for them.

YANOW: It's the only positive thing I've heard from NAFTA; they give you job categories and it's better than being a tourist.

ISHII: I'm glad you found Montreal. So I wanted to ask about the politics in your book. Again, I'm fascinated by your use of language and placement. Given that you're talking about changing local geographies and negotiated boundaries, how is the changing city important to you? Why is vernacular urbanism personally important to you?

YANOW: I think it probably comes from growing up in the woods, honestly. I essentially grew up in a village in west Marin County Northwest of San Francisco where, if you were going into town, we called it "Going over the hill." It wasn't that far from the rest of society, but if you didn't have a car it was impossible to do anything. The bus came twice a day; one at 8 AM and the other at 8 PM. As a kid, it really felt like I lived in the woods. I talk about Paris being the first city I lived in, in my book, but part of it was that I have this extra layer of "this makes me uncomfortable" and I want to question why it makes me uncomfortable. It might just be as basic as that.


ISHII: Do you still feel that discomfort in the city?

YANOW: There are parts of being in the city that I love and are impossible to find outside, culturally. But I think it's a struggle to fight that. I'm going to be the fellow at CCS this Fall, so I'll be in a Vermont town for eight months, which is going to be the prime challenge: wanting to be in the city and wanting to be OK in the woods. I was talking to a friend about this last night and he said there's something about being out there; it's so quiet it's frightening. I'm like, "Yeah..." When friends visited me where I grew up they'd say it was so dark, and I'm just like, "Uh, yeah...."

ISHII: I empathize with your friends. Whenever I leave New York for "the woods" my ears start ringing. You portray this ambivalence between city and countryside really well. You mentioned Vermont and the potential tension it represents, but what do you think is the importance of the integrity of a city?

YANOW: Like why do I want to defend it?

ISHII: Yeah.

YANOW: I still think that the city is an important place. It'd be impossible to say it's not. I'm not a primitivist. I'm not like, "Let's dismantle the city and go back to the land." I don't think that's the way humanity survives.


ISHII: That tangent in your book when you and your friends go up to the country was so apt.

YANOW: I guess it's like, people are going to live in the city and the city is a place where a lot of change happens because super structures control a lot of the rest of the area, even rural areas. Everyone deserves to have an environment that's conducive to having a nice life and everyone needs to be able to say no to things. No one should be corralled.

imageISHII: Let's just take Montreal as an example but what do you think is the greatest threat to the integrity of the city or the equilibrium? Is it developers? Government? Pollution?

YANOW: I think it's developers for one... I think it's the thrust of capitalism to keep building. But it's also the government, for making laws for it. There's a by-law in Montreal that say if you have more than 50 people converge somewhere and march you have to give your route to police. In most of America that's already the case, but there was recently an anti-police march on March 15... It started at 3 PM and literally five minutes later the police showed up and declared it illegal over megaphones. We were walking on the other side of the police line but crossed it just as they closed in on the ranks and then arrested over 280 people.

ISHII: Wow. I had no idea. I don't remember seeing this in the news.

YANOW: That's the other thing. I don't have any idea how many Americans know about the [2012] student protests when it went on. I mean obviously comics aren't the medium of the masses we'd all hoped they'd be [laughs], but I don't know. I wanted to shed a little bit of light on it.

ISHII: Well, things like the strikes are important, and as you said they aren't always visible, but you're also really careful to talk about it in a theoretical framework so that it's not just politics or "I was there! It was important!" I find that makes this important; that you give it a theoretical groundwork. It does tie-in to how effective comics can be in communicating politics. I might even suggest there's a need for more intellectual framework in political comics but what do you think?

YANOW: I mean, Howard Cruse was at MoCCA and Stuck Rubber Baby is such a great comic about so many things. You can't say it's just about the civil rights movement or being a closeted gay person, it's about all those things and a lot of other stuff. Even in my journal comics it's usually just a record of what I'm thinking about. Sometimes it's just "I did this! I was here!" I have this penchant where I want to be an artist and an academic. I was deciding whether to do a grad program or keep doing comics and right now I'm going to keep doing comics.

ISHII: Do you think they're mutually exclusive?

YANOW: No. I just think institutional support for comics is not at the level of academic support.

imageISHII: I guess what I'm alluding to in my earlier question though is that there can be a borderline anti-intellectual tendency in comics, and I wonder how you deal with that as a latent academic.

YANOW: Yeah, definitely. I don't know. I guess to that I just say "screw it." I can only be anti-intellectual to such a degree. I feel like a lot of contemporary fine artists are also super anti-intellectual.

ISHII: Definitely.

YANOW: So my wanting to come to comics was in part against that fine arts vein. The program I was in at UC Santa Cruz was really strong in the print-making department and also had a really strong conceptual, performance and sculpture department…

ISHII: You went to Santa Cruz? Oh my God, so did I. When did you graduate?

YANOW: 2009.

ISHII: So you're a little bit younger than me... I'm having all these funny flashbacks to all the weird people I met there. I mean weird in the best possible way, of course, and many of them still friends.

YANOW: Actually Jacq Cohen went there, too, and that's how we know each other, but she was a junior or senior when I got there. I met her... this is a funny story... on my orientation day, I was 18 and I was like, "Oh cool I'm going to live in a town with a comic book store for the first time in my life!" Moving from this village in the woods and all. I went to the comic shop and it was Jacq's first day on the job. She was training when I came in. Her boss was like, "Oh, you guys should meet!"

ISHII: That's hilarious. Look at you guys now!

YANOW: Santa Cruz is also a root of my interest in urbanism.

ISHII: I can definitely see that.

YANOW: I heard the campus was designed so that everything would be dispersed, and I don't know if it's true or not but I heard that the steps at Kresge College were designed so students couldn't run away. Whether that's true or not, I'm sure that's the kind of thing that influenced me.

ISHII: This is really funny because I've heard the same rumors of why the infrastructure was planned at UCSC so awkwardly, but the interpretation I've heard is that it was built that way by Utopians to prevent the authorities from organizing, not the transgressors.

YANOW: Someone should really look into that. (laughter)

ISHII: That's another part of the intellectual, anti-intellectual conflict. There's an aesthetic to protest. How has that changed? I mean, in this particular case, I picked up War of Streets... at a comics festival, and in a context where it's not obvious that there's going to be a political statement.

YANOW: [parodically throwing fist in air] Yeah!

I'm very anti-polemic. I quoted Foucault at one point but he says, too, "I'm not making a polemic of this. Let's not go there." I also don't want to tell anyone what to do. I don't want to tell you how to live your life. These are things I've just observed and am researching. When I put it together it looks like this, but maybe when you do it you will have a different point of view. Also I've been around a lot of anarchist consensus spaces, and socialist organizations, and I think a lot of it is super interesting but it can also be very misleading. It's too propagandist for me. I've been through this a lot, where I was fully for a thing when it was explained to me, but then it would eventually unravel as I asked more questions. I don't think that's the way to exist. For me, I have to learn through process, experience what something means to me. I wanted to make people ask questions. Maybe that's also a mistrust of my own voice, too, but that doesn't make it less true.


ISHII: My favorite frame is when you say "I'm too scared to wear a mask." It's a great metaphor for what your ambivalence and commitments, and a good symbol of what you've experienced.

YANOW: Whoa, I hadn't thought of it that way.

ISHII: This is a dummy question, but what artists are you influenced by? What comics context do you think this book belongs in?

YANOW: I don't know. It's really hard to... I don't know in comics how many direct influences i've had. I mean in writing memoir I've had a lot of influences but in doing that, I sort of realized what I was interested in. Like my peers in Montreal, the cartoonists I was hanging out with and the 'zine we were putting out, felt like a safe space to put out comics about what was going on. But in the grand narrative of comics I'm not sure.

ISHII: What about outside of comics? Like, your other pedagogical influences for example?

YANOW: A lot of why I put the end notes in this book was because I wanted to be like, "This is where the ideas are coming from and where I built this out of." I want to have conversations about things. That's my biggest reason for making comics; to talk about ideas. The nicest thing anyone's said about my comics is that it made them feel like they knew me and then wanted to talk to me about these ideas. I really dislike small talk so it's a nice way to skip it. But that doesn't really answer your question, I guess. [laughter]


Anne Ishii is a writer, producer and co-owner of Massive. She lives in New York City.


* Sophie Yanow
* War Of Streets And Houses, Uncivilized Books, softcover, 60 pages, 9780984681488, April 2014, $10.95.


* all art supplied by Uncivilized and is from War Of Streets And Houses. The full pages used across the entire column are specifically tied into a reference made; the images and indented pages are more generally illustrative.



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