Spotlight: Julia Gfrörer

As a middle schooler, I was absolutely obsessed with ancient imagery. On trips to New York I would drag my family to the MET museum and admire the marble bust sculptures and little preserved trinkets. I wish I could say that I was attracted to this world solely because it pulled me away from the pixels and papers that were my typical mode of escapism, but really I learned to appreciate this world through movies and books that involved Greek and Roman imagery and I loved the insight that seeing these artifacts in three dimensional form provided.

Julia Gfrörer’s work – which often represents these similar forms in the etchy glory that is her drawing style – is so compelling for similar reasons. Reading her feels feels not only like learning about Gfrörer’s worldview, but about the world at large – the past, present, and future in one tight package. In her expansive illustration, World Within The World, she speaks with 17th-century Jesuit scholar Athansius Kircher who tells her that “hell is a place with no challenges.” Though dark, Julia’s Gfrörer’s comics could not possibly be hellish because they called to be pried open, they call for the reader to be challenged. Below, I’ve chatted with Julia about context, collaboration, and working with themes.

The Le Sigh: While browsing the selection of tattoos you’ve designed I noticed that a few of your works are directly inspired by preexisting works — a passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Gustave Dore’s illustration of lucifer from Paradise Lost, etc. What about a creative work causes you to want to make your own spin of it?

Julia Gfrörer: Not a very exciting answer here, I’m afraid – my tattoo designs are all commissions, so I draw whatever the client asks me to. I haven’t read “Invisible Cities” beyond the section I was hired to illustrate. I too have wondered why someone would hire me to redraw an illustration that already exists, but as long as it meets my extensive ethical requirements, I draw whatever I’m paid to.

TLS: How does you approach differ depending on where the work is displayed (ie online, in a mini print zine, or on the human body, in tattoo form)?

JF: I’ve never created comics with the web in mind, and the original pages aren’t really precious to me either. The final version of the work is always a printed book. When my comics are posted online, or displayed in a gallery, I think of that more as documentation, and the book is still the actual thing. (And even the book is only stack of paper, the actual story happens elsewhere.) The way I make comics is influenced a lot by the effect of cheap photocopies, and I don’t really obstruct the artifacts of that process – if you compare, for example, this image from Dark Age that was scanned from the original drawing with the same image as it appears in the zine, you can see how blotchy all the fine lines have become. I think that’s beautiful. You can see how it struggled to exist. To me there’s a sense of urgency in handmade things. I make zines because I believe in the Cheap Art Manifesto – I believe part of my calling is to make artwork that is more than an object of commerce. My approach to illustrations or tattoo designs differs very much, I guess, from my approach to comics. Standalone images have never been my strong suit, and if I didn’t need paying work, chances are I wouldn’t do them, but in a way they’re liberating too: I don’t always understand why the client wants me to draw the thing (like this guy, for example: I only have the vaguest idea of who he is, and I never asked what the drawing was for), I’m only one step in the process of the image being made. I can be unobtrusive.

TLS: Your work seems so timeless as it rarely depicts contemporary forms but rather nature, and sexual encounters. Has your work always been like this?

JF: My writing process usually begins with a single image, which, having been conceived, then extends branches that begin to form a story. Sometimes that image is something modern (for example, the haunting text messages in “River of Tears”), but often it’s something that doesn’t make sense in a story set today, so I adapt the setting to the needs of the story. My book Black is the Color begins with a sailor being matter-of-factly dismissed from a galleon and set adrift in the middle of the ocean, which seemed to me, not necessarily more likely, but maybe easier to swallow if it were set a few hundred years ago, when people were more barbaric. That’s a joke. There were both practical and philosophical reasons it should take place during the Age of Discovery. In particular I wanted to draw the Golden Hind. When I do write something set in the past, I guess you could say I’m looking for timeless elements in it, the smell of rain or bread, the stab of jealousy, the flinch after you say something dumb, moments that dissolve the emotional distance of history. But I hope I practice this in moderation – it’s a dangerous and false to imply too much similarity between ourselves and our ancestors.

TLS: Do you think the work that you consume is in some ways a reflection of the themes that you depict within your comics?

JF: Thematically, yes, I write about the things I like to read about, but the work I make isn’t much like the work I consume, with the possible exception of my erstwhile TCJ column, Symbol Reader. I only write fiction comics, but I prefer to read nonfiction: history, cultural analysis, instructional manuals, poetry, advice columns, true crime. I’m extremely curious, especially about the mundane details of other people’s lives. I bought a few Foxfire books at the thrift store last year and then I wanted everyone I wrote about to be drop-spinning, or wortcunning, or entertaining haints. When I wrote Palm Ash, a short comic about martyrs set in ancient Rome, I included details borrowed from my high school Latin textbooks, the Liber Peristephanon, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, the I, Claudius miniseries, Those About to Die by Daniel P. Mannix, and Fabiola, all of which I had first read for pleasure rather than research.

TLS: Your handle on most social media profiles is thorazos. What does this mean? Does it hold any significant meaning?

JG: It’s silly–it’s the name of an imaginary planet in a science fiction story I wrote as a teenager, it’s like if the drug Thorazine were a planet. My website has been for fifteen years. I figure it’s no more difficult to spell or remember than Julia (which often comes through the wash as Julie) Gfrörer (completely hopeless).

TLS: How does your approach to work differ when collaborating with someone (like in your works that are made with Sean T Collins)?

JF: I don’t like to collaborate, I’ve always hated group work. When I draw something for hire, I think of myself more as the instrument of someone else’s vision. With Sean it’s different–we’re true partners, and everything we do together is a conversation. When we write the porn comics based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, for example, we begin by analyzing the original story together, talking it through. As the work progresses, we consult each other throughout, and we share more tasks than you might think. I’m a good writer, but Sean’s able to do things as a writer that I can’t. Sometimes, for what I want to accomplish, his abilities are what’s needed. The relationship requires an enormous amount of trust.

TLS: What is your dream art project?

JF: I don’t know. I’m not ambitious like that. For a long time my life has felt like an uninterrupted series of crises, and I think I’ve lost my ability to ideate long-term dreams. I no longer think of doing work that doesn’t fit in my lap and can’t travel. I think about the book I’m working on and that’s it.

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