To get the swooning out the way: Una’s comic Becoming/Unbecoming is incredible. Published by Myriad last year, it’s received so much praise that it’s hard to talk about women in comics without hearing Una’s name. It’s at once a personal story of sexual abuse and a wider examination of violence against women, set against the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper in 1970’s West Yorkshire. It explores what it means to grow up a girl within this culture of violence, the effects of keeping silent, the consequences of guilt and shame.
Becoming/Unbecoming is a hard read at times; the horrific actions of Peter Sutcliffe and what this means for a society that treats women like sluts is unavoidably angry-making, as is the way violence against women is romanticised in films, music and art. Una’s personal story is heart-wrenchingly honest. But the comic is also empowering in that it refuses to be silent. It adds to the current discussion about rape culture and gender-based violence in a way that is indisputable. It’s intelligent and frank, subtle yet completely unforgettable.
Plus, Una’s art is awesome. Becoming/Unbecoming is a really beautiful book, one of those comics where every page is an absolute treat. It’s mostly black-and-white with occasional bits of bright colour; some of the drawings are simple outlines, others are detailed pencil sketches. If you haven’t seen the book yet, you’re going to want it on your shelf when you do!
Una is one of the featured artists in the Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics exhibition that runs from Feb 5th to May 15th at London’s House of Illustration. We caught up with Una in celebration of the exhibition and asked her a few questions about her work and experiences…
As a medium, graphic novels are incredibly powerful at dealing with complex, often-triggering issues such as violence against women and rape culture. What do you think it is about the graphic form that suits these stories so well?
The graphic form only suits these stories well in certain modes. I’ll explain: Traumatic narratives are often said to be unspeakable. I think there is something in this, in that it’s an extremely challenging thing to attempt to communicate a traumatic event as art, either from the first person or as a bystander. It takes real wisdom and a great deal of sophistication to pull this off. Violence is often fetishized in visual culture and I am against this. Not because it’s offensive, or even because it’s triggering (although it is); in fact I have some problems with the word triggering and with the notion of trigger warnings, which only seem to apply to material that intends to address the social problems of violence and trauma. (Trigger warnings never appear on material that uses violence as entertainment or fetish, upholding the status quo.) I think it’s time artists and writers took seriously the fact that millions of people out there in the audience find certain content deeply distressing and are unable to say so openly, because of taboos and misplaced shame.
So, until we have tackled the phenomenon that is best named male violence (and this is a task for all of us) as a global community we need to take care of one another by being considerate in our approach to visual culture. Perhaps comics, because they can approach difficult subjects on several visual, textual and temporal planes – I’ve heard this described as comics special ‘alchemy’ – are better than other popular mediums such as film or TV at depicting traumatic narratives. But I think this only works when they are in the first person, or take a position as a sympathetic witness, and this has something to do with comics’ core humanity as a form. The growth of personal narratives, comics as history and graphic journalism is a demonstration of this special comics based humanity. There’s no room for complacency though, the comics mode is also full of examples of gratuitous violence against women.
How did you approach the publishing process for Becoming/Unbecoming? Did you have certain publishers in mind you would feel comfortable with taking on such a deeply personal story?
Actually when I started drawing I wasn’t even thinking of it as a book, rather a series of drawings. When I started thinking of it as a book, I didn’t think anyone would want to publish it so I looked into self-publishing, but decided this wasn’t the right route for Becoming/Unbecoming, even though I’d self-published zines before this. I wanted the support of a publisher and the legitimisation that a publisher brings to the book. I did discuss the book with two publishers, but I think I found the right place in Myriad Editions, who have been very supportive, bearing in mind this is my first novel, but more importantly they understood the context of the book from the start, which can’t be said of everyone I showed it to. (Not naming any names here).
We keep talking about the Angoulême prize cockup in these posts… but it really does say a lot about sexism in comics. For you personally, what has been your experience of being a woman in the industry?
I can honestly say that I have only found welcome and support. Perhaps I have been lucky. I know of lots of other women who would not say the same. There seems to be a lot of momentum and willingness at the moment to improve diversity in comics in a general way, not just in terms of women, so it feels like a good place to be. I have occasionally encountered people who didn’t seem to understand Becoming/Unbecoming, thinking it was another book about the Yorkshire Ripper, relishing the violence and sluttifying the victims (I just made that word up, but it fits) which kind of goes to prove my point about a surfeit of genre narratives about violent men. The Angouleme debacle is, however, deeply depressing, because the festival wields such influence. Comix Creatrix is such a good riposte, couldn’t have been better timing really.
Do you have any advice for women looking to break into the comics industry?
Be yourself. Do your own thing. There’s no right way, just make stuff and keep practicing. It took me years to learn even the basic comics stuff and I still don’t feel like an expert, but one thing I do know is that as soon as I started drawing and writing the things I wanted to draw and write, and to do this the way I wanted to do it, I had a lot more success in every sense of the word.
And finally… who are your favourite women comic creators, and what do you admire about their work?
I tend to like work that is quite serious in an artistic sense. I don’t generally go for a scribbly style, with a few exceptions. And I don’t only admire comics by women, in fact many of my favourite creators are men. However, you asked about women so here goes:
Alison Bechdel is one of my sheros, from Dykes to Watch Out For to Fun Home to Are You My Mother?, she’s a great story teller. I love her dry humour and I like her low-key drawing and colour aesthetic. Fun Home is I think one of the best graphic novels out there. I used to look at her blog when I was starting, in the hope that some of her brilliance would somehow rub off on me.
Karrie Fransman does some excellent work on art/comics projects in museums and galleries. She’s produced a web comic in partnership with the Red Cross about a young refugee, which everyone should read, as well as her graphic novels. She is an all-round good egg.
Audrey Niffenegger is another artist I like who makes strange and beautiful work based on ghost stories and literature. Her work is very well formed, and well informed.
Finally, Jacky Fleming‘s cartoons from the 1990’s made me laugh then and they make me laugh now, and she has got a new book coming out this year, the first since 2004, so that’s really exciting.
You can read more about Una and Becoming/Unbecoming on her website. And be sure to follow her on Twitter too!