By Abeer Hoque
“In that garden of text, you could sell a goldfish, a blowjob, an ottoman, your love.”
I wanted to read American visual artist, activist, and writer Molly Crabapple’s graphic memoir Drawing Blood before seeing her at the Jaipur Lit Fest in January 2016. But I was abroad and on the road and couldn’t get a physical copy of the book. I broke down just before the festival and read the Kindle version on my phone. I know this isn’t very smart for a graphic book, but at least it was in color. I had to double click on the images and then blow them up to see the details, and I would recommend readers experience the joy of the actual print book (especially since interleaving text and images is so very much my thing).
Anyone who’s interested in memoir or art or feminism or burlesque or travelling or activism, or
just flat out charming thoughtful beautiful prose interleaved with gorgeous portraits and taunting filigreed paintings about our war torn world should run out and get a copy. I highlighted almost five pages of quotes for sheer beauty, poignancy, and wit. Perhaps Crabapple describes her own work best: “bright, gilded, swarming with detail, reminiscent of old political cartoons yet giant, surrealist, and new.” And God does she know how to set a scene and describe characters with Dickensien genius.
The beginning of Drawing Blood says, “This is the story of a girl and her sketchbook.” But it’s actually much more than that. It’s a story of how a writer came to be, what art can mean to activism and vice versa, how wanting to change the world can take so many forms, how nigh impossible it is to make it without cash or connections, and how goddamned hard you have to work to become halfway good at anything,
The book covers Crabapple’s early years, including her hated restless childhood (“I pretended I was grown”), her dissipated teenage years (loitering around a decrepit decadent Parisian bookstore until you’re invited in is Hollywood-ready material), her early travels and writing, and her turn as one of the famed Suicide Girls (on the alternative adult website) which eventually led her to a burlesque career (both as a performer and then as an artist in residence for the infamous New York City joint, the Box).
Until now, I never understood the pull of burlesque, where it was going, where it came from, but Drawing Blood is a bit of an education about that world, and about sex work in general, and following her path both as a nude model and as a burlesque performer and artist, made me see what it could be – an inventive defiant glittering sexed up circus act.
That’s more than nine lives worth but that just takes you into Ms. Crabapple’s tender twenties. The book’s time line continues for perhaps another decade, covering her evolution as an artist, activist, journalist, and writer. These later scenes are detailed with self aware, precise, and luminous prose.
Her treatises on art and the art world are as provocative as they are based on hard won understandings. I didn’t know about the hierarchies of fine art over illustration or the struggle to get gallery representation, but there are more than a few parallels within the literary world and trying to make it as a writer (my own particular challenge).
The last third of Drawing Blood outlines Ms. Crabapple’s transition into activism and journalism and writing, starting with a compelling overview of the Occupy movement and the UK student protests, and her travels to conflict zones as a journalist/artist. Here is a passage from her trip to that deeply “unforgiveable” place that is Guantanamo:
“Closed in 2002, Camp X-Ray was a complex of outdoor cages surrounded by barbed wire. For hygiene, prisoners had had two buckets, one for water, one for shit. When prisoners weren’t being tortured by interrogators, they endured insects and the Cuban sun. The cages held early detainees like Nabil for months.”
I was blown away by the portraits in the book, whether of journalists or prisoners, performers or friends. I am now dying to see her large scale political murals, the Shell Game, or at least bigger reproductions of them than I saw on my phone. It’s so heartening to know that Crabapple is out there in the world, that she’s burning the candle at both ends and then some, that her wise and warm hearted perspective and precocious rollicking talent are bent towards both beauty and the arc of justice.
by Molly Crabapple