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A Bonza Judy Horacek!
22 / 11 / 2013
Judy Horacek has been Sheilas “resident” cartoonist since our inception in July of last year (check out her Sheilas archive here). She’s a world renowned feminist cartoonist and has recently re-published an updated version of her best works in ‘I am Woman, Hear Me Draw‘. We’ve been keen to feature Judy Horacek as a ‘Bonza Sheila’ for awhile now – she finally ‘relented’ with the re-release of this book – thanks Judy! She speaks with Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper.
See details below on how to purchase Judy’s book, plus details about how to get a copy of ‘A Bonza Sheila‘ – the first year’s worth of interviews from this section of Sheilas in an exclusive hardcopy edition.
Sarah Capper (SC): Tell us about how you first discovered cartooning – and your decision to be a feminist cartoonist?
Judy Horacek (JH): I’d always read cartoons from when I was a child, we had lots of Pick of Punches at home (the annual anthology of Punch Magazine, from Britain) and got a new one every year. I read the cartoons avidly, and also lots of Charlie Brown and other cartoon books I could get my hands on. But it didn’t occur to me to become a cartoonist until I was in my my early twenties. I was involved in a writing group that met in a local library, and one week the organiser suggested that we all try to do some pictures to go with our words. I went home and did a sort of comic strip page, and I suddenly realized I wanted to be a cartoonist. This also coincided with me becoming more politically aware, particularly about feminism and realizing that there were things in the world that I felt were unfair or wrong, and that I wanted to have my say about those things. It was quite serendipitous – I had something to say, and the medium to say it. The two interests were made for each other.
SC: Who are your favourite cartoonists?
JH: When I decided to become a cartoonist I looked around for women cartoonists and there weren’t many of them. I turned to the USA where I found and fell in love with the work of Nicole Hollander, who has a comic strip featuring a wonderful sassy main character called Sylvia; Alison Bechdel who has a strip ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ about a group of friends, and Lynda Barry who does beautiful poignant cartoon stories. There is a wit and warmth and a political awareness in their work that showed me that it could be done.
By the way, the Bechdel Test comes from an idea voiced by one of Alison Bechdel’s characters – a work of fiction or a film only passes if it has at least two women, who talk to each other about something other than a man. A lot of work fails!
Along those lines, when I began cartooning there were very rarely any women characters in cartoons – if they were there, they were adjuncts to the men, and came in two versions – the young big breasted scantily clad version or the old dowdy nagging version. So when I started, I decided to make all my main characters female – not just when I wanted to do a cartoon about ‘women’s issues’, but a cartoon about anything at all.
SC: I love Alison Bechdel, she is brilliant! Congratulations on the new updated version of ‘I am woman hear me draw’ which was first published ten years ago as the catalogue to an exhibition of your work at the National Museum of Australia. What was it like revisiting your cartoons in putting this edition together?
JH: I was really pleased when the Museum asked me if I wanted to do a revised version of this book, it seemed like a great time for such a thing with what seems to me to be a renewed interest in feminism and a new energy – Sheilas itself could be seen as part of this. And it was wonderful to be able to add a whole new chapter of cartoons, and for the book to be in full colour. The new edition is like a jewel.
One of the first things I did was look through the book for cartoons that seemed dated and asked others to check as well. After all, some of the cartoons are 20 years old. But as I say in the introduction, I only ended up taking out two cartoons – one because it had a fax machine and the other because it had a computer with a slot for a floppy disc. On the one hand it’s quite pleasing to think of one’s work as having longevity, but on the other, it’s a bit depressing that so many of the issues still remain the same.
SC: So as a feminist cartoonist, do you sometimes feel that history keeps repeating itself? And if so, what sustains you?
JH: In spite of the basic issue of many of the cartoons staying the same, I do think there has been lots of movement. That sustains me. Things like childcare and violence against women are firmly on the agenda now, they are mainstream concerns. Not solved, but most people now agree they are important. The lack of women in the current government is very depressing, but once upon a time that kind of thing would have gone virtually unnoticed. Now it is talked about and criticized. We see women in so many positions now – in the media, as performers, as politicians. Young girls have fabulous role models for being almost anything. No matter how hard some people might want things to go back, they never will.
SC: Natasha Mitchell on ABC Life Matters recently nominated your main female character, who you call your ‘everywoman’ as her favourite. I know some authors talk about how major characters they’ve created become ‘friends’ of sorts, is this the case for you?
JH: I don’t actually think of the woman I draw as one character – I see her as a whole community. It’s really important to me to draw people of different racial backgrounds so she has to be a number of different characters. I’d hate my work to perpetuate the idea that we’re all white, educated, middle class – it would be awful to stand up for only one type of woman. Obviously it’s not possible for me to completely escape from my own background in my work, but I try to be as aware of it as possible. I don’t tend to think of my characters as friends who I know, although we are certainly on friendly terms. Sometimes I probably think of them as my feminist foot soldiers – going out to fight the good fight.
SC: Cartooning in Australia seems like a pretty male dominated industry (with some fine exceptions, Cathy Wilcox, Fiona Katauskas, Kaz Cooke to name just a few). What’s been your experience?
JH: Cartooning in Australia is very male dominated. Cathy Wilcox is the only cartoonist employed as a cartoonist by a mainstream newspaper, the rest of us are all freelance. Part of the problem is that given our small population, there aren’t many newspapers in Australia, which means there aren’t many jobs, and new people come up through the ranks only rarely. A number of us female cartoonists scratch out a living as freelancers on the margins. A proper job as a cartoonist would have been nice, but also working the way I do is something that has given me lots of wonderful opportunities. Sometimes I get to fill in doing editorial cartoons when the regular male cartoonists on the Age go on holidays, I enjoy that a lot. I’m feeling a bit glass half full today, so I’ll say that I have the best of both worlds (other days I am less sanguine!).
SC: As a freelance journalist you have some regular gigs and deadlines. Do you consume a lot of news to find inspiration – I’m just wondering where your ideas tend to come from?
JH: Yes, I read a lot of newspapers and articles, and I follow a lot of clever and informed people on Twitter and that is a great source of information. I find I have ideas by sitting down at my desk and trying to have ideas. Sometimes with a particular topic in mind, other times just thinking randomly. It depends on the job I’m trying to do. It can take quite a while, and often I’m very tempted to escape to do something else – like answer emails or do my bookkeeping, anything to escape the blank page. But I know nothing happens if I do that. I often listen to music – I find film soundtracks are great as they have a certain theme to them running throughout. Not ones with songs and words, but just music. Donnie Darko and Drowning by Numbers are the best I’ve found so far. Suggestions welcome!
The drawing process requires less concentration – I can do that listening to Radio National (which helps with the keeping informed bit), too.
SC: At the end of a recent interview with 774 Melbourne’s Jon Faine, you let slip that you don’t actually enjoy drawing! How does this work? As in, what that?!
JH: The part I like the best is coming up with the ideas (the desire to run away from my desk notwithstanding!) There’s an amazing feeling to finally get just the right idea, to bring something into the world that hasn’t been there before – a new angle, a new connection, a startling idea. For me, that’s what a cartoon is. The drawing is then just the vehicle for that, so it’s more like work, and my drawings are never as good as I’d like them to be. So sometimes it feels that it’s downhill from when I’ve had the idea. Not always, because sometimes the drawing does surprise me and throw up something extra in the doing of it. But although I’ve have drawn all my life, I am more primarily a words person.
When I said I didn’t like drawing, that is overstating my position somewhat – obviously it’s a pretty good way to earn one’s living.
SC:You did the illustrations for ‘Where is the Green Sheep?’ a children’s book by Mem Fox which became a huge success, you’ve also worked on other picture books for children. What do you think is the main difference in pitching to an audience for children as opposed to adults?
JH: ‘Where is the Green Sheep?’ was very collaborative. Mem fell in love with a picture I’d done of a green sheep and from there she had the idea of the structure (it took her months), and then we exchanged ideas as to what sheep should go in it. It was an unusual picture book in that sense, normally when there are two people, the writing and the illustration are two very independent processes. We’ve done a second book together, ‘Good Night Sleep Tight’, and I’m working on the pictures for a third. For both of these we’re working more conventionally – she has the words, I have the pictures.
When I’m writing AND illustrating a picture book (I’ve done four on my own), the skills are surprisingly similar in lots of ways – you need things to be instantly recognizable, you need to use as few words as possible, and to eliminate ambiguity. But obviously they are different intellectually and politically. I still always try to have female main characters (preferably feisty) and represent lots of different races, like I do in my cartoons, but apart from that, the politics of a picture book are mostly along ‘if we were all nicer to each other, the world would be a better place’. Which I believe in, absolutely, but I love the way in which cartoons can explore ideas much more.
SC: You’ve also done a lot of work cartooning for community organizations, government departments, specialist journals, books and publications. Some with pretty serious themes. Recently I read your ‘I am woman, hear me draw’ from cover to cover on a train ride and found myself laughing out loud at some cartoons and flinching at others due to the dark truths they expose. What’s more satisfying for you – a cartoon which causes a belly laugh or one that makes you stop, shake your head and think?
JH: They both are very satisfying for me as a cartoonist. Which is better depends on what the cartoon is about, and what it has been done for. Obviously there are lots of subjects where a belly laugh would be completely inappropriate, but it is still important that we think about, so a lot of my cartoons are dark. I am also a big believer in ‘you have to laugh or you’ll cry’ – I think most feminists probably are, so that’s where a lot of my cartoons come from. But laughter as a joyful outburst at something hilarious is pretty special too – I love doing cartoons that are just absurd or silly – we can’t be trying to change the world all the time.
SC: If you could host a dinner party with any women from history, who would they be?
JH: This is such a hard question – dinner parties can be so fraught. I thought I’d stick with contemporary women to reduce possibilities of historical misunderstandings. My choice today would be a dinner party full of laughs but with moments of political seriousness where necessary – Margaret Atwood (I follow her on Twitter and she’s very funny), Rachel Maddow (an American political commentator and comedian, kind of a female Jon Stewart), Michelle Obama, Ellen de Generes and Julie McCrossin would be a good start. All of them are very sharp and clever. It would also be fun to have a dinner with all the woman cartoonists that have been mentioned above, I haven’t met the American ones and I don’t get a chance to get together with the Australian ones nearly often enough.
SC: What next for Judy Horacek?
JH: I have my regular cartoon gigs – a weekly one in the Age, Sheilas every month, and Overland (a progressive literary journal) every quarter, and I’ll keep doing those as long as the editors will have me. My next big deadline is to finish the pictures for the new book with Mem Fox, I’ve done the mockup and most of the planning and I think it’s going to be a great book. The pictures already make me smile. I have a few half finished ideas for picture books on my own. I also have a number of ideas for books for adults that are a mixture of cartoons and writing, pushing the cartooning medium in a slightly different way, more poetic and open-ended than my usual work. I’m very excited about these but I’m having difficulties choosing which one to focus on. But if I have to have difficulties in my work, those are the kind of ones I want to have.
The Victorian Women’s Trust which publishes Sheilas has copies of Judy’s book for sale. We also have limited copies of another special publication for sale – the first year’s worth of interviews from ‘A Bonza Sheila‘, this section of Sheilas (featuring interviews with some incredibly inspiring women – Nelly Thomas, Annabel Crabb, Ita Buttrose and others, plus images and more Horacek cartoons!). Both books are PERFECT gifts in time for Christmas. Check out our website and contact us for more details.