Ellen Lindner – Interview with the author of Undertow

This interview was first published on November 13th 2010.

Ellen Lindner is an American cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in south London. Active in the small press scene, she is a co-editor of the regular Whores of Mensa anthology, a contributor to a variety of comics publications and exhibitions and, in 2009, published her graphic novel, Undertow, a story of a teenager’s self-discovery set in 1950s Coney Island. She is married to Stephen Betts, who runs Comix Influx, the collaborative comics translation website.

As with my previous interview with Garen Ewing, I’ve focused on the things that fascinate me in the process of creating comics. I’m particularly interested in how Ellen’s experiences of growing up in the US have shaped her view of comics and the comic scene, and her perspective on the small press here in the UK.

David: You’re from Long Island, NY originally. What was that like as a place to grow up in?

Ellen: Good question! As a kid I thought it was painfully boring, but now of course I think it’s great – the part where I grew up, anyway. Just to situate us geographically, Long Island is, well, a long, fish-shaped island, sort of perpendicular to the East Coast of the US. If you’ve ever been to Brooklyn, Queens or even just JFK International Airport, you’ve been on Long Island. The bit where I grew up was developed in the twenties, so it’s the opposite of McMansions Hamptons Long Island – the houses are super-tiny and close together, and there are lots of great transit links into New York City. Plus there are lovely beaches.

There was a really good neighbourhood feel to my town, which I still value. Most of the people living there had grown up in NYC – my parents included – and so they sat on their stoops at night in the summertime, just to hang out and chat. And as a teenager I spent a lot of time sneaking into the city to watch movies, see plays – especially the free Shakespeare in Central Park! – and generally mess around. So I can’t complain!

D: What was your first introduction to comics?

E: When I was a kid, the cool boys in my class used to sit in the back of the classroom and draw Marvel superheroes. I wanted to get in with them, and that obviously required getting up to speed on comics. Aside from my gran, who always encouraged me to draw, they were the only people I knew who DID art. So I thought comics were ‘art’! I’ve never wavered from that position since.

Growing up in Long Island – from Undertow

D: You say your gran encouraged you to draw, but was it something you’d always wanted to do?

E: My father’s mother and her sister were both ‘artistic’, but never pursued any kind of art career. Aunt Mim, my gran’s sister, made a huge impression on me – she spent her retirement painting away in a tower block in the Rockaways, but she didn’t think anyone should go to art school, because people would try and change your style. Not being from a wealthy family, she’d never had the chance – for their family back in Saint Louis, where they were from, that would have been a huge, unimaginable luxury. But she had a point, anyhow.

Was drawing something I always wanted to do? I loved the idea of being an artist or writer. And I won some local contests when I was a kid (or came in a respectable second!), so drawing was a way of earning money.  In retrospect, these all seem a bit sad – one from my tragic Catholic school encouraged people to ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’. I guess I should be ashamed to have profited off of some priest’s dream of promoting a non-secular, non-shopping oriented Noel. But I digress.

Some of Ellen’s earlier comics work. [Stepford Rock City??]

D: Were comics read by anyone else in your family?

E: A big Lindner ritual was the weekly visit to my paternal grandparents’ house in Queens. We would sit down, drink a can of Coke poured into a Styrofoam cup, watch the Mets, and read the Daily News. My family took the New York Times, which of course doesn’t publish so much as an editorial cartoon, but the Daily News had an amazing, full-colour Sunday comics insert. I LOVED Dick Tracy. Chester Gould is still a hero of mine – those chunky, swerving lines are just fantastic. So no, no one in my immediate family – except maybe my younger brother – read comic books, per se. But we all read the funny papers.

D: It’s a shame that UK newspapers have never had that tradition of newspaper strips. It might have put comics into the public consciousness so much more and we wouldn’t have to battle so hard to have them accepted as an art form.

E: I completely agree. It sounds silly, but I do feel that it’s won cartooning some genuine respect in the US. In America, any parent who hears their kid say that they want to be a cartoonist crosses their fingers that they’ll be the next Charles Schultz, Glen Larson, Cathy Guisewite, Scott Adams or Jim Davis – the person who made it HUGE from a newspaper strip. Sadly, with the decline of newspapers this market has shrunk considerably. But that doesn’t mean the funny pages haven’t had an important role historically. Imagine the global status of cartooning without Snoopy!

Pages from The Egg Mysterious, an early mini-comic collaboration with film-maker Linda Liu.

D: So you started out with superheroes – were you buying these from news-stands or did you have a local comic shop to go to?

E: My town had a main street with a fairly grotty candy shop that had a spinner rack full of mainstream titles. That was my source early on – that’s where I discovered the X-Men. Later on a comic book shop DID open in my town – and it’s still there, miraculously. I started hanging out there a lot as a teenager, because I knew one of the guys who worked there. Around that time I started reading Vertigo titles, especially the immortal Sandman…they even had a copy of I Never Liked You, by Chester Brown. Chester Brown turned me on to the greater world of independent comics, as he did so many others. In true Ghost World fashion I became a tiny bit obsessed with one of the, ahem, older employees, and baked him brownies on his birthday. But perhaps that’s a story for another time.

D: So Chester Brown got you into indie comics – what kind of stuff were you reading? Were you actually making comics by this time? What was influencing you?

Dan Clowes, Tank Girl, all of the Sandman artists…but in high school, I didn’t have much time to draw, except in art class. I co-edited the school newspaper, ran track, and felt a lot of pressure to keep my grades up – the usual nonsense of obsessing over test scores, being in the top 10% of your year. My parents were pretty negative on the subject of me going to art school (or going to school in New York City). Anyhow, I loved the idea of making comics – but I had no idea of how to go about it. The finished comics I saw looked so perfect, and intimidating. My initial attempts faltered terribly – I didn’t know how to lay out a page, or fix mistakes. But I read a lot of comics, and just got more and more enthusiastic.

A biographical comic on controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq (2002)

D: Did you make it into art school? Was there an epiphany when you finally made something with which you were satisfied?

E: I attended a uni about as far from art school as one could get. I chose Smith College, a small, well-respected women’s college, because Northampton, Massachusetts was at the time a mecca for cartoonists. The only east coast comics museum was there, Kevin Eastman’s Words and Pictures Museum, and cheap rents made the town very hospitable for artists and musicians. I got asked out on a date during the 24 hours I spent there (a feat never to be repeated), so I figured the fact that it was all women wouldn’t be a problem. I was only slightly wrong. Plus, that part of the country is absolutely beautiful. I’d spent my childhood in a very monotonous, flat, rather grey suburb, and so hanging out in a lovely New England town nestled in the Berkshires made for a very nice change.

This is when I started to do comics. Even though college was a lot of work, I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule, and for the first time I had real live local cartoonists to give me some tips. I got invited to contribute a story to a local anthology, the charmingly named Skineater Comics. I did a story about plastic surgery and finally had the confidence that I could take a comic to fruition. Studying in France, which I did for my third year in uni, just made my comics ambitions more intense. Seeing the French bande dessinée culture firsthand – not to mention all of the amazing museums and cultural life there – inspired my first minicomic, a comix retelling of Christine de Pisan’s The Book of the City of Ladies.

D: What were you studying that led you to France?

E: I decided to study art history at Smith. In my messed up teen-aged mind, writing about art was sort of like doing comics – I liked the idea of analysing visuals. Plus, art history was the thing that Smith did best – the teaching was world-class, and there was an amazing museum on campus. So, studying art history led me to France – where better to study art history than Paris? But I guess the secret answer is that I’d fallen in love with France, and French film, after seeing Contempt [directed by Jean Luc Godard]…I just wanted to go crazy, and travel! And I definitely did. A friend and I went all over Europe by train…an amazing experience. And comics were everywhere in France – the first time I went to a French public library and saw the BD section, I became a lifelong Francophile.

D: Had you been aware of European comics before that?

E: Not really. In America, Tintin, Asterix, and the other classic French kids’ comics aren’t as widely read by kids. My parents aren’t comics buffs – we read lots of Carl Barks comics, along with the newspaper stuff I mentioned earlier, but they didn’t seek comics out for us. The ‘cool comics nerd parent’ didn’t exist back then. But even as a teenager, the comic book store where I hung out didn’t sell European comics. It was sophisticated for the ‘burbs – but not THAT sophisticated. Maybe they had some Manara in a storage cupboard somewhere! So, no – I was fairly clueless.

Ellen shows there’s hope for all us…

D: Tell me about your comic adaptation of The Book of the City of Ladies. Why did you pick this particular text to work from?

E: When I was studying in Paris, I was eligible for free entry to all of the city museums – France is such a classy place when it comes to giving young people cultural opportunities. So I’d go to the Louvre and head for the quieter places, away from the crowds. These little corners often housed art that I enjoyed the most – I really love art from the ancient Near East, and the Middle Ages – there’s a sort of naiveté about them both, lots of extremely literal figurative representations of absolutely mad things.

Anyhow, I really fell in love with the richness of medieval and early Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, and those led me to The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine de Pisan had the good fortune to be educated in an age when most women couldn’t read or write – and that gave her ideas very high above her station. She took the media of her day  – this is the late 14th and early 15th centuries – and critiqued it from a feminist viewpoint. So much of The Book of the City of Ladies is her taking people like Boccaccio to task for saying terrible things about women. She’s sassy, the stories she tells and re-tells are great and the illuminators who brought her work to a wider audience display such a mastery of colour. The Book of the City of Ladies is an absolute landmark.

D: Your work generally suggests that you feel strongly about women’s position in society. Could you expand on that? Are there any comics creators that has inspired you in this?

E: I’d like to respectfully disagree with that reading of my work. Where the confusion may arise is that I’m quite vocally feminist, and so my stories may seem more feminist than they are. They have female protagonists, I am a woman in a male-dominated field, but I don’t think that adds up to ‘feminist content.’ Some of the biographical work I do – like the Lee Miller strip I did for Whores of Mensa 4 – represents the exception, in that I am definitely interested in telling the stories of women who have inspired me.

Overall, though, what I think I care most about is women being represented in comics, with good stories that THEY tell. While I am a total sucker for the cheesy thrills of male-scripted romance comics from the fifties and sixties, they often make a mockery of women’s feelings. So, for example, when I did Undertow I wanted to do a romance comic that was a bit more true to my feelings of being a teenager.

That said, I do have political concerns about women’s position in the comics world. When I open an anthology or go to a comics exhibition and see that 90% – or even 100%! – of the participants are men, I get a bit annoyed. I’ll be honest about that. It annoys me because it indicates that only one perspective is getting expressed. Also, it often seems a bit clueless – I want to shake the editor or curator and ask, do you not know of any good women artists? Did you not think to call them? Because there’s certainly no shortage of great women cartoonists out there. I tip my hat to publishers and anthology editors who give women cartoonists a chance – which, happily, is increasingly the case. I wouldn’t have any career to speak of if I hadn’t been invited to be in anthologies early on.

Women cartoonists who inspired me a lot, early on and even more so as their careers have developed, are artists like Megan Kelso and Jessica Abel. I discovered them both in the same issue of Action Girl, Sarah Dyer’s amazing ladies’ comic book that came out in pamphlet form in the 90’s. They just ooze realness. They tell stories that come out of their lives, and they work with artists whom they respect. They both have so much enthusiasm about comics. They both have kids now, and I’m really curious to see what kind of comics come out of that experience. They’re my big two. Male cartoonists also inspire me but it’s different when you can see a woman doing something amazing. It makes you feel like you could do it, too.

From True Porn #1 (2003)

D: Coming back from Paris, you finished your studies and went to work for an art museum. Did this provide any inspirational fuel? Were you get involved in the New York comics scene at this time?

E: Oh, definitely. MoMA, at least at the time, was staffed with some incredible people, many of whom are artists and writers in their own right. And of course working with such an amazing collection…it’s mind-blowing.

I worked on their website, which is where I learned Photoshop and basic web design. We dealt with every department at the Museum, creating a site for a retrospective of a Danish director one week and a show of Russian books the next. Plus MoMA paid for its staff to take classes that were relevant to their careers in the arts, and so I had the chance to study part-time at SVA. Who wouldn’t want to take a silkscreen class with David Sandlin? Or study ink drawing with Matt Madden?

And New York City…man, you meet amazing people all the time. That’s how I felt – I just couldn’t believe how many comics people live there (and still do!). So many people from that period had an influence on me in some way. Meeting people like Dean Haspiel, Tom Hart, Sara Varon, Jessica Abel, Nick Bertozzi, Jason Little, Paul Pope – to name a few!- and seeing a bit of how they conducted their careers made a big impact on me.

I found the New York City comics scene a very hospitable place, and people made me feel welcome to an extent disproportionate to my talent, charm or experience. It didn’t help my career at the Museum that I was staying out at comics events all the time. But it was a great opportunity, to see all these people in action. This is when I started to take comics very, very seriously.

D: How did it affect your work?

E: Well, it helped my work HAPPEN, for one thing. People would be making plans for SPX, or MoCCA, and I would want to be there, with something new. So I would make a mini, usually collecting short stories. I wanted to do daring, interesting work that was uniquely me, because that was what everyone else aimed for. There wasn’t a lot of patience on that scene for simply copying your favourite artist – practically the worst thing you could call someone was a Dan Clowes or Chris Ware clone (no disrespect to either of those excellent artists). It made me impatient to get better – you’re surrounded by super-talented art school grads in NYC in a way you may not be in smaller cities or towns, and you can’t help but admire their drawing chops. Plus I learned a lot about European and Japanese cartoonists…so, it was all around a good influence.

The one downside about NYC is that you can’t coast – it’s an expensive place to live. And there are comics events every single night. So you have to be really careful about how you budget your time. If you’re working all day and there’s an amazing comics party that evening, you need to figure out where to fit in actual drawing. It teaches you how to say no.

Coming Out of A CoMA (2003)

D: It sounds like you (understandably) miss the New York scene. How did you end up in the UK?

E: I met my now-husband at the Angouleme Comics Festival in 2003. We stayed in touch and then when I went back to the festival in 2004, he asked me out! It was quite a surprise. At the time I was living outside Philadelphia, having quit my job at MoMA so I could focus more on my art [see comic above]. That was a really weird year – I was working at a university, in the art department, but it was very lonely. I hadn’t realised how isolating it would be, and my relationship at the time was not very happy. So that wasn’t much of a comfort. When Stephen asked me out – and this isn’t some kind of euphemism, he actually did make quite a wonderful speech, which I will always remember – and then, eventually, put across the idea of me coming to live in the UK with him, that was unsettling. But he seemed like he would be the ideal partner for me. I’m glad I took a chance…moving to the UK hasn’t been an easy process, but it’s been worth it, to be with Stephen.

A biographical comic on the late fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez (2006)

D: Has the UK move affected the way you create comics, e.g. are there any more influences you’ve discovered since arriving here?

E: Ha ha…I’ve definitely joined the cult of Posy – Posy Simmonds, of course. My husband has lots of her early Guardian collections, and they’re just incredible. Funny, beautifully drawn, ERUDITE…she’s amazing. And Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe just make her all the more incredible. It’s a different art form altogether, the newspaper strip, and being able to do that and the graphic novel with such aplomb – it’s just crazy how talented one person can be. All hail Posy!

D: What do you think of the UK comics scene?

E: Good question! I interact with it often, so I guess I should have an opinion of it. I think the small press bit of it, which is the part I know the best, is great. It has cool DIY roots in stuff like the fanzine and punk movements, not to mention links to so much other cool stuff, like crafts, fine art, animation…. The problem is, when I first got here, it took so long to meet people that I got a bit frustrated, and wrote it off a bit. To give you a sense of my expectations, in the States, and in New York in particular, it’s more casual – you meet someone at a party, they invite you somewhere, all of a sudden you know all of their friends. This was especially true in New York before the indie comics boom – just showing an interest in comics was enough, it seemed, to be accepted. So I thought I’d enjoy the same level of access in London. But people seemed really cold, and hard to get to know.

Two things helped me out – first, I did an MA in Illustration at Camberwell College, which helped me feel like I was actually getting to know some people in London. Second, becoming a part of the Fleece Station [Ellen’s studio in London] has made a big difference. Hanging out with those guys – my Camberwell classmate and expert cartoonist Sarah McIntyre, Stitch London head-girl Lauren O’Farrell, and the excellent Gary Northfield, a comics lifer if ever there was one – all day keeps me involved in the scene in a way I may not otherwise be. And I get excited to go to stuff like Comica Social Club, the Alternative Press events and Laydeez do Comics. But it took a long time.

Losing it! A Transatlantic Romance (2006)

D: Since you’ve been in the UK you’ve been part of the Whores of Mensa anthology collective, and have completed your graphic novel Undertow. Firstly, tell me how you got involved with WoM.

E: Well, it’s a rather short story, actually – I wrote them a fan letter! I’d bought a copy of the first issue of Whores of Mensa at Gosh! Comics in London and totally fell in love. All the stories were so hilariously funny, and smart. They were doing precisely the kinds of comics I love to read. Sacha Mardou – known in comics circles simply as MARDOU – wrote back to me and invited me to join them – which was seriously one of the nicest things that’s ever happened to me in comics, and the first time since I’d gotten to the UK that anyone had really acknowledged my existence at all. So I did a story for Whores of Mensa 2, and I’ve been involved ever since.

D: How would you describe WoM to new readers?

E: Whores of Mensa is comics by bookish people who like a good story, for other bookish people who like a good story. Each issue has a theme, and the individual artists – most often but not exclusively Jeremy Day, Mardou and myself – take it from there. It started when Mardou, Jeremy and Lucy Sweet – the three original contributors – met doing comix workshops at Ladyfest Bristol, in the early 2000’s. From the start a lot of our work has had a literary bent – but in a playful way. For example, a strip by Mardou called ‘Alan Sillitoe’s Baby’, in which the protagonist, erm, has Alan Sillitoe’s baby…or my retelling of Jane Eyre in the Middle East, for our ‘Harem’ issue. We like silliness, but we don’t like stupidity. We like wit, but not vulgarity. We are classy ladies, for all that we are Whores!

From Whores of Mensa #5

D: You released issue 5 in September – what are your future plans for the anthology?

E: Good question! I took over as editor for this issue while the usual series editor, Mardou, took some time to hang out with her little girl and work on her own graphic memoir. I’d like to get working on the next issue ASAP – but I need to confer with the other ladies involved.

We’ve had some legal trouble because of the name, so there’s a strong possibility that Whores of Mensa will be reborn under a new nom-de-BD, but with the same people involved. We’ll see – this issue was our biggest and most successful to date, so it’s a good, confident moment at which to re-evaluate.

From a collaboration with Sharon Lintz about her experiences with chemotherapy (2008)

D: Your graphic novel Undertow came out in 2009. What sparked the idea behind it?

E: Undertow came out of the trips my friend Megan and I took to Coney Island just after leaving uni. We both moved to Brooklyn – myself to Fort Greene, her to Park Slope – and we would meet up and take the F train all the way to the terminus at Stillwell Avenue, where you can see the Coney Island amusement area practically as soon as you get out of the station. A fantastic daytrip, for next to nothing. I had a sixties bathing suit I’d bought in a Park Slope vintage shop, which possibly put me in mind of the past, but in the old Coney Island, you couldn’t avoid signage, places and even people that made you think of the place’s history. My mother grew up in Flatbush, not very far from Coney Island, and so it made me think of her, and what had gone on in her childhood.

Then I found a really fantastic book of photographs, Brooklyn Gang by Bruce Davidson, in the MoMA bookshop. Davidson followed around a bunch of Brooklyn youths, hanging out with them almost 24/7, back in the late fifties. The photographs are angular, brash, intimate, crazy….a lot of fun to draw from. I started sketching, and writing….and gradually the idea for Undertow coalesced.

The more tragic elements were inspired by the ocean itself – it’s hard not to swim in the ocean and NOT think of drowning, at least for me. I grew up going to the beach, and the first time you get swamped by a wave…you don’t think you’re going to survive. And with the undertow, you can never be sure. The first instalment came out in Megan Kelso’s Scheherazade anthology, and I just kept going from there.

The cover to Undertow (2009)

D: There’s a definite sense of place and period in Undertow. It’s very evocative of the Coney Island I’ve seen in films and so on. I know Long Island is a big place but does your background in the near-ish neighbourhood make Undertow a more personal project for you?

E: Long Island IS big, but we lived really close to the city (as my parents still do). I spent a lot of time when I was a kid going to visit relatives in New York City – aside from my immediate family, everyone I’m related to lives in the five boroughs. So we always felt connected. Of course, New York in the 80’s has a rep as a crazy, dangerous place – and my parents were always really nervous. There was a sense that the city they’d grown up in had gotten a lot scarier. There were lots of potholes and graffiti, both of which were completely absent from the suburb where I grew up, and visiting my grandparents always involved my dad checking that the car was locked.

Mostly, though, I experienced city grit in print, not in person – I remember reading about all sorts of mayhem in my grandparents’ Daily News. Visiting NYC now, it can be hard to remember that they’re the same place. But anyhow… all of that talk about crime didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the city. When we drove through my maternal grandmother’s neighbourhood in Flatbush, you could see all different kinds of people who didn’t live in the neighbourhood I grew up in – African Americans, the Hasidim. It sounds dorky, but that seemed exciting, that not everyone in the world was white and Catholic!

Another thing that made a big impression were the family outings we took to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That sent the message that the city was where REAL culture lived. It was where REAL stuff happened, and you had to go there to be a part of it. So yes, Undertow is definitely personal for me – I love New York City, and I love the city’s history. And that started when I was still very young.

From Undertow: introducing the protagonist Rhonda.

D: Undertow’s a huge piece of work. What has the response to it been like?

E: Well, it’s been a bit of a low murmur, rather than a great roar – that’s the way of things when you’ve got a self-published book with very little distribution. Sales have been decent – mostly through Gosh!  and other independent shops, and what I sell in person at conventions and festivals. Undertow got written up on The Daily Crosshatch, which was very exciting – it’s a really neat American website that focuses on independent publishing, and I was flattered that they gave it some praise. Generally speaking the second best thing about finishing – besides getting it into readers’ hands! – was being able to say: “It’s DONE!” Because when you’re working on a long, long project, you can get into a frame of mind where you’re never, ever going to be finished. There’s always going to be something to tinker with. And defeating that urge, to just keep tinkering forever, is a very important part of doing comics in any kind of sustainable way.

Undertow starts with tragedy – does Rhonda’s future look more hopeful?

D: That strong sense of place hints that Undertow was well-researched visually. Is that a part of the creative process that you enjoy?

E: Thanks! I certainly tried to make it convincing. I think you can drive yourself crazy trying to do a period drama in comics form and make everything ‘perfect’, à la Mad Men. But in comics, there’s an art to doing it in a convincing way, while not cluttering up the background and distracting from what’s ACTUALLY going on! That was a big lesson I learned with Undertow.

That said, in creating the book, I spent a lot of time on Google Images, but the highlights tended to be books and exhibitions. To give one example, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the urban planning bible by Jane Jacobs. Highly recommended. To give a much-too-brief synopsis, she believes in a twenty four hour culture as a boon for public safety (whenever I walk through a deserted street in London, with no open shops, pubs, or public transport, and no visible police presence, I think of Jane Jacobs). But the most important thing about her book is that it’s a reaction to the car-obsessed, progress-obsessed city planning of the fifties and sixties. Death and Life gives you a picture of what cities were like before people like Robert Moses tried to ‘improve’ them, and it’ll change the way you look at the urban environment.

A NY subway sketch (2007)

Speaking of the devil, I also saw a great exhibition about Moses, who is an infamous New York City planner who did a lot of good but saw the city in a way that was a bit warped. He and Jane Jacobs came head to head over a project to build a motorway through Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park, if you can imagine such a thing. Anyhow, he – as a good Connecticut patrician – hated Coney Island, and played a huge role in wrecking it as a viable tourist destination. You can’t understand New York of the present without learning about Robert Moses. It’s completely impossible.

Another highlight was a visit to the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, which is built on top of an abandoned subway station. They use the track to display subway cars from every era of New York City public transport, which you can walk through, and of course, photograph. Amazing! A lot of the Coney Island from the late fifties and early sixties doesn’t exist anymore – so I had to get together a lot of old photographs. A really inspiring book from that part of the project is Coney Island Lost and Found, by Charles Denson. If you love Coney Island, and want to know more about why and how it was destroyed, read this book.

A subject close to Ellen’s heart… (2008)

D: How would you describe your drawing style?

E: My style changes with every project. I like to read or write the script and then visualize how the comic would ideally look. I don’t always get there, but it’s not the kind of starting-off point that begets uniformity. Also, I feel like if you have one rigid style it starts to define how you work, and what kind of stories you choose to tell. Generally speaking I tend to value a bold, graphic quality, and I’m really influenced by mid-century romance comics. People often ask me if I’m influenced by Jaime Hernandez, but Dan Clowes was a much bigger influence early on. I also have a quicker, swoopier, curvier graphic style, which I often use when I want to work quickly.  But I think if I have anything that’s going to become my dominant style, that’s it, though it still needs a lot of work. I’m working on a story for Peter Lally’s New Canterbury Tales anthology, and I’m really enjoying using that style for a far-ranging story like that.

A romance comic tribute (2005)

D: Some of your work certainly has a 50s retro feel to it and I know you have an interest in vintage fashion and style. What is it about that era that fascinates you so much?

E: Ha ha, good question! I had to think quite hard about this, because actually, the fifties don’t fascinate me at all. Everyone had it a lot rougher then, and as a society we made a lot of mistakes that are still haunting us today. You just have to try and take a bus or train around an American city to get a sense of how much the fifties – and especially car and consumer culture – have screwed us up (good luck finding that bus or train!).

One thing that WAS better about the fifties was the fact that more things were handmade, from fantastic materials. So I DO seek out vintage clothing. It all started when I was a teenager – the only shopping trip I could afford was to ride my bike a half hour to a really good thrift shop I knew. I fell in love with the fun of finding something really rare, that you can use to define your individuality. And even with the vintage boom, it’s still cheaper than buying something new. For example, at the moment I’m wearing a vintage navy Harvey Nicks cashmere jumper…it’s a lovely thing, still looks new, and it was only a tenner. Thrift score!

In terms of things about the fifties and sixties that I find inspiring (that you can’t wear), I like a lot of media from and about that era – I love old movies from back then, like Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Born to Be Bad, Her Life to Live….and I love Mad Men.

But Mad Men isn’t about how great the sixties were – it’s about watching a society change in very slow motion. It doesn’t glamorize the racism or sexism of the period, and you have a feeling of omniscience watching it, knowing what’s going to happen in Vietnam, or with Richard Nixon. Plus everyone wakes up with a hacking cough – you can almost feel the incipient emphysema. But I love all historical fiction. For example, I’m watching Upstairs, Downstairs at the moment. A lot of the characters lead incredibly empty lives – it’s almost as if the rigidity of social roles is sucking the life out of them, especially poor James. But it’s good drama, and the characters make sense within their society. And I love the Vietnam-era depiction of warfare, as a senseless force of destruction. That’s what I love – good stories, well told, that try and tell you something about the world the characters live in.

From the forthcoming Comix Reader (2010)

D: Do you find writing is something that comes naturally to you? Is it easier or more difficult than drawing?

E: Writing is so much easier for me generally, but writing fiction is a different story. I find the complexities of story construction just as challenging – in a good, stimulating way – as putting a drawing together. The nice thing about comics is that the writing and drawing become merged. You can write a beautiful script, but then you’ve got to make it work on the page as an easy-to-follow illustrated text. And that’s an art form in itself.

At the moment I’m doing a lot of writing for what I hope will be my next project – a semi-autobiographical story about my experiences in secondary school. That’s been hard, because a lot of it is rather painful, negative stuff that I’ve tried to put behind me. But I hope the resulting script will be a bit stylized and a lot more fun. That’s where the work comes in.

An illustration commissioned by Bold Creative as part of The Day Project, an initiative to educate young people about living with HIV (2010)

D: I get the feeling that making comics is something you will always be doing. Has it been financially rewarding for you?

Megan Kelso had a quote in her first collection about how, even if she had to eat cat food, she’d be doing comics until she died. Some days that seems crazy….to work so hard, for what often feels like very little recognition – it’s tough. Especially when you’re not convinced that you’re as gifted as someone like Megan. But I think about the friends I’ve made through comics, the wonderful experiences I’ve had, the amazing art I’ve seen…being part of an art form that’s still developing is an incredibly exciting thing. I have made some money off of comics, but it’s not dependable, and it’s not what I got into comics to do. When money comes, it’s a pleasant surprise. But you need to keep working, keep improving, even when there’s no money – and that can be really hard. I’ve done all sorts of weird jobs – lots of retail, childcare, film extra work… I’d do them all again, and I’m always looking for more! Plus there’s the part-time ‘job’ of travelling to cons, and selling your comics! That’s crucial. My advice when it comes to money and comics – if you’re keen on doing comics ‘professionally’, a good part-time job – or something like film work, which can be intense but only lasts a short time – will make your life a lot less stressful.

That said, it’s not all slog.  I did a fantastic freelance job this summer for a creative agency called Bold Creative, working with HIV positive people to create a book for teens about living with HIV. And last week, I got invited to create a mural for LEGO at GameCity, an amazing videogame festival in Nottingham. Stuff like that is a way I can use my skills to tell a story, and make a bit of money as well.

An excerpt from Ellen’s interpretation of “The Night You Can’t Rememember” by the Magnetic Fields (2010)

D: Aside from your foray into autobiographical comics, what else are you working right now?

E: I’m working on a story for Peter Lally and Alternative Press’s modern reworking of the Canterbury Tales. That’s pretty exciting. Alternative Press always do interesting stuff. I’m also doing a strip for Julia Scheele’s How F*cking Romantic blog, which is a collection of comics inspired by The Magnetic Fields and their 69 Love Songs album. Both of those are variations on the sort of bold graphic style I’ve been working with on my story for the last Whores of Mensa. I’m also appearing in Richard Cowdry‘s new Comix Reader project, a mass-saturation newspaper comic that has great artists like Kat Kon, Sina Evil and Lord Hurk. I’m the only one without a cool pseudonym! And after those….who knows! I need to do a lot of writing and thinking. I had a project I thought would be a goer – a biography – but biographies are complicated, especially when the people with power in your subject’s estate are completely opposed. So I need to decide how, or perhaps if, to go forward with that. I’m sorry to be mysterious – but after the six year long experience of doing Undertow, I’ve learned it can be best to keep things under your hat until you’re ready.

D: Intriguing! I look forward seeing what the future holds under that chapeau… thanks, Ellen!

All images © Ellen Lindner.



6 thoughts on “Ellen Lindner – Interview with the author of Undertow

  1. Great interview, that was thoroughly enjoyable to read.

    A Scottish newspaper has a tradition of a newspaper strip. The paper is a bit twee but Sunday’s were spent at my grandparents reading the cartoon/funny section from The Sunday Post. ‘Oor Wullie’ is a Scottish institution.

    1. Thanks David! Oh, yes – I know a lot of fans of Oor Wullie. It’s a shame that UK papers have never embraced comics on quite the scale as they have in the US. The Sunday comics section of some US papers is an entire supplement.

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