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A Q&A with Comics Artist Jennifer Cruté, author of The Life of a SubUrban Girl

The cover of Jennifer's Journal, a brightly covered paperback of a young black girl playing with her dolls and looking guilty, as a red devil laughs at her in the doorway.

Bitch magazine readers may recognize Jennifer Cruté's round-faced, deceptively cute characters from her contribution to the "My Dark Confession" comics feature in the Noir issue, no. 42. If you're not familiar with this under-the-radar indie artist, now's your chance to get acquainted with her. Since her Bitch comic, Jennifer has been busy finishing a three-part graphic novel series—that is, when she's not doing Current.tv specials, getting nominated for a Glyph award, showing her work in museums, and working on erotic paintings, natch. Bitch is proud to be selling the first in the trilogy, Jennifer's Journal: The Life of a SubUrban Girl (left) at BitchMart!

In this book ("NOT recommended for children" a cartoon Jennifer cautions on the front), Cruté recounts her childhood growing up—the good (her BFF stuffed frog), the bad (Dad not pulling his weight), and the hilarious (I probably laughed the hardest when a young Jennifer orders a huge piece of Trinidadian rum-soaked cake thinking it's chocolate…and her mother makes her finish all of it).

Intermixed are journeys into her family tree and one-panel portraits of friends' childhoods, with the last third of the book focusing on Jennifer's questioning of church—which uncoincidentally dovetails with discovering her own sexuality. Her cartooning style is deceptively playful; these snapshots of her life, family, and identity are far more complex. Cruté's able to leverage humor to tackle some heavy stuff, making for a compelling read and an exciting debut. 

Cruté, who currently lives and works in Brooklyn, spoke to that aspect of her work with me, as well as how the book came about, working as an Black graphic artist, and the time Shirley Chisholm snapped some sense into her. Read on!

 

A picture of Jennifer Crute in profile. Can you talk about the process of putting together Life of a SubUrban Girl? Why did you decide to self-publish? 

My comics came to me randomly and I actually didn't take them seriously until I had a pile of pages...and when I had a dream where Shirley Chisholm grabbed me and shook me while screaming, "It's not just a stupid comic! Finish it!" Pretty scary. So, I got on it. I broke the pages down by categories that became my chapters.  Some of the comics got cut because I wasn't sure where they fit—another reason to continue writing more volumes.

Self-publishing was a choice because I was new to creating comics—I felt that I should test my audience first before I leave it in the hands of someone else. I also wanted to keep absolute control of my characters, and the way African-American girls and woman have been portrayed in media was part of the deciding factor. I think it's a disservice to readers when your own life story is edited into the fabricated life of a stereotype.  

What can we look forward to in the second volume?

Three chapters: School, Depression, and Work.

Your illustration work and paintings have completely different styles. Can you talk about your different approaches?

My illustration/commercial style is how I drew when I left college and started working as a freelancer. I worked in the program Adobe Illustrator so I would never have to hand an art director an original piece. At the time, this style appealed to most of my clients. However, I got a little bored with it.

In college my goal was to be a "fine artist." My mother, concerned about me finding a job, suggested I major in illustration.  It was a good choice, because I learned so much about marketing. After graduating, I came back to where my soul was and that was drawing and painting. My paintings have a background of being a lot more free in my approach. There are no art directors involved to hand me revisions, and I get a chance to create work that I feel pierces some of the world's delusions with truth.

Given the different styles of visual art that you do, what drew you to make comics in the first place? 

Ha! Frustration! That was the first thing. I keep a journal that I write in every morning. While trying not to scald myself with hot coffee in the bed, I would write about my work, spiritual path, problems, joys, non-love life, etc. I began to have cartoons loosely drawn across the lined pages for those really upsetting entries. For example, not being paid on time by clients, getting audited by the IRS, and having art directors tell me to make my African-American women look more European. What else could I do while I ate my can of beans after writing a huge tax check and pulling my own self-esteem back together? Learn how to laugh at the problems while informing others of them. 

A four panel comic of Jennifer talking to her graphic design client on the phone. In the first panel, her client says 'Hi Jenn, so we're going to have you make the skirt shorter and tighter.' in the second panel, the client says 'Hi again! So, we like both options, but we're going to go with the straightened hair.' In the third panel, the client says 'Now, as far as the face goes, we want smaller features to give her a 'sleeker' look.' In the final panel, the client says 'ok, what we really want is for her to look more European.' Throughout the panels, Jennifer's expression becomes more and more annoyed. in the final panel she is drumming her fingers on the table. In the bottom right hand corner, it reads 'So hard illustrating Black women.'

Who do you count as influencing your cartooning style? What about them was influential?

There are so many, but the first person that comes to mind is my friend Sokoni Christian. He taught me how to see the silly in the serious.  He is an excellent artist with such technical skill, but can also simplify his designs and add hard hitting verbiage.  

Marjane Satrapi is also a great influence. Persepolis really blew my mind. Again, a very simple character with very hard and real life situations. It made me feel like her...and that invoked compassion in me.

You don't often see religion and comics mixing…but you're able to both be critical of institutional religion (Christianity), and ultimately, embrace your own spirituality in The Life of a SubUrban Girl (and make jokes about both!). Was that difficult? 

Yeah, this wasn't difficult at all. I poke more fun at Christianity simply because I've had more years spent with it. As time goes by, I will develop a pile of comics about my new spiritual path. The few comics I've drawn about it so far have been jokes about me and my conditions. My comics tend to take on the formula of the straight man and the clown, and I find that when it comes to revealing my own contradictions spiritually, I'm usually the clown. My character Miss Buddha Bear is usually the straight man that loves playful silliness.

A panel from her book of rural, early 20th century black man telling a young rural black girl, 'Don't worry baby, dead people can't lynch us.'

I love how you're able to infuse really upsetting situations with a kind of dark humor, like in the scene of your family avoiding white violence in the early-20th Century American South by walking through graveyards at night. I think this ties to the way that you draw as well—as you put it on the back of Life of a SubUrban Girl, "I draw simple characters with round figures to soften the complex and contradictory life situations I depict." It takes a lot of skill to pull this off effectively, can you talk about the process of doing that? 

You have to put a jester hat on any oppressor—be that oppressor a person, a group or your own mind. I feel that the skill of dark humor is something that is innate in most cartoonists/artists that had to or have to deal with the oppression of racism, prejudice, sexism, homophobia, etc. etc. This skill helps me to draw a funny image with a message that may disturb, but will most certainly inform and hopefully educate. 

 


Buy your copy of Jennifer's Journal: The Life of a SubUrban Girl, vol 1. today at BitchMart! Visit CruteComics.com and JenniferCrute.com for more of Jennifer's work. 

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