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Sick sense of humour

Gottlieb and DiMassa dazzle with death and sex

HEARTS POUNDING AND STUTTERING: 'Our bodies are always moving towards death. And sex is what we do in between,' says Daphne Gottlieb, co-author of Jokes and the Unconscious.

Jokes and the Unconscious dazzled me from the very first page. This brilliant graphic novel by performance poet Daphne Gottlieb and artist Diane DiMassa blazes through death and sex with compassion, honesty and a perfectly sick sense of humour.

Oh, and did I mention it’s hot, too? Thank God, or whoever, that these two found each other: Gottlieb, whose edgy books include Final Girl and Why Things Burn, and DiMassa, creator of the cartoon anti-hero Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist.

The short chapters and single panels that make up Jokes tell the story of Sasha, a young woman whose father is dying from cancer at the same time that she is falling in love with a hot skater girl named Jet. At various points, the storyline skips backward to Sasha’s history with her father and forward to her hellish job at a hospital after his death.

Jokes–weird, funny and dark–appear here and there, like distillations of the twisted humour that arises from death and dying, the fucked-upness of hospitals or the surreality of funerals.

There have been a number of graphic novels lately that deal with illness, death and dying. But Jokes is the only one I’ve seen that includes explicit sex scenes along with the tragedy. For Gottlieb, this is a logical combination.

“Our bodies are always moving towards death,” she says from her home in San Francisco. “And sex is what we do in between.”

The inclusion of queer sexuality not only increases the intensity of the book, it makes Sasha a more complicated character, not simply a grieving daughter.

Although the book is based on Gottlieb’s own experience and “emotionally true,” she describes it as fictionalized. She made a conscious decision not to attempt an historically accurate memoir.

“Autobiography can never reflect real life,” she says. “We’re so biased we can never get it right.”

More importantly, she adds, “the story that happened to me wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.”

Gottlieb actually started writing the first version of Jokes over 15 years ago, only months after her own father died. The manuscript ended up being her Creative Writing MFA thesis. A few years ago, when she was stuck on another project, Gottlieb went back to her thesis.

One of the gaps she found in the story was the absence of any queer content, which left a “gaping hole.” She promptly set about filling that hole, and it’s a good thing she did. One of the most important aspects of Jokes and the Unconscious is its queerness–our communities need books about parents dying that we can connect to.

The process of turning Gottlieb’s story into a graphic novel is a collaboration both she and DiMassa rave about. Gottlieb describes herself as “slack-jawed, awed, excited and curious” throughout their time working together.

For her part, DiMassa says she was thrilled when Gottlieb suggested the project. “I love, love, love her poetry and writing–genius!”

The two first met in San Francisco, and when DiMassa moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, they developed an intense, connected e-mail correspondence that eventually led to Gottlieb proposing a collaboration and sending DiMassa a first draft of Jokes. DiMassa said yes immediately, though she did have some concerns.

“My first reaction was, it’s taking place a lot in her head. Can I do this?”

Jokes would also be DiMassa’s first graphic novel, which meant a longer chunk of drawing time than she had ever encountered putting out Hothead zines.

But DiMassa soon realized that although the story did include a lot of observation and meditation by the narrator, the power and the “heavy emotionality” of the story provided more than enough material for drawings.

So in spite of her worries about the amount of work (which turned out to be valid), DiMassa took on the project and added her raw, crazy art to Gottlieb’s prose.

Fans of Hothead Paisan will immediately recognize the intense energy in the drawings, the harshness of the characters’ faces, the stark black and whites with very little grey. When I ask DiMassa about the range of media and styles that she used–loose brushwork to detailed pen to collage, representational to abstract–her first explanation is that she is “probably the most inconsistent cartoonist or illustrator who ever lived.”

But she goes on to explain that she works from an intuitive, emotional place, and her decisions about the art resulted from her response to Gottlieb’s writing.

For the next nine or 10 months, DiMassa would e-mail Gottlieb a few pages every week. She didn’t go through the story in chronological order, but drew the panels as she “felt” them.

Gottlieb remembers that DiMassa would ask her questions about the story as she went along, because she wanted to make sure she reflected it accurately. Though Gottlieb wasn’t too concerned about accuracy, she says DiMassa seemed to have an almost psychic connection to the story.

“I would give her as unhelpful a description of a character as possible and she’d send me the spitting image of my ex-boyfriend. It was creepy.”

Although DiMassa never changed any of the text as she drew the panels, she did add some very Hothead-ish asides and ad-libs. The night that Jet comes over to Sasha’s apartment for the first time, for example, they’re both wasted and Sasha is completely hot for Jet. Jet says, “I don’t think I can ride my board home. Can I stay here?” To which DiMassa inserted a thought balloon for Sasha: “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Gottlieb welcomed DiMassa’s cheeky humour and the way it “lightened the darkness of the text.” But DiMassa’s connection with Gottlieb’s story went much further.

She really “got” both the tragedy and the comedy, and expressed them in her drawings, Gottlieb says. “Diane seized on and magnified the surreal universe that death puts us into. And she brought an exuberance and joy that was in the spirit of the book even when it wasn’t in the words.”

Now that the book is published, both are working on separate projects. Gottlieb is busy teaching, writing and performing, and DiMassa is painting in oils and collaborating on a movie version of Hothead (yes, I am serious). The two are eager to work together again. We can only hope it’s soon.