The Autobiographical Self

My upcoming book Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics could be called “educational” (and I’m very flattered when people do) – but it’s just as much “autobiographical”. Ever since I started in comics – in 1998, I was a late bloomer – I wanted to draw about myself. It so happened that at that time there was a surge in Dutch comix of female autobiographies, with the publication of three women comic artists, who were called “The Big Three” for a long time:

Gerrie Hondius, Barbara Stok and Maaike Hartjes.

I loved their comics, so if I wanted to do something in the same genre, I’d have to make sure it was sufficiently different from what they made. And with that thought, a journey in search of my Autobiographical Self started.

This was my first depiction of myself, walking into the studio of Maaike Hartjes, where I drew my first self-published comics. At that time I was 26 years old, thin and pretty clueless about where to begin when starting my own comic.

For the first few years, I tried drawing all kinds of different styles. I copied styles I liked. I drew myself realistically one day, cartoony the next. It was almost a therapeutic process, expressing not only different emotions but also coming to grip with my self-image.

See what I mean? That’s Bitchy Bitch from Roberta Gregory, a comic I absolutely devoured.

And then, in 2002, a new relationship brought step-children into my life, and my comic character changed to a more sedate young woman who (usually) stayed calm in all the dramas of family life.

I grew, as a person and as a comic character. Literally. I started putting on weight and although I was quite comfortable with it, I had to re-invent my comic persona: no longer young and thin, but mature and “filled out” (and blond for a while!).

At the same time my comics changed from being purely autobiographical (like the webcomic I did in 2005) to being more educational. I made “comic reports” for national newspaper Trouw, so my character became a reporter. This meant a more cartoony approach, which I still use in my books. It’s very convenient: my comic persona is ageless, easily identifiable and still looks like me (thanks to my unconventional hairdo, which I’ll never change unless I want to be “incognito” of course).

The self-image and identity of an autobiographical comic artist is a very visible thing, and it’s exactly that which makes it my favorite genre. Making autobiographical comics is a brave and vulnerable undertaking, which is rewarded in the end by finding oneself on the pages of the Book of Life (Ooo, that’s deep!).

That being said, a few weeks ago I met up with my little brother (he lives in Berlin, so we don’t see each other very often). He grabbed me brotherly by the neck and exclaimed: “My god, Sis! You have a hump!”

I do, I know it’s there, it’s the badge of honor of a serious cartoonist, always bent over her work.

But having it pointed out by my younger (and gorgeous) brother struck a chord. It made me wonder if I shouldn’t re-draw myself. So that people who know me from my comics who meet me can exclaim: “Oh, you’re so much prettier in real life!” And I can rub that in my brother’s face. With his big nose.

 

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A Pre-review of ‘Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics’

I admit: I regularly google the title of my book to see where it pops up on the web – a few weeks back, I stumbled across this on the blog Comics and… Other Imaginary Tales:

I had never heard of Action Philosophers and was intrigued, so I ordered it. It arrived a few days ago and I have not read all of it yet, but I love it already. It is funny and quite thorough.

 

Action Philosophers, by Fred van Lente & Ryan Dunlavey

 

So the big question is: if you enjoyed Action Philosophers, should you still buy my book?

My answer is of course: Yes!

Both books cover some of the same ground, but they do so in different ways. Action Philosophers is very much an “american” comic in that it plays off of the old superhero-genre. As the title suggests, it has a lot of action in it, lots of POWs and SMASHes. Which is wonderful, because it immediately smashes the idea that philosophy is stuffy, dull and slow.

Plato in 'Action Philosophers'

 

Plato in 'Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics'

 

My book has a different approach – it has less philosophers (11 in mine against 46 in AP!) but more general philosophy that tries to involve the reader personally, with questions like: What Is Reality? What Choices Make You Who You Are? What Does Your Own Free Will Look Like? My aim throughout was to show that philosophy is something personal, something that starts with knowing who YOU are. In that sense, my book takes a more educational approach. Plus, it’s all in color!

So my advice is: if you read and liked Action Philosophers, get my book to complement it. And if you haven’t read Action Philosophers yet, buy both books! Hours and hours of philosophical fun and insights guaranteed!

Comic Con Haarlem

No, that’s not Harlem, but HAArlem with 2A’s – a picturesque village less than 10 miles from Amsterdam. The NY neighborhood was named after it in the time that New York was still New Amsterdam.

The town of Haarlem hosts the biggest and nicest comics festival of The Netherlands. Every two years, the whole inner city is buzzing with artists, expositions and comic-related activities.

Poster for the Stripdagen Haarlem, by Peter van Dongen

 

Of course I will be there – in a few places at the same time, even! I have my own special booth in theater De Philharmonie (stand 23, on the first floor), but I’m also present in the window of bookstore Coebergh in the main shopping street. This year, over 70 comic artists have been hooked up with stores and shops in Haarlem to provide window-dressing – a great way to make the city more “comicky” and bring artists and retailers together!

Me & my window at bookstore Coebergh, Haarlem

 

My husband Yiri T. Kohl, who is also a comic artist, was linked to tobacco-store Havana House. A great match, since Yiri’s underground comic characters, often likened to the Freak Brothers, have been spotted in the past with all kinds of addictive substances…

Tobacco-related art by my husband Yiri T. Kohl

 

In another comic incarnation, I am present at the exhibition ‘Ook van Jou’ (‘Love You Too’). This is a group exhibition featuring all kinds of relationships in comics. My long-running comic character Mijntje, a wild bisexual girl, was invited to join and she will be giving out kisses to everyone who comes to visit.

Kissable comic character Mijntje at the Haarlem comic festival

 

Most of the time, I will be at my booth selling my comics about philosophy, religion and friendship, and bragging about how “my publisher in New York” is promoting my book at the BEA, and showing original pages of my newest work, about science, which will be published in Holland in October.

So if you’re in the neighborhood, come and visit Haarlem this weekend! It will be a comic experience you’ll never forget!

How To Pick Those Pivotal Philosophers?

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

In May 2009 Kees Korenhof of Publishing House Meinema asked me to make a comic book about philosophy, and I had boldly agreed to have it finished in time for the Spring 2010, which meant a deadline in October. I had to sit down and produce.

I started out by drawing two introductory chapters to define the area. What Is Thinking? And what makes Thinking in humans so special, compared with the consciousness process in (other) animals? Along the way, I introduced myself, or rather my cartoon character, my husband Yiri and our two cats.

But then it was time to dive into solid philosophical history. Where to begin? Well, fortunately it was very obvious: Western philosophy starts with that illustrious trio Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

If you would offer me a chance to meet one of these three, I would definitely pick Socrates. He lived in very turbulent times, went to war on several occasions, and was not afraid to speak his mind, even against the leaders of his own city-state. They didn’t thank him for that: he was sentenced for spoiling the younger generation and disregarding the gods, and was offered a choice: banishment or death by poison. It certainly speaks for his character that he chose the latter: he was not a man to be dismissed.

That was all in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., in a land far away… which philosopher is next? The Roman Empire sure had some great thinkers, but not great enough to equal the influence of the Ancient Greek in the development of Western thought. Actually, we had to wait about 800 years before the next candidate emerged: Augustine.

By that time, Christianity was gaining power rapidly in Western Europe and Augustine was an enthusiastic convert – after he led a life of liberal licentiousness, which makes him one of the more interesting Christian philosophers, I think. He was smitten by the works of Plato.

After Augustine, Western philosophy had to wait another 800 years for an influential spokesman (Eastern philosophy, in the meantime, was benefitting big time from the young and fresh religion of Islam, which made the Arabic lands prosper and blossom in culture and science, compared to which the Westerners were mere boorish peasants). This spokesman was Thomas Aquinas, and he loved his Aristotle. Especially the idea of the Power of Human Reason, which elevated Man from a mere victim of Fate (and Faith) to a God-chosen Pinnacle of Creation.

And that’s how we emerged from the Dark Ages, philosophically: with the idea that Man surely had to be something special, being created with such awesome faculties of Understanding and Reasoning. What philosopher could top that?

I found it challenging to pinpoint the next pivotal philosophers and eventually stayed close to home, which in my case is The Netherlands, and the following three all had a strong connection with this country:

Desiderius Erasmus, René Descartes and Benedictus de Spinoza. Two of them born in the “low countries”, one of them lived here most of his adult life. They also had a strong connection with their Aristotelian heritage: all their philosophies were about Human Reason and what it can and cannot do.

Of these three I like Spinoza best. He was born in Amsterdam, the city where I live, and although history puts us 400 years apart, the times he lived in are not that radically different from now. In his day, Amsterdam was harboring, as it does now, many different nationalities and religions. It was a center of tolerance and culture. But with the country in a war and an economic recession, this tolerance eroded. Spinoza called for freedom of speech, a pamphlet he had to ironically publish anonymously.

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

It’s not all that different from current times. We’re in an economic recession again, minorities are being scape-goated and freedom of speech is being squelched by politicians who want it just for themselves. If Spinoza were alive today, his message would be the same. And he would probably be under fire for it, like Socrates was in his times.

Yes, the occupation of philosopher is not for the faint-hearted! You thought philosophers were dusty old men, smoking pipes and staring meaningfully out of the window of their aristocratic study-rooms, pondering ideas that have nothing to do with real life…? Think again!

You want some excitement in your life? Want to express your individuality and live life to the max? Forget bungee-jumping, become a philosopher!

There are more philosophers in the book, of course, we’ve just reached the somewhat modern age. But I’ll talk about them later, because I took a whole different turn there…

Stay tuned!

True Age: 33

(This entry is not about my upcoming book ‘Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics’, but it does pose a philosophical question)

What is your true age? And I don’t mean in the sense of “If you smoke, you are really ten years older than you are”, but as in: “How old do you truly feel inside?” Men nearing 40 usually answer: 18. Women over 50 often say: 9. Both answers have to do something with the Child Within, I guess. Sometimes though, for some people, True Age is dictated by the Adult Within.

As for me, ever since my teenage years I have felt about 33 years old. This idea stuck with me after I read Lord of the Rings: 33 is the age at which hobbits reach maturity. The years before 33 are referred to as the Irresponsible Tweens – an individual has reached physical autonomy but not yet the wisdom and maturity of adulthood.

I had my share of the Irresponsible Tweens – but when I turned 33, I felt as if I had reached the age that has been appropriate for me as a person all along. 33 to me means that I have some experience, and the common sense to have learned from it. It also means not feeling pressured so much about What I Should Become, because I have found a place in life. 33 is immensely old when seen from the point of view of an 18-year-old, and incredibly young when you are 50. It is the perfect “free place” between youth and seniority. I don’t have to prove myself that much, and yet my existence is still full of promises and possibilities. And the best part: people started taking me seriously.

When I was in my early twenties, it often bothered me that my voice wasn’t heard, since I was a rather young and naive looking girl. When I reached my thirties, more people started to address me in a formal way, and looking to me for my opinion on things. I like that. I always have. For I was always truly 33.

This year I will turn 40 and I’m happy about it. Aging and maturing is an interesting process that we can steer and influence every day with our thoughts and behavior. Although I still feel 33 inside, I hope one day, when I reach 50 or so, the part of me that feels like a Grande Dame will awaken. Then I will recline on my sofa in my elegant home and receive many interesting visitors who long to hear my wit and wisdom… Ah, wouldn’t that be lovely!