Jennifer Camper by Denise Sudell
Jennifer Camper is a queer comics pioneer. Way back in 1980 — even before Alison Bechdel's seemingly-eternal Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF) first appeared — Camper's first strip, Cookie Jones, Lesbian Detective, was published in the national newsweekly Gay Community News (aka GCN). Since then, her comics and illustrations have appeared in magazines and newspapers from Ms. Magazine and The Village Voice to On Our Backs and Bad Attitude, and turned up in numerous anthologies from The Great Women Cartoonist and Sexual Harassment: Women Speak Out to Dyke Strippers and Ex-Lover Weird Shit. Her own books include Rude Girls and Dangerous Women, a collection of her cartoons that mix humor with political commentary, and subGURLZ, a graphic novel following the adventures of three women living in abandoned subway tunnels.
Jen's latest production to hit the streets is Juicy Mother: Celebration, a comix anthology focusing on the work of women, people of color and queers. She edited the book, contributed a story called "Ramadan" about the experiences of Arab dykes before and after 9/11, and took part in a wildly hilarious comic jam that featured such creators as Bechdel, Hothead Paisancreator Diane DiMassa, and queer comics god/Stuck Rubber Baby creator Howard Cruse throwing a party for their respective characters — a party that degenerates (or, if you prefer, upgrades) into an orgy. Sample Camper contribution: Camper's creation Roxie, squeezing the crotch of DWTOF's main character, straitlaced political activist Mo: "C'mon, Mo! I've got a 12-inch dildo with your name on it!!"
But this summary doesn't give anywhere near a complete sense of the outrageously-twisted, delectably-offensive creativity of Jennifer Camper. Back in her GCN days, I was the paper's news editor, and we spent some time hanging out together, so I got to witness some of her escapades first-hand. Like the cover she produced for the paper in 1982, just two weeks after the GCNoffices were torched and destroyed, and the supporters of the extremely-nonprofit paper were trying to raise funds to keep it from folding. The cover so scandalized some of the paper's less open-minded backers that they threatened to let the paper die (it didn't, at least not right then). You can see a copy of the offending cover right next to this column.
Then there was the Valentine's Day night when, after a concert, a bunch of us who were feeling rather anti-romantic, including Jennifer, went to a swanky hotel lobby to hang out. Especially for the occasion, Jennifer had produced a lot of little construction-paper hearts, colored black and bile green, inscribed with such heartwarming slogans as "Everybody Hates You." We scurried about the lobby, planting the hearts in the highly-expensive flower arrangements and scattering them like confetti for all the besotted couples to discover among their seat cushions. Best Valentine's Day I've ever had.
Jen and I lost touch for a couple of decades, but ran into each other again in queer comics circles when I started writing forSequential Tart. So I figured I could use our old comradeship as bait (or possibly blackmail) to convince her to answer 13 Questions for Tart. She readily agreed.
1. How did you get started cartooning?
I always drew and wrote when I was a kid, sometimes on my own and sometimes with my sister and brother. Later, I started doing comics in school. I remember one long illustrated story I did in the sixth grade that described the secret lives of our teachers (mostly spies and criminals) and featured a hairy character called "Camper" who was of unknown gender and was referred to as "it."
I continued doing comics in high school and college, and most of the stories ridiculed school policies, teachers and other students. Interestingly, I found that people didn't mind being made fun of in the comics because they were so excited to see themselves in a cartoon. I also added a lot of cartoons to my school papers. I remember one professor telling me not to do it, but later I noticed he had my cartoons hanging on the wall in his office.
After getting out of school, I began publishing cartoons and illustrations in [GCN] and in Gay Comix, edited by Howard Cruse. Howard is the Godfather of queer comics and has mentored so many of us. He is unfailingly generous in sharing his knowledge and techniques.
2. Where did the title "Juicy Mother" come from?
It just floated in on the wind. I like the word "mother" because it can mean both "Mother" — creator and nurturer — and "Mutha." I like the word "juicy" because, well, who doesn't?
3. It appears that it took a while for this anthology to get published: some of the stories were created as far back as 1995, and at least one of the contributors jokes in his bio about how long the book was taking. Can you give us the dirt about the trials and tribulations you suffered getting Juicy Mother: Celebration to press?
I started compiling work for this anthology without a publisher lined up. Life got in the way, and the project sat on the back burner for awhile. I slowly got enough pages together, then slowly scanned and digitally formatted all the art. (This was back when most of the comics were submitted via hard copy.) It took another year or two to shop it around and find a publisher. Some of the older stories in the book are comics that folks had drawn, but for one reason or another had never been published, and I thought Juicy Mother would be a way for them to finally get in print. For example, the jam was originally drawn for Outlook (a now-defunct national lesbian/gay quarterly), but the magazine folded.
Once I found a publisher, it took over a year to be released because publishers line up their books a year or two in advance. I'm very grateful to Soft Skull Press for publishing this anthology and for all their support. And I'm thrilled they've agreed to publish another issue next year.
4. In Juicy Mother: Celebration, you identify yourself as a Lebanese-American dyke. Do you have any horror stories to tell about being regarded/used as the token lesbian or the token Arab (or both)?
Not really. Because I'm mixed, most people don't know I'm half Arab. I've had experiences where people have unknowingly said horrible anti-Arab things in my face. When I bust them on their racism, they fall all over themselves trying to justify what they've said, and that's always pretty amusing.
I wasn't really part of an Arab community, except for my family, until the 1990's when I began to meet other queer Arabs and Iranians. I thought their experiences were amazing and I began to do comics about them. For a lot of queer Arab women it's a struggle to be a lesbian in the Arab community, and also difficult to be Arab in the gay community. When I met other Arab dykes, many of them were trying to come to terms with being queer in the context of their Arab culture. I was a half-breed dyke trying to connect with my Arab side in the context of my queer life. We sort of met in the middle.
Before 9/11, Arabs and Muslims were pretty much invisible to most Americans. Now it's the flavor of the month. It's nice to have people take an interest, but frustrating that it took an attack on America to have that happen.
5. What's the source of your sick and twisted sense of humor?
A happy combination of nature and nurture.
6. In the intro to Juicy Mother: Celebration, you say you want "an alternative to the alternative" comics, and ask, "Where are the comix by and about women, people of color and queers?" Do you have a favorite as-yet-undiscovered cartoonist or comics creator (other than those featured in your anthology) whose work you'd like to tell Tart readers about?
Here's just a few cartoonists who, though not really undiscovered, deserve much more attention — Mikhaela Reid, Jamaica Dyer, Erika Moen, Neil Babra, Colleen Coover, Justin Hall, Sara Varon, Justine Shaw, and Ellen Lindner. Some of these artists will have work in Juicy Mother Issue 2.
7. How did you manage to lure Hothead Paisan creator Diane DiMassa out of retirement?
Promises of lavish parties, cheap broads, and piles of money. All lies, but she fell for it.
8. Is it true that Diamond Comics Distributors, the exclusive distributor for the major comics companies, isn't distributingJuicy Mother? If so, why not?
Juicy Mother is carried by Diamond. My publisher tells me they placed an order in January 2005. Last Gasp, Cold Cut,PGW and other distributors also carry the book.
9. What's the most fun you've ever had deliberately trying to piss somebody off?
That time with the senator's daughter and the stolen pickup truck comes to mind, but I'm not supposed to talk about it according to the court settlement.
10. What's the most outrageous thing you've ever done in public?
Sat quiet like an angel.
Click to enlarge.
11. What's your favorite sex toy?
12. What projects are you working on now?
I have a comic in the latest issue of the Arab American journalMizna and I just finished a cartoon for Bitch magazine that will be in their fall 2005 issue. Also, I'm working on Juicy Mother 2: How They Met to be published by Soft Skull Pressin spring 2006.
13. How have you managed to stay out of jail for all these years?
Amazing good luck, and having many disguises.