RING OF FIRE ANTHOLOGY FUNDRAISER!!
ET Russian is, to many readers, perhaps the most exciting cartoonist they've never heard of. To others of us, Russian is a folk hero. A living legend among Northwest Homocore aficionados, an ever-evolving arts activist, a genderqueer artist-to-watch-out-for. Particularly worthy of anticipation is Russian's solo anthology, Ring of Fire: a collection of personal essays, zine reprints, illustrations, interviews, and of course--comics, set for release from Left Bank Books, Seattle. As for me, I am beyond excited at the advent of Russian's latest artistic endeavor, as I have been a fan for many years. Within its covers, I look forward to reading excerpts from Russian's out-of-print zines (much read, often lent, and long-lost), interviews with Russian's artistic peers and heroes, and a girth of exciting new material from one of my favorite artists working today. ET agreed to meet with me this weekend via satellite (phone) from Seattle. I had a migraine, and ET was recuping from stress injuries to their arms, the result of a broken wheelchair. Still we managed to pull off a lively conversation, most of which I will share with you below. This post is meant as both an intro to those of you unfamiliar with ET's work, and a shameless plug for pre-ordering the book Ring of Fire through this fundraising site, thus bringing it ever-closer to material reality. There is only a couple days left on the fundraiser, Order yours now! And please enjoy the interview..
AM: So, basically I wanted to go sort of far back into the history of ET Russian. A folk legend...folk hero is how I think of you.
ETR: Oh my God, Murph...
AM: Because I feel like a lot of people knew you, knew your name and knew your pen-name/stage name, and knew your work. I didn't meet you until gosh, like five or six years after I knew of who you were...I'm trying to think; I think The Transfused was where I first heard your pen-name, Hellery Homosex. Do you want to talk about The Transfused?
ETR: Oh my God...[chuckles] um, Okay. The Transfused was a rock opera that was performed in 1999, I think, in Olympia Washington, written by Nomy Lamm and The Need. It was an absolutely incredible experience, a hundred artists collaborated on that show. And at the time, the Olympia Washington art and music scene was really peaking in terms of its momentum and creativity, with all the music labels like K [Records], and Kill Rock Stars and Yo-Yo Records, and Ladyfest was happening and Yo-Yo A Go-Go and all those music festivals. And there was also a lot of drag shows happening at the time, there was a big queer community. And punk was obviously--punk culture, art and politics--was the big thread throughout all that...no, it [Transfused] was 2000--right after the WTO [protests in Seattle], so there was that whole political excitement in Washington in the Seattle area, and Olympia is right outside of Seattle. So there was a real strong feeling of community and hope at the time. And so I think The Transfused kinda came out of some of that energy, from the WTO, and the successes the activists had at the WTO. It overflowed into The Transfused, which is really a story of hope, resistance--community resistance against corporate and government fascism--and it had a hopeful ending. I was the assistant director, and the make-up artist. Doing the make-up was really, really fun. I got to make a lot of prosthetic pieces for the show.
AM: Prosthetic pieces?
ETR: Yeah, like prosthetic noses that were custom molded. And that was a lot of fun.
Premier performance of The Transfused Intro, Olympia, 2000
AM: You are an artist of many talents. And you're also a collaborator extroardinaire. Making a list of all the things I've known of that you've done is pretty incredible. Because it's so all over the board with the medium and the ways you choose to express yourself. But let's talk about comics! And where comics fits in there. Because I also read your zine Ring of Fire, sometime right around seeing The Transfused. Your comics seems to be a consistent thread, like--you've done all of these different things, but you've consistently done comics. Is that
ETR: Um..yeah, I've been doing comics this whole time. Well, visual art. Comics and illustration. I think of myself as an illustrator.
AM: An illustrator. What does that mean to you?
ETR: Well, I think one image, a single image, can tell a story. But I think people typically think of comics as having multiple images, or multiple panels. And so I do do those style of comics, but I also do a lot of single-image pieces which you could call comics, but I think they are more traditionally thought of as illustration.
"Long-Haired Tomboy" by ET Russian.
[pic shows hair twisted around the small wheel of a wheelchair]
AM: I think that's interesting because I feel like--in the comics industry right now, it's really kinda--it's a gendered idea that--and bear with me here--
AM: That comics have to be something on a page that has a bunch of panels, or boxes..and I feel like I was always attracted, as a kid, to work that would be one picture that had a lot of stuff going on, or that told a story. And I've always included that in my definition of comics. For instance, with [my comic] I Still Live, a lot of people called that 'an adult children's book'.
AM: Yeah, I've heard people say that because there's so many full-page 'panels'.
AM: And to me, that's kind of a gendered idea, because for the last hundred years, women illustrators could only get jobs making children's books. Or creating work for children's audiences. I just think that's interesting. because I know a lot of men, (and genderqueer or trans people) that use single-panel stuff in their comics work. But I feel like sometimes peoples' definition of comics has kind of been this way of writing off a bunch of illustrators that could be included. I was excited that, finally, Maurice Sendak is being included--though he's now passed away--in the conversation about comics. Because he's a children's book illustrator, but you know, he also does things that have word balloons and such.
But back to Ring of Fire, which was the first comics zine of yours that I read. I think about as being all comics. But it wasn't, was it?
ETR: No, not at all. [laughing] Oh my god Murph, your such a comics nerd! Haha. That's amazing. [laughing]
AM: Well, I guess that's what stuck out in my mind. But then I thought about it and was like, "That was a really hefty zine.' I think there was a lot of writing--just writing--in it. Is that true?
Ring of Fire zine #2, ET Russian
[image is purple on black, of two feet from the calves down, one where's a combat boot, the other, a wooden stump. The calves are hairy :) smiley face]
ETR: Yeah, it is. I mean, my work has always been very multi-media. I mean...my creativity is very fluid; the kind of artists I relate to the most are the kind that dabble in many different mediums, different media, different forms of expression. But maybe it's the themes that are consistent. Or the place where the person is comics from that's consistent; maybe there's a certain quality or a feeling that they're bringing to the work that's consistent. But, yeah. i mean, porn, poetry, comics--what I think of as 'propaganda art'. Like, single-illustrations that sort of have a propaganda quality to them; and essays. I think these are a lot of the main things I create. And I think for me, they all go together. A lot of my writing comes form my own life--although I've really tried to move away fromthat a lot. And there's a big part of me that is a historian and a documentarian. I believe that documenting historyand culture is vital. And that's what motivates me to interview other people, and write essays about other peopleand their stories. To try to bring those to a wider audience.
Ride This, ET Russian
[black and white drawing shows two people on a wheelchair,
leaning off the chair with hands outstretched. It appears they are doing a
dance, or perhaps something sexual]
AM: Well, that aspect--you documentarian-ness...your documentarianism? And your recording history, and your propaganda-style art is what--it's sort of...well, when I started conception of Gay Genius the anthology, I couldn't imagine it without your work in it. Because I was envisioning it along the lines of history and documentation...and speaking of which, can you talk about your piece for Gay Genius that you wrote and drew about the historical figure of Tanis Doe?
ETR: Oh gosh...well so I did a comic for Gay Genius, edited by you. Which is an amazing book. That was exciting because--well, two reasons: one, you know I barely knew Tanis. But she made such a huge impression and I knew that I wanted to do an art piece about her. I had been thinking about doing a People's History Poster about her, but then when I found out about Gay Genius, and the theme being 'history', then I felt like that was what I wanted to do a comic about. Just being able to offer a tribute to her and bring her work to a wider audience was exciting. And then the other thing was, I had never had my comics published in a book. So that was the first time that happened. And that was huge for me.
AM: Very cool. And who was Tanis?
ETR: Oh, who was Tanis? Tanis Doe was..[chuckles]..Tanis Doe was a really wild character who was a professor, a PHD, Canadian, mixed, Native, queer, disabled, Deaf, trouble-maker and academic who was teaching at the U-dub School of Social Work for a while. The U-Dub is the University of Washington. And the first time I saw Tanis was at the queer disability conference in the Bay area in the nineties. No--in the 2000s I think, 2003 or 2004. It's in the comic, I think...and I think, you know, Tanis was really open about being crazy and mixed and sex-positive. She talked about how--because of her multiple disabilities, it was hard for her to have sexual relationships in the physical ways that she wanted to, so she was a big believer in sleeping with multiple partners at once. Because, even if she couldn't physically do the things she wanted to in bed, someone else in the bed could do it. So, she preferred to date couples, rather than individuals. And that was really related to her disability. And that was how she sought a satisfying sex life. Just things like that, knowing those things about her life, was such a gift.
AM: I remember getting a hold of a copy of your zine [Ring of Fire Zine #1] from somebody's zine collection--this was still in the nineties. And I was maybe 20, 21. And it did talk about sex a lot, and it talked about being a perv, and being queer, and being gender-queer and all these things. And combining all that with the experience of disability in such a fluid way...I think that I was really lucky to be able to be exposed to that. Whether it's propaganda, your propaganda, your art, or really, you know, almost getting to read somebody else's journal--that experience of reading a zine. I feel very lucky to have been exposed to something like that at such an early age. Because people are still needing to do so much work around visibility and disability and sexuality, just in their everyday lives. And it was very cool to not have that be separate, in my explorations of identity. Unfortunately, I've given away all my zines of yours, because there's people that pick it up, they get so excited, I say, "Read it. Give it back in a little while." And they never give it back. So I'm psyched that this book is coming out.
Fetish, ET Russian
[black and white drawing of a person laying down with
their prosthetic legs in the air. They are wearing a sexy black
jumpsuit with elbow-length, shiny black gloves. Underneath
the figure is the word: FETISH]
[At this point, the camera that I am using to record the speakerphone conversation I'm having with ET runs out of batteries and I have to charge it. After having a long conversation about the TV show SCANDAL, Shonda Rhimes, Olivia Pope, and how ET--as a professional physical therapist working in a hospital as a 'day job'--has seen all 10 season's of Rhimes' Grey's Anatomy, we return to our subject, and ET discusses how Ring of Fire came about:]
ETR: So when I was eighteen I was in a big accident where I lost both my legs. And then I was in a wheelchair for a long time, and I had to learn how to walk again. And a friend of mine just assumed I would write about it. And she was like, "You're gonna write some awesome zine about this." And I was like...I thought about that. And I thought, "Okay, I should do that." But, you know, when I was a teenager in high school was when the Riot Grrrl movement in the early nineties was really happening, and thriving. And that was a deep influence on my life. Looking back now, I see there being a lot of shortcomings; there were a lot of things that were missing from that movement...but there were some keys elements of it that were really pivotal, and one was: self-published writing where people told their stories in a feminist way. And it was done in a do-it-yourself style where it was cheap and affordable, and you didn't have to have any formal training. And that was okay. And there was a big subculture around that. I mean, one influence on me was my friend Zan, who lives n Portland, Zan Gibbs.
AM: Zan Gibbs, I know Zan.
ETR: Yeah, and Zan wrote a zine after her mom died called, Redefining Value. And that zine I think was a huge influence on me. And also Nomy Lamm's zines about fatness, and disability, were also a huge influence on me. Especially because Nomy had comics in her zines. And she was funny!
AM: I remember reading her zine very early on. It might've been right around when I read your zine..did you include that comic in your zine?
ETR: Yeah, Nomy has a comic in one of the issues of Ring of Fire, it's called, "Fuck. I broke my leg." Actually, she has two comics. Two different ones.
AM: That comic left a real impression on me.
ETR: Okay so this is really cool cuz I like how you asked me [pre-interview] about influences from childhood and as a young adult. Annie, this is so brilliant. I think about that a lot. So you know, my parents are not academic. My dad never went to college. My mom had a lot of newspaper comics collections that she'd bought the books--and we had those around. So I read Bloom County, Cathy, For Better or For Worse, Calvin and Hobbs, and Sally Forth. [giggling on both ends] That was what we had around the house. And my mom, when she was young, had wanted to be a children's book illustrator. And when I was growing up I wasn't--we didn't really have money to be in clubs a lot, and do a lot of sports or after-school activities. But when i did do those, they were always art classes. So I had my most formal training when I was a kid, and that was where I learned how to draw and paint and sketch and things like that. We didn't have a lot of money, and so I would just spend hours and hours drawing.
[Bloom County strip by Berkeley Breathed featuring 'Cutter John', circa mid/early-eighties: ]
AM: And how about older influences, like as a teenager, young adult?
ETR: I remember when I was seventeen, and I started going--there was this feminist sex toy store in Seattle called Toys In Babeland. And as part of my early development as a young queer i would go to the sex toy store every week and just hang out for hours. Kind of looking at things, and learning, and trying to figure out what everything was. And they actually had a huge comics section. At the lesbian-owned sex-toy store. And they also had a huge comics section at the punk records store that was called Fallout Records. That was in Seattle for almost twenty years, and those were the two places I bought comics [laughs].
AM: What were some of the titles that interested you?
AM---Love it. love Anonymous Boy.
AM: Oh wow. I'm gonna have to look that one up.
ETR: Yeah, i think it was a British group that just did queer propaganda art, and they would wheat-paste it all over. And then, Tom of Finland, and GB Jones.
[Drawing by: Tom of Finland]
[Drawing by: G.B. Jones]
[Shine My Foot, Drawing by ET Russian]
AM: Who are some of your favorite artists now?
ETR: Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, German painter Neo Rauch, Keith Haring. I really like Gene Luen Yang's 'Boxers'and Saints' and the Lebanese cartoonist Zeina Abirached.
AM: Are there other queer and/or crip [disabled] comics artists you could point readers in the direction of? Why or why not?
ETR: I don't often know much about the artist and where they are coming from, so I tend to like comics that feature strong female characters, and sometimes disabled characters. There are still not enough well developed queer characters or story lines in comics...so, the Saga Comics illustrated by Fiona Staples, I love her art. Wuvable Oaf-a great gay punk comic. 14 Nights by Kristina Stipetic features an anti-hero-type character who is a gay Russian public health worker missing an arm. Petit Polio by Algerian cartoonist Farid Boudjellal is about a little boy with polio and a leg brace. Special Exits by Joyce Farmer is a well told story about caregiving for aging parents. I really love the work Garry Trudeau from Doonesbury is doing about veterans with amputations and brain injuries--not only accurate, but laugh out loud funny at times.
AM: Very cool. On a not altogether different note, can you tell me about the 'disability justice' movement? And maybe a bit about how it differs from the 'disability rights' movement?
[Disability Justice, drawing by ET Russian for the collaborative
ETR: Okay. Well, disability justice is an emerging movement that has developed in the past several years, a vision mostly formed by disabled people of color, but also some white anti-racist disabled folks, across the U.S. Disability justice is not so much a thing, but a lens to view community and movement building through. And the lens is: seeing the ways in which all people and all movements are connected, keeping people with chronic illness and disabilities and our needs at the center, promoting accessibility for all people, as well as an understanding of each other's varied ability experiences. Racial justice, economic justice, and gender and sexual liberation are core aspects of the disability justice movement.
[Erik and Yulia, block print by ET Russian]
I n this picture, two friends regard each other, one is his motorized chair,
one in their scooter. They appear to be sharing a meal, or perhaps a joke.
ETR: A lot of people think about disability as a problem that an individual has, instead of thinking about disability as describing this vast group of people with a shared history and culture. Many people think of disability awareness as: "Oh, we need to get a sign language interpreter," or, "We need to build this ramp," but disability justice focuses not only on individual access needs, but big picture stuff that's relevant to disabled people, and to everyone else, too: poverty, health care, housing, racism, and immigration rights.
Sasha Dubrul, [co-founder of the Icarus Project], by ET Russian
in this picture we see a man, Sasha, preparing food in a kitchen, looking down, concentrating.
The 'disability rights' movement was important in many ways. Without it, we wouldn't have things like Social Security, healthcare and education for kids with disabilities, and the entire Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even Canada does not have an equivalent to the ADA. But, the leaders in the disability rights movement were mostly people who were class-privileged, straight, white, men--people already granted privilege from our society. And that movement hasn't really adapted to the greater needs of the community over time, hence the emergence of disability justice.
This is a picture of a femme lady grinning and looking at us as she zips up her boot.
ETR: Patty Berne is one of the co-founders of the disability justice movement [and the co-founder and director of the ground-breaking performance, Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty in the Face of Invisibility. Because of the nature of her disabilities, she was very isolated. So Sins [Invalid] also played a key role in the founding of the disability justice movement. And of course, racial justice is a key element of that.
AM: Speaking of Patty, can you talk about the collaboration you two did?
ETR: Oh yeah, so at the time Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and I were writing 'Crip SEx Moments,' a performance for Sins about our sex lives and dating other people with disabilities. Patty said, 'Oh I've got a story..', and I made her tell it to me, and then I made her let me record her telling it. I transcribed it and set it to a comic, as a film. Drawing can be such a lonely artform, and collaboration can do a lot for that.
[Patty, block print by ET Russian]
This picture shows Patty in her motorized chair, concentrating as she types at her computer.
AM: What are you working on now? besides the book, of course.
ETR: Well I've been working on several 'video-comics' [like the above collaboration with Patty]. That's where I do illustrations, photograph them, and then edit them in a video program, setting them to voice-overs. For instance, I'm doing one about a friend with a brain injury based on stories of taking their service dog on walks. And one about my friends, a disabled transgender couple who just had a baby...What I am most excited about this book [Ring of Fire] is, it shows my development of myself as a person, as well as an artist.
END OF INTERVIEW. <3 p="">3>
END OF INTERVIEW. <3 p="">3>
ET Russian is a white, disabled, female-assigned-at-birth genderqueer anarchist human who uses the gender-neutral pronoun 'they'. [For the sake of non-argument with the grammar police, here is a wiki-link detailing the words' optional usage as a gender-neutral pronoun, dictionary approved]. In addition to the projects we discussed above, we didn't even get to how ET has been a contributing artist to all three Collective Tarot incarnations, co-directed the underground queer cult-classic Third Antenna: A Documentary About the radical History of Drag, contributed to the Radicalphabet project, and regularly attends the Comics and Medicine Conference. Another interview, another day.
[ETR , with art and work station]
You can meet ET Russian IN PERSON this weekend at Seattle's Short Run Comics Fest. Visit ET and Andy Panda at table G-33, and check out ETR's video-comic during the animation screenings. And you can pre-order the book RING OF FIRE here, if you hurry!!