Jessica Abel's Artbabe comic books are peopled with hipsters sporting tattoos, piercings, trendy haircuts, and smart clothes. To someone flipping through the book for the first time, the characters might seem a little superficial, negative, depressed--or all three. On closer inspection, though, you find that they share your dreams and insecurities.
"People may be put off by how they look at first," Abel says, "but I find that it appeals to them whether they live that way or not."
Abel started drawing at the University of Chicago when she created a comic-classics version of Medea as part of a class assignment. She eventually got involved with a student group that put out a comic book called Breakdown; she later became the editor.
After graduation, Abel redrew some of the pieces she'd done for Breakdown and put together a new book--Artbabe #1. She brought 50 copies to the Chicago Comics Convention and went home empty-handed. "That encouraged me to make more," she says. "I began thinking more and more about doing comics. But I hadn't thought of myself as a professional artist yet."
She showed her work to a group of cartoonists that used to hang out on Thursday nights at Earwax. Gary Leib, Terry Laban, Archer Prewitt, Chris Ware, and Dan Clowes were among those who would meet to talk and collaborate on free-form "jam" comics. "At one point Dan asked me if I was planning to do this for a career," she says. "I said I really want to, but I can't expect to be making a living off it. And he said, "Why not? I do."'
Abel's latest, Artbabe #5, is a glossy affair, thanks to a grant from the Xeric Foundation. A recurring character named Courtney Clare is at the center of "Jack London," one of the book's four stories, each of which is tied to a specific season. Clare wears a leather jacket and stocking cap and looks like a blonder, slightly younger Abel. "She represents a hopefully less-enlightened me--a me that I might have been if I were still a college student," says Abel, who's 26. "That allows me a little bit of distance in the stories and lets her do things I might not."
In the story Clare rides the el to her job in Evanston on an unusually snowy day. She puts off her tasks as an office clerk by daydreaming and writing in her journal about the weather. While picking up work at a copy store, she smiles brightly at the other customers and muses, "It's really only on days that are that cold, or this snowy, but sometimes the whole city feels like it's celebrating its resilience together. How often can you trade grimly proud smiles with the total strangers you run into in the safety of the grocery store or gas station, just because you were all virtuous and tough enough to make it to the store or gas station? You talk to more strangers at times like that. There's a sense that we're all in this together."
It's a feeling that any Chicagoan--hipster or not--can identify with. Like the other three stories in Artbabe #5, it captures a fleeting moment.
"My stories in the past dealt even more startlingly with an emotional state than a plot," says Abel. "I'm moving toward putting more concrete plot points into the stories. I want to hold onto my ability to give my pieces a very strong emotional feeling while making it a more compelling story."
The other three stories contain more action, yet they retain a feeling of intimacy. The last, "Viva," which takes place in spring, unfolds in a bar and juggles numerous characters and situations, all the while dealing with the theme of love. "That's my favorite story," says Abel.
The encouragement she's gotten from other cartoonists and the financial backing of a foundation haven't been enough to make her quit her day job at the School of the Art Institute. All of her work is done on evenings and weekends, when she's "chained to the drawing table." Abel contributes to a variety of publications. She does regular strips for the University of Chicago Magazine and Portland's Willamette Week. Her hilarious take on last year's Monet exhibit, called "I Hope That Frog Dies," appears in the current issue of the Baffler.
"Eventually this is what I want to do for my living," she says. "I'm not pushing it in terms of making money off it. But that's what I eventually want to do."
Abel will sign copies of Artbabe #5 at 2 PM Saturday in the Chicago Comics booth during the Chicago Comicon at the Rosemont Convention Center, 5555 N. River Road, in Rosemont. Tickets are $15; call 743-4494.
Artbabe #5 is available at Quimby's Queer Store and Chicago Comics, or by sending $3 to Jessica Abel, P.O. Box 642773, Chicago 60664-2773.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Jessica Abel by Nathan Mandell.