Jokes and the Unconscious
An Interview with Daphne Gottlieb and Diane DiMassa
Sparks flew when slam poet Daphne Gottlieb (Final Girl) and cartoonist Diane DiMassa (The Complete Hothead Paisan) collaborated on a graphic novel, loosely based on the death of Gottlieb’s father when she was in college. Regina Marler spoke with the author and illustrator about their darkly humorous venture, Jokes and the Unconscious, and learned just how crucial intuition and the unconscious became to their collaboration.
Regina Marler: How did you meet?
Daphne: I’d written a review of Hothead Paisan in Covert Culture Handbook, and Diane really loved it. She showed it to her girlfriend at the time, Jessica, who knew me. Then Jessica introduced us in a line outside a theater in San Francisco called Luna Sea. I had a total case of hero worship.
Diane: I remember another day when we happened to be riding on the same bus and got off at the same stop in the lower Haight. I was trying to be friendly to this tall, intense, fascinating Amazonian wunderkind and was saying, “Hey, you’re Daphne, aren’t you, you wrote the most amazing review for Hothead, thank you, blah blah blah.” I don’t think she even mumbled or looked up from the sidewalk. Shy, don’t you know.
RM: Tell me a little about the genesis of the project.
Daphne: I was blocked on the book of poetry I was working on and thought maybe I should take a break. I had been emailing Diane [who now lived in Connecticut], and I asked her if she wanted to do a graphic novel.
Diane: Daphne said she had a story she wrote in college that she thought might work and explained a little bit what it was about. She’d have to revise it and rewrite some parts and it’s raw and a thousand other disclaimers. I said, “Lemme see it.” I was really excited by all the sex and death imagery. I think we were pretty much instantly sensibility Siamese twins.
RM: The story is based on actual events, but you don’t call it a memoir, Daphne.
Daphne: I’m not interested in the factual truth. I’m interested in the emotional truth. The autobiographical truthfulness varies scene to scene. I share of lot of similarities with Sasha. My father died when I was nineteen. My father was a doctor, too. I think the emotional landscape is faithful and true, but the story line varies in its percentage of fiction.
Also, I wrote this when I was twenty, twenty-one. A version of it exists as my college thesis at Bard. When I went back and worked on this, what newly emerged was my queer identity. Also, there’d been no acknowledgement of childhood abuse in the earlier version. Now I think these things are absolutely essential to the story. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize that then and it was far too threatening for me to write about. Sometimes it feels like there was a third party in the collaboration, which was who I was fifteen years ago.
RM: I notice the narrative structure is like a comic book in vignettes or episodes. Was it this way in the early version?
Daphne: Yes. I always write for my own attention span. So I write page-long sections, whether I’m writing prose or poetry.
RM: What was your working process? Did you plan the illustrations together?
Diane: There was no dictation from Daphne on the art whatsoever. She said, “Just do whatever you want.” Between that kind of freedom and not having to worry about writing, I was able to just rip. It was so great. We never had a disagreement over an image, either. Not one.
Daphne: I think Diane initially really wanted to be faithful to the autobiographical. I’d taken so many liberties with people that it didn’t end up feeling important. But I’d give Diane some minimal description of someone like, “looks like a movie star” and she’d produce the spitting image of that person! I’d say, “How did you do that?” and she’d answer, “I’m channeling you.” It was really creepy. She put an hourglass end table next to my father’s bed. My parents had an hourglass end table right there.
RM: Did that surprise you?
Diane: I wasn’t surprised, but I was definitely pleased. The reason I say that I wasn’t surprised is that Hothead ran largely on intuition, and although that’s a bit different because it was just me, I’ve learned to “get out of the way” when I’m working. I knew that was happening a lot during Jokes. The hourglass thing was weird, though, yeah. Daphne showed a page to a man who appeared on that page, and he asked her which picture she showed me of him. She didn’t.
RM: Diane, walk me through your work on one vignette.
Diane: Part of the chapter “Best Friends” is about a close friendship between Sasha’s Dad, Alan, and another doctor. For some reason, I got the closeness of these two men right in the heart. The friend is giving Alan’s eulogy, and breaks down while recounting a joke that they had between them. I became overwhelmed with his sadness and cried with him. They once had heart attacks in the same period, and he also dies of cancer, a few years after Alan. The story finishes with the two of them on a cloud in hospital gowns examining each other with stethoscopes and laughing, “Nope, not a damn thing!”
My feeling, or hope, is that the more tragic your life is, the funnier it is in the afterlife, and that no matter what you’ve done wrong in your life, there’s always one friend (hopefully) who always has your back. I just loved them together. I think this touched me because Alan is not particularly a sympathetic character; he was an anger-monster, which I could relate to.
I was emotionally attached throughout, not just on this piece. I have a too-big capacity for empathy, and I think that’s where the intuition stuff comes from. And of course, I was aware that this story is mostly true, and that it happened to Daf.
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