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An Interview with Marian Henley

Creator of ‘Maxine’ Tells Funny Times About Her Latest Deeply Personal Project

In your new graphic novel, you chronicle your journey through physical and emotional trauma. Now the book is out- how does it feel? How does it feel to have something so personal be shared with the public? How has it been received by your son?

Mia, I’ve  been all over the place emotionally in ways I hadn’t expected. Given the subject matter, I honestly didn’t think I’d find a publisher. When I did – surprise! – acclimating to an increased level of exposure felt new and strange. And terrifying. At times, I’ve wanted to wriggle under the floorboards and curl up with a pacifier in my mouth.

Some people closest to me knew about the rapes, but many didn’t. Certainly the public didn’t know. For years, I couldn’t even say the word “rape,” and when I heard someone else say it, I’d freeze. My mind would go blank. My body would go numb. And now this vulnerable little hurt-creature part of me has stumbled out of its hiding place, blinking in the bright light of exposure. I’m getting used to it.

The bigger issue appears to be getting others used to it. When people ask me the very normal question, “What’s your book about?”, and I give them the very abnormal answer, they recoil. Almost invariably. And I get it. Rape is repulsive. During the process of creating this book, I often asked myself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I exposing myself so ruthlessly? Am I out of my freaking mind?”

This is a useless question to ask myself, though. I’m not one of these artists who can craft their approach and have a method to their madness. I am all madness. So I did the book with a blind eye to its outer fate in the marketplace or its inner impact on me. I just did it.

Now I know why. At almost every turn, my publisher’s media outreach for this book – which has been considerable – is met by silence. I think this is the rape-recoil reflex in action, and I want to change that. Consider how alcoholism and drug abuse used to be hush-hush. Cancer used to be hush-hush. Now those sufferers can talk more openly, because our society has gotten used to the problems of substance abuse and cancer. I want us to get used to the problem of rape, too, for the sake of the sufferers and – in my dreams – to reduce the incidents because they can no longer teem and spread under cover of darkness.

Talking to my son about my past and the redemption I feel in seeing him evolve into a glorious, beautiful young man is the heart of my book. My son hasn’t read it yet. Before it was published I asked him to read it, because I have strong opinions on the ethics of writing about other people: You give them agency. You respect their privacy. Period. But he said he trusted my judgment and for me to go ahead and put it out there.

The other night I had a book party for family and friends. As my son was leaving for the airport (he goes away to college), he held my hands and told me he was going to read it now. Then he gave me a hug. He turned to leave, then hugged me again. And again.

You have had a very successful career as a cartoonist. You’re also a woman who makes cartoons about those experiences. Has being a female cartoonist been a challenge? Do you feel like your work is perceived differently?

My comic strip Maxine, I think it’s fair to say, was obsessed with femininity and masculinity (if I were a young cartoonist now, in these gender-fluid days, I wonder how my themes might differ). But in 1981 a feminist perspective in comics was new and relatively startling, at least outside the underground movement. “Feminist” and “funny” were almost antonyms, and some men reeeeeeally didn’t think Maxine was funny. My boyfriend at the time told me that several men we knew refused to read it because it was mean to men. “You’re losing up to fifty percent of your potential audience,” he said. And he was right. But when it comes to my work, I’ve never been one to listen to level-headed marketing advice, much to my financial sorrow.

I was on a mission. I was in-your-face. My motivation, my single-minded sense of purpose, had its roots in being raped and then skinned alive in the courtroom. Police, doctor, lawyers, judge: all men. Some were kind, some cruel, some indifferent. At age 19, I was crushed by a monolith of male power, and I had a lot to say about it.

That said, many of my staunchest supporters in my career have been men (I’m looking at you, Ray Lesser). The editor who bought FINDING THE LIGHT is a young guy. With women occupying more public space, a female point of view is no longer such a shock to the system. Or cause for derision. My son and his generation of young men are accustomed to listening to women in positions of authority. My son respects women as a matter of course.

What is different about your creative process in writing a graphic novel than drawing shorter cartoons?

A short format is fun because you pare words and images down to the essential. It’s a crystallizing process, and you always hope the gem will sparkle. With a longer format, you get to experiment more with pace. Here you linger over a mood or let a comment dangle; here you rush and push and clamor. Then maybe you glide for awhile. I love having enough space to create atmosphere. I love letting a story waft in a reader’s mind.

My two long-format graphic memoirs THE SHINIEST JEWEL and FINDING THE LIGHT came after I retired my comic strip Maxine, and you can see their influence on my recent shorter work in FUNNY TIMES. The pace is slower, more meditative. And it is truly autobiographical, like mini-memoirs, whereas Maxine wasn’t me. With Maxine, I was the little man behind the curtain, while she was the great and powerful Oz.

Do you have advice to aspiring cartoonists? Advice for people who might also process their trauma through creative expression?

Young cartoonists have so many new ways to find an audience. It’s incredible. Back in the day, we had to beg for publication on bended knee before editors, and now you can post on Instagram or Tik Tok and off you go.

This immediacy is cause for caution, though, when you’re writing about trauma. Social media intensifies our appetite for clicks and likes and all the dopamine rushes of validation it offers. But take your time with more sensitive material. Emotional and psychological splendor can be found in expressing yourself in graphic form. You can transform your trauma and that which made you powerless into a story that you control. But take your time and measure your steps before you offer it to the public.

I measured my steps for thirty years, and I’m lucky that the current climate is so sympathetic to sexual assault victims. Even so, exposure can still hurt. So protect yourself. Create a nurture preserve for yourself (ooh, that sounds like a cartoon right there… what kind of wildlife would live in a nurture preserve?) Henley’s new book, “Finding the Light: A Mother’s Journey from Trauma to Healing,” is now avalable.

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