Coco and I have been friends for maybe a decade—we don’t remember where we met but this is the nature of the Chicago community (and others, but the one I know is Chicago). We do remember drinking bottles of beer at the Beachwood, and setting out bowls of marshmallows and cheese at her apartment gallery, and eavesdropping on kids by the fountain around the corner.
Right now I live in Denver for school, and Coco is still everywhere: she drew the poster above my desk—it has tire tread on it from a friend’s bike on a wobbly ride home—and the glass by the bed is a favor from her wedding. What I am saying is, to read Coco’s stories—to work with her and collaborate—is to be her friend. Are introductions like this annoying? Maybe. But at the time when I must have met Coco, I was still blacking out my eyes and wearing leather bracelets, and one of the punkest things I knew was to interview your friends about their work. So I am.
Coco’s new book, The Chronicles of Fortune—her first full-length comic book—is about Fortuna, the Greatest Super Hero In the World. Like many of us, Fortuna is also cripplingly depressed, which keeps her from doing the work that makes her Fortuna. While sorting all that out, she visits with moths, ghosts, a stove, a goldfish, a crocodile, other people, and eventually but not finally, Death. These episodes are anchored by finely-inked images—Coco’s stripes and negative space are especially rad—and deceptively simple dark humor. The book, edited and designed by Neil Brideau, is one of the first ones out from Radiator Comics, which distributes, produces, and promotes small press and self-published comics. You should buy The Chronicles of Fortune, read it, then share it with someone you love.
MAIREAD CASE: How did you know Fortuna was ready to be collected?
COCO PICARD: I wrote the minicomics as an ongoing series but didn’t ever imagine them coming out in a real volume. Neil [Brideau, of Radiator Comics] approached me maybe even two and a half years ago, and said, “I’d love to publish this!” Suddenly, I had to think about making chapters within a finite an arc in mind. Then during the editing process, I was dragging my heels a bit and couldn’t figure out why. I felt like a teenager who refuses to get out of bed. I’ve published other peoples’ books but am not often on the author side of the process—bringing a world you’ve spent a long time cultivating in your head out to a material public felt like a complex proposition. I asked Neil if we could publish the novel under my family nickname, and that seemed to do the trick. When the books came a few months later, I was thrilled.
They’re beautiful: the paper, the size, everything!
I owe Neil so much anyway. His invitation made the book finish and initially approached him with a weak ending. Thankfully, he was like, “I don’t think this really works.” Then I sweated to find a new one—how strange and real creative space can be. You don’t have control over the process. It’s not just your subconscious, it’s not mystical, it’s not your brain/body…after I found the current ending, I realized my protagonists, like over the last fifteen years and in totally different contexts and mediums, they always end up in some dark hole. It was such an uncanny discovery—like realizing you only date one type of person after fifteen years. Apparently, I make stories that tend towards immersive darknesses: underground, underwater, in an afterlife, inside an octopus…. I was surprised to find a character in the dark again.
I get that vibe too, a lot of times people are like, “You’re so sunny! Why do you write about such dark shit?” And I’m all, “I don’t know. I don’t choose it.”
We went to Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee last week to see J. Wright. After reading a two-person play he asked the group to help him solve a puzzle. “Everybody talks about rhythm,” he said, “but I don’t really know what rhythm is.” He read different quotations from poets and musicians and theorists writing about rhythm. The longer we talked, the more the idea of rhythm slipped through our fingers, we couldn’t grab onto it. What is it?
Wright suggested that musicians collaborating in the same rhythmic structure, improvising in time, conjure a synchronous experience. Everybody shows up at the same creative-place, almost by accident. They seem to know the rhythm of the place intuitively and the place becomes increasingly concrete through their improvisatory contributions. The listener has this sense of something concrete unfolding—it’s drawn out into our shared plane of experience.
I think a lot about how that works in the body—like, everyone hears the same thing but everyone’s ears are shaped differently, so sometimes it’s hard to communicate specifically, even with notation and shared space.
That happens on so many levels! You think about how humans hear or see—the way we each see different colors, for instance, and then the way the transmission of those differences is transmitted through speech or gesture: it’s wild! But then think about all the different species swirling around everything and everyone simultaneously. It’s like this huge crazy, improvisatory opera. Everyone has its own way of filtering and participating in experience. I’ve been thinking about cats a lot lately—partly for this essay Astrophil published—but it’s amazing to me that we share intimate space with cats or plants, for instance, even if we aren’t in the same “world-view.” I love trying to articulate those juxtapositions through whatever method—essays, comics, exhibitions…
Comics are very flexible. They lend themselves to allowing strange bedfellows, even just with the image/language intersection. Straddling that line lets me privilege my intuition. Because I don’t have to fuss too much, I can just draw through the thought.
You’ve been doing it for so long too. Weird’s the wrong word, but—some of the shapes and spaces in this comic are taken directly from shapes and spaces you live in, or have lived in. It’s interesting to read it and recognize the art show with energy drinks, for example, or the giant bitters sign and checkerboard floor from your old apartment.
Yes. There’s so much back story that doesn’t even matter to the story! I dated this guy when I lived in the old loft and he made a huge mountain sculpture for a show. Once the art show came down, suddenly there was this massive mountain sculpture that I had to deal with. Even at the time it felt weirdly allegorical. We put it in a spare bedroom. Anytime I was in the kitchen I could see the top of the mountain peeking over the temporary wall.
It’s also spot-on in a way that might feel strange to people who don’t live in these kinds of spaces. Like, you did have a mountain in your apartment. You did live above a sewing machine repair shop.
It gets stranger with time—I don’t really remember what living in an apartment with a wandering leak felt like, as a condition. I just remember the idea of it and how it was in kind with the rest of my life back then. It’s good because distance lets the book to become its own story. I used to make comics as a way to filter and reflect my immediate experience. Now, I see other possibilities—
Like your run of the mill superhero constantly wreaks havoc on the public environment to save everyone. I’m over heroes and defensive narratives with spectacular explosions. The model is so flawed. Maybe we can torque it instead of repeating the same paradigms.
Some folks are all “Oh you wrote a book, and the main character is kind of a lady, and so are you, so this book must be about you!” But that’s not true.
I guess everyone begins somewhere, but I feel like the work—making it, reading it—it doesn’t get interesting unless you release the point of departure and let the story be itself.
You’re a good listener too though. You see the spaces. Someone like you can write about depression and not have to be in it all the time.
I’ve definitely been there. And that’s how this thing started. In the very early beginning, I put on a superhero costume to be sad in public. It was supposed to be a joke, but I was also sad.
Do you remember the first time you did it?
2006? I went to Asia around then, where I was born. I hadn’t been back since my parents passed away, and I brought a superhero costume in a suitcase. I was doing unsolicited performances on ferries and in public parks around Tokyo, the Philippines, and Hong Kong.
Would people talk to you while you were doing it?
Some people laughed. I guess once on the trip, I went to Lantau Island and hung up all of these posters I’d made saying I was The Greatest Super Hero in the World during the rush hour commute. The island doesn’t allow cars, so I was walking with a bunch of pedestrians towards the ferry. Those people found it funny, I think. The posters were very homemade, so there was an insecurity to the statement which I really loved. Like, if you’re really the best super hero in the world, why would you need to put a poster saying so?
Growing up my dad used to run around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo every day. The palace is in the center of the city, and it’s only open to the public twice a year. Otherwise, it’s surrounded by a moat with guards hanging out in guard towers. On the same trip, I went there for a run in my costume and I’d run ahead to different guard booths and ask them to video me. I still have a bunch of that footage that I haven’t used, but one cut is spliced with disowned family videos.
There was a certain point where I stopped being personally implicated. The Fortuna persona wasn’t really me anymore, because I didn’t really need her. And then she could do all kinds of shit, which was awesome.
Does she still pop into your head sometimes?
Not as much. But I do have this idea—I like thinking about her future, like someone who used to be in a band, she’d say she was a super hero once. I like the idea of a middle-aged Fortuna in a post-apocalyptic world. And after realizing that world of nonhuman things is suffering deep trauma, the government starts this somewhat ill-advised program, hiring human therapists to go provide free therapy to rocks, forests, and mountains. I like imagining how her future job would involve lots of panels of her sitting with a stone and waiting for it to say something.
Something I admire about your work is how it isn’t cute at all. In some hands, a rock therapist or moths traveling to the moon would come out like Amélie.
I got excited about a moth character who could be real or relatable in a human frame but still retain enough weird distance to stay, I don’t know…. moth. One of the things I love about comics is that they’re tricky. They’re deceptively accessible. It’s a generous medium. You can be super serious about something (like moth speech) but then maybe it slides by, looking natural enough in context that a reader might hardly notice. Maybe it’s a relief if someone thinks the book is cute, it’s like I get to slide by in that case. It reminds me of my very, very first art show. I made ten paintings of disemboweled horses and hung them in a café; once they were up suddenly realized felt so morbid and ridiculous but then this guy I didn’t know just started laughing, pats me on the back and says, “These are fucking hilarious.” What a relief.
I used to really fight people’s interpretations of my work. In my thirties I care so much less. It’s great.
I really strive to make things operate on different levels. If somebody wants to be like, “Oh, this is a cute, weird autobiography that makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable because I thought I knew Caroline as a totally different person,” that’s cool. Theoretically, anyway. But ideally, the things that aren’t about me, exploring ideas, or conversations I want to have— hopefully other people get excited about those things.
Something I really love about manga is how authors describe sound. Because it’s rooted in kanji, it has a pictorial presence, which make me think about how sound and movement are really weird and difficult to insert into an image. And—this is a spoiler, but that’s how the goldfish got musical notation. Maybe the same way the moth has a language that gets translated, the goldfish is translated into notes and you’d have to play the score to hear the goldfish. It’s a funny thing where the goldfish would sort of activate you, talking through your instrument or body, in your space. The reader becomes the medium, undermining the initial scam of the goldfish purchase.
Any certain songs?
The first, right before Fortuna goes to face death, is from Tokyo Drifter. Just the iconic whistle. The second is this Sandy Dennis song, “All I Need Is You.” It’s an awesome song. It makes me tear up whenever I hear it. I thought that was a good ending.
Do you have nostalgia for any part of the process?
Not yet. Maybe? It’s like my relationship with you; I don’t exactly remember where we met, but I know we must have met. And in some ways, there’s a similar relationship to the beginning of Fortuna. I don’t really remember where or how this character emerged, so I can’t really be nostalgic about that moment, but I like the feeling of trying to grasp it.
It’s difficult to create, and live, and even think, if you are trying to hold on to everything. I don’t have kids, so I’m a little scared of babies—but you see moms with babies, or dads with babies, their own children, and they’re just like, “Whatever.” They toss them up in the air, throw them over their shoulder. It’s amazing to think how we take liberties with the things we’re most intimate with. It’s one of the things I loved about living in an apartment gallery also, you see your life isn’t as breakable or delicate as you think it might—all those sentimental objects, they may as well get put to some use whether by you or a stranger. I like to think stories can have a similarly flexible lived-in quality.
And then holding on to those rules of those worlds. I remember your brother talking about you wanting to be a fire truck when you grew up, which is cute but also very real.
Especially when you are also constantly mediating that critical voice in your head. I’m so into that voice right now. I can finally track this process: I start with an idea I’m excited about, I get halfway or three quarters in—right at the point where I’m totally committed—and then suddenly this, “Who do you think you are, don’t you have something better to do?” voice starts badgering me. It’s like the WORST relative shows up at dinner, and you’re like, “Why are you here? You don’t even have to be here.”
You don’t even like this food!
Exactly. At least it’s predictable. I’m always charmed by predictability, it’s like, “Damnit, Francis is here,” and the rest of my mind groans together.
Let’s give him his caffeine-free Diet Pepsi and put him in the corner.
Totally. He is such a waste of time, because you’re already there, making the thing. You’re going to finish the work anyway, no use sweating the insecurities now. Get him to come back after it’s over and maybe then he’d have something useful to offer.
Do you think differently about comics going forwards?
I think it’s really interesting how you can do so much with them, and they sort of… they remain accessible in an interesting way. So in some way I find that they’re more flexible than writing. Like, I have a novel coming out in 2019 through Goldwake Press, and one of the things we’ve started talking about is whether or not it should include drawings. And I’m not sure—it’s one thing to have a graphic novel where everything is in the same hand, the same tone, but if you have drawings and typeset text there’s a different kind of tension. How do you make drawings that aren’t just be illustrative? That problem is interesting to me.
It’s like teaching kids poetry. You don’t want to be all here’s a poem about an apple! Here’s a picture of an apple! That’s weak.
Exactly. I’ve been doing some art criticism in comics, and I think that’s another example of how I feel you can get away with so much in comics, you can compress conceptual art installations into this vernacular graphic form.
Do you doodle? Are there ghosts?
Well, one of my favorite, favorite books is César Aira’s Ghosts. That, and Maya Deren’s The Divine Horsemen. The thing that I love about Aira’s ghosts is that they’re weirdly pornographic, they’re constantly in the background. Maybe pornographic is the wrong word. But they’re a constant background nuisance—they touch themselves and goof off—an ongoing creepy presence that is also kind of funny. Like the book is haunted but the ghosts are more annoying than scary, and maybe that’s what makes them dangerous in the end.
And then, thinking about Deren, her book describes how we all collect loa or spirits as we age. They inhabit your body, like memories almost. So we are not just the accumulation of our experiences—we live with these memories as real, tangible things. They don’t really go away, but they’re not always in focus either. And that’s where ghosts come from, like absences you live with.
I wanted to try and make that visual. In The Chronicles of Fortune, at first the ghosts all had penis noses, and butt faces, and there was a certain point where Neil was like, “Soooo, what’s this about… ” I asked Devin [King] if he could really tell whether or not that was a butt, and he said, “Of course I can tell that’s a butt.” I realized I wasn’t as good at hiding what I was up to as I’d hoped. I guess I wanted my porno ghosts to be more subliminal.
If I was a ghost, I could see myself missing my arm more than my butt.
I love trying to think about what a ghost would miss! It’s like a mirror absence. I guess they gave me another way of thinking about simultaneous realms. The moth lives in parallel to Fortuna and the Mountain, the stove has weird depth too, and the goldfish is like this other weirdo in a tiny water globe…the ghosts somehow point to another parallel reality.
Caroline Picard is an artist, writer, publisher, and curator who explores the figure in relation to systems of power through on-going investigations of inter-species borders, how the human relates to its environment and what possibilities might emerge from upturning an anthropocentric world view. Her writing has appeared in publications like ArtForum (critics picks), Flash Art International, Hyperallergic, Paper Monument, The Seen, ande-flux’s live blog. In 2014 she was the Curatorial Fellow at La Box, ENSA in France, and became a member of the SYNAPSE International Curators’ Network of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 2015. She is the Executive Director of The Green Lantern Press—a nonprofit publishing house and art producer in operation since 2005—and Co-Director of Sector 2337, a hybrid artspace/bar/bookstore in Chicago. www.sector2337.com.