Flavorwire Interview: Jeffrey Lewis on Illustrating a Guide to Gender and Sexuality

A book about gender and sexuality, with comic book-style illustrations by music industry polymath and Flavorwire favorite Jeffrey Lewis… some things are just too interesting not to investigate further, no? The book in question is Gender and Sexuality for Beginners, by Seattle-based writer and editor Jaimee Garbacik — it’s a beautifully written and accessible exploration of a variety of gender-related topics, and Lewis’s accompanying illustrations are as idiosyncratically charming as you might expect from the man responsible for “The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962” and “The Complete History of Communism (Parts I-V).”  Flavorwire spoke to Lewis about the book, its subject matter, and how you go about representing weighty academic questions in cartoon form. Click through to read the interview and see some exclusive preview artwork from the book.

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What attracted you to this project? How did you get involved with it?

I thought it’d be interesting working with my old buddy Jaimee. I met her around 2006 or something like that, just at shows and music events in Boston and then in New York City. I played a gig in Boston with some friends of hers and then she moved to New York and we stayed in touch. [Recently] we were on a little eight-hour road-trip together from New York City up to Maine, [and] she sweet-talked me into it.

Who would you say the book’s audience is?

I think gender and sexuality is a topic of much modern interest. I imagine there’s a lot of college students in courses that involve some of these subjects and who might read a book like this as a friendly research tool, in addition to those who might see the book and have a curiosity about gender and sexuality and how the study of it has changed and evolved over the years.

Throughout your career, you’ve approached non-traditional subject matter with your comics. What is it that attracts you about addressing topics like the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the nature of gender, in this form?

I think culture is where people get most of their information from, and as a generator of culture, either with music or with art, I think it’s amazing to see how much people really appreciate getting information on topics they didn’t know about. I’m not interested in being a purely political artist per se, but within the vast scope of human emotions and historical events and other possible influences, it would seem a shame for me not to be making art about certain topics that I’m interested in learning more about myself: topics that I haven’t gotten enough information from via the culture that I’ve already encountered, like the fact that to my knowledge there happens not to have been a TV show about the struggle to establish the eight-hour work day, or any number of other such topics that don’t get represented in Hollywood movies or other cultural outlets. That says to me that there’s a void in people’s picture of the world, and it’s up to the artists and writers and entertainers and filmmakers and musicians to tackle these interesting and not-told-enough stories.

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Do you have any sort of background in gender studies? How did you become familiar with the ideas and theories discussed in the book?

I don’t have any more or less of a background in this field than any other born and raised New Yorker of low-budget liberal state-college education, which is to say that these are not alien topics to me — I always grew up around people of various sexual stripes since I grew up in the East Village of Manhattan — but it wasn’t an academic course of study.

Jaimee thanks you in the introduction to the book for “believing… in the necessity of interweaving social justice work with all artistic endeavors.” Could you expand a little on what this idea means in the context of your work generally?

I do always try to slip some actual relevant information into the comic books and music that I make, partially because I don’t see it being done very much in the dominant culture, and partially just because there are topics of personal interest to me which I learn a lot about by doing projects involving them. Like my history of Communism thing, it was a topic I was really curious to learn more about, a topic that is insanely under-represented in American entertainment culture, especially in contrast to how often Communism is referenced in culture. Nobody ever says what it is, where it came from, why millions and millions of people struggled and fought and died for it, what it had to do with Viet Nam, etc., etc. These actual explanations and fascinating stories, and many other topics besides, are entirely absent from cinema, comic books, songs, or most other cultural sources where people tend to absorb their picture of what the world is and how it works. Sexuality is another topic that lacks real representation in culture, even though sex itself is obviously the most over-represented topic in all culture.

Do you felt that you personally learned anything from reading the book?

Oh, definitely. I found the history of sex change operations particularly interesting; that’s something I’d never read about before.

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Clearly some of the subject matter is fairly based in academic theory and can be heavy going for the casual reader — how do you approach dealing with such complex subjects in graphic form? I notice you’ve focused heavily on the people and personalities involved in the history of gender studies with your illustrations?

In addition to the comic page at the start of each chapter, the rule I made for myself when illustrating this book was to draw every noun I encountered — basically every time the book mentioned a person, place, or thing I drew it. I’m not an abstract artist, so it’s not like I’m going to try to draw a squiggle that graphically represents a general concept like “the balance between tolerance and repression of extra-marital sex in Victorian England,” but if the text mentioned a specific tavern like “Mother Clap’s Molly House” then I’d add it to my list of things to draw.

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