Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple

Extra-long review for an extra-interesting work; thanks for hanging in there.


My buddy Tassava sent me this book.

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I featured its book beginning, so we all know that it begins in Guantánamo. That fact is perhaps a little misleading, though. Let me explain.

drawing-bloodDrawing Blood is a memoir by Molly Crabapple, a visual artist who has created posters, comics, illustrations and murals; her favorite medium is ink, and she tends toward highly detailed, lush, saturated work. Among her influences are Where’s Waldo? and Toulouse-Latrec. (My attempt to encapsulate, not hers; and encapsulation will always fall short, anyway.)

This is her life story: from childhood, which she rather hated for its helplessness, to world travel, various forms of naked modeling and activism for sex workers, a long struggle to make it as an artist, a political awakening, and a more or less successful (and ongoing) artistic career. She has done a laundry list of strange, improbable and brave things, from living on a bunk in Paris’s storied Shakespeare & Company bookstore, to organizing and event promotion in New York City’s elitist art scene (she founded Dr. Sketchy’s), to covering Occupy Wall Street, London and Greece street protests, and, yes, Guantánamo, with her pen and ink: that is, as a journalist as well as a visual artist. Part of my criticism with her opening lines is just this: she’s done so much odd and impressive stuff that she didn’t need the sensationalism. Also, by the time she makes it to Guantánamo in her book’s final 20 pages, we can feel the story wrapping up. (She’s still a young woman. I just mean that the book wraps up. Her life is going strong.) The Guantánamo storyline is just a snippet at the end; the meat of the thing happens elsewhere, so I felt the opening lines were misleading in a few ways. And ultimately, they sell short what all else she has to say.

That was a long tangent. Let me start over: I really enjoyed this book. Molly Crabapple (a chosen name, not the one she was born with) is a large personality. She had big ideas from a young age. She traveled Paris, Spain and Morocco alone as a teenager. Her emotions loom large, resulting in entanglements and the inevitable hurt feelings; but she lives, sucks all the marrow of life, et cetera. Once we got out of that odd and contextless glass cage at Guantánamo, I remained spellbound for the book’s entire length.

Tassava did not have an entirely positive experience, though. He writes,

Molly Crabapple’s memoir of living on the rough edges of American society in the early 21st century is full of engrossing stories of sex work and social protest, of pointed critiques of the haves by a have-not, and of incredible drawings, both journalistic and artistic. But I (admittedly, a fairly square, middle-aged white guy) thought that the memoir was overall too eager to shock and to scold and too reticent to draw satisfying conclusions about her own life at the micro level and about America as the macro level. Perhaps I am sinning by critiquing the book I wanted or expected to read instead of the book as written. But I don’t think that Drawing Blood delivers on her promise, or her capacity, to use her writing and her drawing to illuminate contemporary America’s special kind of craziness.

As I see it, some of Crabapple’s central points include… the difficulties of being a woman, including the enormous extent to which our bodies precede us and we struggle to be heard over them; the difficulties of making it as an artist without funds, expanded to the difficulties of making it as anything without funds; global economic injustice; and the beauty of art and love. I found her most articulate on the issues that were specific and personal – for example, how women are treated by men, based on her own experiences – and a little less so on the economy of Greece in 2011. By which I mean, she’s only human. And she articulates the difficulty of documenting Greek financial breakdown as an individual woman from the United States: she sees her shortcoming there, which for me to some extent excuses it. (She’s trying harder to understand these things than many of us are.) This memoir does use shock value to get our attention, to a degree. But I think Tassava is wise to acknowledge that mileage may vary: we are all shockable to different degrees, and I suspect I found a few of these details less shocking than he did (others maybe more so, who knows). To be clear, Crabapple has sexual affairs with both men and women, not all of them monogamous. There is no graphic description of the sex she has. There is plenty of discussion of the work of sex workers, and burlesque performances, some of which is described rather more graphically. Frankly, the only place where I felt she used sensationalism to her detriment was as mentioned, by opening with Guantánamo Bay.

In a word, I sort of feel like Tassava and I read the same book and reacted to it in two different ways – rather than feeling that we read two different books, which sometimes happens when two people disagree in their reactions. The only place he lost me a little is in regards to Crabapple’s promise “to use her writing and her drawing to illuminate contemporary America’s special kind of craziness.” I guess I didn’t perceive that as a promise at all. I thought this was a memoir: one woman’s life story, with commentary on what she sees around her. Maybe it’s just that I sympathize with her inability to draw conclusions. I, too, find it easier to see what’s wrong than how to make it right.

And now I’ve ignored the visual aspect of this book for far too long. The text memoir is accompanied by Crabapple’s illustrations, some journalistic, as Tassava noted (illustrating what happened, rather than photographing it, which in some cases is impractical or disallowed, ahem Guantánamo), and much of it artistic. Unsurprisingly, since she’s now largely “made it” as an artist, her work is lovely: expert, detailed, realistic and stylized to different degrees, and clearly expressive of a personal style. Before her political interests took her farther out into a high-stakes real world, her subject matter tended toward the Victorian, fantastic, pin-up, or p0rn-ish. I freakin’ love it. (In fact, I’ve already purchased a print of one of the illustrations featured in this book. You can consider doing so here.) It bears noting that the illustrations here are necessarily smaller and thus have less room for fine detail than the large, intricate pieces that form her later work. What I found in the book served to tease me: I hope one day I get the chance to see some of her grander scale original art someday.

Tassava would like to note that he also loved the art: “Every illustration was great, and I too would love to see her work up close.”

I’ve also failed to note one of the more surprising achievements of this book: for all that Crabapple defines herself as a visual artist, her prose writing is startlingly crystalline, exact, probing and lyrical. “His letters were as fine as spiders. They looked like they might crawl away.” “The bar was blood dark, the walls covered with graffiti and band stickers glazed with beer.” “When I hung the drawings, they seemed like crude little things, staring back at me from the gallery’s walls. Feather-clad homunculi, malformed but proud.” “My step-mother saw me get off the school bus one day and described me as a little black smudge against the bucolic forest leaves.”

A fascinating strange story, an important if imperfect critique of one woman’s life and of the larger world: Drawing Blood is an honest effort gorgeously rendered. This book and its author are not perfect. Who is? I finished this book feeling like I’d made a friend, something only possible with human beings, not saints. The Molly Crabapple I felt like I came to know off these pages is vulnerable, self-doubting, loyal and loving, smart and stylish. I love her, and I love this book.


Rating: 8 nibs.

4 Responses

  1. Fascinating story, yours & hers.

    Curious, your comment about Tassava’s perspective: when I read he doesn’t think she “delivers on her promise, or her capacity, to use her writing and her drawing…” I immediately heard a single meaning (and a compliment!) – “potential” rather than a literal “promise” as you heard it.

    He uses an awkward phrasing that is often ambiguous; using “or” in this way can either imply “alternatively” or it can mean “i.e.” – I heard the latter; you heard the former and made a choice. I wonder what he meant!

    • Hmmm. We’ll have to have him tell us!! I will say that he reviewed this review before I posted it, so if I’d misread him terribly, surely he would have said something.

    • Thanks for the question, Hank! I definitely meant “promise” in the sense of “capacity” or “potential,” and the “or” as “that is.” I think I was trying to express my dissatisfaction that Crabapple didn’t go as far as she could (not as far as she vowed!) to link words and images to tell her story. Clearly Julia disagreed!

      • Well, but I did misread your ‘promise’, it seems. I’m still not sure I agree; but that makes it sound now like you have given a bigger compliment to the author than I have. Hm.

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