Monday, March 2, 2009

Love and Style: Christine Norrie on Romance and NYC

Christine Norrie sits at a long table in her studio in Manhattan’s Fashion District, a petite Eurasian woman in a gray shirt with white stars printed on it, a maroon scarf wrapped around her neck, her black hair pulled back in a ponytail, and points out a pair of sneakers hanging from a light fixture.

“That’s one of my studio mate’s,” Christine says as she then points to piles of shoeboxes stacked on a wooden shelf hanging from the ceiling. “We have, maybe, 300 pairs of Adidas, Reebok, or the original Air Jordans right here.”

And that’s how the interview starts, as a conversation of pop culture and music (Norrie counts The National as one of her favorite bands) that evolves into a chat about comics, motherhood, love, and life in general…

Christine, in her high school years, was a cool geek girl living in St. Louis, hanging out at record shops and going to shows with a group of kids. What got her there, is a story unto itself, and starts in Thailand and arrives by way of West Germany, Japan and Jersey. It’s the type of story you’d expect to see in a romance comic or a soap opera.

“My grandmother emigrated from Scotland with her children to New York in the 1960’s. Comic fans might find it cute to know they ended up on Staten Island in Eltingville. Yes, that Eltingville. My father got his American citizenship when he was eighteen, joined the Air Force because he had no money and wanted to travel and see the world. He met my mother in Thailand where he was deployed, and a bad romance and parting happened…

“She was previously in love with another G.I., this one from Jersey, who had just been transferred to an airbase in Bitburg, Germany. My broken-hearted beautiful mother met my father who romanced her. She got pregnant, and also realized that my dad wasn’t such a great guy… he liked the ladies. She ended up writing to the Air Force and got in touch with Jersey Guy and telling him ‘I’m pregnant, and I still love you.’ He bought her a plane ticket to join him in Germany, she went, and they had me.

“A few months after, my father actually wound up getting transferred to the same base, saw my mother and did the math, and was like ‘Hey, I think that’s my baby!’”

Christine laughs, and I get the impression that she’s told the story so many times that she realizes there’s a level of absurdity that laces the tragedy.

“Because of this, my mother had a brief marriage with my father, got pregnant again and I got a sister, and they stayed together for a couple of years. We got transferred to The States and they had a tumultuous and terrible relationship, they were not a good match. She tracked down Jersey Guy again, who had left the service and was discharged, and found him through the Air Force in St. Louis. She said ‘Guess what? I still love you, and now I have another kid!’ He was like ‘I still love you, and here’s three tickets.’ We took the Amtrak from L.A. to St. Louis in 1981.”

Christine, being a military brat, had lived in places as diverse as Japan and Germany before that fateful Amtrak trip to her new home. To her disappointment, it wasn’t quite the “cowboys and Indians” scenario her five year-old mind had envisioned:

“It was an interesting and sometimes difficult place to grow up,” she admits. “In my time there, I felt a lot of isolation and cultural tension. My family wasn’t exactly tight and outside of home, there were racial issues and a strong religious divide. Our ethnicity made us victim to many verbal slurs and we had a couple hateful events happen to us. Of course, my art was always my social saving grace, I’d had friends in school and was well-liked enough to float among groups, but I never felt as though I belonged anywhere and it was lonely. Not until I discovered my comic book friends, did I ever really feel part of any anything.”

And so, Christine Norrie, the pretty fashion designer/comics girl was, just like the rest of us in the ‘90s, a bit of a fifteen year-old geek, existing on the periphery of our peers. Maybe, just maybe, it was a matter of being a different kind of cool than the mainstream. It’s not really a surprise that she latched onto comics and the tight-knit geek community that comes with it.

“I’d met a group of kids from going to shows and record shopping and they were big into comics,” Christine recalls. “I remember being in this kid’s basement and seeing a V for Vendetta poster, a Dave Stevens pin-up girl…It was a typical comic kid’s subterranean dwelling with long boxes, short boxes, Japanese robots, GI Joe’s, etc. There was a comic book on the floor that attracted me… The cover was sweepingly beautiful, with this ghostly woman kissing this skeletal man with a high collar. What I picked up Kelley Jones’ Deadman: Love and Death.”

The Marvels of the ‘80s were her gateway drug into the more mature and sophisticated comics of the time, the British Invasion of DC Comics, as well as editor Archie Goodwin’s editorial Marvel experiment, Epic.

“This led to my love of pretty much anything produced by Epic… especially Moebius. I love The Incal and The Goddess! V for Vendetta and Watchmen and then Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing launched my love for Hellblazer. I found Neil Gaiman’s Black Orchid and Violent Cases and then Vertigo launched and there was Sandman, Death, Shade the Changing Man, Animal Man, The Invisibles.

“It was an exciting time, around ’89 until the mid-nineties…I started frequenting the comic shop and discovered on my own Love and Rockets and Eightball and Jim Woodring and Charles Burns. Then all this other stuff too…Bill Sienkiewicz’s Big Numbers and Stray Toasters and Ted McKeever’s Transit, Plastic Forks, Eddie Current, and Metropol…Geoff Darrow on Hard-Boiled. So much! I’m sure I am forgetting something so much more…”

Comics in the early ‘90s, before the speculator’s craze nearly killed the market and Marvel filed for bankruptcy, before the comics enjoyed a revolution on movie screens, was a pivotal time. The medium was slowly gaining the literary acclaim that they now enjoy, and the trade paperback format had yet taken the mainstream bookstores by storm.

Norrie entered this world as a 16 year-old bagging and boarding comics at her local shop, with every high school comic kid’s dream of a discount and a stream of comics coming in. She became the head buyer in about five years, and was offered a job at DC Comics, catapulting her up to The Big Apple.

“I was drawing on the side, and being a crazy 20-something year old in Williamsburg,” Christine notes of her arrival in ‘97. “I lived with my sister, who’d just started out in fashion doing crazy internships with fashion designers…It was nine months of mayhem. Our loft was like a submerged basement space. We had a concrete floor that had originally been covered in dirt. We had no bathtub or kitchen, and no hot water. The funny thing was that, because we were all artists and creative people, we each owned 10-cup coffee pots. With our four or five coffee pots, we’d run water through without coffee and would get a bucket of hot water. I spent a week bathing by coffee machine. After that, Jonathan put in a hot water heater, and we had a claw bathtub up on cinder blocks in the kitchen, as well. Mostly we spent a lot of time at the Sweetwater drinking, playing pool, dropping songs on the jukebox, and having a generally good time.

A year and half in direct sales was followed by a stint in Editorial Administration, handling the scheduling of comics, as well as the finer points of production, working with creatives on all levels, from letterers to editors. Every day was like Christmas for Christine, opening around twenty-five Fed Ex boxes of original artwork to be dispensed to all of the editors, seeing the inner workings of all things DC proper and Vertigo. The whole time, she was drawing her comics on the side.

A break drawing a small story for Sarah Dyer’s Action Girl comic book came to Christine, and eventually led to a gig drawing “a small, teeny-tiny strip” for Disney Adventures. Norrie took a leap and left DC Comics to plunge into the uncertain waters of a freelance career.

Luckily for her, she knew how to swim, as she soon picked up strips for the Spy Kids movies. By 2002, she was drawing Hopeless Savages for Oni Press, working with writer Jen Van Meter. In 2003 she took a bigger step in her development as a cartoonist, with her first graphic novel.

Marc and Janey are a young married couple moving into a new apartment in New York, next to Janey’s friend Anna, and Anna’s husband Davis. As Marc often travels to review vacation spots for their latest travel book, while Janey stays at home and handles the other end of things.

But, the more Marc’s away, the more Janey is drawn to Davis.

Norrie’s graphic novel, Cheat, is a tragic love story, following the dissolution of a married couple. Her first full graphic novel, reading it is like glancing at a timeline of her own artistic development, the art evolving and becoming even more confident towards the final chapters. Cheat is far from a typical romance comic, particularly in its lack of a happy ending, with the dissolution of Marc and Janey’s marriage.

“Is there such a thing as real romance?” Christine poses as she adjusts her maroon scarf. “Its just drama, 24/7. I feel like romance and love, which I’m all about, is also one of the beautiful and crushing things we do to each other. It can be so hurtful and painful, also wonderful and uplifting, except there are no rules, no formula, and so many, many variables. I know everybody goes about it differently, and there’s great love out there, but there’s also such great sorrow.”

“We’re in the day and age where you can do and be anything, and to find somebody else who you want to respect, but is also compatible enough to want to continuously spend time with. And that’s just dating: when you start getting to the relationship part, that’s when its sheer madness. But one of my great friends, animator John Kuramoto just told me the most amazing thing: You meet the RIGHT person and it’s easy… there’s nothing to fix.”

The non-involvement in each other’s lives is obviously what didn’t make the couple in Cheat work; to her credit, Norrie presents their problem in a fair and balanced way, generating sympathy for both the cheater and the cheated.

“This couple in the story was obviously working together and traveling, but they didn’t do much. They separated their lives,” she notes.

“I’m looking at how interesting it is that a lot of successful couples work together, and it reminds me of the enduring relationship of a farming family: they’re people who work together, grow together, and just do together. When you both have a big stake in life together and do it all hand-in-hand -- And this couple didn’t have that. He did the travel, and she did the business end. They should’ve enjoyed it together.”

“I get to live by drawing mostly comics,” Christine notes, her art table set in the center of the shared studio. “Even the ‘corporate’ work I’m hired for is often my art aesthetic. In the last couple years I’ve been able to bring my comics style to Glamour Magazine, The Girl Scouts of America, and PUMA.”

Her other drawing gigs include an upcoming story in Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, developing online comics for social advocacy at, as well as a top-secret project for DC Comics and another romance graphic novel. She’s come a far way from St. Louis, balancing work with life and her permanent full-time job as a single mother, all while staying immersed in the comics community, support and inspiration that only New York City could bring to all of those roles.

“As soon as I got here I knew ‘This is home, this is where I belong,’” the woman who was once a girl of two worlds recalls. “I moved in with my multi-cultural and ethnic roots and became part of the melting pot…It’s the old line that you come to New York to make the life you want.

“There’s this kinetic energy that, if you have a dream and ambition, and you want to make something, you come here. The minute your foot hit’s the ground it’s in this groove and you’re doing and meeting other people who are the same vibe. It’s so easy to make something here if you want it, and if you want to do the work for it.”

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