Thursday, June 25, 2009

Molly Crabapple on Burlesque, Vaudeville, and Comics



“Vaudeville’s interesting variety was THE form of live entertainment at the time,” Molly Crabapple notes. “You can even see variety’s influence in the way old movies played in the theatres. They’d play the main movie but beforehand some shorts, cartoons, possibly a propaganda real. Burlesque was seen as more lower-end than vaudeville. If you were an upper crust person, instead of a burlesque show, you’d go to see the Zeigfeld Follies. You’d still be watching a bunch of scantily clad girls, but you would see them as a more hoity toity variety of scantily clad girls.

Molly, barely in her mid-twenties, has already established herself as a connoisseur of burlesque, with her globe-spanning Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School shows that combine burlesque girls with a sketching environment. This July, she hopes to do the same with her work as a comics artist with her first original graphic novel, the period piece Scarlett Takes Manhattan.

She sits in the Wycoff Starr, a tiny coffee shop in her neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, wearing a long blue cotton dress. She’d just gotten back from a trip to France, where her work had been exhibited.

“Vaudeville was all about having a number of variety acts,” she points out. “You could have a plate spinner and dancing elephants, and then you’d have a fire-eater, and then someone singing songs. Burlesque was a strip tease with comedic interludes. Burlesque and vaudeville were also in different types of theaters. Scarlett is a vaudeville performer, not a burlesque dancer.”

The difference between burlesque and vaudeville is just as important to Molly as that of burlesque model and artist. Where Scarlett, the protagonist of her graphic novel, is a vaudeville performer and not a burlesque dancer, Molly is determined to be considered more than a modern-day burlesque figure.

“I do a lot of different things — everything from theatrical design to graphic novels, but I think people can have a tendency to typecast me as ‘the girl who draws Burlesque dancers’ or ‘the girl who does Dr. Sketchy’s’,” she admits.

All of that everything started with one person: Molly’s own mother.


“My mom hooked me up,” Molly says with a smile. “She used to be an illustrator, and loves Toulouse-Lautrec. I do, too. In my sixth grade art class, I did dioramas of Toulouse-Lautrec and the can-can girls. I saw the neo-vaudeville/burlesque scene as the contemporary version of Moulin Rouge.”

Growing up in Far Rockaway, Brooklyn (the “ass end of the A train,” Molly jokes) and Long Island, Molly was prone to characteristic teenage troublemaking.

“I would sneak out to the city and get into trouble,” she says mischievously. “I’d go out to the city, flirt with boys, and be up to no good. I was a bad child and made my mother worry.”

When 17, she went beyond the city, and ventured out into the world.


“I traveled around a lot, and had saved up all my money while in high school so I could travel around Europe for nine months. I kept going back, and eventually went to France and England and Bulgaria, Morocco, Romania…all the fuck everywhere. I went a lot of places and spent quite a few months in Turkey, which led to the infamous being put in a Turkish jail quote.”

Molly pauses for a second, laughing. “I think that had more to do with the Western girl thing than the drawing thing. In Turkey they have this institution called Jandarma, the military police. There’s a mandatory draft in Turkey. These boys are into the army and put in the middle of Kurdistan, with nothing to do and a population that doesn’t really like them. There’s nothing to do, there’s no war…they just sit around all day hassling people for their papers. If there was ever an argument against having a draft, Turkey is a good example.

“One of the things Turkish boys do is watch American programs like Baywatch, which is all about how easy Western girls are. So, they see some dumb Western girl like myself mooning around, and they think ‘score!’.

“There were a lot of Amnesty International issues at the time. There had been a civil war with the Kurds there, and Turkey doesn’t get the idea of ethnic diversity, and it’s really bad. So, if there’s a Western girl who’s just drawing they go ‘What the fuck? What’s she doing?’ They detained me for a bunch of hours, and asked me if, in the U.S., girls wore miniskirts.”
Molly lets out another laugh.


Scarlett Takes Manhattan is a prequel to Backstage, an online strip on www.act-I-vate.com that Molly plans on finishing after Scarlett.

“Once I got the deal for Scarlett, and the resulting deadlines of doom, I couldn’t finish Backstage,” Molly admits. “I was pulling all-nighters on Scarlett as is. I would love to finish Backstage and have it published, and hopefully the opportunity will come in the future.”

Backstage, her collaboration with writer John Leavitt, is a murder-mystery that follows the murder of fire breather Scarlett. Molly’s art is a wink and a nod back to the turn of the century comic strips, with fine detail (and lots of it).


“Years ago, back when Zuda was starting, they came to me and said ‘We would love for you to submit something to us about burlesque,’” Molly recalls. “They didn’t end up going for our proposal, but me and John had gotten really attached to the characters and didn’t want to throw them out. I loved what Dean Haspiel was doing with Act-I-vate, so we decided to submit it there.”

Molly has been focusing on improving her skill set on Scarlett.

“I think the work I did on Scarlett is better than Backstage,” she elaborates. “Because I had an advance and a generous deadline, I was able to put more time into doing lavish crowd scenes and learning to color on Photoshop.”



“Want to hear hilarious?” Molly asks. “What’s the least likely venue to have a Dr. Sketchy’s in the universe? TGI Fridays! There are plans to have a scantily clad drunken drawing session at a TGI Friday’s. It shocked me. It’s in Sao Paulo.

“They’re not doing all their sessions there, but one. I went ‘Fuck, TGI Fridays would get boycotted here if they ever tried that.’”

After three and a half years, Dr. Sketchy’s
Anti-Art School has extended the tendrils of influence as far as South America

“When I started Sketchy’s I had no idea; I was a twenty-two year old art school dropout. People were writing to me, because I was advertising in all these comics communities, and they were like ‘This is so cool. There’s nothing like this in Utah, which sucks and isn’t like New York.’ I thought how unfortunate it was.

“I was inspired by National Novel Writing Month, which is this cool project where people write a novel in a month. They have branches in hundreds of cities. I thought that was the shit, so I was like ‘Hmmm, why don’t I do something similar?’ The first Dr. Sketchy’s branches were very informal. Now it’s a much more legalistic, but legitimacy has been something that’s grown crustacean-like over our central organization.


Dr. Sketchy’s is truly a grass roots phenomenon, growing out of Molly’s willingness for self-promotion and a sense of community.

“I was always pretty good about getting media and advertising online,” she says. “Once a Dr. Sketchy’s branch would start, they would get press and other branches would start based on it. It’s become a viral thing. For example, when Dr. Sketchy’s started in Seattle and got on NPR, and that started five more branches, and then one of those branches started a billion more, so for every branch we get, more and more branches come out of that. Now we’re moving into South America and we’re working on getting a branch in Cali in Colombia. We have ones in Bogota and San Paulo already.”

As Molly Crabapple continues to stretch out as a gallery artist and cartoonist, her work is being exhibited at both the Cabinet Des Curieux in Paris and the Monster show at L.A.’s Copro Nasan. She’s finding herself wearing a variety of hats, and adopting necessary moods to accompany them:


“At Dr. Sketchy’s I open my mouth, and at a fine art show, I shut up,” Molly jokes. “I think that’s the difference. At a fine art show I have a painting hanging on the wall and I have my glass of wine, whereas at a Dr. Sketchy’s I’m talking to sponsors, giving interviews to the press, and running around like a madwoman. The fine art show is more relaxing.”

“I think most of the upcoming months are just focused on promoting my book. I want to do big fine art pieces, which are my favorite thing to do. I don’t have many chances to do it, because I’ve been churning out comics page after comics page.

“I’d say big is big enough to hide behind. I did a lot of those pieces in early 2008 but have since then I’ve just been doing comics. I did some stuff for Graphic Classics, a penny dreadful story by Louisa May Alcott [called The Rival Prima Donnas]. She did some pretty trashy stories, including this 800 page book called A Long Fatal Love Chase, which has every cliché in it.”

Molly laughs and then exuberantly goes into a long-winded description:

“It’s about a beautiful virgin who lives on a deserted island with her old uncle. She runs off with a pirate who turns out to be a bigamist so she has to flee and live in a garret in Paris but gets put into a madhouse and falls in love with a Catholic priest who must choose between her and God.”


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