“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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).
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.
“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:
“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.”