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Interview Wed Dec 26 2012

Caroline Picard on Befriending a Mountain

Caroline Picard, of Green Lantern Press and Corpse Space, has been writing her superhero character, Fortuna, since 2008, but Fortuna hasn't always been confined to the page. Picard has been known to don Fortuna's superhero ensemble and set up shop on Chicago street corners, looking forlorn, or hang posters around town desperately proclaiming Fortuna's greatness. She describes Fortuna as stricken by ennui. Where the Mountain Came From is the 8th edition in her Fortuna series, out this month with Bicycle Review. Where the Mountain Came From.jpeg

Picard took the time to chat with Book Club about the series, and about how Fortuna fits into the world we inhabit:

How has Fortuna changed or evolved since you created her?
When I made the first Fortuna comic in 2008, I was also doing performances where I'd go to public places, dressed up in Fortuna's costume, and sit for extended periods of time, without moving, trying to overwhelm myself with a static depression. I remember concentrating on stillness in public (everybody is always moving through public space)--that seemed very interesting to me, just as my attempts to emanate sadness did.

It felt like an inverse kind of peacocking, about failure or the anti-hero; obviously my costume added some dramatic flair, but otherwise I was totally unhysterical. Or sometimes, I would messily staple and tape carnival-style posters up in public, while wearing the same costume, announcing my character's greatness. It seemed funny sort of. You know, like that phrase, "You say it so often it must be true;" if Fortuna really was the greatest super hero in the world, she probably wouldn't have to put up posters that told you so. I became curious about who Fortuna was, and comics created a mode for me to reflect on a self-generated, and sort of hokey alter ego.

I was kind of embarrassed about her at first, but I liked that feeling. It was backwards--you'd think Superman would be embarrassed by Clark Kent, not vice versa. The last thing I wanted was for my family (for instance) to realize that I occasionally dressed up like a super hero to do nothing in public. Making comics about her was a way to expand and expose her mythology.

Is Fortuna's somber mood impacted by current events?
Hmmm. I hadn't thought about it, actually. Since I've been making comics with her for four or five years, she doesn't feel timely exactly. She feels more like a...I don't know, a psychic roommate. And there is so much inertia to her character; she is so passive. That said, there are real autobiographical elements she and I share; we live in the same apartment, for instance, and while I don't have a crocodile on my roof, I have lived with a wandering leak in the ceiling for about seven years. She does come out of a collective, probably American, climate though. And there is some nowness to that I think.

I can't shake this feeling that the world might end at any minute -- that the socioeconomic structure we've inherited and continue to perpetuate is doomed. Of course that's tied to the environment for me, but I find it mirrored in popular culture as well. Shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire all seem interested in excavating or exposing the death of male archetypal patriarchies and in every instance there seems to be an inherited tradition and the audience sympathizes with its protagonist for having to negotiate changes.

But those shows seem more about perpetuating those power structures than taking them apart. I feel those stories are actually more about reliving and propagating the past, returning to what is known and comfortable, than they are about it critique or proposing any positive future vision.

I want to tell a different kind of story. A quieter one. One with a female protagonist that isn't necessarily sexy or not sexy. I wanted to use Fortuna as a means of exploring alternate power structures, getting her to move out of a banal but exploitative job-situation. She's so much of a nobody in the world that she has the ability to explore hybridity -- her sidekick is a crocodile -- and destabilizing our anthropocentric orientation (by befriending a mountain, for instance). Fortuna follows those trains of thought and the more she leaves a traditional lifestyle behind, the more comfortable she becomes wearing a cape, the happier and stronger she becomes.

In what way does Fortuna challenge the culture of masculinity that informs the design of the super hero?
She's such a drip! Maybe a little twee, seems somehow counter to super hero culture. She can hardly assert herself, like a total nerd or pipsqueak. All those super heroes identify themselves as champions. They are there to save the world, and if they don't, no one else will. It reminds me, I just finished reading Madame Bovary for the first time and there is this amazing quote about Emma, the main character, in the beginning. Flaubert says, "Ennui, the silent spider, was weaving its web in the darkness, in every corner of her heart." That just kills me somehow -- like Bovary makes bad decisions because she's frustrated, or stuck, or bored inside of herself and she is somehow ill-equipped to overcome that.

Fortuna has a dose of that malaise as well. She's depressed, yes, and she has reasons for it like anyone, but she also just can't quite get out of her own way. All of those things counter a lot traditional super hero expectations. She's not fighting any battles.

Of course there are also a lot of really awesome comics out there that challenge super hero expectations and I've been inspired and influenced by a ton of artists -- Edie Fake's Gaylord Phoenix, for instance, Theo Ellsworth's Capacity, Chris Ware.

I've noticed in movies lately that super heroes are becoming more self-reflective, more openly flawed. Does Fortuna feel like she's in good company?
That's interesting. I don't know. I wish I knew more about the generations of comic book super heroes and how their psychology changes over the years. I have a sense that the interiority you are noticing -- are you thinking of the Dark Knight series, for instance? Or the latest Spider Man? Now I'm trying to recall those movies...and again, I'm not sure but my sense is that all of the stuff we are experiencing in those movies now is based on narrative moves that came about first in print, like 30 or 40 years ago.

I totally take for granted that Batman lost his parents and that's what drives him, or that Superman is always an outsider of some sort, in search of his real father. Still, I don't think Fortuna exists in their world. I can't imagine her meeting a real Green Lantern, for instance. I love those movies too, and I love the lore that goes along with them, the traditions they are a part of, but I would still argue that there isn't a lot of room for strong female characters, and the ones that exist with Captain America or Batman, are either love interests who's emotional engagement with the super hero makes him (almost always) weaker to his enemies, or a super sex bomb muscle lady -- often slightly unpredictable and aggressive -- in a skin tight costume.

It suddenly reminds me of this amazing sequence in Iron Man 2 (I think it's 2) where Tony Stark temporarily appoints his personal assistant, Pepper Potts as his CEO. For a moment she wields some real-world business power and from what one can gather of her personality, it's deserved. She's equipped and capable with real business acumen. But once the catastrophe is over, she resigns and then kisses Stark. In the next shot, she's wearing cut off jeans and drinking champagne, now the girlfriend or whatever. Honestly, in every other scene she had ever appeared in I swear to God she was wearing a pencil skirt and these crazy high (I noticed them because they were some of the coolest shoes I'd ever seen) heels and constantly running back and forth across the sets away from danger.

Can you give us an idea of the particular sorts of situations Fortuna finds herself in? Does she ever actually come face to face with or defeat evil?
I don't know that evil really exists in her world. I am similarly unconvinced that evil exists in ours. What I mean is that I feel like evil is a word used when one can't explain a tragedy, you can't say why someone did something and so they become evil. But I think calling something evil often lets us off the hook. By naming it that, the tragic occurrence becomes other -- a behavioral perversion that one (a person or a family or a society) doesn't have to take responsibility for. We should own our crimes, own our appetite for violence, and desires as a way of better understanding them.

Would you discuss what your experience publishing these 7 comics has been like and how it's changed from 1 to 7?
I guess for one thing it's gotten much faster. It used to take me a really long time to finish a comic; I don't know why exactly, except that it must have had something to do with my studio process, or interior attitude. I guess what has been interesting about working with this character is that unlike most of my other experiences with writing I feel pretty grounded in the production process.

I've known since I started what would happen, and even made some of the comics out of order. It's sort of feels like Fortuna exists outside of me and then, in a strange way, she's the one who tells me what happens. I read a book by Fernando Pessoa a while ago, and he talks so much about this idea of heteronyms -- characters/personalities/voices that exist without authors, and then he sort of channeled those voices. I don't think that my experience with Fortuna is as palpable or defined as that, but I definitely feel like a conduit rather than a creator. And maybe it's just because she is somehow so tied to an aspect of my psyche.

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