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Roberta Gregory is the creator of the comics series Naughty Bits, a terrific title that features the adventures of such characters as Bitchy Bitch and her lesbian counterpart Butchy Bitch. Fantagraphics publishes Naughty Bits and has also released a series of trade paperback collections, which I can't recommend highly enough. Roberta Gregory is a unique, singular talent, and I am grateful to her for spending time on my radio show Friday, March 3rd, 2000.

 

Alan David Doane: How many years have you been doing Naughty Bits?

Roberta Gregory: I think the first issue came out in 1991, so I think almost nine years now.

ADD: But you've got a long history in cartooning before that?

RG: Oh, yeah. My father used to write comics for Disney, so we always had comics around the house when I was a kid, so I kind of learned to read with comic books. I was doing them all through school and my first published work was in the early 70s. I had a comic strip that was based on the women's movement. Humor and the women's movement was not a concept that was put together at that time, y'know, so, I was always kind of doing things that were a little bit different. My first stories were in underground comics from San Francisco in 1974, and ever since then I've had a lot of appearances in different comic anthologies, women's comics. It wasn't until 1990-1991 that I got my own ongoing comic book, and it's been coming out quarterly pretty much ever since.

ADD: How did Naughty Bits come about?

RG: Originally I just did some odd short stories that weren't really related to each other, they didn't really have a strong character or a theme running through them. Actually the first story was a really oddball story I did kind of based on Robert Crumb, who a lot of your listeners are probably familiar with if they saw the movie Crumb. For years he's done these comics that kind of come straight out of his id, where men are abusing women, only it's very funny. So I thought "okay, how could he have gotten away with it for so long?" What if a woman did a really goofball, screwball comic book about women abusing a guy, would they think it was just as funny? Would it have that license to be funny because it was cartoonish? So I did this really weird story about these women who sexually abuse a guy, only it's done in this really goofy style. So I kind of threw that out, and Fantagraphics thought it was great, they kind of built a comic book around that one story.

ADD: What was the reader reaction to that?

RG: Well, women laughed and most guys were usually kind of stunned and frightened by it. A few guys just thought it was great. It really did get a wide variety of reaction. Which didn't really surprise me that much.

ADD: Naughty Bits has an ongoing storyline featuring continuing characters. Has your style evolved over time, do you find your interests and subject matter have changed?

RG: Not really. The earliest stories I did that were more realistically drawn are kind of real-life stories with kind of a twist. Although Bitchy Bitch has gotten really more screwball and over the edge sometimes.

ADD: That's got to be a very cathartic character and strip to write.

RG: Oh, it's lots of fun. It's just a blast. I mean, I usually don't write the story until it's maybe a month or two away from publication so it's usually something that's fresh in my mind, or a theme that's going on in my life, or something that I really had in my subconscious for a few months and can really fill it with realism. These aren't stories that I've written years ago that I'm finally getting around to drawing, these are all things that I'm doing usually in a panic because a deadline's coming up. I surprise myself sometimes when my book comes out. It's stressful but creatively it's a blast.

ADD: Is there an autobiographical component to Bitchy Bitch? As true to life as it seems, I can't imagine that there isn't.

RG: I suppose some. I mean, some of the things that annoy her annoy me. In the issue I'm doing right now she's really ticked off about how modern culture's basically geared toward people with lots of money which really ticks me off too, being a person that does not have a lot of money at all, you know. The incidents aren't--actually, when she fell in love with Chuck I was in a relationship with somebody, so I was kind of using some of those emotions, so...kind of incidentally, there can be some stuff that's realistic, or maybe the way I'm responding to a situation, but...I haven't spent 20 years in a dead-end job like she has. I definitely feel like I'm a much more happy, fulfilled person. If I was as miserable and as blame-heavy as Bitchy Bitch I could never get any of this done. I would just not be self-motivated enough to do a comic book four times a year.

ADD: (Bitchy Bitch) doesn't ever really seem to be happy, per se. She sometimes takes joy in the misery of others...

RG: Every so often she does have her moments, like when she first has this relationship with Chuck, she's pretty blissful. And then I think there's the storyline where she went on vacation, and once she actually let go of the idea that she had to meet a guy on vacation, the last day she actually, she felt good.

ADD: That was a terrific story, too--the guy that ended up following her around...

RG: Oh, man, yeah.

ADD: (Laughs). In reading that story it wasn't immediately apparent that that character was going to be a continuing theme, was that something you knew was going to happen ahead of time or was that something that just came out as you were writing it?

RG: It just came out later on, I thought, "Oh, God, this guy is just too good to disappear." There's Toadman, who is a fella that in the very first issue she goes on a really bad date from Hell with him. Five issues later he shows up at work, which is kind of every woman's greatest fear, some guy you never want to see again, like, working with you now. Kenny (from the vacation story) is just a much more fun person to do. I actually want to another story with Kenny just because he's such a great character. But usually I don't have these stories all plotted out, from the first issue, usually I'm kind of in a panic going "okay, okay, I've got to do another story, what's been going on with Bitchy Bitch?" Some of this stuff just kind of comes out at the last minute, and through the magic of creativity under stress I guess, it actually all fits together and I'll find out later that it tied into something in an issue I haven't read in about four years. It's kind of fun, stressful but fun.

ADD: Other than the obvious entertainment value, is there anything you hope that your readers come away with from your work?

RG: I get a lot of response from guys saying they're just so thrilled to find out what really goes on in women's heads, or at least, you know, some women's heads. I think the point of my story is not that the world is a horrible, grim place but if you're a person like Bitchy Bitch that sees the world as that kind of a place, it will be.

ADD: Like garbage in, garbage out?

RG: Pretty much. It just amazes me how different people can live in the same world and just interpret it so differently, you know.

ADD: How has the Internet changed the way you interact with your readers?

RG: I think it makes it more accessible. Just the fact that three or four years ago if anybody wanted to see the existence of my work they had to go to a comic book shop, which are few and far between. And now, on my web site it links to this web site for Oxygen, this network that has Bitchy Bitch cartoons on it now. And then that links back to my page and then the Fantagraphics page has scenes from all of my comic books in it. It's definitely made things more accessible, I don't know if it's sold more books or upped my income any or anything, but it's--conceptually, it's amazing that somebody could just type in my name and all of a sudden, you know, see my work. I have to hear something a few times and then see some visual references before something sticks into my brain just because there's so much visual and auditory and mental overload nowadays in culture.

ADD: How have you sustained this alternative comic book in the face of what's been a rough few years for the comic book industry?

RG: I've had a few scares where sales have gone down some and Fantagraphics has considered canceling it. I think it still makes them more money then it makes me, it doesn't make me all that much. Working on the animation, that's brought, not a huge amount of money but more sort of a low-normal income (laughs) that a lot of people can live on rather than a poverty-level income. Plus, I have an apartment in Seattle that's kind of unusually cheap that I've been in for ten years, needs a lot of work, but--I guess the secret of living on your creative output is learning to live on next to nothing, which (laughs) I'm really good at.



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