Outsider perspective

comicThere is nothing typical about the work of Lebanese-American comic artist Jennifer Camper. Exploring issues of gender, race, sexuality and politics from distinctively non-mainstream perspectives, Camper’s comics have little in common with the comic book stories of stereotypical cape-and-tights-clad superheroes.

Camper has published three books to date, including Rude Girls and Dangerous Women and subGURLZ. Like all of her work, these books are partially inspired by Camper’s own experiences as a Lebanese-American gay woman.

Camper is also the editor of Juicy Mother, a queer comics anthology series that The Boston Globe called "what underground comics used to be.” Her work has appeared in various magazines, newspapers, comic books and anthologies since the 1990s and has been exhibited in the US and Europe.

Camper: I've been making art and writing since I was very young. I've explored a variety of media, but telling stories has always been my passion. Cartooning was a way for me to use both words and pictures together.

I appreciate the immediacy of comics. One needn't go through galleries or museums to reach people with cartoons. People stick comics on refrigerator doors and bulletin boards. Readers approach comics with a sense of open expectation and this allows the artist a chance to communicate directly and quickly.

I drew comics in school for the amusement of my friends. Later, I began publishing my work in alternative comic books, and in lesbian and gay publications. Before the Internet, most cities had a gay newspaper that listed events and covered gay politics and culture. My comics were half-page, multi-paneled cartoons that were often political satire about gender, sexuality, race and class. Later I published collections of my work in books.

Now I'm more interested in telling longer stories. This gives me a chance to explore characters in depth, and to address complicated ideas. I also have edited two anthologies of comics. I love editing and am happy to promote comics that might not otherwise be published.

Camper: I'm inspired by things that both delight and anger me. I create the comics that I want to read, because no one else is doing it. I celebrate and examine the experiences of women, gays, and people of color, and I try to tell compelling stories.

I see the world from an outsider's viewpoint, that of a gay Lebanese-American woman. Mainstream culture often seems rather strange to me. Sometimes that disconnection is frustrating, but it can also be very funny. Humor is a powerful weapon against injustice, and laughing at yourself keeps you honest. People respond very well to humor, and it can open the discussion of difficult subjects.

Camper: My father's grandparents came here from Lebanon, but I grew up very assimilated. I don't speak Arabic, my father died when I was young and I wasn't part of an Arab community. In the 1990's, I met a group of gay Arabs and Iranians and that finally allowed me to have a sense of a community.

comicIn my art, I explore how we often live between worlds -- between Arab and American, between male and female, between strengths and weaknesses.  And I'm interested in examining how issues of gender, race and class can be incorporated in stories. 

My comics are fiction, but are often based on my own or other people's experiences. For example, when creating my comic, Ramadan, I interviewed Muslim lesbians and used their experiences to write a fictional story about a woman trying to reconcile being Muslim and gay. I'm not Muslim myself, so I told the story in the second person, and I was very concerned that the story ring true for the women I was portraying. I'm impressed by the courageous ways they've incorporated their faith into their lives against much opposition.

Not yet, but I hope to go there soon.

Camper: I knew I was gay from an early age, and it never bothered me that I was a lesbian. I was also lucky to have a family that accepted me.

I've certainly encountered people who think it is wrong to be gay, and I've had my share of homophobic attacks. And there are also people who will treat me differently because I'm a woman, or half-Lebanese, or a cartoonist. But life is too short to worry about all the ways other people might object to who I am. In my art, I try to explore how all the parts of our identities mix together to form unique people, and the interesting ways we all react to each other.

Camper: The family story is that "Camper" was the name my grandparents were given
when they got to America. Our real name is something like "Umboor," but we're not exactly sure. As in many Arab families, telling a good story is more important than the truth, and over time details get lost.

I can't say how things would be different if I had an Arabic last name. Probably, I'd be more identifiably Arab to those in the know.

  • Bassem B.

    Very interesting :) no web link? Here's her website: jennifercamper.com

    July 13, 2008