'Hellmouth'.

Julia Gfrörer is an American comic artist and illustrator who gained a cult following with her highly original dark gothic tales. The stories are often set in historical eras and fascinated with shame and suffering. Characters live in miserable circumstances and endure horrible events. Some stories feature terrifying ghosts and seductive demons. Gfrörer is often classified as a horror comic artist, though this term is too narrow for her highly unique work. It's in many ways closer to ancient picture stories from ages long gone by, sharing the same mysterious look. Her comics are additionally notable for not shying away from nudity and sexuality. Yet the artist doesn't idealize the human body and the eroticism is often straightforward and sometimes uncomfortable. While her name is associated with depressing stories about the human condition, she has also made more light-hearted comics. Stories from this latter category can be described as twisted fanfiction adaptations of her favorite novels, films and TV shows. Julia Gfrörer publishes in the small press, but has also launched some of her work online, making her a webcomic artist too.


Artwork for 'The Deep Ones' (2014), a mini comic by Julia Gfrörer and Sean T. Collins.

Early life
Julia Gfrörer was born in 1982 in Concord, New Hampshire. Her name is German and ought to be pronounced with the "eu" sound (like in the English word "urge"), but in English many pronounce it as "gfrairer". She often joked that her last name rhymes with "despair", which fits a recurring theme in her work. Her parents were Quakers, but not strict in their religion. They divorced when she was young and Julia was mostly raised by her mother, who worked as a Jungian psychologist. Gfrörer learned a lot about dream analysis and symbolism from her, which came in handy later in her career. Since her mother published articles in magazines, Gfrörer also attributes her writing talent to her. Julia's father was a documentary filmmaker and one of her earliest jobs was helping him out with camera work and editing.

During her youth, Gfrörer read medieval romances, gothic novels and occult stories, and developed a fascination for stories about Christian martyrs. Interviewed by Phoebe Gloeckner for The Comics Journal of 10 March 2017, Gfrörer explained: "What's always been interesting to me about those stories is this narrative of physical suffering being redemptive. You enumerate these horrible, torturous experiences that this fictional person has had, and then that proves that they were really worthy, it proves their love for God or whatever. And in medieval romances and stuff, which are written in a similar way, where the trials that the lovers go through prove that their love is really special. And that's such a beautiful, romantic, and seductive idea, that isn't reflected in reality, I think. The suffering that you go through doesn't necessarily mean much about the quality of the thing that is causing you to suffer. It's probably not necessary."

Originally, Gfrörer had an interest in languages and philology. She studied French and Latin in high school, learning Mandarin Chinese from a foreign exchange student and taking a summer course in American Sign Language. As she wanted to become an Egyptologist, she also learned to decipher hieroglyphics. Eventually Gfrörer felt she was never going to be "smart enough" to study languages and therefore picked a painting and printmaking course at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, from which she graduated in 2004. In several interviews she confessed not being much of a comics reader. Her own comics are therefore more influenced by illustrators and engravers. One time a comics class was given for two semesters, taught by professional cartoonist Ellen Forney. This marked the first time Gfrörer tried to make a mini comic, based on a story from the 'Little Flowers of St. Francis'. Among her graphic influences were painters, illustrators and graphic artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, the Victorian Age and early 20th century, among them Aubrey Beardsley, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz, Maxfield Parrish, Alice Neel, Harry Clarke and Aubrey Beardsley. In terms of contemporary artists, she loves the work of Maurice Sendak, Dame Darcy, Chloe Piene and Junji Ito.

Early career
In 2007 Gfrörer moved to Portland, Oregon, where she met Dylan Williams, publisher of Sparkplug Comics. Gfrörer had just made a comic story about St. Francis of Assisi, 'How Life Became Unbearable'. Williams not only gave it attention at the Pony Club Gallery, but also published it. Gfrörer has always regarded him as her mentor.


'Too Dark to See'.

Mini comics (1)
Gfrörer started out self-publishing mini comics zines under the imprint Thuban Press. 'All the Ancient Kings' (2008) brings together several cultural icons, known for their substance abuse, among them Hunter S. Thompson, Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, Warren Zevon and Leonard Cohen. A similar cameofest is her series 'Ariadne auf Naxos' (Teenage Dinosaur, 2009-2011), in which she befriends her favorite characters from literature, history and pop culture.

Flesh and Bone
Her first graphic novel was 'Flesh and Bone' (Sparkplug, 2010). The story started out as an eight-page porn comic for an anthology, but by the time Gfrörer finished it she felt it shared a closer resemblance to a horror story. As a result, she didn't submit it, but reworked it into an entirely different 40-page story for Sparkplug, at the commission of Dylan Williams. 'Flesh and Bone' revolves around a witch who is consulted by a young man. He asks her to reunite him with his recently deceased lover. Gfrörer deliberately set the tale in a medieval past, because many of the novel's themes, like religious paranoia, missing children, witches' sabbats and execution sites fit in such an era. The work was nominated for an Ignatz Award in the field of "Outstanding Achievement", but lost to Lisa Hanawalt's 'I Want You'.

Mini comics (2)
In 2011-2012 Gfrörer released three notable mini comics. In 'Too Dark to See' (2011) a couple is visited by a mysterious feminine silhouette at night who forces the husband to have sex with her. The next morning he doesn't remember a thing, but he suddenly has a black growth, which causes the young lovers to break up. 'World Within the World' (2012) was based on Athanasius Kircher and his book 'Mundus Suberraneus'. In the story, Kircher takes the author on a trip to the underworld and utters a quote she since views as her mission statement: "It is the duty of those who possess even a little courage to explore the world within, and to map it for those not destined to explore."


'Black is the color'.

Black Is The Color
Gfrörer's next graphic novel, 'Black Is The Color' (2012) was serialized online on the Study Group Comics website and later made available in book format by Fantagraphics. The plot takes place in the 17th century, when two sailors, one named Warren, are put in a lifeboat in the Strait of Magellan, because food supplies have run short. Out on the open sea, Warren is soon the only survivor. Many scenes are slow on action, without much dialogue, to give a sense on how vast the ocean is and how lonely Warren is with his thoughts. One night he is comforted by a mermaid, Eulalia, who gives him new spirit and helps his mind drift away to more pleasant perspectives. To Warren, she is a friendly companion, even though what she presents to him are mere fantasies. Indeed, it's questionable whether she is even a benevolent spirit, as she asks him why he would want to stay alive, seeing that his existence hasn't been very fulfilling up to now. 'Black Is The Color' is named after an Appalachian folk song, once covered by Nina Simone. Gfrörer drew the comic when she just went through a divorce and was laid off from her full-time job. She had a feeling of being left alone with her problems, which influenced the story's themes.

Mini comics (3)
2013 was a productive year for Gfrörer. The anthology 'Black Light' (2013) collects four short stories, 'River of Tears', 'All is Lost', 'Unclean' and 'Phosphorus'. The first story deals with a man haunted by his ex-fiance going downhill in a self destructive spiral caused by depression and drug addiction. 'All Is Lost' is a tale about an enchanted bear who must murder a child. In 'Unclean' a heartbroken young woman goes to bed with a bartender after her boyfriend dumped her. In 'Phosphorus' a teenage boy is sexually molested by a female water ghost.

Her subsequent mini comic 'Palm Ash' (2013) is set during the third century in Rome, when emperor Diocletian persecuted Christians. The story is told from the viewpoint of three characters. Simeon is a Christian who is sent to the lions, but each time this happens he falls asleep. He is fancied by Dia, a servant who is secretly Christian as well. The last character is Drusus, a Roman who has a relationship with his servant. While writing this comic strip, Gfrörer included several details from her Latin text books from high school, all of which she had read for pleasure rather than research. The same year Gfrörer contributed a two-page comic story about the Voynich manuscript, published in Hic and Hoc's 2013 anthology 'Unknown Origins and Untimely Ends: A Collection and Unsolved Mysteries'.

In 'Dark Age' (Mocca, 2016), Gfrörer tells a claustrophobic Adam and Eve like story about a nude, vulnerable human couple in the harsh environment of nature. Nobody knows of their existence and they are seemingly alone in the world. When the man gets trapped in a dark cave, their existential crisis worsens even more. If the woman doesn't get him out alive and if she dies as well, who will ever know or remember them afterwards? 'Goodnight Seattle' (2018) reimagines the cast of the sitcom 'Frasier', confronted with the apocalypse. 'Hellmouth' (2020), serialized on the site Solrad, features a woman in Hell looking for her husband. All dialogue is written in Latin, while the artwork references Hieronymus Bosch.


'Laid Waste'.

Laid Waste
The graphic novel 'Laid Waste' (Fantagraphics, 2016) is a bleak tale set in a medieval village during the Black Death. Agnes, a young widow, has survived the pandemic. She meets Giles, a man with whom she has sex to temporarily forget the horrible circumstances they have to live in. Despite all the suffering around them and their unanswered question whether this is the end of the world, they try to carry on.

Vision
'Vision' (Fantagraphics, 2019-2020), set in the 19th century, deals with Eleanor, a spinster whose lover died in war. She works as a maid for her brother's ill wife. One night Eleanor hears a ghost in her bedroom mirror, who sympathizes with her tragic life. They develop a rather creepy friendship, where the mirror entity becomes Eleanor's closest confidant. The mysterious creature pressures her to release all her repressed feelings and desires. Whether this being is real or a sign that Eleanor is losing her sanity is an open question...?


'Vision'.

Style
Gfrörer approaches her work as picture stories and avoids onomatopeia as often as possible. She often works in black and white. Whenever she does use color, like in 'Phosphorus' (2013), she contrasts a monotone background color with details highlighted in spot colors. Gfrörer uses a lot of negative space. Rather than fill up every panel with imagery, she prefers her backgrounds to not distract from the characters and their actions on the foreground. The artist has a similar approach to her lay-outs. Most pages have only four to six panels per page. Some panels have little immediate action and function as atmospheric, monotone passings of time, which underline a character's isolation. In some stories, like 'Dark Age' (2016) and 'Vision' (2019-2020), Gfrörer even dares to make several panels black, to illustrate how a character is trapped in the dark or loses sight for a while. This gives her work a hypnotic, disorienting effect.

The black-and-white look also adds to an "ancient" feel. Gfrörer's work looks like old manuscripts, rather than 21st century creations. Her characters have the same deadly serious and somewhat eerie expressions people often have on pre-20th century drawings, engravings and paintings. Most of her stories are set in a vague past as well. Gfrörer is uninterested in summarizing historical events. She used these historical eras as a backdrop to the lives of everyday people. On the same token she doesn't romantize it either. The past is always a cruel era, where misfortune or early, horrible deaths are a grim reality. Even when she uses fantasy elements from fairy tales, myths or legends it's never whimsical and wondrous, but terrifying. Creatures like witches ('Flesh and Bone'), mermaids ('Black Is The Colour'), water spirits ('Phosphorus'), ghosts ('Too Dark To See', 'Vision') and the Grim Reaper ('Laid Waste') remind us of a time when people understood little about the world around them, opening the doors for fantastic fears.


'Phosphorus'.

Sexuality and horror
Her work is also notable for its frank but matter-of-fact depiction of sexuality, which she feels is often ommited from stories for no good reason. Yet she doesn't want to make porn. Her characters have no idealized bodies or genitalia, but are regular people. The same can be said about the sex itself, which isn't always great, let alone titillating. Gfrörer uses nudity mostly to evoke vulnerability or discomfort. Interviewed by Zainab Akhtar for Comics Beat, published on 7 January 2013, she said: "Most depictions of sex in comics are so painful to read: they're insulting to women, they lack pathos, they're banal. No doubt the way I compose a sex scene is, at least in part, a reaction against the more clinical depictions I've been frustrated by in the past. I try talk about sexuality in a way that feels both truthful and erotic to me, that reflects my actual experience of sexuality, which means being ruthless in including whatever baggage is necessary to that end."

Some of her "erotic" scenes are quite disturbing. In 'Flesh and Bone' a man masturbates on his lover's grave. In 'Too Dark to See' a husband is basically raped by a succubus, while in her short story 'Phosphorus' a creepy swamp monster with glowing eyes forces a teenage boy to masturbate for her, after which it leaves him crying behind. When asked in a 24 December 2013 interview by Alex Dueben for CBR, whether she would consider herself a horror comic artist, she replied: "Possibly the relationship of my work to horror is similar to the relationship of post rock to rock music, in that I make use of a lot of the traditional instruments and structures of the genre, but my intent is to create something more textured and exploratory, less goal-oriented, more humane. I find my own work frightening, and I like when people call it "horror," but my stories tend to be anchored more by sadness than by terror. To the extent that I'm interested in conjuring emotions in the "fear" genre, I like creeping dread, contempt, self-directed disgust, the compulsion to extinguish oneself, a crushing sense of futility. I like those moments when you seem to perceive the world with perfect rational clarity and precision, and you see it for the black, remorseless chasm that it is. They might be more accurately called "tragedy" comics than "horror" comics."

Indeed, Gfrörer's comics are extraordinarily nihilistic and often controversial. Her comic 'A Child's Life' was banned from a California library by a politician on the grounds that he considered it a "handbook for pedophiles". What nobody can deny, is that Julia Gfrörer is a highly original artist, whose powerful images haunt readers days after they've read them. Although several scenes are highly uncomfortable and disturbing depictions of sexuality, suffering and death, there is also a macabre beauty about them.


Ladydrawers - 'Let's go shopping'.

Collaboration with Anne Elizabeth Moore
For the magazine Truthout, Gfrörer collaborated with culture critic and author Anne Elizabeth Moore on the comic strip 'Ladydrawers' (2013). The comic analyzes women's international labor through a variety of professions. Gfrörer illustrated two episodes about the topics fashion and shopping. Other episodes of 'Ladydrawers' have been drawn by Gabrielle Gamboa. Anne Elizabeth Moore additionally wrote a comics memoir about her memories of Harvey Pekar, 'Harvey & Me' (2016), drawn by Melissa Mendes.

Collaboration with Sean T. Collins
Gfrörer made several comics together with her husband Sean T. Collins, who usually serves as writer and co-editor. The couple translated excerpts from a medieval French heraldic text for the anthology 'Mirror Mirror II' (2017) by 2ndCloud. They also adapted two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe into twisted sexualized mini comics. 'Pace Requiescat' (2013) is based on 'The Cask of Amontillado', while 'The Hideous Dropping Of The Veil' (2014) tackles 'The Fall Of The House Of Usher'. Interviewed by Minh Nguyen for aqnb.com on 16 October 2017, Collins reflected: "I think Julia has said before that when we excavate the sexual subtext of Poe, it's barely even subtext at all. His work seems to vibrate with a sort of ecstatic panic that is so close to arousal that it conjures up that sensation like emotional synesthesia. We're just coming out and saying so." Gfrörer, Collins and Gretchen Felker-Martin also made 'All Fucked-Up: Tales from the Roadhouse (Expanded Universe)' (2020), a mini comic featuring six erotic fan fiction stories based on the cult action movie 'Road House' (1989).


'The Hideous Dropping Of The Veil'.

Book illustrations
Gfrörer illustrated 'Fables', The Brothers Grimm's The Twelve Dancing Princesses' and Oscar Wilde's 'The Star-Child' (2012) in the Scout Books Fantastic Tales series. She also livened up the pages of Hallie Fryd's 'Martyrdom. The Coloring Book' (Zest Books, 2015). This odd book features stories about Christian martyrs, in which readers can colorize Gfrörer's images of suffering Catholic saints being executed. As she dryly said on her Tumblr page: "The attending stories will go down pretty easy at cocktail hours as well (...) Be sure to have more than one red crayon handy." Two years later, Gfrörer published another coloring book: 'Aristocracy: The Coloring Book' (Zest Books, 2017), where scenes of eccentric (and sometimes famous) rich people are given the same treatment. Gfrörer additionally illustrated Gretchen Felker-Martin's novel 'No End Will Be Found' (Thuban Press, 2016), set during the witch trials at Würzburg, Germany.

Graphic contributions
In 2009 Gfrörer designed a label for Arcana Perfumes. She contributed a drawing titled 'The 39 Ryan Goslings' to Runner Runner 2 (2013), a free anthology by Tugboat Press. Gfrörer additionally made a short comic, 'Spirit Hand', for 'On Your Marks' (2013), the official short-run small press fest anthology by Max Clotfelter. 'Frail Nature' (2013) was her contribution to the art show 'The Tortured Page' in Baltimore, Maryland, which was later collected in the anthology Best American Comics.

Written contributions
Gfrörer analyzes the comics medium in her column 'Symbol Reader' for The Comics Journal, and is one of the maintainers of the 'Comics Democracy' page on Tumblr.

Cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner praised Julia Gfrörer as "one of the most promising artists/authors of her generation" and "a powerhouse. Learn to spell her name."

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