New York has changed drastically over the past 50 years, but thanks to Ellen Lindner and her beautiful and carefully illustrated debut graphic novel “Undertow,” we can experience a time when Coney Island was the place to be, when cigarettes were rolled in the sleeves of white t-shirts and when girls named Ronnie hung out with boys named Johnny.
Set amidst the chaos of a summer weekend at Coney Island, Undertow tells the story of Rhonda, a girl suddenly overwhelmed by events beyond her control. Her mother’s alcoholism, her best friend’s death…and now a social worker who’s intent on making it all better. Only her brother seems to understand what she’s going through, but even he doesn’t think much of her plan to escape it all by finding a career.
A story of finding your way in life and deciding who you are, Undertow takes the reader on a tour of a side of the 1950’s that didn’t make it into the romance comics: heroin, sex, and hopelessness, with a dash of nightclub dancing and swimming after curfew.
Starting today, MTV Geek will begin serializing “Undertow” every Thursday at 12pm EDT. The often breathtakingly drawn story comes highly recommended for fans of Daniel Clowes, the Hernandez Brothers, “The Outsiders” and “Mad Men.”
I spoke with Ellen Lindner over the phone about the influences behind “Undertow,” why she decided to tell a story set well before her birth and transforming one type of grief into another.
MTV Geek: Give us a background on the story of “Undertow.”
Ellen Lindner: When I moved to New York City after college it was really exciting for me. I grew up on Long Island and I spent my entire life looking into the City and being really fascinated by it, both of my parents grew up in New York City and so I really felt like I was kind of coming back to the places that they had known. I ended up living around the block from where my father went to high school. And I started going to Coney Island quite a lot. It was really amazing to me, that instead of going to the beach being this massive production, getting in the station wagon and piling all the kids in and bringing all the stuff you could just use your Metro Card to pay, I think at that point it was 2 dollars and go to the beach or have a really amazing day just hanging out with your friends. And I became really fascinated by the traces of Coney Island that hadn’t been redeveloped. This was in the early 2000’s. At that point it had this kind of weird lawless feel. People come along on the beach and try to sell you beer and I remember taking a trip down and all these crazy people; this dude reading this hardcore porn mag, like all this crazy stuff going on and I just found the whole thing really fascinating. Then September 11 happened and I just felt kind of…like New York became kind of convulsed in this feeling of grief and I personally…I’ve been really lucky in life and I’ve never experienced a really deep personal loss…or hadn’t at that point, and I wanted to tell a story that showed someone trying to deal with grief but at the same time trying to celebrate New York and Brooklyn and its past. And “Undertow” became a way of doing that. I spent so much time immersed in picture research, going into archives, seeing what streets had looked like in the late 50’s early 60’s when the story is set. It was an interesting education in how New York has changed quite substantially, I think it’s changed even more in the last 5 years. There’s been so much aggressive redevelopment of Brooklyn in particular. The story is completely fictional. It’s vaguely inspired by stories that my mom would tell me about growing up in Brooklyn, but it’s not a true story at all, it’s completely made up. And another thing that was really influential for me was seeing, I used to work at a museum and I came upon a book of photographs by this photographer Bruce Davidson, and he spent a lot of time in the late 50’s on Coney Island, hanging out with this bunch of teenagers. And the book is amazing, it’s called Brooklyn gang and it goes from Prospect Park to all over South Brooklyn and there’s this really fantastic sequence of photographs set at Coney Island and that helped set the visual tone of the book. It has this really gritty angular quality. The photographs are beautiful, anyone who’s interested in documentary photography or photo-journalism would really love them. And so all this came together into the story.
Geek: You said 9/11 happening was an important moment of change for New York, yet a drowning is the grief that has to be dealt with in “Undertow,” why set it in the 50’s and 60’s if 9/11 was the important moment and why a drowning, what made you morph the grief from 9/11 into one girl drowning?
EL: That’s an interesting question. First of all, it’s not a story about 9/11. At that point in my life, that was the thing that made the biggest bad impression on me, but at the same time, I would never had set a story in the present because I think things were still happening. I remember at the time one of my friends, who’s a cartoonist in Brooklyn, saying she would probably be writing the events that were transpiring then, in 20 years. Because you need time to process all of the events if you’re going to write about from a factual point of view or even if you’re going to write about from a semi-autobiographical view point. Because you don’t know how they’re going to affect you long term. I think that’s the interesting thing about September 11 to me now, the effects it’s had on American society long term. But in terms of choosing the time, I’ve always been fascinated by the past and in New York, you’re always surrounded by these little glimmer of what the past was like. For example when I walk from my studio in Gowanus to the subway in Park Slope, you see buildings from the 1880’s, you see buildings from the 30’s, you see buildings from the 40’s, New York is never uniform, there’s always this kind of intimation of what the city used to be like. And it kind of just makes you think. I think that there’s a literary tradition, to a certain extent of transposing events because you want to deal with the emotion but you don’t feel like you’re the person to tell the other story. I mean, I’m not the person to talk about September 11. I was in the city but, my level of personal tragedy was thankfully very low. In terms of why I would depict someone drawing…I’ve always loved swimming in the ocean and swimming in the ocean is not dangerous per se, but it’s the kind of thing that gets you in touch with your mortality. If you get the wrong tide or if you swim out too far or if you suddenly get a cramp or if you just lose track of where you are…drowning is always a real possibility, where I think if you were in a swimming pool you’d have to work really hard to get into that position. I remember going to Coney Island with my friends and every once in a while you have some moment, where a wave splashes over and and you realize, “Wow, I’m actually 15 feet out and there’s 15 feet of water underneath me.” Strangely, when I started doing to research about Coney Island specifically there was a newspaper report about the first people to go to Coney Island, the first tourists…and 2 of them drowned. [laughs] It’s just something that when you’re dealing with a place that’s on the ocean, is one of the more likely bad things that can happen to you. Also, with drowning there’s this sort of ambiguity…in this story Rhonda isn’t actually sure what has happened initially, it could just be Estelle playing a trick on her, it could be that Estelle is perfectly fine…and it turns out that she has drowned, but it’s not like a car crash where it’s not immediately apparent what’s happened.
Geek: Tell us about Rhonda. Who is she?
EL: Rhonda for me is like a character from a Fellini film. She’s like this vagabond kind of character. She’s a teenager which for me meant always being in the wrong, always saying the wrong thing, always doing the wrong thing, always being in the wrong place at the wrong time, always feeling a bit silly, but having this hope that things could change. “I guess if I date that guy then I guess my life will be awesome. If I get to go this party, then everything will be cool.” I think Rhonda is always in that mentality where she’s really unhappy at home and she doesn’t really see much of a way out for herself, but she’s determined that things are about to change somehow, she’s going to make something happen. And basically when I started telling this it was for an anthology in 2004 and the first chapter was the only story, it was designed to be a stand alone short story, but then as I started thinking about the character, I think there’s a lot of me in Rhonda, but also there are some things about Rhonda that are unclear, but I think over the course of the story you get a sense of what she’s like.
Geek: Can you talk about your style a little bit? There are some really gorgeous panels in this, moments where someone is just standing, staring and the wind is blowing, it’s just really beautiful. Can you talk how you approached this?
EL: Thank you for that.
Geek: You’re welcome
EL: I always feel self-conscious about “Undertow” because I started at a point where I hadn’t done much comics drawing. At the time I think I had done like 2 mini-comics or something [laughs] and somehow I thought that doing a graphic novel would be a really fantastic idea, which in retrospect it was. I think doing a graphic novel teaches you a lot about storytelling. Specifically, to talk about the style, when I moved to New York I started hanging out with a lot of cartoonists and I discovered romance comics from the 50’s and 60’s, these kind of crazy, melodramatic, overcooked narratives that were mostly written by adult men or teenage girls, which always introduces a kind of weird…the teenage girls are more innocent and naive than they could possibly be [ laughs] but there’s so much drama in these stories, it’s hilarious and there’s so many insane variations on the basic theme of the love story…there’ll be a nurse and ship’s captain falling in love, just these completely nutty juxtapositions. But there’s something that stuff but brushy style that I really like, I think Dan Clowes is very influenced by comics from the same period and I’m very influenced by Dan Clowes. So I wanted a style that would be reminiscent of those comics. To a certain extent to me, “Undertow” is a romance comic. I don’t know if you know The Shangri-las?
El: They wrote these crazy songs about car crashes and people dying like, “I wish I would’ve been able to tell my mother goodbye! Now I’m dead!” [laughs] Crazy stuff. I wanted to do a comic that would kind of be like a romance comic but if there hadn’t been the level of censorship that there was in the 50’s and 60’s. So, there’s a characters in “Undertow” that’s addicted to drugs, I don’t think that would have been…even though some of the romance comics and horror comic are really crazy…I wanted to bring a sort of realism of what was actually going on in New York City in the 50’s and 60’s. I think it’s interesting, I finished “Undertow” in 2009, before I started watching Mad Men, and it’s funny because Mad Man does a lot of the same things. [laughs] Prostitutes, drug addicted former artists…I think “Mad Men” comes from a similar motivation to peel the veneer of respectability of the past toy see what was going on, or show’s like “Deadwood.” The style is influenced by the comics of the period and also by films. I love black and white films from that period, like Godard films and Fellini films, especially “Nights of Cabiria” and the Godard film “Her Life to Live,” like that rich black and white.
Geek: There’s a definite Hernandez Brothers vibe to things.
EL: Yeah! I love the Hernandez Brothers, but it’s interesting, the Hernandez brother I love the most is not Jaime who I think most people think I’m influenced by, I love Gilbert Hernandez, I think all his stories are fantastic, like all the stories about Latin American politics and he’s just really cool. I think it’s hard to escape the influence of the Hernandez Brothers, they’re so amazing.
Geek: Do you have anything else coming up?
EL: I’m working on a new graphic novel which is set in London in the 20’s I lived in London for the past 8 years, so ironically most of “Undertow” was completed in the first 6 years I was in London, very bizarre. That’s a detective story. In addition to that I also edit a regular anthology called The Strumpet, which publishes woman artists from the U.S. and the U.K. There’s so little crossover from the U.S. and British comic scenes, even though we all speak the same language. I would mention my friends who do mini-comics in the states and my friends in the U.K. had never heard of them and vice versa, so I wanted to do a comic that would bring those 2 scenes together. I’ve joined a studio a studio in Gowanus called Hypothetical Island, so basically that’s my little graphic novel immersion zone. I really want to finish the first big chunk of it this year. It’s very different subject matter but, again it’s coming out of my experiences in a place…I feel like places are really inspiring, I think travel and going to see places is really important for artists.
Read the first part of Lindner’s Undertow right here! And be sure to check back every Thursday at noon for more of the story!