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A Cartoonist’s Darkly Magical and Autobiographical Work

Cartoonist Laura Park shares her fascination with medical oddities, lesser-known murderers, morbid Victoriana, and more.

Laura Park, “Do You Desire Control?” (2016), in a sketchbook (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When I met cartoonist Laura Park for a walk through her exhibition connected to her three-week residency at the Columbus Museum of Art, she had recently emigrated to France, together with her native French boyfriend.

“I did that both because I love him, but also I have some worries about what is happening here — like, healthcare, Korean War? Don’t know what’s happening,” said Park, whose comic narratives fluidly incorporate autobiographical daily chronicles, magical realism, memory, and exhaustively researched hidden histories. “It’s interesting, because my parents are immigrants, and when I told them I’m going to do this — I never thought of them as very optimistic, but they are,” said Park. “They’re like, ‘You’ll be fine.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t speak French,’ they’re like, ‘Eh, you’ll figure it out.’ And realizing that was their attitude when they came here — we’ll figure it out. Because in that stereotypical way, they’re kind of dark people, but I’m like, you’re optimistic!”

Cartoonist Laura Park, during an interview at the Columbus Museum of Art

Perhaps the similarities extend farther than Park realizes. It would be easy to characterize her anxiety-riddled and sometimes grotesque cartoon stories — which often star a charming little comic version of herself — as having a dark bent. Park has a personal fascination with medical oddities, lesser-known murderers, and morbid Victoriana; selections from her collection of strange objects are presented alongside her sketchbooks, concept pages, and finished cartoons.

“I was afflicted with eBay, because I found that you could go into certain sub-categories,” Park said. “I had an obsession with ‘antiques/medical supplies’ and then just writing a thing like ‘child’s crutch,’ ‘human tooth,’ or ‘murder,’ and just seeing what would pop up. It was totally fascinating. And that’s how I found this, it’s a watch case with baby teeth, but then it’s got some notes written — I’m guessing this was the first tooth lost.”

A vitrine holding Park’s sketchbooks and some selections from her personal collections of oddities

But Park manages to house these creepy fascinations within a sunny personality — quick to laugh, easy to banter, lover of small dogs and one-eyed cats. Though her autobiographical comics often focus on the kind of social anxiety common to creative introverts, they read as therapeutic — both in the way that they enabled her as a creator to work through her feelings and ideas, and the way that emotional intelligence is communicated to the reader.

A finished page from “Office 32F” (2008), Park’s first story to appear in MOME

“When you’re doing autobiography, you realize our lives are very repetitive, so a sense of magical realism starts to seep in there,” said Park, who cited British-American cartoonist Gabrielle Bell as an admired peer working in a similar vein. For example, in the story “Office32F,” Park’s comic stand-in discovers a miniature and mysterious office in the walls and baseboards of her apartment, apparently devoted to the task of close-monitoring her daily existence. The tale is equal parts cute and unsettling, with the protagonist taking cues from miniature written reports, which criticize her unkempt birdcage, but also lead her to finding a tiny pair of red mittens caught in a spider web and bizarrely soaking them in bleach and flushing them down the toilet. The specificity of Park’s visual and literary descriptions adds a sense of the uncanny to even the most quotidian urban activities, like Strangers on a Train, which captures moments while riding public transportation.

Some sketchbook pages featuring Walter, Park’s French bulldog

Many of Park’s mini-comics and full-length narratives have appeared over the years in the renowned Fantagraphics anthology series MOME, as well as in The Believer, Best American Comics, and the I, FUNNY series of books for young readers. The exhibition is grouped thematically rather than chronologically, with perennial themes including animals, “body stuff,” personal stories (including some of her surprisingly upbeat tales from stints in children’s shelters and foster homes), historically based stories (including Park’s fictionalized reconstruction of New York’s “Mad Bomber”), and Chicago-related tales.

A screen display clips from Over the Garden Wall, an animated Cartoon Network series for which Park provided character design and storyboards

“I spent 20 years in Chicago, basically my adult life, so Jimmy Corrigan and Acme Novelty [Library] came out in the newspaper,” said Park. “I’m a lifelong comics reader, but I think I was just terrified to call myself a cartoonist, because you’d open the paper and just be like, ‘God damn it.’”

Laura Park, “This Is My Body” (2016)

Despite her qualms, and years of making what she terms “proto-comics” in anticipation of her ultimate destiny, Park has come into her own as a visual storyteller, including contributing storyboarding and character design to the Cartoon Network series Over the Garden Wall. Currently she is working on a collection of her comics with publisher Drawn and Quarterly, as she tests the waters of her new expatriate existence in Paris.

“Really, early in my 20s, I realized I wanted to be a cartoonist, but I felt like I had to earn it,” said Park. “But it’s also because coming from a place of just really admiring comics, and coming from Riot Girl and DIY — you always can participate, you’re free to make your own media — but I think my tremendous love of comics just made me nervous. I do find it extremely satisfying to say it now: I’m a cartoonist, I made it.”

Laura Park: 2017 Columbus Comics Residency Exhibition continues at the Columbus Museum of Art (480 E Broad St, Columbus) through February 11, 2018.

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