In the ’90s, Esther Pearl Watson and her husband, Mark Todd, were driving cross-country when they stopped in Death Valley at a last-chance gas station. In the restroom, Esther found a teenage girl’s diary lying on the sink. In embarrassing, hilarious detail, it chronicled the girl’s sophomore year in high school in 1988. For Esther — a magazine illustrator and painter — this was found art and comic gold: leg-warmers, big hair, Bruce Willis movies and all things self-obsessively adolescent. She turned the diary into a raw, self-published mini-comic which became a running cartoon series for Bust magazine (“the magazine for women with something to get off their chests”). Then it became the cult fave, the bright-pink-and-sparkly-nail-polish-covered graphic novel, Unlovable.
The comic style and deadpan-honest spirit of the work owe a debt to Lynda Barry’s work, but with a major, sociopolitical difference: Barry’s characters live in their own, almost isolated, blue-collar-fringe world of trailer parks, seemingly separate from much of mainstream/Hollywood culture. With the exception of the occasional reference to a TV show or movie, Barry’s work seems almost timeless — at least any time in the past 40 years.
In contrast, Esther set her character Tammy Pierce’s teenage travails in Wylie, Texas — where Esther spent her own junior-high years (as well as some time in Sachse and Grand Prairie — as she says, her early life “revolved” around Dallas ). So Tammy is immersed in a very recognizable, suburban high-school culture from the late ’80s, a world of Sonic fries, Collin Creek Mall and Milli Vanilli. Lynda Barry’s stories read like funky folk tales; Esther Watson’s are like one of John Hughes’ teenage comedies, with all of the Hollywood prettiness and sentimentality stripped out.
Esther and husband Mark are both artists; she’s getting a name for her naive, deliberately awkward, “outsider-y” paintings set in small-town Texas, frequently featuring the flying saucers that her father was always trying to build from used auto parts. In Esther’s graphic novel, the reader can usually tell when Tammy goes off, dreaming of eye shadow and romance and pop celebrities (her dreams tend to look like cheesy movie posters). But with her paintings, part of their whimsy lies in the way it’s not clear how we’re supposed to take these matter-of-fact visions of space ships — when they fill the skies or when they’ve caught fire or when they’re just being towed down the street.
Her paintings have been shown in art galleries from Canada to Austin to California (where she and Mark teach at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena). Through Aug. 9, some of Esther’s and Mark’s painting are on view at the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie as part of the exhibition, When in Texas – Act Like a Texan.
Esther and Mark have also been leading lights in the world of ‘zines, self-published, hand-made, small-circulation magazines. As one might imagine, hers have stood out for their humor and their deadpan, consciously low-grade, comic-book visual style, which lends a sense of bemused grotesquery to the proceedings, if not self-induced anarchy. Mark and Esther created the best, illustrated, self-empowering “how-to” manual in the field, Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine?
In this KCET video interview, filmed in their no-longer-extant studio in Eagle Rock, the duo can also be seen discussing Unlovable, their collaborations and the thinking behind their ‘zines (which have proved to be effective calling cards with magazine design editors). Added bonus: a slide show of their ‘zine collection and pages from Mark’s own work.