Winston Rowntree’s very nontraditional comic Subnormality is always thought-provoking and fun, but his recent piece titled “Defocus” was a remarkably insightful look at gender roles and how well they map to reality. Specifically, by taking masculine and feminine imagery and changing the visual focus, he observes how quickly differences blur out, leaving only similarities. Take a minute to go read it for yourself; I promise we’ll be here when you get back.
I had a chance to talk to Mr. Rowntree about his work, and “Defocus” in particular. Good Men Project readers ought to enjoy his take on how so much of what we take for granted about gender simply vanishes with a little change in perspective.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly describe yourself and your work in your own words?
Hey, my (pen) name is Winston Rowntree, and I do a comic strip called Subnormality. I also do assorted comics and artwork for Cracked.com, as well as any and all freelance illustration work that comes my way. My comix work generally takes advantage of the online medium in that I use as much physical space as I need to best tell a particular story. The opposite of cramming all you have to say into three or four little black & white panels, in other words (a format that was invented by newspaper editors 60 years ago so they’d have more room on the page for ads). I’m pretty big on letting the subject matter dictate the format of a comic, much in the same way a painter will use as big a canvas as they need particular to what’s being painted, or how a novel will be as many pages as it needs to be (and if I could have phrased that less pretentiously, I surely would have).
“Defocus” takes an approach to gender issues that doesn’t get talked about a great deal. What were some of the influences on it?
I guess I just wanted to work with the notion of how we as a society tend to focus on what differences there are between men and women (or between any two groups, really) as opposed to focusing on the similarities. I was definitely influenced by some reading i’ve done on the subject, namely Carol Tavris’ The Mismeasure of Woman, which clearly illustrates that there are of course important distinctions between men and women but there’s inarguably far more variation within the genders than between them (and she also discusses the folly of taking the male as “normal” and then defining women by how different they are from that, among many other important points the book makes which I can only badly summarize), and also the book Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine which conveys the idea that people will sort of live up to the image of themselves that’s established in their mind—if you TELL men or women they’re naturally bad at math then they’ll perform less well at math, it’s nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with role playing (as the author says, so many gender differences are not hard-wired–they’re soft-wired). Things like this. Just the lingering suspicion that so many “differences” between us are just hideous social constructs, and then reading convincing arguments in line with that in various books, and then wanting to incorporate that not only as a theme in my work but directly addressed in a comic as well. Plus I find it fun and rewarding to find parallels between seemingly opposite things, and the gender divide is certainly the big one.
You describe yourself as a creator of “comics with too many words”, and some of your strips do have a real wall-of-text feel to them. “Defocus”, however, is almost purely about visual communication, almost the graphic-design equivalent of a graph joke. Can you talk a little about that dichotomy?
Well, it’s just a function of me always trying to use the right format for a particular idea. A lot of my work is 2000-word dialogue scenes because I like writing 2000-word dialogue scenes, but i’m not going to take something that would work best as visually represented ideas and shoehorn it into a dialogue scene, just as I wouldn’t shoehorn any of my ideas into any format that didn’t suit them. The format of a particular comic I do is I hope the best one for that particular idea. Most of the comix have tons of text because they’re dialogue scenes and people in real life talk in walls of text and not concise little quips, but i’ve done more than one silent comic over the years just because not all the ideas I want to work with involve big, rambling conversations between two people. The subject must dictate the format, just to monotonously beat that point completely to death (sorry…).
Scott McCloud talked about the possibilities that exist for comics online that literally can’t exist in print; Randall Munroe explored one of them in XKCD’s recent “Click and Drag” and other webcomics have done similar experiments. Were these an influence on the unique format of “Defocus” or not, and if not, what would you say was?
The “click and drag” comic was tremendous and yet another example of XKCD utilizing the online medium in an innovative way, and I just wish more people were copying Randall Munroe’s tendency to experiment in such ways because it’s the kind of thing I think comix people should aspire to—just that idea of making use of the strengths of the medium in a way that lets people know they’re missing out if they’re still thinking of comics strips as what they were 30 years ago. Seeing things like that is certainly an inspiration and always will be, and I think that people out there with big imaginations would do really well to get into this medium. And if the money’s a factor, the arts as a whole are in financial ruin right now, so any preconceptions that there’s less money to be made in comix than other mediums really don’t reflect reality any more (if they ever did). There’s no money anywhere, so you might as well have total creative freedom and instant access to a worldwide audience.
After some rather abstract artistic questions, here’s a simple one: If someone who’d never read your work asked you what “Defocus” was about, what would you tell them?
I’d say it’s just a thing about how men and women are more alike than different, which isn’t really a notion you encounter in proportion to how much it reflects reality. Yes there are differences, yes different hormones give different people different moods and physicality and so on, but we all want food and shelter and to be loved and listened to and we all take the greatest joy in family and friends and making a difference to others, so I thought i’d make a comic about that—about how the important stuff is universal, and about how what differences they are do not make the genders two different alien races who cannot possibly understand what it’s like for the other side. So yeah, it’s just a visual piece about that. It’s not about saying there aren’t differences (because there certainly are, which is why it’s important to not base medical literature on one gender for instance. Again, see the Tavris book), it’s about how the differences are relatively minor, and we don’t focus on the differences with our friends of the same gender (as friendship is the act of focusing on the similarities), so why not extend that to the other gender instead of going on about mars and venus and whatever else.
If that same person, totally unfamiliar with your work, wanted to see just one other piece that you feel represents you well, what would you direct them to?
I guess the longer comic I did from last year called “Anomalies,” that’s probably a good example. I aspire to tell stories that are relatively easy to understand as opposed to obscurantist, but that are also open to personal interpretation on some level, and that also involve characters that are hopefully convincing and come from some place of personal truth, so that comic would probably come as close to that as possible—best foot forward and all. It’s got a lot of personal stuff in it, but it’s also I hope a good story that furthermore could be looked at metaphorically, if one so wanted (part of my brain is still sitting in grade 9 english class “What is this story ABOUT??”). That’s the kind of thing I aspire to at least, and that comic was one of the times I came closest to getting it right. It also involves a lot of reading, but contrary to popular belief plenty of people are up for that kind of thing (and for that i’m rather grateful indeed). Hollywood’s perpetually trying to increase profits by releasing dumbed-down blockbusters with minimal dialogue so all those poor, stupid foreigners can go see them and just stare at all the pretty lights and colors, meanwhile i’m forever receiving emails in perfect english from people in other countries saying english isn’t their first language but they love my walls of text. It’s amazing the gulf between what people are actually like and how we’re told we are. So hopefully that’s this conversation coming full-circle right about now…
All images courtesy Winston Rowntree