Saturday, 7 February 2009

with arms outstretched - melissa & tui, cherry bomb

Melissa & Tui (Cherry Bomb Comics)

Melissa and Tui, or Tui and Melissa are the brains, bodies and souls that set up the independent comic and zine store Cherry Bomb Comics in Auckland, New Zealand.
These two women seemingly possess the finest taste in female-focussed and female created comic books, zines and all things queer. They volunteer their time and their energies into making Cherry Bomb a remarkable independent store, as well as a hub of DIY community, and cultural feminist activism in this part of New Zealand.
Scanning photographs of their store I don’t think there’s a book or zine on their shelves that I wouldn’t bend over backwards for or that I haven’t already coveted. And after speaking with them about zines I was itching to speak to them more and discover more about Cherry Bomb and all that it stands for and achieves on a shoe-string and a large dose of passion.

Sept 2007

Hi ladies, my idea behind this zine is to interview people who inspire the hell outta me. It’d be real easy for me to write these interview questions to you saying, “oh my god, I’m so inspired at the fact that you got off your asses and made the shop happen, that you followed your dreams and put your wishes into practice by setting up and running the store”, which of course is true, but for me the inspiration I gain from you runs a bit deeper than that. It’s more to do with the very ideas and thoughts and beliefs that you both have, which motivated your development of the store in the first place.
By selling comics, zines etc. made by women, queers, punks and dissidents, was your primary aim to showcase zines made by ‘marginalised’ folk and provide an alternative to the mainstream world of comics, or was it more to do with encouraging others to do the same, take encouragement and inspiration from that they saw on your shelves and do it themselves?

Tui: The main idea was to create a comics shop that people like us could walk into and find something that they could relate to, and not feel marginalised or frustrated by the seeming narrowness of scope despite the enormous possibilities of the art form. Cherry Bomb's aesthetic is organic, free-form, not slick or highly marketed, and I think just coming into the shop for some people is an experience of being involved, it is not a sterile atmosphere!
Melissa: Yeah, I mean all of those things you mentioned were definitely part of our intention when we opened Cherry Bomb, but also it was to do with creating something for ourselves, so that we would have a place where all the things we like are in one place. I mean, you can wait for ages for other people to make something you can relate to, or you can just DIY!

I worked in a small indie comic book store a couple of years ago, and was really into the idea of setting up a queer and feminist section to the store, but was discouraged from doing so, being told that it probably wouldn’t achieve much, and that if we started separating and segregating the store up in such ways then we may as well have sections for French comics, ‘political’ zines, war comics, or comics about animals (etc.) rather than all the comics being shelved together alphabetically. [This was despite the fact that all the horror, goth, vampire, zombie, superhero, and manga comics all had their own sections!)]
What are your thoughts on this, and your decision to create a whole store out of a ‘sub’-genre of comics? Do you find that people are actually seeking out such queer and feminist comics and find it encouraging knowing where to find what they’re looking for? Do you view the store as a ‘segregation’?

Melissa: There are advantages and disadvantages to having a feminist/queer subsection I think. The main advantage would of course be that women and queers wouldn't have to browse through a bunch of dumb, sexist, homophobic comics before finding something that is written for them, or that doesn't demean them. The disadvantage of having a separate section would be that most apolitical or non-queer women and men probably wouldn't bother browsing the feminist/queer section of the shop, and therefore not have the opportunity to randomly stumble over Alison Bechdel or something. But also, would you separate out all comics by women, or only those with a feminist theme? The thing about Cherry Bomb is that I don't really think we have created a whole store out of a sub-genre of comics. While we do only sell alternative/indie comics, the themes of most of these aren't necessarily political, but are pretty much the same as any other indie comic made by straight men, albeit as seen through the lens of a woman or queer person, perspectives that are not well represented in the mainstream/mainstream-alternative. I would really hesitate to call comics made by women a sub-genre, even though I guess some women do set out to create a specifically female alternative. But I would say most of the artists we sell probably don't especially want to be known as “women comic artists”. That said, Cherry Bomb obviously has chosen to make this distinction, and I guess it's just for the reasons I mentioned above: we did want to create a shop where women and queers feel comfortable, but it's more about removing the oppressive elements present in parts of the comics world, than trying to make a statement about the difference between men and women's comics etc. I think we get past the segregation aspect because of the nature of our city where there aren't any other stores focused on alternative comics, so our customers are a mixture of genders and sexualities and don't necessarily come here looking for queer or feminist comics. Those who've never looked into what Cherry Bomb is about just wander in here and pick up a comic without realising that it's made by *gasp*, a lesbian, and as we are not setting out to created a separatist kind of environment, but instead to showcase comix made by artists/writers who are under the radar, the more clueless people who come in to buy our comix the better! But also, no one ever accuses mainstream stores of segregation even though they sell a paltry amount of comics made by women, and pretty much none by queer people. At least we make our standard explicit, they don't. Personally, the best feeling is when a girl or queer customer comes in because they specifically want a comic they haven't been able to find anywhere else, which does happen a bit. It is very satisfying to know that we can provide that and go some way to filling the void.
Tui: Cherry Bomb doesn't sell a "feminist sub-genre" of comics per se, we just have a collection of books/zines/stuff in our shop that doesn't follow the rules of other comics shops. Despite having "Comics" in our name, the "Cherry Bomb" part is just as indicative a what we are, a riot-girl social space...! We have our own categories to sort out our stock for easy browsing - these are: Goth/Sci Fi/ Fantasy; Fiction/Stories; Automythography; Queer; Anthologies; Political/ d.i.y./Info

In the store you provide a space for people to come in and make their own zines, alongside there being a free reading library. This is something that I personally would love to have, see, and be a part of over here!
Does the space get much use, and have you seen a rise in more local zines being produced as a result?

Melissa: At the moment, the main people who have been using our zine making space are our friends, but hopefully with more promotion word will spread and we'll see others using it. We haven't really launched it properly yet.
Tui: Word seems to be spreading through friends anyway, and the most used item of our zine-making space so far is the long-armed stapler... Definitely helpful to get those photocopied pages bound and onto our shelves!

I’m aware that the store is inspiringly run on a not-for-profit basis. By providing a free reading library to allow zines and comics to be read by everyone (and thus increasing accessibility of alternative voices in comics to all, regardless of individuals’ budgets etc.) is it sometimes tough to keep the store running - money wise?
Melissa: Yep it sure is! But we also live in this building so we don't have to rent a separate space for the shop. I mean, I guess it's things like high rent etc that prevent more shops like Cherry Bomb from opening up. We were incredibly lucky to find a space like this.
Tui: Even so, it is still not going to be sustainable in the longer term, and we have started looking at trying to get some funding. There is a zine store in Melbourne called "Sticky" which gets some council funding I think.

Following on from what I was asking above, how important to you is stocking, encouraging and developing local zines, zinemakers and zine culture in Auckland and New Zealand? Why is this?
Is there a strong zine ‘scene’ in New Zealand?

Melissa: We definitely want to focus on encouraging local zine and comix makers as it is all too easy to end up with a shop filled with American stock, which isn't necessarily very reflective of the world that we live in as New Zealanders. While neither of us are particularly patriotic, we want to live in a city with interesting things going on, and if we can inspire others to do that, then that's great! I would say the zine scene is perhaps not as strong as it once was in Auckland, due to a couple of important distros recently closing down. But that said, there have been zine fests in the past, and one coming up very soon and there are quite a few local zine makers still producing stuff, so it's definitely still going.
Tui: A couple of libraries in NZ have started up zine collections, which is cool, and perhaps indicative of zines getting some mainstream credibility as a valid type of publication that people like to read.

To what degree do you view the store, and your work with Cherry Bomb as cultural feminist activism?
Melissa: I definitely view what we do with Cherry Bomb as feminist activism. Just to be so visible in the community and yet not compromise our political ideals is activism in itself I think. Also we do our best to promote other projects women are involved with, expose our customers to girl-centric music when they visit the shop, and always have women running the behind the scenes stuff during our various events. In someways this is unconscious as this is pretty much the way we live our lives anyway, but still I think it's important that other people see that in the context of running a “business”.
Tui: In the grand tradition of feminists like the guerilla girls, we are placing art by women under people's noses, and saying "look at this!" which I think is super-important in an area in which most of the page is taken up by male artists. However, we are pretty laid back - perhaps you could call it passive activism(!)- as we are mainly just sitting in our shop reading comics and surfing the net...

I read you claim that you hoped the store would ‘provide a space for people to discover stories that reflect themselves’. I love this description; it’s precisely why I got into comics – by forging fierce links and connections with that which I read, and the understandings that I gained from the sort of comics I was reading (and hence why I went on to interview many of those comic book creators in my zines later on; to further build upon those connections.)
Does the shop attract a wide ranging populace to echo the wide ranging lives reflected in-store?
If so, to what degree do you view this as a form of feminist inclusiveness, and/or creation of a space for dialogue between different feminists?

Melissa: Yeah, our customers are definitely diverse, there is no one kind of person who visits Cherry Bomb, which was actually a happy surprise for me when we opened. And it is interesting the different kinds of political views our customers/friends hold and how this is reflected in what they want to read. For example we sell a lesbian art porn magazine from Sydney called Slit and it's funny to hear the differing opinions, from queer identified people in particular, about this publication and porn in general, some love it, some don't etc. Also, during the various events we have here, workshops etc, conversations around feminism invariably come up, and I'm pretty sure we've all learned a lot off each other and I know some of the views I held have changed over time with exposure to other feminists - how could they not!
Tui: Yeah we get quite a bit of feminist dialogue, some people see us as a challenge I think. Most people seem to be pretty comfortable with Cherry Bomb in general though.

Due to the relative ‘underground’ (i.e. non-mainstream) nature of queer and feminist comics, and specifically zines - to what degree do you view the store as an avenue and opportunity for ‘discovery’?
What do you think the positive potential of ‘discovery’ can be for women and queers?

Melissa: I would love to think that maybe the shop could be part of someone's burgeoning awareness around queer and feminist issues. It would be great if someone came in to use our reading library or buy a comic and left feeling more validated and relieved there was somewhere to go to access that kind of information.
Tui: For sure, I guess that is a big part of why we exist. It is really important to have places which are not the mall, for everybody, there is the potential to expand our collective consciousness as a society by stepping outside the accepted norm.

I love that Cherry Bomb not only acts as a retail outlet, but also as a social centre. I have read you claim that the shop ‘gave us the opportunity to forge a community of like-minded people using the shop as a central meeting place.’
How important is ‘community’ to you both, especially in terms of what you wanted the store to ‘achieve’.
What does ‘community’ mean to you?

Melissa: The community aspect is really important to me, for selfish reasons I guess – I want to be able to hang out with a whole bunch of interesting, like minded people. So it's nice that we often have a concentration of those kinds of people at the shop. I'm always interested in hearing about places like that, always been fascinated by spaces that attract a particular kind of person and which sometimes develops into a cultural movement, like the shop Sex in London in the 70s or something. I think it makes a community colourful, but also provides a place where people who perhaps live more on the fringes of mainstream society can have recourse to. What we do with Cherry Bomb is obviously too small to claim that kind of impact, but I still have hopes that there are people who consider themselves part of Cherry Bomb's girl gang out there in our community!
Tui: I get quite philosophical about community, it can be easy to idealize some kind of mythical community utopia, without realising your people, your community, are all around you. All kinds of people gravitate to Cherry Bomb, often for different reasons, some are amazing, some become fast friends, some come and go, some outstay their welcome...(!) It is nice to live at the shop and feel the hub, it is always interesting times, much better than being stuck in the depths of suburbia! Another aspect is the virtual community - though it can be weirdly fake at times, everyone plugged into their computer rather than actually talking - it has been really cool, maybe even necessary for our survival and our continued enthusiasm, to make links with fantastic people online and in other parts of the world.

I’m really interested in the notion and nature of confidences. - How did you know you could do it; start up and run a successful, original, unique store? What gave you the push to chase the dream; especially given that society seems set up to bash the confidence and potential out of people, especially women?
Melissa: I definitely couldn't have done it without Tui's support and enthusiasm. She just made it seem like a possibility for me. It's really helpful to have the support of other people, because yeah you're right, women are often told to feel hesitant about their own potential. Apart from that, once we actually started living here and working on setting it up, we were kind of in our own microcosmic world, where we were surrounded by culture and music and people and media that championed DIY and feminism so it seemed do-able, and not a particularly strange or difficult project.
Tui: In the beginning it just sort of happened - a friend spotted the shop/house situation about a week after we had the idea - and we just jumped. Once we moved in, there was no going back, so we just learned everything we needed to know as we went along - painting, sign-writing, importing, accounts, websites, databases etc. And it has been fun, which is the best motivator... The hardest part for me in terms of confidence is the continuing need to keep up the energy in promoting Cherry Bomb, and explaining ourselves to regular people who have trouble grasping what we are about, "Ok, we are an anarchist, feminist, non-profit comic and zine shop". "Oh, right. Why?"

Outside of the store, you have both involved in other exciting and inspirational projects and ventures that I’d like to ask you about:
Tui, you self-published the ‘Revolutionary women stencil book’ a little while ago, a zine featuring black-and-white stencils of twelve revolutionary women, from anarchists such as Emma Goldman, to Aboriginal and Indian revolutionaries, and beyond!
The project, in part reminds me of David Lester’s awesome “Inspired Agitators” series of posters and postcards. Of his project, David has claimed:
‘Inspired Agitators is a series of posters outlining the philosophies of a selection of international activists. History is embedded with obstacles that must have seemed insurmountable. Yet, again and again, battles are waged in climates of indifference, hostility and brutality. This collection represents inspired moments in history’.
As such, both projects seem to be both a tribute and an inspiring history lesson. What I love about your zine though is the creativity it inspires - people using the stencils and spreading the images of these women as a form of awareness and
consciousness raising, and creative action.
How important to you was the *creative* (interactive? engagement?) aspect of the book?
Have you seen any of the stencils cropping up in unusual places!?

Tui: I enjoyed making it - researching, inking the images... although it has its flaws and I am almost tempted to make a second version, though perhaps someone else will? I wanted to put something dynamic into the world that people could cut up & collaborate on... I haven't seen any stencils around so far (except the ones me and my friends have made!) but the zine has had huge distribution as far as zines go - in NZ, Australia and North America, and I have had a few emails back from people who loved it and used the images to make t-shirts and posters. I also got a poem sent to me from Wendy-O-Matik who was inspired to write by the zine.

What do you personally think can still be learned from history, from these women; and thus why it was important for you to document their lives in this way?
Tui: What I found through making the zine was an incredible wealth of stories of such extraordinary, driven women many of whom I had never even heard of previously, and it made me realize that history is so much more full than we get taught in school. It is so inspiring to read about passionate people like Louise Michel who lived by her ideals her whole life, and it makes you re-consider the scope of your own life, and discover that all your self-imposed limits and rules are so unnecessary, and really we are capable of so much.

Melissa, you have had a radio show, ‘Pony 4 Honey’ on Fleet Fm over there (sadly no longer), and are involved with the Slow Songs for Fast Hearts music blog.
Did your radio show fill a gap in New Zealand radio, in terms of playing underground and alternative music created by women and queers?
Which New Zealand bands are currently exciting you that you could educate me on?

Melissa: In the past there have been other shows that played similar music to what I used to play on Pony 4 Honey, those shows were partly what got me into that sort of music in the first place. At the moment I don't think there is anyone doing dedicated shows like that, but that said, I don't listen to the radio much (woops!), so there might be and I just don't know about them. I definitely set out to do a show that I thought might fill a gap, but basically all I had to do was play what I liked and it worked out that way! We are lucky that there is a free form radio station close by, so a lot of my friends also do the occasional show up there and they often play that sort of music too. Fast Hearts is our way of talking about the music we like in a public forum as so many boys get to harp on about their favourite boy bands, so we thought we'd join the conversation too. As for NZ bands, check out the Coolies: “". They've been around since I was a teenager (and they were teenagers too), and they've always been awesome.

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