In the follow-up to her well-received graphic novel debut, Woman World, Brampton, Ont.-born cartoonist-animator Aminder Dhaliwal uses humour to mine, and at times defuse, a series of hot-button contemporary issues – identity politics, sexism, racial profiling – as experienced by Cyclopes, who live as a minority in a two-eyed society that fetishizes and marginalizes them (Cyclopedia Exotica, Drawn & Quarterly, 268 pages).
We meet a “mixed” one-eyed and two-eyed couple anxiously awaiting the birth of their children (female Cyclopes, it turns out, have two uteri); look-alikes Jian and Graeae, who use their art to bring Cyclopean issues to the fore; and Etna, once pilloried for being the first Cyclops to appear on the cover of a girlie magazine, but inevitably hailed, decades later, as a trailblazer.
We learn, too, of the Cyclopes’ sometimes painful history: How they made the transition, in the late 19th century, from shepherding to circus performance, with the latter’s attendant indignities; and later, of the botched experimental surgeries on those looking to split their single eye, or single breast, in a bid for acceptance. Dhaliwal spoke to The Globe and Mail from her home in Los Angeles.
As a subject, Cyclopes seem to offer a rich trove of possibilities for wordplay and, well, sight gags. Was that why you chose them, or was it just a happy accident?
A bit of both. At first I was drawing a lot of monsters as pinups, and then I kept exploring Cyclops because they fundamentally look like us except for this one difference. The fact that some myths called them giants, I just ignored. There was something interesting, I thought, in being almost human, and then playing off the fact that they just have the one eye. And I started exploring how much of our language is, as you say, sight-based. Also the different aspects of feeling seen or being looked at. Another reason is they’re really fun to draw, a challenge being the one eyebrow, which makes it surprisingly hard to have certain subtle expressions.
Many of the situations in the book have serious real-life parallels, and yet the humour is often about deflation – of those who take knee-jerk offense, or who might jump to conclusions, including the reader. I’m thinking of the Cyclops who frets about whether he’s going to fit in at an Irish bar – not, it turns out, because he’s a Cyclops, but because he’s not Irish.
A light approach to heavy subject matter is a place where I love to sit comedically. I’m very conscious about if I’m punching up or punching down. When I’m in my own comedy, I like to make fun of myself. I don’t go around making fun of others. I try to have my characters make the realization they were wrong, or to have the audience realize that what they were they were doing was wrong. It’s about funny moments in struggle.
You’re also highlighting the disconnect between our ideals and reality, as with the guy who doesn’t want to buy contact lenses from the same company that botched the Cyclopses’ eye augmentation surgery, until he realizes they’re on sale ...
That’s how the system ends up messing us – it makes certain ways easier than others so that you end up buying those contacts and putting your ideals aside because they’re cheaper. There’s also the way we justify things when we slip up. I don’t shop from Amazon, but I do if I’m sending a gift to my brother or my sister because they’re far away and I know it’ll get there on time and then I justify it to myself as, well, it’s the only time.
I think people put a lot of pressure on themselves now. If you gesture in the direction [of idealism], you have to stick with it and can never waver. That’s something that comes from the internet, which doesn’t forgive and definitely doesn’t forget. I’ve felt that anxiety coming from social media. You have to be very careful about what you say because it’s up there forever.
And yet you’re intensely involved with social media – a lot of the strips in the book were originally posted on Instagram. Has that experience mostly been positive?
Instagram’s been very good to me. I came to it thinking: I’m just putting these up for myself. And before I knew it, I had friends tagging friends, and I grew a following daily, step by step. I never went viral, or whatever that means. And I’ve never really used hashtags. I’ve just been consistent in posting comics and doing exactly what I want to do, and the people came and liked it, which really helped me find – not my voice, because my voice was there – but to become confident in my voice, because for a very long time I was unsure whether I should pursue comics, and specifically whether I was funny. I have this distinct memory of asking one of my office mates on one of the TV shows I worked on if I was funny, and I’ve always compared that to being a kid and asking your mom if you’re pretty. There’s something so inherently sad about that question.
This is very much a book about identity – part of yours is being a Canadian transplant in Los Angeles. Has that played into your storylines at all?
Anytime you move you kind of become aware of that identity. When I’m in Canada I’m not thinking about it, but as soon as you move to the U.S., suddenly you’re the Canadian in the room.
I was once pitching a TV with storyboards, and the episode was very apology-based. I had to say “sorry” multiple times during the episode, including at one point where the character keeps saying it saying over and over again. And the show’s creator stopped me and said, ‘Are you doing a bit? You’re saying sorry really weird.’ And I thought: Am I?! But I’ve been here for 10 years now. I lived in Canada for around that long as well, and before that I lived in England for around a decade, so this will be my first time living in a place for over a decade. Maybe I should move and find a new identity [laughs].
How has writing graphic novels dovetailed, or not, with your job as an animator?
When I wrote Woman World, I’d do it on my lunch break, after work or before I slept. But in-between, I’d go out and have a life. But this past year, it’s felt like, okay here’s my day job, and then – close that window – here’s my book, and that’s also what I’m gonna do in my spare time. It made me more aware that I need to switch up how I divide my time and to make sure I’m balanced in the right ways, including having a healthy lifestyle. But mostly it’s worked out.
Will we be seeing these characters again?
I never say no, but I have my next idea in mind and I’m excited to get on to that. I’m also excited to draw characters with two eyes for a little bit. But I do love these characters and they’ll always live in my heart. I’ve found myself drawing my Woman World characters these days, so maybe in another two years I’ll be drawing Cyclopedia characters again.
This interview has been edited and condensed
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