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Marisa Acocella Marchetto On Skewering New York Media and Our Cell Phone–Obsessed Culture

Marisa Acocella Marchetto On Skewering New York Media and Our Cell Phone–Obsessed Culture

By Julia Felsenthal

Marisa Acocella Marchetto, the New Yorker cartoonist and creator of the new graphic novel "Ann Tenna," started drawing as a young girl in New Jersey. Her mother was a shoe designer for Delman, and Marchetto would sketch “fabulous women” like the ones she saw in the trend reports her mom compiled. “The first drawing I ever did was of a shoe,” Marchetto tells Vogue.com by phone. It wasn’t until her family took a vacation to Bermuda, and ended up inside a house that belonged to the legendary cartoonist James Thurber, with some of his work hanging on the walls, that she realized that she could add words to her images. "That was an epiphany."

But then Marchetto grew up, and was hired at the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson. (Her boss was then creative director James Patterson: "Everybody would be like, 'Oh, Jim, he gets up early in the morning to write these books ... Do you think they’ll ever go anywhere?'") The commercials she worked on featured the type of women she once sketched; to the chagrin of her superiors, she found the ladies in the ads far more fascinating than the products she was being paid to promote. She was miserable.


Then, another epiphany: On New Year’s Eve of her 30th year, "I lit a votive candle and channeled all the higher spirits. I would write in my journal all the things I wanted for the [coming] year.” She found herself doodling a picture of a woman with a gun in her mouth, captioned with the line: "'She was a little upset during the meeting." Click. "I was like, 'Oh, my God! I should have been a cartoonist all along!'" Carried away, Marchetto leaned over her journal and lit her dangling tresses on fire. "I had long frayed hair," she remembers, laughing. "Sort of angled, but all one length. I had to get a shag."

It's a story that carries extra resonance in the context of Marchetto’s new book,Ann Tenna, the follow-up to "Cancer Vixen," her 2006 memoir about receiving a breast cancer diagnosis just ahead of her wedding to her now-husband, Da Silvano restauranteur Silvano Marchetto. The new novel is about a striving, attention-addicted, body image — obsessed woman named Ann Tenna, founder of a sinister Gawker-like gossip site called Eyemauler. At the top of the dirt-digging media heap, Ann thinks she’s got it made — a glamorous career, sycophantic friends, an engagement to a sleazy, in-high-demand party photographer named Zim — until she gets into a horrible car accident, suffers a traumatic brain injury, and goes into a coma. While unconscious, she visits a higher realm, meets her other half, the cosmic Super Ann, and gets her orders from above: Go back to earth and become transmissionary, a beacon of love and light in a world overrun by mean-spirited gossip and the technological devices that help keep us addicted to it. She also learns that her unruly red hair actually serves a very important purpose: It’s an antenna that will help her communicate with the spectral Super Ann, and communicate her messages of enlightenment to the rest of the world.

Back on earth, Ann wakes up to find her head partially shaved from brain surgery (she fixes that situation not with a shag, but with a groovy, assymetrical, Ziggy Stardust – inspired mullet) and the voice of Super Ann constantly in her ear, reminding her of her mission. Can she separate out her own sense of self-worth from constant media adulation? Can she see Zim for the dirtbag he really is? Can she disconnect from the empty life she once loved in order to fully reconnect with her higher self? No spoilers here: Read the book. It’s a visually explosive, pun-loving, fashion-filled frolic through heaven, hell, and the strangest place of all: 21st-century New York City.

"It's funny how hair always enters into it," Marchetto says, laughing, when I bring up the parallels between her own cartoonist origin story and the trials of her character. Of course, that whole plotline about trying to become a better person after facing one's own mortality tracks pretty well with Marchetto’s real life too. She's had the idea to do a story about a character named Ann Tenna for 20 years, long before "Cancer Vixen," but couldn't quite work out who she wanted Ann to be (past versions were tween- and teenage). "I needed a character arch," Marchetto tells me. Falling ill provided one. "The idea of having a near-death experience, and literally meeting your maker, or your higher self, your higher potential, was really intriguing. Especially after being diagnosed with something like cancer and thinking: What did I do with my life? This could be the moment where this is all over. Now I have a second chance."

I remark to Marchetto that she ends her book in a way that seemingly leaves the door wide open for a sequel, and she sarcastically quips, "Oh, really, you think?" then laughs. "Yeah, I love Ann. She's still with me." So Marisa can't get Ann out of her head the same way Ann can't get Super Ann out of her own head? "Oh, yeah," Marchetto says. "Ann and Super Ann are my Super Marisa for sure."

Below, more from our conversation with Marchetto about creating the wild world of "Ann Tenna," dreaming up her New Yorker cartoons, and her surprising relationship to the world of gossip.

The book takes a very critical view of gossip columns and sites. Where do you actually stand?
I definitely read Page Six every day. I love it. I think that gossip can be good when it’s truthful. There is good and bad to gossip just like there’s good and bad to everything. I think it's about intention. I read theDaily Mail. I do indulge. But then I kind of think, Oh, my gosh, I have to do something to counter that. It's kind of like you binge on chocolate and then you go for a run. I do try to not hear the media noise and I do try to channel something higher and meditate every day. And then I over media-cate every day. It's a balance.

Maybe more like a pendulum. What about technology? Are you as addicted to screens as your very over-media-cated characters are?
I definitely have a love-hate, or maybe a loathe-hate, relationship with technology. I resisted Instagram for the longest time. Now I'm on it. I do feel like when I’m on social media, there’s always something I could be doing that’s better for myself. Spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. But like an addict I can’t stop. It’s like crack.

I do think all this technology is distracting us from accessing our higher consciousness. And I really do want to turn off and tune up! (And then check Page Six.)

You live in the world that your book skewers. Do you have any friends who will be offended? Or does everybody have a sense of humor?
I definitely think people see the ridiculousness of being too connected to technology, of being obsessed with being photographed, and how they're perceived, how the media sees them. I don’t think anybody is going to be offended by that. I didn’t really target anybody, per se. I deal with archetypes more than individuals. I didn't name names. It's just characters that exist in New York that I thought were fun.

The only names you do name are the celebrities who make cameos: Gianni VersaceCoco Chanel, Jimi Hendrix. Are these your personal heroes?
Well, I love Gianni Versace. I thought it would be kind of fun to have him pop into science-fashion heaven. I kind of looked at him like Ann and Super Ann's Dr. Bombay. There's a little bit of Bewitched in this book. I could just imagine: You're calling on Gianni Versace to do a look for you, but if he's Gianni Versace, he's really busy up there. He’s dressing Liz Taylor for the Golden Galaxies. You better not be interrupting him. I thought that would be a funny bit.

Coco Chanel, what else would she be doing but redesigning the pearly gates? She was obsessed with pearls. She's hanging out with Mikimoto on his yacht, and they're looking for pearls in heaven. I just tried to do things that were fun, but insider-y fashion. If you got the joke, great. If you didn't, it was still funny.

How did you decide how these characters would look? What kind of style they would have?
Ann always had that hair. And Super Ann, I wanted her to be a fabulous, super-glamorous version of Ann. So I gave her those long eyelashes with the starfield freckles. They would have the same face, but Ann would be a little more flawed. For the angels: I love Alexander McQueen, his whole style, and I thought it would be fun to have an angel who looked like that. I first drew an angel I call the lipstick angel, with braids. Then I realized I had another character with braids, so in the middle of the book I had to go back to the beginning of the book and change what I did. There were continuity issues. When you're a graphic novelist, you’re the director, writer, casting director, script girl. As the script girl, drawing the wrong hair on one of the characters, I really wanted to fire myself, but I couldn’t because I had all the jobs. It was like, Ugh, Marisa! How could you do that?

When you’re a graphic novelist, it’s all you. You're creating your universe. I was really conscious about the style and the shoes. Super Ann exists in a higher realm: I wanted her fashion to be fabulous. I gave her shoes that no human being could wear, but that she could wear because her feet don’t really touch the ground.

What were you looking at for inspiration?
I worked from 7,000 photographs on my iPad. And I’m not organized, so I’d be like, there’s a photo around 3,500 that I kind of liked, and I'd have to sort through. I'd look at fashion designers that I really like: Giuseppe Zanotti, McQueen. I looked at street style. The jeans that Ann's boyfriend wears are Balmain. I thought, Who is the most arrogant guy in the world? Kanye. He wore Balmain jeans. I definitely had fun with fashion.

The amount of work that goes into a project like this sounds kind of inconceivable. When I got the green light to start drawing, I was at my drawing board doing this for ten months, eighteen hours a day. It took me a really long time. I wish I were faster at it.

You’re also known for your "New Yorker" cartoons, but the voice you use in those seems far more cynical and droll than your voice in this novel.
Doing those cartoons, you sort of channel a different part of your creativity. You have to mind what’s going on in the world, listen to your gut, find what's funny. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don't. It's worth it and great to do it, but it’s a hard gig. It's really difficult to come up with; it's difficult to sell there. I love doing it. It's so rewarding when you see one of your cartoons in the magazines. But to me, writing graphic novels is really what I love the most.

I noticed in the acknowledgements that you give a shout-out to Ian Ginsberg, the owner of the pharmacy C.O. Bigelow. And in the book, Ann's father owns a C.O. Bigelow – style pharmacy. Your own father also owned a drugstore. Why use C.O. Bigelow as your reference point?

Because with C.O. Bigelow, when I need an oasis away from everything, I just go over there. It's like a treasure trove. They have fragrances, like Black Afgano, that have hashish in them. There's only a hundred bottles made on the planet every year. There's this great makeup collection. I get to see Ian, who’s like my pal. I get the smell of the pharmacy, which is what I grew up in. That was my first job. It’s kind of like comfort food in a way.

There's an HBO movie being made of Cancer Vixen starring Cate Blanchett. How involved are you in that project?

Julie Delpy has written a great script. And she’ll be directing the film. She’s working with Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler of Maven Pictures, and they’re amazing. They sort of touch base with me. They run things by me. And HBO definitely wants to make me happy. They do ask me questions. I’m not 100 percent involved, but that is a whole different animal. There you’re not the graphic novelist, creator of the universe. You wrote the thing, but there are other people doing it now.

More From Vogue:
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The 22 Best Cult Movies of the '90s
The Best '90s Movie Makeovers Are Still Totally Stylish Today
Ursula K. Le Guin on Writing in the 21st Century

Photo Credits: Noam Galai/Getty Images,Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group