by Whitney Grace
Much like her character in her new graphic novel Secret Agent Moscow, Jennifer Jigour leads a life of intrigue and mystery. Through an anonymous source, I sent a message to Jennifer that I wanted to interview her. Several days later, a message disguised as an advertisement for Russian lessons appeared in my mailbox. I decoded the message and it said to meet Jennifer in a dark alley at midnight wearing a stylish hat. Following the directions, Jennifer appeared in a black trench coat and I could barely see her face as we parleyed. Here is a record of our conversation.
Whitney Grace (WG): Since you have a theater and film background, how did you get started making a graphic novel?
Jennifer Jigour (JJ): While I was working as a scene painter and set designer I realized that my job wasn’t giving me everything I wanted in a career. I really wanted to tell stories. I took a break from theatre and started translating my college photography project of Secret Agent Moscow into a screenplay. As I got into it I realized that I didn’t just want to write the story, I wanted to create the images. Although I have a film background, I didn’t have the means to produce the kind of story I envisioned, and also have complete control over the artistic elements. That was when I discovered graphic novels. The media was very new to me but also exciting because it was the answer to exactly what I was looking for: to have the ability to not just tell a story, but show it using my artistic ability with complete creative control.
WG: What is Secret Agent Moscow about in your own words?
JJ: The story is about a Russian-American lesbian from San Francisco who is forced into becoming a secret agent on a mission in Moscow in 1949. While trying to deal with her sexuality and her past relationship with her girlfriend Dolores, she meets a variety of colorful queer characters that open her eyes to a world beyond herself.
WG: What inspired the book? Was it a single instance or an amalgamation of ideas?
JJ: The book is inspired by my black and white photography project from college in 2004. That original project was inspired by both my Russian heritage and my queer past. The photography project was not just an assignment, but also a way for me to come out of the closet when it was too difficult for me to just say it with words. Coming back to the story several years later and turning it into a graphic novel was inspired by a personal experience in my life. The graphic novel is a work of love that came out of a desire always to remember the importance of my queer past, as well as our collective queer past.
WG: Why did you decide to set the book in San Francisco during the mid-20th century?
JJ: San Francisco was chosen because of my personal connection to it. Aside from having lived there myself, my dad’s side of the family comes from Russian/Latvian immigrants who lived in San Francisco starting from the Russian Revolution, when they left Russia to the mid-20th century. My grandparents fought in World War II, and I was very inspired by their stories. I love history, but not for the facts, figures or common events that are always told, I’m curious about uncovering histories untold, such as LGBT history. It’s like finding hidden treasure for me, or discovering a new frontier. When I was in high school I used to check the index of my history books to see if there were any references to gay, lesbian, bisexual, homosexual, or queer. There were none. Sarcastically I would say to myself, “well, I guess I don’t have a past.” Later in college I was so excited to have the opportunity to take a course in “Gay & Lesbian History in the U.S.” While taking that class I was deeply fascinated by the histories of LGBT in World War II, the 1940s, and 1950s.
WG: What type of character is Natasha or how would you describe her to make her an exciting heroine?
JJ: Natasha is a time machine of sexual energy ready to explode. Underneath her quiet and shy exterior is a strong empowered lesbian woman. She holds many secrets in visions of the past, present and future, and will inevitably beat all odds that try to break her down because of her gender and sexuality.
WG: When Natasha is recruited to be a spy she wanders through an underground wonderland, combing history and her own memories. What exactly is the purpose of this part of the graphic novel?
JJ: As we are taken into a world with hidden secrets in 1949 San Francisco, Natasha is also reflecting on the hidden secrets within herself. Both the wonderland, which is fictionally the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition of 1915, and Natasha’s memories are combined to show how things can be hidden from history by placing them underground and unseen by the world up above. Underground they are silenced. The purpose of the combination was used to provoke wonderment. How many other things in the world remain unseen? How many other memories or feelings do we all have that remain hidden from ourselves? There is so much to the world, to histories, to the way we tell stories, to the way we see things, to the way we remember our own past and how we feel about them. I think that there are many more treasures in the form of untold histories and hidden memories to be found.
WG: did you have the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition in the story?
I wanted to have an exciting and imaginative setting for a secret agent headquarter, that was also very San Franciscan and very different from other kinds of secret agent settings. At one point, while I was collecting research, I had wanted to include the 1906 Earthquake, but realized that that wasn’t going to fit. However, the research I did for the 1906 Earthquake lead to the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition of 1915. The set designer in me just loved the architecture. What could be more fun than being a secret agent and having to get to work by going on an underground amusement ride? Besides, life can be like a rollercoaster at times. Natasha is going through one physically in the underground, and emotionally in her mind. The San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition was also a great way to lead up to the flamboyant character, Ad Infinitum. Ad Infinitum is inspired by the combination of Nicola Tesla, Andy Warhol, and Elton John. He is a scientist, philosopher, artist and architect. Although it is not discussed in the book, it is alluded that Ad Infinitum had some involvement with the Exposition, but his creations were so crazy that they were not actually seen in the Exposition, and remain underground with many of the Exposition’s artifacts. Lastly, it is also a commentary on how we look at history. History is a story about our past, but like our memories the storyteller biases it. What we see as history may not actually be a fact.
WG: In several scenes of the novel, you touch on Natasha’s past romance with her partner during the war. What happened to her partner?
JJ: That bit of information is still confidential. The secret will be revealed in book two.
WG: What was life like for a lesbian woman in the mid-20th century?
JJ: A major difference between what it is like to be a lesbian woman today verses what it was like in the mid-20th century is communication. Today we are so lucky to have the Internet to connect on social networks, and to have websites that can give us information about where to find each other. If you were not living in a major city back in the day you were pretty much isolated from other lesbians. Authors such as Vin Packer and Ann Bannon, whom I deeply admire, were authors of lesbian pulp literature. These were sometimes the only source of reference of what it was like to be a lesbian. At times it was also a challenge just to come across such books, as many lesbians would feel like they may be caught in the act of purchasing one and exposed to polite society. Many heterosexually marriage women who loved women would hide these books under mattresses or behind refrigerators, in order not to be caught. World War II was somewhat of a blessing for many lesbians, because it meant that these women from every corner of the country were able to find each other.
There were still dangers, though. Dishonorable Blue Discharges were issued to WAVEs or WACs who were found out to be lesbian. Even some of the bars in the major cities were subject to the occasional police raid. If caught, your name could end up in the paper for socializing in such places, which could lead to the loss and alienation from your family, friends, and job.
WG: What is Natasha looking for to round out her life?
JJ: She is looking for Dolores. She thinks that Dolores is what she needs to be happy with who she is as a woman. The secret mission to Moscow interrupts her physical search. While on the mission, Natasha continues to search for answers in her mind.
WG: What types of events will she have to deal with in book two?
JJ: Shh! I can’t reveal too much, because it’s super-secret. Natasha will have to deal with cultural shock in the U.S.S.R. There will be more action, more adventure, more explosions, and more sexuality. After all, I am building to a climax! In addition, she will have to deal with the difference of what it means to be LGBT in Russia vs. the United States in the mid-20th century.
WG: Instead of a straightforward narrative, you tell Natasha’s story in a manner combining artistic motifs and traditional comic formatting, why?
JJ: Right now, I’m not making a film or painting a set for theatre. However, theatre and film have never left me during the process of creating Secret Agent Moscow and they were a major part of my choice of narrative. The illustration style is taken from my style of set design renderings. The format, to me, is exactly how I would edit a film. Although Secret Agent Moscow is a graphic novel, it will always be my film on paper. I decided from the very beginning that I was going to do something different and something new, by creating my graphic novel with a cinematic approach. My interpretation of the size of each image, to me, translates to the number of seconds for a shot on film. The smaller the image the faster the cut to the next shot. The larger the image, the longer the shot.
All of those two page spreads are not there just to be big beautiful two page spreads, they are there, because I imagine the action taking place in that shot to be longer. They are the establishing shots of Market Street in San Francisco, the close-up of Jia-Li and Lailoni as they slowly come in for a kiss, and the “dolly out” when Natasha’s yellow XK120-Jaguar drives up the ramp in the Secret Underground. In a story about people in a time and place that is different from ours today – what better way to tell it, than to tell it differently?
WG: Would you describe Secret Agent Moscow as a typical graphic novel? If not, how would you describe it?
JJ: It is not your typical graphic novel as it is illustrated in extreme detail and color instead of having just a few images in color. And I’m not just talking about pages with more blues and greens than black and white, the graphic novel is rich in color. I illustrated each of the 228 pages by hand, in watercolor. My purpose for this was that I wanted each page to be able to stand on it’s own, and be a work of art.
WG: What do you want people to take away after reading the book?
JJ: I hope that people will be inspired to open their minds and hearts to a new way of telling stories, and ways of life that are different from their own. I also hope that people living in the U.S. will appreciate how lucky they are to be living here today. It is not a perfect place yet, and of course there needs to be more improvement, but we are very lucky compared to the way life used to be, and the way it is right now in other places in the world. Lastly, I hope that as we savor our present, people remember the importance of the past. The past could be a useful key to building a brighter future.
WG: I ask this question to everyone I interview, do you have anything to declare?
JJ: I declare that one beautiful day in the future we will witness the first gay or lesbian couple married in the St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.