The local artist examines American life and culture in vivid online strips
Spend a few minutes with Sophie Harpo and the line between real and imagined worlds begins to blur.
Of course, that's likely to occur when you're seated across from Left Handed Sophie, who first existed in punk-rock-inspired stickers and flyers posted up and down High Street in the early 2000s and has since taken flesh-and-blood form in the person of Harpo, nee Phonzie Davis, a comic artist and real-life superhero who has become an influential figure in the local comics scene.
“To me, there's no division between the real world and the imaginative worlds I create,” said Harpo, who, while not officially part of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, will be in attendance. “[Sophie] really was creeping into the real world through the street art … so dressing as her really was the final emanation, if you will. I've always been gender fluid — I dressed the same way in high school, actually — so the whole Sophie thing was serendipitous. I was never like, ‘Oh, I'm going to dress up as this character.' I just became the character.
“Me studying Warhol, I see art as conceptual. I don't know where art ends and real life begins. Everything that an artist does is a part of the art.”
This was true even in childhood, when Harpo embraced comic book characters such as Spider-Man and Batman as beings akin to elves or sprites rather than costumed alter-egos. “Batman was Batman,” Harpo said. “That's not just who he was. That's what he was.”
In turn, the artist filtered every experience through this comics lens, including the church (Harpo was raised in a religious home), where the youngster interpreted the Jesus/God divide as a spiritual take on Clark Kent/Superman.
In the years since Harpo's print debut, the artist has engaged in some god-like world building, gradually crafting a growing superhero universe akin to the Marvel galaxy and populated by the likes of Left Handed Sophie, goody two-shoes superhero team the Young Americans and the CEO-killing protagonist of “The Yuppy Strikes,” a blood-splattered commentary on capitalism, white privilege and the growing income divide that plays like a Trump-era twist on “V for Vendetta.”
The artwork itself, which Harpo draws on larger scale, 18-by-24-inch sheets and posts online at instagram.com/sophiagaia, usually at a rate of three panels per week, is vivid and untamed, pulling on everything from 1950s superhero comics and Sunday morning cartoons to the trip-inducing work of Belgian artist Guy Peellaert, best known for his work on album covers such as David Bowie's Diamond Dogs.
“There's one side of doing cartooning or illustration … that focuses on the style and those formal aspects, but then there's a whole other side of it, which is the psychological and emotional approach to what you're doing, and Sophie was being more fearless and taking more risks than anybody else out there,” said artist Julian Dassai. “The reality is most cartoonists — especially in the indie world — are fairly reserved personalities most of the time. Sophie was approaching it from a completely organic standpoint where you just put it all out there.”
For Harpo, art has long been a way to analyze and understand modern culture, and the artist collects and studies pop artifacts, including images of iconic musicians such as Janet Jackson and Grace Jones — musicians that, along with Harpo's aunts, whom the artist described as “strong, dynamic … royal” black women, helped shape Left Handed Sophie — the way an archaeologist might catalog the remains of a lost civilization.
“It's about me having an understanding of the times I'm living in and hopefully creating a dialogue with people,” said Harpo. “I've always related comics to a broader culture. People use these frivolous, disposable terms — pop art, pop culture — but to me a culture is neither good nor bad, it just is. … Andy Warhol took pop culture seriously because he took people seriously. These things mean something to people. Part of me creating any comic is experiencing and living this American life.”