Thursday, December 15, 2011

Asking The Tough Questions: Whit Taylor's Watermelon...

Whit Taylor is an interesting young voice in comics, one who generally relates humorous anecdotes about her friends, culture and her dating life. With Watermelon...(And Other Things That Make Me Uncomfortable As A Black Person), Taylor gets a bit more serious and directed with regard to her subject matter, but still treats the most serious of issues with a light touch. Taylor has her own opinions on any number of controversial subjects, but they're carefully considered and discussed; this isn't a series of rants. Instead, it's an attempt to examine, understand, critique and appreciate her own culture, as well as understand it in a wider societal context. As the title promises, the book opens with a focus on why watermelon became a cultural stereotype for African-Americans, and how to this day it isn't something she cares to eat in public.

Taylor flips from lighthearted topics such as what she does at the beach since she doesn't lay out for a suntan to the n-word and its origins. There's a funny bit where Taylor appears on panel and informs her white readers that it's essentially never acceptable for them to use it, even if Dave Chappelle or rappers do. "You just can't. End of story." I enjoyed the fact that Taylor didn't feel the need to go through a lot of gyrations as to why, focusing instead on the fact that the history of the word and its use is so pernicious that she wasn't going to give white readers carte blanche to say it.

The other highlights of the comic include an extended meditation on hair and the ways in which African-American men and women both attempt to a (white) societal notion of what hair should look like as well as ways in which more natural looks are cultivated. Including anecdotes about her own personal experience (like a girl mistaking one of her hairs for pubic hair) fleshed out what otherwise could have been an overly familiar piece about the importance of the hair salon and barber shop in black culture. Another highlight was her story about almost dating a (white) South African man when she was studying abroad in Australia. She notes that there was part of her who did this as a sort act of self-loathing but eventually broke away from her infatuation when his casual racism became much more overt.

In terms of her art, Taylor's layout and character design are both solid. It's obvious that her control of her line isn't what she would want it to be; she tries to draw a number of things in a naturalistic manner and falls well short of making them compelling as drawings. Some of them (like drawings of famous people or things like cars) hurt her storytelling because they take the reader so far out of the panel. Taylor needs to go in one of two directions: either work harder on the facility of her line for a more naturalistic approach, or go to a simplified and streamlined approach that's consistent in how it presents information. That kind of stylization is difficult for a young artist. The ambition, production values and thought behind this mini indicate an artist who's serious about making her mark as a cartoonist and who wants to get better. As such, I suspect that Taylor will ultimately strike a middle ground between naturalism and stylization. As long as she keeps drawing and keeps trying to improve, watching her evolution as an artist in public should be interesting and rewarding for readers.

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