Friday, February 15, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Girls Missguided

This article was originally published at in 2006.
I first discovered the comics of the Canadian comics collective Girls Missguided at last year's MOCCA festival and I'm glad that I finally have a chance to delve into it. The interesting thing about this collective is that the comics of each artist (Stef Lenk, Shannon Gerard, and Willow Dawson) have little in common with each other, other than being primarily about women. Dawson illustrates a comic about girls becoming pirates in fairly straightforward fashion, Gerard creates autobiographical musings in the form of illustrated text, and Lenk almost completely eschews the use of text in her enigmatic tales of the journey of a young girl.

Dawson illustrates a series called Violet Miranda: Girl Pirate, written by Emily Pohl-Weary. It takes as its inspiration the story of real pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and it's an entirely conventional but pleasantly breezy read. The first issue introduces our protagonists Violet and Elsa, daughters of retired pirates living on a small island. When the son of the pirate captain they betrayed finds the pirate families, he kills the men and takes the women. In the second issue, the girls get used to life at sea and learn some backstory about the mammoth treasure trove the young captain is seeking. The third issue sees the girls separated but quickly turning the tables on their circumstances.

Given that this is obviously a woman-centric adventure story, the way the plot unfolds is entirely predictable, if pleasantly told. The comic is well-paced and exciting, making each issue fly by. Dawson's art is highly stylized, leaning heavily on stark black/white contrasts, a thick line and a lot of extreme close-ups. She also employs a lot of distinctive faces and odd little visual tics to tell a story (the way she drew bodily hair made it look like vines, for example, and her close-ups revealed some interesting details surrounding eyes). She brings a strong sense of composition and style to each page, but her major flaw is a difficulty in portraying action and motion. Her figures look stiff and awkward when they're in motion, which is an unfortunate contrast to how natural they look in other situations. I do think these books would be ideally suited for a teen interested in a pirate story with no holds barred in terms of violence with a different set of protagonists than one would normally expect.

Gerard uses the most realistic art style in her stories, clearly drawing straight from life in many of them. That naturalism is set off by her more lyrical use of text in these little slice-of-life observations. Hung #1 is a winter recollection of a sensual summer memory. Gerard-the-narrator recalls the scent of certain trees that smell like semen and segues into a viscerally powerful sexual memory. Hung #2 continues on the theme of reminiscence, this time focusing on how particular details of people she sees on the street remind her of a particular absent person, noting "this is the basic unit of human intimacy:--recognition". Issue #3 is the most personal and most direct, as she describes her feelings when her partner realized that he had a suspicious lump on his body.

Gerard's prose is fairly spare and while her stories are introspective, they are not without wit. There's a short story where she and a friend play "hipster bingo" at a book fair, noting a number of recurring personality archetypes--with the most annoying being "similar interest girl". For the most part, these are not quite standard comics. While the figures are not stiff, the succession of images is not fluid. There's a definite sense of narrative here and the images clearly augment the text. And the fact that they are drawings instead of photos is an important but ineffable detail--being one level away from reality gives these comics a slightly dreamy, detached quality. The design is attractive, from cover to her odd lettering style.

The two minis from Lenk, "Carnival" and "The Alteration", are the first two chapters of a longer work called The Details, which seeks to explore "patterns in human experience that are synchronous with the anatomical systems of the human body". This is an intriguing premise, though the results on the comics page are rather oblique in pursuit of this goal. The enigmatic nature of these mostly-silent comics is certainly not a detriment; indeed, these are beautiful, mysterious narrative art objects.

"The Alteration" sees a young woman entering a tailor's shop, looking for a pattern to alter her dress. The proprietress is a blank-featured humanoid, and while the young woman snatches a pattern and literally spreads it out and attaches it to her dress (with the text on the pattern morphing and changing as she does), there's an air of menace to the shop's owner. When the young woman comes out of hiding, she sees that the customers in the shop (also blank figures) have been turned into paper dolls that she was cutting up after she took their clothes. She makes a break for it, but her dress dissolves, with words spilling off her unraveling dress that say "no mention was made that the words wouldn't stick". The same character in "Carnival" attends a local fair with her anthropomorphic heart-doll. After riding a ferris wheel together, she uses the doll as a hammer on a "test-your-strength" scale, pounding it to bits in order to win a heart-shaped balloon. She then stiches the doll up with a needle and thread.

There are some interesting visual clues in this comic. We don't see the girl's face until she hammers her heart into pieces--and she has that same blank expression of the shopkeeper in "The Alteration". It's not until she sadly realizes what she's done that she has the features of a human being. The anatomical system here is obviously cardiac, and possibly cardiac arrest. The system in "The Alteration" is less clear to me--neurological, perhaps? In each of the comics, however, dehumanization seems to be a clear theme. Finding ways to escape that dehumanization--both in terms of what happens to the girl and what she does to others--is a key to both of these stories. These full-color comics are triumphs of design, combining a certain lushness with an economy of storytelling. They combine elements of narrative and poetry for an unusual experience as a reader, one that leaves me eager to see future chapters.

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