Saturday, November 22, 2014
Thirty Days of CCS, Day 22: Sasha Steinberg
Sasha Steinberg is one of the smartest cartoonists to emerge from CCS and certainly one of its most ambitious. Combining literary aspirations, a keen political and historical consciousness and a wicked sense of humor, Steinberg's projects have ranged from exploring the history of the Stonewall riot of 1969 to a thoughtful, edgy and personal exploration of drag. Sasha Velour collects a number of stories about his drag alter-ego; what's interesting about his comics is that Steinberg closely associates the act of drawing with the act of transformation that marks drag. That is, creating one's drag persona is both a personal and political act, a transgressive action against gender and cultural conformity and "microaggressions". It's a statement of freedom, an act of self-liberation as well as a kind of aesthetic Molotov cocktail.
Sasha Velour is mostly comprised of short stories Steinberg did about his drag self in various anthologies. The melting lips on the cover are an homage to that early trans-inspired film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There's a similar sense of camp, wild freedom and a hint of danger to be found in Steinberg's comics. Sasha Velour is an alien made of crystal with a magical ring capable of transforming the mundane to the fabulous; in the first story, he transforms a homophobe into a unicorn during a segment where the story shifts from black & white to full color as Sasha turns a "Wal-Mark" into a crystalline paradise. This is actually one of Steinberg's rougher, less accomplished stories in terms of the drawing and overall concept, but it still gets its point across. Much more complex is a Phantom-inspired piece done for Suspect Device that speaks to a historical continuum of queer ancestors and the brutal struggles they faced, framed by a clever series of tattoos and body-circumscribed drawings.Another strips where Sasha transforms into his human self is more interesting still, as Steinberg is less interested in manipulating line as he is color. Yet another strip mixes slice-of-life discussions about sex between a Hispanic mother and her gay son and three young Orthodox Jewish women, only to be interrupted by the absurdity of a dinosaur run rampant in the park. It's no coincidence that Sasha herself is sitting on a park bench.
In contrast, the comic/zine Vym has a much different aesthetic and political mission. Steinberg has noted that he's dedicated to a critique of white, affluent cis gay men and the ways in which they've allowed themselves to be mainstreamed and at the same time frequently reduced to being little more than comic relief in the wider culture, a sort of burlesque act. Billed as "The Drag Magazine", Vym explores through comics, essays and photos the ways in which drag may be defined, once again matching up the personal and DIY nature of drag to that of alternative comics: "a self-published magazine that celebrates self-published identities". The editor of Vym is actually Steinberg's partner John Jacob "Johnny Velour" Lee, another whip-smart writer with personal experience as a dancer/performer. While the comics and illustrations in the book (by Jon Chad, Laurel Lynn Leake, Romey Bensen and especially Eric Kostiuk Williams) are good, it's the photo essays that really strike a chord.
The first-person essay of drag performer Donald C. Shorter Jr is especially eloquent, as the photos highlight the transformative part of drag as part of the stage performance--the actual process of putting on makeup, adding layers of clothing, etc. It's meant to humanize instead of minstrelize, which drag is currently in danger of becoming as it becomes part of mainstream culture. That's why each of the photo essays keys in on humanizing each of the participants, from Shorter to another photo essay that features Steinberg's own transformation into Sasha Velour to K.James completing a drag transformation into male form. An interview and photo essay with Veronica Bleaus further recontextualizes images of the self-professed "worst drag queen in the Midwest" with funny and odd elements of collage. It all works, adding a touch of absurd humor to a drag queen whose stock in trade is self-deprecation with total self-respect and self-possession. The centerpiece of the issue was Leake's excellent teasing out of what drag means in its many forms. Leake notes that it's not just a matter of transformation, but of confronting the very notion of binary gender definitions. To engage in such gender-fuckery is a personal and political act of defiance. It's not being something you're not; rather, it's being yourself in the most authentic way possible. Vym promises to spotlight that authenticity using any number of styles and voices, and the first issue is a promising start.