The Anthropologists, by Whit Taylor (Sparkplug Comic Books). Virginia Paine was Dylan Williams' employee at Sparkplug Comic Books and is now the publisher after his death in 2011. After a long period of adjustment where Paine co-published along with Tom Neely and Emily Nilsson, Paine is now in the process of putting her own stamp on one of the more eclectic and unpredictable catalogs in comics. Apropos with regard to cost and her sphere of interests, she's launched a Sparkplug Minis Series as an official complement to some other recent, shorter releases.
Sparkplug has long been a place where young cartoonists are chosen because of their promise and given the opportunity to become better in the public eye. As such, Whit Taylor's The Anthropologists is a perfect selection for this series. The comic features Taylor's autobio stand-in character Wren during her college days, when she traveled to western Australia as part of a study abroad program. The idea was to study and talk to Aboriginal people as part of their cultural anthropology program. Paired with a hyperenthusiastic fellow American student and filled with ambivalence about the trip, Wren's anxiety is really just an expression of her own cultural, racial and identity issues in microcosm.
In such an experience, one might expect to become close to a fellow student in such a situation. Instead, Taylor shows Wren and the other student, Miriam, as being opposites in nearly every imaginable way. However, their contrasts become more complicated and interesting than simply overly enthusiastic vs ambivalent. Wren is ambivalent about being shown an Aboriginal sacred space as though it were a vacation destination and is even more uncomfortable with getting a photo taken with a wanjina (an Aboriginal symbol). Miriam was constantly peppering people with inappropriate questions and was clearly bothered that Wren didn't share her enthusiasm. In the parlance of the comic, Miriam was comfortable treating the Other as the other, meaning that as an anthropologist she was distinct and separate from her subjects. On the other hand, Miriam wouldn't commit to doing things that actual Aborigines would do: going crabbing, eating whelks, hunting lizards, etc. This was partly because she was a vegan, but the implication here was that these activities were too immersive for her.
For Wren, doing these things gave her a chance to talk to people in the context of their daily lives, ask them their feelings about how Aborigines are treated, and generally step outside of the comfort of her daily life. When she meets some young women at a party and they say she looks like "a Broome girl", this means that she looks like she's of mixed race, just like many people in the city of Broome. Taylor suggests that it was easy and natural for Miriam to draw a line between herself and the Other, given that she was white. For Wren, who noted that she was racially mixed, drawing that line was much more difficult, especially given the history of racial oppression both in the US and Australia. At the same time, the struggles she had in the book reflected the difficulty she had identifying with any group in particular.
Taylor gets at these revelations with a great deal of subtlety and humor. Even though Miriam is kind of a ridiculous character and acts as comic relief for the reader, Taylor still treats her with some degree of sympathy. She's depicted as a person, not the embodiment of every American cliche'. Wren's struggles are similarly presented as neither the correct nor incorrect point of view. Instead, it's all about learning to ask the right questions about oneself and the world. Most of all, the way that their guide, Terry, is depicted is fascinating. He's clearly reserved about revealing details about himself, something that Wren respects but Miriam doesn't. He's as much the Other as the Aborigines they meet.
Taylor's line is crude but functional. Her character design is solid (the way she draws upturned mouths is especially effective in expressing mood) and she has a decent grasp of body language. There were times when it seemed like she wanted the reader to get a sense of the environment, but her chops weren't quite up to drawing lush background scenes. Instead, Taylor stuck to what she could comfortably draw and focused more on character, concepts and nuance. Taylor continues to be an excellent writer and smart cartoonist who is becoming increasingly proficient in working around her limitations as a draftsman to create sophisticated and contemplative work.