Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sequart Reprints: Girls' Guide To Guy's Stuff

The Friends of Lulu is an organization that's always had a noble purpose but has faced a lot of controversy as to how its mission was carried out. Its mission statement is simple enough: "A national nonprofit organization whose purpose is to promote and encourage female readership and participation in the comic book industry." Its main problem is symbolized in some respects by its choice of mascot: a character made famous in comic books aimed at girls. To a large degree, Lulu's recommendations and publications have been in the "all-ages" category, comics meant to be read and enjoyed by girls and boys of any age. The problem is that many have perceived this as a form of infantilization of women who read comics. There have been plenty of anecdotes about members of the group being dissatisfied and ultimately quitting for this very reason. In particular, indy/alternative comics have often historically gotten short shrift from the organization when their subject matter doesn't fit squarely into fantasy/adventure type stories.

In recent years, it seems as though there's been a sea change with the organization. Pioneering and controversial cartoonists Roberta Gregory & Phoebe Gloeckner were elected to FOL's hall of fame. Perhaps more significantly, FOL is for the first time releasing an anthology that is not all-ages, but rather mature readers only. Editor MK Reed also made the decision that the anthology should only include women as its creators. To that end, she searched far and wide to assemble an eclectic group of artists, many of whom are being published in the US for the first time.

On the whole, the anthology is a success. This is in spite of its theme, "A Girl's Guide To Guy's Stuff". The theme is problematic from a feminist as well as an aesthetic perspective: it's limiting and even somewhat demeaning on the face of it. There seems to be an element of pandering to fanboys in order to get them to buy it. Fortunately, Reed gave each creator a lot of latitude in how they interpreted the theme. There were mercifully few strips that actually read like a guidebook (and they were uniformly the worst in the book) and instead there were a number of interesting discussions of gender, gender roles, personal connections and fond memories. While there were few stories that were brilliant and that lingered long after finishing the book, the hit-to-miss ratio was quite high. Given that there were very few established artists in this book, this was an impressive feat. Indeed, the only "name" artists in the book are Roberta (Bitchy-Bitch) Gregory, Lark Pien, Emily Flake and longtime minicomics maven Missy Kulik.

As noted earlier, the "guidebook" stories didn't work on any level. An artist like Lorena Caiazzo seems to be quite talented, but her story "Porn", regarding the virtues of porn, was only notable in that it appeared in a FOL publication. Bonnie Burton & Cynthia Cummen's "Star Wars Guide" was sad on many levels--and perhaps the saddest is that a woman would go out of their way to attract a Star Wars geek. Sheryl Schopfer's "Comics Are For Me" is an unremarkable account of a couple where (gasp!) the woman likes comics more than her boyfriend. Probably the worst strip is EJ Barnes' "Con Survival Guide For Women", which deals with the sad scenario of a comics geek bringing his girlfriend to a con when she has no interest, and the things she can do to amuse herself there. I suppose these stories are trying to throw a bone to mainstream fans who might purchase the book, but frankly these stories are neither here nor there. They certainly seem insulting to women who are already reading comics, and I'm not sure they'd do much for newcomers to the medium. Of course, it's difficult to fault artists who are trying to adhere closely to a theme, and I suppose a tightly-constructed book centered around this theme might have some value, but that's not the case here.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the stories that revolved around more personal anecdotes about men in their lives. Abby Denson's "True Tales of a Punk Rock Boy" and Tatiana Gill's "Oly" in particular had a sweetness and warmth to them that stood out. Chari Pere's anecdote about her father has a nice comic build-up and a great pay-off. Tessa Brunton's story about a family vacation with her brother and father did a nice job of hinting at the important particulars of her life growing up while illustrating the obsessions of the men in her family. One of my favorite stories in the collection was "The Miracle Season" by Rina Ayuyang, which combined her intense devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers with an affectionate look at her boyfriend, a non-sports fan who slowly got into the action during their recent Super Bowl year. Rina's ear for dialogue and humor makes this pared-down strip work nicely.

The meat of the anthology lies in stories that subvert or blur gender roles and expectations. That was often told in women who preferred "masculine" activities like watching sports or using tools, men who had more "feminine" interests, and the curious ways that gender blurred lines. When the theme of the book was thought of in this way--asking a woman what it means to be masculine or feminine--it suddenly became enormously compelling. The book starts with a shot across the bow of sorts: Hellen Jo's "Too Fucking Cute". It's a funny rant about a girl railing about cuteness and wanting to "be a dude".

The stories about sports provide a convenient shorthand for that blurring of roles. Lauren Skinner's "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" is a cute story about a woman attending a baseball game with her boyfriend, and his slow realization that her devotion to the game far exceeded any of his hopes. Vanessa Satone's "Desert Racing" is about a woman who uses extreme measures to win a desert road race, blowing up her competition to win. Debbie Huey's "I Heart Hockey" is a nice contrast between her cute cartooning style and her obsession with hockey. For her, hockey is a means of accessing her inner aggression and assertiveness. All three of these stories work because the woman in them evince behavior more typically associated with masculinity.

The book is at its most interesting when it addresses gender bending. Cathy Leamy's "Who Likes Neckties?" examines her own obsession with ties. For her, they're emblematic of a completely different culture and representative of the line between genders. She was fascinated by how men's expression in fashion is limited, and the tie allows them a small sphere of creativity. It's clear that this is her way of accessing her masculine traits, both conscious and subconscious. "One of Two Rabbits", by Vicky Hsu & Anita Cheng, is a visually striking retelling of the Mulan story--a woman who disguises herself as a man to become a warrior. The punchline to the story is a memorable one. Most interesting of all was Liz Baillie's "A Self-Made Man", about jazz musician Billy Tipton. In a story that jumps between eras, we see Billy at the end of his life and a surprising discovery made by those who prepared his body. It's a stunningly unlikely story, skillfully related by Baillie.

A pleasant discovery in this anthology was the work of several international cartoonists I was unfamiliar with. Poland's Agata Laguniak contributes "Figurines", a tale of a one-night stand that evolved into something more, in part due to her noticing something creative that he was involved in. Norway's Lene Ask has a story called "Brian From Birmingham", a tale of frustration told from a man?s point of view who has never known love. Her stretched-out figures have a crude liveliness that's clever and playful. Most amusing of all was Dutch artist Anneke van Steijn's "Not Here But Here", a strip where what seemed to be a series of public sexual acts turned out to be something more innocent. Her composition and angular figures fit the punchline perfectly, and she's one of several artists in the book who made me eager to see more of their work.
Along those lines, perhaps my favorite strip in the book was Julia Durgee's "How To Talk To Male Celebs". This was the one "guidebook" strip that worked, probably because its premise and execution was so absurd. Durgee is a fashion illustrator by trade, and her combination of bold composition and an acidic sense of humor make her a talent to watch. For anthologies that feature a lot of emerging artists, one always hopes to make a few new discoveries, and this book is especially promising in that regard.

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