Saturday, November 16, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #16: Melanie Gillman, Allie Kleber

Melanie Gillman's webcomic and subsequent minis As The Crow Flies are beautifully rendered stories about the acute and intense feeling of otherness.The protagonist, Charlie, is a queer African-American teen at a summer camp involving a hike to a spot that's special and even sacred to a pioneering group of women. Still, in a series of lush, beautiful and haunting images, Charlie feels like an outsider because of her race and sexual identity, as well as her religion. She is spiritual but not necessarily in a typically christian sense, and her conversations with god about whether or not she should be there are telling. Gillman gets at the heart of a problem related to any group or activity related to empowerment: just because a group of people are enlightened with regard to gender and feminism doesn't mean that they're sensitive or aware of issues related to race or sexual identity. Early on, after Charlie reluctantly agrees to stay in the all-white camp after initially wanting to go home with her parents, her internal alarms go off when she hears language that is inadvertently racist (the phrase "whitening our souls") and when someone makes a comment about something being gay. Of course, someone who is othered has essentially two options: to speak up early and often and risk being labeled a problem, or to be silent and feel unable to voice their opinions about anything. In what is shaping up to be a long storyline, these first two issues establish that inner conflict and Charlie's sense of being entirely alone with girls who don't relate to her and have no interest in trying to understand her. Gillman's use of color is absolutely crucial in the story, as the beauty of the natural environment is key to Charlie's feeling of being connected to the earth and nature but disconnected from other girls. Her character design is simple, direct and expressive, with Charlie herself very carefully crafted. I'm pretty sure Gillman is using colored pencils here, which gives each page a certain gritty texture with regard to color; that texture, though not naturalistic, nonetheless makes each image feel more real than a slicker color approach would have yielded. This will make a great-looking book once the story is complete, and I'm quite curious to see what kind of journey Charlie winds up having.

Allie Kleber is another artist interested in exploring themes related to gender identity and queer issues. However, she prefers to explore them by way of genre ideas. In Heartburn #0, Kleber takes the reader through a series of high-concept introductions, some of which are more engaging than others. In "Goodness Knows", a trouble-making angel is sent down to earth to act as a background guardian angel for someone. Kleber's angel Lucille is a rock 'n roll angel who sticks out as a result of her rebellious attitude. It's an amusing idea, even if it's entirely predictable so far. Much better are "The Swamp Bride" and "AI Love U", both of which play around with fantasy romance tropes and sci-fi/Frankenstein ideas. The former story finds a female adventurer finding that a dread swamp monster is not only misunderstood, but was taken advantage of by one of her "victims".  In the latter story, a romance between a professor and her student is mediated by their robot creation, one imbued with the personality of the student. Kleber's character design is her best asset as a cartoonist, especially in terms of the way she uses a diverse array of races and ages for her protagonists.

Her more recent story, Asylum, takes some of the best elements of her earlier stories and mashes them up. It's a science-fiction story in the sense that the protagonist is apparently being thrust against her will into a fantasy world. It's a fantasy story in the sense that this world is one in which the characters are living in some kind of retro society built on scavenging and barter. Reality is "soft" here, though, as the protagonist, Ash, sees things that defy her senses (like birds flying through a wall). In this world she's being programmed to experience, she can sense the glitches and knows that something isn't quite right, even as all of the characters within are so strongly realized. Interestingly, it's once again a society dominated by women, which is a running theme throughout Kleber's comics. It's rarely hammered home in an obvious manner; rather, Kleber resets the gender status quo and assumptions without trying to draw attention to it. It's a clever and subversive tact to take, embodying the idea that "the personal is political".

Finally, her comic Tiny Dynamos: Demos is about an all-female punk band, how it got its current lead singer, and life on the road. This one feels a bit rushed and leans more on rock 'n roll cliches, because the reader doesn't have an opportunity to really get to know these characters as characters. One senses that she needs many more pages to get to know these characters herself, as she's just warming up.

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