Sunday, November 3, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #3: Sasha Steinberg

Sasha Steinberg's CCS thesis was quite ambitious: the first chapter of a projected nine-part serial about the Stonewall riots of 1969, the event that sparked the gay rights movement worldwide. Steinberg combines ambition, technique, research and passion in this project, as he's set out to create a work of historical fiction that examines the event from the point of view of a number of different characters. We were introduced to Miss Venus in the first chapter, a young trans woman who represents the youthful culture not yet jaded by New York's drag scene. The first and second chapters of Stonewall are drawn in the style of Miss Fury cartoonist Tarpe Mills, who herself kept the identity of her gender vague during the 1930s and 1940s as she drew her very popular super hero strip. Miss Fury combined action and glamor, so it makes perfect sense that Steinberg would use it as a template.

If the first issue was all set-up and background for some of the most famous trans women of the era, then the second throws a match into that powderkeg of pent-up anger and stress. Indeed, one of Steinberg's missions in this comic is to restore the key role trans folk played in the Stonewall riot back into the historical mythology of the event, a fact that faded over time. It was common for the police to randomly raid gay bars at the time, out of boredom if nothing else. That night, the queer patrons of Stonewall had had enough, fighting back against humiliating body searches and assuming that the cops would be only too happy to rough them up. When a cop drew a weapon, that galvanized the crowd into fighting back. In an era when the word "revolution" was on the lips of many, the riot was seen as a chance to finally draw a line and unite against a common oppressor. Venus herself concludes this part of her story by saying "I'm not missing a minute of's the revolution!" Steinberg traced Mills' figures from Miss Fury as templates for his own character design, as well as photo reference of the real people included in the story. The result is a true reimagining of a particular artist's style that fits seamlessly into the aesthetics Steinberg is interested in portraying. It's fashion, it's beauty, it's violence, it's self-liberation all in one, just taken to a logical extreme in depicting true events.

The next character followed, Mark, is done in the style of Belgian cartoonist Guy Peelleart, whose Adventures of Jodelle was just published in English. Peellaert was sort of the ultimate 60s psychedelic cartoonist, and this story follows a young, heterosexual taxi driver in Manhattan named Mark. (Steinberg told me that some of the stories are based on his father, who drove a cab in New York in the early 70s.) Mark is a Viet Nam vet and aspiring photographer who's trying to make a living, navigating the crazies of New York. He is inspired early on by having Allen Ginsburg as a fare, though Mark despairs that most of the gays he's met in New York aren't political and are downright annoying. The psychedelic color scheme cleverly gets across the strangeness of this urban environment; a group of young toughs are colored green, for example. Background details about the raid emerge here, as it's theorized that the mob members who owned the Stonewall didn't pay off the cops that month, so it wasn't off-limits to raid. Mark winds up on the scene, taking photographs (he likely took the photo of Miss Venus that appears toward the end of Stonewall #2), because he's fascinated by the concept of revolution finally beginning. Steinberg's characters are far from one-dimensional, as he carefully considers how the actions of each character play against each other. The queer characters here aren't saints--just people, tired of being treated like shit. But they're also frequently junkies, thieves and homeless, just trying to survive. The approach Steinberg is using is not unlike the writer Raymond Carver, as he loosely ties together a number of personal narratives to create a larger tapestry. It's an approach that's fitting for an event that meant something different for the different people who experienced it, in addition to accruing a different historical meaning. This is a smart, beautiful and artful take on a significant and difficult historical event.

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