Monday, May 26, 2014

An Artist's Tour: 100 Crushes

On the surface, the formula for Elisha Lim's collection 100 Crushes is pretty standard fare for a cartoonist, especially one who has had a lot of work published on the web: collect bits and pieces of different strips, projects and ideas, as well as chapters of longer works. The result usually feels slapped together in a sloppy an arbitrary manner, acting mostly as an excuse to collect short works that are otherwise unpublished. To publish this as a debut book would be especially ostentatious, but the reality is that Lim's short work is far from ordinary and her comics stray from typical fare. Part of that, of course, is that as a queer, non-Caucasian, non-male, non-cisgendered person, comics from them published by a conventional alt-comics publisher are few and far between. Certainly, there was undoubtedly some awareness of that when Annie Koyama decided to publish Lim's comics, and Koyama has a track record as a publisher who has made a point of establishing diversity as an important value. Beyond the simple facts of Lim's identity, there is the more important fact they (Lim chooses to use "they" instead of "he" or "she" as an identifying pronoun, something they write about in the book) produce interesting, thought-provoking and funny images.

There is a sense in which much of Lim's work isn't pure cartooning per se, but rather illustrated text. The opening segment of the book, "100 Butches", is precisely what is advertised: drawings of "fabulous butch lesbians" from Lim's personal life, noticed from afar or from history. Lim brought each of them to life, and their handwriting is actually a key element with regard to the intimate nature of these portraits. My favorite was of blues legend Ma Rainey, but all of them were funny or inspiring or fascinating in some way. A number of the stories address racism and how many queer folks have to deal with that on top of their sexual identity. "Sweetest Taboo: Memoirs of a Queer Child in the Eighties", is a more lighthearted look at the ways in which culture was perceived by Lim and how it shaped their perception of self. From Pee-Wee Herman to the Thundercats to Ghostbusters", Lim provides a bright (almost day-glo, really) illustration and description for each of these influences.

"The Illustrated Gentleman" is an article about fantasies regarding and realities surrounding being identified as female but wanting to dress in men's clothes and shop in high-fashion men's stores. This was one of the sharpest and most thought-provoking features in the book, as Lim's drawings are spot-on and worthy of inclusion in a fashion magazine. However, the most powerful moment came when they described their father giving them a tie as a Christmas gift, a perfect tie for them that was like "a sissy butch dream." The gift was less important than the acknowledgement of "the real me", and the description of these feelings was heartbreaking. The most uneven part of the book was "Sissy", which was illustrated by Lim but written by different people who weighed in on the term "sissy" and what it meant to them. The results were both positive and negative toward the term, but the actual writing was hit and miss.

That's especially true in comparison to the first two chapters of "The Hong Moon Lesbians of the Sacred Heart", a story about an all-girl school in Singapore and the effect an American girl had on its students. I was actually frustrated at how short the excerpt was, because Lim had completely hooked me with their increasingly clever and intricate drawings that meshed perfectly with the text instead of simply illustrating it. "They" is a thoughtful series of interviews regarding gender, gender fluidity, gender construction and the use of the binary-erasing "they" as a replacement for gender pronouns. The illustrations here feel superfluous, even if the subject is interesting. On the other hand, "Jealousy" more cleverly meshes image and text in describing their frustrating experience with jealousy and the concept of polyamory.I think this story truly points the way forward for Lim in terms of its immersive qualities and the informative yet enigmatic nature of the images. 100 Crushes feels like an informal thesis project for Lim as a young cartoonist, with the most innovative and challenging work yet to come.

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