Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #13: Robyn Smith

Robyn Smith's The saddest angriest black girl in town is a fascinating expression of self and a nuanced understanding of context with regard to race. It deals with a number of related issues: the concept of being othered, how anxiety and mental illness are further exacerbated by these issues, and the paradoxical idea of having her identity both erased and highlighted at the same time. Living in mostly-white Vermont amplified what Smith would feel anywhere as a person of color in the US, especially as a non-native (she's from Jamaica). Smith's expression of her feelings is raw and powerful, just as her skill with a pencil is delicate and expressive. The comic is also exceptionally well-written; it is a howl against forces both external and internal, but it's her tremendous sense of restraint on each page that leads to so much tension.

The comic is divided into three sections: "sad", "angry" and "black". The first section is about her acute awareness of how being black in a white space is uniquely discomforting for many of the white people she encounters. At the same time, that constant level of what ranges from open hostility to negation caused her to doubt her own personal narrative. Consensus societal opinion and behavior is powerful, even when it's turned against you. There's a brutal sequence where a co-worker sees a supply sign that says "Black matting" and adds the word "lives" after "black" in front of Smith, and then he cheerily addresses it by saying "Sorry! I just couldn't help myself.!" Her drawings in this section practically leap off the page with regard to the emotion she puts on the page--especially when she's smiling and being friendly to a white customer who literally walks away without a word. Once again, it's a total negation of her as a person.

"angry" is all about the resentment she feels because she's never had a choice but to be constantly made aware that she's black. She even cops to the idea that even if she's making it all up, "it's the potential that's killing me. It's me not knowing how uncomfortable my blackness is making you." Smith then rattles off a series of incidents that seemed innocent at first but that started to build as even well-meaning people were still in the practice of othering her on a regular basis. There's a remarkable sequence where she talks about hearing the n-word in several different contexts in White River Junction, feeling angry and incapable of expressing that anger. Each instance is different: academic, quoting music, in a meta way, and in a joking way. Each time, it doesn't matter, because the white people who said the word didn't know or care what effect saying that word might have. Words are weapons, and racial slurs historically have been stand-ins for a threat of violence so as to put a person of color in their place.

"black" is a statement about her role in the lives of white people, simply asking to exist as a person, not a symbol or metaphor. Smith emphasizes that while she may make other people uncomfortable by the mere fact of her existence, it's not her job to make people feel comfortable. The comic has an existential quality to it in that Smith addresses the concern not just that white people are othering her, but that at a fundamental level she may never be able to know if white people aren't othering her. That essential doubt is what leads her to want the space not just to exist freely in a space, but to demand that her feelings should be respected with regard to her experiences. Smith is remarkably adept at aligning words and images in unusual ways. She uses the grid for mini-narratives, uses open-page layouts and dissolves panel borders on other pages as a reflection of an anxiety attack. The cover uses translucent vellum, cleverly finding ways to express that feeling of erasure. On the back cover, for example, there's a nicely-drawn image of a street in White River Junction. If you turn the page, you can see Smith's own image on the page underneath it, barely visible. This comic is succinct, visually striking and powerful on a number of different levels. It's an excellent early work for a promising artist.

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