Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Retrofit: Anya Davidson and Leela Corman

Lovers In The Garden, by Anya Davidson. This bonkers crime-romance comic set in the 1970s reminds me of the sort of thing that Elmore Leonard might write. It's a series of character vignettes tied together by a central plot of two hitmen being sent to kill their latest target. The construction of that plot is seamless, even as Davidson throws in a number of twists that alter the balance of the story. That said, the plot really exists as a way for Davidson to explore a series of different kinds of relationships. The first is the relationship between a reporter and a story subject, as Elyse Saint-Michel interviews a man named Flashback, who happens to be a hitman. She's trying to get him to give her some info on his boss, a scummy heroin dealer named Dog, and he winds up telling her some of his life story. The second relationship we see is that of the other hitman, Shephard, and a young woman named Coral Gables. They are in love, so much so that Shephard wants to quit the business.

The next relationship moves the plot forward a bit, as Dog asks the hitmen to do one last job, and he'll allow Shephard to quit. After they leave, he tells another employee, a woman named Mystic Blue, to kill them both after they complete the job. When we meet Elyse's boyfriend Chip, when we see that Coral is actually an undercover copy, and that Mystic wants to double-cross her boss, one of the themes of the story clearly emerges: broken relationships that actively choke off trust and support in the face of ambition and greed. It's not even a good vs evil issue, as Elyse and Coral are very much using others to get what they want, even if their goals are noble. Davidson actually plants doubt even there, as the "good" characters want to get the big scoop or bust a drug dealer, but they're doing it to advance, not because they are focused on doing the right thing. Another theme that Davidson hints at is how sexual love can be ephemeral and even deceptive. The sexual relationships between Coral and Shephard and Elyse & her boyfriend had no real depth.

The setting is another interesting factor in this comic. The 1970s was an era of a revolution of rising expectations, as women and people of different races started seeing social and cultural advancement as a real possibility. As such, two of the key characters in the story are African-American women, and the key antagonist (Mystic Blue) is a woman who is fed up with her position in Dog's gang. Force is a means to an end. Davidson moves the story to an explosive and tense climax, switching points of view so that the reader can better see exactly how which people with guns are in facing each other and in what position. All of that serves as a way of revealing who the true lovers are, in a fraternal but still remarkably deep way: Flashback and Shephard. When the shooting starts, we flash back to Viet Nam, where Flashback saves Shephard. They faced trauma together and still had each other as homeless people when they were taken in by the drug lord, who started them slowly until he moved them up to hitmen. One of the best lines in the story comes from Flashback: "Like a lobster in a pot of water. The temperature rose so gradually I didn't realize I was being boiled alive." Dog exploited them until they were too much in his debt and his thrall for them to do anything different. In an era where being able to define oneself was its hallmark, Shephard and Flashback were the only two characters who weren't able to do this, until Flashback found the same kind of courage that served him in saving Shephard in Viet Nam. Theirs is the only love story with a happy ending (for as long as it might last) in the book.

The line is Davidson's usual expressive, loose and and even cartoony style. Interestingly, it's mostly the characters who get solid black line drawings. Everything else is done in colored pencil, including most of the backgrounds and even many of the street scenes. It's a clever way of pushing the characters forward ahead of everything else, even as the colors themselves have a slightly ratty and psychedelic character to them. It's that mix of punk and psychedelia that is Davidson's trademark, and it's an especially clever strategy given the book's obsession with artifice vs reality. Davidson suggests that it's all artifice on one level, everything but the kind of true friendship that lasts through bullets and bombs and through madness and destitution. Despite all of the sleaze and backbiting in this comic, it still retains an almost sweet level of optimism in the face of everything, precisely because of that true friendship.

We All Wish For Deadly Force, by Leela Corman. It's remarkable how much thematic cohesion there is in this collection of Leela Corman's short stories. I've been reading Corman's comics for nearly twenty years, when she started out with her Flim-Flam minicomics and early books like Subway Series and Queen's Day. Since that time, her work has become more explicitly about gender, cultural mores, personal and ethnic identity, class and sexism. All of these topic were explored in her book Unterzakhn, as Corman has almost always written fiction. As such, I was surprised to see so much autobio in this book, even if it addressed most of the same issues she's always been interested in. For example, the bonds of family are a crucial element in the book, and in particular the way family carries on after trauma and tragedy.

Consider "The Wound That Never Heals" and "Yahrzeit". The former directly addresses the sudden death of her toddler daughter Rosalie and the latter addresses her grandfather possibly witnessing his family dying during World War II. Corman is an especially sharp writer, and she approaches these horrors from a number of different angles. There is the immediate, visceral approach, where she depicts the hypervigilance that results from PTSD as being a sort of shadowy force that forces her to appear normal. There's the clinical approach, where she breaks down precisely what's happening in her brain and why. There's the philosophical approach, which leads to the title descriptor of the first story. There's also the generational approach, wherein she imagines her grandfather carrying around the dead as a burden or like a phantom limb, just as she does. She also imagines another world where her daughter is alive and wonders if her grandfather ever did the same.In both stories, she makes the point that what others view as strength is simply our survival instinct as animals, and acceptance of the permanence of trauma is the only thing that can help one accept it. The former story vividly uses color in unconventional ways, contrasting horror with bright backgrounds as a way of highlighting the dissonance of looking normal while living with PTSD. The latter story is a more traditional Corman creation, as the contrast here is with her usual thin line and the roughly-penned outline of the dead.

Corman's identity as a Jewish person is also key in this collection. It's something that ties into identity and as a narrative for loss. Even a lightweight story like "Brooklyn Bellydance Adventure", which was about Corman teaching the discipline to Jewish women of Russian descent, is incredibly sharply-observed in terms of what they shared and what was foreign. "This Way To Progress" is about her grandparents, through the device of the kind of furniture she chooses to have and the way it reminds her of her family. A chair is emblematic of a place to sit and reflect in one's home, and the modernist chairs her grandparents chose reflected their progressivism, of leaving behind horror and tragedy, of an openness to new ideas. "Irreducibles" similarly starts off in a lighthearted manner as it talks about certain essential aspects of Jewish identity, joking about being in a cabal or craving gefilte fish. What is unique about Jewish culture is that despite its many rules that are inexplicable to outsiders, the idea of what being a "good Jew" means is remarkably open to interpretation. Corman seizes on the idea that kvetching (complaining) is one of these "irreducibles", for the sheer pleasure of the act--even if the complaint has been assuaged. Seizing on these lighthearted ideas develops into the darker aspects, like an ever-present feeling of doom that everything could collapse and Jews could be rounded up again. Once again, Corman advocates not resisting or ignoring that feeling, but rather accepting it and using it effectively. "The Book Of The Dead" seizes on that idea and talks about the exile from France her grandparents faced and how living in Brooklyn altered family dynamics forever.

An unstated theme in the book is guilt. Survivor's guilt for Corman being alive and and her daughter not, guilt for being alive while a number of her relatives died in the Holocaust, guilt for what she acknowledges is the privilege of being an artist, and guilt for accidentally getting to live in a time and place that's given her some semblance of security and consistence. That is addressed specifically in "The Book Of The Dead", as the artist and a survivor can only do their best to honor the dead, show gratitude toward those who gave her an opportunity to create and acknowledge one's debts. Acceptance of guilt, acceptance of trauma, and acceptance of the full beauty and horror regarding the implications of one's ethnic heritage are the only way out of the inevitable side effects of trauma, Corman suggests. The only way out is through. The interstitial pieces in the book, done in colored pencil, are raw and visceral memories of Rosalie and current anecdotes about missing her and dealing with monstrous people in public who lack any sense of empathy toward children.

Corman, partly through her bellydancer friend Luna of Cairo, also discusses the ways in which women have and are ignored, humiliated and outright abused in society. While the particular brand of sexism she faces in Egypt is particular to that country and culture, it is not to suggest that America or any other country is any less openly sexist and abusive toward women, and that society at large tolerates sexual assault and harassment. One of Luna's stories involves women working hard to elect a presidential candidate who did a great deal to help fight back against sexual assault, making an example out of a public gang rape on a city street. In the story "It's Always Been Here", Corman details the history of a well that was a part of a shrine to Aphrodite and the generations of women who came with supplications regarding having children, dealing with abusive husbands, etc. All of these stories reflect ways in which women have and can care for other women in a position of strength and authority. The latter story hints at ways in which that authority can be weakened over time but also suggests that it's something that can be tapped into again at any time. Corman explores a lot of dark places in this book, both within and without her, but the last resonant theme is that of survival. She may play down the strength necessary to survive, but what Corman does as an artist in this book is not just convey survival, but articulate the ways she has managed to cope with the weight of her own traumas in a manner that's remarkably beautiful, expressive and powerful.

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