Friday, December 6, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #6: Natalie Wardlaw

Natalie Wardlaw is a second-year student at CCS with a fully-formed voice for memoir and a willingness to spill some ink when it comes to telling her story. Her comics mix a desire for an almost delicate decorative touch with raw, powerful, and ugly emotions and experiences. She knows what she's doing; at this point, her development will come through the refinement of her line (simplifying it just a little will lead to greater overall storytelling clarity) and getting ready to tell longer stories. It's clear that she wants to, although she has fully invested in the process of writing short stories. Let's take a look at some recent examples.

Origin Story is taken from her mother's pregnancy diary from when she was carrying Natalie. Writing eventful and even painful stories from the perspective of others has clearly been useful, because it allows her to be even more blunt in terms of presentation. The diary contained huge gaps in time that proved useful from a storytelling perspective, with the reader imagining what happened during these lacunae. Much of the story is very difficult because her mother was horribly sick throughout much of the pregnancy, but there are also sweet moments like the way her husband took care of her and their toddler daughter Alex. Wardlaw likes drawing gaunt and angular figures, perhaps because it makes for dramatic and sharp poses. The comic ends on the thoughtful note of her mother regretting losing the diary for a while, because she wanted to focus on Alex as an only child while she still could and record it. But that moment was gone.

Fence Girl was written by her friend Lily Giles about a misadventure that she had as a freshman. In a small, square minicomics format, Wardlaw uses a single image on each page to tell the story. It's a departure from her usual style, but it works in establishing this as a single, dynamic event. It's cinematic in that respect, and she takes extra care in establishing the decorative aspect of each page. While the story is funny on the surface, it's also kind of terrifying. Giles overcame her severe social anxiety by getting really drunk and/or before meeting people, and at a particular party this backfired when she realized she was way too high to be there. She left, got lost, and climbed a barbed wire fence that she though was near her campus. Instead, she was lucky that the guy who found her in the morning was nice and dropped her off at school. She also bled quite a bit and had to go back and get her phone. It's an interesting story to tell, because it speaks to the way that people, and young women in particular, feel they have to play down trauma.

A Decade Of Loving With Mary Jane is a poetic, beautiful take on her relationship with marijuana over the years. She started smoking it as a freshman in high school, and it made her feel confident--until she had a flashback to a sexual assault when high. This is as frank and honest an assessment of one person's experiences with drugs as I've ever read, both in terms of positives and negatives. It's clear that smoking pot helped her a great deal with some aspects of her life, especially some difficult problems with regard to eating. At the same time, the ending was ambivalent and open-ended; she didn't know what she wanted to do with regard to smoking. While Wardlaw tends to write her stories about trauma with an eye toward distance and healing, it was an interesting move to make this story more open-ended.

Full Moon was her final first-year project at CCS, and it's beautifully designed. It's about her going streaking with a close friend the night before she left to go to "cartoon school". The cheeky cover reflects the whimsical nature of deciding to go streaking with your best friend, but body trauma seems to follow Wardlaw around, even if it's not her suffering it. Her friend Ceci tripped and fell on the unforgiving asphalt, emerging with all sorts of cuts and bruises. She insisted on getting to the end of the street before they went back inside and she had to pull out her nipple ring from nearby swelling tissue. It's a visceral comic to be sure, but the trauma here is ameliorated by the genuine level of caring between the two friends. It's an experience that left scars, but at least they could be thought of as mementos. The use of color on the cardstock cover and the inclusion of a pair of red-colored plastic glasses were nice flourishes. In terms of the figure drawing, her naturalistic style isn't quite sharp enough to capture all of the elements of gesture and bodies in relation to each other. A slightly less realistic style might have conveyed some of those feelings more smoothly.

Mermaid Parade is her most recent comic, and I think it's her most accomplished as well. Once again, the cover cardstock images are strikingly beautiful and clever; I hope at some point Wardlaw considers experimenting with full color work in her comics. This is an emotionally complex comic about grief, trauma, and violations of trust. It's about sexuality and guilt. It's about art as a way of negotiating trauma. I mentioned Wardlaw needing to refine her style, and this comic shows subtle examples of her tightening up her line in general. It's a little finer and she looks to have greater control over it, and while keeping with her naturalistic style in general, she's developing a stylization in her character design that is highly effective in expressing emotions.

The story refers to Coney Island's fun, raunchy Mermaid Parade and how she planned to wear a tight pair of shorts with scales on them as she marched in it. She and a friend crashed at a male friend's apartment, one that she trusted, and he wound up groping her. Not too long after this, he died. That mix of grief, betrayal, and trauma is powerful, especially as she processed it as being her fault. This comic doesn't seek any easy answers. It's just blazingly honest about what happened, how it made her feel then, how she feels about it now, and a mix of grief for her dead friend and anger at what he did. It's a finely-crafted howl at the unfairness of it all, of her sheer anger at having to deal with this abuse from men again now that she was older. It's a first step to coming to terms with it though certainly not the last, and its impact is powerful in part because of how she's fine-tuned her approach.

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