Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Molly Ostertag's The Girl From The Sea

In thinking about Molly Ostertag's fantasy graphic novel The Girl From The Sea, it's important to consider three things beyond the work itself. First, there's no other way to describe this book as anything other than frothy, very lightweight entertainment. However, there's nothing wrong with that kind of book; it's the very definition of what the late Kim Thompson would describe as Good Crap. This is a well-drawn and sharply-designed book with a refined color palette and impeccable use of fashion. Ostertag has a lively line that's accentuated but not overwhelmed by color, and her use of gesture in particular is top notch. Second, this is a queer fantasy romance aimed at a young adult audience, and there is absolutely nothing momentous about this. It is now an expectation that this is what YA fiction is going to encompass. As such, and third, a frothy YA book with conflicts that are fairly easily resolved and an utter lack of queer misery is in itself a novelty. This is a book that is ultimately about queer joy and acceptance that doesn't dip into harder questions or unresolved relationships. There are plenty of those kinds of books around (see: Fun Home), and we're reaching a point in comics where stories about marginalized groups don't all have to follow the same miserablist formula.

So as a reader and critic, it's not so much that I wanted bad things to happen to its protagonist Morgan or the selkie named Keltie, or for tragedy to befall them. It's that I felt like I was given the barest but most tantalizing outline of an exciting set of characters, and I wanted so much more. Morgan is a girl living on an island near Canada who is a closeted lesbian, a secret she keeps from even her closest friends. Those friends include the Rich One, the Funny One, and the Shy One, and they serve as little more than a sort of texting Greek Chorus. Despite that, Ostertag embues them with enough personality (and absolutely killer character designs) to make me wish they were more complex and fleshed-out. Morgan's parents are divorced and her brother is acting out. All Morgan wants to do is finish high school, leave for the big city, and then come out and live her life openly. 

That's complicated when she meets Keltie, a selkie. That's a sort of were-seal, who only can become human every seven years and can only walk on land with a true love's kiss. Keltie saves Morgan when she falls into the ocean, and she kisses her. She then pops up and declares herself bound to Morgan. Their interactions are given the most depth and complexity in the book, which makes sense. That said, it speaks to a fundamental flaw in the book's structure. When thinking about a plot, the essential question to ask is this: What does the protagonist want? In this case, Morgan wants to be closeted until she can leave. What is preventing her from doing this? Keltie. The key conflict in the book is also its most central relationship.

Every other conflict in the book--her brother's behavior, coming out to her parents, isolating herself from her friends, and even the tacked-on conflict of Keltie needing to save the seals' rookery--is easily solved and shoved to the side. The only conflict that matter is given a cute romance with a few fights and moments of confusion which are also solved with a hug and an apology. The problem is that the reader is meant to feel as though all of these other conflicts were intractable, but instead they easily melt away. It's wish-fulfillment with the lowest of stakes. Which is fine. Not every romance needs to be life or death. However, The Girl From The Sea had the potential to be so much more than it was, and it wouldn't have taken much of a structural change to get there. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Minis: Jonathan Baylis' So Buttons #11

Jonathan Baylis's anthology memoir series So Buttons continues to truck along, as he just released his eleventh issue. As per usual, he has a strong eye for choosing the right artist collaborator for the right story. Perhaps the best in this issue was his collaboration with legendary UK cartoonist Phil Elliott, a mainstay of the burgeoning 80s British indy cartooning scene. Appropriately, Elliott illustrated the story of Baylis' time in London doing a semester abroad program. His charmingly sketchy style was perfect for this tale of Baylis meeting Bruce "Skinny Melink" Paley, a Brooklyn ex-pat who ran a comics store. Baylis followed up that anecdote with some surprising connections he later learned about as they connected to Elliott, Carol Swain, and others. 

Given Baylis' own circuitous history in comics, it's a story that makes sense. He spent years as an intern at various publishers, and this issue covers his time at Topps. It's bookended by illustrations from Fred Hembeck and Rick Parker, two veteran humor/gag cartoonists. The one by Parker is done in the classic Bazooka Joe style in a tribute to Baylis' friend Jay Lynch, who was a Topps veteran. Baylis is very much someone who has all sorts of geek fandoms in his wheelhouse, and the main story (drawn by Jeff Zapata) ties them together amusingly. Here's where the high production values Baylis uses for his comic strongly worked in his favor, because Zapata's smudged style would have looked messy in a black & white comic. However, the four-color palette was ideal for evoking that bright Topps aesthetic.

Baylis is a guy who's met a lot of interesting people through his various jobs. He talked about working as a coordinator for the Make-A-Wish foundation and coordinating a kid's lunch visit with John Cleese. Baylis is a sharp observer, and his comments on Cleese perhaps finding it necessary to be extra loquacious because he was nervous or needed to entertain were interesting. He also turns it from simply a name-dropping exercise into a human moment when he revealed a moment of real human tenderness in how Cleese wordlessly helped the child cut up his meal while continuing to entertain. A.T. Pratt and Garrett Gilchrist bookended the story with Cleese illustrations (lots of Monty Python stuff) and B.Mure drew it. Mure's use of what look like watercolors gave the story a sweetness to it.

When you need an illustrator to draw a story about whiskey, who else would you choose but November Garcia? This led off the issue, and it was an appropriate opener: very silly and funny, as Baylis recounted his quest to get his hands on a particular vintage of scotch. Garcia just went to town here with funny drawings; I'd be curious to see what the script's directions were for her in terms of some of the visual jokes. Finally, there was a one-page story about Baylis slipping into nostalgia for a Waldenbooks-turned-bank in New York drawn by his longtime collaborator T.J. Kirsch. Kirsch always hits that sweet spot between naturalism and cartooniness that fits so many of the affable Baylis' stories. Having Jim Rugg do a Basil Wolverton impersonation for the cover was also a real grabber, and it was a stroke of genius to commission Rugg to do it, given his extremely broad skill set. Baylis has grown extremely confident as a writer and long ago figured out the best way to play to each artist's strengths. I never get the sense that he's over-writing, which can be common in writer-artist collaborations. Despite the fact that these anecdotes are usually fairly breezy, the open nature of his writing makes them feel surprisingly chummy and even intimate.