Monday, December 27, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #27: Robyn Smith

Publishing, and comics publishing, in particular, is a funny place. A publisher will reject a work from the margins sometimes, not because of its quality, but because "there's no audience for this." That's especially for true with regard to non-genre comics about women and girls. Once extremely commonplace during comics' first 25 years or so, they were almost completely systematically eliminated by super-hero comics. Those who ran comics deliberately tried to make comics deliberately aimed at boys; if some girls happened to like them, that was an accident. 

It always shocks Hollywood or the publishing world when something explicitly aimed at a Black or Asian audience is a smash hit. It's even more surprising that with something like Black Panther, it was a huge cross-over hit. A lesson that seemingly needs to be re-learned on a near-constant basis is that the more specific a story is with regard to its details, the more universal its appeal. It's a paradox, but it's true because a narrative with exquisitely-detailed specifics (even if it's foreign to one's experience) is more appealing than a narrative aimed at being broadly appealing that's entirely generic. In any genre, "truth" is irrelevant. What is important is the appearance of authenticity, and authenticity is generated by describing the minutia of a situation. Raina Telgemeier's Smile was a story about a middle-school girl, her problems with friendship, and her dental issues. It was aimed at the tween girl audience desperate for this kind of story because no one was aiming work at them that they could relate to. It was also a big hit with boys because while they couldn't relate to the specifics of Raina's narrative, it was so highly detailed that it highlighted universal issues with regard to health and friendship. 

This brings us to Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith's Wash Day Diaries. Rowser related Toni Morrison's quote ("If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.") in describing her goals as an author: creating (and publishing) books for Black women. In Smith, she has a collaborator who's more than up to the challenge of depicting these stories--especially with regard to hair. Wash Day started as a mini-comic and was expanded into a full-color book precisely because an audience "magically" appeared that was hungry for stories about Black joy and friendship among women. The original mini was about a moment in time about self-care that was highly specific; the expanded book tells interlocking stories that touch on a number of topics. 

The book opens with the "Wash Day" story, featuring a steely young woman named Kimana (nicknamed Kim) coming home from a night out, and then waking up and washing her expansive hair. That initial image of a seemingly unflappable Kim with her keys splayed in her fingers in case she had to defend herself speaks volumes about not just her, but a specific understanding of what it's like to be a woman walking on the street. Much of this story is about Kim dealing with the daily forces that assail her: casual misogyny in catcallers, a man who won't stop texting her, and her local bodega being affected by a rent increase and passing it on to her. For a moment, for a day, time stands still as she buys some milk and breakfast and takes care of her hair in a very specific manner. Smith shines here in the way she draws hair along with the way she draws different kinds of bodies. She's also aces at body language. 

Each chapter follows the story of a different friend. Tanisha relates the hilarious story of being in an inadvertent love triangle and how she gets out of it; it's once again connected to hair as she tells it in a group chat with Kim and her other two ride-or-die friends as she's getting her hair done. An increasingly self-isolating Davene calls Cookie to cornrow her hair because she missed her hair appointment and reveals that she's gripped by depression--something that Cookie doesn't fully understand. Cookie visits her father's mother in a nursing home, a woman who refused to recognize her as her granddaughter because of her father's affair. The final story ties all of these threads together as the friends gather at one of Kim's concerts and chase off the guy who had been harassing her. The whole thing winds up in a sleepover at Kim's house. 

The overlying plot is pretty thin; one gets the sense that it was reverse-engineered to give some small sense of structure to each story, and that was especially true in the final segment. None of that really matters, because it was the small moments in each story that were important. Davene's interactions with Cookie were particularly interesting. Davene revealed to her friend that her career as a social worker wasn't working out, and there was an implicit reference that going into work wearing her natural hair was going to be problematic. While this is a book about Black joy and friendship for this group of women, it doesn't pretend that racism and misogyny don't exist. The threat of violence from Kim's ex-boyfriend, the aforementioned catcalls, and hateful stares from white people on the subway are all part of the backdrop. It's par for the course, with the weight of it affecting each woman in different ways. Davene clearly feels it the hardest as it contributes to her already-present direction, and Cookie's initial attempt to minimize it and rejecting Davene's thoughts of getting on anti-depressants with a crystal reflected a lack of understanding and actual empathy in that moment. Cookie redeemed herself by actually noticing what Davene needed at Kim's concert and pulled her out of there for the sleep-over. 

Again, Rowser set it up, but Smith knocked it down with her unerring depiction of body language that was easy to interpret without being intrusive or ham-fisted. Each story is involved with hair in some way, with each character helping or being helped with hair, an act of profound compassion and intimate connection. It's both emblematic and symbolic of their connections in a tangible way, mixing aesthetics and ethics together at a fundamental level. That's especially true because Rowser goes out of her way to make each character radically different in terms of personality, weaknesses, desires, and ambitions while still sharing crucial connections as friends. Each story is tonally different, from comic relief (mixed with an unvarnished depiction of sexual freedom) to familial drama & pain to the sheer loneliness of mental illness. It's a book that needed to be created, one that will hopefully open up avenues for others like it. 

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