Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Lost Diamonds #2 by Ellen Lindner

As I've noted before, Ellen Lindner has really found an interesting new niche with her baseball comics. Her latest issue (#2) of Lost Diamonds, "a history of gender rebellion in American Baseball," Lindner is doing a deep historical dive, going after primary sources wherever possible. As a result, this is as rigorous a study in the historical suppression of baseball based on gender as possible. Lindner's clear-line style and eye-pleasing blue wash (a bit of nostalgia), along with her amiable narration, make this a fascinating history even for those not interested in baseball. It's important to understand that this goes and went far beyond sports. The cultural importance of baseball was so overwhelming in the early 20th century that excluding women (as well as non-whites) was a deliberate strategy aimed at excluding them from the larger cultural conversation. As Lindner points out, despite many barriers, women still found ways to participate in the sport, and she's trying to make these stories better known. 

Lindner picks up the narrative in the early 20th century and the "Bloomer Girls" teams, so-called because they were trousers instead of skirts. Lindner brings up the St. Louis Black Bronchos, a barnstorming Black team of women. Not only were they dismissed by certain modern historian when they were re-discovered recently, Lindner notes that their performances were ridiculed by journalists of their era. When a writer referred to them as incompetent, Lindner points out that the game the reporter was writing about was actually quite close. This wasn't just a matter of opinion; without TV or other media to carry games, a false newspaper report damaged the team's gate. 

Lindner then goes into detail about uber-athlete Ida Schnall, an immigrant who immediately mastered baseball, swimming, and diving. She was denied an Olympic appearance because the US Olympic Committee didn't field a team, citing the immodesty of swimsuits. As a result of doing Broadway shows as a diver, she got to know baseball players doing side hustles, like legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson and manager John McGraw doing vaudeville. Through her connections, she founded the New York Female Giants, who drew a number of fans and harassment by the police. Another superstar was Lizzie Murphy, who held her own playing against men. Lindner notes that the success of players like Murphy led to exploitation, like in the case of a former major-leaguer taking a young team of women to Japan, only to abandon many of them when the money ran out. When money was finally raised to bring them back, one young player was swept overboard at sea. 

The Eastside Girls, a Black team that formed out of the local YWCA in Los Angeles, formed their own league, playing against the likes of the Japanese Girls, a team of Asian-American girls. It was a way of establishing one's identity in the most American thing possible, along with other positives like community, camaraderie, and the confidence that's built through sport. Girls wanted to play baseball because it was fun and let them hang out with their friends and meet new people (just like boys), but it was also a means to unlock wider acceptance overall. This was not unnoticed by men in power, who banned women from baseball in a number of places starting in the late 20s. This culminated in infamous baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis banning pitching sensation Jackie Mitchell (who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back in an exhibition game) and all women from organized baseball.  It was one thing for women to play; it was quite another for them to make those in power uncomfortable. This is the gender rebellion in a nutshell: an arbitrary attempt to hold others down in order to maintain power. There was no good reason to keep women out of baseball. As long as the sport existed, women played it. Men simply didn't want women playing in their sandlot, and as long as they had the money and influence, they made the rules. 

As Lindner explains, however, it's hard to keep the marginalized down forever. This is a history, to be sure, but it is also a polemic. It's a correction of the record based on facts, statistics, and first-person observations. Lindner is painstaking in her research, but this is far from a dry recitation of facts: through her lively art (and excellence in drawing clothes above all else), Lindner recreates each era in a way that makes the concerns and wants of the players feel contemporary. 

Monday, August 21, 2023

Minis: Wenting Li

Both of Wenting Li's minicomics here (Diary Fantasy and Libra Szn) are not only visually interesting in a Riso style, they are also both so intimate as to be uncomfortable. I got the sense of "Should I be reading this?" in how achingly vulnerable and open these comics are. Diary Fantasy is like a second cousin to Sophia Foster-Dimino's classic Sex Fantasy comics, done in a similar style with highly distinct and stylized character designs. The Riso work here is sharp and adds layers of depth to each of the scenes in ways I don't often see in most Risographed comics. Some of it feels like repurposed Instagram photos transformed into dreamy crowd scenes, intimate moments, and simple moments of aesthetic grace and beauty. Li has an eye for this sort of thing, and her drawings mix a clear line with blocky & chunky figures, giving each page a light quality that's then delightfully crowded up by the figures on the page. From a dim sum dinner to a nude beach to a curious examination of a watch repairman at work, there's just sheer delight in these seasonal observations. The stories behind the images hint and peek out at the reader without going into any detail; Li is simply trying to get across a sense of being present in the moment and yearning for it now. 

Libra Szn is quite the opposite in many ways--Li piles on details of multiple kinds of intimate moments. This is thinly-veiled fiction that is effective in grayscale, but I couldn't help wondering what the rich colors on the cover might have looked like in the interiors. The main character, Yuyin, is in her late 20s but has little sexual experience and is taking the opportunity to, as she puts it, get "more info." She's also a window-making artist traveling to do a big job, and she goes on a very cute, wholesome date that culminates in hands being held and a single kiss (and as the protagonist notes, only her second-ever). Li once again excels at portraying the bustle and energy of street life and the sort of lives that communities of artists inhabit. That constant hum of creativity as the lifeblood of a community is always there in the background, even when Li is more focused on individual relationships. After a lifetime of mostly ignoring sex, she makes out with a friend in a club bathroom and then hits up a guy she's texting with, saying "Fuck it it's Libra szn." After a comic full of mostly chaste, flirty scenes, the final scene features Yuyin and a guy named Carm exploring each other's bodies in a literal sense. There is both raw passion and almost painful intimacy in their conversation, as the two lovers slowly and carefully discover what the other likes and wants to do. The mix of naturalism and fantasy drawings (like a nipple dissolving into water) gives the reader an intense account of how the encounter feels from Yuyin's point of view. These comics feel like Li confidently finding her footing as a cartoonist, but they also feel like a transition to something much bigger.