Mallory Lass reviews America by Gabby Rivera, Illustrated by Joe Quinones and Annie Wu

I only recently (in the last 18 months) got into reading comic books. Honestly, I never understood the appeal, and no one I knew read them when I was younger. But, I am so glad I started. They are a little intimidating to figure out (I still couldn’t tell you their naming/numbering system, it makes no logical sense), so when you first get going, I suggest starting with a solo series, collected issues devoted to single characters.

This review will focus on the recently completed origin story of America Chavez aka “Miss America”, written by Gabby Rivera. America is Marvel’s first Latin American LGBTQ character to have her own ongoing series. Rivera is also a queer woman of color, and their shared identity really makes America’s story shine. America previously appeared in Young Avengers and the Ultimates, among others, before landing her own story. There are 12 issues in this solo run, which have been compiled into two trade paperbacks, so I’ll discuss the series overall and then briefly both volumes in turn. Hot tip: a lot of public libraries have tons of trade paperback comics in their Teen collection, which is were I get 95% of the comics I read.

This comic doesn’t shy away from establishing America’s queer and Latinx identity. This comic is written partly in Spanish, which I found really authentic to her character, and having “Spanglish” in the book is something Rivera pushed for. I wanted to look up translations, and had fun doing it, but the plot is totally understandable even if you don’t want to spend time translating. Found family is a major theme in America’s origin story. America doesn’t have a relationship with her family, for a variety of reasons, which are revealed a little bit in Vol 1 and more in depth through Vol 2. America puts in the emotional energy required to create and maintain friendships and mentorships that serve as her found family. Getting to witness America and her friends showing up for each other again and again is where this series shines. My minor complaint is that I don’t find the villains, the Midas Corporation and La Legion, all that compelling. Though, I often find the villains in superhero stories to be boring, so maybe it’s a me thing. Exterminatrix, the main villainess is an over the top fun and sexy character, so while some of the “evil” plot lagged, it was always visually appealing. Speaking of the art, diversity is front and center. America is drawn very curvy and muscular. There are characters of all body types, races, orientations and planetary origins. In fact, America’s bff Kate Bishop, a white woman, is often the odd one out.

America Vol 1

America Vol 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez

America’s series opens with her relationship falling apart just as she is getting ready to head off to college at Sotomayor University. The first six issues feature two ex-girlfriends, one with questionable motives, and a few amazing best friends. One thing that shines through in this series is how in touch with pop culture Rivera is, and how culturally relevant she wanted this series to be. It’s America’s story, but it is also an every woman story. Struggling to adapt and adjust to young adult life is relatable and America’s superhero duties create compelling complications in her life. Based on the story arc and Rivera’s letters to readers, I think Rivera wanted young women to see America succeed and conquer obstacles in her own life and for that success to provide inspiration and hope to her readers. To know we are all fighting the bigger battles together.

America Volume 2

America Vol 2: Fast and Fuertona

This second half of her series is a beautiful origin story. Turns out, not only was America born to two queer women, her home planet was created by two goddesses. The space art in this series is a feast for your eyes. Watching America come into her own and deal with her family trauma and baggage is where this story shines. At one point we get her thoughts and she thinks “I have the right to be joyful. Despite all the sad, hard bits…” and it really resonated with me both from a queer experience mindset, but also in navigating the world we live in.

Ultimately, America will need to use all her life skills she’s been building over the series and enroll all of her friends to help her defeat the Midas Corporation. The world and character building Rivera does in the first half of the arc pays off and cements America’s place in the Marvel-verse as one of the most powerful female superheroes around.

While America’s solo run ended in April 2018, if you need more, she just joined the West Coast Avengers team in August. My only hesitancy in diving into that series is the difference between how Gabby Rivera writes America Chavez & Kate Bishop in her solo run and how Kelly Thompson who is at the helm of WCA writes them in Kate Bishop’s solo series Hawkeye. Rivera writes America with her queerness in the forefront. I feel like Thompson writes queer characters as if their queerness is the least relevant thing about them, rather than central to the way they move in the world. For me there is an experienced difference as a queer reader and it’s why #ownvoices really does matter. I still enjoy Thompson’s work (it’s very feminist), but not nearly the same way I love Rivera’s.

15 year old Mallarie Chaves wrote to Gabby Rivera about the impact the character America has had on her (her letter is reproduced at the end of Vol 2) and she specifically calls out that they look alike. Representation matters, a lot. While I think the run is clearly aimed at younger women, America’s message, never stop fighting for what you believe in, resonated with me, and I hope you are inspired to pick this comic up.

Mallory Lass reviews Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant

Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant cover

A semi-autobiographical comic about what a successful queer poly love story can look like and an offering on how one might go about navigating the complicated feelings that can accompany this journey.

Hazel is our main protagonist, a cute and shy nerd who wears her heart on her sleeve. She lives in New York City and works as a comic book artist. She is home in Portland visiting her family over the holidays.

Gregor is a fellow New York City comic artist that Hazel is dating. He is also dating a girl from out of town named Rebecca, and they are set to meet in NYC while Hazel is home in Portland.

Argent is a longtime resident of Portland, experienced in the poly community and also a dominatrix that goes by the name “Hazel Hawthorne”. Argent and Hazel meet at a dance party when she first arrives home and Hazel cannot believe her good fortune.

Over four beautifully illustrated issues, we get to be voyeurs in Hazel’s life as she works through her feelings toward Gregor: jealousy, love, and confusion. Argent becomes Hazel’s guide into polyamory, consensual committed non-monogamy. Over their first date Argent asks Hazel about her boyfriend, Gregor, and also shares about her own long distance relationship of 9 years with fellow comic booker and tattoo artist, Chloe.

Hazel is also on the receiving end of a few pointed but gentle lessons from Argent, like when it’s appropriate to speak about/our someone as a sex worker in public (spoiler alert, never). Hazel figures a lot out about herself, who she wants to be, and how to navigate her romantic relationships moving forward.

This comic is a visual feast. The colors are a mix of pastels and warm oranges and it’s beautiful work you can fall into. The characters are diverse and sexy. Argent is curvy and confident and full of unique style. Other minor queer characters Argent and Hazel interact with over the course of the story are masculine of center, people of color and more.

Despite Gregor (more acurately, Hazel’s feelings about him) being a significant part of the story, the romance captured in these collected issues is focused on Hazel and Argent. I couldn’t be happier with how the story ended, and I hope you check it out. A must have for indy queer comics fans.

Check out a preview of the comic here.

A page from Sugar Town, showing Hazel seeing Argent across the room, hearts in her eyes

Mars reviews Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover

It’s hard to boil this one down. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a complex portrait of a complex family. Let no one tell you that graphic novels cannot be intense reckonings of literature, especially not when they have become staples of the modern lesbian literary canon and have been reproduced as a very successful Tony-award winning Broadway production.

In a very basic sense, Fun Home is an autobiography of the author’s life, from a young tomboy to an out-and-proud lesbian, in the context of her father’s life right up until his maybe suicide, maybe accidental death only a few short months after she came out to her parents and in turn came to learn of her father’s own troubled sexuality. Bechdel paints a portrait of her father as a stern, intellectual figure who was clearly devoted to his family but struggled to reconcile his role within it with his apparent homosexuality. The backdrop of this story is the 1970s (the author recalls passing New York City’s Stonewall Inn as a girl shortly after the infamous riots), a time during which sexual or gender queerness was criminal. We must wonder that if Bechdel’s collegiate sexual awakening was radical, how can we understand her father’s own lifetime of repressed sexuality? This is among the key tensions that Bechdel is trying to work out here.

In Fun Home, her father Bruce is remembered as a high school English teacher and sometimes small-town mortician obsessed with classic literature and 19th century historical preservation. He is defined by his obsessions because, as the author notes, they are the clearest lenses through which she could understand him. Indeed, Bechdel uses an apt metaphor comparing her father to the Greek figure Daedalus and herself to his son Icarus, and wonders: “Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?”

As children become adults, there is a well-known phenomenon of disillusionment which occurs, whereby magical parental authority is stripped away and parents can be understood as the flawed, struggling humans who they actually are. That Bechdel didn’t have the opportunity to reach this stage with her father, who died while she was in college at the age of 44, is an explanation for his almost mythological status here. It’s also evident in the conflicting feelings of resentment and affection that Bechdel’s self-stylized character struggles with throughout the book.

As affectionately as Bechdel illustrates nights playing piano with her father, strutting around in his old suits, and borrowing books from his personal library upon recommendation, readers begin this story by seeing a violent, abusive, and overall terrifying father figure. Family secrets, comic and shameful, feature as important narrative points in this book. Although it is tucked away in the acknowledgements, I think the best summary of this story is this note from Bechdel to her remaining family: “Thanks to Helen, Christian, and John Bechdel for not trying to stop me from writing this book.”

This is not lighthearted reading. The author’s ambivalent narration of events as they are recalled from her often vague childhood journals are riddled with obsessive-compulsive inaccuracies can be jarring. On the scale of tragic versus comic, this life story does seem to lean more one way than another. As stated from the outset though, this is a complex portrait of a complex family. It is full of rich literary references, scenes of a childhood innocence preserved through childish ignorance, and the longing for a familial connection that never achieved its full potential.

For more info on Alison Bechdel and Fun Home, check out this interview she did with The Guardian.

Marthese reviews The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance edited by Melanie Gillman and Kori Michele Handwerker

other-side

“Anyway, I’m pretty sure malevolent spirits wouldn’t scrub your bathtub”

The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance is, as the name implies, a queer paranormal romance comic anthology, published in July 2016. I had donated to a crowd-funding campaign for this anthology and I’ve been meaning to read it since it arrived in my inbox.

The anthology starts with some words from Melanie Gillman on the importance of representation in literature. A little disclaimer from my end; this is not a lesbian anthology, it’s a queer anthology which represents various genders. The stories are all non-explicit and quiet romantic.

I cannot go into much detail since the stories are short by my favourite stories were “Ouija Call Center”, “Shadow’s Bae”, “Till Death” and “Yes No Maybe”. “Ouija Call Center” is about a client that uses an Ouija call center to contact someone diseased and the operator! “Shadow’s Bae” is about a monster that becomes friends with a human and they stand up for each other. “Till Death” is a cute story and critical comic about an elderly couple and ghosts that stand up for their community against gentrification. Finally, “Yes No Maybe” is a comic about a tenant who tries to contact the ghost that’s in the apartment and is really adorable.

The art in the anthology varies from piece to piece; they are all so different from each other but this helps to distinguish one story from the other. The length on the story, I believe, is just right–not too long or too short.

The anthology as a whole has a lot of diversity in its representation of gender, ethnicity, culture and age. This collection does not shy away from using different cultures and mythologies for its base and does not include just stories with young characters. Many characters were people of colour. The relationships in the different stories are usually between a human and a supernatural being. Overall, most of the stories are really fluffy and cute so be warned! Although some had a darker tint.

What I like about this anthology are two things: its general cuteness and its queerness. There is a lot of representation for people out of the gender binary spectrum. This book is like a safe space, to enjoy a story rather than who is in the story. I’d recommend this book to those interested in comic anthologies, quirky criticism, cute stories, paranormal and overall stories that go beyond gender.

Lena reviews No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics edited by Justin Hall

I probably should start off by addressing my biases.  I’m one of those people who thought Allison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” actually was one of the best books of the past ten years, one of those people who knows all the staff at the local comic book store and, although I try to smile and nod sympathetically, I’m one of those people who can’t figure out why someone would say, “Comics just don’t do it for me.”  There are pictures and words and sometimes superheroes – anything can happen.

With those disclaimers, “No Straight Lines” is kind of a literary wet dream.  It’s a queer comic anthology that does an impressive job of not only showcasing the best of the last forty years of queer comics, but also giving an sensitive and interesting look at the development of the queer identity.

We begin with a fascinating introduction by editor Justin Hall.  While addressing the conceit of the book, Hall’s introduction also serves as a crash course for those of us, myself included, who don’t know much about the origins of queer comics.  It creates a nice frame of reference for the comics that follow.

The body of the book is divided into three sections: “Comics Come Out: Gay gag strips, underground comix, and lesbian literati,” “File under Queer: Comix to comics, punk zines and art during the plague,” and “A New Millennium: Trans creators, webcomics, and stepping out of the ghetto.”  From there the comics are presented without comment as they were originally published.

In the first section we see the early uses of the comic medium to express a queer voice as well as some really amazing Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas paper dolls.  Although lesbians are openly depicted, it is obvious that the cartoonists were still grappling with the sense of “wrongness” associated with the lesbian identity.  Lesbian characters in these comics are shown living within the gothic trope of the madwoman in the haunted castle, imprisoned by a society with satirically harsh laws against homosexuality or having to flee or escape from conventional society.  While these scenarios are all painted in a humorous light, often reclaiming the tropes, there is also a serious attempt to address the mainstream perception that lesbianism is something wrong.

This process is best illustrated by the short comic by Joyce Farmer in which a young girl has a crisis of identity when she realizes the knight she has been fantasizing about is really Ingrid Bergman in drag for the movie “Joan of Arc.”  I myself had a similar crisis at around the same age, except there was no suit of armor to skew Ingrid Bergman’s gender identity in “Casablanca.”  But unlike me, the girl in Farmer’s comic only finds herself in crisis after she is attacked by a friend for her interest in Ingrid.  In contrast to most of the comics in this section, in the last panel we see her wondering what could be wrong with her.

Moving from general perceptions of the queer community, the second section deals specifically with the AIDS virus and its catastrophic effects.  The section begins with one of the few color spreads of the volume, a beautiful and heartbreaking piece from “7 Miles a Second” about the sheer rage that transforms the speaker into a giant, depicted smashing through the steeple of a church.  In the pieces directly relating to the impact of AIDS, there is an increase of shadows and darkness in the art as well as breathtaking honesty.  For someone like me, who was too young to know the worst of the AIDS crisis in America, these comics felt incredibly real and demonstrated how important it is to keep telling those stories.

The act of telling these stories also brings an increase in the first-person narrator.  The earlier comics were often narrated by an outside voice or without a narrator, but as the subject matter becomes more internalized, we see the development of a queer autobiographical voice.  These first-person story-comics were some of my favorites in the book including a gay man’s experiences in Israel (“Weekends Abroad” – Eric Orner) and a beautiful retrospective of a relationship (“Emile” – Fabrice Neaud).  The lesbian comics featured use this voice to explore the creation of  lesbian space; a place were a lesbian identity could flourish away from the rules and moulds of heteronormative society.  There is an effort to define and redefine lesbian stereotypes in comics such as “Bitchy Butch, the world’s angriest dyke” (Roberta Gregory) to give them more depth and clarity.  But such redefinitions often fell flat for me because those stereotypes have morphed in the years since those comics into something else entirely.

The move towards re-identity and re-definition of a lesbian or queer experience carries us out of the second section and into the third.  Allison Bechdel gets straight to the point of the with her comic, “Oppressed Minority Cartoonist,” in which the lesbian label is limiting rather than defining and she would rather simply be a cartoonist.  New voices emerge in the form of trans and genderqueer creators and we see an exploration of new ways to be queer and their impact on the preexisting queer community.   The trans voice is fascinating, but I felt like a lot of the comics dealt with issues that I had just seen comics exploring in the first part of the book.  There is a return to the justification of a queer identity against societal pressure and an anxiety about being gay that hadn’t felt as prevalent in the comics of the eighties and nineties.  I don’t know if this is a product of today’s society as being queer is often fetishized by mainstream media while at the same time our social and political rights continue to be jeopardized and attacked.

As Hall readily admits in his introduction, it is always hard for an anthology to cover everything.  Many of the comics included are selections from longer works and I was often left with a feeling of missing a larger story.  They also struggle with alienating younger readers such as myself.  While stories from the early years of AIDS brought me clarity there were plenty of references and scenes that simply went over my head.  But comics Hall has included present the artist growth and development of a community through four decades and a wonderful piece of queer history.