Queer Smuggler-Duggery: Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco

Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco cover

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(Note: This book is a sequel but can be enjoyed without reading the previous one)

Fans of historical fiction with high-stakes hijinks and well-developed human characters with strong internal compasses can rejoice! Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco opens on the early days of organized labor and careens headlong into a riveting world of gunfights, train heists, and scheming smuggler-duggery that doesn’t let up on its deeply immersive historicism for the next 300+ pages.

The first page also features this gem of a quote “Alma Rosales is sweating through every layer of the men’s clothes she calls home”.

The main POV character is said Alama Rosales, an unrepentant, fiercely loyal bisexual who has realized that a man’s persona suits her appetites and ambitions far better than skirts ever did. She’s a former member of the Pinkertons (Women’s Division) who long ago traded in that history for a chance to reinvent herself as hardened, hardscrabble stevedore and opium smuggler “Jack Camp”. That hard-earned equilibrium is disturbed when dead bodies begin to show up in unlikely places, attracting a figure from her past with secrets Alma would rather not face, and another from the ever-encroaching future she has to, sooner or later.

As the history and progress collide in the frontier harbor she’s come to call home, Alma is forced to confront exactly how far she’s willing to go to preserve everything she’s built on the unforgiving shore of Tacoma, 1888.

Rough Trade is at times a brilliantly twisty thriller, a tightly-examined glimpse into life on the early edge of American mythmaking, and a roustabout adventure that centers the people who kept the economy going both above and below the board and the table at the turn of the twentieth century. It is grounded in those realities, and the spaces socioeconomic marginalization made for all the aching beauty and equally fraught compromises that accompanied then-outlawed queer desires. In that way, it is also a heartfelt book and an unromantic one, about the freedom that comes from connecting to people who see you for yourself, in the risks of getting lost in a persona but also everything that can be gained when a fiction allows you to reveal who you want to be so bad you can taste it in your dreams. 

There is something uncompromising about the way Carrasco’s characters exist. I appreciated how they feel lived-in, like real people saying and doing what they think will bring them closer to their desires—and whose plans must change shape when those desires do, too. Identities in Carrasco’s vision of the Wild West are adaptable, craftable, at times malleable. They serve as shields, comforts, and weapons, all with a keen understanding of how they can be used in service of their wielders’ all-pervading wants. It felt like a breath of fresh air to delve so deeply into the negotiations and nuances of this story, and I strongly recommend it to readers who enjoy rollicking, tightly-plotted adventures with strong characterization.

Who Will Enjoy This?

  • People who want queer characters that rival the most ruffianish of cads historical fiction has ever conjured
  • People who really, really miss the feeling of reading a Sherlock Holmes story for the first time and want to revisit it at book length.
  • People who want Canada to be something other than a beacon of shining enlightenment FOR ONCE, lol.
  • People who really, really enjoy morally ambiguous queers guided by their own inner compass (even if the needle is a little/lot crooked)
  • People who want a period-accurate piece on gender nonconformity and queer life.

I can’t stress that last part enough. A book with period-accurate takes on gender-nonconformity and queer desire.

Who Might Think Twice?

  • People who want more focus on sapphic steam and intimacy than whatever the dudes are doing. There’s a lot more guy on guy (or genderfluid-masc on guy) action in these pages than explicit sapphic content, fyi. Lots of sapphic yearning, but I fully understand anyone who is tired of reading about that and wants period-accurate five-chili-rating reads. You won’t find that here but for one scene. It is a delightful scene, though, and very bittersweet in context.
  • People who want HEAs for all their queer characters. Or all the characters they become emotionally invested in.
  • People who don’t like unresolved character arcs. This is actually the second book in a series, not that I knew that going in…

Content warnings: murder, violence, drug use

Sapphic Slice of Life in Pastels: Rainbow! Vol. 1 by Sunny & Gloom

the cover of Rainbow Vol 1

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Boo is a high schooler who likes cute outfits, daydreaming, and also the new girl at school (maybe). New girl Mimi—with her wild mint-colored mane, low tolerance for sleazy douchebags, and modern-day chivalry —seems like the perfect “prince” to give Boo the whirlwind high-school romance of her dreams. Much to her frustration, though, Boo isn’t a shoujo main character. She’s a teenager who’s busy trying to help pay the bills and save herself from her mother’s ceaseless string of poor decisions. But with a little help, our bright-but-beleaguered protagonist might finally have a shot at some kind of happy.

Rainbow! Vol 1 is a heartfelt, sincere story that tackles some difficult, darker themes while never sacrificing either its sense of emotional grounding or first-love butterflies*. I have a weakness for the gentle comedy of kindly awkward characters being awkwardly kind to each other, and let me tell you, this has that in spades.

I also have a weakness for pastels and soft lines (Steven Universe backgrounds live rent-free on my laptop and phone screens to this day). The pink-mint-heliotrope scheme of the comic is soothing on the eyes, sweet on the sensibilities and so cute that I finally understood the literal meaning of “kawaii“.

And speaking of Steven Universe, the art style exudes Cartoon Network vibes, with a splash of shoujo and Erica Henderson-esque elements that will hit older readers right in their nostalgia sweet spot. It certainly did for me.

I’ve been following this on Tapas for a while, where you can read ahead if the ending leaves you wanting more. In particular, I appreciate how the readers can find a lifeline in the budding relationship between Boo and Mimi when the storyline takes a turn for the heavier—much like Boo herself is beginning to. No matter how rough things get, that hope is like the rainbow at the end of the storm.

Overall, this is a sweet sapphic slice-of-life story centered around two high schoolers trying to figure out who they are outside of the expectations imposed on them, and maybe falling in love in the process.

Content Warnings for bullying, parental neglect and substance abuse

*Fans of Heartstopper will definitely find a lot to love here, but if I, personally, had to draw a graphic novel comparison, I’d say it reads something like if Emile Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters switched out the horror for shoujo-ai and the adult audience for YA readers. It might seem like an odd comparison, but the complicated family dynamics, treatment of tropes as a source of comfort, and handling of the way Boo’s fantasia act as a slipstream lens through which she copes with reality and her feelings of alienation all reminds me of Ferris’s iconic work.

A Memoir of Medical Bias—Bless the Blood: A Cancer Memoir by Walela Nehanda

the cover of Bless the Blood

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Bless The Blood: A Cancer Memoir is a striking book that gets under your skin and stays there for days afterward. Though billed as a YA book, the writing and story hold a depth of feeling and insight that will engage far older readers, too. Hospitals, homes, intimate relationships and even one’s own skin are explored as sites playing host to complex histories. Framed by references to Cynthia Parker Ohene and Audre Lorde, Walela Nehanda threads a poetics of class, race and gender that shows how those constructs tangibly mediate who has access to certain spaces and their attendant expectations of care.

There is wisdom in Nehanda’s depiction of the ways relationships function as spaces for the people in them. And inversely, how spaces are shaped by the connections people make there. Some books really get to the heart of that old saying “a house is not a home”—this is one of the few that goes further by suggesting that a body isn’t always a home, either.

Teeming with generational trauma and an aching love-hunger that breaks through in paragraphs and poems about sickness, recovery, affection, intimacy, and history, this is a book that refuses to be reducible to inspiration porn. There is a lot of unvarnished pain here: it beats and seeps and leaps out of the page, sinking into the sorest parts of anyone who has ever found themselves at odds with their body, anyone who has ever felt the acute violence of having their bodies treated as alienable. 

But these recollections are accompanied by memories of healing and true connection that remind me of one of my favorite aspects of queer media: the defiance of portraying communal moments of revelry and unapologetic joy. These moments offer a small antidote to the seemingly incessant indignities Nehanda encounters in trying to access care through institutions that diminish compassion into a sort of charity contingent on the seeker’s performance of acceptable respectable acquiescence to unjust norms. It is a keenly relevant story, and only becoming more so as the conversation and activism around medical bias gains momentum.

The book’s archetypal figures and icons are also from a media moment that younger readers (I’m including twenty-somethings in this), will find timely. Close readers might be left wondering why there is more “prestige” in the exploits of long-dead hellenics than Captain American or Black Panther—and how our insistence on pretending that the former are more universal than the latter only goes to show how deeply those stories have been decontextualized in service of modern myths about what is “natural” or just.

I will admit fully that I am very partial to this sort of mythic deconstruction. I appreciate authors who staunchly refuse the opiate of presumed objectivity and instead fiercely reckon with the implicit messages and specificity of our shared stories. There is a passion in these pages that I found refreshing, and which I hope this review does justice to.

Who Will Enjoy This: People who thought The Remedy was poignant, timely and want to read more deeply personal stories about the struggles of accessing care (both medical and otherwise) as a gender-expansive person of color (here, a Black person in America). People who enjoy memoirs in verse, or poetry about the poet’s relationship with their body and others. People who think “formalism” is another word for “limitation”. People who enjoy science fiction metaphors for biomedical ideas.

(Seriously, Nehanda’s description of leukemia and their body as a besieged planet is all I’ve been talking about to anyone who will listen for the past week)

Who Might Think Twice: If you’re currently dealing with healthcare bias and difficulties of your own, this book will either reassure you that you are not alone or leave you emotionally exhausted. Your miles may vary. Nehanda pulls no punches in either their remembrances of or their viscerally unflinching depiction of their pain.

Decadence and Decay: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary (March 5, 2024) is a considered, sorrowful, masterfully atmospheric story about mourning and the costs of surviving outside of society’s protective frameworks. It is also the story of two women in conflict with their inherited and inherent longings around family, companionship and intimacy—one from the past and one from sometime like our present.

Echoes of old-school gothic—in the vein of Rachilde or Poe—permeate Yuszczuk’s prose. And much like those bygone writers, her story is one that poetically captures the complicated moralities of relationships entangled in sociopolitical and material histories.

This is not a vampire romance in the modern sense. The seductions are married to viscera-spilling violence, the decadence marred by decay*, and a sense of bated unsettlement lingers over both the streets and lives our first narrator moves through in her quest for survival. Though she has centuries of experience, she is not immune to the same vices she exploits in others, and is in turn refreshingly slow to condemn them.

The second narrator is much less glamorous. A recent divorcee who’s barely coping with her mother’s terminal illness and hospitalization, our second narrator is struggling but refuses to admit that her white-knuckling isn’t sustainable. That she cannot go on as she always has, that relationships cannot continue in a state of suspended animation. While the past is punctuated by conclusive events and deaths, the present lingers—plastic flowers and medical equipment keep memories alive past well-meaning. We feel the narrator’s frustration, her alienation and desperation and heartache.

I enjoyed the narrators’ lack of hypocrisy and abundance of interiority. I also appreciated how the novel retains all of their dark and stylistic delight, without the aching inconclusiveness or censor-friendly endings of its pulpy and gothic paperback predecessors—even if the title and cover art are practically begging for an appositive colon.

It’s a clever title, and a colloquial pun. But Yuszczuk’s novel complicates the construction of lust as a base instinct on par with hunger or titular thirst. Lust, desire, eroticism and art are all defiant distractions from the inevitable, and their fulfillment requires the sort of communication and connection that those most basic activities do not.

The second half deals more with grief and more clearly reveals veins of Sheridan Le Fanu’s influence. Some of the scenes reminded me of reading Carmilla for the first time. The tension, the confusion, the delicate language building into bloody, sensual intimacy that is hardly explicit but unquestionably erotic.

Thirst is the sort of book that benefits from second reading or a slow first one. It’s not heavy-handed, but it would be a rich digestif to Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 opus—and is more than a little likely to appeal to fans of that book. While most of the women’s anxieties are tangible and described in grounded detail, their phantastic responses (as well as the ways wealth, privilege, generational fears and architecture are represented) squarely situate this work within the gothic tradition. I also take this as a historical win— we’re past the period when “hysteria” was a valid diagnosis and when women had to veil lived traumas under layers of metaphor.

As with most translated literature, particularly ones that are heavily descriptive, subtly humorous, or in conversation with historical works, there is a chance that a little something may have been lost in translation. And while I haven’t yet read the original, I can attest that Heather Cleary’s translation maintains a lush, tactile lyricism that swept me into the history, even when the perspective was contemporary enough to reference the recent Coronavirus pandemic. 

The vibes were, to put it succinctly, immaculate.

Content warnings: violence, euthanasia

*Some might argue that the close juxtaposition of decay only heightens decadence by contrast. I personally feel that it’s more about how people seek out beauty and small pleasures even in dreary circumstances, but you do you.

Piercingly Insightful Poetry: The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by Mimi Tempestt

the cover of The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by Mimi Tempestt

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From the epigraph to the end, this book is clear-eyed about its aims and its author’s perspective. Tempestt’s writing draws the reader in as a participant, with mentions of readers, watchers, audiences that are not confrontational, but certainly not abstracted. Reading this collection felt like watching spoken word, or another kind of embodied performance. Even their most numinous ideas are tangible, and felt within the reader’s body. This sort of experience can become consumptive, but Tempestt’s lyrical acknowledgement of these possible dynamics means the close reader has to interrogate their own relationship to the text.

What are the boxes offered to you, and what becomes of you when you cannot fit, contort yourself to fit, or decide to totally reimagine the presumed binary of these interactions entirely? It’s like those Barbara Kruger pieces—what do you hope art will do for you even when, especially when, it’s not a mirror?

Tempestt adds to that conversation, questioning how the commodification of artists’ pain and grief perpetuates power dynamics, and reflects entrenched values that prioritize certain approaches over other, equally poignant but under-published ones.

She understands the demands of performance acutely, intimately, and expresses them with a beautiful poeticism. The deforming weight of others demands and needs—both the explicitly coercive and the more implicit, insidious sorts that can arise in intimate relationships and workplaces and alike—are all rendered here. But it is not a bleak work. The poems are full of anger, frustration, also strength, joyful reminiscence, and even a sort of timeless expansiveness in the titular one.

I hesitate to use the word “metaphysical” because it conjures up the sort of philosopher-types whose practices and philosophies are shot through with the sort of categorical essentialism that does not necessarily align with this work’s core spiral symbolism. Or the synecdochal head-shop proprietor whose commercial enterprise’s interiors have sensorially co-opted incense from the practices of currently colonized faiths. But it is either that or the word “transcendental,” and personal connotative grievances aside, there is a sense of something magical in Tempestt’s verse. It is grounded, but there is also something more beneath that earth.

Death and discontent can become defanged when broken into art. But Tempestt’s writing keeps its edges, its piercing-flesh insights. The last piece, a short immersive play, was one of my favorites. The prose was incisive, with both the violence and precision of a fine scalpel, cutting through thick skin and protective coverings to reveal something visually red and viscerally tender. 

All that said, I’ve always been drawn to the ambiguousness of poetry, where the interpretation often says as much about the reader as the creator. It can be a site for shared understandings, or one that clearly demarcates the reader’s alienation from the emotional truths of the poet. 

This collection was engaging, clever, poetic and expressive. I strongly recommend it to people who enjoy formally-unconstrained but deftly shaped poetry with word-playfulness that seamlessly maintains its heft and intensity.

What is the Point of Art?: Reflections On FlameCon

Last Christmas, a close friend turned to me and plaintively, frustratedly asked “What is the point of art?”

Our table had been discussing the increasing reports about creative exploitation and unfair compensation in film and television. The cloudy night had cast a gloomy mood over us despite the holiday cheer, our low spirits punctuated by our shared inability to come up with a convincing answer. I left dinner discontent, her words spinning in my mind sans resolution.

But a little over half a year later, I found one at FlameCon. Amidst the brilliant colors, cosplays and ebullient chatter occasionally interrupted by the loud enthusiasm of people finally meeting a favorite creator or one whose work really got them in their hyper-specific sweet spot for sapphic selkie girls or messy, morally ambiguous alien anthropologists, I saw how the shared language of fandom, of queer art theory, of the internet-enabled intersection between the two, was all bringing people together.

a photo of Alyssa Wong wearing a rainbow mask and holding up Doctor Aphra comics

Alyssa Wong, current writer for my most favorite Star Wars thing ever: the Doctor Aphra comics. This is for all of you who think a museum heist in outer space sounds like a fun date night idea. It is also for any sapphic who envied Han Solo’s swagger and was also totally convinced they’d have treated Leia way better than him…. even though your dating history strongly suggests otherwise.

Even as the United States sees massive rollbacks to basic LGBTQ+ rights and literary freedom, queer stories are more in demand than ever—I walk through the YA section of my local library regularly, filled with the bittersweet delight of seeing an ever-growing number of explicitly sapphic books on the shelves. We didn’t even have Pride Month displays when I was a kid, and I only stumbled upon Malinda Lo’s Ash after a straight crush told me it was “weird”. But now, there are organized movements vocally, visually defending the right to read graphic novels like Fun Home, Moonstruck, Gender Queer, and This One Summer. I couldn’t even say the word gay until I started college, let alone imagine going to a fan convention that celebrates both the biggest out names on the Big 2 roster and the smallest self-published zine creators with abundantly gay abandon.

“FlameCon is so beautiful, because this is something we didn’t have in the small press, self-publishing world 10 years ago. And it was always fun because, like finding those other creators walking around, you form that community in ‘meatspace’. And then they become the people that are recommending stuff and you’re reading their stuff. They’re helping you find other stuff. Because I know you’ve all said titles that I’ve never heard of, you know? That sort of thing is really cool when you’re going through a conversation.”

~ Greg Lockard (he/him

With its volunteer-run programming and many, many self-published book and zine sellers, FlameCon offers attendees a little oasis of creator-controlled and riotously boundless self-expression. It’s a chance for people to network, take note of rising talent, and celebrate the stories that mean the most to them. Usually by completely transforming them. Alternate New Yorks, Superbat kisses, and bloodstained femgaze fighters are just a taste of what’s on display. There was also, as always, a spectacular array of anime merch that eluded my not insignificant knowledge of the genre.

I was pleased to note, however, that recent internet trends had sparked new fervor for the Trigun franchise. Merilly fanfiction has long been my safe harbor, the sort of tender, deeply felt sapphic relationship that doesn’t have the heightened emotional fraughtness of Harlivy or the raw-nerve traumatic underpinnings of Korrasami, Bubbline, Hollstein, or most other favorites. It warms my heart to watch others find such harbors for themselves, and then populate them with all manner of original works—like the grounded and sweet “Girls Like You” webcomic, or the unhinged goldmine that is SuperCorp fanfiction. Seriously, the ingenuity and independence of queer creators never ceases to surprise.

“…capitalism is not on our side. Capitalism is only interested in passing, advertising, marketing and so on to the widest market segment available. So we can’t even run a paid ad to tell you our stuff exists. Because we can’t advertise it, because the best we can do is maybe target like RuPaul’s Drag Race or a piece of media that is so large that Facebook thinks it’s worth targeting. So you are much better served by following creators.”

~ Chris Ceary (she/her

Don’t hesitate to follow people whose current project is not your thing, because their next project may be. Writers especially do all kinds of weird, weird things.”

~ S.W. Sondheimer (she/her

Which brings me to the point of it all. Art is our oldest and deepest form of communication, of connection. Whether that takes the form of riotous cheering after a speaker drops a deep-cut reference, or the audience’s knowing smiles when every panelist mentions a history of fanfic or fanart, there is a sense of community to be found through sharing stories. In finding the words to describe our experiences—finally being able to articulate who we are and knowing how we got here—we learn to understand others. Maybe not as well as ourselves, but there is something beautiful about the way art can offer us reflections that ring truer than anything we see in the backlit silhouettes on department store windows.

To paraphrase what Maia Kobabe said in the excellent short documentary “No Straight Lines”, sometimes we don’t recognize ourselves in photographs, in silver-lined mirrors whose reflections don’t offer much in the way of silver linings. But in art, we can draw/write/portray ourselves however we want. However we feel, need, believe, desire, live, and wish. And that can open up possibilities we couldn’t perceive before we took a pen in hand.

Art teaches us that we are not alone, and that shared passions can lie in unexpected people. Watching the milling crowds trading artwork and recommendations, I couldn’t help but smile. Because all those little communications open windows into others’ lives, offering languages both visual and textual for sharing and validating our experiences, and for making meaning of them. Those conversations show that people care, for better or worse, what others have to say about the world we live in. That they are still looking for stories to share, to adapt, to define the future they are building for themselves and others.

“If I am writing about a culture different than my own, I have multiple people from that background read my work, and I’m really sad that we use this term ‘sensitivity readers’. What I call it is fact checking. You know, if I put in a tractor mechanic, I want a tractor mechanic to read this and make sure it looks right.”

~ Jennifer Camper (she/her

On another panel, Charlie Jane Anders and other spec fic writers recommended Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other for all those aspiring writers wondering how to write diversity into their characters. Meanwhile, Camper continued with recommendations to at least start by reading works by people from the communities or identities you wish to represent, in order to see how they choose to represent themselves—and why.

a photo of Jennifer Camper wearing a black mask and holding up the book I am Not a Terrorist: And Other Stories
a photo of Jennifer Camper's table of zines, sticker sheets, and books

Jennifer Camper and some of her contributions to queer comics history. This woman is an icon. Find a copy of “No Straight Lines” at your local (university?) library for a glimpse at the truly rich history of this slowly growing slice of self-expression.

Speaking of how people choose to represent themselves, I planned to write something poignant and touching about the panel on queer vampires, but I was so swept away by the energy and cheering and pure delight of being immersed in all my favorite aspects of my favorite niche interests (queer history, monstrousness in art, lesbian vampires, B-movie metaphors, etc.) that I came out of it with a sense of complete restorative well being…and that’s it. It’s amazing how wonderful those moments of total acceptance feel after a lifetime of self-censorship, how powerful, affirming and centering it is to experience such enthusiastic communal understanding. 

“I like working with Claudia Aguierre because…she’s a queer, lesbian, Mexican woman. And so I can write stuff in there that’s queer and Mexican...Like, there is a shorthand that I think comes with working with other queer people and it sometimes feels a little more like freedom. You’re like, “Okay, I don’t have to explain.””

~ Terry Blas (he/him

“I always bring all the different little pride stickers and lay them out. And then I get these kids who walk up and like, that’s awesome. These feral teens, it’s like “I see you, I was you, I get it” and I think that’s the key thing. We talk about things like gaydar—we do have a way of finding each other out in the world, which I think is really cool.”

~ David R. Slayton (he/him

This year, I bought a Vashwood print for someone close to me, who abruptly came out over the phone when I casually mentioned that I couldn’t talk because I was at “a gay comic-con”. 

This little anecdote is a testament to how even the most innocuous complaints about Ino and Hinata being a better endgame, or jokes about cosplaying “all the black-haired bisexuals” may come across as cringy to some, but show others that you are someone they can turn to. Someone they can trust. Someone who will hike up and down an artist’s alley to find them a slash print that is not gay enough to freak out their parents, but soft enough to offer hope for a loving future.

Symbols are powerful things, and as Barthes’ would likely agree, our modern mythmakers aren’t Homer, Ovid or Aesop (though their narrative structures and values continue to hold outsize influence). Our modern Hesiods include people like Stephanie Brown, Marjorie Liu, Kieron Gillen, and Natasha Alterici, whose art was one of the promotional prints for “Sharp Wit & The Company of Woman”. I love her art, and Heathen was an excellent interpretation of Norse mythology and regional history.

a photo of Stephanie Brown wearing a green mask holding the Nubia book

Stephanie Brown, writer for the Nubia series. I really appreciated the care Brown gave the characters’ backstories, as well as all the amazing artists who worked on the interiors. The cover gallery is gorgeous, too. It definitely benefits from a certain familiarity with DC comics lore, but it is a solid starting point for someone looking to dip their toes into the vast ocean of superhero comics.

While these creators may not be quite as canonized as the bust inspirations that came before, their contributions to queer imaginings are powerful refusals to soften edges, to keep room for complexity, fallibility and the driving forces of desire that echo through the most resonant legends. Their characters, in all their other-landishness, play with and subvert the abstraction of archetype to reveal far more boundary-blurring realities that hew closer to what it means to be human in an ever-changing and often destabilizing world. There are quiet reckonings on these pages, as world-shakers and mountain-movers make way for smaller-scale consequences that weigh no less heavy on their makers’ shoulders, or private pleasures that refuse to be generic or prescriptive, that insist on specificity and subjectivity for the characters even as their creators’ wink at the inspirations.

“…we get to problematize them and get to make them weirder and more interesting, but also simply more authentic sounding…I find if I’m writing a script for a comic where I know the artist is also queer, I don’t have to do as much work whereas if the artist is straight I’d have to be like ‘Male, handsome. Woman, don’t put the camera up her ass.’”

~ Anthony Oliveira (he/him

“I think things have really changed. And I hope they keep changing. And I hope that the more queer stories that we have out there, the more doors are open…now that we have more queer people writing queer characters…we don’t all have to be packaged a certain way to be respectable, to be commodified. So yeah, we’re just writing people, and people are messy and weird and delightful and awful, and it’s great.”

~ Alyssa Wong (they/them)

“Art requires truth” is one of the last lines from Mari Walker’s taut, disquieting 2021 character study See You Then. While I wasn’t able to attend the last panel on Intimacy in Comics, it was the line that came to mind while I was waiting for the train back home. In this era of microcurated realities and fandom mentalities that have spilled beyond con floors and discussion boards into arenas of greater effect, connection and the truth it demands of us take on new significance and meaning. Art takes on that meaning, that significance, that urgency. It becomes that hand reaching out through the obfuscation, opacity, fear and loathing; a reminder that there is so much more out in the world, and in history, than any of us can ever begin to experience. Can ever dream of imagining.

So make art, make love and tell the stories only you can.

a tweet from Yoshi Yoshitani that says, "To anyone who thinks 'oh I can't create this, it's already been done before :(' 

I have read approximately 50 'I was reincarnated as the villainess in an Otome game' stories and I am still looking for more. I will never tire of this.

So just make what you love"

NOTE: All the quotes are from published authors, artists, and editors. Check out their work!

A Tender Sapphic Graphic Novel Romance: If You’ll Have Me by Eunnie

the cover of If You'll Have Me

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If You’ll Have Me is a very tender, very human story about two women with their own baggage who realize that sharing the burden often makes it easier to bear.

Both Momo and PG have been unlucky in love, and their first meet-awkward hardly seems poised to change that. But as they spend more time together, their feelings and blush-strokes both begin to deepen.

It was refreshing to read a sapphic romance set in a college setting. As I get older, I’ve found myself gravitating towards stories with women who have come through the gauntlet of adolescence only to find they still have a lot of learning and growing to still do. I’ve also met more women who didn’t have their first relationships in high school, in undergrad, or until they started working. It is nice to see those stories get told, too—especially with such lovely artwork! Every panel, even the bluest, is so suffused with warmth. The color palette and linework are probably some of my favorites in recent memory. While the aesthetic influences are pretty clear, the art style also has its own unique signifiers.

I appreciated how the importance of communication was explored in this story. The different inter-character relationships are well written, and handled with warmth and sincerity while not shying away from the conflicts that can arise from good intentions. We see how Momo and PG interact with friends, family, and how those dynamics shape their interactions with each other. We get to know their support networks, their social habits, and this makes their private moments all that much more textured.

One of my favorite aspects of this story was the emphasis on showing rather than telling, which comics as a combined visual and written medium are uniquely suited to. Some of the conversations are just as shaped by what is not said as what is, and the panels where we see PG with her family do this beautifully. There is a weight behind their words, whole histories being considered in the spaces between the panels.

A Tender Foodie F/F Manga: She Loves to Cook, She Loves to Eat by Sakaomi Yuzaki

the cover of She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat by Yuzaki Sakaomi

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They say the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but in Sakaomi Yuzaki’s latest manga, that proves just as true for women.

She Loves to Cook, She Loves to Eat is a lovely, heartwarming story about two neighbors who bond over a shared love of food. Nomoto, an office worker with a passion for cooking and no one to finish off the epically-sized dishes she dreams of making, finally meets her match in Kasuga, her very tall, very reserved neighbor with a very, very large appetite—an appetite perfectly suited to dishes containing, say, eight eggs and over three pounds of rice.

The dialogues flow naturally in this excellent translation by Phil Christie, as does the character growth. While the two initially get off on a slightly awkward foot, a series of shared dinners slowly bring them closer together.

But what starts as mutual appreciation is beginning to show signs of developing into something deeper in these first two volumes. Between bashful daydreams, thoughtful gestures, and small steps outside of their respective comfort zones, the two women find themselves wanting to spend more time with each other. And more time looking at each other.

And as their feelings become more and more obvious, it shows clear as day on the page. Blush-lines and all.

a manga panel showing Nomoto and Kasuga eating together. Nomoto is looking at Kasuga and smiling with faint blush lines over her cheek and nose

Tell me this isn’t the face of a woman in love.

The slow simmering of the romance is poised to make it all the more satisfying. This is such a perfect comfort read—clever, funny, sincere and so full of love. The second volume has a bit about the cultural meanings of take-out boxes that had me in stitches.

The focus on food includes some truly delicious descriptions and illustrations, so I’d recommend reading this either on a full stomach or with some savories handy. For example, crab cakes and spicy peanut sauce (which is what I got up to make halfway through volume one!) or popcorn with melted cheese and sun-dried tomato pieces (the accompaniment to volume two).

If you prefer Japanese food inspired by the story, there are also recipes at the back of the books, so you can open to the last page and prepare something ahead of time…

the cover of She Loves to Cook, She Loves to Eat Vol 2

Fans of Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon and that soft, low-stakes romance-with-a-side-of-social-commentary centering two working women will find a similar slow-burn story here, albeit with more overt observations on gender roles and norms in modern Japan. It doesn’t shy away from nuisances like marriage pressure, misogyny and uncalled-for assumptions, but it does not let them take center stage, either. Unless it’s to gently, elegantly skewer them.

Whether portion sizes, passion or paychecks, the women are constantly expected to make do with less. But these diminishing encounters are subtly contrasted with the genuine appreciation, acceptance and admiration that Nomoto and Kasuga’s budding relationship is based on.

a panel showing Kasuga saying, "Speaking up sometimes makes a difference."

They really do care for each other so much and it’s so lovely to read. There are so many warm fuzzies, but it’s the grounded sort of tenderness that comes with age. I was smiling so much at the little kindnesses and considerations they had. It’s such a healthy relationship that never loses its sense of humor.

I mean, no one says that the quickest way to a woman’s heart is through her period cravings, but the author certainly understands!

Chapter 16 was the one that deviates a little from this vibe and delves into some heavier topics. It comes prefaced with an author’s note stating such. But it also has a Frog and Toad reference that proves a well-placed picture can express a thousand words. It’s a reminder of the ways queer youth find and make meaning from media that was never explicitly about them, but which made space for stories like theirs nonetheless. For a manga focused on acceptance, it is a series of fitting visuals.

The manga might also appeal to fans of the older m/m series What Did You Eat Yesterday by Fumi Yoshinaga. Granted, the plot seems to take precedence over the food so far, while it was the other way around in Yoshinaga’s manga, but I’m excited to see where it goes. Preferably, with a plate of loaded egg-battered fries on the side.

Volumes one and two are currently available in English, and Volume three is available for pre-order!

Books for When Life is Draining You Dry and You’d Rather a Lesbian Vampire Were Doing It Instead

From the pulpy paperbacks of bygone eras to the neon-saturated teen slashers of today, the vampire has been an integral figure in sapphic storytelling. I personally think the metaphor is a lovely way to explore how marginalization affects peoples’ perceptions of themselves and their relationships, and how “monstrousness” is largely subjective and socially constructed. Stories that subvert or skewer the trope can also remind us to not get lost in the roles others ascribe to us and to our desires, while providing space to engage with the otherwise taboo.

And sometimes, they are plain, unadulterated fun. Which is nothing to sneeze at.

the cover of Vampire Blood Drive

Take Vampire Blood Drive by Mira Ong Chua: When college freshman Bunny (whose first monologue humorously skewers the cliched “I’m-so-plain-and-normal” heroines of many YA/NA paranormal romances), signs up for a campus blood drive, she doesn’t realize who exactly the blood is meant for. Or how said recipients will, um, extract it.

Cue sensual biting scene.

The very FLUFFY sensual biting scene, that is. While it’s got some NSFW panels, the book focuses on the bumpy-but-sweet love story between the two characters on the cover. It has so much sweet fluff, I want to stuff it inside a s’more.

Bonus points for originality, because this vampire love interest breaks with the long tradition of melodramatic angsty femme bloodsuckers to give us a slightly clueless, but still very melodramatic butch! I love Velvet so much. She’s got an arsenal of flirting tactics taken straight from the hearts of fanfiction writers, but delivered with all the earnest sincerity of a woman who is nursing a massively adorkablecrush.

There is plenty of situational comedy lining our heroines’ paths to undying love, but they both are so kind (albeit occasionally misguided) that it is harmless, heartfelt, lighthearted humor. It’s is a comic I can always come back to at the end of a long day, a quick pick-me up that makes my toes curl and my heart warm.

If you like manga art and queer vampire women and copious amounts of cuteness with subtle character development and a world where people are blessedly straightforward—again, with enough fluff to drown a marshmallow—this is it. If you were the sort of teenybopper sapphic who nursed crushes on Sailor Moon characters and bought way too much Hot Topic merch, this book is for you.

the cover of Good Enough to Eat

Good Enough to Eat by Alison Grey and Jae: I love Jae’s books. They are such nice, cozy reads with complex but caring characters. So when I learned she had a vampire romance, I was all over it. This one’s an easy but meaty read—perfect for when you want to take a couple hours to unwind with something that isn’t pure fluff, but also not too narratively cumbersome.

The story starts off with a very nervous vampire trying to work up the courage to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Robin is in the acute stages of blood withdrawal and looking for support with her cravings. Trying to leave behind memories of almost-murder and a clan whose customs include truly callous violence is made all the more harder when she has to go up against price-gouging blood suppliers and her own body’s constant hunger in the struggle to hold onto her values. Shaken, struggling and feeling adrift, Robin arrives at the basement of Saint Mary’s church looking for some kind of lifeline.

Enter Alana, a smart, sexy divorce lawyer with secrets of her own. Still smarting from an old breakup and hesitant to dip her toes back into the dating pool, she hesitantly agrees to be Robin’s sponsor. But when sparks literally fly during their first meeting, both women begin a slow, intense game of push and pull that unspools over nearly two hundred pages before delivering another hundred and fifty pages of toe-curling, squee-worthy romance. While it would be classified as a slow-burn, the writing flows so well that I burned through it in a few hours. I truly didn’t realize how much time had passed until I finally finished.

I thought it was a really novel (lol) take on the vampire mythos, and the observations about cliches in paranormal romance writing (and what said cliches offer readers emotionally) were a nice little nod to fans of the genre. I will add that it does discuss AA practices in detail, which might be off-putting for people who haven’t had the greatest experiences with the program—particularly considering that there seems to be a pretty rigid moral binary between nonconsensual drinking from humans and using gross-tasting synthetic blood substitutes. The attempts at deeper ethical questions felt forced, superficial and a little pat. But if I set aside thoughts of these issues (forgive me, Hannah Arendt), and focus more on character development, I can appreciate the story for serving up messy, flawed lesbians! Sure, their moral cloudiness isn’t quite Killing Eve or Castelvania levels of questionable, but it’s very human.

Chapter 16 also has a family falling out with language that can be used as a parallel for homophobia, so readers might want to tread carefully there, too. The vampire clan is not taking too kindly to Robin’s attempts to leave behind their violent, vampire-supremacist attitudes and lashes out using language that is an pretty unsubtle allegory. But, as with certain season finales, pretending this last chapter does not exist will not detract from your enjoyment of the work as a whole.

The fact that the two leads spend so long in a state of some miscommunication while concealing their respective supernatural identities might also be frustrating to people, though I thought it lended realism to the dynamic and made the climactic moments more heightened.

The sex scenes are also realistic, tender and respectfully written while still being very steamy and sensual

Honestly, the Carmilla webseries and WWDITS have utterly ruined me for those staid, poised, cold-as-iced-cucumber vampires whose age has brought them unparalleled wisdom and unflappable, unfazeable flirtatiousness. Because let’s be real, most people would see immortality as just more time to scroll through social media and procrastinate on dealing with their existential dread. Give me vampires with passionate opinions and social awkwardness and all those oh-so-human foibles, but who want to connect with others deeply and sometimes desperately.

And on that note…

the cover of Carmilla

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu: a tense tragedy isn’t exactly high up on most people’s list of comfort reads, but at less than a 150 pages, this story doesn’t require arduous staying power after a week of brutal classes, while also giving you the satisfaction of a story well read. It’s melancholic and gothic, and reading it feels like the literary equivalent of one of those horror movies that works up your nerves only for you to find yourself a lot calmer after the fact. Every time I get to a particularly angsty bit, I remember the web series and all the progress we have made in society. And then I usually end up watching episodes of the web series—which is a lot of fun, has a HEA, and offers much lighter-hearted stress relief. The miniseries also absolutely revelled in its deliciously dark academia aesthetic, well before the concept had a hashtag.

The plot is about as straightforward as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but with less overt xenophobia. A lot less. It definitely leans into the whole “predatory lesbian” thing, though, so fair warning. Long story short, an lonely little girl named Laura starts having weird dreams about some strangely beautiful creature sneaking into her bedroom at night. Though she is unsettled by these ambiguous dreams, Laura’s wealthy father ensures that she spends her childhood in relative ease and comfort. She spends most of this time in true gothic fashion, without any friends her own age and constantly yearning for a companion, for someone she can be close to who isn’t her doting pater.

Her idyllic isolation is rudely interrupted in her eighteenth year, when a carriage accident deposits the girl from her dreams on her family’s doorstep. As the mysterious, secretive Carmilla slowly weaves her way into Laura’s affections, the latter finds herself beset by increasingly strange coincidences and occurrences, culminating in the return of those strange dreams. Except now, they are full-blown nightmares that plague her sleep.

Gee, I wonder what’s biting her?

I’m also probably partial to this story because the Carmilla web series was my sapphic epiphany and I will forever have a soft spot for the vampire stuff. It’s a fun delight when it’s well done, and can be a pleasurable diversion in the right spirit. Sure, life sucks sometimes, but the stories we tell and share help our experiences enliven us, before living on in archival immortality. They offer no small amount of campy, heartfelt, exceedingly human enjoyment, which can be radical in its redressal of the status quo’s simplistic definitions, its caricatured demons.

I mean, there has to be a reason why certain characters feature prominently in the formative fantasies of no small number of sapphics…

a screenshot of three cartoon vampire women