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.

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!

The Lesbrary Goes To Flame Con 2022 — Anna N.

Let’s see if I can keep my rhapsodizing to a minimum. Because from the moment I walked into the conference hall, there was a vibrancy in the air. Everyone I encountered during Flame Con was absolutely unabashed in their sheer fannishness, wearing their fandoms on their backpacks, jackets, and jaw-dropping cosplays.

You know you’re in for a good time when the panelists themselves are decked out in geek chic.

PT I – Marginalization, Manga, and More Sapphic Stories

I kicked off my own explorations with a presentation where literary researcher Erica Friedman enthusiastically detailed the history of yuri manga, which was a solid start to the con, because I am hard-pressed to find a single illustrator/animator this side of forty who hasn’t been influenced by or intensely devoured anime and/or manga growing up.

the cover of By Your Side

The founder of Yuricon, Friedman has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, from its early, overly stylized manifestations to the more complex, nuanced stories that have been coming out (pun intended) in recent years. You can learn more details about this interesting, niche history in Friedman’s book By Your Side: The First 100 Years of Yuri Anime and Manga, in which she traces the evolution of the genre from the 1940s to today. The book has all the academic minutiae you’d expect from a seasoned researcher, and all the delightful musings you’d expect from a seasoned fan. A dry text this is not, and if you’ve been put off by the genre for its admitted overreliance on cheesy tropes and “lesbian content without lesbian identity”, Friedman’s book will both contextualize their histories as well as offering recommendations for some of the more innovative, subversive works*.

Speaking of anime and manga, I also stopped by Kat Calamia and Phil Falco’s table in the artist show room. They are the creative team behind one of my favorite sapphic webcomics, Slice of Life. A sort of reverse-isekai**, the plot begins when picture-perfect high school cheerleader Lucy wakes up to a loud scream in the middle of the night. Panicked, she runs into her little sister Ravyn’s room and sees that the protagonist from Ravyn’s favorite anime has come through the TV screen and is now the deuteragonist of her own, less-than-picturesque lesbian identity crisis.

To give Lucy credit, she is the blonde to Yuriko’s brunette. And if that statement confuses you, read Friedman’s book! Then read Slice of Life, because you’ll have a deeper understanding of all the tropes it so entertainingly subverts.

Yuriko’s name also has an interesting historical context. To quote from the Yuricon website: “yuri is Japanese for the lily. Hence…lesbians were yurizoku (百合族), the lily tribe. This name was taken by many hentai manga and doujinshi artists, who then named their lesbian characters “Yuri” or “Yuriko,” so that it became a kind of cliche’ for the genre itself.”

a photo of Anna and one of the writers of Slice of Life, holding up Slice of Life and Dancer. They're both wearing rainbow masks.

Thankfully, progress has brought the label into the less exploitative mainstream, where it has gone on to encompass interesting manga like Donuts Under a Crescent Moon and clever pastiches like Slice of Life. During our conversation, Calamia mentioned that she is currently working on another, darker project called The Dancer, which focuses more heavily on themes of mental health and has a gorgeous limited edition cover inspired by the iconic film Perfect Blue***. When I asked about her current inspirations, she said that she wasn’t reading anything at the moment, but that she was really enjoying the Netflix show Derry Girls—which isn’t a book, but does have a bookish lesbian in the main cast!

If that sounds up your alley, so might the podcast Bitches on Comics. Book-loving hosts S.E. Fleenor and Sara Century helmed a panel featuring authors Bishakh Som (creator of Spellbound and the intriguing Apsara Engine), Danny Lore (writer for Marvel’s Champions Volume 2: Killer App and DC’s upcoming Multiversity: Teen Justice), Nadia Shammas (writer for Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin and the excellent Squire), and Tina Horn (author for the NSFW SFSX), the panel touched on how writing characters that shared one’s own marginalized identities can be “a double-edged sword”.

On the good side, it’s great that publishers are willing to back more Black voices. Danny Lore spoke about their experiences growing up with “sci-fi-fantasy [that] always evolved past and away from blackness and brownness, that these idealized cultures were…frankly, bastardized forms of what white folks thought an African-based culture would be.” Growing up with stories written from such limited perspectives led them to try “to pull from a white suburban middle class life that I had never known”, when “I am a New Yorker, my whole life…the world that I grew up in, this Black American world did not, does not exist in a lot of sci-fi.”

But their path through the industry hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. It’s been hard work, pushing back against publishers’ focus on boxing Black narratives into “trauma stories”. Lore recalls the time they were trying to pitch a manuscript set in the projects in Harlem, and being the only black person there, was subject to a lot of misguided questions about why gentrification was not a bigger theme. It was exasperating because, “I don’t want to tell stories about gentrification. I want to tell stories about people who do magic in the hood.”

Nadia Shammas has had similar experiences with good intentioned and badly informed editors. “When we were pitching Squire, which is a fantasy Middle Eastern world heavily based on the Ottoman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, both of us did an enormous amount of work and put a real place in the book, Petra. But that resulted in publishers going ‘I love this, it’s so brave…do you think that people might think it’s about the real world?’ and ‘People might think it’s about Palestine and we don’t want to make a statement.’”

Which is frustrating, when “as a Palestinian, the way I view the world and therefore the world of my art is going to be painted through that lens, always.”

“The work I make is so personal, and it’s so incredible that people relate to it. But sometimes that means people will then attempt to read more into my work and put things in my mouth that aren’t there.” She acknowledges that “it’s hard to make personal, genuine work when there are outside forces including your employers, who are attempting to use that work to market broadly”.

Which raises the question of whose perspectives are seen as “broadly appealing”. As great as it is to have more inclusivity on the page, it’s important to make sure that the diversity of the characters is reflected behind the scenes, too. As Tina Horn put it, “the difference between all these fictional characters and me is that I’m the one that gets paid. Characters don’t get paid to be in the stories.”

It’s an unfortunate reality that superficial gains can obscure more deeply rooted inequities. For example, the judging panel for the Eisner Awards (the comics industry’s most prestigious award) rarely has more than one person of color. Seriously. Even as the organization makes a more concerted effort to include works by creators of color, the judges themselves are usually not.

Of course, not everyone sets out with the conscious intention of reflecting reality on the page. Sometimes, wonderful art comes from feelings that are indescribable, inarticulable only because the artist has yet to find words or images to express them. So, like Bishakh Som, they create their own.

the cover of Spellbound

“I’ve always had a lot of South Asian femmes and women in my work…it just seemed natural, right? Like, why not?” For her, creating comics was less an attempt to break out of a narrow narrative box, and more about building “a sort of gateway or portal into realizing, 50 years later, who I was.”

But that brought its own set of complications. “After coming out like that, I think the burden of representation became a little more explicit and heavy. I think people expected more explicitly trans stories, and I was like, ‘I’m here for that’, but also now I’m going to become this person who writes ‘that kind of thing’.” Not that she minds too much now, “because it’s a cushy and glamorous box” to be in.

PT II – Fanart, Aesthetics and Graphic Novel Illustration

As I like to tell anyone who will listen, comics are such a wonderful medium precisely because the images allow creators to work with metaphors that straddle the line between prose’s staticity and film’s dynamism. So I was excited to chat with Aatmaja Pandya, illustrator for the YA graphic novel Slip, to get more insight on the visual side of the creative process.

When I asked about her inspirations, she was quick to mention Jillian Tamaki. Pandya recalled her time at the New York City School of Visual Arts, where the Eisner-winning artist “basically taught me how to make comics”.

She also mentioned manga as inspiring the “energy and the youthful quality” she brings to her own work. “I think this generation of young cartoonists, or people around my age, all sort of came up in the era of Tokyopop manga…and we’re seeing the consequence of that now. I mean, the ones that I read while making Slip were all Shonen Jump manga, because they have an online app and the subscription is really affordable. So I read, like, all of One Piece.”

Which, at a staggering 1000-odd issues and counting, invited the question: how on Earth did she balance that with making comics and her day job as a high school teacher? Did teaching teens help her develop her art?

“I don’t think it’s influenced my work so much, but it reminds me every day that they are not a monolith. That every person has their own interests and I can’t predict what they’ll be interested in. So to write authentically and to write passionately is what will draw attention.”

When I mentioned her work gave a lot of respect to the depth of young people’s experiences, she thought that was a good way to put it.

“Teenagers feel really complicated feelings and they’re incredibly vulnerable and making a lot of decisions about their future but aren’t given the agency to really be able to control any of it.” She goes on to say that though young readers are not adults yet, “to at least have it acknowledged that what you’re thinking is real to you and serious to you is incredibly valuable, and that’s why I really care about making books about, like, gray areas and complicated, emotional issues for teenagers.”

When asked what comics she read when she was a teenager, Pandya mentioned her fondness for the Fruits Basket manga. “I still reread it every couple of years. But I was such a voracious reader, and we just read whatever was available. So I would read my friends’ volumes and we would all trade stuff. I was just absorbing the aesthetic of it.”

A photo of Aatmaja Pandya wearing a mask and holding a copy of Slip. The book has stickers saying Sold Out - More Tomorrow

It’s an aesthetic that is more background noise than front-and-present in Pandya’s art style. If you look for it, you’ll see echoes of it in the way certain character’s eyes indicate their emotions, or in the organization of certain panels. Overall, there’s a soft youthfulness to the art and expressions that doesn’t shy away from depicting the characters as the flawed, feeling teenagers they are. And if you end up reading Slip and enjoying Pandey’s illustrations as much as I did, you should know that she has also been contracted for a couple more YA and middle grade graphic novels. Keep your eyes and ears open for more lovely work to come!

I also grabbed a quick convo with Street Noise Books‘ design intern, Dev Kamath. Interns aren’t often front-facing, and the general public is not too aware of their influence on the finished stories, so I hope this spot will shed some light on their efforts. Dev’s passion really came through when I asked what inspired them:

“I personally really enjoy working on queer books, because those are the books I didn’t grow up seeing. And I discovered my identity a lot later because I was finally seeing people around me who were using they/them pronouns. And I was like, ‘Oh, if I saw books like that when I was younger, it would have meant a lot. So I like to do design work and illustrating work and helping other people get their voices out there. Because it’s like, everybody’s got a story to tell. But not everybody has a way to put it out there. I see my role as helping them get there. The current project I’m working on, I’m the one organizing the files and adding the text in and doing some edits to get it to where it can be published easier, so the book gets out faster so people can read it and people want to read it.” (emphasis mine)

That really gets to the heart of it all. At Flame Con, I got a look at the behind-the-scenes efforts, the communities that went into creating these stories and supporting/amplifying the voices that tell them. It’s an intricate, collaborative process, and getting even this superficial glimpse really makes one appreciate the art of it all so much more.

Comics/graphic novels were not the only art form in glorious abundance on the con floor. Painstakingly elaborate cosplays and singularly expressive fandom merch are no scarcity at a con, but this was probably the first one where I’ve so many references to What We Do In The Shadows—or so much slash fanart for sale.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters Vol 1 cover

So. Much. Slash. Fanart. And also monster girls, which was neat. What I wouldn’t give for a movie adaptation of Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters (Book 2 coming later this year!). The metaphors are powerful, and the visuals would lend themselves beautifully to the screen. If you are a fan of the lesbian vampire trope or the bisexual vampire trope or just sapphic horror in general, I strongly recommend it. The story deals with some heavy themes and might not be for everyone, but it certainly pushed boundaries in the sort of way that lends itself to timelessness. It’s a riveting exploration of beauty and relationships and the ways internalized bigotry can shape young self-concepts.

Beauty has long struggled for purchase in comics, though. The American comic imagination has historically been dominated by the ever-more muscled, hyper-masculinized aesthetics of twentieth century Marvel and DC. As exciting as the recent Sandman TV show is, the fact remains that this is (as far as I know) major motion pictures’ first foray into a comic adaptation that is not about a character whose biggest deal is punching (or wanting to punch) various sentient beings in the face with fists or bullets or various elemental beams.

Recent years have thankfully seen a shift in publication trends, though. Creators like the ones I mention above are gaining market share by writing into existence the sort of representation that was once all too scarce. It is a humanizing of the once-monstrous, a reclamation and reconstruction of an art form that has only lately begun to be widely recognized for its merits.

the cover of Galaxy the Prettiest Star

Jadzia Axelrod, the writer for DC’s new(est) sapphic teen extraterrestrial romance shares my hopes for the future of comics. “I mean, the publishing industry is glacial in its movement and the pandemic has only made it slower. I’m not sure how long that sea change will take, but I see on the horizon some projects that I am very excited about. So I’m very hopeful. But we always need more, right?”

“More” including stories that allowed LGBTQ+ people to be messy and make mistakes. “I do think there’s this pressure on queer creators to do queer stories and to also show that queer love is beautiful—which it is—but to also show it as uncomplicated, and it’s just as complicated as straight people’s. And it can be beautiful and complicated and the damaging part is not the queer part, it’s the human part.”

After making that beautifully-worded statement, she recommended Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frasier. It is a cute high school rom-com about two aspiring cheerleaders who are less worried about coming out and struggling more with what life looks like after the act. It’s my most recent interlibrary loan request, and I await its arrival.

And while we’re on the topic, want to know how you can support libraries in the face of increasing book challenges and bans? Simple: every check-out counts. So, even if you might not necessarily have the time to read them, check out the books about LGBTQ+ experiences, about race, about the histories your high school textbooks glossed over. Even if you are not a budget-conscious grad-student trying to stretch her savings and can afford to buy books, check out the ones you want to support, from creators you want to support. Library purchases make up a not inconsiderable portion of book sales, after all!

a photo of a stack of library graphic novels and comics (Squire, Galaxy: The Prettiest Star, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength) with a Batman mug on top
Shoutout to my local librarian,  for recognizing me and recommending Alison Bechdel’s newest work when I went in to pick up some requests. Interlibrary loan is a blessing.

By the end of the weekend, I had a bag full of business cards and an even longer TBR list than before. Attending Flame Con was a great experience that introduced me to so many new creators. It is entirely volunteer-run by fans, for fans, and the ethos of that permeated everything. From the panels to the performances, this was a place where people were able to articulate all aspects of themselves, and the wealth of creativity on display was amazingly affirming to witness. This is a passion project, and one I wholeheartedly enjoyed exploring and learning from.

———-

*Like in I’m In Love with the Villainess, which is a funny, lighthearted isekai** rom-com with a little angst, if you’re looking for more laughs.

**A manga subgenre where people from our world get pulled into fictional ones via portals or reincarnation

***Perfect Blue (1998) by Satoshi Kon, aka “Darren Aronofsky’s Pinterest Board”, as the podcast team at Progressively Horrified calls it. I need to rely less on footnotes, but this was too good a joke to leave out.

The Top Four Times DC Did Poison Ivy Justice

In honor of the new season of Harley Quinn (squee!!!), I’ve decided to show some love for everyone’s favorite homicidal ecoterrorist and Ph.D who really needs all the hugs Harley has to offer. Below, in order of when they were first published, are the top four comic runs where DC actually did Poison Ivy’s character justice (no surprise, they’re all by women).

1. Batman and Poison Ivy: Cast Shadows by Ann Nocenti and John Van Fleet (2004)

the cover of Batman and Poison Ivy Cast Shadows

Vintage, classic Poison Ivy at her finest. A short, contained collection that perfectly captures the conflicted heart and noirish origins of the character. Ann Nocenti and JohnVan Fleet don’t shy away from the violent capabilities of Poison Ivy’s powers, or the true power of her intellect. But the art style lends the whole affair a sort of gaslamp, dreamlike quality that brings home how, for all her violence, there is true love motivating Ivy’s actions. At this point in her characterization, it was largely love for the planet (and some lingering feelings for Bruce?). But it is one of the earliest comics that gives her a driving role in the narrative while bringing to life the same melancholy, calculating, brilliantly warped mind masking a heart of gold that Harley comes to love.

(Granted, the art did have its detractors, but I think it works so well in bringing the reader into certain characters’ experiences. Which is all I can say without spoilers!)

2. Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death by Amy Chu, Clay Mann, and Seth Mann (2016)

the cover of Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death

If it took half a century for someone to really start writing her right, it took another decade for lightning to strike twice. And it did so with Amy Chu’s colorful, Frankenstein-esque take on the character.

Poison Ivy is tired of being lonely. Not physically, not mentally. But there’s a particular isolation in knowing you are the only one of your kind, the only plant-human hybrid on the planet (well, the only one who isn’t prone to being a fatalistic, moralizing pain in the rear, anyway). So she decides to do what every middle aged woman reconsidering the meaning of life would:

Get a new job, get a new apartment and grow some new daughters.

Yeah, it’s a weird one, but the kind of explorative weirdness that more comics need to come back to, in my opinion. This run is also a standout for Chu’s sense of humor and interesting side characters. When non-MCs get hurt or die in this, I actually felt something! Which is not something DC’s comics for grown-ups had been doing much of at the time. There is also no romance, but Harley shows up to cause a ruckus, as usual!

3. Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy by Jody Houser and Adriana Melo (2019)

the cover of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy

Speaking of Harley, here’s a classic. Sure, it was released only a few years ago. But it’s still a classic.

Following in the footsteps of Chu’s novel, experimental take on Poison Ivy’s powers and conflicted sense of humanity, Jody Houser’s run delves deeper into her connections with both The Green and Harley Quinn. We see them as a canonical couple doing cute couple things for the first time! There is mayhem and chaos and fluff and…then things get dark.

Like, I-was-teary-even-though-I-know-how-this-works dark. You don’t get to become a comic fan without your suspension of disbelief building up some tolerance, but stories like this remind you that sometimes, it is the lore that makes the bleak moments sting all the worse. But it’s also that lore that keeps you hoping right alongside Harley, rooting for her and Ivy to find a way through it all.

It’s got poignant moments of dialogue, tonally consistent art and a true love that is messy and complicated and held between two flawed, hurting women who find they hurt just a little less with each other.

Also, really fun fight scene panels.

4. Poison Ivy by G. Willow Wilson, Marcio Takara, and Arif Prianto (2022)

the cover of Poison Ivy #1 (2022)

The time between lightning strikes is getting progressively shorter, and I am living for it. While it’s only a couple issues into the run, G. Willow Wilson’s take on the character reminds me why I loved her Ms. Marvel run when it was still in publication. She is the sort of writer who knows how to write a character to fit the character’s context. And Poison Ivy’s context is, well, scientifically-informed ecoterrorism with a sympathetic heart beating beneath the bloodied blooms and explosions. From Ann Nocenti to Jody Houser, we’ve seen her grapple with everything from her humanity to her heart, watched her struggle between her desire for violent justice and her hope for ecological harmony.

Now, it all is building up into a climactic showdown rooted in the grim reality of climate change. What I’ve read so far has been a visceral narrative that has been leaning very hard into the horror without losing track of the compelling characterization. It is dark, it is deep, and it is building into something I am really excited to watch unfold. Part of DC’s recent slate of Pride month releases, this comic has had me buying single issues again for the first time since high school.

Harley and Ivy have one of the most complex, fascinating romances I have ever read, sapphic or otherwise. Their equally brilliant intellects and capacity for, ahem, “creative” problem solving keep storylines from stagnating, and the depths of their respective histories allows for some lovely explorations of relationship dynamics.

These are my personal favorite takes on Ivy, a uniquely compelling, conflicted character (correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe she was comics’ first major woman character to have a STEM background), and the truly strange places her consciousness can go.

Anna N. reviews The Lost Girls by Sonia Hartl

The Lost Girls cover

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The Summary:

According to J.M. Barrie and Jeffrey Boam, lost boys don’t grow up because they don’t want to. They don’t want to relinquish the heady explorations and unending adventures of adolescence for the responsibilities of adulthood. They hunger for an eternity in the blissful twilight between childhood licentiousness and adult liberty, when they are free from any sort of interference or obligation to anything but their own onanistic pleasures.

According to Sonia Hartl, lost girls don’t grow up because they aren’t given the chance to. They spend their lives as daughter, wives, and mothers, caught in a revolving door of infantilizing, idealized identities that tie them to others in ways that leave little room for adventure and self-exploration. The men in their lives repeatedly tell them they either want too much or don’t know what they want – thus, girls need men to tell them what they should want, and then provide it.

These girls are stuck in time, even before they become vampires.

Enter our antagonist, Elton-of-the-unspecified-surname. Originally from the 1890s, this sadistic vampire has spent the past century crushing the rose-colored lenses of a series of teen girls, promising them the life of their dreams before leaving them for undead.

Which is where we find our protagonist, Holly. Recently abandoned by the man who said he’d stay with her for eternity, she’s settled into a sustainable (if not entirely comfortable) routine. With her perpetual perm and teenaged face, (not to mention the supernatural connection that keeps dragging her to whatever town Elton has moved onto next), she’s stuck shuffling from one minimum wage job to another, the tedium of her eternal existence interrupted only by library books.

That is, until Elton decides to return to their hometown with the hopes of screwing over a new girl. Back in the town that hosted her awkward teenage years, Holly is hunted down by Elton’s vengeful other exes, Ida and Rose. They want to destroy the creep who made them this way, and they need Holly’s help to do so.

Of course, the plan is quickly derailed when Holly finds herself falling for Elton’s new target. Bright, droll, and achingly insecure Parker reminds Holly a lot of herself a few decades ago, and what starts as an attempt to save her from Elton’s schemes quickly becomes an impassioned romantic entanglement that leaves both of these lost girls grappling with the ethical compunctions of eternity. One vampire, one human, they are both drawn to each other by their shared familial strife and need to be seen. They find in each other a genuine appreciation of their personal ingloriousness. For the girls they are and the women they will never be.

(There are also kisses in literal closets).

The Review:

I went into this book with high expectations. I’m glad many of them were met, though the ending left my taste buds feeling like they had gone ten rounds with a grape-jelly-and-beef-jerky smoothie. It’s the first YA novel I read since I graduated high school, and I know I would have been thrilled to read it when I was sixteen and disillusioned and dating people I cringe to remember now.

But reading it now, I found it hard to ignore that The Lost Girls is not quite the girl-gang story it’s been marketed as. For one thing, there is a looming existential melancholy that would be more at home in an Anne Rice novel than a Lumberjanes comic. It’s less a gleefully violent celebration of friendship and girl power than it is a realistic look at the odd camaraderie that comes from shared traumatic experiences and the romance that comes from having someone who really seem to understand you when the whole world doesn’t seem to. Hartl gently pokes fun at the ”not like other girls” mentality while also describing the sort of upbringing that might foster it in the first place.

Other good moments are when Hartl lampshades the genre this book owes so much to – teen supernatural romances. Elton is a conniving dirtbag of the highest order, a master manipulator who knows just how to play the sensitive brooding romantic and seduce teen girls who mainly process the world through “Austen, Brontë, or poetry”. He’s even got a pocketful of rose petals to shower over his girl du jour and show her how whimsigoth he is, all the while wearing away at her self-worth so that she’ll be more amenable to the idea of ditching her family to run off with him and get turned. Yikes.

In contrast to the performative nonsense of that relationship, Holly and Parker seem to connect more because of shared a) interests and b) trauma. Because what good LGBTQ+ horror novel doesn’t feature paragraphs upon pages of trauma-bonding? It’s practically a genre convention.

But the great moments are when it digs deeper into the subtext of that shared history, showing the nuances of women’s relationships to each other and the ways social isolation makes one susceptible to abusive relationships. I appreciated how Hartl took the time to sketch out Holly’s relationships with other women – platonic, romantic, and otherwise. While the male love interests in this novel are non-caricatured sendups of the “nice guy” and “seductive sleazebag sociopath” archetypes, the women are given much more depth and humanity.

Despite all but one of them being, you know, not human.

Holly’s blossoming romance with Parker is the stuff gaydreams are made of: a delightfully charming flirtation between two people who start off at odds with each other but grow to genuinely care about and find pleasure in the other’s company. The progression from mistrust to affection to full-on making out is excellently paced. There are tons of cute moments that more than make up for the unsettling tension that arrives whenever Elton shows up, either in person or as a topic of conversation.

We rarely see platonic friendships between women centered in horror fiction, and watching Holly have to reckon with the ways her blind devotion of Elton frayed her connection with someone who cared about her as much as Stacey did was painful and real. Their relationship is shown to have its own share of scars and power imbalances (both before and after death), and the way these were slowly drawn out and elaborated on was refreshing to see. Trite as that description might sound, it really felt like splashing a handful of cool water in your face on a muggy summer morning, and looking at the world with fresher, clearer eyes.

And anyone who’s read Poppy Z. Brite will get a morbid laugh or two from Stacey’s post-death choices.

Of course, this made the ending hurt a hell of a lot more. If only Holly’s dynamic with Parker had half as much balance. If you are looking for a fun, happy-for-now ending between two fluffy sapphics with a healthy power dynamic, this is not going to end well for you. But if you are looking for a strange, humorously gory teen revenge story with eclectic characters and interesting metaphors for the power our histories have over us, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

The vampire lore was creative, with a lot of unique touches and a certain grounded matter-of-factness that fit Holly’s more world-weary side well. If you are faint of heart or prone to squeamishness at the thought of severed human limbs being used to construct furniture or unsparingly gory descriptions of precisely how those limbs were severed from their bodies, you’ll probably want to avoid this book. But if the thought of visceral violence in the vein of Kill Bill or Exquisite Corpse (but in an SFW, ya-targeted way) appeals to you, so will this book. It is very macabre, very detailed, and very entertaining. Maybe not 80’s splatterpunk paperback levels of unhinged, but it’s still got a relative lot.

But be forewarned, the ending does delve into some iffy territory. For all the hype about the ex-girlfriend-stealing-the-girl-premise, their actual romance between the two women seems to be an afterthought. Especially given the ending.

The Born Sexy Yesterday trope got lambasted by Anita Sarkeesian for a reason, and that reason is the discomforting vulnerability at play. (Spoiler, highlight to read: Parker is literally reduced to a tabula rasa, a blank slate with no memories and therefore no opinions. The way Hartl describes Holly casually dismissing her old feelings towards Stacey after forgetting what it meant to be best friends sets up concerning in-lore implications for when she later reads potential romantic sentiments into Parker’s hand holding and expects this complete amnesiac to return her feelings. End of spoiler.)

I hope there is a sequel that grapples with these implications, because otherwise I am left with a hastily resolved, half-baked, dubiously consensual dynamic of the sort I never tolerated in m/f supernatural romances (despite it being all too common there). The writing also does veer into the amateurish at moments, with some painfully puerile lines that echo the worst excesses of un-beta’d PWP fanfiction — which is bothersome, because it is juxtaposed with all the absolutely squee-worthy ways Holly describes Parker’s smile.

Seriously, I will scream if I am subject to another description of “bee-stung lips”. I have seen bee stings. There is nothing remotely sexy about them. Especially if they are infected.

To end on a more positive note, aroace readers might be cheered to find representation in Ida, an avant-garde vampire artist (and Elton’s first victim), whose favored mode of creative expression involves repurposing the limbs of unfortunate humans she has drained.

Trigger warnings: gore, violence, murder, abusive relationships, attempted sexual assault