A Messy Homage to Lesbian Pulp: Perfume and Pain by Anna Dorn

Perfume and Pain cover

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If you like to read about messy lesbians making terrible decisions, this is the book for you. It’s also the perfect set piece for reading in public while sipping an iced lavender latte, though I must admit I was not then approached by a toxic lesbian who would briefly ruin my life. Maybe next time.

Personally, I love reading about deeply flawed sapphic characters—though Astrid would hate being called sapphic rather than lesbian. When I heard this was an homage to lesbian pulp fiction, I had to pick it up. I would say that characterization is fair: even without the mentions of lesbian pulp books and authors, this is melodramatic bordering on campy, so it does remind me of those 1960s stories.

I was conflicted while reading this, both reveling in Astrid’s terrible decisions and rolling my eyes at her opinions. She seems to believe no sexual identity is more subversive or underrepresented than two white femme lesbians having sex. She thinks bisexual, queer, and nonbinary identities are corporate and bland, on the other hand. Her insufferable opinions and personality are part of the appeal of this book, but I also found the constant biphobia so boring and outdated that it took me out of the story.

Astrid is a semi-successful novelist who is currently taking time off from writing to “get well” after her constant drug use—her preference is for a combination of amphetamines, alcohol, and cigarettes she calls the Patricia Highsmith—and inability to keep herself from voicing every thought that flits through her head result in her being sort of but not really cancelled. She can’t ignore her urge to self-medicate for very long, though, including by chasing toxic, obsessive relationships with women.

This is the kind of book that makes you want to google the author immediately afterwards. When Astrid has an adaptation made of her book, she insists the main character isn’t her, to the producer’s skepticism. Astrid may not be Anna, but it’s easy to see at least some overlap: they both wrote lesbian novels about astrologers, they both are fans of the Kardashians, and Dorn mentions in interviews that this book was inspired by her own concerns about turning 35—namely that her bad behavior had ceased to be considered “cute”. A quick scroll through the author’s social media also includes posts that Astrid would also share.

If the premise intrigues you, I do recommend Perfume and Pain, as long as you’re aware that the main character has bad opinions. Content warnings for biphobia, ableism, drinking and driving, homophobic slurs, heavy drug and alcohol use (to the point of blackouts), among others. I did really enjoy reading this, even though I was rolling my eyes at Astrid half the time. On the other hand, I can confidently say I won’t be picking up any other titles by this author: spiraling downwards alongside a character like this is fun once, but just like reading lesbian pulp cover-to-cover, it’s not something I feel the urge to do again any time soon.

Magical Girls and Sports Gays: Grand Slam Romance by Ollie Hicks and Emma Oosterhaus

the cover of Grand Slam Romance

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For those of you mourning the cancellation of Amazon’s adaptation of A League of Their Own, I offer you an antidote. Grand Slam Romance, which follows the star players of a semi-professional women’s softball league, simultaneously serves romance, sports rivalry, horny locker room encounters, queer community, and a touch of magic. The debut graphic novel from comic creators (and spouses) Ollie Hicks and Emma Oosterhaus, Grand Slam Romance is the first in a planned series, its second installment coming in May 2024. Fun fact: the book originated from a 19-page comic that the couple collaborated on for fun a few months into dating.

Grand Slam Romance centers Mickey Monsoon, pitcher and MVP of the Bell City Broads (BCBs), who are gearing up to dominate the season and take the trophy at the Statewide Softball Tournament. But when Astra Maxima mysteriously shows up to catch for rival team the Gaiety Gals, Mickey knows the BCBs are in danger of losing everything. Not only does Astra have the magical ability to obliterate every team she encounters, she was also best friends (and maybe more) with Mickey before being sent off to a secret softball school in Switzerland as a teenager. Mickey will do almost anything to wreak vengeance for their broken heart, even if it means losing sight of themself and betraying their team.

Though I wouldn’t classify this book as purely sci-fi or fantasy, everything about Grand Slam Romance is a little over the top in a way that elevates the book from your average sports underdog story to a thrillingly queer, action-packed spectacle. For starters, every player on every team is coded queer if not explicitly labeled as such. I can think of only one cishet man who offers any dialogue, and he’s not the coach! Sex scenes materialize at the drop of a hat and escalate quickly. Then there’s the magic, which bestows Astra Maxima and fellow “magical girl” Wolfgang Konigin with supernatural speed, batting prowess, and sex appeal. Both magical girls glow with a visible aura: Astra has luminous pink hair, while Wolfgang generates a force field around her head when she hops on her motorcycle.

Despite these campy elements, though, the authors demonstrate a perfect amount of restraint, making the book approachable to even the most casual graphic novel reader. The illustrations are vibrant but not cartoonish (somewhere between Alison Bechdel and Raina Telgemeier), and are filled with quotidian details that anchor the story in real contemporary life. I had the urge to read this book quickly because there is so much motion on each page, but if you let your eye slow down you’ll notice thoughtful touches in every frame: side conversations, facial expressions, tossed-aside props. It is unsurprising that Grand Slam Romance was published by Surely Books, an imprint curated by Mariko Tamaki, whose books excel at attention to detail and emotional expression.

Read if: 

  • You wish Ted Lasso had more queer content.
  • You identify as a sports gay.
  • You’re looking for a read-alike to Archie Bongiovanni’s Mimosa, also published by Surely Books.

Anna N. reviews Heavy Vinyl by Carly Usdin and Nina Vakueva

The cover of Heavy Vinyl volume one

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Considering how important Asbury Park and its history was to me in my formative years, it comes as no surprise that this is the comic I recommend to literally every sapphic I have met since it was published. Seriously, it’s got a diverse cast, excellent characters, genuine heart and all the campy hijinks of golden age action comics and 90s teen girl movies combined. It. Is. AWESOME.

We first meet Chris, an almost-seventeen tomboy with an adorkable crush on her already-seventeen co-worker Maggie. They are part-timers at a record store somewhere in suburban New Jersey, along with bitter goth Dolores and “music encyclopedia” Kennedy. In between juggling normal teen angst and crushes, they are also trying to find a place where they belong, where they can make a difference.

Seems like a solid set up, right? One rife with potential for girl-meets-cute-girl moments in diners and backroom recording studios, sprinkled with loving references to punk rock and riot grrrl?

It gets better.

There is a fight club in the basement. And a conspiracy involving a bunch of missing bands that should sound very familiar to anyone who was even remotely adjacent to the alt-music scene at any point in their lives. And an anarchist with anime hair (This is a compliment).

Did I mention this comic is a love letter to 90s alt-culture? It’s a really sweet story that hopefully gives younger readers a glimpse into history and older readers a fun, funny read. To say more about the plot would venture into spoiler territory, as it is admittedly pretty straightforward. There is a mystery, but this is not a mysterious comic.

But we deserve self-indulgent, cheesy nostalgia content as much as anybody else and the two volumes are exactly that. They are delightfully warm, bright, and smile-inducing. There are healthy relationships that are still chock full of teenage weirdness and awkward moments. The characters share a genuine camaraderie, and even when they aren’t at their best, they are human. They care about each other and they are ready to throw down when necessary. They are going to save the world.

I know I would have love, love, loved a story like this when I was a teen, and I hope this book delights other young women in the years to come.

It is common for comics to be listed under the name of the writer. But they are unquestionably group efforts, pieced together from the inspired minds of many. So, credit goes to penciler Nina Vakueva, inker Irene Flores, and colorists Natalia Nesterenko and Rebecca Nalty. The pages would not exude as much energy or vitality without their efforts.