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 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.

Danika reviews Slip written by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Aatmaja Pandya

the cover of Slip

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Content warning: This review contains discussion of suicide.

This is a YA graphic novel about Jade, who is preparing for her future as an artist by going to a summer art intensive. She knows this opportunity is make or break for her chances of building a portfolio, getting a college scholarship, and following her dreams. It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also exciting and inspiring.

Just before she leaves, though, she gets devastating news. Her best friend, Phoebe, has attempted suicide and is now in the hospital. Phoebe and Jade have always been incredibly close, and Jade can’t even process this information. But Phoebe doesn’t want visitors and is concentrating on her own recovery, so Jade has nothing to do but go to the Art Farm, even though her art is now the farthest thing from her mind.

This is, unsurprisingly, an introspective and melancholy story. Jade is struggling to process all of her emotions: she’s sad and afraid for Phoebe, she’s angry, she feels betrayed that Phoebe didn’t tell her what she was going through, she feels guilty for her anger—and on and on. Now that she finally has this opportunity to build her portfolio, she has no inspiration for what to create. While the people around her make beautiful, thought-provoking pieces that intimidate her, she feels completely stuck.

The colour palette used is limited and muted: mostly blue, with pops of red. I think this style communicates well Jade’s state of mind: she feels disconnected and numb, and those flashes of red are the moments when she can really connect, especially with her anger.

There is a touch of fantasy or fabulism here as well. When Jade burns her drawings of Phoebe, they briefly come to life in the flames, and she can speak to her best friend to try to understand how she got here. Later, her sculptures come to life and fight back against her or run away—which, apart from making her feel like she’s hallucinating, also makes it even more difficult to complete her portfolio in time.

Meanwhile, she’s also beginning a romance with another girl at the art collective. Mary is upbeat and confident, and Jade quite abruptly finds herself kissing her. But this adds a whole new layer of confusion and guilt: how can she be happy when Phoebe is suffering? How can she be crushing on someone and flirting when her best friend is going through something so huge and awful?

This is one of those tricky books to recommend, because it’s not an upbeat or exciting read. It’s fundamentally about a teenager stumbling and raging and weeping through something really difficult. She lashes out at others. She makes bad decisions. Her journey through this is messy and nonlinear. But that’s also what makes this feel real and what made me feel for her so much.

I hope this is one that makes its way to classroom and library bookshelves, because I can imagine that a lot of teenagers especially will appreciate this honest portrayal of what it’s like to love someone who is going through a mental health crisis—the helplessness and grief and anger and every other tangled, overwhelming emotion that comes with it.

7 Sapphic YA Graphic Novels I Read at Work

Alright, I didn’t really read these while at my job. Contrary to what many seem to believe, library workers don’t actually get to read on the clock (much to our chagrin). But I do see a lot while I am shelving, sorting, shipping, and receiving books, and graphic novels are especially eye-catching. Sometimes I’ll see a book go by and think, “Hey, that looks like it might be gay.” Sometimes I’m able to check it out and see, and sometimes I have to remember to look it up later. The following graphic novels I spotted while working at the library, and actually managed to get around to reading—on my own time, of course. Mostly.

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu is a cute little story about professional witch-in-training Nova Huang and her childhood crush, runaway werewolf Tam Lang, reuniting when an unruly forest demon starts haunting their hometown. It’s all very surface depth—the romance is straightforward and without drama, the characters are likable in very obvious ways, and the story is a basic set-up and knock-down affair that practically advertises its happy ending. That said, the graphic novel is executed clearly and effectively, and it ends with a complete tale all told. A lot of people will be happy with the variety of representation on display here, and for what I think started off as a serial webcomic, Mooncakes isn’t half bad.

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Naoko Kodama (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Kodama Naoko is a short, stand-alone manga, punctuated with what seems to be the first chapter of a completely different manga over halfway through the book. It’s exactly what the title says—serious businesswoman Morimoto Machi enters into a domestic partnership with her lesbian friend Agaya Hana to get her parents to stop pestering her about finding a man. It’s certainly a bit contrived, although the manga does have some rudimentary exploration into the personal and societal forces that might push two people into the titular situation. Overall, though, I found the pacing awkward (it also ends rather abruptly), and the humor a little immature for my tastes. But while I can’t bring myself to call the writing good, it’s at least written with heart. I can see this being someone’s favorite manga, but I personally wouldn’t keep space on my bookshelf for it.

the cover of Kiss Number 8

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw is a story about a teenage girl at a Catholic high school grappling with a crush on her best friend, conflicting pressures from her parents and peers, and a long-buried queer history in her own family. I’ll be frank, I did not like this book—largely for personal reasons, though I feel I ought to give a warning in case others might feel the same. A lot in Kiss Number 8 (especially the hook of seven poor kisses with boys, followed by the titular eighth with a girl) lead me to believe that the protagonist’s primary struggle would be that of a lesbian wrestling with compulsory heterosexuality. This is not the case; she is solidly bisexual, and in fact has sex with the brother of the girl she shared her eighth kiss with. This is not a problem in and of itself, but the surprise of it did sour my experience with the graphic novel.

the cover of What If We Were… by Axelle Lenoir

What If We Were… by Axelle Lenoir feels like a cross between a classic graphic novel and a collection of Sunday newspaper comic spreads, a la Calvin and Hobbes. It introduces us to teenage best friends Nathalie and Marie, who pass time imagining themselves as wildly different people in a variety of hilarious situations. This isn’t a metaphor or a rhetorical tool—many pages are just spent on the visual spectacle and humor of this (granted, quite cute and imaginative) game. It was the humor that I found fell somewhat flat; it relies heavily on absurdism and overreaction in a way that just didn’t click for me. The anxious teenage romance between Nathalie and her crush Jane Doe carried the rest of the story, but without it I don’t think I’d have much to say about the writing.

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash is a graphic memoir recounting the author’s first lesbian crush at an all-girls summer camp in the American South. Honor Girl was the first of these graphic novels that I felt really had something to say, where the pieces all came together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also just good memoir writing. Autobiography can be hard to nail, but Maggie Thrash has an excellent sense on which details to include and what moments to linger on, and they manage to weave a bittersweet and melancholy story without the sense of contrivance that a too-neat memoir can impart. Some graphic novel aficionados might pass Honor Girl by on account of the rough and raw art style, but if so, they’re missing out.

the cover of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell is a wonderfully drawn and well-written graphic novel about a bad relationship. Freddy Riley loves Laura Dean, but Laura Dean neglects, isolates, takes for granted, and yes, keeps breaking up with Freddy. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me feels layered in a way that the other graphic novels here so far haven’t, and I really liked how the authors would just let certain moments or transitions breathe. That said, this book is never going to be a favorite of mine—and not just because it isn’t a happy romance. The characterization of Laura Dean clearly evokes the imagery of butch lesbians; it’s what makes her so “cool,” so desirable, but it’s also inextricably tied to what makes her a bad girlfriend. This isn’t to say that the story is invalid because I didn’t like how a character was coded; butches can, of course, be bad partners. But considering how poorly masculine women are still treated today, it honestly hurt a little to read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me and see such an obvious elevation of queer femininity at their expense.

The Girl From the Sea cover

The Girl From the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag takes the cake, hands down, as my favorite graphic novel of the bunch. It’s about a closeted teenage lesbian living in a small island town, whose teetering life balance is completely upended with she falls in love with a selkie. Everything I saw the other graphic novels in this list reach for, The Girl From the Sea pulls off. The romance is adorable and sweet, but the characters have their own nuances that keeps it from feeling flat or predictable. The story is tight and well-paced, but there’s enough complexity going on that I don’t feel like a second read-through would be merely perfunctory. The art is great, the humor lands well, and I finished the book wanting more but feeling satisfied with what I had.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Anna N. reviews Heathen by Natasha Alterici

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

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Aydis is a Viking and warrior, raised on stories of wartime valor and battlefield sacrifice by a father who taught her things “unbecoming” of a woman. But she is also sincerely kind, more likely to reach out a hand than draw her sword against a stranger. She is driven by fairness, by a sense of justice that bends towards liberation rather than punishment.

The story begins with her running away from her clan on the pain of death (or marriage to a man) after getting caught kissing her best friend. Stubborn, sincere Aydis’s first plan of action is freeing Brynhild, the former leader of the Valkyrie now cursed by the god Odin to spend an eternity in exile on earth, bound to whichever mortal passes her test. A test that has only been attempted by men.

So, with a chip on her shoulder and the strong conviction that someone shouldn’t be stuck in some lonely cave just because she stood up for what she believed in, Aydis attempts to undo the curse for good and give Brynhild the chance to find her lost love.

But by daring to defy the gods, she puts a target on her back, one that will bring her into the crosshairs of Odin himself. Unexpectedly, though, she finds herself joined by a cast of sympathetic allies.

Some have questionable motives, like shifter-trickster Ruadan and the band of omnivorous apple-loving mermaids who offer her navigational aid. Others are, like Aydis, are doing their best to bring balance to an unjust world. Take the gold-hearted pirate crew and the goddess Freyja, who is fed up with her husband’s fragile sense of power and strident belief that his brute might supersedes everything she stands for.

That’s the central conflict of the story. What happens when the valorization of violence warps our ability to feel love and empathy for others? When fear leads us to turn on those we care about, to hurt those we love?

The team behind the comic series has created a story that questions reductive gender norms without making equally reductive generalizations and deftly shows how true strength and power requires kindness and love. Beneath the magic, mythology, and standard fantasy-quest narrative lies a very compelling, touching story about the responsibilities we have to each other, and the idea that freedom doesn’t mean going it completely alone. There is so much fleshed-out humanity in these paper pages, and I burned through all three volumes in a few hours.

It took that long because I lingered over the excellent, evocative illustrations. One of the things I love most about comics is the specific kind of humor that can be captured through clever use of facial expression. They feel like an artistic form of punctuation – one that lends itself especially well to serving as a punchline.

The art also reflects the arc, with harsh, aggressive strokes denoting the sort of bloody, violently inspirational battle-lore of Aydis’ childhood home and rounder, softer work indicating where her story moves from the stuff of legend into something more grounded, loving, and achingly alive.

The colorist works wonders with an artfully limited palette, and you can practically feel the climatic and climactic shifts in each panel. The nudity never feels exploitative, and the diversity is both period-accurate and contributes to the narrative texture.

It’s not an easy story, though it is chock full of comedy, heartwarming moments, and the ending has a delightful bit of bookending. The romances are sweet and complicated and nuanced.

The authors don’t shy away from recognizing how those who have been raised to value force and control may respond cruelly to the liberatory possibilities of kindness. They also explore the pain that can come from standing up for the right thing, the kind thing, in the face of overwhelming anger and fear. In another subtle interrogation of grand questing legends, there are no stock villains here: only scared people, angry people, and people whose fear or rage has stoked reactionary beliefs in their own self-righteousness.

I appreciated the focus on how simple, tangible acts of love beget goodwill and lead to a net better world. In contrast to the dramatic, grossly embellished acts that constitute myths and legends, it is the little moments that drive this story. It was a refreshingly honest narrative, in that sense. After all, real life doesn’t exactly adhere to the archetypal Narrative Arc. It is a bumpy series of ups and downs and difficult choices. The best we can hope for is to leave the world a little kinder than we found it.

If you enjoy quest stories, Norse mythology, compelling characters and/or questioning gender binaries, you will find much to enjoy in these comics. The completed series is collected in 3 trade paperback volumes, all of which are currently available for purchase and possibly at your local library!

Trigger Warnings: violence, blood, nudity, animal death, implied murder; Volume 2 has limb loss, period-typical homophobia and sexism.

Maggie reviews Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky

the cover of Witchlight

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Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky is a cute adventure graphic novel about Sanja, a girl with troublesome brothers and a family that doesn’t understand her, and Lelek, a witch trying to survive on her own as she journeys across the countryside. When someone catches Lelek cheating them and causes a scene, she witnesses Sanja wielding a sword in the resulting chaos and kidnaps her. They end up traveling together, learning about each other and the world around them, and the result is a charming story full of lovely artwork, diverse world-building, and gals becoming much more than pals.

Lelek kidnaps Sanja because she wants Sanja to teach her how to use a sword, showing a somewhat callous disregard for others in how she uses her magic. Sanja agrees to teach Lelek and to travel with her, as long as Lelek stops cheating people. What follows is best described as a longform traveling montage full of moments as the girls attempt to learn sword work, understand magic, and figure out how to keep themselves in the world as they slowly develop feelings for each other. Sanja is optimistic and full of care and quick thinking as she tries to help Lelek. Lelek is suspicious and full of past hurts, operating on a different mode of being than Sanja, but their feelings for each other grow naturally and sweetly. It’s a very cute relationship, buoyed by artwork that conveys feelings well. At first I wasn’t sure if I liked Lelek, but I felt the softening of her attitude along with Sanja, and was rooting for Sanja’s growth of self-confidence and determination, and in the end, I was fully committed to their relationship.

This work also had some things to say about family that I found pretty interesting. Lelek has a Tragic Backstory that shapes all of her present day actions. There’s a clear line between what happened during her childhood to her circumstances during Witchlight. Sanja, on the other hand, was a part of a large family, and had this adventure thrust upon her unexpectedly. Nonetheless, Sanja’s family also influences their travels in many profound ways. Sanja knows how to use a sword, but she is expected to sit quietly and mind the market stall while her brothers go off and have careers using their fighting skills. The family seems to overlook her, and once she gets over the shock of being kidnapped, takes to adventuring like a fish to water. The non-fighting skills she had to learn are useful in their journey too, as she puts them to use supplying her and Lelek, cooking, and in general making sure they’re taken care of to continue their journey. During the height of the story, Lelek has to come to terms with what happened during her past, as they meet people that give them more information on those events. But it is Sanja’s simple, more straightforward family that causes the most difficulties for them, and Sanja and Lelek both face a lot of hard emotional decisions from their family relationships. This book has a lot to say about found family, destiny, and forgiveness that I found very interesting, and it lent a lot of complex emotional flavor to Lelek and Sanja’s relationship.

Also elevating this work is Jessi Zabarsky’s simple but pleasant artwork and world-building. Zabarsky has created a diverse world that is interesting yet recognizable. I was pleased to see the vast range of people she conveyed in the Witchlight. Of the two main characters, Lelek is dark-skinned and Sanja is fat, and every village they travel through is sure to be populated with a range of skin colors and body types. Everyone is also just cute. I adored all of Sanja’s outfits and little head coverings. I loved how expressive Lelek’s face is, and how much emotion was conveyed, not through the dialogue, but through the art.

In conclusion, Witchlight is an adorable sapphic graphic novel full of interesting characters and satisfying emotional arcs. The artwork is easy to digest but also packs a powerful punch. I had a great time reading it, and I do recommend it for anyone who is looking for something cute, with a good balance of adventure to romance.

Susan reviews The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge by Cat Parra, Erica Chan, and Zora Gilbert

the cover of The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge

Clement Vanderbridge is acting suspiciously; he’s a well-known architect in prohibition-era New York and famously teetotal, but disappears every Friday night only to turn up smelling of alcohol and cigarettes. Fortunately, Stella Argyle and Flora Fontaine are on the case – reporters working for rival newspapers, competing for the scoop.

Or, to put it another way: The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge is a short rivals-to-lovers story from Cat Parra, Erica Chan, and Zora Gilbert, one that races from one speakeasy to the next with charm and glee. The art is great. The characters are super expressive, and the flat colours really make the details of the outfits pop. The flapper dresses! The hats! The butch musician in a suit! Excellent work on all fronts, especially with how much of the comic is wordless montages. The montages are really effective – see also: how expressive Stella is whenever Flora’s ahead of her – but they’re skimming over quite a lot considering how much the creators are fitting into thirty pages. An investigation, a rivalry, a low-key romance, a suspiciously secretive friend group, and a space that’s warm and affirming of queer people in a historical setting? That’s a lot for one comic!

Honestly my only real complaint is that the story is a little light. Again, it’s only thirty pages long, it’s to be expected, but The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge feels like a glimpse into a series that I’d gladly read more of. Flora and Stella are fun characters, and I’m absolutely here for more queer intrepid reporters.

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistent. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Maggie reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

the cover of Coming Back

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Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky is a rather lovely fantasy graphic novel about two women, Preet and Valissa, trying to come to terms with themselves and each other and the world they live in. It comes out on January 18th, and I’d like to thank Random House for providing The Lesbrary with an ARC for review. Preet and Valissa live in a small community where Preet uses her powerful magic to help everyone in the village. Her partner, Valissa, has no magic and runs the town library. One day, a mysterious mist enters the library from the depths, leading to town panic. They decide to send someone to investigate, and Valissa volunteers because the village needs Preet’s gift too much to lose her. Their separation leads both of them to actions they never would have taken had their lives not been disrupted, and forces them to examine themselves, their relationship, and their very view of the world.

I thought this was a very charming graphic novel with lots of interesting worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is more in the art than in the dialogue, so a slow and careful reading to really appreciate the art is rewarding as the detail unfolds. The way the characters interact with the world around them is interesting. It leads to many questions that do not always get answered, but it’s more fun to imagine the answers than if the story had been loaded down with heavy description boxes, which would disrupt the flow of the artwork. Why is the library built around a hole in the ground? We don’t know but I’m fascinated by the idea. I also always appreciate a story where the diversity and queerness is baked in. Valissa and Preet are clearly accepted as a couple within their village, and none of their conflict revolves around the fact that they’re both women. The village they come from is diverse and accepting, and they’re only concerned when Preet stops performing her duties. The wider world outside the village is also magical, full of people of different shapes and talents. It’s a soft, interesting world, drawn with care and whimsical detail.

Which is the other high point of this book. Jessi Zabarsky’s artwork is gorgeous, full of graceful movements and colorful accents. Personally, I found everyone’s outfits the most charming. Everyone looked soft and very cute. The movements around the magical talents were also well conveyed. The book relies more heavily on art than on dialogue boxes, and Zabarsky’s style holds up well. It’s a very restful read, and a sharp contrast from the busy action so popular in a lot of graphic novels and comic books now.

In conclusion Coming Back was a soft, delightful read. I greatly enjoyed both the artwork and the story. Valissa’s journey shows a lot of strength and courage, and Preet’s big emotions grabbed my heart. If you’re looking for a YA graphic novel for yourself or for a gift, this would be a great choice. Coming Back comes out on January 18, and it would make for a perfect cozy winter afternoon read. 

Kayla Bell reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

the cover of Coming Back

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What a better way to start the new year than with a beautiful, evocative graphic novel that puts the relationship between two women, their family, and their society at the front and center of the narrative? Jessi Zabarsky’s new graphic novel, Coming Back, is all that and more. 

Preet and Valissa are partners that live in a magical society. Preet has magic and is a talented healer. Valissa doesn’t share Preet’s skill at magic but serves as a librarian, the keeper of their society’s histories and stories. After tragedy strikes the community, Valissa takes it upon herself to venture beyond the borders of their town and try to make things right. But she must take this long journey alone. Will Valissa and Preet’s love survive this trial, and what will they both learn during their time apart? 

One thing I loved about Coming Back, that so many graphic novels I’ve read don’t do, is how it often lets the art speak for itself. It’s the ultimate version of show, don’t tell: presenting the pictures and letting the readers formulate their own telling of the story. In addition to sparking the readers’ imaginations and allowing us to build a deeper bond to the story, it also allows us to appreciate the beautiful artwork. Coming Back’s minimalist, muted color palette and friendly art style worked really well for me, and I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy it fully. 

The only problem with the lack of telling in the story is that sometimes the plot can be a little bit hard to follow. For me, that was doubly true because the plot definitely didn’t go in the direction I was expecting. Personally, I would have appreciated a little bit more worldbuilding or exposition to fully understand the story. I think that would have made the ending of the story land better, as well. 

Despite this, one of my favorite parts of the story was the worldbuilding we did get. Like I said before, Valissa is the keeper of their community’s histories. As a society where shapeshifting and magical rituals are commonplace, these stories are as interesting as you can imagine. In addition to being beautifully constructed and illustrated, they also serve as the lynchpin for the story. Coming Back’s main theme is tradition: what it means, what it becomes over time, and when it might be time to change it. While the story was relatively short, I think it did a great job of addressing these questions. 

I thought that the characters were a strong suit of this graphic novel. Each character is very unique and individual. Preet and Valissa are no exception. Each of their personalities and flaws were the heart of the narrative. I loved seeing two complex women navigate their relationship with each other and life’s challenges. The fact that both characters were able to grow and develop so much in such a short amount of time was a real achievement. 

Coming Back is an excellent, female-centered graphic novel that explores how people relate to each other, their family, and their history. It has an interesting, inviting art style and well-crafted characters. It releases on the 18th of this month. Thank you to the publisher for providing an advanced copy to review.