J.K. Rowling has a habit of retroactively making her Harry Potter stories more progressive. In 2007, Rowling confirmed that Albus Dumbledore was gay, and last year, a black woman was cast as Hermione Granger in the stage play Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, two developments that drummed up controversy that put Rowling and her seminal book series back in the spotlight. Over the last few months, Rowling has come under fire from Native Americans for the appropriation of Native American mythology in her Pottermore short stories about the American wizarding school that will debut in the upcoming film Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. The common link between all of these events is representation.
Harry Potter means a lot to a huge number of people, and they yearn to see themselves reflected in the franchise in a respectful manner that acknowledges their distinct circumstances. Elizabeth Simins explores this yearning in her short webcomic, “Evil,” (self-published) detailing her frustrations with Rowling’s work in regards to LGBT representation. The story covers seven years in Simins’ relationship with Harry Potter, beginning in 2009 and her tattoo that reads “expelliarmus,” a disarming spell from Rowling’s books. As time jumps forward, readers are given tidbits of background information that reveal Simins’ struggle with her sexuality, leading to a discussion of the treatment of LGBT characters in Rowling’s work.
Simins uses this topic as a way to look at the emotional value of representation in popular culture, drawing a line between self-worth and visibility in media. Sure, it’s nice that Rowling says Dumbledore is gay, but it would have been nicer if the audience received that confirmation in the books or the films instead of after the fact. Simins hopes that, given the changing cultural climate, Rowling would work to improve LGBT representation in later Harry Potter projects like the current stage play. But when those hopes go unfulfilled, she begins to see it as a slight on her identity. “Why don’t people like me ever get to be in things if there isn’t something just fundamentally bad about us?” Simins asks her friend, and it’s a heartbreaking moment that is made all the more effective by Simins’ lack of a face throughout the entire story. She desperately wants to see herself represented in these stories, and when she’s not, she begins to feel like a faceless non-entity.
Simins is critical of Rowling, but she ends the comic with a moment showing she still finds comfort and strength in the Harry Potter mythos, clenching her tattoo when she learns the news about the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. Her feelings are complicated, and even though she can’t shake her disappointment, it doesn’t negate what Rowling’s work meant for her in the past. Simins still appreciates the good that’s come from having Harry Potter in her life, but that doesn’t diminish her desire to see Rowling improve representation as she returns to the Harry Potter well. [Oliver Sava]
As the comic-book industry continues to embrace digital tools to bring books to readers, more and more small press publishers are finding the road to success a bit easier. Without the costs of bringing and shipping books, without the middle man of Diamond distributing books to local comic shops, dozens of motivated smaller companies are doing exciting things, hiring a new generation of creators with unexpected and innovative ideas. Jade Street Protection Services #1 (Black Mask Studios) is only one of the many books that fly under too many readers’ radar. It unrepentantly hits a lot of the same sweet spots as books like Lumberjanes and Gotham Academy, with higher stakes and a sharper eye for exactly what’s possible when it comes to character diversity. It’s close in tone and topic to the webcomic Agents Of The Realm; a Harry Potter-meets-Gunslinger Girl adventure starring a group of young women who have incredible powers because of gems and weapons that they’re in training to perfect. Some chafe and act out, others fall in line and butt heads with their schoolmates, less interested in carving their own path than they are in keeping their heads down and getting out in one piece.
At first it feels like a fairly standard magical girl boarding school story, but the most intriguing elements of the book are a slow burn, coming up only after the stag has been set and the cast has become familiar. There are already questions of agency and power for these young women, not only what their ultimate fate is but also what the adults in their life intend for them, something a lot of young women will understand even without the magical powers. Writer Katy Rex manages to keep the characters on the right side of the fine line between endearingly quirky and frustratingly twee; the way the girls swear without swearing is a great example. Most of Rex’s previous experience is in anthologies like Strange Wit and Ladies’ Night Anthology, but she’s got a steady hand and a good understanding of what makes interesting characters. [Disclosure: Caitlin Rosberg has also worked on the Ladies’ Night Anthology, but never with Katy Rex, and doesn’t know her personally.] She’s also an editor on another Black Mask book coming in July, Kim & Kim.
Rex’s partner in crime Fabian Lelay not only drew the entire book but also co-created the characters with Rex. His style is sketchy and very character driven, which is a good fit for the book. Each of the young women is drawn distinctly enough to avoid confusion and consistently enough to avoid distraction. There are some panels that feel a little rushed, some perspectives or faces that are a little off, but this is one of Lelay’s first major projects and it’s a strong premiere. Mara Jayne Carpenter’s bubble gum pop colors are a perfect fit for both the characters and Lelay’s style, and Taylor Esposito’s letters are strong, with the exception of the character introductions, which are distractingly divided into horizontal stripes in an attempt to look like an old CRT screen. Still, Jade Street Protection Services is a strong freshman effort from a group of talented, enthusiastic creators. [Caitlin Rosberg.]
Recently concluded, Jeremy Sorese’s Live, Laugh, Love (Hazlitt) is about convergence, overlap, and a lack of discretion. Optimized for the web comic format, Sorese’s comic is a sequence of infinite vertical scrolls. As such, it lacks modular pages, but Sorese is also careful not to draw it with panels either. Instead, the images crash into one another, with Sorese’s curved, bulbous compositions—strikingly colored with diaphanous and clashing hues—colliding, overlapping, and converging. Even the lines and colors themselves overlap and run together; it’s never clear where one “panel” begins and the other ends. This blurring of discretion extends to the narrative itself, and the proceedings center on these irruptions. Lu, the main character of unspecified gender, performs both femininity and masculinity, impinging upon normative understandings and expressions of gender. This is true even of their name—Lu: pronounced like the masculine “Lou,” spelled like an abbreviation of the feminine “Lucy.” Lu’s father, a ghost, seems to appear to two characters at various points, and his specter literally breaches the ontological boundary separating life from death. Further still, the buildings on either side of Lu’s apartment infringe on the material space of the home, pushing its walls ever closer and literally shrinking the domicile.
Narrated in the second person to Lu’s ex-sister-in-law, Live, Laugh, Love features a detached tenor. Lu’s voice hums with a buzzing melancholy, but it, seemingly consciously, lacks a piercing quality. Instead, with his stolid and thoughtful storytelling, Sorese evokes a numbness, or maybe a sense of alienation. There is a distance between Lu and their telling, and it gives the comic an ambiguous, complex quality. Sorese reflects this distance in the text of the comic, but also in the way he draws certain things. Figures more than a few feet away are faceless, abstract blobs, but this abstraction is reserved for certain close-ups as well. In one, playing almost like a montage, friends and family catch Lu up on their lives. Their faces have been erased, and they could literally be anyone. The same is true of Lu’s friends; in part five, they express their inability to drop everything, quit their lives, leave their significant others, and Sorese only renders their hair. They are given vague shapes for mouths and for ears, but they have no noses, no eyes, no facial hair.
Given its tone and content, Live, Laugh, Love is a curious work. Sorese draws it with a pathos and an emotive clarity, but his narrator details it with detachment and coldness. The dissonance is affecting, but you’re tugged forcefully in both directions at once. The resulting experience is rather aporetic—blocked, impassable, and paradoxical. You finish the work unsure of just how to feel. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s better to stand in a liminal space and just be at loss, be unable to articulate precisely how you feel or what you think. Maybe just knowing, intuitively, below the level of language, is best. [Shea Hennum]
The comics medium has a full tradition of illustrated jeremiads, having proven itself time and time again as the perfect medium to accommodate the rants and tirades of the dissatisfied. Gabby Schulz’s Sick (Secret Acres) is the latest in a long line of broadsides to emerge from comics. Sick begins with a premise with which any reader will be familiar: the worst flu ever. Schulz’s slightly fictionalized stand-in falls ill and stays down for 15 days, during which time he experiences a series of visionary hallucinations drawing back the curtain on all the worst places of his soul.
Everyone has been sick, but hopefully never unlucky enough to experience the kind of severe flu that can rob you of weeks of your life. Schulz’s stand-in goes to bed sick and initially waits for the symptoms to pass. They don’t. After a few days without any abatement he goes to the hospital but is given little help without insurance. He returns home and remains drastically ill for the next week and a half. Eventually he believes he is going to die. When the fever eventually breaks he is not left feeling renewed or healthy, but weak, emaciated, and emotionally exhausted. He’s still alive, but the color has been completely drained from the universe.
Although the tone of Sick is consistently bleak, the bleakness alternates between different shades of bile. Early passages detailing Schulz’s doppelgänger’s interactions with the profoundly broken American healthcare system are drawn with the pointed sarcasm of early-Schizo-era Ivan Brunetti. As Schulz’s illness progresses the visuals change, quickly becoming darker and more fantastic. Schulz’s surrogate is pulled under the inky darkness to drown, betrayed by his own body as the imagery becomes ever more fantastic. He is forced in the moment of his greatest duress to face a seemingly endless succession of all his worst memories, every single bad choice, embarrassment, agony, and shame. From his angle under the shadow of this great sickness there aren’t very many good memories to balance out the bad.
Gradually Schulz’s narrative shifts from individual moments hanging in memory to self-excoriating personal metaphors. He becomes a ghost haunting the empty rooms of his own life one moment, and the next experiencing the pain of isolation and social ostracism. Personal reflections eventually give away altogether to images of death, human bodies evaporating into puffs of pink where they stand, leaving behind only red-charred skeletons. The mood is fully apocalyptic.
Bleakness is a difficult emotion to properly convey. It requires an absolute commitment. There are very few rays of sunshine to be found peering through the clouds of illness in Sick. While in smaller doses the pessimism on display in Sick might be excessive or puerile, taken in one gulp the book represents a monument to suffering and despair, a bad trip without any drugs. The reader feels an overriding desire to finish the book and be done with Schulz’s troubled mind, not because it isn’t well-done—quite the contrary—but because Schulz’s literal fever dreams are inescapably oppressive and thoroughly unpleasant. Beautifully drawn, but not for the faint of heart. [Tim O’Neil]