Last week on the podcast, we talked a bit about the famous Jack Kirby quote “Comics will break your heart.” Ales Kot explored it in Material #2, from the angle of being caught up in the capitalist hustle but this week I find myself returning to it for a completely different reason. Just as I was planning to dig into my review pile I got an e-mail from a friend who’d just read her copy of Airboy #2 letting me know that there was something transmisogynistic in the issue. I’m grateful for it too, because coming into that absolute mess unaware would have been devastating. It still hurt like hell when I got there, though. I froze and felt the blood drain out of my face when I came upon James Robinson himself casually dropping that slur. I was numb for a bit and then as the issue descended into successively deeper circles of hell that numbness gave way to fury. I walked it off, I reached out to friends for support, and then I wrote about it.
After all that I still had two comics I was really looking forward to that needed reading. Brandon Graham and Marian Churchland’s 8House: Arclight and Fresh Romance #2. I didn’t know if I could bounce back from feeling that hurt, angry, and degraded to hit my deadline. The question of the week instantly became how do you recover from being hurt so badly from something you love that much and have invested so much of yourself in? Both comics, in their own ways, managed to answer that question in spirit if not in letter.
Fresh Romance is a title that has a lot of the persistence necessary to keep going after heartbreak and rejection woven right into it’s structure. There’s an advice column specifically written by women who have been divorced. Format wise it’s a really fun return to how comics were way back in their infancy when they had prose minimums they had to meet, but it’s also truly powerful to give women with that shared experience that role. There’s still significant social stigmas around divorce and women who go through it being seen as having failed or being lesser for it, but the reality is that these are women who have gone through significant loss and have found their way back to being able to love again. They’re stronger for it and better placed to give advice no matter what anyone tries to project on them, and that makes for a deep reservoir of strength to draw on.
The continuation of Kate Leth and Arielle Jovellanos’ School Spirit did a lot to make me feel like myself again with a great balance of comfort food and essential nutrients. It was my favourite of the three last issue and that remains true this month. It started off as a frothy little adventure about the lengths that teens are willing to go to in order to get out from under their parents’ for some hot make outs, but the scope increases hugely with this issue. As I predicted last issue, the floating candles do indeed turn out to be magical in origin. Corrine, as it turns out, is in fact a witch. Not just that, but her participation in all of the running around and house swapping was to keep her romantic interest in Miles a secret from her two dads who are also wizards and have forbidden her from dating mortals. In my review of E is for Extinction, I talked about the pitfalls of creating fictional analogues for real world marginalized groups and I’m incredibly excited to say that Leth sidesteps them cleanly and easily. It’s cute and fun to have Corrine grapple with the purely fictional struggle of falling in love with a mortal, but Leth also slows things down a notch with her queer characters to discuss their particular struggles with their families’ acceptance of their queerness. It’s a study in exactly what I want from the X-Men. I haven’t seen an indie comic deliver this strongly on what I want from my beloved mutants since Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan’s Demo. Kate Leth is wrapping up her run on Bravest Warriors right now, so the ball’s in your court Marvel. For her part, Jovellanos continues to be the real emotional glue of the story, tying Leth’s dialogue to a range of charming, larger than life facial expressions. The way that she exaggerates her expressions draws out just how apocalyptic and immediate everything feels like as a teen, which is the perfect companion to Leth’s melodrama and goofy puns.
Sarah Vaughn and Sarah Winifred Searle’s Ruined marches on at a methodical pace, epitomizing the slow burn. This issue we finally get inside the protagonist’s head as Catherine begins to give voice to the full scope of her anxieties over her marriage. She finds herself questioning her husband because she’s been so thoroughly convinced by the people around her that she’s unlovable that she finds herself expecting there to be something wrong with him for agreeing to marry her. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, but not needlessly so. It’s an incredibly raw and frank look at how we can be twisted inside out by external influences. Internalized misogyny, to twist a classic Dave Chappelle line, is a hell of a drug and it’s applicability goes far beyond Catherine’s immediate circumstances. Catherine is presented as a woman who is “ruined” for having had a relationship with a man before marriage, but that construction of ruined women certainly correlates elsewhere like the stigmas attached to divorced women mentioned above, or the cumulative effects of the constant dehumanization that trans women are presented with. The ultimate strength of regency era fiction that Ruined draws influence from is that it’s authors drew out almost universal emotional truths that women across cultures and time can understand. After all, Jane Austen’s Emma found vibrant and fresh life as Clueless. Searle continues to wow this issue with her smooth figures and incredible layers of emotion she imbues them with despite the minimalist quality of her style.
Sarah Kuhn and Sally Jane Thompson’s The Ruby Equation expands the rules of the game this entry by introducing a clever plot device. Ruby truly does have a Barry Bonds like asterix beside her name for padding her relationship tally with dozens of couples that never truly sparked, but she doesn’t necessarily have to do it all over again. There’s a Calvinball like exception worked in: if she can bring one truly earth shattering, white hot couple together it’ll exonerate her. The catch is that when she makes the match she has to feel something from it. Which, based on this entry, looks like it’ll translate into Ruby herself falling in love. What’s really interesting to me about this take is that it isn’t the typical story of a lovelorn matchmaker who can find love for everyone but herself. It’s the story of someone who thinks she can be the Nate Silver of romance, boil it down to a mathematical equation, but instead ends up having feelings she can’t reconcile. Leading her to discover just how truly messy, weird, and fun attraction is. The Ruby Equation was the story I expected to appreciate but not really engage with personally, which seems amusingly appropriate as I find myself drawn far more into it, the same way that Ruby herself seems to be on her way to engaging with romance on a personal level.
Overall, Fresh Romance continues to be a great comic for it’s willingness to acknowledge and live within a world that exists outside the cloistered little world of comics. It’s three serial stories across various genres, but it’s also a wonderful advice column, a space for publisher Janelle Asselin to share how she experiences attraction and invite readers to share her world with fun little extras like her favourite playlist for working through crushes, and this issue in specific, a really cool essay about how fashion evolved in classic romance comics. Above all it’s a safe space.
Written by Kate Leth, Sarah Kuhn, and Sarah Vaughn
Drawn by Arielle Jovellanos, Sally Jane Thompson, and Sarah Winifred Searl with colours by Amanda Scurti and Savanna Ganucheau
8House: Arclight marks the beginning of the next phase of Brandon Graham’s quiet campaign to carve out his own fiefdom in comics. Finding what seems to be a pretty permanent home at Image, Graham has so far wrapped up his long shelved King City comic originally published by Tokyopop, continued his Multiple Warheads series, and begun his first serious stint writing for other artists on Prophet. One of my favourite qualities about his work is how different his creative voice is in shifting from comics that he writes and draws himself to what he writes for other artists. Titles like Multiple Warheads are incredibly dense with visual and textual information, frequently giving them a strong sense of urban claustrophobia and sensory overload, but titles like Prophet and Arclight are extremely minimalist. Graham seems to pull back from his intricate constructions to hand the wheel over to his artistic collaborators. Churchland takes advantage of this to spin the story out like a haunting lullaby sung in a whisper. I’m not really sure that the exact plot of Arclight matters. It’s there and you can engage with it, but it’s more fun to let go and just drift along in the artwork for your first reading. It’s an absolute visual masterpiece that also tells a very surreal fantasy story.
The story, such as it is, remains recognizably Graham’s as it revolves around a band of misfits with mysterious pasts. The eponymous hero is the retainer to a woman who has lost her body, becoming a tree like creature roaming desolate wastelands together tracking an alien presence as Arclight searches for a way to restore her. There are dozens of subtle character beats laced throughout the story, but at one meandering issue in it’s impossible to say what the sum of it’s parts will be. Despite that, Graham flexes his substantial imagination to create a unique and surreal fantasy world.
Churchland crafts exquisite figures, but by far my favourite element of her art this issue is her incredible colouring. The starting point for most of the comic is browns, yellows, and sepias that create a sense of both their desolate surroundings and the nostalgic longing for a simpler, easier time in the lives of the principal characters. It’s the careful splashes of deep reds and translucent neon greens that really communicate a mastery of colour, working the bold contrasts into the soft, muted backgrounds wonderfully. It’s an absolute visual feast that draws out the underlying tensions of the story.
Comics will break your heart. There will always be gatekeepers, bullies, and hacks, but at the end of the day there will always be something waiting around the next corner to renew your vows if you’re brave and resilient enough pick yourself up again.
Written by Brandon Graham
Drawn by Marian Churchland with letters by Ariana Maher
Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.