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Graphic Novels With Fresh Voices From the Margins – The New York Times


Graphic Content

From “Hot Comb.”CreditCredit

The field of comics today offers many different kinds of stories — including a rich range of fantasy titles, and even an “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Freshman Force” comic book — and also many different kinds of creators, including cartoonists who came to comics late, or unexpectedly, and now, as minority voices, are joining the ranks to establish new traditions. Ebony Flowers is an African-American education researcher who composed her Ph.D. dissertation, in 2017, largely in comics form. Teresa Wong is a second-generation Chinese-Canadian writer — and a copywriter at a digital marketing agency — whose author’s bio relates, in its first lines, that she “had three children in less than five years.” Five years ago, I bet, neither of these women, pursuing other careers, thought they would be doing comics. Both have just published slim but powerful debuts — respectively, a short story collection, HOT COMB (Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95), and a memoir addressed to a firstborn child, DEAR SCARLET: The Story of My Postpartum Depression (Arsenal Pulp Press, $17.95). They center on female embodiment as well as the ways that race and gender can shape how we form our identities. Both explore, in accessible black and white, the everyday experience of feeling like an other, making that feeling — whether in relation to one’s peers or one’s own offspring — vivid and resonant on the page.

In the eight stories of “Hot Comb,” a mix of autobiography and fiction, the thread throughout is black women’s hair — as a source of intimacy, community and tension. The title story, at 41 pages, is the most successful: It tells of Ebony’s first perm — in which her natural hair is chemically relaxed — at age 11, for which she and her reluctant mother visit Dee’s Salon, on Baltimore’s East Side. It’s hard to argue with her reasoning; when her mother protests she’s too young, she replies earnestly, “Sssorry … I’m tired of people making fun of me and beating me up.” Flowers goes deep into the context for this fraught mother-daughter outing, which includes her parents’ earlier decision to move out of a mixed-race trailer park in Maryland because they think their kids are acting too white.

Ebony’s hardworking mother attends to her daughter’s hair, straightening it at home with a heated iron comb. In one touching early scene, Flowers draws her mother in a tier-wide panel in “after work wear.” Her shirt and bra are off, her “work wig” sits next to her, and she’s sipping Bacardi on the couch, a portrait of exhaustion. Yet when Ebony asks, “Can you press my hair for the talent show?,” a three-hour endeavor, her mom simply replies, “Sure, baby.” Here we see the complexity around her hairstyle and its implications: The straightening of her hair is both a loving form of care and something — when it’s a perm — that makes her mother cry. What moves us, in turn, is the artist’s own attention to meticulous visual detail in her comics, charting the steps of the hair care process, a replication of her mother’s effort. Between her stories, showing off her sly humor and ethnographer’s eye, Flowers intersperses faux advertisements for hair care products from her fictional “Pinnacle” line, such as Hair Decoded, Kinky Mane (slogan: “It Is Known”) and Kids n’ Koils.

From “Hot Comb.”Credit

Flowers’s loose, expressive line is a little messy, a little scribbly, with both cursive and all-caps text floating through the images. She is a protégée of the great cartoonist of childhood, Lynda Barry, also known for her expressive style. A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Barry has explained how important handwriting is to the experience of reading comics; in her view, judging “good” and “bad” drawing misses the point of comics, which has more to do with the personality of the hand of the cartoonist than with any kind of realism. In “Hot Comb,” bodies can meld into each other, and texture and shadow sometimes make the action hard to distinguish. But this imprecise style works for these stories, which are so often about the anxieties of correct appearance.

While writing and sketching “Dear Scarlet,” Teresa Wong initially thought of hiring an illustrator before deciding to take on the job herself, despite her lack of drawing chops. The images are, as a result, highly simplified — panels rarely offer any background at all, for instance — and they exude a vulnerability that rhymes with Wong’s growing awareness of her depression after Scarlet is born (she isn’t diagnosed until two months in — more than halfway through the book). Her thin, quavering line art telegraphs the main ideas with speed and force. And Wong is a clever writer, injecting humor into her often grave account with a series of interspersed diagrams such as “My Postpartum Body,” “A Diagram of Mom Guilt,” “My Depressed Mind” and “Chinese Postpartum Food,” which all have the subtitle “not for the faint of heart.”

“Dear Scarlet” feels brave: Wong articulates sentiments that fly in the face of societal conventions about motherhood in a book explicitly created for her daughter to read. She admits to her child that it was not “love at first sight”; one night, she confesses to her husband: “I think I hate her.” She senses she has no maternal instincts, and even on an up day describes taking care of Scarlet as “boring, but hard.”

From “Dear Scarlet.”Credit

Unsurprisingly, “Dear Scarlet” has an arc of gradual improvement. But we do see the way that women are treated in medical spaces, and what it feels like to be the struggling maternal subject in such rooms and offices — as well as isolated with an infant. Happily, Wong’s mother enters as a foil to the Teresa-Scarlet pairing, presiding over the Chinese tradition in which, as Wong explains, “mom and baby are confined to the house for the first month after the birth.” While Teresa tries to dodge her mother’s pork liver soup, the book avoids representing Chinese traditions and food as an inferior foil for modern Western medicine. Instead it narrates how support from family and professionals alike led to a slow, fragile recovery.

The issues Flowers and Wong explore are not new to literature, not even to comics. I thought of “Wash Day,” by Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith, as well as Carol Tyler’s diagram of bodily desperation, “Anatomy of a New Mom,” and her striking piece in which she confesses to nearly deciding to kill her child. But no earlier comics explore the politics and emotion behind black women’s hair — nor the mapping of a body and mind in the grips of postpartum depression — at such length, revealing the contradictory feelings and perspectives with an orthogonal depth, delivering them visually, step by step. Flowers and Wong may not always have planned on becoming cartoonists, but the urgency of these stories is matched by the immediacy of their form.

Hillary Chute writes the Graphic Content column and is the author, most recently, of “Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere,” which will be out in paperback in October.

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