Being Different: Artists and Other Outsiders

I am celebrating! Last month, the state of Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage, removing one layer of hurtful, official “difference” from our local landscape. As emotional and social landscapes continue to shift, too, we may see some changes in how graphic literature depicts same-sex relationships. Discovery or revelation of sexual identity might no longer typically be the plot’s “crisis”—gay adults, teens, and kids may have other, more crucial matters on their minds. And more gay characters may show up as secondary characters as an unexceptional part of everyday life. Yet other individuals with fluid gender identities and complex sexual feelings will continue to be “outsiders” in a world that typically still demands clear-cut, either-or categories. Today, I am highlighting graphic works whose main figures are artists, already set apart by their calling. Some of these characters are also outsiders because of their sexuality, others because their religion brands them as different and inferior. Engaging, satisfying, disturbing, moving—get ready for a roller-coaster of emotions as I tell you about these five excellent books.

Page by PaigeThe focal character in author/illustrator Laura Lee Gulledge’s Page by Paige (2011) is 16-year-old Paige Turner. (She thinks her punning name is too cute, too.) Her family’s recent move from Virginia to New York City has left Paige feeling lost and insecure. Trying to figure out what to do about this, the young artist realizes, “I know I need to draw about it.” Gulledge’s work is, in fact, structured as a month-by-month sketch book kept by Paige, with each section also subtitled with one of her grandmother’s adages about art and life. One is “Figure out what scares you and DO IT.” Paige also thinks and feels in images. So, when she imagines ridding herself of negative thoughts, we see Paige’s head shaped like an upside-down salt shaker, with all those negative “shoulds,” “perhaps,” and “maybes” literally being shaken right out of her head! When she feels heartened by a hug from her father, we see her sheltered in the center of a large, intertwined skein of many loving arms.

Whether depicting Paige acquiring friends and a boyfriend, negotiating new rules with her parents, or learning about city laws and neighborhood norms for public art, Gulledge gives readers a visually rich experience. This work’s black-and-white interior is filled with panels of assorted sizes and creative shapes, used in effective counterpoint to the storyline, and alternating with panel-free single and double page spreads. Wind-blown hair, waving arms, and emotion-filled word balloons are just some of the items that “spill over” to unite panels. Gulledge uses a variety of greys to suggest different moods and times of night, and adds “punch” to some scenes through the use of black backgrounds or silhouettes.  She also knows how to use wordless pages effectively—for instance, sometimes filling them with many small panels to convey time’s “dragging” as Paige waits for sleep or inspiration. Accepting the challenges and responsibilities of making art is one of Gulledge’s central themes here.

A shared love of comics and similar musical tastes bring Paige and her new high school friends together. An early, brief exchange about a lesbian comic book character establishes that female Jules is gay while Paige is straight. After a wordless panel in which the two smile at each other, this difference recedes into the background of their friendship. It surfaces again briefly only when musical Jules refers to a lesbian singer and Paige talks about her feelings for her boyfriend Gabe. Sexual orientation is just a footnote in their lives, as are the mixed ethnic identities of Jules, her brother Longo, and Gabe. In this joyful, up-to-the-moment graphic novel—referencing contemporary comics and musicians and filled with smart phone texts and photos, laptop Instant Messaging, and even its own playlist—Paige and Gabe’s relationship is sweetly old-fashioned. They kiss and bump knees under schoolroom desks, but when Gabe teasingly asks, “Want to step it up a notch?” we see what he means is holding hands! Paige’s reply, along with a close-up of her face, show that hand-holding is just the right level of physical intimacy for the pair. Gulledge’s emphasis on slowly–evolving, highly-prized emotional intimacy rings true in this novel of adolescence. I think it will also resonate with younger as well as older readers, too.

Page by Paige was honored as a nominee for both the 2012 Eisner Award and YALSA Teens’ Top Ten. It was a Booklist Great Graphic Novel Pick for 2012 as well. I believe that Gulledge’s just published Will & Whit (2013) will earn comparable kudos. Its 17-year-old protagonist, Wilhemina Huckstep, is a craft artist, specializing in hand-made lamps. She and her cohort of high school juniors—along with one 13-year-old kid sister—grow closer and learn more about themselves, each other, and their families when Hurricane Whitney (the title’s “Whit”) blasts through their small Virginia community. From its first chapter, “Sparks,” through the “Shadowboxing” they do when the lights go out, to the “Illumination” characters experience during the town carnival they hold despite the storm, this new book is also a visual treat. Gulledge again plays with panel shape, size, and permeability; she uses close-ups on faces and other body segments to great effect; and panel-free pages convey different kinds of energy and motion as characters lazily float along a stream or desperately seek shelter during a hurricane. The mysterious shadows that haunt Will right from the novel’s start are explained and satisfyingly dealt with in its last pages, too!

a+e 4everThe tone and look of author/illustrator I. Merey’s gripping a + e 4EVER is much different than Gulledge’s novels. Merey uses visual elements typical in Japanese manga to depict the sometimes bleak and painful experiences of her teenage protagonists. High school juniors Asher (“a” or Ash) and Eulalie (“e” or Eu) have the emotional needs typical of teens, but these young artists are unconventional in appearance and/or sexual orientation. Eu chooses to dramatize her spindly, 6 foot height with Goth clothing, a half-shaved head, and a bad attitude. Ash emphasizes his slight stature, girlish appearance and bisexuality with tight, sparkly clothing. Merey introduces Ash in scenes depicting his being bullied in the high school boys’ room, where readers wait along with the bullies to discover Ash’s biological gender. Eu is introduced when she rescues a surprisingly ungrateful, prickly Ash from lunchroom bullying. When the two finally do bond over their shared musical taste and interest in art, Eu asks taciturn Ash what drawing means to him. His one word reply, offset prominently in a different font, is “escape.” Brutal handling and parental indifference have left Ash unable to tolerate touch of any kind. This becomes Eu’s problem as well as Ash’s since—despite the general assumption that large, assertive Eu is a lesbian—she is heterosexual and falls in love with him. Ironically, Eu for much of the book is not “pretty” or sweet enough to merit any of Ash’s limited interest in having a “girlfriend.” 

Merey draws characters with the large eyes and small mouths typical in manga. Anger shown as an unrealistically fanged mouth, other strong emotions shown as tiny droplets of sweat, plus an overall emphasis on minimally-lined figures and blank, single-toned, or hatch-marked backgrounds are also typical of manga. Roughly-drawn, angular lettering that matches characters’ intense feelings is a further manga element. The occasional Japanese word such as “kira” for sparkly also reinforces this frame of reference, a favorite subgenre for teen and preteen readers. High school students will certainly empathize with the first love, school scenes, and retreat into music depicted here. That a teenage ‘forever’ might be thwarted by adult family plans will also painfully resonate for many young readers, whether or not they also see themselves in Ash and Eu’s differences or are just “reality surfing.” That is the term Laura Lee Gulledge’s teens use for “exploring scenes and subcultures” which are, as Paige puts it, “nice to visit, but not all of them are for me.”

Yet, just as some manga is more explicit and generally adult-oriented, readers will find that publication by small, independent Lethe Press has given Merey more latitude than mainstream publishers often extend to authors of YA literature. Her teenage characters realistically utter the occasional obscenity or profanity. There is in-context mention of masturbation. And Merey also depicts dangerous behavior and the results of poor choices. Ash, having taken a “feel-good” pill offered by a stranger in a music club, really cannot give informed consent for the sexual encounter that follows. We witness what he later denies is his being raped. The promiscuous homosexual behavior Ash then begins is part of this denial. When Ash and Eu finally have sex with one another, it is an affirmation of emotional intimacy and psychological healing for bisexual Ash. Their nude, seemingly androgynous bodies, sketched in expressionistic lines common in manga, are both plot and theme appropriate. Merey’s work travels a different, stonier path than Gulledge’s, but both graphic novelists emphasize the importance of emotional and cultural connections for their teen protagonists—and, by extension, their readers.

Writing about their own lives, two veteran illustrator/authors add historical dimension to points raised by Gulledge and Meray. Immigration is key to the powerful graphic works that award-winning Allen Say and Joe Kubert have created about artistic outsiders. Once again, these works differ from each other in outlook and tone.

Drawing from MemoryAn illustrator of Caldecott-winning picture books for young readers, Allan Say in his memoir Drawing from Memory (2011) shows as well as tells about his fierce desire to be an artist. As a boy in 1930s and 1940s Japan, he had to overcome his family’s disdain for this ambition. His father, Say recalls, even said, “I expect you to be a respectable citizen, not an artist …”  Kids will be fascinated by the determination with which young Say took every chance to seize his dream. Readers of all ages will be tickled to learn that teenaged Say and his fellow art apprentices actually appeared as characters in early manga comics penned by their sensei (master teacher), Norei Shinpei! Delightful panels from those strips, along with Say’s own softly-colored, more realistically styled drawings and black and white photographs illustrate this upbeat hybrid work, half-graphic novel and half-picture bookBeginning with his earliest years, it concludes with 17-year-old Say immigrating to the United States. A final, illustrated Author’s Note summarizes Say’s adult career and last meeting, in 2002, with his revered sensei. Their mutual respect and affection is touching. Drawing from Memory was commended as an Honor Book in the 2012 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award competition.

Yossel, April 19, 1943What might have happened to Allen Say, though, had he not immigrated? We may speculate, but we cannot know for sure. Jewish Joe Kubert, however, is certain that his family’s 1926 immigration from Poland, when he was an infant, saved his life. Unlike I. Meray’s Asher and Eulalie, who view their being Jewish as an almost irrelevant “difference,” by far the least of their concerns, in Poland Joe Kubert would almost surely have become a victim of the Nazi Holocaust. He would have been among the millions of people slaughtered just for being a Jew, along with millions of others declared criminally “different.” That alternate—and tragically truncated—lifetime, in a kind of alternate universe, is the basis of Kubert’s stunning graphic novel, Yossel: April 19, 1943: A Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. (2003; 2011). Yossel is the Yiddish name usually translated as Joe. The book Yossel depicts the life Kubert imagines he would have led in Poland. Perhaps best known for his work on such comic book series as Sgt. Rock, Tarzan, and Hawkman, in the U.S. Kubert (1926-2012) began working as a cartoonist while still a young teen. He had earned a lifetime achievement award from the National Cartoonists Society and was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame long before he began to write and illustrate graphic novels. Kubert depicts himself as young Yossel being similarly skilled with drawing and fascinated by comics. No superhero he draws, though, comes to rescue Yossel, his family, or neighbors. His ability to sketch portraits for Nazi officers and soldiers can only delay, not defeat death. As teenage Yossel listens to someone who has briefly escaped a concentration camp, his sketches capture and foreshadow this fate. Covering an entire page, one remarkable image has bare feet foregrounded, toes pointing towards the top of the page where gaunt figures in striped uniforms are about to shutter a pair of doors. We are viewing the inside of a crematorium oven from the impossible, nearly unbearable vantage point of a corpse! Soon, it will be incinerated ash.

In his introduction to Yossel: April 19, 1943 (the day on which the brave but doomed Ghetto uprising began), Kubert explains that he chose to omit the standard cartooning practice of inking over penciled-in drawings, then erasing those first, hastier lines. Kubert kept the “immediacy” of the pencil drawings here “to convey a sense that these drawings were in Yossel’s mind, even though he may never have had the opportunity to put them all to paper.” This suggestion is certainly communicated in the work’s last pages, in which we hear Yossel think, as soldiers search the Ghetto for any surviving fighters, that “It felt good to draw again, to shut out the rest of the world, to feed my mind and my heart with that which makes me complete. No noise. No wetness. No heat. No cold. No pain. Nothing. . . . M-Mama.” The final gut-wrenching image of this moving work is a full page picture of a tellingly blank page. Unlike I. Merey’s Asher, Yossel cannot escape his pain and live, too.

As I skim now through the pages of Yossel: April 19, 1943, my mind turns again to the legislative shift that inspired today’s blog entry. I think of the pink triangles (used by Nazis to identify and doom homosexuals), the red triangles (for political prisoners), the purple triangles (for Bible students and other religious dissidents)—all the symbols that along with Jews’ yellow stars marked “difference” as evil, fit only for destruction. I am so glad to live here and now, proud to contribute in some small way to our more welcoming and open-hearted Minnesota.

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