Alison. By Lizzy Stewart. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 168pp, $24.99.
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
This quite wonderful comic is a match for Armed with Madness: The Surreal Leonora Carringon (also published this year, by SelfMadeHero). Both books are by British artists/scriptwriters. They belong together for at least one intriguing reason: the young women artists in question find their fate, at least in the first phase of creative effort, by hooking up with famous middle-aged fellows who take them as lovers/mistresses but also urge them to practice their developing craft. In the end, the women need to make their own way.
Armed With Madness is a real-life story, with rich-girl Leonora Carrington both aided and exploited by the famous surrealist painter Max Ernst, during the 1930s. Carrington leaves England for Spain, suffers multiple breakdowns as the Spanish Civil War explodes around her, and ends up in Mexico, an elderly lady re-discovered by new generations. Alison offers us a fictional version two or three generations later. A young woman growing up in Devon takes and then abandons a husband, at the invitation of a visiting, also romantic and famous, middle-aged painter. She goes on, with his sponsorship, to her artist’s life in London.
Lizzy Stewart, a professional illustrator of children’s books, would not have been considered a comic artist a few decades ago. Walls have broken down since then, obviously, and the use of sequential panels to convey a story easily makes the grade as comic art. Actually, the result here looks more than a little like the drawings of Jules Feiffer in various recent works by the veteran artist. But I digress.
The story is drawn and told quite wonderfully, with the occasional, stunning color page or pages set off from the grey wash of most of the book. It is easy to be convinced that this young woman is flattered to be asked to sit for a portrait, first clothed, then other portraits unclothed, as a relationship develops. It is equally easy to be convinced that she is one of a considerable line of young women falling into the waiting arms of an academic painter at the peak of his BBC-level respectability. He had promised to guide her development as an artist, and for all his drawbacks, he remains determined to do so. He also pays her rent.
Throughout, and this is certainly the feminist angle, Alison is seeking—fumbling and stumbling along the way—to realize herself in every sense. That she had been a hopelessly bored (and childless) housewife in Devon, became a frustrated if developing artist in Bloomsbury and a woman making her own way step by step, is all wonderfully conveyed. Born in 1959 and gone to London in the early 1980s, she finds herself in the midst of radical politics, anti-war, anti-nuke and anti-racist movements, not long before Margaret Thatcher comes to power, ruthlessly crushing all opposition. Worse, Thatcher so successfully converts the political system that even future, corrupted Labour Party leaders accept “privatization” and the practical eclipse of the caring social state as a finality. What can art mean here?
The brevity of the young artist’s wider, militant political commitment may offer insight into the artist-in-progress. Or perhaps we see Lizzy Stewart’s own observation of changing radical politics at a certain moment of time. Serious commitments to art, including the teaching of art to younger generations, merge into the critical concerns in the era of AIDS. She watches as disease and death march through her new milieu. A desperate politics of caring emerges as a considerable portion of the London art world literally finds community through the struggle for life.
It should not give away too much about Alison to reveal that she finds her own companion in a same-sex relationship that is also interracial and global in its connections. Perhaps our protagonist was going in that direction all the time, without realizing her own path. All this is conveyed by Lizzy Stewart with such painstaking care that we find ourselves flowing along, discovering and rediscovering the narrative as the artist discovers her talent and herself. Near the end, she is the learner who has become the renowned teacher.
Alison’s return in something like middle age to her own Dorset is wonderfully visualized and narrated here. Temperamentally a million miles from London, she experiences a return to the natural beauty that she now appreciates afresh, within her own sense of art in the world and in her world.
There is a great deal more to be said here about the young artist’s path. We learn at one point that her older lover, for instance, had the upper-class background to have his talent recognized in childhood, to be trained in formal terms all the way along. By contrast, Alison must undertake a crash course and find another path to realize her talents. Perhaps this detail offers us the secret of Lizzy Stewart herself, a children’s book illustrator, using comics for story telling. Like others today, she is struggling to create something fresh through a merger of forms that become recognizable through the work of the new generations of artists and comics.
Paul Buhle’s latest comic is an adaptation of W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic Souls of Black Folk, by artist Paul Peart Smith (Rutgers University Press).