KISS NUMBER 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T Crenshaw
My new favorite graphic novel is Kiss Number 8, written by Colleen AF Venable and illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw, published by First Second. This is a book that is about family, self-discovery and gender identity that requires that you find a nice spot to read because you won’t want to put it down. Our main character is 16-year-old Amanda. Her friends call her, Mads, which is a fitting nickname for an exuberant personality. Mads is mad about life but struggling to find her way. And growing up in a conservative religious family adds to the complications. Conventional wisdom is telling her that she should be pining over boy-next-door Adam. But her heart is telling her that she wants to be kissed by girl-next-door Cat. Our story is set in 2004 which provides a whole set of pop culture references while also giving everything a timeless quality.
Venable has a wonderful way with evoking the trials and tribulations of young souls. She was telling me about her background in playwriting and I can clearly see that ability to lift up characters and events and have them dance upon the page. It’s about knowing how to craft one scene after another and one moment from the next. Consider the opening pages: a steady sequence of panels depict Mads bumping along as she gains experience in how to kiss and, when we reach Kiss Number 8, it’s enigmatic, something we’ll come back to. Then we proceed a few more pages in and we realize there’s a whole other mystery up ahead.
Page from Kiss Number 8
Ellen T. Crenshaw and Colleen AF Venable
Crenshaw is superbly matched with Venable as her artwork is so in tune with the thoughtful and gentle quality to this work. We chatted about process and the inevitable topic of how time-consuming graphic novels can be was discussed. Well, far be it from me to dissuade Crenshaw from changing anything about her methods. Each page is utterly beautiful. She has a perfect thing going with her use of hand-drawn ink and ink wash. It is a delight to the eyes. We also chatted about how First Second appreciates the beauty of black & white comics and how it is often the best way to convey more mature themes. It certainly works in this case.
Page from Kiss Number 8
No doubt, this is a book working on many levels and is sure to engage readers from teenagers on up. If you’re looking for a good book exploring LGBTQ themes from a teen perspective, this is a wonderful read.
Page from Kiss Number 8
Kiss Number 8 has the depth of a good play and the pace of an immersive work in manga. It is a queer story that will resonate with young readers as well as any reader who loves a good coming-of-age tale. This is a 320-page trade paperback that will reward the reader upon rereading it! Lots to savor in the way of word and image! Available as of March 12th, for more details and how to purchase, go right here.
I’ve recently been taking a look at some work by artist/writer Ariel Schrag. I’m becoming more familiar with her comics and I decided to read her prose novel, Adam. While reading it, I also became aware of the controversy surrounding this novel which will debut in 2019 at Sundance. I’d just gotten a quarter of the way into the novel and wondered just where these snarky kids were heading. The book depicted the author’s take on callow youth and gay culture and so I pressed on. I do understand why some people will find the book problematic. Still, it’s useful to stick with it to the end to study one writer’s process.
I’ll cut to the chase and say that Ms. Schrag’s book aims to be in the tradition of provocative novels. The characters do and say a number of nasty and questionable things and then there are also moments when Schrag dials down the snark. Here is an example, a scene that finds the main characters at a predominantly transgender gathering:
“Clarification on gender was indeed necessary. Looking around at the group, it was as if a hatful of pronouns written on scraps of paper had been thrown into the air, each group, sometimes two, landing randomly on a person, regardless of what he or she looked like. Adam had gotten used to boyish girls turning out to be trans, the general rule that masculine = he and feminine = she, but here at Camp Trans it was a free-for-all. You couldn’t be sure of anything, except that you were most likely wrong.”
So, yeah, the book has a cocky snarky vibe, an attempt to channel the great Holden Caulfield tradition of snark. It’s when an ambitious young writer feels compelled to be provocative that things will heat up for sure. The big controversy revolves around the premise of the main character, Adam, a 17-year-old straight man becoming involved with Gillian, a 22-year-old gay woman, by both lying about his age and, far more significantly, lying that he’s a female-to-male trans person. That premise is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. You have people in the trans community saying the book is exploitive. You have the author saying the book is meant to open up a discussion. Ms. Schrag has gained notoriety over the years for her memoir comics. She is an openly gay woman who has focused on young adult themes. She has written for television, including writing for Showtime’s The L Word.
The big point of contention against this novel comes down to the idea that the main character, Adam, is essentially getting away with rape as he’s in a sexual relationship through deception. For most of the novel, Adam isn’t getting away with much as he’s depicted as being fairly creepy. Towards the end that changes when Schrag drives her novel over a cliff with an abrupt shift. Adam begins his journey as a stand-in for just an average guy, yet another typical banal young person, while Schrag steadily turns up the heat. He easily falls into fantasy. He’s so selfish that, despite all the warning signs, he continues to deceive his lover in the hopes that his fantasy will come true and she will ultimately overlook his gross betrayal.
Looking at this from a creative point of view, it is very interesting to see a cartoonist like Schrag developing into a full-on prose writer. Any number of cartoonists find themselves juggling/struggling with two distinct disciplines (writing and drawing) that are supposed to meld into one (comics). Well, the comics-making process is a whole world onto itself with many potential variations, detours and pitfalls. It’s a delicate balancing act. And, if a creator favors writing a little more than drawing, that can tip the balance. For Ms. Schrag, it seems that more often than not, when she puts pen to paper, it is only words she seeks. Deep into making a novel all out of words, those words can take on a life of their own a little more easily than within the framework of a well planned out graphic novel with storyboards and various anchors. You choose your words that much more carefully when you create a graphic novel in comparison to commanding a ship of words in a novel. You set sail for vast ports unknown. You can lose yourself in your discourse and take your mighty vessel way off course.
You get away with less in comics. You can be instantly held accountable. Stuff can get buried in a prose novel. All those words! Ms. Schrag can engage in some anti-Semitic rhetoric and no one will call her on it since the focus is on her depiction of the trans community. Around the middle of the novel, Schrag builds up to what she deems a joke involving her inept and money-grubbing Jewish landlords. Analyzed as a joke, the mechanics and execution fall flat. It’s inappropriate and serves no purpose other than to underscore the fact that the characters are prone to being intolerant and hurtful and that has already been well established. It’s a joke that would make the legendary cartoonist provocateur Robert Crumb blush mostly because it’s so not funny. You just can’t get away with stuff like that in comics. In contrast to this novel, Ms. Schrag’s recent collection of comics, Part of It, indicates a more restrained, and even polite, approach.
Ms. Schrag has said about all the controversy attached to this novel: “People are really angry specifically about appropriating an oppressed identity. I just think that’s fascinating to think about because what is so terrible about appropriating an oppressed identity?” That’s a gutsy remark with consequences attached to it. Writers can choose to provoke but then it’s fair game to listen carefully to the response. Just because you belong to a group doesn’t mean you need to shake it to its core. But for those writers who can’t resist shaking things up, they will need to be open to criticism. In this case, there’s a movie version coming out and that will undoubtedly provide another opportunity for more discussion and more controversy.
The comics medium can be as clear and as ambiguous as the work requires. One of the great things about comics is its unlimited and distinct potential to alternate between clarity and mystery. When you feature yourself in your own work, you seek the right balance. Someone quite capable of playing with those modulations is writer/artist Ariel Schrag. Her recent collection of comics is entitled, Part of It: Comics and Confessions, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Ms. Schrag is known for a number of brilliant memoir comics that feature her growing up, struggling through high school, and finding her way. While her work can neatly fit within the categories of YA and LGBTQ, it certainly transcends any label or genre. And don’t let anyone tell you different: a good coming-of-age story will always be welcome and never go out of style. We’re human and we all have our own unique tales to tell. This new collection of comics provides compelling proof of that.
Page from Part of It
Part of It is a collection that culls through some of Schrag’s best work over the years. Probably the best piece is one from a 2004 anthology with an eyeglasses theme. In this one, we find Schrag having been sucked into a vortex of vacillation over just what constitutes the perfect pair of eyewear. Is it promoting the best experience possible? Does it look right? Does it fit right? Is it dated? Is it…sass? Just one meaningless derisive utterance from her little sister triggers heartbreaking regret. Schrag tentatively enters a room with her latest choice in glasses. All it takes is one negative comment, “Sass,” from her sibling, and it’s all over.
Just wanting to be “part of it.”
Ms. Schrag has proven to be quite a funny and adroit writer. As an openly gay woman, she has shared excellent insights and observations. That said, whatever a writer’s background, it’s the work that speaks for itself in the end. Sexuality is not the key element, for instance, in the eyeglasses piece just mentioned above. In fact, sexuality is often part of a bigger picture in a typical auto-bio comic. You simply share things about yourself in the process of telling a story, in the service of the narrative. If all goes well, your tale combines the universal and the specific in a satisfying way. While all these pieces come from different places and times, Schrag finds common ground and eloquently returns again and again to a theme of wanting to be accepted, wanting to be “part of it.” This is a great collection of comics. Wonderfully wicked good fun!
Part of It: Comics and Confessions is a 176-page trade paperback, published by Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Ostertag’s passion shines through each page. In this tale of the supernatural, there is a strict divide between genders: only women are witches; only men are shapeshifters. But Aster won’t abide by the rules. You too will root for Aster, the boy who dreams of being a witch.
THE WITCH BOY by Molly Ostertag
Aster is naturally drawn to what has been deemed the feminine domain. It is only a matter of time before this conflict erupts and forces his community to respond. That becomes inevitable once a dragon monster threatens everyone.
THE WITCH BOY by Molly Ostertag
A golden rule that does make sense to follow is that an artist will do well to pursue what is compelling. I don’t find a false note anywhere in this book and that all has to do with Ostertag’s authenticity. I look forward to seeing Molly Ostertag proceed upon her merry way and continue to delight her readers.
Molly Ostertag will have a table at Small Press Expo in Bethesda Maryland this upcoming weekend, September 15-16. You can see her at two panels: “Comics with Molly Ostertag,” on Saturday, from 4:15 pm – 5:15 pm, at the Glen Echo Room; and “Building The Jungle Gym,” on Sunday, from 2:30 pm – 3:30 pm, at the White Oak Room.
“THERE ARE STORIES ABOUT KIDS AND GROWING UP, AND THERE ARE STORIES ABOUT THE LGBT EXPERIENCE; BUT THE TWO DON’T OFTEN INTERSECT IN A POSITIVE WAY. LGBT ISSUES AREN’T JUST ADULT ISSUES! MY STORIES ARE FOR ALL AGES: POSITIVE STORIES OF KIDS AND YOUNG ADULTS NAVIGATING LIFE AND HELPING EACH OTHER WHILE NOT IGNORING THEIR IDENTITIES AS TRANSGENDER, BISEXUAL, NON-BINARY, LESBIAN, AND MORE.” – GABI MENDEZ, AUTHOR
A Kickstarter campaign is running now and ending on April 7th in support of Lemonade Summer by Gabi Mendez. This is an all-ages graphic novel about queer children, adolescents, teens and young adults coming of age in positive environments and finding supportive communities. The book is 136 pages with full color covers and chapter covers. Each story is a monochromatic color scheme mirroring the sun from noon to dusk, reflecting the characters’ growth in the book. The stories feature young, queer characters who grapple with the conflicts of their own worlds.
Page From “Strays”
“In the summer of our dreams, young pirate runaways learn to accept each other regardless of gender presentation. The new girl in town finds solidarity in female friendship. A roller derby unexpectedly lights the spark of a first-time crush. Friends find confidence in their own voice, and teens face the uncertainty of growing up.”
— Gabi Mendez
Kickstarter Goal: $15,000 currently funded at 40%
Kickstarter Ends: April 7
Support this Kickstarter campaign right HERE.
“We chose to crowd-fund this project to allow us to donate copies to schools, libraries, youth centers and other organizations that would not normally be able to access this book. Currently, our backers will allow us to donate 65 copies.”
— Gabi Mendez
This book is part of Cow House Press. Visit them right here.
“Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours” by Alex Nall
Comics is uniquely suited for any form of biography and to quite a fascinating degree. I’ve said that before and, to prove my point, I have all sorts of new things I can say about this theme in regards to Alex Nall‘s graphic novella, “Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours.” This is a look at the life and times of Fred Rogers (1928-2003), the host of the landmark PBS children’s program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Intertwined in this biography is a look at Nall’s own life as a grade school art teacher. As often is the case, the comics creator has created a mashup of bio and auto-bio. It’s a natural occurance among cartoonists to include themselves into the narrative. When done right, the results can feel like a smooth dreamy story.
A mashup of bio and autobio.
Nall’s artwork has a primitive child-like quality about it. He depicts himsself with a cumbersome bulbous pink nose. It is all hand-drawn, down to the lettering and color washes. This is a style that falls right in line with a lot of alt-comics: keep it simple; keep it slapdash. In this case, that look fits in. Nall evokes the frenetic energy of children: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Kids, the little angels we’d wish them to be, usually are far from saints. Time and again, Nall shares with the reader the reality of the daily grind of interacting with these wee people. Ah, big segue: Nall comes to find inspiration in his nightly revisits on his laptop to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” This triggers an exploration by Nall thus leading to confronting more than he bargained for.
A young and feisty Fred Rogers.
First, some words on Fred Rogers and his monumental achievement. Keep in mind, the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” program ran from 1968 to 2001. There was nothing like it before and there will probably never be anything like it again. This is a show that speaks to kids on their own terms — and in a distinctive format that defies duplication. The viewership is mostly meant for 2 to 5 year-olds, but it appeals to any age. Fred Rogers became sort of a surrogate parent for countless children, spanning generations, simply by being there with kind and gentle entertainment mixed in with thoughtful observation and guidance. Everyone seems to fondly remember Fred Rogers and have a favorable opinion of him. You may have seen footage of a young and feisty Rogers testifying before Congress in support of PBS funding. Rogers was able to melt the heart of at least one tough and jaded senator.
Nall highlights a particular aspect in his story and provides an excellent example of how one element can affect the balance of the whole. Comics, with their panels and unique narrative structure, are inherently tricky balancing acts. You can include a scene in one panel and the ripple effect is under way. Refer back to it and the overriding subject behind it, and you’ve underscored it, boosted its significance. Return to the subject again, and the whole story points back to it, in a way, as if in service to that one aspect. These sort of shifts in focus happen all the time in big prose works. For example, a book on current events will have its most newsworthy items plucked for greater scrutiny by all the news outlets.
The Washing of Feet.
Nall makes a strategic choice to focus upon the relationship between Mister Rogers and Police Officer Clemmons. The scenes are from the point of view of Francois Clemmons. Rogers hired Clemmons to play the role of a police officer on the show. This was the late 1960s and police brutality was a hot news topic. In one particular panel, we see what looks like Mister Rogers washing the feet of Officer Clemmons. The unique nature of comics allows the reader to linger on a panel. The panel is already a highlighted moment, suspended in time, radiating beyond its borders. The actual moment that occurred on the show was held together by a very different medium. In the course of that scene with Clemmons, he and Rogers are indeed enjoying a moment of peace and quiet. As they are about to complete the scene, they both begin to get their feet out of the water. For a split second, Rogers takes a towel and passes it over Clemmons’s feet. It occurred so fast as to be subliminal. Certainly, it was packed with Christian symbolism.
Francois Clemmons speaks out.
That moment, both subliminal and highly symbolic, is what Nall sort of plucked and focused upon to keep the reader wondering. It is unusual. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Sure, it is benign. You could see it as ideal too. But it is also unusual. It was Rogers’s way of gently and kindly getting a message across, specifically of racial tolerance but transcendent as well. A moment of kindness. Done. We move on. However, Nall has tapped into something that he pursues further and which he would be hard pressed to avoid. His research consisted of four articles and two books. It is really the one book, 2015’s “Peaceful Neighbor,” by Michael Long, that is at the crux of this. In the book, Francois Clemmons claims that he was told by Rogers that, while Rogers supported Clemmons coming out as gay, the program was not ready for an openly gay character. If he came out, he would have to be let go. To further complicate matters, Clemmons claims that Rogers advised him to marry a woman and Clemmons did just that. Considering the era, Clemmons would certainly not be alone among closeted gays. Even today, there is no openly gay character on a children’s program.
Overall, Nall has done a good job in conveying some compelling facts. He is not bringing to light anything that was not already covered in “Peaceful Neighbor” but he has presented these facts in a different format and reached a number of new readers. Nall’s book is an achievement in the sense that any book of this kind put together by one individual is a small miracle in itself. So, yes, of course, I wholeheartedly congratulate Nall. It would be very interesting to chat with him on what parts of his book are style choices and what parts are simply the result of his current skill set. Personally, I am a strong believer in cartoonists perpetually pushing themselves to make the smoothest and most readable content.
I look forward to what Nall does next as he considers his next project. Nall has demonstrated that he’s not afraid to tackle as ambitious a project as the life and times of Fred Rogers. And, as I say, he has a good grasp of how the comics medium works. It can be a deceptively simple affair but, in fact, it has quite a built-in complexity. Once the process is set in motion, just like any other creative endeavor, it takes on a life of its own.
“Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours” is the latest installment of Nall’s “Teaching Comics” series. Visit him right here.
I am a big fan of Matt MacFarland’s DARK PANTS series. You can read my review on the previous two issues right here. The third issue is now out and it follows Phil, a teenager in Silver Lake, California, circa 1988. As Matt described to me in an interview, each new issue focuses on a different time and place in the Los Angeles area. The motif is a mysterious pair of black jeans and the sexual awakening they trigger in whoever wears them.
Page from DARK PANTS #3
For our hero, Phil, life has been hell as he struggles with his sexuality. Phil is navigating in a very oppressive environment. The last thing he wants to consider is being gay. But, once his fate crosses paths with those alluring dark pants, he gains enough confidence to explore his options a little bit. MacFarland is relentless in his depiction of Phil’s inability to be true to himself. It seems as if his embracing his truth is filled with nothing but pain. Gradually, MacFarland hints that Phil may ultimately find pleasure but it sure won’t come easy.
Reading DARK PANTS #3
The easiest thing that Phil can rely upon is his imagining having sex with teen heartthrob John Stamos. It’s a pretty funny and sobering fact. Phil thinks about it and he knows he likes it. But he’d rather hide. Things come to a head, so to speak, when Lisa, his supposed dream girl, lures him away to a bedroom. It’s his big chance to prove he’s not gay to his confused and frustrated self but all he can think about is…John Stamos. As for Lisa, she will have her day. It looks like she is the subject of the fourth issue set in Eagle Rock, California, circa 2016.
No matter how empowering those dark pants are, they are no match for an awkward teen. Phil is simply ill-equipped to harness his new raw power. He makes some progress but not quite what he might have expected. MacFarland’s drawing and writing is highly accessible. He immerses the reader in the inner turmoil that his characters are going through. With just the right touch of humor, MacFarland offers us stories of missteps of the heart that will stay with us.
If you are in the L.A. area this weekend, be sure to see Matt MacFarland on Saturday, July 16th, from 5-7pm at the Los Angeles County Store in Silver Lake. Find out more right here.
David Schmader is an American writer known for his solo plays, his writing for the Seattle newsweekly The Stranger, and his annotated screenings of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.” He is the author of the 2016 book “Weed: The User’s Guide.” And he is the Creative Director of the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a literary arts center offering free programs for youth ages 6 to 18. I had the opportunity to interview David and discuss better approaches to community and seeking common ground. Locally, for those of us who are a part of the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, we have been undergoing a recharge, a rallying around, after a gas leak explosion that tore into the fabric of everyday life. With BFI preparing to return to its original Greenwood site this month, it seemed to me a good time to check in with a thoughtful leader in our community. I begin our interview going back to that March 9th gas leak explosion in the middle of the night. Fueled with cups of coffee, we settled in at Couth Buzzard Books for this interview.