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Book Review: ADAM by Ariel Schrag

ADAM by Ariel Schrag

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.

Adam is a 320-page novel, originally published in 2014 by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Filed under Ariel Schrag, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, LGBTQ, Novels, writers, writing

Review: ‘Marilyn: The Story of a Woman’ by Kathryn Hyatt

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“Marilyn: The Story of a Woman” is a graphic novel originally published in 1996 by Seven Stories Press. It caught my eye on my last visit on the last day of business at Seattle’s Cinema Books. Funny how we find our comics sometimes. A perfectly compelling work was just sitting on a shelf waiting for me to finally take notice. Kathryn Hyatt proves to be a devoted and thoughtful fan of all things to do with Marilyn Monroe, one of the most celebrated and misunderstood of Hollywood stars.

Stars burn bright and then they burn out. While this holds true for the career of Marilyn Monroe, that is only the briefest of descriptions. What Hyatt does is pay tribute to the human being and the artist. A mountain of books have been written about Marilyn Monroe but her unique life and work forever fascinate generating more and more stories. Hyatt carves out a path in search of some clarity.

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Marilyn Monroe was the committed innocent artist. She was innocent in the sense that she was uncompromising in her pursuit of purity of purpose as she saw it. She had to overcome many obstacles none the least of which were her own feelings of low self-esteem. Even when she seemed to have a control over her own sexuality and image, she was still haunted by misgivings. Hyatt lovingly brings us into that world. For instance, the photo shoot that would lead to the iconic centerfold in Playboy was bittersweet. Hyatt evokes the scene with great empathy. Monroe may be thrilled by the attention upon her beautiful body but, at the same time, she only agrees to pose in order to get her car back from being repossessed. And she continues to replay harsh criticism from earlier years that she is “unphotogenic.”

Hyatt has a nice feel for capturing the mannerisms and movement of Monroe. It’s a mixture of a crunchy underground vibe and a more smooth and polished approach. The zest for pursuing her narrative is clearly there. What I’ve come to find in comics biographies is that the cartoonist’s depiction of the subject is akin to an actor’s portrayal. The best versions aren’t direct impersonations but are the creator’s unique interpretation. Hyatt mapped out in her mind the quintessential Monroe and everything that came before and after. She also had to map out what to focus on in the larger-than-life world of Monroe. And that process is akin to a novelist’s work. The overall result is quite stunning.

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Monroe’s sexuality was, and remains for us in her work, the undeniable focal point. There are a number of well-chosen scenes where Hyatt addresses this key issue. There are a certain number of depictions of Monroe nude which Hyatt handles with grace. Those depictions wouldn’t work if they were simply meant to titillate. If Hyatt had felt a need to really get provocative, she could have taken a lewd turn but, instead, she is interested in humanizing. In that regard, Hyatt includes a scene of Norma Jeane as a little girl appearing naked before her family. It’s an interesting harbinger. We come to see that Marilyn doesn’t have a problem with her own skin but that will not prove to be as simple out in the world.

Much in the same way that the Kennedy dynasty will forever fascinate, the life of Marilyn Monroe will always have something to say on a personal and a universal level. The theme of Hyatt’s book is a close look at a particular woman who managed, by sheer determination, to place herself in the forefront of public discourse. We see Norma Jeane’s struggle to become Marilyn Monroe. It happens gradually, by fits and starts, as she navigates casting couches and fickle to malicious critics. Through the process, she fully appreciated the status she achieved and gave back as much as she could. However, the misgivings would never go away. She was an innocent artist and that is the deeper layer that sustains her legacy.

“Marilyn: The Story of a Woman” can be found at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Biography, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, History, Hollywood, Kathryn Hyatt, Marilyn Monroe, Sex, Sexual Politics, Sexuality

Review: FERTILITY, published by Centrala

FERTILITY by Gosia Herba and Mikołaj Pasiński

FERTILITY by Gosia Herba and Mikołaj Pasiński

“Fertility” is a beautiful and strange graphic novel by Gosia Herba and Mikołaj Pasiński. The artwork is by Herba and, together, Herba and Pasiński create various work. This book is brought to you by Centrala, publishers of marvelous works from Central Europe.

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Think of one of the darkest tales of folklore you’ve read and then read this. “Fertility” works on a highly uninhibited level. It’s brought to life by Herba’s bold drawing style and held together by a relentless pace. The subdued blue hues running throughout kiss the work with dark grace. Rabbits are being tortured as they fall into endless traps set by the young village women. But the women don’t notice this. They are too caught up in their fertility rites. They know rabbits are synonymous with fertility. And, they believe, that eating their entrails with lead to them birthing baby boys.

Once we’ve witnessed the rabbits’ terror, it’s time to reverse the roles. If the women were callous, the rabbits are beyond heartless. It’s pretty rough stuff but it’s all rendered with poetic fervor. Each panel ratchets up the tension. The rabbits, once in bug-eyed fear, are now the masters. The young women desired fertility, but the rabbits tear that dream to shreds and then some. Herba is completely in touch with sexuality, the macabre, and very dark humor. This content is for mature readers, 18 and up. It’s a powerful work and one you won’t forget.

“Fertility” is a 36-page hardcover published by Centrala. For some of the most unique works in comics, visit our friends at Centrala right here.

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Filed under Centrala, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Horror

Interview: Bill Plympton and CHEATIN’

Ella and Jake in Bill Plympton's CHEATIN'

Ella and Jake in Bill Plympton’s CHEATIN’

Frank and Cora in 1946's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE

Frank and Cora in 1946’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE

Bill Plympton Animation Available on iTunes as of April 2015

CHEATIN’ is Bill Plimpton’s seventh full-length animated feature. It is for adults who like an All-American gritty noir story and fans of great storytelling from such greats at Terry Gilliam and Federico Fellini. Read my review here. On April 3, CHEATIN’ opens in New York and then to selected cities throughout the month. It is also available online! You can see it on Vimeo. And you can see other Plympton features on iTunes starting in April. Yes, if you’re a loyal fan or are new to his work, Bill Plympton is here! For details, and to see the movie, just go to the CHEATIN’ THE MOVIE website right here.

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A Gritty Tale and a Sexual Odyssey

CHEATIN’ is visually stunning and immersive. It features the journey one woman must take in order to find what she wants. In the tradition of noir, characters must go through the yin and yang to find their true selves. Light into dark. And then dark into light. Truly, a perpetual swirl of desire and searching. And you throw into the bargain a magical soul-transfer machine, and you’ve got yourself a Bill Plympton animated feature.

Disney Can Give Bill Plympton A Call

It is always a pleasure to chat with Bill Plympton. For this interview, we cover a lot of ground on the storytelling process. We chat about how CHEATIN’ and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE would make for a perfect double bill. And I asked Bill, the king of independent animation, if he’d ever consider working with Disney if the right project came along. Yes. Bill would take the call.

What if Hitler Opened a Theme Park Called, “Naziland”?

And we discuss some upcoming projects. You’ll want to listen to that.

Below is the podcast interview. Enjoy:

Be sure to visit the CHEATIN’ website right here. And, if you’re in the New York metro area, be sure to go to Village East Cinema on Friday, April 3, and you’ll see Bill Plympton in person! He will create a drawing for anyone who asks for one.

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Filed under animation, Bill Plympton, cartoon, Filmmaking, Independent Film, Indie, Interviews

Review: Bill Plympton’s CHEATIN’

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Ella is an enigmatic beauty. She seems so ethereal and unaccessible. And then, one day, her defenses down, she stumbles into a romance with Jake. This sounds like the start of another great Bill Plympton animated feature. It takes me back to some of my earliest memories of his work. I had seen at least some of his stuff on MTV back in the day. All I can say is, if you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to dig deeper.

Bill Plympton is one of the greats. He has a way of looking at the world that is truly original. He stepped into the spotlight with his Academy Award-nominated short, “Your Face,” in 1987. He was courted by Disney but he chose to remain independent. He’s the only animator to single-handedly draw every frame of a feature film–six times. Plympton cartoons blaze upon the screen: joyful, erotic, and full of wonder. And so that leads in to, “Cheatin’,” Bill Plympton’s latest feature.

Cheatin-Bill-Plympton

Things don’t just move in his animation. They jiggle, ripple, undulate, sway, and sashay. There’s a perpetual sexual tension metaphorically attached to nearly everything. We begin with the long fluttering ribbon attached to Ella’s hat. In this feature, our two lovers are quite a mismatched pair but they definitely have a spark between them.

If Ella was ever aloof, Jake wears down her reserve. He rescues her twice, both times with great sexual connotations. But that’s only the beginning of our story. No sooner does boy meet girl, it seems, than boy loses girl. In fact, these two had become quite the couple when things go terribly wrong. Outside forces relentlessly work against them. For example, one of Ella’s rivals attempts to lure Jake away while he’s mowing the lawn. She carpets the sky with a pulsating pattern of her laundry. Ella retaliates with a counter-strike of her own laundry.

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What happens next involves an elaborate process of regaining love. This includes a wayward magician and his mysterious “trans-soul machine.” Perhaps this contraption will shed light on what has thwarted our lover’s happiness. As this dangerous and uncertain path unfolds, our story spreads out with hints of grand opera, science fiction, and crime noir.

As in all Bill Plympton features, we find that human longing and desire, in one form or another, cannot be ignored and is seldom, if ever, denied. Amid a rogue’s gallery of buffoons and dimwits, lovers race toward each other’s hungry bodies. Sexuality will find its release whether it oozes from the walls or drips from the ceiling. And, amid the melting butter and bubbling coffee pots, a more complex story unfolds. While sex makes the world go round, Bill Plympton, like Federico Fellini and Terry Gilliam, provides much more. The content is implicit, not explicit. It’s a mix of the tragic and the comic that proves so pleasing.

“Cheatin'” is in theaters and online as of April 2015. For more details, visit the official website right here.

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Filed under animation, Bill Plympton, Movie Reviews

Review: ‘SuicideGirls: Geekology’ by Missy Suicide

SuicideGirls-Geekology

Geek out this holiday season with “SuicideGirls: Geekology,” by Missy Suicide, cofounder of SuicideGirls and all-around geek. This gorgeous hardcover art book shares a passion for geek culture among some of the most beautiful women in the world. There’s the ancient stereotype that a beautiful woman is only beautiful but culture in general has become so fluid and interconnected that these tired old assumptions are now, more than ever, a slippery slope.

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Interview: Missy Suicide and SuicideGirls: Blackheart Burlesque Tour

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Missy Suicide, the co-founder of SuicideGirls, has seen her venture grow by leaps and bounds to become a part of the pop culture. It all began as what seemed like a lark in 2001 to become a new generation’s answer to Playboy Magazine. If you are into alternative beauty, then SuicideGirls answers that call. In my interview, Missy speaks to what SuicideGirls is all about. For anyone who wonders if SG has its comics cred in order, I would direct you to the SG website and check out the online community discussions. Everything from vegan cooking to manga is up for grabs. You will also want to check out the latest SG book, “Geekology,” which you can find here.

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Filed under Comics, Geeks, Indie, Suicide Girls, SuicideGirls, Tattoos

Review: The Wicked + The Divine #1

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“The Wicked + The Divine” is the gorgeous and audacious new ongoing comic book series from the creative team behind “Phonogram,” brought to you by Image Comics. Yes, the whole team is back: Writer Kieron Gillen, Artist Jamie McKelvie, Colorist Matthew Wilson, and Letterer Clayton Cowles, along with Designer Hannah Donovan, and Editor Chrissy Williams. This is a world beyond the pop music, magic, and pretty people of “Phonogram.” There is that, of course, but this is both a world in touch with the real and very much its own fantasy. No one gets out alive either way. But some can return. And so they do.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Image Comics

Review: QU33R and ANYTHING THAT LOVES, published by Northwest Press

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Northwest Press has recently published two excellent anthologies that feature a stellar roster of cartoonists exploring issues of sexuality. Both are highly recommended as showcases of comics discourse. It can be a challenge to find the right balance when putting together any anthology, especially one collecting works in comics. You want to find a way for each work to compliment the other in a medium that quickly signals the reader. In both these cases here, you have two books worthy of exploration, one a recent entry and the other from last year.

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Filed under Anthologies, Comics, Comics Reviews, Gay, LGBT, Northwest Press, Sex, Sexual Politics, Sexual Studies, Sexuality

Review: ‘Unhung Hero’ Answers the Question: Does Size Matter?

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Patrick Moote is a talented young man who thought he had a big problem. He thought his penis was too small. So, he goes on a journey of self-discovery and we get to go along with him in the documentary, “Unhung Hero,” which releases on DVD and iTunes on December 10, 2013. Does size matter? On a logical level, of course not. But director Brian Spitz and actor/comedian Patrick Moote are on a quest to explore the deep insecurities we all face in a crass and overstimulated world glutted with porn and unrealistic expectations.

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Filed under Documentaries, Movie Reviews, movies, mumblecore, Sex, Sexual Studies, Sexuality