Panel Therapy: Tomboy and the Unknowable Horrors of Tweenhood

A great comic book, like any great art, sticks with us long after we’ve left it. A really great comic book burrows deep into our soul, leaving a lasting impression or a feeling we just can’t shake. For those occasions, I have started offering pro bono Panel Therapy.
Join me tonight, as I dig into the recesses of my psyche and analyze more closely one of my favorite sequences from Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by the inimitable Liz Prince. In this stunning sequence, Prince takes a step back from the narration driving her memoir to document a moment of youthful brutality. For some extra background, check out my full review of Tomboy for some sweet, sweet big picture.

Throughout Tomboy, Prince diagnoses, in no uncertain terms, the myriad torments she endured as a child who didn’t reflect gender norms. She narrates her journey through the He-Man Woman Haters of Little League, guides us through the perils of swimming with one’s shirt on, and candidly recalls the sucker punch she received for standing up for her brother to an intimidating sixth-grader. Girls tease her behind her back, boys openly mock her, other children’s parents just don’t understand her. Prince passes through each gauntlet in one piece, but each little brick thrown at her builds a Lego castle of confusion (insecurity knights and body issues catapult sold separately).

Despite the constant psychological assault from outside forces, Prince (both author and child) manages to press forward and keep Tomboy‘s narrative running smoothly. Even if young Prince cannot comprehend the full ramifications imposed on her by the gender binary, she still possesses a basic understanding of her aggressors’ motivations (or elder Prince, who I am now calling Liz to avoid confusion, at least imbues this understanding, as narrator, upon her younger self). She understands that she is perceived as neither girl nor boy, or understands that standing up for her brother earned a punch in the tummy. Cause and effect, at least, makes her misery and confusion marginally clearer, and the book is able to proceed at a steady, even confident clip.

That is, until Tyler gets all up in her business.

(click each image to enlarge)
(All pages from Tomboy, by Liz Prince, used with permission from Zest Books)

The scene above is Tomboy at its most destructive, enigmatic, and affecting. Some background: Tyler, Prince’s de facto best friend, has his feelings for her rebuffed with a “pity kiss” and misses school the next day. Prince guesses he was sick from a “broken heart,” and steps off the bus into the chilly winter air. Before she can continue ruminating on the day’s drama, a couple of boys jump her, toss her into a snowbank, and bury her neck-deep until she cannot move.  It’s a sudden, violent act committed by unfamiliar assailants for no discernible reason.

For once, the disastrous “effect” has no clear “cause,” and it temporarily shatters the memoir’s equilibrium. Liz wordlessly signals the change from known threat–the lump of Tyler-shaped guilt and shame–to unknown by pulling away from Prince’s school bus as she disembarks, giving us an over-the-shoulder view of her mysterious assailants. Her attackers dominate the following page by crowding the frame at the top, and Liz amplifies the intensity with careful rationing of sound. It’s a surgical strike, with no noise besides Prince’s muffled cry for help and some darkly amusing onomatopoeia.

Trapped under a massive snow mound (which looks strangely like a butt) and recovering from shock, Prince tries to figure out the “who” and “what” of her ordeal while dodging the “why.” Liz, too, seems to have no answers in her narration. Her observations–spaced to isolate the panels from each other, generating a feeling of loneliness–build on the trepidation of the moment. Her thoughts circle around themselves, fueling the train of worries as she lies in the snow immobilized, the paralysis of trauma rendered literal.

Prince finally pulls herself free on another wordless page, though she briefly loses a shoe in the process. Losing clothing is a minor motif throughout Tomboy, as another tragic climax centers around her favorite childhood hat being nicked by, once again, shitty children; in this situation, her bare sock in the snow reinforces a feeling of disorientation, a destruction of balance.

The incident’s abstract connection to Tyler slowly becomes apparent: the one person Prince thought she could count on, a stabilizing force in a marginalized childhood, betrayed her and removed himself from her life. And young Prince, ever the avatar of gumption, still digs into the snow and plucks the shoe out. The world slights her, saddles her with shame and guilt, and she reconstructs herself once again.

Or does she? This time, the residual misery isn’t easily ignored. Much like getting snow stuck in her ears, this experience is a new one for Prince. She trudges silently home, removing her jacket, scarf, and clothes in a breadcrumb trail. Stripped of all barriers against the world, she huddles under a blanket in a stark visual parallel to the snowbutt. She appears, for once, totally defeated, with Tyler’s Aladdin-themed drawing mockingly lording over her. This concluding panel, a static tableau that allows equal space for her discarded armor and her defeated shell, seems to lend credence to my Tyler theory.

But, in the end, my theory is just a theory,  my analysis an educated guess. In contrast with the rest of the book’s forthright, occasionally on-the-nose honesty, Liz plays her cards close to the vest in this sequence, cloaking the root of her problem in silent ambiguity. The thoughts we are privy to are only red herrings: her assailants never reappear, her arm never breaks, I assume the snow eventually falls out of her ear, and the attack is never mentioned again.

By keeping us off the scent, Liz Prince the Author develops an air of melancholy mystery to her heroine’s Struggle of the Week that cannot be found elsewhere in the book. If Tomboy documents her journey from childhood to adulthood as a sort of obstacle course, the incident in the snow is a lateral thinking puzzle that, for all we know, might not even have an answer. Such is the nature of trauma. Such is growing up.