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.

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Tomboy by Liz Prince: Deconstructing the Girl

A quick disclaimer, before I begin. I do not know Liz Prince, but this blog owes its existence to her. I can give you several very good reasons why, but the biggest one is also the most obvious: Prince’s many minicomics were my gateway into the wonderful world of zines. I have, of course, my best friend and cartoonist (and YHF silent partner) Izzy to thank for pointing me in Prince’s direction, but let’s be real for a second. Prince did all the heavy lifting.

I Swallowed The Key To My Heart, a trilogy of sexual misadventure comics (the objectively best genre of art), were the first comic zines I ever read. I was lucky enough to pick up all three issues at once at Lorem Ipsum Books in Inman Square, Cambridge. Maybe it was because we, as I discovered, lived probably a couple dozen furlongs from each other in the Boston semi-suburbs, or maybe it was the way Prince developed entire ecosystems of friendship and romance with so few, clean pencil strokes, but reading those comics gave me the delicious chills.  She made the creation of great, honest art seem effortless, powerful, and universal. As a writer and artist, Liz Prince wasn’t just up my alley; she kicked me out of the alley and into the sprawling, gorgeous city itself.

To put it in terms a young Liz Prince, fifth grade Tomboy and Aladdin fanatic, would understand, I was seeing a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. Reading Tomboy, Prince’s new graphic memoir, gave me magic carpet feelings all over again. In her debut feature-length book, Prince documents her journey through the world of well-meaning grandmothers, cruel primary schoolers, and Santa Fe’s offbeat elite in a battle for acceptance as an outsider in a severely gendered world. Each page captures the poignancy and dry humor of her shorter works, while the compelling central theme of gender identity keeps the engine from losing steam.

Wait, no, that last sentence undersold it.

Tomboy cover, (Zest Books, copyright Liz Prince)

Tomboy (Zest Books, copyright Liz Prince)

Tomboy’s exploration of growing up outside the gender binary is textbook awesome. And I mean “textbook” literally! People ought to start assigning this in schools. Tomboy tackles society’s demand for girls to be “girly” in clear and digestible terms, making an expansive political statement that lingers and grows in power the more I think about it. In one particularly elegant metaphor, Prince condenses the innocent violence of children, who absorbed their knowledge and notions from parents, media, whathaveyou, into barfing gingerbread-man sponges. The visual is goofy yet menacing, like a tiny dog baring its teeth, and after retracing it ten times, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

The politics of Tomboy are relatable enough to fit anyone who has had to struggle with stigmas and stereotypes, but the heart of the memoir lies in the little details of Prince’s personal struggle. Really, when it comes to resonating moments, Tomboy is beyond rich. In a comedic highlight, Caleb, “sixth grade dreamboat” and object of Prince’s desire, demonstrates his handsomeness by slicking his hair back with a wedge of snow. The very next page takes that high point even higher, as young Prince mimics his action, transitioning from amazement to affected suaveness to lovestruck embarrassment in four panels and four sublimely simple facial expressions. On first read, it’s an adorable moment. On the second pass, the nuance blushes, the perfect distillation of tweenage infatuation at its inception.

These details add up to a revealing origin story (the cathartic finale feels like Peter Parker putting on his red spandex for the first time) that functions whether you are familiar with Prince’s oeuvre or not. There are still so many more individual moments I want to explore in depth, but to avoid rambling myself into a coma, I will have to save those discussions for later posts. Just know this: it all adds up to an incredible whole, one of the most subtly self-assured, honest, touching, hilarious, occasionally rage-inducing (without spoiling too much, I definitely yelled “WHAT THE FUCK PHYLLIS” at least twice, in a public space) debuts this year. Tomboy is a transformative experience for boys, girls, and everyone-in-betweens-and-outsides of all ages.

 

(Ask your bookstore to stock Tomboy if they don’t have it, or pick it up at Liz’s website Liz Prince Power, which has a bunch of her old booklets and zines too. In case you can’t tell, I’m a fan of those as well)