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)

Futile Comix #2 by Mike Centeno: Let’s Talk About Sad, Baby

One look at the Futile Comics tumblr suggests that the author is more than just a run-of-the-mill sad sack cartoonist. “Visitors” is so bottled up with nebulous sorrow that it looks like it’s bleeding dirt, but strips like “Babel” play the prankster card when confronting life’s miseries. The more I read, the more I noticed strange details (like a hamburger with a hamburger face on its hamburger butt) dabbled between the parallel streaks of glee and gloom. All in all, it’s worth checking out, and the best of it reminds me of a more grounded KC Green.

Online offerings, as always, are kind of a mixed bag, so I oughta shift to the two short-form strips included in his new minicomic zine, Futile Comix No. 2, since that’s the issue that plunged me into this delightful ditch that I am calling the Centenosphere. Centeno sets the tone on the cover with a coiffed-up hamster doing his best Late 19th-Century Psychiatrist, with black holes for eyes. It’s cute, suggestive, and more than a little unnerving.

True to the Freudian getup, both of the stories contained in Futile Comix #2 contain oodles of psychological juice, working in ruminations on depression, anxiety, and gender identity—just to name what I got out of it. Centeno does a good job at keeping the subtext rich beneath each story’s narrations. In the first story, “Diamonds Are Forever,” he filters the beats of the story through the hamster Diamond’s mind. Poorly understood threats—from a mysterious malady to cloaked giants that sound oddly like human children—snowball into a single, suicidal ideation that proves, uh, futile to escape for poor Diamond.

If that plot summary sounds miserable, that’s because it is. But Centeno is smart to undercut the heaviness with stylized flairs of cuteness. Diamond, whether pensive, terrified, exhilarated, or wheezing out a chunk of petrified lung, is rendered grotesquely cute by his pitch-black gumdrop eyes. Every tiny, terrible emotion that he feels is really, really felt. The silhouette designs of his owner’s suffer by comparison; with so much of the story devoted to Diamond’s inner struggle, their plain, cartoony facial expressions came across as coy and distracting in visual and narrative terms.

All told, this gripe is a small water chestnut in the rich, tasty kung pao chicken plate called “Diamonds Are Forever.” But, as the saying goes, come for the hamsters and stay for the flaming island godheads, right? Because flaming godheads is literally what “The God That Wasn’t There,” perhaps among the Top 10 Most Depressing Genesis Myths I’ve ever read, has to offer.

Not-literally, it’s a divine fable that dishes up the human condition. But first: what if? What if, at the epicentre of reality, is a universe unmade by fear, anxiety, and squandered potential? What if gods got self-conscious? “The God That Wasn’t There” considers these tough questions vis a vis the eponymous god, a cross between a runic Easter Island skull and a Ghastly.

Compared to “Diamonds,” “God” is a much more straightforward allegory that benefits two tons from an unbound, aggressive visual palette. It’s an exaggerated style befitting of the creation of the world, full of fire without sacrificing clarity. Or irony! Of course, it would not be Futile Comix without irony, in this case of the self-reflexive kind. When the god is worried the most about its unfilled potential, it expresses creative impotence through luxurious exaggerations, exploding beyond traditional panel space, contorting the narration around its avatar. You are forced to feel the god’s massive stores of power upfront, culminating in an ending devastatingly anticlimactic.

For anyone who fancies themselves a creative, or has dealt with image issues in any form, or social anxiety, the list goes on, the tale is powerful, clear, and just a little too-close-to-home. No real laughs to be found there, that is just fine. The poetry of the art speaks for itself.

Maybe read it just before you go to bed and you need that little extra something to goose the restless spirits, or maybe read it when you’re in a bad-though-not-that­-bad mood and could use a sick laugh, but basically just read Futile Comix in general. Futile Comix at its best, by tapping into the terrors that grind gods, monsters, and hamsters alike into futile catatonia, manages to hit that blend of existential dread and ironic resignation that few practitioners of the black comedy arts ever manage to get right.

 

(Request the Futile Comix zine at your local bookstore, comic store, or zine library! Or why don’t you just ask Mikey C. himself, why not?)