Reviews and Interviews

Zest Books, 2014.
256 pp., Graphic Novel.

Reviewed by Emily Swaim

Liz Prince’s Tomboy is reminiscent of the Sunday comics of yore: crisp and minimalist. The style exudes a nostalgia that contrasts sharply with the themes of bullying, homophobia, and misogyny. There’s a point where one of Prince’s bullies is a hair’s breadth away from committing sexual assault. The round, innocent appearances of the characters make the scene all the more horrifying by emphasizing that both characters are still children. The bully’s dialogue and body language are clearly mimicked from television – his behavior is learned. In just two pages, Prince shows the dangers of teaching children to hate.

Prince balances her book with clever callbacks and snappy lines. She is more than willing to poke fun at herself. Many who have survived adolescence will groan in sympathy as she recounts her Ghostbuster phase or the horrors of sex ed. Prince displays the trials of puberty in all their awkward glory, reminding the reader that yes, everyone goes through this.

Where the book truly shines is Prince’s treatment of gender. Each character has roughly the same look – round face, dotted eyes, and blockish body. On occasion, women will have a small lump to represent breasts. But for the most part, the characters’ genders are only discernible by what clothes they wear, how they style their hair, etc. Visually, gender is determined by the characters’ presentation rather than biology. This style emphasizes how much of gender is constructed by social cues.

Though Prince acknowledges gender fluidity, she is also incredibly aware of its challenges. As the child in Tomboy, Prince’s main problem is convincing people she wants action figures for Christmas, but as she grows older, being a tomboy becomes harder. Neither gender accepts her friendship, and bullies claim she’s a freak. In adolescence, her tomboy friends grow into femininity, leaving Prince behind. Furthermore, differentiating between boyfriend material and boy friend material turns out to be a ridiculously difficult endeavor. Being a tomboy isn’t difficult because Prince doubts her identity. The challenge is finding a community that will accept her.

Yet despite Prince’s difficulties with fitting in, she does not vilify people who follow gender norms. There is no frilly cheerleader stealing her boyfriend or muscle-headed jock challenging her to skateboard races. Her parents and teachers are all supportive of her wardrobe choices. Strangers are confused but mostly accepting. The characters are not archetypes or metaphors – they are simply people.

As the narrator grows older, she realizes that she doesn’t dislike being a girl so much as the expectations girls are trapped in. Boys such as Prince’s little brother are also trapped by gender norms. Stereotypes hurt everyone, from the people like Prince who defy them, to the people like Bree, an antagonist who twists herself into knots trying to obey them.

Tomboy is both a memoir and a manifesto. It discusses gender norms in an honest yet accessible manner, allowing adherents to the gender binary to sympathize and detractors to feel less alone. This is the charm of a good biography: to showcase the particulars of an individual’s life while providing commentary on universal feelings and experiences.

University of Iowa Press, 2013.
128 pp., Paperback.

Reviewed by Robyn Hester

It is hard to choose a favorite story from Tessa Mellas’ debut collection of short stories, Lungs Full of Noise. From a tale about a college student from Jupiter to one about a mother giving birth to a child who becomes a beanstalk, Mellas creates a believable world in the unbelievable. Those who fall into her stories will become enamored by the language and the images she creates on the page.

Women are the forefront of this collection, and Mellas observes them at many different moments within their lives. “Mariposa Girls” is a tale of young girls who are so dedicated to their art of figure skating that they forego all logic and reason, screwing blades to their bare feet and transforming their bodies into what others consider to be beautiful. The story comes to an end with one of the girls essentially falling apart on the ice. The final lines read, “They waited to hear her scream in pain. They waited to see the blood. But nothing spilled from her body. A wet shadow melted around her. Now she was nobody’s daughter. Bald and naked, they could hardly tell who she was.” The haunting close comments on the way the world takes away innocence from girls at a young age. The underlying message is clear, but the way Mellas presents it is fresh, a departure from the typical harping of “beauty is from within” mantra.

Each story in Mellas’ collection is full of life, the characters coming off the page as seemingly real people, even with their unrealistic qualities. They are relatable, and that is where Mellas proves her true magic. The characters created in these short stories resonate well past each story’s end. “The White Wings of Moths” deals with a woman going through menopause and the changes of growing older that are being thrust upon her. With the departure of her children, she cannot face reality. She hides away, directing her nurturing spirit toward mass amounts of caterpillars. The story reads, “Her boss told her to take time off. She retired instead. She came home to an empty house. The caterpillars have filled that space.” She fills the holes in her life with caterpillars and their nurturing. It is a beautiful tale of love and loss that Mellas follows through a special and trivial moment of someone’s life.

Lungs Full of Noise is a masterpiece written by an incredibly talented writer. Mellas proves that she is right where she belongs: putting words to paper and creating worlds that are easy to come back to again and again. She is inclusive to women from all walks of life, empathizing with aging pains and births of children that may be considered abnormal. She takes a look at the world of women – the pains, the struggles, the successes – and sheds a light on the moments of life both big and small that change women forever. Lungs Full of Noise is one of the hidden gems of this generation.

Gold Line Press, 2014.
39 pp., Paperback.

Reviewed by Cheramie Leo
Perhaps my favorite element of Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s Her Human Costume is its very woman-ness. The subjects of Hoffman’s poems are all female: the speaker’s baby daughter, her sister, her mother, her grandmother, herself. The intimacy of the female subjects is so tightly woven that one scarcely notices the absence of conscious masculine influence. The world depicted by Hoffman of a quiet life lived by related women is a universe of its own complete with tenderness, confusion, longing, joy, wistfulness, nostalgia, and grief.

Her Human Costume reflects Hoffman’s control of her craft while offering enough familiar material to readers outside of the literary milieu to invite them in. Hoffman titles her poems by bracketing a selection from the first line of each piece, and what she leaves out in each title is as important as what she keeps. Consider, for example, the title of her first poem: “[While I was in the hospital with the baby, wind”]. Here, Hoffman cuts the first line of the poem short, interrupting the syntax of the sentence and suggesting surprise and breathlessness. This effect differs dramatically from the structurally complete, blunt effect of the title of a later poem: “[Her body is useless.]” Meanwhile, Hoffman’s placement of one dense poetic paragraph per page draws attention to the intense pulse of a life in transition as well as to the whiteness of winter, innocence, hospitals, and death – all prominent motifs in the collection.

Hoffman’s work is at once accessible as a series of events and uncanny as a collection of intimate moments. Beneath Her Human Costume are braided several story plots, including that of the speaker’s sister’s recovery from surgery, the speaker’s mother nursing her daughter back to health after the surgery, the speaker’s childhood memories of visiting her grandmother, her grandmother’s death, and her own encounter with motherhood. Through these shifting stories, Hoffman bends the poems’ temporal elements into the kind of spiral often associated with (particularly women’s) experience. Abounding in concrete detail, Hoffman’s poetry recalls the past with the same exactness with which it describes the present. The reader is told, for example, that when the speaker’s grandmother died, “her body was cremated […] we covered the hole with a slab of green carpet that was neither grass nor earth.” On the very next page, the speaker’s “sister rests her scraped-out back on the bed in the pale green room. Snow falls on the field across the street.” Hoffman’s language is razor-sharp and surprising and crystal clear, and the linear chronology of each story is intuitively recognizable despite shifts in time and space.

Soft-spoken and honest, Her Human Costume juxtaposes the bland confusion and loneliness of early motherhood with the slow fade to death. Hoffman’s descriptions of the speaker’s apathetic response to motherhood are unapologetic and universal. Hoffman acknowledges the tension between life and death and explicitly emphasizes that these apparently diametrical experiences are in fact closely interrelated, even causal. To the new mother, it occurs “that now that the child is here, the mother will surely someday die […] The woman has been replaced. It is all her own doing.” In the final poem, [“There is no ghost in this house,”] Hoffman writes that her baby daughter “is the most alive thing in this house, her spirit most freshly settled in its body.” To care for her blooming daughter, the new mother must pass through the darkness of her home with all of its potential ghosts. By connecting life to death so exquisitely, Hoffman’s Her Human Costume utilizes the ancient archetypes connecting women, birth, and death to describe experiences both historical and profoundly present, human and transcendental.

Counterpath Press, 2013.
113 pages, Paperback.

Reviewed by Jamie O’Connell
What is memory? What is its role in shaping who we become as people? To what extent are we people anymore? What is our world today? With his dense yet straightforward book of poetry Videotape, Andrew Zawacki attempts to answer these questions. In his engaging and intimate work, Zawacki masterfully illustrates the dichotomy between the technologically-driven world and the natural world from which it was born.

According to Zawacki, “There is another world & it/is this one: /screen saver/Appalachians, slowly in a spiral,/canebrake & ninebark Photo/-shopped, swallows scatter/& reconnoiter as feathered/torrent files, & the sky/-line is rainbowed, an LED dis-/play.” What does it mean to be contained inside of a planet that gives us survival, but also takes it away? This question of identity, of species, of who we are meant to be on an Earth that exists for reasons we can never fully know, captures us. And Zawacki asks us this scientific question in an emotionally stirring manner.

Influenced by both classic and modern science fiction, Zawacki explores complex themes in his poetry that explain the strange world that we live in today, where “the sun a disco ball, a bulb,/clouds a lean-to with least to lean/against” and “Petals are pleats of staurolite, palaces of wind.” As Zawacki shows us, nature itself has become digital, making us question who is in control: the human, or the technology that the human creates? There is no constraint—no tool to stop the exponential increase—but nature still exists, a fact of which Zawacki poignantly and desperately reminds us:

              Little green moon in the smoke detector, crape myrtle a violet fireworks./Acetylene stain of an Ektachrome sky,               as squalls enfuchsia the Tam, & the/blowdown peroxides a window, ‘as much lessness as possible,’ purling
              the/pane. Vocoding: trees in tunics of calico, & love a city in summer: enneigée.

With the final word of this poem, enneigée, which translates to “a road buried in snow” in French, Zawacki reminds us where Earth is hidden—beneath the skycrapers, beneath the powerplants, beneath the snow – amongst all of pixelated, digital images of nature that proceed enneigée. The Earth is always under our feet, regardless of how we’ve changed it, what we’ve done with it. He reaffirms the complicated vitality of a road covered with snow with the lines “‘I was actually quite happy when/the house was buried in snow,’/the state electricity service rep/said, because then I wasn’t/afraid of the windows breaking.” And this image ties back to the central question of his book, which he states openly: “What is the world. What isn’t.” This final proclamation is not only what these poems contemplate, but also what has burdened our existence since the beginning of humanity; and in our lifetime, we may never know the real impact that the digital age has had on our collective self-awareness and well being as a society.

Conducted by Benjamin Austin
1111: When you’re making a comic what comes first, art or story?

HN: I think the story comes first like ‘I want to do something about this time in my life’ or ‘these historical figures’ or whatever, and usually immediately after that I’ll start drawing characters or experimenting with style. I don’t want to be too settled in that and I have a lot of variance in how realistically I’ll draw the characters or what mediums I use, usually character sketches are second, then I’ll sort of just bang out some sample pages where I do the characters and dialogue, like a storyboard.

Sometimes if it’s a longer piece I might write out scenes that I want to happen or story beats on index cards and shuffle them around and say, ‘okay, this happens on page ten,’ and I’ll draw a bunch of pages really tiny and assign content to the pages if I have a lot of stuff and it’s not really clear what should go where.

After that I basically do thumbnails and show them to other people to see if they make sense. That was definitely a big part of my process in art school, something that I really enjoyed was that every comic I made would have an opportunity for critique from professors and students. I still try to have a critique process involved in my comics where I show someone a project at an early stage to make sure I’m not getting too off track.

1111: A lot of your comics are about queer culture and identity. What is it that attracts you to revisit this theme?

HN: I think that I’m interested in the idea of outsider status as a whole and that can have a lot of different manifestations, but being queer is like, it’s just an inherent thing where one often feels at odds or against the grain with society. So, I think it presents some interesting conflict, also because the conflict is expressed through gender—gender roles, gender variance, and I’m really interested in poking at the edges of that. Conflict can also be expressed through sexual attraction and love which are fabulous topics, and I love writing and reading romances.

Also, being queer is something important in my own life and how I think of myself. I like every story about twenty percent more if there are queer characters and maybe that’s cheesy, but in a sense I’m just making what I like to see.

1111: Can you talk a little bit about your aesthetics and how they help accomplish your goals in your comics?

HN: I’m trying to draw in a way that is fluid and lyrical. Much of my work deals with music and dance which brings up a lot of things about wanting to be expressionistic and draw things that aren’t visible, like finding visual ways to represent sound and motion.

I want to have characters that seem to be in motion. I work primarily with brushes because they’re a fun tool for me, that’s how I ink my work and also when I’m coloring I usually use watercolor. I think some of my stuff has a bit of a painterly sensibility. I also want it to be cute and appealing. I don’t crosshatch. I hate they way I do it. I’m more about the areas of strict black and white.

I definitely try to think in a macro way about composition, I don’t want to just have little details here and there that don’t go together. I try to think about directing the eye towards characters or towards important actions or motions.

Something that applies to all my work when I think about composition is wanting to have a general sense of shade and tone. I want to indicate things more through large areas of light, tone and proportion rather than becoming obsessed with details.

I think that influences the way that people read comics. When things are left more open or more iconic in a way there just seems to be more motion in the page to me, and then sometimes when you add a bunch of detail it looks very frozen. It’s a hard balance to strike.

1111: Can you talk about your first memories of comics?

HN: When I was a kid my mom had a lot of collections of comic strips in the house. She had a bunch of Amphigorey by Edward Gorey and Barnaby by Crockett Johnson, but Calvin & Hobbes was probably the one with the biggest impact. I was actually a pretty late reader, but that definitely increased the appeal of comics in that I could understand them and have some context for the words when my reading wasn’t great.

Calvin & Hobbes kind of connects with what I’m interested in now artistically; Bill Watterson has a great simple style with a brush and with watercolor. If I draw a tree and I think, ‘oh it kind of reminds me of Watterson,’ then I’m really satisfied. The strip kind of reminded me of my life — a little precocious loner kid, take-no-shit mom, happy-go-lucky dad that’s really into bicycling…the difference there is I didn’t try to get in trouble. I was more into trying to please my parents.

From there I got into manga when I was 12 and 13, and that so appealed to me in terms of the things I’m still exploring like everyday life and romance, which are big factors in that style.

1111: What made you want create your own comics?

I think the reason I’m doing comics instead of painting or something else is that there are so many factors and decisions that go into making comics and I get excited about juggling them all — illustration, graphic design, writing, I love blending these diverse disciplines, and it all has to come from you. You can’t make a comic that’s a copy of a photograph.

1111: Tell me about If This Be Sin.

HN: If This Be Sin is my new book that just came out with funding from Prism Comics’ Queer Press Grant, it’s a collection of comics about queer women and music. One of the stories is about Gladys Bentley, who was a blues singer and drag king in the 1920s. Another one is about Wendy and Lisa, a lesbian couple who were part of Prince’s band the Revolution in the 1980s, and super badass in terms of what they contributed to Prince’s music. The last one is a fictional story based on my experiences blues dancing. They’re all related to queer women expressing themselves and their identity through music.

1111: What’s coming up?

HN: I’m editing an anthology of comics about female gamers called Chainmail Bikini. The Kickstarter goes live in March 2015. I’m doing a few pieces about my personal experience with video and role playing games. The anthology encompasses not just video games but anything that can identify someone as a gamer, so roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, LARPing and Magic the Gathering, because I think that those all stem from the same place and they are all things where women are the minority, and there’s been a lot of backlash recently to women becoming prominent as critics and players of games. Not everything in Chainmail Bikini is specifically addressing sexism in the gaming community, but the aim is feminist because all the contributors are female cartoonists.

There’s one or two game developers writing pieces for people to illustrate that I’m excited to include, too. The collection is about us talking about our experiences, I’m really into writing that explores the way games connect with culture or fit into people’s lives. I think it’s a fertile topic that leads to a lot of good stories and it has social and political importance right now.

Hazel Newlevant is a cartoonist and graduate of the School of Visual Art in New York City. She has drawn and published several mini-comics including her Xeric Award-winning Ci Vediamo and her most recent publication, If This Be Sin, recipient of the the Queer Comics Press Grant from Prism Comics. To see more of Hazel’s work and to keep current on upcoming projects, visit