Lesbian love in webcomics: Punch and Pie

February 18, 2009

Punch and Pie is a collaboration between the creators of Queen of Wands (which has finished, and was completely amazing!) and Striptease (which is ongoing, but which has somehow failed to capture my imagination.) The story follows a side character from the Queen of Wands story, Angela. None of the main characters recur and most of the story involves new characters, so you don’t have to read Queen of Wands first, but you should, because I loved it. However, Queen of Wands isn’t nearly as interesting on the lesbian front.

Punch and Pie begins with Angela moving in with her girlfriend, Heather. At first I was really excited because it was the first comic I’d read where the lesbian couple was just established, right from the very beginning, no angst about getting together. And then they made a very sweet couple, and it was a fun slice-of-life comic. And then, well, plot things happened that were even more interesting and rare, but this is a review, not a critique, so I don’t want to give anything away. 🙂

I’ve now reviewed four comics with prominent lesbian characters (Red String, Penny and Aggie, and two by Rosalarian), but this is the first in which the sexual orientation of the women in question provokes almost no commentary from the other characters. Red String and Penny and Aggie both had primarily-straight casts in which, significantly into the story, a well-known character comes out. YU + ME focuses entirely on its lesbian relationship, and the obstacles it faces, and especially the ways that those obstacles are tied to persistent homophobia. And Punch and Pie just has the Angela and Heather, in a universe where one’s orientation is one’s own business. (I suppose Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates from Other Space! falls into the same “nobody cares about the gay” category overall, since the few exceptions are played for laughs.)

I think that with this series, I’ve been trying to articulate how to tell lesbian stories “right,” looking at what I considered to be good examples, and I’m learning that there are a lot of “right” ways. At first I thought, well, it should be part of a larger story, so it can’t be seen as a “special case,” to normalize it for other people. But then I thought of YU + ME and thought, no, it should reflect our real lives, the stories should be about us, so people can see it from our point of view and empathize. And now I’m thinking, why do we have to make a big dramatic deal about it at all? Isn’t it better to just treat it as what it is, i.e., a fact of life for a huge number of otherwise ordinary people? But the conclusion I’ve come to is that they’re all valuable, and important, and probably even necessary ways to tell lesbian stories. Any story that treats its lesbian characters with respect and understanding is a good one, regardless of the general focus of the comic.

So, add Punch and Pie to the list of comics that really succeed. The main characters identify as varying flavors of queer, and the story doesn’t shy away from that, but their orientations don’t define them. The story is really well-done, too; it feels like a gag-a-day comic (and a good one, too!) when you’re getting the updates one at a time, but when you read through the archives, you see that it’s actually a narrative comic. (Queen of Wands did the same thing, quite successfully.)

And I really wish I could find more to say on Punch and Pie specifically, but what’s wonderful about the story is the way it is a gradual surprise, something I can’t do justice in any summary even if I wanted to do a proper critique. And with sexual orientation being so unexceptionable to the characters themselves, it leaves me without too much to say on that front, either, other than “hey, good job!”

So– hey, good job! Folks, you should really take a look.

(Check out my other “lesbian love in webcomics” posts here!)

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Lesbian love in webcomics: Rosalarian

February 17, 2009

I read two lesbionic webcomics by Megan Rose Gedris (also known as Rosalarian): I Was Kidnapped By Lesbian Pirates From Outer Space! and YU + ME. They’re rather different comics, but I’d gladly recommend either of them.

Lesbian Pirates! is a much more consistent product– the skill behind the art improves a little with with each new installment, but only to the degree that’s to be expected of any webcomic– the style stays exactly the same throughout. The story is also much less complex, at least so far; it’s a ridiculous and enjoyable romp, but it stays firmly in the category of “casual fun reading” for me. However, I think Rosalarian never intended for it to be anything else, especially given the depth and complexity of YU + ME, which proves that she could do more if she wanted to; it reads to me like she just wants to have some fun with it, and she is certainly succeeding in that goal.

However, YU + ME remains more interesting as a topic of critique. It’s much older than Lesbian Pirates (it began in 2004), and there is a lot going on with it. If you’re going to read it, you should begin at the very beginning and read all the way through; that’s what I did. At first, it seemed very crude to me. The art is nowhere near as beautiful as the current comics she is producing, and the story looked stimple. However, it is a comic that will reward its readers, both with improved (and often truly stunning) art and with an increasingly complex and fascinating story. It’s long on purpose, and it wouldn’t be nearly as good if it didn’t spend the time on the minutiae in the beginning. The author clearly had A Plan from the very beginning, and it’s so well-executed that my second time through the archives was almost more fun than the first, since even though I knew what was next I was impressed by how obvious it was in retrospect, and how surprising it was at the time.

Plus, of course, lesbians! Both comics have cheerfully gay (well, at least cheerful-about-being-gay) characters, and several of them! I also really like the way they are drawn, with respect to body types. All the characters are or can be pretty, but in a way that I really enjoy, rather than in the stereotypical I’m-a-dyke-but-I-kind-of-look-like-a-straight-girl way which happens in, for example, the L Word. Instead, they all have distinct “looks” and (my favourite part!) completely realistic “chubby” bodies (which is to say, they look like my body, which is “chubby,” but are actually pretty normal.) As much as I love both Red String and Penny and Aggie, this is one way in which Rosalarian really takes the cake for me– she’s not at all afraid to have less-than-completely-gorgeous characters, and it’s refreshing in its own right.

As for the gals themselves, YU + ME is much more of the straight-up just-like-my-life lesbian love story, and it is handled beautifully, but it’s the lesbian characters in the not-at-all-like-my-life-unfortunately comic Lesbian Pirates! who really enchant me. They’re so delightfully campy that I always have a smile on my face, and while there are at least a few other serious relationship comics that center around lesbians, I don’t think I’ve seen any delightfully campy adventure stories with lesbian characters, let alone so many of them! (If there are others, you totally have to tell me.)

These are also the first comics I’ve reviewed in which the lesbian storylines are the main storylines. In some ways, it might be better for “the cause” (or whatever) for the lesbian characters to be included in stories with more “broad” appeal, because it normalizes that kind of story as being a part of life, rather than a “special case” kind of story that needs to be told elsewhere. But at the same time, it’s really nice as a reader to know going in that I’ll see characters who reflect my own life (as opposed to being pleasantly surprised when they show up later, as in both Red String and Penny and Aggie), and it’s extra-nice to be sure of seeing those characters every time I visit the site. No more super-frustrated waits between glorious moments of lesbian inclusion! It’s gay time all the time!

It’s odd, actually, that as much as I think YU + ME is the better comic, and the one that better shows off Rosalarian’s amazing talents, it’s Lesbian Pirates! that I find myself wanting to rhapsodize about here. Part of this is almost certainly that there’s a lot going on in YU + ME that I can’t talk about without spoiling it, whereas the name “I Was Kidnapped By Lesbian Pirates From Outer Space!” tells you pretty much all you need to know about the plot… but I think there’s also something else going on. It’s like the way that I love Les Miserables and I love Ella Enchanted– I believe Les Miserables to be wholly superior, but I just can’t gush about it, because it’s Literature, and there’s too much going on to reduce it to a couple sentences.

So, I’ll have to admit defeat here as well– YU + ME, like Literature, can’t be described succinctly, so you’re going to have to read it yourself. And if your brain is feeling awfully full afterwards, check out those Lesbian Pirates for some lighthearted fun.

(Check out my other “lesbian love in webcomics” posts here!)


Lesbian love in webcomics: Penny and Aggie

February 12, 2009

I’ve been reading Penny and Aggie for a million years; it’s a fun and interesting highschool-drama sort of story, with popular Penny and activist Aggie constantly competing with each other, at least until recently, as social-climber Karen’s tactics to take down the opposition have gotten more and more out-of-line. (Please note, this post, unlike the one on Red String, is a critique, not a review, meaning it will contain spoilers.)

I’m going to gush on a more personal level for this one, but I want to note that it’s not because I think the strip is superior to Red String. (In some ways, and especially early on in both strips, Red String has the more complex narrative, as it extends beyond high school politics.) However, a part of what makes Red String so effective at what it does is the Japanese setting, which is perfect to the story, but which I can only relate to in general terms. Penny and Aggie, on the other hand, is basically my life.

I probably read the comic for at least a year until the first hint of possible lesbianism came up (I found the comic long after it had become well-established– I spent days going through the archives!). One of Penny’s friends, Sara, was really fond of the theory that Penny and Aggie fought all the time because they were secretly in love with each other. As soon as Sara suggested it, I knew it was impossible (because lesbians don’t show up in non-lesbian-themed media, and certainly not as the main characters!) but also secretly adopted it as my personal interpretation, since there was juuuust enough wiggle room to pretend (like with Xena and Gabrielle.)

Except then, it was made irrelevent! Because there was a real lesbian! It was Sara all along! Somehow it came out of nowhere and was perfectly foreshadowed months in advance. It explains why she was convinced Penny and Aggie were interested in each other (projection!), why she overreacted to Lisa’s nose-kiss (more projection!), why she was always particularly frustrated with Michelle’s man-craziness (the opposite of projection!)

And then, once she came out to herself, it was utter perfection. It was exactly what coming out felt like in high school, including accidentally offending everyone around you with your rampant self-absorption. And then she sort of settled into it, and didn’t talk about being gay too often any more, except when it became relevant. Which is also exactly what coming out was like for me. At first it really did feel like I was trying to adopt a new identity, one that felt totally right but also totally unfamiliar, but then it became normal and comfortable again, and I was so much happier but also not all that different.

And then there’s Daphne, too, who is also me! She’s been quietly lesbian for a long time, and helps Sara out with the coming-out process, and she is sick of being single, and sick of getting her hopes up again and again over girls who are either completely straight, or “bi at parties,” but certainly not interested in a relationship. I love Daphne.

And when Daphne and Sara talk, especially about being gay? It’s the best ever! I think I’ve had this conversation from both sides (just a note, it sucks either way), but even in smaller actions it just rings so true that I just want to read it again and again.

The writer, T. Campbell, has included lesbian characters in several other works, which is nothing but good news, because he is seriously good at it. Very few lesbian stories have made me as happy as Sara’s. So, thanks!

(Check out my other “lesbian love in webcomics” posts here!)


Lesbian love in webcomics: Red String

February 8, 2009

It occurred to me recently that I’m reading a number of awesome webcomics that include massively enjoyable lesbian characters, so in honor of Valentine’s Day, that upcoming celebration of patriarchal heteronormativity, I thought I’d do a mini-series on lesbian love in webcomics. I know for sure that I’ll be talking about Penny and Aggie, Fans! and YU+ME — if you guys have any other recommendations, let me know!

First up: Red String!

The title is a reference to the “red string of fate,” which is an idea from Chinese legend, basically saying that men and women who are destined to fall in love are connected by a red string. So, Red String is a webcomic that explores the concept of love.

At first glance is looks like a very typical manga– soap-opera-y relationship drama, cute girls in short uniforms, and so on. However, the more I read it, the more I am amazed by its depth, and by it’s un-manga-ness. (As a note, I know I am making gross generalizations about manga here, and that it’s a hugely broad category of story-telling. I am referring here to the non-magical, shoujo romance-type stories that form a large subsection of manga. Also, for the record, I adore all the manga I’ve read. If you find yourself offended by any generalizations that I make, please, I don’t mean your favourite manga. I’m just trying to identify trends.)

Now, when I check the F.A.Q., I see that the author outright denies any claim that her comic is manga–

As an American I create comics, not manga. Red String does not claim to be anything else. My art is influenced by many different artists and writers, both American and Japanese. My work reflects those influences. As for why I set my story in Japan, as an author, I find that if something interests me, I want to write about it. I am interested in Japanese culture. I have tried my best to write a tale as accurate as possible to the traditions and nuances of the culture. However, this story was primarily written for an American audience by an American author, so pacing and style will obviously be different from Japanese manga stories.

I find that the interplay between manga conventions and the American writing produces something that I haven’t seen anywhere else. A Japanese high school is an excellent setting to explore ideas of romance, self-identity, and social politics; although the people are very much the same deep down– i.e., awkward teenagers with all the accompanying problems– the stricter societal norms can really highlight the conflicts inherent in that time of life. There can be drama in just who is speaking to whom, or where one sits, and so on. Some of these were topics of conversation in my own high school, but not all of them, and certainly not to the extent which they seem to be here.

But Red String does something unusual, in taking that setting and then doing something with it that actual manga rarely does, in exploring constantly-changing plots. At least in my experiences with manga, a series tends to be defined by its “pitch,” and so a story about three high school students dealing with will-they/won’t-they relationships is always going to be a story about those three students dealing with their relationships, until everything gets resolved at the very end, or until the series just fizzles out and stops. In Red String, on the other hand, the author is not at all afraid to change things, even extremely important things. People actually get past the flirting and indecision, and date each other. And they break up. “Friends forever” who in traditional manga really would be friends forever move away or drift apart. And then they make new friends. Sworn enemies soften and learn to understand each other. The story is always changing, always focused on the same themes of love in all its forms, but always fresh and interesting.

And then there’s The Gay. Same-sex relationships are not uncommon in manga, but they are almost always implied, rather than acknowleged, especially female ones. Part of this is the way that all romantic relationships in manga spend long periods of time in that will-they/won’t-they stage, but there’s something extra going on with the gay relationships. The characters will rarely state sincerely that they would like to have a relationship. It’s all joking innuendo; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lesbian couple in a manga that could’t be interpreted as “just close friends.” Even those who are probably intended to be seen as “more than friends”– Tomoyo’s feelings for Sakura in Cardcaptor Sakura, or Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune– never quite go out and say it. Which is why I am thrilled to say that Red String continued to be very un-manga-like.

Quoth the author:

This comic’s main theme is LOVE. It is not confined to just heterosexual love. It deals with all forms of love; romantic, parental, platonic, heterosexual, homosexual, unrequited, etc. I believe if you have love, you are a very lucky person. I believe in not discriminating against people who have love in their hearts. Love is better than hate or prejudice. Also, some people have brought up the religious aspect. I am writing a story set in Japan and most Japanese are Buddhist or Shintoist. Less than 2.5% of Japanese are Christian. It would be grossly inaccurate to push Christian beliefs on characters that obviously were not raised in that religion.

Later I will probably talk about the specific gay characters and how fantastic and refreshing I’m finding their storylines to be, but for now I just want to say: AWESOME. Especially because there’s no way to pretend that we’re just talking about “admiration” or “close friendship.” The gay characters talk to their friends, and to each other, and they are honest, and they kiss. That’s the best part! KISSES! Right there! On the page! Unambiguously romantic! AWESOME!

This is not, by any means, the only reason I enjoy this comic; Red String, does, after all, deal with all forms of love, and it deals with them all in fascinating and refreshing ways. It’s just particularly refreshing to see a comic that talks about love without shying away from homosexual love.

To those who are just joining the blog from Red String, welcome! If you want to read some more of what we’ve got here (and I know you do!), why don’t you check out my other “lesbian love in webcomics” articles here? Or you can check out some of my old favourites! I’ve always loved “More Xena; also, thoughts on pregnant heroes“, as well as my critiques of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kiki’s Delivery Service. I hope to see you again– and please share your thoughts in the comments!