Comics Review: First Year Out, a Transition Story

A while back, I reviewed Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer, a comics journal chronicling the author’s early days in transition. On the heels of Kaye’s book, Vancouver’s Sabrina Symington has published First Year Out: A Transition Story, a comic about a woman’s experience with the process of gender transition. Like Kaye’s story, the story that Symington tells is one in which elation and heartbreak come at the heroine – and at the reader – in rapid alternation in response to the myriad victories, challenges and setbacks that are inherent to such a life-changing experience.

Sabrina Symington is a Vancouver, BC comics creator; her webcomic is Life of Bria. First Year Out, Symington’s first book, follows our heroine, Lily, as she as she adapts to living her life as a woman; the book is based on the experiences of Symington and her friends. From unwanted facial hair and other body issues that alienate Lily from her physical self to episodes of misgendering, rejection, and aggression from friends, family and strangers, Symington’s narrative reveals how, even in our comparatively enlightened times, trans people struggle daily with challenges that those who live in bodies that “match” our gendered identities will find difficult to truly appreciate. At the same time that she details the challenges and struggles that are inherent to the transition process, Symington also chronicles the rewards of Lily’s experience, notably the acceptance she gets from others and, most importantly, from herself. For all of the pain we see Lily experience, this is a story about human strength and perseverance and about the meaning of unconditional acceptance and love.

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Aside from being a profoundly moving story, First Year Out is a valuable text because it answers questions about the process of transition that both trans people first coming to terms with their own identity and the friends and families of trans women may have. Transition is a profoundly personal experience, and answering questions about it, even from well-intentioned loved ones, may not be comfortable for someone living it. From how tucking works to voice training to the effects of hormones to the recovery process following gender-reassignment surgery, Symington effectively educates her readers about the both the daily routines and the landmark moments that define Lily’s journey to living as the woman she is. Beyond that, much of First Year Out details Lily’s experiences with people whose hatred of trans women poses a genuine threat to the physical and emotional well being of people like her, including garden-variety bigots, TERfs, and chasers.

Transphobia is pervasive, as can be seen, for example, in our obsession with where people go to the bathroom. Yet while everyone who reads the news is familiar with that debate, the worst dimensions of transphobia too often go unmentioned. Trans people face a one-in-ten chance of being the target of violence every year, and nearly half of all trans people have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. In one sequence, Symington reveals the psychological toll that living with the persistent threat of violence has on Lily. She can rarely afford to let her guard down, which has a significant impact on her ability to simply go about her day; she is conditioned to expect any encounter with a stranger to end in a confrontational or aggressive manner. Lily’s defensiveness is necessary for survival’s sake, but living like this prevents her from fully participating in her own community. In one scene, Lily steels herself for a torrent of abuse from a passing man, and is thereby prevented from accepting or reciprocating his friendly “Good afternoon,” instead assuring herself that the man must have been at least “probably thought something nasty.” This sort of social alienation is just part of the price paid by many members of marginalized communities, arguably none more so than trans people.

Everyday transphobia has been given a political and theoretical sheen by a subsection of self-described radical feminists whose concept of womanhood is inextricably linked to a narrow biological definition of who counts as a woman: these are the trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERfs (This a term that TERf’s consider to be a slur, though it accurately describes their ideology. Out of respect for Symington’s stated preference, I use a lower-case “f” here to represent how TERfs are, feminists in name only…). Lily’s mother struggles to accept her daughter for who she is in part because, by growing up as a boy, Lily has not had the experiences that are part of being a “real” woman. Lily’s mom is an old-school feminist who argues that Lily, having grown up “being conditioned by male privilege to have male thoughts … cannot actually ever understand what it’s like to be a woman.” Accused by her daughter of harbouring TERf ideas, Lily’s mom explores some of the discourse produced by the movement and is shocked to learn that people are accusing women like her daughter of being deviants, pedophiles and rapists. The come-to-Jesus moment that is sparked by this encounter with vile hate speech directed at trans women is a major landmark on Lily’s mom coming to a fuller understanding of who her daughter is.

Alongside TERfs, there is a community of men who also approach women like Lily with a fundamentally dehumanizing agenda. These are the chasers, men who fetishize women who have a penis (…or, perhaps more to the point, fetishize penises that are attached to women). Lily’s encounters with chasers reveal a tendency among men in that community to completely objectify trans women by reducing them to nothing more than what’s between their legs. Eager to find romantic companionship, Lily takes out an account at a website that caters to men who are attracted to trans women, but her inbox is soon overflowing with messages from men who are not interested in her, but only in one part of her body. This is particularly demoralizing for Lily, we learn, because that part of her body serves largely to underline her sense of alienation from her own body. When Lily finally does find intimacy with a man who is interested in her whole being, she asks him not to touch her between her legs because it “kills the mood instantly.” Perhaps one of the sharpest insights of the book is this exploration of what its like for Lily to live in a body that reminds her, at her most intimate and vulnerable moments, that it does not represent her real self.

Lily tries online dating after seeing a man who, although initially seemingly completely at ease with Lily’s identity, dumps her because he ultimately cannot accept the idea of dating a trans woman. As one friend of Lily’s puts it, like many men, the man’s own internalized homophobia prevents him from being able to allow himself to be involved with a trans woman, even as he likes her very much. Perhaps the most profound concept that Symington addresses is the complex relationship between the bodies we inhabit and the types of bodies we typically desire. Lily’s newly-found acceptance of her attraction to men in the light of having exclusively dated women when she lived as man is fascinating for how it captures the intensely complex nature of desire outside of a hyper-simplified model of two genders operating within a limited framework of orientations. For Lily, the question is less about who she wants to go to bed with as it is who she wants to go to bed as. Before reading those words, I had never really thought about sexual orientation as having as much to do with a person’s relationship with their own body as it does with the types of bodies they desire.

This insight is but one example of how Symington excels at teaching her audience about complicated ideas in a clear and accessible manner. The struggle for trans acceptance, both in terms of society’s ability to accept trans people and trans people’s ability to accept themselves, touches on profound social, political, sexual and personal questions. Symington addresses these questions in a clear, lively and direct manner. You should read this book.

Comics Review: “The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette.”

C.L.R. James (1901-1989) was a Trinidadian-British Marxist and pan-Africanist historian, writer, political theorist and activist. If you’re a halfway serious student of twentieth-century radical thought, you know that already. If you’re not, here’s a quick, and incomplete, summary of his achievements: His 1936 novel Minty Alley was the first novel published by a West Indian living in Great Britain. Two years after publishing Minty Alley, James wrote The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian Revolution that remains a critical touchstone in Africana studies; he also wrote the first history of the Communist International. His 1965 semi-autobiographical meditation on cricket, Beyond a Boundary (check out my review here) was an early exemplar of a new field of intellectual inquiry that emerged in the 1960s, cultural studies.

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Beyond his literary and scholarly achievements, James was at the forefront of some of the twentieth century’s key liberation movements. A tireless champion of the oppressed, he mobilized resistance to European colonialism in Africa and the West Indies starting in the 1930s, and spent fifteen years in the United States organizing working people. In the 1960s, he became an critical touchstone to a new generation of Black activists looking to understand, and ultimately topple, racial and class oppression, and he remained an active thinker, writer and speaker up until his last years. Reading James’s work and life story, what emerges is a vision of of freedom in which the popular masses liberate themselves; James was, in the truest sense of the word, a democrat who never lost faith in the ability of the common man and woman to understand the dynamics that kept them down and to work in concert for total liberation.

This vision of the capacity of regular people to work towards a future in which they are truly free is a central theme of Milton Knight’s new comics biography of James, “The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette,” published by PM Press. Knight is a comics creator, animator, illustrator, writer and fine artist from Mineola, New York. “The Young C.L.R. James” reflects his maxim that “Art springs first from an observation of life, then a philosophy from the heart and mind of the artist.” Knight has obviously read James’s life and work closely, and the observations he has taken from his study are clearly informed by a set of political values that he shares with his subject. Knight’s book highlights the idea that the way to freedom lies not with following a vanguard leadership, but with the collective self-actualization of the popular masses.

The Young C.L.R. James” reads as a single chapter from what I hope will be a longer project that will cover the entirety of James’s life and legacy. The book follows James’s life from his early childhood to the 1936 production of his play (written in 1934) about Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture. It also features a short vignette on swing music and dancing, an aspect of American culture that fascinated James. A brief introduction by James scholars Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware provides background information about James’s life, work, and his broader historical context.

The Young C.L.R. James” begins with a encapsulation of the first chapters of Beyond a Boundary, in which James recounts his youth in colonial Port-of-Spain. James was a leading figure in the anticolonial movement, and yet he was, in many ways, the proud product of British imperial culture. To him, such touchstones of English identity as Shakespeare and Thackeray were parts of an intellectual heritage that spoke to the revolutionary potential of the people. In a talk given in Montreal in 1966, he argues that dialogue delivered by servants in King Lear reveals “the role of the peasants in the crisis of society.” [1]

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Wright’s dynamic style captures the sense of movement that defined James’s vision of the West Indian people.

James’s understanding of the possibilities for liberation that were embedded in colonial culture emerged most strongly in his passion for cricket. As Knight argues, cricket was introduced in colonial societies like Trinidad to “indoctrinate” colonialised people “with the values assuring that they will be ‘good’ subjects under British rule.” However, James understood that cricket gave the West Indian people a stage on which to show the world their innovative spirit and ability to excel on their own terms. Cricket is central to James’s, and Knight’s, recounting of the development of James’s racial consciousness: as young man looking for a cricket team, James had to navigate a complicated caste system in which skin colour and social class, as much as athletic skill, determined where one could play. Ultimately, a comment from the West Indian cricket great Learie Constantine – “You have it all wrong you know … They are no better than we.” – shocked James into awareness, and marked the start of his commitment to the anti-racist/anti-colonialist cause.

Cricket allowed James to understand how everyday West Indian people expressed their revolutionary nature within a context determined by imperial power. His novel Minty Alley further explores the daily culture of the Caribbean people, depicting the quotidian lives of those on the margins of colonial Trinidadian society. As Wright emphasizes, Minty Alley reflects James’s growing fascination with the question of the possibilities for liberation that dwelt within the popular masses. After finishing the novel, James left Trinidad, joining Constantine in Lancashire; as James writes in Beyond a Boundary, “the British intellectual was going to Britain.” [2] (Christian Høgsbjerg’s C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain, which I review here, is an excellent overview of James’s political development in those years.)

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Paul Robeson as Toussaint Louverture

While he was in the UK, James wrote a biographical play about Toussaint Louverture that starred the African-American actor and activist Paul Robeson. The last few pages of the comic are a brief recounting of the Haitian Revolution drawn from James’s script, ending with Toussaint’s death in a French prison. Again, in this episode, Knight brings us back to the central idea that emerges from his reading of James’s work: as Toussaint reflects on a white man spouting the alleged biological reasons underpinning white supremacy, he realizes that “If the negro is to be set free, he must free himself.” The only people with the power and insight to bring down oppression are the oppressed.

My favourite James quote comes from Beyond a Boundary. The West Indian people, James wrote, were, on the verge of their political independence, “moving too fast for any label to stick.” Knight’s work effectively captures the dynamism that James points at in this analysis. Whether in his triptych rendering of a batsman in full swing or a two-page dialogue-free sequence depicting James talking to – and ultimately being seduced by – the people he would write about in Minty Alley, Knight’s drawings capture a sense of movement that was central to James’s conception of freedom and progress. I’ve read a few comics biographies of political, intellectual and literary figures likes James, and these often end up being text-heavy efforts in which the artwork may complement the words, but does little to open up an expressive space in which the artist can move the reader to a deeper understanding. Knight’s decision to forgo huge blocks of text in favour of using his amazingly expressive imagery to show the reader – and not just tell the reader – where James came from and what he wanted to say makes this book a must-read for both people who have never heard of C.L.R. James and serious James scholars.

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[1] C.L.R. James, “Shakespeare’s King Lear,” in You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James, ed. David Austin. A.K. Press, 2009. p. 84.

[2] C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary (50th Anniversary Edition). Duke University Press, 2013. p. 111

[3] James, Beyond a Boundary, p. 148.

Comics Review: Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer

VANCAF – the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival – is where I often learn about comics and creators that might otherwise fly underneath my radar. My personal highlight of the 2018 edition of VANCAF was discovering the work of the Los Angeles-based cartoonist Julia Kaye. The strips she had on display immediately caught my eye, as they perfectly embodied the ability of comics to put words and images together and express something that neither can on their own. Her work takes maximum advantage of the unique synergy of the medium: the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. Her drawings are simple, and she uses as few words as possible. But while Kaye gives the reader only as much visual and textual information as they need to grasp her message, her work has an emotional impact that belies the seeming simplicity of her visual aesthetic.

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The comics Kaye had on display were from her recent book Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition, a collection of diary-style comic strips that chronicle her experience with gender transition. Kaye’s style may be simple, but her work addresses an issue that is laden with complexities. Her genius – and I don’t use the word lightly – enables her to tell a deeply personal story with heart-wrenching immediacy. But beyond her ability to tell a profoundly moving personal story, her work has critical social and political implications.

Kaye is the creator of a comic titled Up and Out, which is available on two platforms: a GoComics page and a Tumblr page. This review, however, only addresses her book, which stands on its own and doesn’t require any other reading for context.

Super Late Bloomer is a series of daily strips covering five months in 2016, each strip focusing on a particular moment, event, or insight as Kaye embraces life as a woman. Kaye typically follows a three-panel format, which doesn’t give her a lot of room in which to explore the issues that arise, and yet each strip has a clear emotional impact. The format makes me reluctant to classify Super Late Bloomer as a memoir in the strictest sense of the word: while the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, the strips are more a series of distinct reflections than they are a unified narrative. Kaye lets us in on the quotidian challenges, setbacks, and victories she experienced during a crucial period in her life. The strips address topics like the emotional blow that comes with episodes of misgendering, the frustration of dealing with the bureaucracy of changing one’s name, the discovery of sometimes unexpected allies at family gatherings or in a cosmetics shop, and moments in which Kaye realizes that the acts that help her embrace her womanhood, such as wearing makeup, have become routine. Each strip has a sense of resolution, but those resolutions are as likely to be uplifting as they are heart-breaking. Sometimes Kaye celebrates a moment in which she overcomes an internal or external obstacle that she has encountered. On the other hand, she sometimes suffers difficult setbacks as she works to accept herself for what she is and struggles against people and a society that fail to see her for what she is.

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Some strips express deep pain and frustration…

Ultimately, this book is about acceptance; Kaye’s journey to self-acceptance, and her struggle to be accepted by world that too often rejects people who challenge our preconceptions about how people are supposed to live their lives. Sometimes, for Kaye, the former brand of acceptance is armour against the absence of the latter. And this is where I see this book as profoundly political.

Radical liberation movements like abolitionism, the civil rights and Black Power movements, multiple waves of feminism, anti-colonial and Indigenous rights movements and the struggles for gay and lesbian equality do more than strive to end the oppression faced by a particular group for at least two reasons. First, they force societies to interrogate and ultimately discard the intellectual and conceptual frameworks that justified the oppression of a targeted group. Second, they force societies to confront, and ultimately acknowledge, the full humanity of people who had been historically been excluded from enjoying that status. The struggle for trans acceptance requires us to shed concepts and constructs that have been with us for so long that they are considered “natural.” The gender binary is fundamental to our concept of what it means to be a human being, and to how our society arranges itself. As I finished the first draft of this review, a friend on social media posted a video taken at a “gender reveal” party for a family member who is pregnant (It’s a girl, apparently). Before we even come into the world, people are put into boxes that are determined by physical markers, whether or not those markers accurately reflect the human being who inhabits that particular body.

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…while others are amazingly uplifting.

The movement for trans acceptance forces us to examine the fundamental “truths” that inform cultural, legal, political, economic, and social structures that shape who we are and how we live. This is not easy to do. Trans identity not only unsettles the status quo, it challenges elements of even the most radical political ideologies. The existence of TERFs – trans-exclusionary radical feminists, a movement that seeks to delegitimize trans women– reveals how deeply the gender binary is baked into how we see ourselves and the world we inhabit.

The act of existing as a trans person is a profoundly revolutionary one, and requires an incredible amount of courage. Kaye’s elegantly-delivered insights help us understand the challenges of being trans and the stakes of the trans struggle, both for the people living that struggle and for a society that will have to radically overhaul itself so that trans people may be fully accepted. The stakes of Kaye’s struggle are huge for her, but they’re also huge for those of us who are committed to building a truly just society.

Comics convey meaning in a direct and intimate way while requiring that readers actively engage with the material in front of them. This makes them an ideal medium to help readers grasp challenging ideas, arguably better than text alone, or passively-received moving images. Kaye combines words and pictures to create a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts and tells a story that is intensely human and ultimately deeply political. Read this book.

Comics Review: Zerocalcare’s Kobane Calling

Kobane is a city of about 40,000 people in northern Syria; it is the administrative capital of Rojava, a multi-ethnic self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish nationalists claim as part of a greater Kurdistan. The city was besieged by ISIS militants in July 2014 and liberated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their all-woman forces, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), six months later. The YPG/YPJ are closely associated with the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist movement that has been classified as a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. In 2014 and 2015 the Italian cartoonist Zerocalcare traveled in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria and visited Kobane (most English-language sources render the town’s name as Kobanî, but I will stick with Zerocalcare’s preferred spelling) to document the struggles of Kurds and the Turks and Arabs who support them to create a new type of society in what they hope will one day be an independent Kurdish republic. The book Zerocalcare wrote about his experience, Kobane Calling: Greetings from Northern Syria,  (Lion Forge Press) is one of the most outstanding works of graphic journalism that I have ever read.

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What drew Zerocalcare to Kobane is not a story about national liberation, but one about a revolution seeking to create a just and egalitarian society. The people fighting for Rojava govern their society according to a social contract built on the empowerment of women, ethnic and religious plurality, socialist economics, and environmental protection. These are not values that we in the West typically associate with Middle Eastern political movements in the age of Islamic fundamentalism. Zerocalcare wants to “defend … a model of peaceful coexistence for the entire Middle East, if not the world” and makes no secret of his belief in the Kurdish cause. He sees the people of Kobane as “a beacon for humanity” whose struggle “should be aided, defended, [and] supported.”

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Commander Nasrin of the YPJ

Witnessing the suffering and struggles of the people of Rojava as they confront the Turkish government on the one hand and ISIS on the other, Zerocalcare comes to understand that “even the guy who seems like some boring old accountant … has had a life that makes Die Hard look like a kid’s party. And makes you feel like the village idiot.” We have grown numb to the horrific crimes committed by ISIS, a movement we think of as a horde of “sadistic savage bloodthirsty marauders.” This perception not only reduces a complex regional conflict to a simple tale of good versus evil, it obscures important political dynamics. ISIS commits mass atrocities informed by their particular brand of fascistic, fundamentalist Islamism; they also destabilize strategic regions to the advantage of other powers, notably Turkey, a country that, as Zerocalcare documents, may work selectively with ISIS in order to strike at the Kurds.

Many of the YPG/YPJ fighters that we meet joined the movement to seek refuge from and strike back against violence and oppression. However, it was not ISIS terrorism that had shaped their lives: in fact, much of the horror Zerocalcare reports on was inflicted not by ISIS, but by Turkey, a NATO country and a key partner in the campaign against ISIS. Ezel, Zerocalcare’s principal contact with the YPJ, was imprisoned at age thirteen for protesting laws that banned people from speaking Kurdish in public. Three years later, she witnessed a friend being shot dead by Turkish police. Another young woman fled to join the PKK after being sentenced to ninety-eight years in prison for attending a protest against a plan to develop a green space. Other women fled to the YPJ to flee gender-based violence and the patriarchal structures that traditionally dictate their lives, as in the case of one young woman who joined the movement to escape being forced into an arranged marriage.
The space in the Venn diagram where Turkey’s geopolitical position overlaps with gender informs what Zerocalcare calls the “Great Mesopotamian Hoax,” an intellectual move that allows the West to separate the “good Kurds” – women fighting ISIS in Syria – from the “bad Kurds” – bearded “terrorists” fighting Turkey. Zerocalcare’s main goal in writing this book is to debunk that hoax and reveal how the Kurdish struggle has, as a foundational value, the the liberation of women, and men, from the political, social, and cultural forces that oppress them, whether that oppression comes from the Turkish state, ISIS, or the internal dynamics of Kurdish society.

The PKK’s focus on female emancipation and empowerment not only informs structures of daily life like work and marriage; broadly feminist values also inform their approach to politics, war-making and community relations. Lessons about gender equality and female empowerment are as much a part of the soldiers’ training as learning to clean a mortar. As Commander Nasrin, head of the YPJ says, each trainee has to “learn how to kill the domineering male inside us and others … and challenge age-old relations between men and women.” This is “the foundation of the revolution.” Moreover, the movement prioritizes protecting civilians – women and children – from the effects of the conflict. They have a strict policy of avoiding civilian targets; one YPJ fighter tells Zerocalcare that soldiers won’t pick fruit from civilian-owned trees so as to protect civilians from Turkish retribution for supporting fighters.

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Feminist values are at the core of YPG/YPJ politics

The woman-centric aspects of the Kurdish movement complicate standard Western narratives about women and Islam in the Middle East, narratives which have little room to account for women exercising political and social agency. From women being driven out of the public sphere by the Taliban in Afghanistan to women being taken as sexual slaves by ISIS, protecting women has been a key part of the discourse justifying Western aggression in the Muslim world. Yet in Kurdistan it’s Muslim women who have made many of the sacrifices to remake their world as they see fit. “What,” Zerocalcare wonders as he learns more about the role of women in the Kurdish revolution, “do we have to teach them again?”

I read Kobane Calling after reading Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts, another work of graphic journalism that covers developments in the Middle East in the years after the formal end of the Iraq war. While the two books have different points of focus – Glidden’s principal concern is Iraqi refugees and the journalists who document their stories – they both shed light on the widespread regional instability that developed in the wake of the illegal and failed American invasion of Iraq. Read together, both speak to the vast possibilities of graphic journalism. Stylistically, the two artists occupy very different spaces. Unlike Glidden, whose drawing and text are are subtle and understated, Zerocalcare takes full advantage of the reality-bending aspects of comics art. By using a bold, cartoon-y style that highlights comic exaggeration, asides to the reader, and pop-culture references, Zerocalcare conveys the fear, excitement, dread, uncertainty and occasional joy that he and his subjects feel in an an immediate and dynamic way and encapsulates complex political, social and historical dynamics in a way that lets him move the narrative forward without having it bog down in background information.

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Zerocalcare’s style blends critical analysis of his journalistic skills with self-deprecating humour

While Zerocalcare’s stylistic approach is very different from Glidden’s, Kobane Calling, like Rolling Blackouts, blurs the line between journalism and memoir by making the creator of the book a central character. Like Glidden, Zerocalcare documents the fear, self-doubt and occasional joy that he experiences travelling through unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous settings and interrogates his motives, skills, and methodology. He also acknowledges the imitations posed by the comics medium, which does not favour text-heavy explanations, and is open about how he had to engage in “exercises in narrative synthesis” that alter [the book’s] fidelity to reality.” Moreover, both writers, in a direct and self-conscious way, document their struggles to overcome the ignorance that shapes our shared understanding of the people, cultures, and history of the Middle East. Neither of these writers position themselves as experts on the people and events they are covering. Rather, with both books, the reader feels as though they and the creator are on a shared learning curve, both figuring things out as they move through the story. Zerocalcare’s humorous style in particular lends itself to this sort of self-examination; throughout the book, he pokes fun at himself for his lack of skills and knowledge as well as for fore endearing qualities such as his addiction to Kurdish chai and his inability to develop a taste for Kurdish food, notably the fact that they eat olives or lentils for breakfast, a true affront to his Italian culinary sensibilities.

Yet as he jokes about lacking some of the skills that more conventional journalists might take for granted, Zerocalcare is sharply aware that by reporting on the YPG/YPJ, he is taking on a weighty responsibility, in that a screw-up on his part could well endanger the lives of his subjects. The Kurdish movement faces formidable opponents, and information about Kurdish fighters and activists falling into the wrong hands could place them in peril. When Zerocalcare and his travel partners enter Turkey, their carelessness leads to a list of contacts within the Kurdish movement being seized by border authorities. He draws on his imaginative style as a way to circumvent unintentionally identifying people who are potential targets of the Turkish state: in one sequence, contacts are rendered as a hunk of goat cheese and some olives, “glorious symbols of Kurdish identity and how the Kurds don’t know how to have breakfast.”
As he blurs the line between journalism and memoir, Zerocalcare also blurs the line between journalism and advocacy. He is asking for two things: one for the Kurds, and one for us.

For the Kurds, Zerocalcare is calling for the international community to follow through on the often empty commitments that Western voices make regarding our expressed desire to see women in the Islamic world live better, freer lives. While nightmarish visions of ISIS, concerns for women’s welfare, and heroic images of Kurdish women fighters all shape Western discourse about the region, we are doing precious little to support the Kurdish women fighting ISIS. At a Rojava graveyard we see Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis grieve for loved ones who died fighting ISIS, a movement that we call an existential threat to our values and security. Absent from the scene are those who scream the loudest about religious wars in the Middle East: us.

Zerocalcare is also urging us to open our minds to the possibilities being articulated and made real by the YPG and the YPJ. Faced with war and massive bloodshed, the Kurds nonetheless actively expand spaces in which community and democracy may take root and thrive. Meanwhile, we in the West have, since the attacks of 2001 made Islamist terrorism a global concern, only become more atomized and have lessened our own commitments to freedom and democracy in the face of challenging times.

What do we have to teach them again?

If you’re at all interested in better understanding the Syrian crisis, are a fan of comics journalism, or a lover of comics art and good storytelling, take the time to read this book.

Comics Review: Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts

Every now and again, I take a break from writing about Doonesbury to review comics that I like. If you’re a creator of web- or print-based comics and you’d like me to write about your work, drop a line on Twitter (@readdoonesbury) or through my contact page.
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I don’t like you, but I will tell you my story.

A woman wearing a headscarf faces us directly and says “I never liked you … I not like your government, I not like EVERYBODY … [but] I will talk about my story.” It’s 2010, and the woman is an Iraqi refugee living in Syria. She is a refugee because of the instability that gripped her country following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her story, the stories of many people who share a fate similar to hers, and the challenges faced by journalists who try to tell her story to American readers, are the subject of Rolling Blackouts, an outstanding work of comics journalism by Sarah Glidden, published by Drawn and Quarterly Press (shout-out to my hometown of Montreal!!). In 2010, independent journalists Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill travelled to Turkey, Iraq, and Syria to document the situation facing Iraqis whose lives were upturned by the war and subsequent unrest. Glidden accompanied them so that she could “make a comic book about how journalism works.” More than a look at the inner workings of reporting, Rolling Blackouts explores the disconnect between the severity of the tragedy experienced by the Iraqi people following the invasion and Americans’ fundamental disconnect from, and ignorance of, that tragedy. Stuteville’s generation’s understanding of the Middle East “has been defined by the conflict of the past ten years,” but as the war receded from the headlines Americans began “looking inwards” and not paying attention to the lasting consequences of the invasion: for those left behind, notably the Iraqi refugees in Syria that are the main focus of the second half of the book, the situation endures.

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The disconnect between Iraq’s central place in American foreign policy and its virtual absence from American public consciousness is revealed in Glidden’s sense of distance from military life. Before going to Iraq, Glidden’s only real connection to the war was marching in opposition to it. That said, for all Americans, a particular dimension of the war is part of the background noise of daily life as an unquestioned ethos of “supporting the troops” has become a cultural touchstone, one acted out in quotidian settings such as airports and sporting events. Yet, Glidden notes, she has “never had much contact with the troops. They were always far away.” Glidden’s alienation from a defining aspect of American identity, the military, is evident in the first stage of the group’s trip. Also on the trip is Dan O’Brien, an Iraq war vet; Stuteville hopes to write about how O’Brien can come to terms with his experience in Iraq. Glidden waits at the airport, sitting under a sign that reads SUPPORT THE TROOPS and acknowledges that Dan’s military experience makes him something of a novelty to her. As she observes Dan, Glidden confesses that she “[…didn’t] know what [she] was expecting an ex-Marine to be like in the first place.”

Many Americans have little connection with the men and women who fight their wars, but at least the media make it a point to tell soldiers’ stories. Yet while the media regularly remind Americans of the bravery of, and sacrifices made by, those men and women, Iraqis are rarely granted their basic humanity in American reporting. Stuteville, Stonehill and Glidden set out to show us how the Iraqi people live lives that are “steeped in politics and difficulty.”

As these people’s lives are “steeped in politics and difficulty,” the are also steeped in history, a dynamic that does not figure strongly in how Glidden and her companions engage with, understand, and tell the stories of the people they encounter. The narrative arc of the book begins, essentially, with the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: absent is virtually any mention of how, dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Western powers (first Britain, then the United States) used political pressure and mass violence to maintain access to the one thing that makes Iraq relevant to them: oil. There is one moment where the book hints at that long and horrible history. As Glidden and her companions drive through Iraqi Kurdistan, Dan notes that ultimately, Iraq is simply “a piece of land with borders someone drew on a map.” I read Rolling Blackouts alongside a collection of essays by the radical historian Mike Davis. In “The Ungrateful Volcano,” Davis details exactly how bloody the process of drawing those lines on a map was for the Iraqi people. As the British took responsibility for the Mandate of Iraq, they, like the Americans a century later, believed that they would be warmly greeted as “liberators,” freeing Iraqis not from Saddam Hussein, but from the Ottomans. A general uprising against British rule put the lie to those beliefs. The British response is shocking in its brutality. Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, deployed ground troops, poison gas, and aerial bombardments of civilian populations to quell the anti-colonial rebellion. British administrators hanged political prisoners while RAF planes “machine-gunned women and children as they fled from their homes.”

The Iraqi people understand their situation in terms of that longer history, but it is largely from Rolling Blackouts. This observation is not meant as a criticism of Glidden’s work: she did not set out to write a comics history of the region. Rather, I see the absence of a deep engagement with the region’s history as something that underlines one of the book’s key themes: everyday Americans, the soldiers they send to fight their wars, and the journalists who report on those wars have a severely limited understanding of a place where America and its allies have inflicted, and continue to inflict, massive levels of violence. Dan’s experience as a veteran is central to this dynamic. He’s an educated man who spent substantial time in Iraq, but he seems to have no real understanding of the people, their histories, or their cultures, saying that he doesn’t “have much of an idea of who they are, what they’re like.” The system he was part of, of course, made it unlikely that he would have been able to come to a better understanding of the region and its people. America’s disengagement from Iraqi history and politics is inseparable from its failure to bring peace, stability and and prosperity to the country. As Dan notes, he and his fellow soldiers were clueless about the effects of their actions on Iraqis, and they never had the chance to learn more. “If any of our actions negatively affected Iraqis, and I’m sure they did,” he notes, “we didn’t stick around long enough to see it.”

This sense of detachment from the larger political and historic dynamics that shape the daily realities of the people they set out to write about is shared by Dan’s companions. On the drive to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, the group notices what “must be the Kurdish flag”; their uncertainty about basic facts about the region is made apparent. A few pages later, a long and complicated history of two peoples sharing a political space is condensed into an uncertain analysis: “Arabs and Kurds don’t get along, apparently.” It’s crucial to note, however, that Glidden fully understands that she doesn’t know enough about Iraq and its people. She is embarrassed because she quotes an article about Iraq that she had read on the flight as though she was an expert; she later admits, after an interview session, that “the history of the Kurd’s displacement is still a knot of confusion” for her.

If Americans are so disengaged from the people whose lives are so profoundly and painfully impacted by American military aggression, it’s in part because contemporary journalistic practices and institutions make it very difficult to get the kind of stories that might change things out into the public sphere. As Glidden draws our attention to America’s failure to care about, understand, or even acknowledge the existence of the people whose lives were torn apart by the invasion of Iraq, she also reveals the challenges faced by the well-intentioned journalists who are working to bring those people’s stories back to American readers.

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Stuteville’s struggles with the complexities of her industry are a key theme of the book.

Stuteville and Stonehill are often racked with self-doubt and frustration as they seek to find a balance point between their desire to tell stories that could make a difference and the economies of attention and money that determine which stories get published and read: As Stuteville notes, she sees her role as being “to get people excited about journalism and then show them how conflicted and shitty it is.” As compelling as the stories of the Iraqi people may be, and as much as they might change how Americans understand the Iraqi people, they will be competing with an unprecedented amount of journalistic output clamouring for readers’ time. As Stuteville asks, how can a reporter ensure that her story is the one thing that a potential reader dedicates to the little free time they have available? This dynamic goes a long way in determining what stories end up getting told, because “people are looking for things they can already relate to.” In other words, we don’t, as readers, don’t have the time to embark on a learning curve that challenges our received wisdom about a complex situation on the other side of the planet. Moreover, the economic realities of contemporary journalism mean that the stories that most need to be told – the ones that would force Americans to more directly confront some of the worst consequences of their country’s policies – go unpublished because publishers “don’t want to overwhelm their audience with too depressing a story.”

At one point, Glidden shows herself transcribing interviews and musing that her methodology for this comics journalism project is different from her usual work creating comics memoir. Rolling Blackouts actually straddles the two genres. On the one hand, it brilliantly documents a number of interconnected stories about war, its effects on people, and how we understand those effects. On the other hand, Glidden often centres her own reflections on her experiences in ways that help us better understand the person telling these stories. By sometimes making herself the subject, even with short comment in a caption, Glidden helps the reader better understand how challenging it is to make sense of a situation like post-invasion Iraq.

It’s impossible to read this account of a trip to Syria without thinking about the ongoing Syrian civil war and its associated humanitarian dimensions. While Rolling Blackouts is set before the outbreak of the current conflict, Glidden foreshadows the possibility of its emergence. As their trip begins, she notes that they are in a region that is “absorbing refugees and struggling with new resource conflicts. (As Jackie Roche and Audrey Quinn reveal in their comic about the origins of the Syrian civil war, climate change and access to water were central to the outbreak of hostilities.) The book ends with Glidden watching news of the uprising; she believes that, to a certain extent, the work she had put in researching Rolling Blackouts has been overtaken by events; she writes that her “original question seems far less important than all of this.” In future posts I’ll be looking at works of comics journalism that take more recent events in the Middle East head-on. But while the Syrian civil war created refugee flows and human tragedies that may seem to dwarf the situations that Glidden writes about, the experiences of the people who suffer most in the conflict to be understood in the larger context of the humanitarian costs of post-9/11 American aggression in the Middle East. Moreover, we need to think about how the media that we trust to keep us informed about the region grapples with substantial challenges as reporters try to get us to understand the human costs of American policy. America is going to continue relying on violence as a primary means of shaping outcomes in the Middle East, and the media is going to continue to struggle to make Westerners understand how that affects the human beings who live there. For these reasons, as well as for being a beautifully-drawn and written, and deeply thoughtful and moving book, Rolling Blackouts is a must-read.

Comic Review: Stark Plug

Here’s my second attempt at writing a comics review; you can read the first, on Tailsteak’s Forward, here. If you’re a creator of web- or print-based comics and you’d like me to write about your work, drop a line on Twitter (@readdoonesbury) or through my contact page.

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A while back, I received a copy of Stark Plug Book, a comix collection by Steve Chappell, aka Chap, a Madison, Wisconsin comics creator. I could say that Stark Plug is a somewhat absurdist humour comic following the adventures of a corporate drone, which it is, but it’s so much more than that. Stark Plug is a prime example of a contemporary creator working within the aesthetic developed by the comix creators of the 1960s and 70s and revealing the extent to which that approach to graphic narrative remains fruitful, while marking out his particular vision of the genre’s possibilities.

Chappell claims that Stark Plug isn’t a political comic, calling it “pure entertainment,” a way to “get people away from the perils of their life.” I read the book a little differently. There’s an escapist feel, but Chappell’s depiction of what Stark is trying to escape from – the mindless drudgery of work in the capitalist system – is deeply political. We never learn what Stark does for a living, nor what “the plant” where he works produces. That’s what makes Chappell’s critique so effective: it’s not really about any one job or sector of the economy, it’s really about all of us. People cling to jobs they hate and in which they are “doing very little to better humankind” for the sake of the benefits package and “maximum vacation time.” Instead of doing work that brings people a degree of pride and satisfaction, people follow a daily rhythm of work that is boiled down to a manic boss yelling at his workers to “Increase production! Work faster! Quicken the pace!” with the underlying threat that if they don’t, “No raise for you.” Even Bernie the Banjo Bum, the homeless street musician who longs for a simpler time before cell phones and digital media pushed into a “rush-cession” of accelerating work and consumption, takes checks and credit cards; the logic of capitalism prevails even on frozen-over Midwestern sidewalks.

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Superimposed styles break the reader’s sense of narrative flow and continuity. Also, there’s a great contrast of dynamism and immobility here.

The use of absurd humour as a way to engage in social commentary while providing readers with a fun read is a staple in the comix tradition; another comix touchstone that Chappell explores is the use of self-referential humour and commentary as a way to disrupt the relationship between author, characters, and reader. From the very first page, where Stark reminds his boss that as an “inanimate cartoon character,” he is unable to work harder, the book is full of instances of characters breaking the fourth wall and making observations about themselves, the pages within which their story unfolds, and the creator drawing them. This self-referential tendency is a key dynamic in the book’s central story, in which Stark quits his job at the plant to fulfill his dream of starring in a daily newspaper comic strip. Stark’s ensuing experience as a lead character in Memphis and Harry reads as an extended ode to the comics/comix replete with references to classic tropes and characters. I’m especially a fan of Memphis, a cartoon kitty whose love of fun, revolting excretory habits, and hippie wisdom are clearly a tribute to everyone’s favourite graphic feline, Fat Freddy’s Cat.

Chappell is a block print artist (some of his prints are reproduced in one sequence of the book), and while some of his comics work reflects the heavier lines and more static feel that one (…or at least I) associate with that style, his style is dynamic and marked by sometimes-dramatic and sometimes-subtle aesthetic shifts to suit the moods he wants to convey. Chappell may favour a relatively simple drawing approach, but his drawings do complex things as he uses different visual narrative techniques, notably superimposing contrasting styles on a single page or in a single panel, to occasionally disrupt the narrative flow and the reader’s sense of being grounded in a definable reality. This is especially true in the sequence “Stark Walks,” which strongly evokes the “messing with your head” approach that was a key part of the underground comix, and in the “play within a play” sequence about Stark’s time as a character in Memphis and Harry, both of which, in different ways, bring the reader to a place where the rules of the straight world don’t apply anymore.

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Breaking the fourth wall backstage at a strip within a strip. Memphis’s wisdom and fun-loving spirit clearly evokes Fat Freddy’s Cat.

It in was reading the Memphis and Harry sequence that I came to understand what this book is really about. Stark Plug is a comic book about comic books; from the depictions of office politics to jokes about how disgusting cats are to the ads for novelty products on the inside back cover, the book is full of references and in-jokes that any comics lover will appreciate, written in loving tribute to the medium. Chappell sets out to remind us of the amazing and unique possibilities that exist in the space between drawings and words and does so in way that draws deeply on the comix tradition while expressing his own artistic vision. Do yourself a favour and order up a copy.

Comic Review: Tailsteak’s Forward.

Note to readers: While this project is meant to be a comprehensive look at fifty years’ worth of Doonesbury comics, I also want to take the opportunity to write about other comics that grab my attention. Here, then, is my first attempt at reviewing a webcomic, one that I think is well worth checking out. I’d like to do more of this, and I’m always looking for cool new comics to read. If you are a comics creator, either web- or print-based, and you’d like someone to write a critical review of your work and maybe gain an eyeball or two in the process, drop a line to: readingdoonesbury@gmail.com or DM me at @ReadDoonesbury.

 

Recently, one of my favourite webcomics, Leftover Soup, written and drawn by Tailsteak, wrapped up after a one-thousand-strip-long run. I’m not sure how I discovered the strip in the first place – I believe it may have been when Tailsteak wrote a guest strip for Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content – but something about the strip resonated with me from the get-go, and it became one of those webcomics where I would invariably find myself hitting “Refresh” on my browser when an update was due.

Leftover Soup was part slice-of-life comic focusing on the friendships/relationships/sex lives/work lives of a community of twenty- and thirty-somethings; part murder mystery; and part inside-jokes-about-roleplaying-games comic. I’m going to leave the murder mystery aside for the sake of avoiding spoiling a good story, and, not being a gamer, the RPG stuff didn’t really resonate with me. But, when he wasn’t making obscure jokes about dice rolls, Tailsteak’s explorations of questions facing us today, especially those having to do with gender, sexuality and alternative relationship models were thoughtful and thought-provoking. Tailsteak populated his strip with people who embrace a broad spectrum of approaches to creating relationships, from those who are monogamous for religious reasons to relationship anarchists who valorize sexual hedonism while maintaining core values of respect for their partners. Then he allowed these people to talk to each other in a considered and respectful manner in a way that advanced a simple but important argument: at a time when fundamental assumptions about sexuality, gender and relationships are increasingly being questioned, there are no “right” answers beyond being true to one’s own values and always prioritizing honesty, openness and care for the people one is involved with. In many ways, then, the underlying and unifying theme of Leftover Soup is the question of ethical conduct, both towards one’s self and to others.

Last fall, Tailsteak launched his new project, Forward. Going on four months in, we’re still spending a fair amount of time outlining the world in which the strip is set, a process that can take a frustratingly long time in the format of a once-a-week four-panel comic strip. Tailsteak’s strengths as a cartoonist, namely his strong, dynamic visuals, and his ability to craft dialogue that does the grunt work of world-describing with a natural sense of flow punctuated with sharp humour go a long way towards making the process of learning about this world downright enjoyable, instead of, as it often is speculative fiction, a process akin to reading a crappy history textbook. Clumsy exposition is the enemy of good science fiction – and even more so, in my experience, of fantasy writing.

Science fiction is as much a way to talk about the present in which it is written as it is to explore a future that doesn’t exist. On this count, Forward is, so far, delivering. There are a few themes that Tailsteak has focused on that speak to present-day social dynamics: the economic and social effects of advancing technology; isolation and alienation in an increasingly atomized society; the moral implications of the development of Artificial Intelligence; and the questioning and undoing of the categories and limitations we have built around gender, sex and sexuality.

Forward is set in 2167, the year when, if all goes according to plan, your faithful scribe will be celebrating his 200th birthday. Technology has made massive leaps, bringing about fundamental changes in economic structures. Most jobs are now performed by robots and computers, so “work” as we know it is largely unnecessary; people’s needs are instead met through some sort of universal basic income program. This, however, does not necessarily the paradise we may expect it to be. Our story begins with our lead character, a woman named Lee Caldavera, having a session with an AI therapist. Lee has all of her material needs met and enjoys access to unlimited entertainment, but she exudes a sense of ennui and alienation – both from herself and from the world around her. Unable to get out of the apartment and meet people, she stays home, immersed in her hardcore fandom for a fantasy-based TV series. While its pretty clear that Lee’s emotional struggles are particular to her, one theme I’m going to explore in this review is the question of how what we see in the tiny fragment of Forward’s world that Tailsteak has given us reflects broader social dynamics. One thing I’m really curious about, then, is the extent to which Lee’s unhappiness reflects a wider social phenomenon resulting from the fact that people no longer have jobs as a way to define themselves.

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Lee’s AI therapist isn’t buying her shit. Forward, 11 November 2017.

Another encounter with AI opens the door for further explorations of the social, economic and political dynamics of this post-work technotopia. The second AI we meet after Lee’s therapist is Zoa, an “autonomous nonspecified service provider” who responds to an open invitation for companionship and conversation that Lee posts on the suggestion of her shrink. Zoa’s interactions with Lee allow Tailsteak to pursue ideas about sex and gender that played out in Leftover Soup. Hands down, the most interesting character in Leftover Soup was Max, a pan-sexual relationship anarchist who was an evangelist for sexual freedom, challenging everyone she met to follow a sexual ethos in which exploration and fulfilment were closely tied to a strong culture of consent: “Do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody” was a bedrock rule that she strove to live by and get her friends and loved ones to embrace. Though Tailsteak has yet to show us the world outside Lee’s apartment, from her interactions with Zoa, it looks as though Forward is set in a world where the Maxes of our time – genderqueer people, polyamourous people, and other folks who are challenging patriarchal and heteronormative identity and relationship models – have won the battle for public morality. It seems to be the case that the pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake has been largely de-stigmatized and the relationship between biological sex and gender norms has been pretty much blown up.

Lee is a woman, but she has a penis; the “nonspecified service” that Zoa is most eager to provide her is oral sex. Zoa has a self-described “fifth sense” for what Lee is “packing” and responds to Lee’s open call for companionship with the offer of a blowjob. While Zoa does point out that, “legally,” she’s a vending machine, indicating the possibility that the law still frowns upon the idea if commercialized sex, there seems to be nothing inherently shocking about her offer. Assuming that what goes on between Lee and Zoa is meant to be a window onto the larger world, Tailsteak is showing us a world where 150 years or so from now, it is, at least to some degree, socially acceptable for a woman with a penis to get sexual satisfaction via the services of a sexbot.

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Zoa and Lee discuss the economic complexities of a technotopia. Forward, 1 January 2018.

Yet if Forward depicts a world in which people have guaranteed access to a decent standard of living and are more able to express their gender and sexual identities free of socially-imposed moralistic restraints, there are ways in which this world is less progressive than one might hope for. In Questionable Content, AI and robots are fully accepted into human society as equals; they friends with the human characters, and the possibility of human-AI romantic relationships is at least strongly hinted at, if not (yet) portrayed as a fact.* In Forward, AI might fulfill fundamentally human roles, freeing us from wage slavery, but they do not enjoy the same rights as human beings. There are social, political and economic reasons behind Zoa’s offer to exchange a blowjob for money, reasons that are rooted in society’s refusal to see her as being fully a person. Lee may enjoy a guaranteed standard of living, but Zoa has to beg Lee to let her hook up to Lee’s state-supplied electricity supply and data stream. As Zoa reminds her potential client, “some of us aren’t legally people [and therefore] don’s receive basic income from the government or get our essential services covered.” Instead of reacting sympathetically to Zoa’s desperation, she gives Zoa a lecture on personal responsibility, much in the way a present-day conservative might lecture a poor person who had to choose between paying rent or paying for health care: “You should be budgeting your power usage more sensibly than that,” Lee says. Moreover, when Zoa informs Lee as to why she is unable to make ends meet – she must make enough money doing sex work and other odd jobs to cover her maintenance and insurance costs while paying fees to a corporation that has some unspecified power over her – Lee seems totally disinterested. This might be because Lee is a particularly insensitive person, or simply ignorant of the situation facing AI like Zoa, but I imagine that Lee’s insensitivity reflects typical attitudes towards people on the wrong side of the human/AI divide.AI might do all the heavy lifting for us, be entrusted with our deepest emotional issues and be available for our sexual pleasure, but they aren’t worthy of receiving the same rights and privileges as us.

I recently showed a writing student a Forward strip as a way to illustrate the maxim of “show, don’t tell.” In the first few months of Forward, Tailsteak has done a difficult thing very well: he has introduced a new world that has complex and compelling economic, political and social dynamics without letting a fun and funny narrative get bogged down with a boring history lecture. There’s a lot to chew on in what Tailsteak has given us so far; I’m looking forward to his continued slow reveal of this world, and, more importantly, to the stories he’s going to tell within it. Go read his comic.

*Admit it, you’ve shipped Bubbles and Faye.