Whit's Thursday Review: Hazel Newlevant's 'If This Be Sin' and Melanie Gillman's 'As the Crow Flies' #1
I met both Hazel and Melanie at SPX this year. Hazel came up to my table to introduce herself, as we only knew each other through Tumblr. Melanie was my table neighbor. I am writing about their pieces together because I found that they share many thematic qualities in their respective pieces If This Be Sin and As the Crow Flies #1. I offer two individual summaries below, but also wanted to take a more nontraditional approach, discussing their commonalities.
Newlevant’s short mini was her SVA thesis project. The project’s theme was “Kings and Queens” and as such she decided to profile Harlem Renaissance Drag King and pianist, Gladys Bentley. I had never heard of Bentley before and assumed the piece was fiction until I read Newlevant’s interview with The Examiner (she was recently awarded this year’s Prism Comics Queer Press Grant). Bentley is a talented piano player who dresses as as man in her personal and professional life. Although she starts off performing in small venues, she eventually becomes an entertainer at ‘The Madhouse’, a spirited speakeasy (remember, this is Prohibition Era). One night she decides to amp up her signature tune “Sweet Georgia Brown” with sexually suggestive lyrics. As the police bust up the extravaganza, Bentley flees. Flash to years down the line and Bentley is now living as a straight woman, supposedly cured by hormones. Performing as a female in her seasoned days, she croons with poise but also detachment. It’s only when she walks into her dressing room after a performance one night, that we see her sadness in one gaze.
Gillman’s piece is the first installment of her serialized graphic novel, which can also be read online. Charlotte “Charlie” Lamonte is a black teen whose parents drop her off at Girls’ Outdoor Adventure Backpacking Camp, a Christian program located in the rural rolling hills. Recognizing that she is the only black person participating in the camp, she expresses worry to her parents that she won’t belong. She decides to go though, arriving late to the orientation. It’s from here that her alienation begins. The comic ends with an awkward group photo and prep to leave for a hike, or rather THE hike.
So yeah, these are the summaries. But they do the comics little justice. Summaries tell you what HAPPENED, but not what they’re ABOUT. In my comparison of the comics, I’d like to address gender expression/identity, sexual orientation, aggression/micro-aggression, race, religion, and art. I know, a lot, but I’ll try to keep each relatively succinct.
Issues of gender expression and are more identifiable in If this Be Sin, as Gladys Bentley physically expresses herself as a man. In terms of gender IDENTITY though, things are more vague. Examining Bentley’s childhood, where she prefers to identify as male, it’s possible to conclude that Bentley may have been transgendered, something that was not really accepted or discussed during that era. In Gillman’s piece, Charlotte identifies as “Charlie”. I’m not sure if this is just a nickname or if it suggests that she might be questioning her gender identity as well. Time will tell.
Both stories deal with sexual orientation. Bentley, in the years before she is “cured”, identifies as a lesbian. With Charlie it is less clear, although it is implied through her developing crush on the director’s daughter. I look forward to seeing how Gillman tackles Charlie’s emerging sexuality throughout the work.
Although Bentley is black, her race isn’t discussed in the mini. It’s different for Charlie though. From the beginning, she realizes it’s a numbers game. She’s the only black participant and as such anticipates that she will feel alienated. She also feels marginalized by language. In one example, when she walks into orientation late, a counselor remarks “I was about to send the dogs out after you!”, with no knowledge of the historically racist implications of this. Later in the orientation, Bee, the director, uses the term “whitening our souls” (more on this later). This is when the mental freak out occurs for Charlie as she questions and then realizes that she is the only one who is aware that there is something very wrong with this terminology.
I’m impressed with Gillman’s ability to capture Charlie’s growing estrangement from her environment. I found myself nodding. Because I’ve been there.
The concept of ‘sin’, as defined through Christianity in these cases, haunts both protagonists. Newlevant portrays this nicely in her portrayal of church-going women leering at Bentley as she walks down the street.
In Charlie’s case, Bee stresses to the girls that the ultimate goal of their hiking expedition is purification and redemption as they wipe away the “dirt” that their souls have accumulated through sin, doubt and temptation. This is the “whitening” that she refers to. I’m looking forward to seeing how this concept of “dirt” manifests in the story and what purification and redemption entail.
Constant discrimination and marginalization chip away at you. Gladys understands the fluidity of her identities and lives them authentically but eventually societal disapproval and discrimination lead her to a place where she feels she has to change who she is. Charlie experiences micro-aggressions due to her name choice as well as her race. I first learned of the term micro-aggression from a psychology PhD intern at my job. According to micro-aggressions.com, a site that she works for, “Micro-aggressions are the subtle ways in which body and verbal language convey oppressive ideology about power or privilege against marginalized identities”. Charlie experiences this in the way she is looked at by another student for her name choice and the language she encounters, even though it can be argued that much of this language is spoken out of ignorance and underexposure.
Last but certainly not least, both Newlevant and Gillman create beautiful visual worlds that support the aforementioned themes. Newlevant’s watercolor and linework is elegant, the color palette has a vintage twist, and the composition is successfully varied and compelling to follow. But Indeed, it is the gaze that lets us into Gladys’ heart and the essence of the story. Her gaze of attraction to other women, her gaze of resignation as she looks at her breasts in the mirror, but also her facial animation as she puts on her suit and bow tie. A gaze of pure enjoyment when performing, fear when running from the police, detachment as a “new woman”, and ultimately pure sadness.
Gillman works in colored pencils, which must have been quite a daunting task. It’s worth the effort though, because the soft, light colors express the beauty of the outdoors, while also contrasting the heavier verbal content. And it’s the dialogue that really impressed me. It’s realistic, thoughtful, and nuanced.
So where does that leave us?
Aside from enjoying these works, I decided to review them because they made me think of the current landscape of my job, where I work with many LGBTQ students. I work at an art college as a health educator/office manager of a counseling center (yes, this is the preferred term to administrative assistant) where students and campus life staff are proactive in ensuring that students understand how to use preferred pronouns when referring to or speaking with transgendered students and addressing people by their CHOSEN names, even if they differ from their LEGAL names. Unfortunately, in many other schools and in the outside world in generally this is often not the case. And we know that that this is not without consequences (ie. vulnerability of these populations to hate crimes, mental health difficulties, and elevated suicide rates). I’m not trying to be a downer, but this is a reality, and one that can’t be overlooked.
These two pieces made me sad, because, well, injustice makes me sad. But it’s from this sadness that I realize the importance of these pieces. These stories, real or imagined, give a voice to people who have traditionally been silenced.
*Five minutes after I finished writing this a student came into my office and mentioned that it was Trans Day of Remembrance. Interesting timing, huh?