Category Archives: Comics

Six Boxes: Deconstructing and Illuminating Bonnie Jo Campbell Part 3

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Data is beautiful, even when it is meaningless.

[Part 3 of the presentation I gave at the Symposium of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here.]

Part III

Memory

Another thing we can do in comics, which is more difficult in print (but not impossible, if our text is digital) is quickly scan for information. Picking out the most important symbols made the themes of each story pop out from the page, so it was easy to create a graphic interpretations of those themes (see graph), but after I did so, I realized that basing the graph on the comics presented, of course, my own bias. I drew far more metaphors for women’s bodies than I drew the visual and physical assaults on those bodies. In the books, the assaults outnumber the metaphors. Sometimes, I had to look away, because the stories were so immersive, in their way, that the rural noir world of Campbell’s Kalamazoo threatened the world I live in, a world in which I have so much privilege that it’s possible for me to look away, even as I’m intentionally fixing my gaze on the subject.

But I also know what a privilege that is; in many senses, the ability to look away from things that may distress you but don’t affect you is the definition of privilege. In the American Salvage comic book, I devoted an entire page to examining my privilege in the face of Campbell’s work, so instead of talking even more about myself now, I want to finish by talking about a colleague of mine, Sarah.

I met Sarah at the same time, in the same place, as I met Bonnie Jo Campbell, on the campus of Western Michigan University in 2002. I asked her for permission to share her story with you and she enthusiastically approved.

Sarah was born in rural Michigan and lived the first part of her life in the physical and emotional space occupied by many of Campbell’s characters, at risk, in socioeconomic distress, in Kalamazoo county. Her parents might have sprung from the pages of Campbell’s books: her father was a schizo-affective Vietnam veteran who would sometimes mistake Sarah and her brother for Viet Cong and hold them at gunpoint in his home. Her mother was a narcissistic alcoholic who brought a parade of strange and sexually inappropriate men into the house. One of Sarah’s oldest memories is of her mother arguing with her flavor of the week and both adults driving away from the house in anger. Little Sarah, perhaps five years old, chased after her mother’s car, begging not to be left behind, but her mother, who thought her parenting was more than good enough, disappeared down the road, and my friend fell into a muddy ditch, where she cried until she couldn’t cry any more, realized that no one was coming to save her, and then climbed out of the ditch and went home to clean herself up. She voluntarily chose homelessness at fifteen, because anywhere felt safer than her mother’s house. Her arm still bears the scar of that tumble into the ditch thirty-five years ago.

Sarah tells people, “If you want to know where I come from, read Bonnie Jo Campbell.” She says, “The thing I have most loved about Bonnie Jo is that I know her characters. They’re real, not fictional.”

Ultimately, Sarah didn’t become a Bonnie Jo Campbell character herself. She finished her master’s degree, recognized that physical separation was the only way to escape her family’s cycle of insanity, and headed out to the Bay Area.

Today, Sarah, the impoverished, neglected, hurt kid with the crazy, unpredictable, unprotective parents, the girl who came up in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Kalamazoo, is the Lead Techwriter for one of the largest internet companies on the planet.

At the same time that I read Bonnie Jo Campbell as a window into a world outside my experience and learned to see situations uncommon to the world of my childhood, Sarah, straddling the blue collar and academic points of view, reads these stories and feels heard. Knowing that Campbell has verbally recreated the conflicts of her origin is almost an assurance, decades after the fact, that someone actually was listening when a small child cried in a muddy ditch for a mother who would never come to her rescue. Decades and miles removed from the trauma of her early years, Sarah cherishes the honest, brutal, funny portraits of the world she knew, grateful that Bonnie Jo Campbell is listening for these voices, delighted that someone is recreating characters she find familiar, giving voices to the unheard and putting the unseen in the spotlight. Because Bonnie Jo is watching, listening, and writing, Sarah’s truth is seen and heard.

 

Six Boxes: Deconstructing and Illuminating Bonnie Jo Campbell Part 1 & 2

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Going old school with the printed handouts

[Parts 1 and 2 of the presentation I gave to at the Symposium of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature; Part 3 will follow later in the week.]

Part I

14 Things I Think about When I Think about Creating Bonnie Jo Campbell Comics

  1. The first time I turned in a comic book in lieu of an academic paper was in 1988, for 9th grade history. There wasn’t enough information about my assigned historical figure, Xenophon (figure 1), to meet the page requirements. My visual interpretation of the few recorded events of his life earned an A, and the comment that my report was “one of the best!!!”
  2. Comics are absolutely a legitimate academic form. Graphic storytelling is not just for kids. There is plenty of scholarly writing on the subject, not even counting pieces that I’ve been paid to write. If you disagree, feel free to fight me after this session.
  3. As an undergraduate, I kept hearing this word I didn’t know: “interdisciplinary.” The internet was in its infancy at the time, so I asked my advisor what it meant. She looked at me like I’d grown a few extra heads. “Monica,” she explained, gently, as if I might be enfeebled, “everything you do is interdisciplinary.”  
  4. Bonnie Jo Campbell has been incredibly generous to me on numerous occasions, dating back to 2002, for no reason, as far as I can tell, besides the fact that she’s a nice person (figure 2).
  5. The idea to draw Mothers, Tell Your Daughters as a series of 6-panel comics was, I think, a joke on the part of one of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s fans, seconded by another fan and thirded by Bonnie Jo herself, and I rolled with it because that is absolutely how I roll (figure 3). Looking back, though, I can’t find the original suggestion, just Bonnie Jo’s thoughts about how great it would be to have such a comic and take it on tour with her. The idea for me to come to Lansing and talk about these comics in this forum also started out as a joke about me considering myself the world’s foremost authority on Bonnie Jo Campbell. If you aren’t convinced that I am the world’s foremost authority on Bonnie Jo Campbell, feel free to fight me after this session.
  6. I didn’t know that I was writing literary criticism until Bonnie Jo told me. It didn’t occur to me until I finished Women and Other Animals that I had written nearly 60 pages of literary criticism in which I referred to the author by her first name throughout. I thought maybe I should apologize to this society for my over-familiarity. It’s hard to revert to a more formal form of address when you’ve known someone personally for over a decade. Also, I originally believed that I was blogging, not writing literary criticism. But half the panelists who spoke about Bonnie Jo’s work at this symposium addressed her by her first name. Also, as an artist, I really shouldn’t be apologizing for anything. So I won’t.
  7. Most literary critics do not have the luxury of being able to text the author about whom they’re writing at any time. I was tempted, on a few occasions, to ask Bonnie Jo for clarification, but I restrained myself. Later, we collaborated on some comics about her life and ideas, but all the comics based on her short fiction are entirely my own work. If I got anything really wrong, that’s on me.
  8. Bonnie Jo did tell me, after the fact, that I got one thing wrong. In “My Sister Is in Pain,” I wrote that the narrator and her sister had a relationship that is “distant and superficial,” and apparently that was me projecting my relationship with my sister onto the story, because she texted me to say that the narrator (her) and her (actual) sister had a close relationship.
  9. She also texted me before I started American Salvage to let me know that the big red elusive snake in “The Yard Man” was not a symbol (figure 4). She claimed it was just a snake. In the spirit of real literary critics, I assume the author actually doesn’t understand her own work, because I could write an entire paper about the symbolism of that snake, but out of respect for her, I won’t.
  10. Recurring characters you see in the works of Bonnie Jo Campbell [aka: problems]: Men who love women but don’t understand women and all their problems stem from the fact that they don’t understand women. Women whose problems are that they love too much. Women whose problems are men. Moms whose best isn’t good enough in their daughters’ eyes. Daughters whose moms don’t understand anything. Teenage girls who want men to stop objectifying them sexually. Teenage girls who enjoy men objectifying them sexually, or think they should. Teenage girls who need men to objectify them sexually just to survive. Teenage girls with all three of those problems. Guys who think they know more than you, but they’re wrong. Birds that are totally free when you’re not. Birds that are shackled to their reproductive imperatives. Women struggling with their reproductive imperatives. Men with no self control. Men who respond to fear by trying to control things that can’t be controlled. Women who are too bold for this world. Women who have enough to worry about without your nonsense.
  11. Lessons you’ll hear in the works of Bonnie Jo Campbell [aka: solutions]: You don’t have to have a baby if you don’t want one. You’re not ready to have a baby. If you have a baby, you will never be able to adequately protect that baby, even if you try. You’re lucky if you have family that supports you in any way whatsoever. Pretend you actually weren’t assaulted. Semi-feral girls are the most fun, or the most dangerous, depending on who you are. You can protect yourself by shutting everyone else out emotionally. Go to the river. Go for the worst possible sex partner.  Love people anyway, even though they don’t deserve it. You can always run away. You can usually go home again, it’s just really degrading. Get close to a dog. Weird things happen when the circus is in town. Don’t drink antifreeze. Don’t envy birds; emulate them. Don’t expect people to stop doing meth. The more you drink, the more you…drink. Don’t drink and ogle girls in bikinis while piloting a boat. Don’t look away. Don’t light a cigarette after dousing yourself in gasoline. If someone hits you with a pipe, stay down.
  12. In between finishing Mothers, Tell Your Daughters and starting American Salvage, I did another, very different graphic project, for another, very different, award-winning author. Linda Addison, 4-time recipient of the Stoker prize for poetry, hired me to create a short story in pictures for her upcoming collection, Negative Spaces, based only on the knowledge that I had created this (show Mothers Tell Your Daughters) comic book, without ever looking at my art. Although she was in the process of transitioning to prose, working closely with a poet taught me new ways to streamline sentences (figure 5). My focus for the prose of the Mothers, Tell Your Daughters comic was just telling the story. In American Salvage, the focus was writing about the story without worrying whether or not I was summarizing it. For Women and Other Animals, the focus was visual, the words and pictures worked on the problems of seeing, being seen, and inspiring others to look.
  13. For those trained as prose writers, it’s very difficult to grok how few words you can fit into a comic format. No matter how much you have to say, you get finite space to say it in. As in poetry, every word has to work overtime, especially given that, in the case of my art, pictures were probably worth something less than 1000 words.
  14. My drawing hand hurts. My drawing hand will probably always hurt, now and forever. And it’s always worth it.

Part II

Sense

While I was finishing up the second issue of Bonnie Jo Campbell comics, Bonnie Jo told me something simple, yet profound, for which I can find no documentation and will proceed to offer no sources. This is not a direct quote. She said that she wrote the stories she wrote because she wanted these particular characters to be seen, her characters often being the type of people that it’s easier to look away from, or to willfully not see. In literature and in life, many of us have a tendency to overlook the unpleasant seaminess of reality (figure 6). We intentionally push pain and privation into a dirty and avoidable crack, but not looking doesn’t erase the problem. In literature and in life, we have to look at the hard problems if we want to take a first step toward positive change. We can’t look away from other people’s problems. We can’t pretend that other people’s problems don’t affect us, our lives, and our humanity.

When I think about this message, I jump to American Salvage’sBringing Belle Home,” which is a sort of a love story, Bonnie Jo Campbell-style, about two people who are so hurt and broken that it doesn’t matter that they probably do love each other quite a bit, because their own histories of violence and substance abuse make it just about impossible for them to be reliably kind to one another (figure 7). Belle, a careless drug addict who has been abused all her life, seems to be seeking out her estranged husband to ask for money, and Thomssen, who hasn’t seen her since she stole his truck and all his cash three weeks ago, is overjoyed to see her and would gladly give her whatever she needed, but the encounter still ends will them emotionally and physically attacking each other, and Thomssen getting arrested.

If, in real life, we see a police officer breaking up a domestic violence dispute, or read about people like Belle and Thomssen in the newspaper crime beat, it doesn’t necessarily make an impact beyond fleeting judgment, but when we read “Bringing Belle Home,” we don’t have that luxury, because Campbell’s writing forces us to see the meat and bones and nerve endings of her characters’ circumstances. We can’t dismiss Belle and Thomssen as simply problematic. aggressive humans with substance abuse issues, because fiction forces us to see, not only up close, but also through someone else’s eyes. In this short story, we also view Belle’s history with violence: the abuse she suffered at her father’s hands doesn’t excuse her behavior, but it does explain it. It’s difficult to learn how to love safely if you’ve only been taught how to love violently. One thing that great fiction does is force readers to a place of empathy. Thomssen’s not just an alcoholic with a temper: he’s an alcoholic who’s deeply in love with his troubled wife. Belle’s not just a bitch who enjoys pushing his buttons: she’s a hurt child in a middle aged woman’s body, and she’s pushing his buttons because she doesn’t know that you can just ask for unconditional love without designing it as a test that Thomssen can’t help but fail.

And even though Thomssen fails her test, through the medium of the short story, readers can see what Belle cannot: that Thomssen does love her unconditionally. As he’s getting arrested, which wouldn’t be happening if she hadn’t showed up, we hear him tell her what she can do to protect herself in this brutal winter—break a window in his house and take shelter there—and we can hear Thomssen take it a step further in his thoughts: he believes that she will break a winter and hang out at his place, but she won’t take the second part of his advice, to tape plastic over the broken window to keep the heat from escaping. He knows the exact amount of self care of which she’s capable. He knows she can’t do better than she’s doing. He can’t judge her, and neither can the reader.

Campbell stated that it took her twenty-four years to get this story right, polished in such a way that people would want to look at Belle and Thomssen. But before people can see, they have to look. Comics are an even faster way into the lives of people like Belle and Thomssen because you don’t have to wade through thousands of words to catch a glimpse of what is going on. In the comic version of “Bringing Belle Home,” readers get a huge portion of it in six pictures and two dozen sentences. It’s an efficient doorway into a complicated thought.

Terrible things happen in many of Campbell’s stories, which brings us “To You, as a Woman,” from Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, which I’m going to call the saddest and most emotionally difficult of all of Campbell’s short fiction, and also the story that most demands to be seen in terms of the importance of its subject matter (figure 8). If we just glance at the life of the protagonist, we likely see what her neighbor sees: a drug-addicted whore. Even the doctor in this story, who, we must presume, has literally looked inside of her, still only sees a very superficial picture of a person who seeks emergency gynecological care. The story’s brilliance is in the way it forces the reader to see through the protagonist’s eyes, why the mother struggles to offer “good enough” parenting, why she can’t protect her kids from someone she’s convinced is potentially a child molester, why she can’t protect herself from the men who raped her. This story brings her challenges and obstacles into sharp focus. There can be no, “Why doesn’t she just…” When you read “To You, as a Woman,” you know why the mother doesn’t just. She is truly doing her utmost. She just can’t do anymore.

The comic draws the reader’s gaze to the story, and the story draws the reader’s gaze to the truth: nobody wakes up happy and then decides to jump into the most punishing and degrading type of sex work in order to score painkillers. Nobody chooses the things that happen in “To You, as a Woman.” The things that happen to the protagonist of this story happen because she doesn’t see any other choices. She still condemns herself for not being the kind of person who bakes cookies and is available to her children after school, but a reader with a shred of empathy cannot. The reader has to give her the benefit of the doubt. She’s doing the best she can, she can’t do any better or any more, and the sacrifices she’s making are entirely for her kids, and more than most people would ever consider giving up, even for their children.

The third story I’ll talk about in terms of seeing and being seen would have to be “Circus Matinee” from Women and Other Animals, which is overtly about seeing and being seen. When we look through Big Joanie’s eyes, we can’t help but notice how much of her life has been affected by how she is seen. As a child, her mother suggests that she was raped because she was seen as being older than she was (figure 9). At that time, her own sight was stolen when her attackers covered her head with a bag. As an adult, the way men treat her is based purely on her physical appearance. While the objectification of beautiful teenage girls by adult men is a running theme in Campbell’s work, Big Joanie’s story is a gnarled branch jutting out of that root stock. She is objectified due to how she looks, but not because she’s beautiful. Men aren’t pursuing her with the excuse that she’s so beautiful and tempting that they can’t help themselves, but rather with the excuse that she’s so ugly and objectionable that she doesn’t matter.

The story itself offers a different focal point, that of the potentially dangerous escaped tiger, more exotic and less common than a beautiful woman, or an ugly woman. Joanie is the object of the condescending male gaze, while the tiger is almost magical in its novelty. We’ve all seen pretty women. We’ve all seen ugly women. But we haven’t all seen escaped tigers. And then the story gives us an extra point of view, that of the adulterous businessman receiving felatio in the cheap seats, with the knowledge that this picture is something that his lover would love to see, but he isn’t going to offer her that privilege ait at the expense of his own pleasure. While Joanie works through her moment of seeing and being seen, the businessman (who is also seeing, and judging Joanie’s sexual potential) is stealing the option or possibility of seeing from another woman.

At the other end of the book, for balance, “The Smallest Man in the World,” in which the protagonist thinks almost exclusively of being seen, enjoys being seen, takes extra care to present herself in a way that makes others want to see her and is, not coincidentally, one of the most privileged characters in these stories. But, she wants the reader to know, we can’t really see her anyway, because we are just as misled by her external appearance as we are when we make casual judgements about any facade. People may prefer seeing the narrator of “The Smallest Man in the World” just as much as they don’t want to see the protagonist of “To You as a Woman” but in both cases, they’re still only catching the surface. Campbell’s storytelling is taking the concept of sight to a deeper level. She’s forcing you to look at something you wouldn’t ordinarily look at, and she’s forcing you to look deeper, to see beyond what you usually are able to see.

[Due to time constraints, I did not read the last couple paragraphs of this section. I also made some unscripted remarks, mostly about the fact that I created the handout before I’d finalized the text, and that figures 10 and 11 were just there to diffuse any tension generated from the rape and violence of the previous 3 panels, and figure 12 had nothing to do with any of my prepared speech. It sort of went with an introduction I later deleted about how I once wrote a paper about Lady Macbeth’s “essential goodness,” and my professor told me I was wrong but she still had to give me an A because I followed all the rules of writing English papers and had correctly cited my source, and later I won $200 by entering the essay in to the university’s Shakespeare competition, although I suspect I might have been running unopposed. Shakespeare’s kind of gone out of style.]

 

Trifecta! The Bonnie Jo Campbell Comics Collection

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Not only are these comics a good way to get into Bonnie Jo Campbell, they’re also a good documentation of my journey from adequate to proficient in Adobe Photoshop.

May seems to happen so fast, I completely forgot to post this little gem to my blog: Bonnie Jo Campbell Comics: Volume 3 (Women and Other Animals) exists! We distributed some at the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature’s symposium earlier in the month, and then most of them are being held back until WW Norton reprints Women and Other Animals in 2020. However, if you’re a follower of this blog, you can totally order one (or more) direct from me. Just contact me through this blog (email address is on the About page) and we can exchange details. I also have copies of the back issues for sale.

Prices as follows: 1 comic=$4, 2 comics=$7, 3 comics=$10 + $3 postage.

I’m going to post my presentation from the SSML symposium this week, too. It was a really great experience for me. The organizers want my work for an anthology they’re putting together, and, even better, the comics themselves are going to be added to the comic book archive at MSU. It is the academic comic book collection. The definitive scholarly repository with over 300,000 titles. It’s the place to be if your research requires comic books. It’s a good honor.

 

Fun with BJC Comics

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I’m glad to have accurately communicated the humor in these stories.

A high school English teacher sent me this photo of his students enjoying my work. He said he taught Bonnie Jo Campbell’s stories in his class, and I wonder which ones. I wonder if he teaches “Family Reunion.” I wonder how young readers respond to the accurate depiction of soon-to-be-destroyed male genitalia. I seriously hope that the teacher vetted these comics thoroughly. In some communities that picture would not fly.

If you want to traumatize children with my work, I do have copies to sell (and I expect I won’t have many left after the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature’s annual symposium, where I will be talking about Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Bonnie Jo Campbell will be releasing volume 3 of these comics, providing I finish 7 more pages in the next 4 1/2 weeks) and you can order them by emailing me at littledragonblue@gmail.com. It’s $5 for 1 (that includes postage) and $8 for both.

 

Soy Big!

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You should have seen the one that got away.

Vegan fish. It’s not a thing. I mean, there are a lot of vegan meat replacement products—burgers, hot dogs, chicken, sausage, bacon, and I once even had a vegan duck substitute in a vegetarian Chinese restaurant—but I’ve never heard of a vegan alternative to fish.

I like fish. I hate zucchini, ever since the summer my mother grew 3 plants in her garden and no one told her that you’re supposed to pick them when they’re young and tender. Like many amateur gardeners, my mother let them grow to the size of baseball bats, amazed at the growth potential of one crop in a garden where you’d be lucky to coax a carrot to attain the width of a pencil. This resulted in a harvest of roughly 75 pounds of a vegetable that most kids wouldn’t enjoy an ounce of. And my mother never throws away food. She freezes it and reserves it and hides it in other things, so that I was gagging on secret zucchini in my pancakes for what felt like the rest of my childhood.

My mother denied this when I recently brought it up, but my father contradicted her protestations. He knows my mother is more than capable of the diabolical act of serving a picky 9-year-old zucchini pancakes and pretending they’re free of contamination. You weren’t fooling anyone, Mom.

 

It’s a Generational Thing

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And no, sexting doesn’t count. Your mother and I paid good money for that Gardasil vaccine.

You can’t tell kids to go outside and play anymore, because that’s, like, child abuse or something? I know too many kids who don’t know how to go outside and play; everything they know is on a screen, conceived of, directed by, and produced by other people. Maybe this is a minority opinion, but when I was 16 years old, if I was watching TV, using a computer, or playing a game, it was only because it was not possible at that moment for me to be making out in the backseat of a car. Granted the internet wasn’t as exciting or accessible in the early ’90s as it is now, but I still don’t think it’s better than sex. And you know I love the internet.

Any resemblance to actual teenagers, living or staring like undead zombies into a monitor in a small room with the curtains drawn tight to prevent the glare, is purely coincidental. I swear.

I drew that Ramones T-shirt and now I can’t get…”Sweet Disaster” by Dreamers out of my head. Weird world we live in. Gen X did not expect to live long enough to get sour about the next generation. Gen X didn’t expect any of this. Gen X would like to be sedated, but Gen X is too busy to take a break right now.

 

The Trespasser

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Can’t imagine what Google must think of me after some of the queries I ran to get source images for this comic. The worst part is that I didn’t get any relevant results for “cum stained mattress” and had to improvise anyway. 

When I told the Fox that I was gearing up to write volume II of Bonnie Jo Campbell Comics, he told me that after I finished the first one I swore I would never do anything like that again. I literally have no recollection of saying that. It’s probably like having a baby, where your brain blocks out the level of pain you experienced so you’re not too terrified to do it again. I’m not terrified at all. After spending 300 hours drawing 8 pages for Linda Addison, an estimated 56 hours to draw 14 pages sounds like a cakewalk.

It seemed important to keep the style consistent between the 2 books, meaning I’m back to hand-lettering, which is very time consuming, but didn’t take as much time as I remember it taking. At any rate, I realize that even reverting to conventions like drawing most of the lines with a massive weight of 4 pixels and making people’s eyes look like tiny dots in any face that doesn’t take up the whole panel, I can’t revert entirely to the style in which I draw last year, because I learned so much in the process of drawing the first book that no matter what I do, the drawings are going to look better.

Another thing I noticed as I wrote the text was that my brain let go of the idea of summarizing. I’m not telling the story the way I did with “My Dog Roscoe.” I think this is Linda Addison’s influence, because everything she does is about poetry, including her prose. This comic seems to have more poetry to it than the early comics in the last set. It’s about “The Trespasser” but it doesn’t exactly tell you everything that’s in “The Trespasser.” It seeks to communicates the feelings and theme of “The Trespasser.”

To my mind, it’s a story that functions through juxtaposition. There are 2 girls who never meet in person, but who are heavily influenced by the artifacts of each other’s lives, and we’re forced to compare and contrast the characters while they are comparing and contrasting themselves, so that dictated the layout of the comic. This story is really rich in symbols, too, and it was hard to choose which ones to use. In particular, Bonnie Jo spends a lot of time describing the objects moved by the 16-year-old, but I think the portrait of the 13-year-old with her gymnastics trophy surrounded by bronze animals gets at the heart of it. I didn’t realize that bronze figurines of dinosaurs and farm animals were common things to collect, but according to Google Image Search, they must be.

A lot of people think of American Salvage as being a more androcentric book, but this story feels connected to the themes of Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the plethora of dudes who don’t understand women soon enough.