The Smallest Man in the World

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I too have benefited from the magic trick of shrinking art to hide imperfections.

I love anything that features human anomalies, giants and little people in particular. Here, the Smallest Man in the World is based on one of my very favorite actors, Peter Dinklage, but I made him shorter, fatter, clean shaven, and gave him a really bad haircut. The most beautiful woman in the bar, and her sister, are based on Salma Hayek, who is very beautiful. I wouldn’t know what it feels like. From time to time someone claims that I am very beautiful, but usually that means they’re trying to butter me up.

The character claims that she can’t hide being beautiful, and that if she didn’t put on perfect makeup and have her hair lovingly highlighted it would be like a tall man slouching, but I don’t know if I believe that. I know a lot of models and other people who are professionally beautiful, and they definitely express different levels of traditional beauty with and without their faces on. Not that they’re not pretty without makeup, but you couldn’t compare their unmade faces to someone trying to hide something. I think the narrator gets a lot out of being beautiful—the world certainly gets more easier to move though, for the most part, the more conventionally attractive you are—and does everything in her power to be the most beautiful person in the room, any room. Did you read Wonder by RJ Palacio? It’s a lot harder to be unconventionally unattractive. What about the part in I Heart Huckabees where Naomi Watts puts on the bonnet and instantly becomes unacceptably ugly to every man in the film?

That part I can relate to, because I totally own a bonnet, which is very comfortable and keeps the sun out of my eyes, and all the men in my life who have ever seen me wear it have admitted that they think it’s ugly and would prefer that I didn’t wear it around them.

Woman always compliment the bonnet.

It’s a medium length piece, but it almost reads like a flash, being all one fast-moving scene, and really boiling down to the moment of connection between the alcoholic little person and the alcoholic pretty person. The little person is always going to be perceived as little. Even Peter Dinklage, as ruggedly handsome as his face is and as dynamic as his acting chops are (and even given his role as a giant dwarf in Thor: Ragnarok) still can’t escape his height. I’m pretty sure beauty is a lot more fleeting, and perhaps more artifice than the narrator wants to believe. She may carry it like a burden, but some part of it has to be self-imposed, right? She could be frumpy if she wanted to. I could show her how.

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Shifting Gears

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So, according to this story, raking leaves makes you have a baby.

Poor Tommy. He’s skinny, he has no life outside work, and the only woman he interacts with on a regular basis thinks he’s an idiot. His ex-wife found him selfish. Meanwhile, he still thinks they’re both great. He knows Sharon is mean and critical and he still thinks she’s great. I bet if we saw more of Tommy moving through the world we would see that, like Jim in “The Burn,” he thinks all women are interesting and magical. He would admire them all and never figure out what he was doing wrong in regard to relationships.

“Shifting Gears” once received an honor that I’m not sure any work of short fiction has been granted before or since, which is that, in 1999, it was the official story of the Detroit Automobile Dealers’ Association Show. Perhaps no one has ever captured the raw but quiet emotionality of a man’s love for his truck before. No one has ever so accurately parsed a truck’s redemptive power.

I could have drawn one more dog in this comic. Sorry I couldn’t fit him in.

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.

 

Taking Care of the O’Learys

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Mental illness doesn’t run in the family so much as it line dances there.

I find “Taking Care of the O’Learys,” achingly beautiful, in the way that audiences are taught to look at life while watching Our Town, except with moldy potato water buckets and inebriated bondage. Barb could leave—other women might, like the wife in “The Yardman,” —but she has a moment in which she’s wholly open to love, and in letting it in, she understands that it’s paired inextricably with the general weirdness she’s been resisting, and that it’s not just doable, it’s actually wonderful. The madness isn’t anywhere near the worst thing that could happen. Losing your family is the worst possible thing. She wouldn’t really leave anyway. She’s the kind of person who keeps washing the floor even though she knows she’s done her utmost and it needs to be replaced. But she did need to be reminded of how much they loved her. It’s a happy ending with madness.

To heighten the implied creepiness and Barb’s sense of terror of the first part of the story, I decided to flip black and white, and only use a very few colors. Probably the colored parts will look less awesome in print form but they looks amazing online: blue tarp, green mold, red, orange, and yellow fire. Quite pleased with this one.

Running

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I miss those ’90s flare low rise jeans, but I don’t miss belly shirts.

To me, “Running,” feels like the precursor to “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom,” with its discussion of motherhood versus not-motherhood and its frequent reference to animals. “Running” is rife with birds, and I could have drawn a bird in every panel, as I drew only animals in “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom,” but I got hung up on the part of the story that describes the pattern of a male wood duck as looking like a map of the world, because I kept looking at photos of male wood ducks and couldn’t see a map of the world in there. Plus, I really liked the juxtaposition of the prematurely aged mom smoking a cigarette while complaining about her daughter smoking cigarettes.

I also enjoyed drawing the redwing blackbird. Male redwing blackbirds are super territorial and will attack anything that remotely resembles another male redwing blackbird. My mother has a story about one attacking the head of my black-haired brother when he was little. As for panel 4: ducks are jerks. Duck rape is a thing. As for panel 5: I couldn’t fit many more baby ducks in there. I wanted to draw 40. In the last panel, I tried to illustrate the good form/bad form the narrator talks about in reference to running.

Celery Fields

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Grass lawns are the absolute worst.

In Bonnie Jo Campbell’s first novel, Q Road, there’s this character, Nicole, a young woman with delusions of homicide. I think there’s a scene where she maniacally stabs a pumpkin (honestly, I haven’t read Q Road since it was released so I’m not remembering it perfectly, but I’m definitely rereading both novels after I finish this comic) and the implication is that it has to do with the sense of disappointment or discomfiture she feels as a young wife versus the expectations she had as a young bride. When I interviewed Bonnie Jo in 2002, she said,

I think that every married woman can sympathize with the homicidal bride. Think about those poor brides who worked for a year on their wedding ceremony and made everything just perfect. And then what? They’re married to some guy who probably smells. They’re stuck with this guy for all eternity and it’s nothing like the wedding.

That, I expect, is what’s going on here with Georgina. She had plans today, and her husband’s stupidity ruined them. And this is a woman who’s already living on skim milk and rice cakes in order to fit into the physical parameters of society’s expectations for a young woman, so her temper is probably pretty short to begin with. And then here’s this idiot to whom she is legally tied, trespassing, stealing, and driving his truck into a situation that any person with a lick of common sense would avoid. I mean, if you’re going to trespass and steal, don’t drive the getaway car into a swamp, amirite? Andy’s being a dope. He deserves to have mud sprayed on his face while his dumb expensive truck sinks.

I like the way Georgina’s life has this upward momentum, but she still feels these warm ties to her past. Maybe they were poor and all the people were freaks, but her grandmother’s cooking was better than anything you could buy in a store. Things were hard when the soil went bad, but now it’s rich enough that people can grow food in it. Living down by the river in the poor part of town isn’t so awful. Nowhere near as awful as living up on the ridge but losing your pony in the mud. Apparently not as bad as being married to someone who doesn’t consult you on big financial decisions, or someone who insists on maintaining a perfect lawn.

Sleeping Sickness

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Personally, I find that you can be mean no matter how long you live.

This is a rough story! It’s got a lot of the elements you see later in “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” with the mom who does her best for her daughter, but also doesn’t see what all the fuss is about when her best isn’t very good. It’s got the weird sexual interaction between the teenage daughter and the mom’s boyfriend, things that are not OK, but for a moment Reg feels something that’s not not OK anyway. If you do the math on this one, Reg is 12, and her mom had her at 16, so Mom is 28, which is how old I was when I first met Bonnie Jo Campbell in grad school, at which time I still considered myself too young to procreate.

The weird sex stuff is toned down here; it could have been an entire comic on its own if I wanted to go in that direction, but ultimately I decided the more important part of Reg’s relationship with John Blain was her understanding of how he fit into her mother’s world, and how she was willing to make that sacrifice for her mother.

I also had to cut out the cow and her calf for lack of space. A lot of stuff didn’t fit in these panels.

Reg blames herself for John Blain’s death, although it seems obvious to me that this guy was going to drink himself to death sooner or later, and she probably would have found him frozen to death even if she had gotten up earlier. And then we have the precursor to “Winter Life,” where the protagonist is able to look past all the hurt and confusion and bad behavior because they can look forward to spring, and all the new things that will grow when the sun comes back. Reg knows that John Blain didn’t mean to die; it’s just one of those things that happens when you’re an itinerant alcoholic in a harsh world. Reg doesn’t know about love, but she does value constancy, and in that, John Blain didn’t let her down.