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.
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.
My only regret is that I didn’t have enough room to draw a pair of helium filled flesh dirigibles.
This story is almost entirely about this seventh grade girl’s breasts, which is great and empowering, but at the same time, a tiny bit problematic. In Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, in the story “Tell Yourself,” the mother is supremely uncomfortable because her teenage daughter owns a belly shirt with cupcake printed over each boob, and I did draw the controversial cupcake shirt. Plus, I busted out with the totally naked uncovered middle-aged mom boob in last week’s “The Perfect Lawn.” I’m kind of surprised that mom boob didn’t end me up in Facebook jail, as I’m pretty sure it violated their terms of service.
So that’s the trinity of naked people parts: mom’s boob in “The Perfect Lawn,” Big Joanie’s kid butt in “Circus Matinee,” and Uncle Cal’s doomed appendage in “Family Reunion.”
Anyway, I knew one thing for certain, and that was I was not going to draw 6 panels of adolescent girl tit in this comic. Fortunately, Bonnie Jo writes these lovely but insane breast metaphors to discuss just how proud Debra is, how wonderful her development feels to her. So I just drew the metaphors.
“The Sudden Physical Development of Debra Dupuis” is one of the more joyful stories in the canon, I think. A terrible guy does a terrible thing to Debra, and the adults’ perspective is that Debra brought it on herself and what kind of fallen twelve-year-old shows off her bounty like that (a lot of them, I would imagine), and for a couple hours Debra is broken by this treatment, but then her joy in her appearance—her self-love, at least for one part of herself—is powerful enough to wash that all away. She becomes, again, clean and perfect in her own eyes. How many of us solve that issue in middle school?
They’re magic glasses; that’s why they don’t have a nosepiece. Magic.
We interrupt our irregularly scheduled content of rural noir graphic literary criticism to celebrate my favorite little Hufflepuff, who readers of this space know as the Girl. She’s 14 now (not so little; we’re almost the same height and I can wear some of her pants) so I dashed off this little sketch for her birthday. Really am sorry I didn’t ink the nosepiece of her glasses. I did get her hilarious Ugg boots and her blue hair. We live in Arizona. She wears Uggs. She’s got her own sense of style, this kid.
We’ve been working our way through the Harry Potter series for a while now, and we’re well into Half-Blood Prince. Apparently she used her birthday money to order an official Harry Potter wand off the internet, and then, two days later, she saw one of the interactive wands that activate things at the Universal Studios park in a second-hand store, and she bought that too.
Anyway, this card did say “Accio Cake!” on the inside, but the cake was a lie, because we decided she was a getting a box of birthday doughnuts with a candle stuck in them.
Hope springs eternal, especially when you’re optimistic and delusional.
This kid is great, so thoroughly convinced of ideas that are so patently false, so willing to act on those beliefs. He sees the couch in the basement catch fire, and his instinct is to run to the bedroom on the first floor and carry a girl out of the house. And this is after she warned him to stop following her. She refuses to eat in her own house if he’s there, and he still thinks that she’s going to marry him if he just keeps kissing up to her mom.
And the girl: all she can think about it getting away from him, from her mom, from that house, from that town. She’s destined for urbane sophistication, she just knows she is, and all of this is beneath her. Otherwise, she’d be more worried about this crazy, obsessive kid.
The mom is special. I considered drawing her and Kevin making out in Madeline’s bed (omg yes) for the last panel, but the smoldering cigarette is such a big image in this story and I wanted to give it more air time.
If you can, you have to zoom in on the first panel. I drove myself crazy trying to draw the house, the kids, the mom, and the girl all in one panel and it looks tremendous up close, but it’s perhaps a bit jumbled when you shrink it down.
That is a very good dog.
Now we’re in pure Bonnie Jo Campbell territory. The river. The land. Various animals. The semi-feral girl. The boat. The casual sexual violence. I don’t know why I remember this book as being less rape-y than the others, because it’s a decent amount of nonconsensual sex. Gwen acts like it’s no big deal when her boyfriend’s married, middle aged brother forces her, but it’s forced nonetheless. I’m not even 100% convinced that the sex was purely consensual on Michael’s end. Yeah, he turns toward her, but she kind of puts him on the spot. He lets us know that fooling around with semi-feral girls is not his typical MO.
Gwen is such an interesting character, a blueprint for Once upon a River’s Margo Crane, or rather, this story is one of the short fictions that later became the novel, along with “Family Reunion,” where Margo’s younger incarnation is called Marylou. Gwen is so hurt that she doesn’t even know she’s hurt. She’s run away from home, and her boyfriend, Jake, doesn’t seem like anything close to a decent guy. She’s intent on survival, and she’s good at it, but she’s not exactly thriving. In “The Fishing Dog” you think that Michael, apparently the first decent guy she’s known, could be the antidote to Gwen’s misfortune, but in the novel she can’t bring herself to stay with him. Then the cycle comes full circle in Q Road (written and published before Once upon a River, but set years afterward) when Margo’s semi-feral teenage daughter, Rachel, does consent to marry the decent older guy, and balance is restored to the force. Er, land.
Regarding the illustrations, it was not easy to find a reference image of someone using pliers to pull the skin off a catfish that’s been nailed to a tree. I watched a very useful YouTube video on the subject to get it right. It’s been said that you should never read the comments on YouTube. About 10% of them said things like, “This is how we cleaned catfish when I was a kid,” and the other 90% insisted that no sane human would ever skin a catfish like this and the guy who made the video was mentally deficient and probably a lunatic. Frankly, it really seems like Gwen knows what she’s doing, at least when it comes to catfish.
Now I want some fried catfish.
“Shotgun Wedding” is a pure example of flash fiction, not just due to its length, but to its form. It’s the story of a single moment of revelation, which, in my view, is the point of a flash. It reduces a story down to the climax, takes a massive web of understanding and compresses it into a tiny dot: this moment, in which one person has to let go of another.
The love between the sisters, and particularly of the big sister, who is the first person narrator, for her more vulnerable sibling, is really beautiful. The little sister is both the embodiment of feminine perfection but also the odd girl out in the family, too magical and delicate to exist in the world where everyone else lives. She’s balanced by the strength of her sister’s determination, and the sense of responsibility the narrator has always felt to protect her like a precious treasure. In the space of the story, the dynamic has just ended. The little sister has her husband as a counterweight now, but the big sister is going to be reeling backward, as you do when you’re pulling hard at something that suddenly gives way.
But time, to my way of thinking, is infinite in both directions. The moment in which the big sister was a teenager standing at the window with a shotgun protecting her family will always exist, as will this present moment of release.
There’s a fun balance in the pinky-pinkiness of the little sister’s world and the metallic shotguns of the big sister’s. It was challenging but entertaining to draw. Took me forever to get the little sister looking over her shoulder right.