Tag Archives: bonnie jo campbell

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.

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The Sudden Physical Development of Debra Dupuis

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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?

The Perfect Lawn

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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.

The Fishing Dog

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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.

 

Eating Aunt Victoria

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Oh, naugahyde. I mean, who doesn’t love sticking to their living room furniture?

This is the exact sort of short fiction I live for. It’s bizarre and serious, funny and terrible. Although she’s 18 and the piece is written in 3rd person, Bess is essentially an unreliable child narrator, since we experience the action through her biased perspective, which shifts suddenly as she realizes that Aunt Victoria is a human being with powerful emotions, some of which involve her, and that she and her brother are 2 separate people. She’s not joined at the hip to him, or to the house where they grew up. The text says “Hal was releasing her into the universe,” but really, she’s releasing herself. She just craves Hal’s confirmation that she exists as autonomous entity, just as Hal needs Bess to accept him as a gay man.

In this story, Bess has 3 connections to her dead mother: her living brother, her stepmom, and her house, and it’s no coincidence that the house is crumbling around them. Hal is drifting away (car, school, boyfriend) and Victoria is clearly never moving on (hence, she’s literally stuck inside the porch), so Bess has to choose to move on or remain stuck.

There’s a meanness to the kids’ understanding of Aunt Victoria, where fat-shaming stands in for their own confusion and anger about their mother’s lesbianism, her death, and their lives since they lost her. I think it’s easy enough to read the text in such a way that you understand food is a substitute for love in this family. Bess and Hal haven’t had enough since their mom died, despite Aunt Victoria attempting to provide for them. (But they don’t want her one-step-removed restaurant leftover love; Hal adopts a sour grapes attitude and tells himself gas station junk is all he needs, but Bess misses meals and wishes someone would offer one to her, something that’s just for her.) Aunt Victoria, despite her locked cabinets of treats, can never find satisfaction: her lover is gone and she didn’t know how to inspire affection in the children (so it doesn’t matter how much food she hoards; she’ll never satisfy the need for what she’s lost). Undoubtedly, she’s still depressed, possibly more broken than the kids over her partner’s passing. Presumably, the story’s end is a turning point in this family, and, in lovingly taking care of Aunt Victoria before moving on to their own timelines, they can heal all the wounds left by their mother’s death.

As always, I had to cut some good parts of the story to fit the comic in 6 boxes. In this case, that meant excising the arc about Bess’s own sexuality. She fears being a lesbian, she fears being a virgin, she fears being alone. Her desperation to keep up with her older brother sexually leads her to one of literature’s greatest cringe-worthy seduction fails. She’s literally so unprepared to enter this phase of life that her come-on scares off an 18-year-old guy who’s already agreed to sex. This is where having a mother to advise her about relationships (and to put her brother’s sexuality in perspective) would have come in handy. Presumably, she’s going to learn a lot in the Navy. Presumably, they’ll set her straight (so to speak) and offer her everything she needs.

 

Old Dogs

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Cutting it all the way down here.

There’s two sides to this short, slice-of-near-death story, and this comic reflects one a lot more vividly than the other. It’s a flash piece, just a single moment of almost no action that generates volumes. We have a room and we have characters: three old women and four old dogs. They don’t have heating oil, yet, but they do have firewood, and blankets, and sweaters, and each other. They’re still alive. Aside from the heat, they have booze, nicotine, and sugar. They are living in poverty, but they could be poorer still. Things are not so bad. There’s a quality of warmth to the moment.

At the same time, these characters are huddled together for protection. They are not related, don’t seem to have family to care for them in their dotage, and they’ve come together by necessity to survive a cold world. The last dog, the one with 3 legs who can’t get up on the couch, is the closest to the cold, although the story intimates that it could be the fat collie who dies first, if it ever gets incontinent and they have to put it outside.

Meanwhile, the plastic on the window has come loose, and the cold is invading their warm oasis while they doze. The same image is used in “Bringing Belle Home,” to symbolize Belle’s utter inability/unwillingness to take care of herself. The women in “Old Dogs” are on their own.

Gorilla Girl

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Civilization is overrated.

“Gorilla Girl,” raw with emotion and rich with meaning, offers a protagonist who may consider herself a member of the animal kingdom, but is a great deal more self-aware than a lot of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s characters. She knows, at least, who she is and what she wants to do, and she recognizes opportunities when they arise and seizes upon them.

I’ve read this story many times in the last 15 years and I can’t believe that only as I found myself stuck on how to present the scenes at the circus did I see the parallels to Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, a book that had a profound influence on me as a young adult. Of course, Harry Haller, as a young man, has voluntary ties to his middle class upbringing and is torn between his 2 natures. Our Gorilla Girl, young and without male privilege, is moderately tied to convention by love of her mother but primarily by the lack of mobility and freedom offered to young girls. Her crisis may be less pronounced due to her temporal environment, but more pronounced due to her gender. Her struggle is not whether to give the beast reign or to settle down in a comfortable bourgeoisie existence, but only when and where to give the beast reign.

My first thought in tackling this story was to highlight my immediate reaction that it should be read as a universal tale of female rage, that all Americans socialized female contain within themselves this exact anger, the despair at being restricted by virtue of gender, the sense of alienation by an oppressive civilization that imposes a dull domesticity on a vibrant animal nature, but then I’m not sure if that’s me projecting. Clearly, not all women bristle against the edict to be beautiful and well-groomed and mannerly and acceptable/approachable. Some of them seem happy to become the thing my mother so desperately wanted for me, the thing that neither I nor the protagonist could hope to emulate, let alone assimilate. After Jill from “Boar Taint,” Gorilla Girl is the Bonnie Jo Campbell character with whom I most relate, although I have found other—ahem—outlets for my animal nature and made a truce with objective reality. I leave it to the reader to choose: is Gorilla Girl an anomaly, a freak who can only thrive in the carnival, or is she ubiquitous, an expression that all women carry with varying degrees of comfort and ease?