And I’m not the bad guy
Crazy girlfriends! The staple of autobio and semi-autobio comics and comix everywhere. Even Wendel features one in the form of Ollie’s ex-wife, the “queen of mixed messages.”
The bad thing when writing women is objectification. Duh! But what does that mean? The solution must be to write human people -but that means personal-experiential honesty about this or that character’s failings, and in many cases, those failings are going to be gendered. I did not say determined or essential – merely gendered, however you think they got that way. Annnnd … given that much story-content concerns things that I as the reader will recognize or relate to stuff I know, well, then we’re into the realm of generalization.
So thing #1 is to get over “OMG generalization” because that’s what we’re automatically doing here in this story realm, whether it’s by similarity or contrast. Generalization isn’t objectification, especially if it isn’t extended to “every and all,” which it typically isn’t. If I as a reader say, “Yeah, a lot of women do that,” it’s not objectifying, it’s not bad, it’s not marginalizing … it’s a good thing, true or not. Because whether a lot actually do, or how many is a lot, and whether any of that matters in any way, is a continued discussion that requires questions and thoughts. Maybe my statement is solid and may be used as a further discussion of causes and ethics and policy, or maybe it’s wrong and the ensuing discussion demonstrates that, and all of that would be a good thing. Immediately attacking the statement as false to shut it down is just as bad as tacitly shutting it down because it’s already internalized as true.
So much for principles. I want to talk about the kuh-razy girlfriends. Let’s go to the mats, with some of my favorite semi-autobio 90s “sourly funny alienated person” comics.
Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison. Dorothy is perhaps the quintessential “disaster girl” in a semi-autobio comic (see Justice comes by night for my first post about this title). If you take the character with the most panel time, Sherman, as the protagonist in a traditional way, then Dorothy is flatly the villain – manipulating him first with attention and sex, fully aware of his limited experience and blocking him from getting more, then shifting to outright emotional control via her depression/acting-out cycle, and via her professional success relative to his frustrations. Plus her general irresponsibility, cruel sarcasm, casual and hurtful lies, shut-out for anyone she can’t control, and nigh or no-longer-nigh alcoholism, all of which (for instance) kill her dog. That bitch! is at least an understandable reading,
That’s not my reading, although I concede she’s the kind of person I spot a mile away and keep at that distance as much as I can. Partly because I don’t see Sherman as my personal lens for the story, but more so, because I see her as ten times the tragic hero Sherman is.
- She’s the single most professional character in the story – and unlike everyone in it, she can apparently be so and do it entirely her way. Dorothy’s living the ideal every other character dreams about.
- She actually does something with her professional power – without her, Ed’s activism for Mr. Flavor would have stopped with those goony idiots at the Comics Journal expy. Keep that in mind when you resent her for not being ‘specially nice to Ed (or “Ned” as she calls him).
- She gives Sherman pretty good advice about all the things he hates about his life, and she keeps trying all the way up to the point where he shuts her out completely. Her incredibly depressing meltdown in the leading image issue doesn’t come out of nowhere.
The page where she reminisces about her father is the single biggest heart-wrencher in the story. She and Sherman have a lot in common, and neither should bear the truckload of guilt they respectively do regarding a lost parent, but at least Dorothy tries to breathe. This part of the story isn’t about her sucking him down into despair and mediocrity, but exactly the opposite. She succumbs to him.
Peter Bagge’s Hate. I have not yet written about how much I like this comic, which I think is deeply underrated. It helped sustain me throughout the 90s specifically as the most un-hipster comic ever done. Here’s the cover gallery just because.
So assuming you know it … The two characters of interest are Valerie and Lisa, the two girlfriends (in succession) of our, uh, hero, Buddy Bradley. Valerie’s worth a discussion, being needy, arrogant, vulnerable, orgasmic, and alternatively desperately cheerful or exploding in rage, all the while maintaining upwardly-mobile normality as her top priority while socializing with everyone eminently unsuited to it. A lot in common with Dorothy in some ways. However, she’s only the opening relationship act, because …
Then there’s Lisa. After her opening stint as the most jaw-dropping neurotic BFF you ever saw, she hooks up with Buddy by about #8 and the rest of the 30-issue run is pretty much about them as a couple. #11, the issue in which they nearly kill each other through drunkenness and various incompetences, then decide to clean up, and then puzzle over why they should, is a classic.
She’s also the showcase for Bagge’s uncompromising depiction of ordinary body functions, so you kind of really get to know Lisa:
Man, what a gross, slobby chick Lisa is … I don’t remember Valerie puking and farting and bleeding all over the place … Valerie was the way a woman should be … she was non-human!
An incomplete list of her OMG includes:
- Clinching her uncertain employment status via oral sex
- Developing a weird codependent relationship with her therapist while being completely aware the latter is full of shit, but liking the Zoloft even with the farts
- Developing a weird codependent relationship with Buddy’s decrepit father while cutting Buddy off in bed
- Raunchy sex with Buddy’s decidedly no-‘count ex-brother-in-law (sound effects include oinga boinga sproinga), followed by plain ol’ sex with Buddy, after which she muses that if she needs a “pounding” she’ll call Joel again
- Dumping Buddy to live with the unspeakable Liz, who is not either a lesbian, actually turns out she isn’t
Awful, huh? That slut! Well, no actually. She’s also the sanest person in the book. Her every step puts her one bit further in the sensible management of her life. She sees through Buddy like he’s made of glass, and whatever shenanigans she gets up to (many), she calls herself on them sooner or later and eventually does the right things. She is neither proud of herself nor – despite nominal low self-esteem – ever truly bowed down, unlike Buddy who careens back and forth between these states. When around her, Buddy is a better person to everyone and eventually to himself. Yes, she has to grow up, and so does he – the point is that with one another, including the best-timed temporary breakup possible, they can and do. It’s the most believable and solid happy ending I’ve ever seen, in one of the bleakest and most cynical titles ditto.
Bob Fingerman’s Minimum Wage (collection: Beg the Question): In which the entire story concerns hipster, ambiguously-Jewish, struggling cartoonist Rob’s relationship with Sylvia, who is slightly older, very Italian-American, and – similar to Lisa – has just decided that she’s had one too many abortions. One can read the story as two young people struggling to find themselves and unfortunately looking at each other instead of within, but it’s at least possible to see Sylvia’s every move as placing Rob in the position to say whatever she wants. Fair enough: she front-loads Rob’s every decision through the constant application of her genitals. He’s completely stupid afterwards every time. Long story short? She desperately wants children, he absolutely hates the idea, and somehow, he ends up moving in with her, getting engaged, and getting married. At every step he wonders what on earth he’s doing.
Terrible! That man-eater, that manipulator! Except … Sylvia calls him out every time he pulls the shit that he and his friends think is the air they breathe – their uncritical putdown of anything that happens to move counter to the current direction of their gaze. Which is merely spoiled-brat bullshit from the start, which she has the grace to confront lovingly and without fighting:
Rob: What an incredible day. This is my perfect weather: mid-60s with a light, cool breeze.
Sylvia: It’s still a little chilly. Twenty degrees hotter and we’re there.
Rob: Ucch. No, this is perfect, right now.
Sylvia: No, no. See? This isn’t a Rob is right, Sylvia is wrong situation, see? This is a subjective, opinion-based discussion, yes? If I say it’s chilly, to me it’s chilly, you follow? [Rob concedes but a bit cluelessly]
Superficially, it seems like she’s bossing him around, but every time, she’s right: Rob (and his pals) are completely about controlling the social space in order to be the smart one, the deliverer of judgments, the assessors of what is good – top dog. They talk like this all the time. They think they’re hipsters and artists and rebels, but bluntly, they’re worse dumb jocks than real jocks are.
It’s powerful too, in the end, because Sylvia at her best, several times, gave Rob the advice he really needed – that if he were thinking about his needs and current life-needs, he would, in fact, break up with her. That her need for marriage and kids simply isn’t what he can get behind, that a “happy ending” doesn’t mean what the other person wants. I’m not sure she really gets it herself, in practice, but she does say the truth – and demonstrates her truth to herself as well, that she isn’t going to change for him either, or agree if he leaves her. He’ll have to take the responsibility for that, which is to say, for his own life, and it’s exactly in that, right there, where he fails.
And Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, with my fave Sydney, brought in as a major character well into the story, and really the big game-changer – far more than even Stuart, who you’d think would play that role being a man and Sparrow’s lover and all. But ethically speaking, Stuart fits right in among our heroes, and Sydney … well, she adds a moral corner that only Lois is anywhere near. Lois even warns Mo about getting involved with “someone like Sydney,” and when Mo asks, defensively, “What’s Sydney like?”, Lois answers, “Me.”
So on the plus side, traditional story-wise, she rocks Mo’s world in bed (and on the phone and email, and in the library stacks, and …), she provides a needed unsentimental rationality to Mo’s various emotional slippery slopes (although Mo is already much improved from the early days of the story), she genuinely respects Mo’s moral voice which Mo’s closer friends tend not to do, and she is a queen of snark which in this book is really saying something. As for the … less good things about her, let me count the ways … she abandoned a sick lover in her back-story, she’s a compulsive things-buyer in terrible debt, she sells write-ups of their sex life to Panthouse (Mo, upon discovery: “Thousands of depraved men and probably Lois are jacking off to it right now!”), her careerism overtakes her ethics, she’s absurdly egotistic, she has complicated daddy issues, and she’s always one emotional whisker away from a hot cheat-on affair.
Pond scum, right? That’s what Mo calls her at one point. Yet … this is the person who, during the run-up to their relationship, inspires Mo at last to emerge from her scolding, selfish persona, to learn that being lesbian is not the quick-ticket to being a good person, or entry into an instant community of perfect amazons. With Sydney, Mo becomes the story’s genuine moral voice through example, not through whining. Her little anxiety fits disappear in favor of wonderful beatdowns, not to the patriarchy but to her rapidly-deteriorating friends, the same people she used to hang around and annoy for attention. (The very end, or rather trail-off of the strip, is a different thing, and I’m not including that here)
You’re seeing it, I hope. Each “crazy” girlfriend provides precisely the perspective the nominal main character cannot get to by his or herself, achieves or lives things he or she cannot, and most importantly, accompanies and facilitates his or her passage through a central personality conflict, not merely through adversity, but with support. Support, I might add, in direct contrast to the character’s closest circle of friends, who for this purpose are generally toxic. Now, whether the main character in question manages to stand up to this challenge (2 yes and 2 no, above) is another question.
I know it’s cherry-picked, but I didn’t plan to demonstrate the range of disastrous marriage (2), happy marriage, and stumbling/bittersweet (effective) marriage. I just picked four favorites on the fly and that’s how it worked out. And what strikes me is that despite their similarities, these are four of the most distinctive, most developed, and thoroughly understandable characters in comics. With the remarkable quality that as reliable and superficially stereotyped their certain features are, their flexibility of action is incredibly wide. You simply do not know, cannot know, what any one of them is going to do next.
Golly. Goodness me. Could it be that the crazy bitch girlfriend is the bestest, most exciting, possibly top-sympathetic, and fascinating character around? Could it be that her failings are real and important, and in no way necessarily crazier or more destructive than anyone else’s in the story? That the more raw and wrong those failings, the more this works? That there’s a productive tension between my visceral need to get away from “a Dorothy” as fast as possible and my empathy for what she’s going through?
As they say, “Let’s just leave this here.” They’re supervillains: the best kind.
Links: Alex Robinson: drawing from life, 1994 was the year Hate transcended slackerdom
Did you notice? There’s no autobiography in this post! Awwww.
Posted on August 9, 2015, in The great ultravillains and tagged Alex Robinson, Alison Bechdel, Beg the Question, bitch, Bob Fingerman, Box Office Poison, Buddy Bradley, Dorothy Lestrade, Dykes to Watch Out For, Hate, Lisa, Minimum Wage, objectification, Peter Bagge, Sydney, Valerie. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
Yes I noticed! No crazy girlfriend, ever, or too many? 🙂
And the other important question about these characters… why all these girlfriends are crazy? (and they are not the only ones in comic-boo-land, by far)
Because I have had girlfriends that were able to see right trough me and set me straight (at least sometimes)… but I never ever knew a woman crazy like these (maybe I am missing out, I don’t know)
I remain innocently silent. Just over 20 years ago, I wrote a “thing,” a piece I guess it’s called, whose content was pretty similar to these comics in a lot of ways. It was at best therapeutic, and perhaps more honestly simply obsessive, but I did finish it – a candid account of way too much about what’s gone on in my life. Some friends have seen some of it, and those people say they really liked it. A very few have read all of it, and without exception, each one stopped speaking to me for good. It’s remotely possible that I like Dorothy, Lisa, Sylvia, and Sydney so much because I identify with them way more than with the nominal protagonists, as if the last line in the post didn’t give that away already.
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